Ven Sujato "Monks and politics" (The Buddhist Channel, May 27, 2015)

Continuing the discussion from Bhikkhu Bodhi on the recent gathering in Washington:

Perth, Australia – In Thailand, the Sangha is governed by an act of Parliament. Frequently the monks have participated in street rallies, where the causes they are protesting was to ensure that the monks keep their privileges; I haven’t heard of Thai monks protesting on behalf of anyone else’s interests.

In Myanmar, too, there is a Sangha Act, and the monks have lived inside one of the world’s most brutal regimes for decades: do you think there are no political issues with that? In Sri Lanka the monks have had their own party and seats in Parliament. In Vietnam similar things have happened. In Tibet, of course, the Sangha was the government. So I don’t know where this idea of monks not being involved in politics comes from.

To argue that Sangha should not be involved in politics is naive: everyone is involved in politics, whether you like it or not. Staying in a forest monastery in the middle of the wilderness is an act of deep political consequences. Just ask Ajahn Pasanno or other monks who have tried to manage monasteries in such places. You have to deal with developers, loggers, tourists, visas, building, protected species, drug smugglers, weapons dealers, illegal immigrants, crimes committed by said immigrants, MIA soldiers, black market plutonium (I kid you not), and on and on it goes. This is just the world we live in, and the world has a political dimension.

The question is not whether you are political, but how. In many of the examples of traditional Buddhist societies I have mentioned above, the majority situation is that the Sangha aligns itself with the nation-state. Buddhism becomes a nationalist religion, whose purpose is to ensure allegiance to the governing powers.
This is, of course, completely against the Dhamma. If we look at the Buddha for guidance, we see that he never shied away from engagement with politics, but he did it in rather a different way.

In multiple places, the Buddha is approached by political figures, whether kings, ministers, or generals, and asked various questions. Sometimes these are innocuous, general questions, but sometimes they are specifically to do with questions of state. In each case the Buddha would give considered and useful advice. Indeed, even apparently innocuous events take on a political dimension in such cases; consider, for example, the time when the Buddha encouraged King Pasenadi, who was sad to hear that his new-born child was a girl, by saying that a girl could be just as good as a boy. This is highly significant, given the inevitable questions of inheritance and lineage that accompany kingship.

Without going on too much, the role that the Sangha should take is as an independent, critical, ethical voice. There are some things that governments do that are good, like try to encourage harmony between religions, and we should support them. There are other things that governments do that are bad, like going to war and destroying the environment, and we should oppose them. The Sangha shouldn’t go into Parliament, or get into bed with a government or political party, but they should be outspoken on important ethical issues.

In Australia, our politicians have repeatedly said that they hear too little from the Buddhist community, and they want us to be more outspoken. I have been involved with multiple visits to many politicians, from local council members to the Prime Minister. There is so much greed in this world, and so little wisdom, that we should not underestimate the impact that we can have. Even a little wisdom, a small voice backed by sincerity and spiritual depth, is memorable to someone who hears little but self-interest and lobbying.

I think what Ven Bodhi and the other Buddhist leaders are doing in the US is wonderful. It makes me proud to be a Buddhist. Too often I have seen moral cowardice and apathy disguise itself as spiritual virtues. We should be outraged by many of the things that are happening in our world, and we should try to make a difference.

If you oppose this, think what you are doing. You are taking some of the few voices of wisdom, compassion, and moderation in this world, and denying them a place in our wider social conversation. You are silencing wisdom. By doing so, you are doing the work of Mara. Mara would love nothing more than to have genuine spiritual leaders stay shut up in their monasteries and their meditation centers and tell people to let go of the world. Then he can get on with his work without interruption. This is precisely what he did when the Buddha became awakened: encouraged him to be totally detached from the world. The Buddha refused, and thank goodness we have his example for how to engage in such matters in a balanced, wise, and useful way.


original source

I’m not sure how political activity of the Sangha conforms with the following Buddha’s instruction from Kathavatthu sutta (AN 10.69) on right topics of conversation, which is a pericope featured in a number of other suttas

“For what topic of conversation are you gathered together here? In the midst of what topic of conversation have you been interrupted?”

“Just now, lord, after the meal, on returning from our alms round, we gathered at the meeting hall and got engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation 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.”

"It isn’t right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation, i.e., conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state… talk of whether things exist or not.

"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.

although it’s not spelled out in the sutta, given that all listed topics deal with worldly affairs, it could be concluded that conversation on secular topics runs counter the goals and tasks of the path monastics have chosen

in the article Ven Sujato advocating Sangha’s political activity cites Buddha’s own engagement in politics inasmuch as he was requested

however what i think he seems to overlook is the fact that Siddhattha Gotama is described as engaging in political matters after the awakening and not during his years-long spiritual practice, to which it could pose a serious obstacle draining time, efforts and undermining his focus
and it’s actually his acquired wisdom and the sage status which allowed him to masterfully resolve political disputes and offer insightful advice, and it’s thanks to having fulfilled the celibate life that he could afford being engaged in the world.

whereas modern monastics are engaged in politics prior to awakening and so to the detriment of their spiritual practice



This is indeed a conundrum. I think it’s important to take the teachings as a whole when trying to puzzle this out. In Chapter IV of In the Buddha’s Words, The Happiness Visible in This Present Life

there are a number of suttas giving advice to lay people and kings. Most of those are spoken by the Buddha, but we see Ananada and others given advice as well.

More importantly, the monastic rules seemed to be designed so that the lay supporters were essential to the survival of the Sangha. If the Buddha had intended monastics to simply withdraw then setting up self-contained monastic communities would have been the obvious model. But that was not the model. The monastics needed lay support, so they needed to offer something, and that was advice.
Dhp354 “The gift of Dhamma excels all gifts”.

But is what is being given here really Dhamma? I personally felt somewhat challenged when Bhikkhu Bodhi established Buddhist Global Relief and started urging Buddhists to pay more attention to the world. This seemed to contradict the suttas that @LXNDR quoted above. However, if I think of such activities under the umbrella of dana, it makes more sense.

A few years ago, at a meeting of the various Buddhist groups on my city, one of the Sri Lankan monks remarked that the Sri Lankan and Thai groups were very generous when it came to their monastics and their monasteries, but he really wished that some of that generosity could be focussed on the people in our city who really needed it. It’s a good point, and being generous is certainly part of the Dhamma.

With metta…

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Just by way of comment here, this “article”, which has for some reason has attracted a lot of attention, is in fact just a comment I made on my blog a few days ago. It’s a little depressing and a little bewildering that you can spend years working on things that you think are both interesting and important, which get ignored, then make a few offhand remarks that spread like wildfire!

When I talk with politicians, I always am very conscious of right speech. I talk about things that bring harm to people, about moral responsibility, about ways the community can help, about the virtue of contentment, or the virtue of compassion. On several occasions, also, when given the chance to speak, I have taken the opportunity to lead the community, including some of our leading political figures, in a guided metta meditation. I have also been part of a Buddhist initiative to have the Dhammapada placed in the Parliament House in Canberra, where it sits alongside the Bible and the Koran. I have no illusions about whether these small things will change the world, but at least I have tried.


Unfortunately, that’s how it goes with reporters, forums, public opinion, etc…

Which is why this is so important:

At least you know what you were trying to do…


lol, right, had i read this blog entry, i’d know that

indeed the exposition felt to me a little casual for a formal article, now i see why


Dear mikenz66 and all,

I would like to add that one of the striking examples of the Buddha not being directly involved and offering advice is the story when King Ajātasattu wanting to topple the Vajjians sent his minister to seek guidance from the Buddha whether he will be able to do so. Rather than answering directly, the Buddha turns to Ven. Ānanda and asks if they (Vajjians) have kept the seven practices that he have taught them in the past. Ven. Ānanda replies that they do keep those seven practices. This hinted to King Ajatasattu’s minister the strength of the Vajjian republic’s unity. (Mahāparinibbānasuttaṁ, DN 16)

I agree with Bhante Sujato that there should be more Sangha voice to guide politicians especially those who are willing to listen and find ways to solve the problems we face today. A prime example is what is happening in Myanmar, where the Rohingyas are being systematically discriminated against and slowly eradicated. Where is the Buddhist presence there? Even Aung San Suu Kyi is keeping silent, which makes one really think what are her intensions? As a Buddhist, I am really embarrassed and ashamed to see what is going on there.

What’s really funny that if you listen around, only a few prominent Buddhist leaders have said anything about the disaster in Myanmar. Most have been silent and one can only hear crickets in what should be a united voice against the atrocities at Myanmar.

I guess for some “Buddhists” when we say “sukhi hotu”, the Rohingyas are not include eh?

with añjali,


Not always:

Three Buddhist monks returned home to Burma last week from the Nobel Institute with World Harmony Awards, presented by the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democratic Party joined Imam Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in awarding the monks at the opening of the Oslo Conference to Stop the Systematic Persecution of Burma’s Rohingya.

“These extraordinary monks challenge the widespread perception that all Buddhist monks clamor for violence against the Rohingyas,” Mujahid said presenting the awards to His Holiness Rev. Seindita, His Holiness Rev. Withudda, and His Holiness Rev. Zawtikka.

The World Harmony Awards recognized acts of “fostering compassion, kindness, and harmony among faith communities in Myanmar,” where more than one thousand Rohingya Muslims survived violence by being protected inside of Buddhist monasteries.

Rev. Seindita proclaimed, “they will have to kill me first,” before allowing aggressors to harm the Rohingya masses.


The Buddha responds (or not) to questions directed to him. The Buddha does not go out of his way to offer advice to politicians. Rarely (or never) does the Buddha construct a situation in which to engage in “question and answer” to right a wrong view to any being outside of the Buddhist Sangha.

This is right view, right speech, … the full eight fold path, whether for an enlightened being or for one seeking enlightenment.


Right from the beginning, immediately after he was Awakened, the Buddha walked to Benares specifically to address the (non-Buddhist, of course) group of five monks. The idea that the Buddha only spoke when invited is not borne out by the early Texts.

In any case, in most or all of the cases where I have spoken with politicians, it has been by invitation, ether by the politicians, or by the interfaith group, or whatever. This is a democracy, and the voice of the people is an essential part of that.


bhante, i don’t think you owe any explanation, for my own earlier comment i can attest that it was by any means not directed at you personally even implicitly (mostly because i’m not really familiar with activism you’re engaged in outside of publications) and not a critique of your own conduct

The sense that I get from the Buddha of the EBTs ( the historical Buddha) is that he was a rather bold and courageous teacher, venturing into the thickets of Brahmanism to expound an ethics based practice that truly flew in the face on many of the Vedic priests’ and Jains’ beliefs and rituals. The Buddhism that I see is one that is bold, and willing to step outside of convention to challenge political or belief systems that cause delusion or harm. The boldness does need to be leavened with a commitment to the Dhamma/Vinaya, but to see the educational system that the Buddha taught as being without courage and vitality only serves to relegate Buddhism to a system of rituals and beliefs (precisely what the Buddha was vigorously countering in his time).

I enjoy seeing the continued good works and actions of Buddhist Global Relief and feel that the brave actions of the three Bhikkhus in Burma should be the rule, and not the exception, for the intentions of Dhamma/Vinaya monks and nuns. Not all monastics will be inspired to be a voice of nonharming in politics, or start a food security NGO, but certainly for those with the aptitude, this kind of compassion is to be applauded.

The Buddha was, as we all know, fully awakened and a teacher who transformed humanity with his novel Dhamma. But the Buddha that I see was also a leader, and willing to courageously advocate his Dhamma in the face of extreme cultural and religious opposition. For this we arguably then have King Ashoka and his enormous positive Dhamma fueled impact on the Indian continent. Here in the US we unfortunately don’t have any Ashokas in our political future, but we do have a myopic, narcissistic , misogynist bully running for the highest political office in the world. We have a military in Burma that is still killing women and children. We have hundreds of these beautiful Syrian families dispossessed and terrified in other lands. These are times for mindful Right Speech, Right View et al, but not times for Buddhists to necessarily sit silent.


my impression from the narratives of the meagre portion of the Canon i’m familiar with is that in introducing his teaching the Buddha didn’t face any serious opposition, and certainly he did not when he enjoyed support and respect from the members of the upper and wealthy class, who generously donated to the Sangha

i believe it’s accepted that the environment in which the Buddha’s teaching developed was of philosophical and religious pluralism therefore if he faced any opposition it must have been from his ideological rival sectarians and brahmans and not from a society as a whole, not to speak of a political establishment, all of which was rather competition than opposition, let alone an extreme one