The Politics of Buddhism “Beyond Enlightenment”

Continuing the discussion from Why Are 82% of American Buddhists Pro-Choice?:


I recently found an intriguing (censorious) monograph entitled “Beyond Enlightenment” by Richard Cohen:

Chapter 6 proposes that religious tropes and religious institutions are incapable of eradicating the structural conditions that produce conflict; they are unsuitable guides to managing conflict in a pluralistic world.

This strikes me as both correct and incorrect, to use a rarer corner of the Indian four-part logic.

While (explicitly) religious hegemonies are unsuitable for a pluralistic (cosmopolitan) society, it strikes me that any hegemony (ie political order) must rest upon axiomatic (“religious”) ideals: even if that ideology is, say, pluralism itself!

So while I agree that Buddhists shouldn’t coerce non-Buddhists to hold the same views on e.g. abortion (on both empirical and ideological grounds), it still strikes me that Buddhism holds some value (pun intended) in shaping realistic and humain foundations for political discourse (even in “non-Buddhist” societies).

My favorite example (highlighted previously on this forum) is “Putting Cruelty First” — Placing cruelty as the premier human evil has profound political implications and would (should?) shape the contours of political negotiation far from where they currently reside. Which proposals are considered reasonable and which fall outside the “Overton Window” would shift dramatically by “putting cruelty first,” and society and politics (even pluralistically) might be all the better for that movement away from cruelty.

So, to give some bounds to this discussion, my question is specifically:

Where is the line between Buddhist values which are worth advocating for universally, and which Buddhist views are best left unenforced?


That depends on:

A) The politics of the person.
B) How much they wish to renounce the world.

Apologies to the @moderators if this thread is becoming too “stream of consciousness” for this forum as I (once again) make a move towards answering my own question, but a possible solution occurs to me:

Proposal: Non-cruelty is the guiding principle of Buddhist politics.

In such a thought-system, my example in the OP of non-cruelty as a universal value becomes something of a special case, as all other political questions reorient towards that north star.

To take abortion, the suttas do recommend “abstaining from the taking of life and encouraging others in undertaking abstinence from the taking of life” (AN 4.99). So, in this example, some reasonable restrictions on abortion (counseling about alternatives, a short waiting period, etc) might be taken as “encouraging others” to not kill whilst more severe restrictions (e.g. making abortion a crime) would cross the line from “encouragement” into “cruelty” and thus become unacceptable.

Taking non-cruelty as the north star has further implications. For example, suggesting that a woman could carry the baby to term and then put it up for adoption is perhaps a reasonable suggestion in some cases, but might itself be cruel if (for example) your country’s adoption system actively harms children or is in the middle of its own crisis (not to mention the cases where even carrying the child to term would itself be harmful to the woman in question in some way). In these cases, the focus on non-cruelty would point us towards also addressing the foster care system and the opioid crisis as intimately related to (interdependent on) a compassionate response to unwanted pregnancies. More broadly, it suggests that such counseling should always be discretionary and situational (and never legally mandated).

So we can see how a focus on non-cruelty puts a specific bound on the domain of the law: the law should (under this ideology) have the role of enumerating the many ways that humans can be cruel and of outlining humane and appropriate responses to said behavior.

Of course, people who previously had the privilege of cruelty (e.g. American police officers) might claim under such a rhetorical structure that the taking away of that privilege is itself cruel. Others might contend that zero sum political problems afford no “non-cruel” solution. But I think these issues are red herrings. It’s obviously unacceptable for police to use their authority to inflict needless harm and even zero sum problems admit fair (if unsatisfying) solutions (e.g. a coin toss).

In fact, I think the focus on cruelty helps to clarify these thornier issues somewhat. For example, the privilege enjoyed by police or the existence of radical economic inequalities are seen (in this system) as themselves unproblematic: they only are problematic to the extent that they allow legal cruelty: a clear opportunity for legislation.

Does this answer jive with others’ understanding of both 1) Buddhist ethics and 2) political theory more broadly?


If you are a classical Theravadin Buddhist with classical liberal political values then all human beings have the right to life. It would therefore be immoral, unfair and discriminatory against the foetus to strip it of said right and allow others to kill it. If the Buddhist does not have a view of human rights or does not view the foetus as being a living being then they will take a different view on such things. This is why I said it depends on the politics of the Buddhist in question. I should have also added their understanding of Dhamma. With all that in mind if the Buddhist wishes to act upon said view and actively campaign for it to become illegal, so to be political, depends entirely upon how much they wish to renounce/disengage from the world. The same if they have the opposite view and wish to make it legal.

Personally I’m a classical Theravadin, so I view conception as being the beginning of human life/beinghood. I’m also of the classical liberal persuasion, which means I view said being as having an unalienable right to life. Therefore I do not support abortion either morally or legally. However I’ve been making effort to withdraw from the world as much as I can at the moment, including politics (which I have a natural passion for). Because of that I’m not going to actively campaign for it to be illegal. I accept that within samsara worldly life will be full of immorality and unwholesome acts. I find greater peace in renouncing that world (as much as possible as a layman) than in trying to fix it. In the end all we can really fix is ourselves and step out of the whole mess that is this round of existence.

As to your broader point, I agree that we should be compassionate but how that is implemented in the worldly life will vary among Buddhists. If we go back to abortion, someone like I would say we need to be compassionate to both the mother and the foetus. Another more modern Buddhist will have a different view and yet be still full of compassion. Buddhists can have a wide range of political views that differ sharply yet are all in line with the Dhamma, the exceptions being obvious adhammic ideologies such as socialism/communism or fascism/nazism.

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I think we are exactly in agreement!

My point is not so much to outline specific policy recommendations (though I did name a few) as it is to outline a philosophical foundation for policy debates among Buddhists.

As you correctly point out this foundation necessarily excludes certain ideas (militant, oppressive fascism or revolutionary, vengeful communism) and dictates the terms of policy discussion (“What is the compassionate response here?”) while not advocating any particular solution or view. In my mind this makes it an ideal frame for political discourse. No?


I agree with you Bhante that the 4 brahmavihārās should be the bedrock for any Buddhist who wishes to engage with politics and worldly life. Apart from anything else I can see this as helping to reduce the tribalism and nastiness that so often comes with the world of politics, from all sides. It can help us to stop othering the other person. The real challenge of course is learning to extend them to immoral people such as fascists or communists, however I think it must be stressed that just because you practice the brahmavihārās it doesn’t mean you have to actually like the person who is the object of them.


Well, if we still think of e.g. fascists or communists as “immoral people” then our compassion isn’t backed by an understanding of emptiness and so is, in my view, incomplete.

You should like the person! That’s metta. You should like them so much that you wish to understand what could drive them to become so confused. Your compassion is your very sincere wish for them to overcome their wrong view quickly, for the benefit of themselves and everyone else!

Only when we show people such genuine love can we hope to win them over from the dark side :wink:


Poor phrasing on my side. I should have said learning to extend them to people who act in immoral ways.

I disagree about liking the person. Say I’m confronted with a Stalinist. I can develop metta towards them by not thinking, acting or saying anything that would intentionally harm them. I can feel compassion for them due to the unwholesome kamma they are making and by simple fact they are going through this round of birth and death like I. I can maintain equanimity in the face of any vitriol from them and if I hear they have had some good fortune or another then I can feel sympathetic joy for them. I can do all that without liking their views, actions or even their personality, by which I mean the way they go about things.

Bhante, do you mean by universally advocating for given Buddhist values trying to enforce them onto others? I am only asking because it appears to me that these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I mean it would appear to me that one can advocate for some Buddhist values without trying to enforce them on others. I apologize in advance if I appear to be nitpicking on the phrasing, I am trying to understand better how the issue is framed in the context of this thread.

I think this is probably a consensual basis for Buddhists to discuss such issues. I see two problems that might arise nevertheless:

  1. this may logically lead us towards utilitarianism, especially when we have to choose between favoring a certain group (who may for example be considered more important for society as a whole to function satisfyingly > which then raises the question of what is meant by having society function satisfyingly) versus favoring a majority of people (and then quid of the non-majority individuals?)

  2. people may still disagree on what the facts are, or which facts are most relevant.

For example, could such a framework still lead to supporting bombing a somewhat barbaric state “out of compassion” for all those that state may harm? Could it lead to the conclusion that war could be justified for example to put an end to slavery?

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Yeah that was intentional tension. I mean, if you include rhetorical force or social censure as “enforcement mechanisms” then I think they converge… but perhaps not? What do you think? Is there more of a gradient perhaps?

Of course. This isn’t meant to address the epistemic crisis or to avoid conflict. This is rather a values frame in which such disagreements could be hammered out.

Great! That was basically my aim.

:thinking: I think you’re right: it does seem to imply a kind of utilitarianism, doesn’t it! Fascinating.

Usually I would assume that Buddhist ethics is far removed from “ends justifying means” but if there is no other way, then perhaps Mr Lincoln was justified.

Of course for individuals I would still argue for pacifism and renunciation… :thinking: Perhaps this is why the Buddha never answered this question :joy:

Personally I don’t think there is a case for a just war theory in the Dhamma. I believe even Ven. Bodhi admitted that. Nor do I think there is any justification to kill in order to end something as horrible as slavery, or anything else. This paper is interesting, although it’s from a classical position rather than EBT so I don’t know how popular it will be here:

Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries

this may logically lead us towards utilitarianism

The problem with utilitarianism is that it can lead to some pretty immoral ends. It can actually justify slavery if the slaves are the minority, since what is good is equated with the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people which in this hypothetical would be the masters.

The foundation could be set around the ideal of living a spiritual life as a driver for purposive action. This of course would be less pluralistic but not necessarily less valid or less coherent.

I remember experiencing aversion towards some Salafi Muslim ideology who promoted the idea that a ruler should not be opposed unless:

1- Forcefully prevented them from prayer
2- Threatened to kill them

Upon further reflection, however, and if we compare this with Buddhism presenting human life as a rare opportunity for liberation, then this begets realigning priorities to march the goal of spiritual life. From that perspective, human life has value to the extent it can be used to know/reach the ultimate hence opposing a ruler who force people not to practice their spirituality or threatens to kill them are the only justifiable acts of opposition. Other than that, the intention can be questioned.

The above does not need to be dogmatic. I remember reading somewhere that a Tibetan Lama had some convictions against certain practices of his people, but he never bothered to oppose them because it gained the respect of people and survived the test of time, according to him. From that perspective, it is pluralistic.

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