Finding that common ground in Buddhism that allows for constructive political discussion

The thread “We cannot afford to ignore Buddhist extremism” links to an article that asks:

If we don’t allow our practice to include the political, asks Brenna Artinger, then how can we stand up to those who do?

That thread has been closed twice (as of now) and has a number of comments hidden for violating community standards. Given that, I wonder if a precursor to the question in the article is whether Buddhists are any more capable of having a constructive political discussion than any other diverse group you find? And if we can’t talk constructively about politics, how do we bring it into our practice?

Of course, one way is to minimize the diversity of opinion in the conversation. For example, I find climate change denial or anti-vax positions a waste of time to argue with. I would have no problem with eliminating those voices from the conversation.

  • What gives me the authority to eliminate voices?
  • How many and which voices do you eliminate?
  • If you eliminate too many dissenting voices are you still in any meaningful way speaking for the “community” of Buddhists?

On the hopeful side, we do have this wonderful idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. That seems like a great common ground to start from.
I invite anyone who responds to let go - just for this one thread - of discussing the substantive issues that cause disagreements, and brainstorm how we might have better, more constructive political discussions with each other. Thank you.


Thanks for asking the hard questions!

If we leave aside the issues of general good will and capacity for rationality, it seems to me there is a basic factor that defines how conversations take place, which is routinely overlooked.

Conversations have a context. And that context is embedded in a culture, which limits the scope of the conversation. Meaning is created by those limits. People who share a common understanding can have a meaningful discussion, defining where they disagree, moving closer in some areas, further away in others. They can respect each other’s differences, because they share common language and values.

Compare, for example, a conversation in a pub, where there is no structure, with a university seminar, where the topic is defined, where there is clear leadership and authority, and where there is an expectation of decency and politeness. There is a reason why, when we want to learn, we set things up that way. Sure, a pub conversation might be meaningful, but that’d be the exception.

The insistence on “free speech” inevitably leads to “no meaningful speech”. It’s not just a matter of policing the worst of behaviors, although that in itself is a job of work. It’s that without limits, meaning dissolves. I would argue that this is the very purpose of free speech absolutism: to destroy meaning.

This has profound implications. It means that in order to have meaningful conversations, the scope of those conversations must be carefully managed. The broader the perspectives, the shallower the conversation. It reaches a point where all we can do is say, “This is my perspective”, and nod at each other.

This implies that we should lower our expectations as to what kinds of conversations can be had on the internet. Which itself creates a further problem: if we have decisively shifted the sphere of civil discourse to the internet, is it even possible to have meaningful conversations? To put it crudely, will rational dialogue be replaced by the exchange of memes?

Your house, your rules.

Whichever ones you want. See above.

99% of Buddhists are not participating in Buddhist forums in English, so if you want to meaningfully represent all, you’ll have to find some other way.


Thank you, Bhante. That was a very helpful answer.

Thank you. That was really nicely said. I’m going to go think about this.

I like this a lot. The two most successful groups I’ve personally moderated have been closed groups with a specific purpose. One, for example, was to support parents who wanted to vaccinate their kids but were struggling with anti-vax relatives, friends, community, and/or fearmongering. If you argued about the inefficacy of vaccines or made racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic comments, you were out. No debate. So all conversation was extremely useful on helping parents choose to vaccinate.

Going back to the Buddhist political discussion, if one says that their Buddhist forum is committed to certain values it is irrelevant if others argue those values aren’t rooted in Buddhism. They’re house rules.

Yes! Thank you for reminding me of the English-centric bias. :slightly_smiling_face:

Sadhu, Bhante!


Especially when we pretend that “free speech” exists in a vacuum. “Free speech” that is backed by broader social hierarchies (sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.) undeniably produces a hostile environment for people subjected to these hierarchies such that they cannot (safely) speak freely in turn. Paradox of tolerance &c &c. Conversations about unjust hierarchy necessarily takes place in the context of said hierarchy, and unjust hierarchies generally do not take kindly to open discussions about how they might be torn down. To then appease the “free speech” demands of that hierarchy (the freedom to perpetrate social harm without consequence) by willingly turning a blind eye is to guarantee against the possibility of meaning, but also entails a degree of complicity.


“Your house, your rules” works well if we are upfront and open. A problem that does occur is appropriation. For example Buddhist space can be appropriated by those with strong non-Buddhist underlying ideological views. The underlying ideology, for example right wing “libertarianism” is not presented up front and extreme positions are normalised (this is how radicalization works). Such groups can carve a dominant position on the internet. There seems to be little desire to call out, or even acknowledge such extremism, in fact legitimacy is often unintentionally given.

Perhaps I should be back in the other topic.

What is the existing common ground that could allow for or be extended to political and social issues? It seems common that the practice involves plenty of deconstruction (meaning analysis) and destruction (fetters/hindrances). Also in a doctrine that makes distinctions between conventional truth and ultimate truth, what would be the defining line?

If we take the anti-vax example mentioned by the OP, Is it straightforward in a way that warrants a common ground? If an expert, who is a mortal, have an educated opinion about the best way to avoid covid death, should his/her opinion be taken at face value? If the expert advice is designed to remind us of our own mortality, would following experts advice be the best course of action?

Indeed, this is true. I think one of the strong assumptions we need to make is that, as a community expands beyond a small circle of trusted friends, the probability of bad faith actors appearing rapidly approaches one. First thing is to acknowledge it.

To add another oft-forgot detail to the OP: perhaps the single most important criterion is to have someone who is passionate about creating it. And they are able to draw a small circle of trusted friends who actually have good conversations. Then others will want to join, because it is cool. And they’ll, on the whole, try to aspire to the standards that have been set.


If the point of a discussion to is to achieve something particular, then yes, people who fall back on other topics are a distraction that prevent and distract from achievement of that goal.

It’s why I think the Buddha set some guidelines like not wasting time contemplating the endless universe, but instead focusing on suffering.

But if you want to be “inclusive” by accepting all opinions and trying to achieve a particular goal, then I don’t think that’s possible because there’s too many varying opinions that would only hinder any progress.

So it comes down to the purpose/goal of your discussion. I wouldn’t “eliminate” people, I’d tell them to stay on topic and remind them of the purpose, but sometimes people are so polarized they have nothing constructive to say, and I see this on Buddhist YouTube videos frequently, saw it the other day, someone insulting a monk because his traditonal view doesn’t align with the monk’s EBT view. It’s ironic, they’re so blinded by ideology, dogmatism and fanaticism, they’re missing the point of the dhamma.

Anyway, I would say pick your battles, sometimes you can’t be both inclusive and trying to reach a goal for a discussion.


I think it’s a bad idea to give the word “inclusive” a double meaning in this discussion. Wanting to be inclusive of people and inclusive of ideas/opinions are two very different things. For example, wanting to be inclusive of people who are trans is not compatible with wanting to be inclusive of the idea that trans people don’t exist.


I was referring to the standard dictionary definition which is

not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something.

The point being you can’t always include all opinions and also achieve a particular goal for the discussion. My post makes that pretty clear.

Right. The definition you quote is saying specifically “parties or groups”. But you previously said “‘inclusive’ by accepting all opinions”. And my point is that there is a major difference between accepting all opinions and including people. People are not their opinions. By conflating the two you run into problems.

When you say that not all opinions are welcome, the people that hold those opinions will cry, “You are excluding me! You are not being inclusive!” And they are wrong. They are welcome, but their opinions are not.

But if one is able to understand that certain views/opinions are not welcome, then you can participate easily, simply by not sharing those opinions. For example, my opinion about text critical interpretation of the EBTs strongly differs from the owner of the forum. So I know that sharing my opinions about those matters is not welcome or appropriate here.