Is Theravada (monastic) Buddhism strictly non-political?

MN 22 contains the well-known phrase:

‘I will not engage in talk that is base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unbeneficial, that does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calm, direct knowledge, self-awakening or Nibbana — i.e., talk about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.’

I do not personally know of any suttas, apart from questionable suttas in the questionable Digha Nikaya, that discuss how politicians (kings & rulers) should rule the world.

Is the only purpose of a bhikkhu to perpetuate the path to Nibbana & thus stay completely away from worldly political matters, including issues of social injustice?

I read one of P.A. Payutto’s references about how a ruler should govern, which appears to be the typical Thai adaptation, this time from AN 8.54 & AN 8.55. The irony here is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of AN 8.54 is not about how a king should govern shrewdly (as Payutto wrote) but about how the layperson should shrewdly protect his wealth from being taken by kings & thieves.

I watched a recent video of Bhikkhu Bodhi giving a public address at the White House, speaking against the corporate-governing-oligarchical elite of the Western world. Was this against the spirit or rules of the Vinaya and the bhikkhu’s life in general? Does this endanger Buddhism? Does this align Buddhism with the original Christian political agitations that resulted in lots of martyrdoms?

I also recall Thailand’s Bhikkhu Buddhadasa concocting various politcal views such as his ‘Dhammic Socialism’ ideology during the anti-Communist era, which probably contributed to the demise of some of his followers in the 1976 Thammasat University massacre.

I ask these questions because I myself often think, for the sake of the survival of knowledge about Nibbana, that Buddhism should remain strictly non-political & leave the world to its own political struggle, which is generally always some kind of class struggle between those that want too much and those that just want to get on with life. Is this wrong? Is it non-compassion?


and in my view it’s also incompatible with social activism

to me this is obvious

seclusion and non-entanglement are some praised virtues

i wouldn’t want to dwell on judging personalities but in my opinion some Ven Bodhi’s activities don’t quite comply with the principles laid down for renunciants in the suttas

i don’t see how it might endanger Buddhism more than political aspirations and involvement of Sri Lankan, Thai or Burmese monks already do or have done, what i think does endanger it at least as far as reputation is concerned is violence in the name of the Dhamma, whos roots too lie in politics, this is something that really saddens me


I have admired much of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s advocacy for social justice, as well as his own investment in compassionate action with Buddhist Global Relief . I read once that he advocates that Buddhists engage with social issues only so far as they find that it suits their aptitudes and abilities. It seems that in his case, he saw a terrific need for the Dhamma to take action off the meditation seat, and I greatly admire the advocacy and engaged practice that he has modeled for monastics.

I note that he is an appropriate monastic advocate. I wouldn’t recommend that just any monastic become involved in political or social issues; some are just not well suited to this role, or may have a poor sense of judgment or boundaries (of course, violence, hate speech, or oppressive acts have no place in Theravada monasticism). Some truly serve the Dhamma best by traditional Wat and community practice, or being in quiet places of retreat. But, the Dhamma has some powerful lessons for this unwise and greedy world, and there should be a place for wise and mindful Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis to engage more directly with issues that affect marginalized people and animals, the hungry and the poor, the homeless and oppressed, and the global environment as a whole.

There is coarse politic and matters of politics to be avoided, , but then there is engaged compassion. As we cultivate compassion and truly practice this bhavana of Metta for ourselves and those around us, near and far, how do some of us not get off the zafu and engage with our communities more actively? I am glad for what Bhikkhu Bodhi has accomplished, and the standard that he has set for engaged practice. It’s a high bar, that some might consider working toward. Some of Ajahn Sujato’s recorded talks speak to this ideal, and so long as we have these wise and mindful mentors to set a standard of careful advocacy without interfering in politics per se, I’d like to see more Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis being active voices for compassion and justice in this sometimes cruel and indifferent world. I feel this activity is healthy, and will contribute to the dissemination, as well as vitality and longevity, of the Dhamma, and the sustainability of the monastic Sangha in the west.


To complement your quote from MN 22, here is the positive side of it from AN 10.69:

“There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful—to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects.”

Personally, I feel that monastics do much more service by becoming enlightened. If you want to be truly independent, if you want not just temporary but real safety and peace, enlightenment is the only way.

I mean, if you want to dismantle the capitalist power structures, how about not wanting any sensual pleasures? That’s truly radical.

Just someone who is genuinely happy with just robes and an alms bowl makes you think “do I really need all this stuff to be happy?” - that’s a real challenge to the economic status quo IMO :slight_smile:


I don’t find that phrase in MN22
Could you please share the link?

Some interesting thoughts were expressed in a similar thread several months ago:

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IMO? Only āryans are truly “apolitical”. The rest of us do our best.