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Should monastics be involved in politics or vote?


#1

Can and should monastics vote?

Dear Venerables and Dhamma friends,

With the upcoming Australian federal election I’ve been looking at the question:

Can and should monastics vote?

As far as vinaya goes I can’t see grounds for exemption from voting.

However AN10.69 says ‘talk about kings, bandits, and ministers;… “Mendicants, it is not appropriate for you people of good families who have gone forth in faith from the lay life to homelessness to engage in these kinds of unworthy talk.”’

In Bhutan and Cambodia) it seems that monks are even protesting for their right to vote. While in Thailand and Myanmar it might be illegal for monks to vote.

However it seems that many monastics choose to not vote and instead write a letter expressing they’re wish not to vote (voting in Australia is compulsory) due to religious reasons, or claiming that they are not informed enough to vote. Alternatively the argument that as monastics we are supposed to leave the world.

Having addressed the former, I will address the latter. I feel that wise and compassionate people are the kind of people who should to vote. Being informed doesn’t mean watching hours of news or reading the blow-by-blow of the 24hr news cycle. It’s pretty quick to grasp which of the major parties, and even independents, stand for which kinds of things. Monastics are also informed by the Dhamma (big and little d).

Additionally, it seems strange to choose not to be involved when decisions made by politicians directly effect Sangha in the form of development approvals, visas, Taxation (DRG etc) and other things which the ASA work hard to progress.

It’s unfortunate that Election Day falls on Vesak Day, however it doesn’t seem so hard to do a postal vote.

I would be interested to hear other SC members thoughts on the above questions.

Metta

A.nun


Does Vinaya allows monk to involve in politics?
#2

Welcome to the forum Anunimous. I look forward to the discussion this topic will generate :slight_smile:


#3

Welcome @Anunimous :slightly_smiling_face:

IMO it’s up to individual mendicant communities to decide if voting is compatible with living the holy life. Nevertheless, if I were a mendicant I wouldn’t vote. There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. Neutrality. People from various political backgrounds come to the monastery. I think political neutrality helps to make the monastery a safe place in which differences like political views can be temporarily set aside.
  2. Stakeholdership. As a mendicant, I wouldn’t pay taxes. I’d feel less entitled to vote on how the government should spend its income considering that they spend taxpayer’s money.
  3. Disentanglement. From a doctrinal (ex cathedra) perspective, I’d consider voting a form of “entanglement”. That’d be another reason I’d prefer not to vote.

However, mendicants can (and do) inspire lay people to become more caring, kind, and compassionate. This means there will be more caring, kind, and compassionate voters (and brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters, friends, colleagues etc.). :slightly_smiling_face:


#4

Hi A. Nun. Nice user name.

I am not a monastic, but I haven’t voted in an election for over 20 years. I also use ‘not being informed enough’ as an excuse not to vote. I live in the UK where voting is optional. I find that when I haven’t got the ‘buy-in’ that comes from supporting ‘this group’ or ‘that group’ (the ‘blues’ or the ‘reds’) my mind is much calmer and easier to focus.

I still keep one eye on society and if I thought that the country was about to vere towards an extreme like fascism, I might consider voting against that. Mainstream politics has only minor differences between the two main parties in the UK. They both support greed, hated and delusion; they both support ‘infinite growth on a finite planet’, ‘just wars’, ‘the concept of borders’, etc… So for me there is no real choice.

I used the ‘not being well enough informed’ as an excuse in our last referendum too, which was on Brexit, and even several years after the vote I still don’t see any member of the public who is well enough informed on the matter to cast a considered vote, especially with the now exposed lies, subterfuge and propaganda from the various interest groups. Watching in a slightly more detached manner than my peers who made a vote (either ‘in’ or ‘out’) has been better for my mental health I feel, although I still get strongly criticised from both the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’ for not voting. You can’t win. :wink:

What politicians say they will do and what they actually do are very different things in my experience.

My preference is to work with things as they are presented to me, rather than striving to make things how I would like them to be. It seems to me that one can get caught up in that continual striving to make our lives run smoothly. It’s the old idea of the two ways of going about life: One can either try to make the external world perfect according to our desires, or one can make oneself content with an imperfect world (“Carpet the world or make a pair of slippers.”). Both require effort, but for me the first one is never ending whilst the second has a chance at success.


#5

IMO the monastics should refrain from any kind of involvement let alone voting in any way. The Buddha said “In brief the five aggregates of grasping is unsatisfactory”.
With metta


#6

Hi Anunimous! Welcome!

I think there are a couple of different sides to this question. Firstly:

Vinaya-wise: I don’t think the Vinaya necessarily permits monastics to vote, particularly with regards to what you quoted. There is, overall, a very clear statement that interfering or participating in the governance of a country is morally unwise. There is, I think, good reason for this. We have seen how monastic participation and sometimes over-involvement in countries such as Thailand and Myanmar have created environments in which Buddhism acts as a kind of government; where the power of the Sangha has grown too strong. I think this is what the Buddha was concerned with, monks propositioning for certain causes instead of practicing to attain nibbāna.

Practically: There are certainly monastics who vote, and often for good reasons. In the US, monastics have been proponents of climate change (such as Bhikkhu Bodhi) and compassionate discourse surrounding humanitarian efforts. I think these are noble causes and I appreciate their efforts, but I think caution is always important. I personally think there is a good reason that the Buddha wanted his Sangha to be neutral, able to interact with all people while not holding any particular views about the government. However, I think at this time it is also important to stand up for values of compassion that are being stripped away. So there is a balance. I don’t personally think that monastics should vote, but I do think they should use their voices to stand up for those who are in need of support.


#7

I guess I have a similar experience in the USA. Last time I voted I just felt like it was so draining, even as a layperson. I didn’t even vote on most issues and still felt regrets over the matters I did vote on. It wasn’t conducive to practice at all.

I can’t imagine voting as a monastic. Then again, I never felt very inspired by monastics (or religious leaders in any tradition, really) getting involved in politics at all.


#8

Thanks for the question!

To answer the can, yes they can, there is nothing in the Vinaya to prohibit it. I agree that voting is a fundamental right, and monastics should never be barred from voting: it should be a personal choice.

Whether monastics should vote is a little more nuanced. There have been some nice points raised both pro and con. But what I would like to say is that, if a monastic wishes to vote, the choice should be motivated by larger ethical concerns, about what is best for all sentient beings. In traditional Buddhist countries, we have seen monastics involved in politics, often to promote jingoistic nationalism, favoring political parties that have been guilty of serious human rights abuses, because it is seen as supporting “Buddhism”. This kind of voting, monastics definitely should not do.

In contemporary western democracies, we find the traditional ideological divide between parties has widened and hardened. The exercise of cruelty in the public sphere has become normal, and the blindness of political culture is driving humanity towards probable collapse and possible extinction. In such a context, it is very understandable if the usual niceties about not voting are felt to be a quaint luxury that we can no longer afford.

But the situation differs in different countries. In the US, for example, the outcome of the election hinges on simply getting people to show up at the polls. Thus a monastic might feel that their actions help raise the issue and motivate apathetic Buddhists. In Australia, with compulsory voting, this is not an issue.

Another issue is the availability of a sane alternative. In Australia, neither of the two mainstream political parties has a vaguely adequate response to the global warming crisis. But we have preferential voting and a Greens party.

But there is a deeper issue behind all this. The activist’s credo says that, no matter what, we must do something, we must try, we must not lose hope. But I believe it is past time for that. It is time to turn around and face the future, knowing what we have done, and accepting it. What happens when our actions fail, as they have done consistently for the past half-century? Who is there to show a way of life that accepts the reality of disempowerment and of a life that steps into an unknown and terrifying future?


#9

Of course we have to practice this Dhamma as part of the acceptance of what the science tells us is a collision course toward climate catastrophe, toward more economic inequality, and more suffering. I feel the Dhamma has a role in helping all people adapt to change, and to encounter suffering in more skillful and healthy ways. I worry that the science tells us that more people, including young people, see the world as a more dangerous and challenging place. There are more depressed teens, and more suicide ideation among teens who may feel, thanks to social media and the news, that the world is becoming a more dangerous place with a more hopeless future. The Dhamma and our ajahns within it have a role in helping teach that adaptability, and that possibility, albeit small, for change in a positive direction.

We have to have hope, or even better, some saddha that with all of the crap politicians, with all of the abusive polarized and incompetent politics in the world ( and it’s felt well here in the US with deluded narcissists and sociopaths running parts of the country), we have to have confidence that there will be corners of this world where some remedial work can be done. Scientists that develop means to eliminate some of the plastics in the ocean. Scientists developing alternative energy technology that will displace in some areas fossil based fuels, and at least mitigate some of the harm being done to the environment. Or, at least delaying some of the harm.

So, I can’t change much, but I do want to give the next generations the idea that with adherence to the principles of the Dhamma, there is always confidence, and that this old planet has seen generations of destruction and damage, and yet this old planet has weathered for eons samsaric cycles of destruction and damage and emerged with some new growth and new life. For all of the young people out there, we must pledge to help them learn to adapt, and if possible, teach them that hope and confidence in some good coming from engaged efforts is always worthwhile.

We may, like frogs boiling slowly in a pot, be only weathering our eventual demise. But, I’m more (perhaps naively) optimistic than that. I want my adult kids to have hope, and I want them to work at being skillful and to be socially engaged. I want them to vote, because we saw in 2016 that every vote did count; the national election was actually decided by those regular voters that chose to stay home. Here in the US, a president Al Gore might have lead a charge years ago for renewable energy and real climate change policies, other countries likely woudl have followed. He lost by a few “hanging chads” votes in Florida, and a politically corrupted Supreme Court (see A Supremely Bad Decision: The Majority Ruling in Bush v. Gore :: Writing Associates Program :: Swarthmore College) . In 2016, Hillary, for all of her deficits, would likely have been forced to answer to the green elements in the Democratic party. I feel with just a few votes having gone a different way, the world might be ( or might be perceived) a different way.


#10

steps up onto soapbox
clears throat

If one is a citizen of a country that holds elections, one has a responsibility to vote. Period.

Not being well-informed is no excuse. Information is available, and one ought not be too put out to find it.

Not seeing enough difference between candidates is no excuse. There is always something, which one will learn about after they conduct the aforementioned information gathering.

We, monastic and lay, may not have the ability to advise “the king” directly, like the Buddha did, but casting a vote is nothing to be sneezed at.

steps off of soapbox


#11

I think that if a person wishes to renounce society and withdraw from that society and its political and communal processes entirely, that is a viable life course, and that we should make room for at least a few such genuine renunciants in our world, and be glad for their existence, and the example they provide of at least the possibility of a pure and holy life. But, as far as I can tell, only a few monks really choose this degree of renunciation. Most live half in the world, half out of it. And there are limits on how many such total renunciants can be supported by the working population.

It seems to me that once a person takes enough interest in political life and political debates to have informed opinions on those debates, they are necessarily strongly bound to samsaric existence, and that is not the path to ultimate liberation. But it is their choice as to how strongly they want to make ultimate liberation a goal.

Also, in many of our societies, political leaders are engaged continually in such things as killing, torture, exploitation, the infliction of painful punishment and the like. As I understand the Buddhist path, to live that path fully one is not simply supposed to select “the lesser of two evils” when options between evils are presented, but to live a life of complete harmlessness, and refrain from doing evil entirely, whether by performing those evils directly or by assisting others in performing them. So again, while this is a choice every individual can only make for themselves, if one is fully dedicated to live a life aimed at the achievement of final liberation in that life, one will have to eschew all participation in the manifold and unavoidable evils of worldly life and political participation in worldly society.


#12

To me, giving a mandate to a party whose manifesto does not renounce violence (in its myriad guises) is incompatible with the Buddhist path.


#13

Ahhhh, please get back up on your soapbox - just for a couple of minutes.

LOL … Just thinking of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Saddam’s Iraq. Maybe North Korea and Cuba too. But maybe these are just “exceptions that prove the rule”?

Despite the finality of your statement with the ‘Period.’ I’m still going to ask, just to make sure that I actually understand what you meant …

Does one not have the responsibility to not vote if that is the best course of action in their opinion?

What is your stance on the option of voting ‘none of the above’ if it is available? Is that an allowable option for you or not? What if that option is not available? What course should one take? What about spoiling your ballot paper? Is that allowable in your view?

Okay. Let’s try it. Perhaps you can help me out with the research? In the Brexit referendum I was asked to either vote to stay in or leave the European Union (EU). Several years after the vote I still don’t understand the question, let alone what the right course of action would be. I’m not alone, even the professionals can’t agree what the question means. Does it mean staying in or leaving the Customs Union? Does it mean staying in or leaving the Single Market? Does it mean the end of freedom of movement (for services, goods and people) between the EU27 (the rest of the countries in the EU) and the UK? These are just the highlights, they are the bigger questions (as far as I can make out). And still even after all this time (and this is years after the vote actually took place) I still have no clear idea what Brexit might actually look like.

So let’s just take one part of that (the easiest part), freedom of movement for goods. Is the ending of freedom of movement of goods a ‘good thing’? Well for the economy of the UK and the rest of Europe it is probably not, at least not in the short term, but maybe in the long term it could be a ‘good thing’ depending on various factors concerning the future. But what about the environment? Manufacturing different parts of a product in different countries in Europe and then shuttling them all over Europe may be cost effective for the manufacturer and produce cheaper goods for us (Hurrah!), but all that shuttling of goods has helped bring the world to the brink of environmental catastrophe. So freedom of movement of goods is a bad thing? Right I think we are getting there. But hang on a minute, the European project was designed to ensure that we don’t go to war with each other like the two world wars, which is a good thing right? That a car has parts made in lots of different countries and assembled in yet another is precisely what has helped to keep us free from war in Europe (or so they say). We depend too highly on integrated trade to go to war apparently. So what should we do? Remember this is just the tip of the iceberg when considering whether to vote ‘remain’ in or ‘leave’ the EU. And I haven’t even touched on the idea that over the next generation the world is going to change radically in ways that I can’t imagine. I would really need to predict how we are going to attempt to combat climate change over the next few decades. Maybe the climate impact would be better addressed by new, innovative technology, and agreements within the EU like the Green Party suggests rather than placing barriers and tariffs in the way of freedom of movement?

Honestly, I would be deceiving myself if I were to say that I, even with the hindsight of over two years of intensive news coverage of the issue since the vote, were to say that I felt even partially well informed. Perhaps I just haven’t got the mental capacity or the skill set to get myself well enough informed? Maybe it’s blindingly obvious to you? It certainly seems to be to the millions of people in the UK who are holding fast to their views ‘in’ or ‘out’.

I’ll try another one. Easier to understand this one. The last time I voted in a general (parliamentary) election it was for a candidate of the Labour Party in the UK which was at the time headed up by Tony Blair. On paper Tony Blair looked great. The policies were great and I agreed with many of the things that he had done in the past. I did my research and helped him to victory. The vast majority of what he did in power was fine. Little did I or any of my peers suspect that he would turn out to be a warmonger who would wholeheartedly supported the war waged by the USA in the wake of 9/11. Devastating to know that I had been a part of sending so many people to their deaths. I mean Tony Blair was once a fellow member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. What a radical change of direction. Should I have taken the other option and voted another way? It certainly seems so in hindsight, but who can tell?

I guess that we are in ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ territory here. You try to predict the future based on the past, but you can never know if you have made the right choice, even after the event. Why? Because you never have a ‘control’ world where you could conduct an experiment on the opposite choice to compare the outcomes.

But if you have a large tolerance for what is acceptable in the middle ground, then I would just be nitpicking. Should I waste the time getting so far into their respective manifestos (which experience tells me they renege on anyway) when I would be happy for any of them to take charge? Personally I would be happy to see any one of maybe four or five parties in the UK form a government after an initial cursory appraisal, and this includes the two that actually might be successful.

Having said all of that, I do pray that our leaders are guided by generosity, love and wisdom to make good choices and I always include them in my occasional outpourings of metta.


#14

Because you asked so nicely. :slightly_smiling_face:

In brief, if a person is going to have to live under the governance of elected officials, even if the candidates for a particular office are not who they would want to be the candidates, that’s who they have to choose from. One of them is going to hold that office. A zoning officer, or school board member, or president will be chosen! That’s an inescapable reality. And one of them is going to have something that makes them even slightly more qualified for the job. Maybe they’re nice to old people and dogs? If our example person doesn’t make an effort to vote the old-people-and-dog-loving candidate into office, they are neglecting their responsibilities to their neighbors. Some may feel that their personal discomfort is the deciding factor on whether they participate in the franchise, but I disagree.
There are obviously extreme cases like some of the ones you mentioned, but in those cases the elections are far from free and fair in the first place.


#15

I guess my main point is that no one will ever know which one of them that is, even after their time in office.


#16

But we can make an educated guess. That’s the best we can do with any decision we make in life.

Now, I’m going to don my moderator hat and call myself out for not properly referencing Early Buddhist textual material in my contributions to this topic. :woman_judge: :smile:


#17

Yes, but one of the options (which I maintain is valid and should be kept on the table) must be the ability to withdraw from the voting process.


I note that the Buddha set up the Sangha to be democratic and secondly (according to some, but I’m not sure if this is actually in the EBTs) that the Sakya clan was also a democratic enterprise. But when he talked about the ideal candidate to lead people he seemed to talk about a sort of benign dictator - the universal monarch. Does anyone know why this was the case (if indeed this is a correct understanding of the EBTs)?


#18

I wouldn’t call him a dictator but he was a leader. He wasn’t perfect but he listened to monks on the ground and listened to the layty and protected the dispensation from those who would bring it down, including those internal and external to the dispensation. Also Ananda has his ear and advised him when needed.


#19

Oh no sorry @Mat. I didn’t word that at all well. I wasn’t taking about the Buddha as a benign dictator. No. Please forgive me. I meant when the Buddha talked about a ‘political’ leader. I think the term is cakkavattin? Is that an EBT concept? Does the Buddha praise cakkavattin in the suttas? If so why this instead of democracy which I believe is how the Sangha is run?


#20

As a practicing political scientist for the last 32 years (including graduate school) I have scrupulously avoided advising my students how they should behave politically. It’s not my job to advocate in the classroom, lest I compromise my scholarly objectivity.

As someone who has been practicing Buddhism for little more than a year, it seems to me that monastics should defer to the precepts they take as part of their ordination. Although I guess I do have this one thought: The Buddha taught that one should seek to avoid attachments. This does not necessarily mean that one would give up behaviors that might cause attachments. For example, a monastic is permitted to eat food so long as one avoids cravings or attachments to eating. So I suppose one could participate in a polity’s political institutions (such as voting) without becoming attached to political processes. That is, simply participate in politics (just as one participates in eating) and then accept the outcomes with equanimity.