What did the Buddha say about democracy?

The Buddha clearly thought it was a good idea - or he wouldn’t have created the Sangha along the lines that he did.

But in DN 16 he lists factors that contribute to a nation’s prosperity and security. One of these factors was that its citizens come together to discuss and decide upon their affairs.

Within the Sangha, there are rules that stop you from opting out. For instance, if a Bhikkhuni knows that another Bhikkhuni has done something terrible, and she doesn’t inform the community, then she’s liable too.

Community is a boundary we create. It acknowledges certain things that its members approve of and live by. In the case of Buddhist communities, there are many boundaries that define us. You can see them on a sliding scale, beginning from simple harmlessness, to the 5 precepts, all the way to 100s of precepts and an acceptance of a great deal of restraint. Yet, in our communities, we agree to these boundaries so we can achieve certain goals, so we can create situations that foster experiences of boundlessness, unconditional love and great peace.

When members of a community choose not to participate, that is of course, in some situations their choice. But it causes, for good or ill, a ripple effect, impacting others as well.

In the Sangha this is so clear. We have many members who do not participate in the way the Buddha advised, to the detriment of all Buddhists. Even the very democratic nature of the Sangha, is no longer found everywhere - to the detriment of us all.

Does anyone know if democracy, or democratic principles, are referred to anywhere else in the EBTs?


It seems to me that it is risky to draw conclusions about what the Buddha thought about the organization of worldly political society on the basis of what he might have taught about the organization of the sangha he created. From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, one comes away with the impression that he preferred the older, more local “republican” form of organization to the emerging great kingdoms. But given the context of his remarks - trying to persuade a government minister not to carry out an aggressive war - it’s not clear if he was trying to make a general statement about the best form of government, or was simply trying to extol certain impressive virtues of the Vajjians in order to be persuasive.

One question we can ask is why, if the Buddha were strongly in favor of democratic or republican societies and their obligations of political participation, did he himself abandon his own society and its political expectations to become a homeless wanderer? The Buddha seems to be the very archetype of the political dropout.


Yet he engaged with all manner of people and offered advice on all manner of things.

Matters to do with the running of the Sangha, the running of households and broader social norms and structures.

And when he passed away, he didn’t say to his monastics, just be political dropouts. He basically gave them a form to use, in a democratic way, to come together and resolve their issues among themselves and also when they had to relate to the world. He said, let the teaching and the discipline I have left you be your teacher when I am gone.

He didn’t say, turn into some kind of anarchic collective, allow yourselves to disintegrate as your kilesas take over and you no longer have any boundaries except what each individual or clique may believe to be true… These don’t sound like the actions of a political dropout/cope out. He cared enough to engage a little.

The 8FP serves several functions, one of which is that it is an expression of the understanding that we do not live in isolation from each other. That to find peace in solitude we must also find peace with each other. Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and of course, Right Intention and Right Effort too… Why would we need the first 3 that I mentioned if the Path didn’t include the understanding that we cannot help but - at least sometimes - engage with others?

Which is why the core that keeps the Sangha going - across their many differences of practise, appearance, geography and deviations from the intial norms, is something they hold in common. Whether they all recognise it or not is not the point to me. The point to me is that where I see that they have recognised it, wonderful caring, thoughtful and inclusive communities have sprung up and have the potential to spring up.

The Buddha didn’t appoint someone as a successor either.

The interesting point of difference about the type of democracy that he set up for the Sangha is that it is not a ‘majority rules’ type of affair. It requires everyone’s agreement in matters that are voted upon. Thus it is incumbent upon all parties to come together and discuss matters and also to learn to find harmony. Agreement is often less important than harmony. A rigid sense of your own rightness is often less important than harmony.

Harmony - if it’s not interpreted as the silencing of others - has within it the potential to seek out what is true, listen and care. Even in music, it means that two streams of sound come together to make, well, beautiful music.

To me the Buddha’s Path, where ever it engaged with forces external to himself, was about peacefully stating his truth and also with an understanding that this very peace, this very truth, gave him the tools to interact in a harmonious, though sometimes gently challenging manner.

So I do find your characterisation of the Buddha to be strange and not how I would perceive him at all.

It seems to me you have extrapolated his dropping in to a homeless life, his dropping in to solitude, his dropping in to Samadhi, as an overall drop out from a bunch of other things that he didn’t drop out of. I mean, he, nor his monastics could have eaten or clothed themselves without interaction with the wider community.

And that wider community would’ve needed to be communicated with, for they wouldn’t have initially understood what they were supporting or why.

If he had indeed been the “ultimate political dropout”, he probably would have carried on with those practises he undertook when he followed the wrong path and had wrong view…this are, I believe, some of the words he used to describe that time in his life. The path where he ate what he could find in the forest or whatever…

But to engage meaningfully with society in any way, one can’t help but be polite, communicative, persuasive - political.


Through reading the suttas and also through observing how certain modern monastic and lay communities operate; I have seen that monastics essentially earn the right to have many opportunities for solitude; whether it be within their daily lives or for longer periods such as a fortnight, a month or even longer.

They earn their support in two ways.

They earn it be modelling a high standard of ethics which incorporates the broader themes of the 8FP of truth/wisdom, peace and virtue. Within this, they firstly earn their peace when in solitude by being seen as worthy of support by the laity and their monastic companions. For example, when a monastic has a long silent retreat, another monastic brings them their food for the day and leaves it nearby for them. Secondly, if they engage in a high standard of ethics, they find freedom from remorse within their own minds and a gladness of heart; thus they earn an internal solitude within their own minds through growing qualities that support their ability to actually live alone and without speech for long periods.

One cannot have cittaviveka without kayaviveka. And both have to be earned through emotional intelligence.


This is not the path of someone who disengages without emotional intelligence. It won’t work for such a person.

I’m not suggesting we all get ‘political’ in the sense of joining political parties and studying such things and constantly engaging in such broader social activities. Though there is nothing wrong with this if one feels this is part of one’s path and this is how one feels one can give best to one’s community.

I am suggesting that the Buddha supported disengagement when the conditions were right. And some of those conditions were about learning what it means to live with others and that sometimes you have to learn how to make decisions together.

There are degrees of political engagement. But nobody is completely apolitical. Even the hermit engages with his external world a little bit.

Here’s a funny way to characterise the Sangha using words that seem highly contradictory: they are (or can be) a community of hermits. This is what I have observed in both suttas and real life. A community that is very connected. And also a bunch of hermits who regularly disconnect.


Something like a constitution for a commune the vinaya is, yea? Relatively unchanging over millenia but with some cushioning and adaptability built in. The flavor I get from the suttas/vinaya is that the Sangha is supposed to be operating outside of the political sphere of the “everyday” world, barely attached to it, as it were.

It’s probably the fact that I’m fairly apathetic towards politics personally that I have a kind of rejective response towards anything political, especially in a Buddhist context, and even moreso when renunciates get involved.


Hi Matt

I just edited my last post… Does this address what you have shared here in some way?

I try not to over edit but I never seem to see some things until after I’ve hit “reply”!!! It’s frustrating but my brain just won’t pick stuff up until it’s there on a bigger screen!

Not sure what this means?

It means this:

and this:

Ok, what does that have to do with politics?
And, what are the “right conditions”?

In my mind at least democracy has to do with politics and harmony has to do with more fundamental human relations (emotional intelligence, you might call it).

Maybe a political scientist might see something like “participatory democracy” in the unanimity rules of the vinaya. This kind of human agreement is probably found in some primitive clans and communes. I don’t think that has anything to do with the “politics of the world” (as we might put it in modern Western language) though.

Do the “politics of the world” seep into Sanghas? Undoubtedly so. I just don’t think that’s in the spirit of the dhamma-vinaya though, in my view at least.

Oh, well I thought I’d already addressed that…

But perhaps it’s a matter of difference in perception around the word “politics”…

To me to engage harmoniously involves coming together (which is something that characterises democracy - see the OP)…hence, it is “political”. And to me, at it’s core , this word means we communicate, perhaps gently challenge or persuade and maintain politeness/kindness and sensitivity in our speech.

This is just what an active engagement with the 8FP shows you…

I don’t know, I think these principles can be used skilfully in broader settings. Not perfectly of course.

As I said in the previous comment, while the Buddha gave a lot of guidance on rules for the sangha, he had very little to say about the organization of worldly political society. This should not be surprising. The Buddha was a renunciate ascetic who disparaged the value of worldly life, abandoned that life, and then taught others a path to complete liberation from it.

This topic has come up several times before, and I have never seen any reason to revise the interpretations I have given before. Many of the world’s cultures have produced important and prominent works of social and political philosophy: China, the Europeans and Islam most prominently. But there is not a single prominent Buddhist political philosopher in all of Buddhist history. But there is a lot of Buddhist philosophy on other matters! Surely if the Buddha had anything really important to say on these political matters, some of his many capable followers would have developed them.

Not to be pedantic but the word politics derives from a Greek word “polis” meaning city. For example, the Acropolis, is a “city on a hill”. I can think of specific instances in the EBT’s where the Buddha was at best weary of cities. Trying to make speech kindly, btw. Hard for me to convey that with the coldness of text and a more thoughts-over-feelings-oriented personality.

If you take politics to just mean organization and rules/ways of getting along then the Buddha only set out the bare minimum for a group of hermits (paraphrasing what you said above, which I quite liked the way you put it) to get along. And only added more as the needs arose.

Yes, that is what I think the records show also. Most of what we have left demonstrate what he thought was of value. So, yeah, I agree.

Again, I disagree with your characterisation of the Buddha. I don’t see him as a disparager. Rather one who stated and offered an alternative.

Oh right…sorry, I hadn’t read them.

Indeed, but you have taken my points off on a tangent a bit. I acknowledge the Buddha’s main message wasn’t just about external engagement or about the ideal political system.

The OP was about wanting to know where else he did actually mention political systems and also, where else he used or showed any kind of use for democratic systems.

Further, my arguments thus far have focused upon noting that while disengagement was an important aspect of the Dhamma, it didn’t ocurr without the skillful understanding of how to engage.

Upper most in my mind is that the world is on my doorstep. I see ‘politics’ in my most basic familial interactions. And like I already said, I think these things can be used elsewhere.

As Jacinda Ardern recently said when she addressed the UN, they sought to bring kindness into their government. She said they were “annoyingly pollyanna-ish” during their campaign and she seems intent on continuing in a similar way - though she also is clearly astute, informed, resilient and intelligent in more than one way.

Yes, quite right. Though elsewhere I did write about how he was audience specific and how his teachings/rules about asceticism and living remotely were voluntary ones. These days also there are forest monasteries and so to join one you make a choice to keep at least one of those 13 dhutanga rules.

:slight_smile: Thank you. I appreciate that you took the trouble to say this. :slight_smile:

Yes, I agree.

I do find it interesting that when he passed away, he didn’t tell the Sangha to take only the Discipline as their teacher. He said to take the Dhamma as well. To me this is an acknowledgement that the Teachings we’re left with, the Practise we undertake, also has within it an explicit encouragement to engage skilfully, not just internally in our minds, but externally when…to paraphrase your good self

…when the need arises.

If anything can be said about judging, for better or worse, it would be in terms of kusala/akusala. In many ways, I think this was like what modern philosophers call the “Virtue Ethicists” of Ancient Greece. Although in Buddhism the focus is kind of inverted, instead of developing the virtues to attain some greater good the virtues are only developed as an aid to destroying the “vices”/āsava(s). And beyond that, according to the dhamma found in the EBT’s, is beyond good and evil (though probably not in the sense Nietzsche meant it), beyond good actions and bad actions, no more kamma-making.

Ultimately, yes, I fully agree.

I am not a scholar of early Buddhist texts, but I am a political scientist, with a diploma for a doctoral degree from a prestigious university hanging on my wall, for what that is worth. The lines separating political science from related academic disciplines are at once necessary for the purposes of making analytical distinctions, yet inevitably arbitrary since what constitutes an ontological universe is continuously open to debate. Moreover, political scientists disagree among themselves regarding what qualifies as a political act and how to divide evidence of political activity into levels of analysis.

The Buddha no doubt had things to say that could bear on the conduct of politics, and one could imagine that scholars in any number of academic disciplines could undertake some fascinating analyses of the political implications of the Buddha’s teachings. If I weren’t already occupied with other research and teaching agendas I would be interested in exploring this. I’ll make sure to add it to my lengthy to-do list :grin:

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In my own practice, trying to do satipaṭṭhāna, I’ve experimented with trying to observe the “citta” of others — “mind with/without anger”, and so forth. I think that’s the wrong way though. The dhamma is said to be “opanayiko” (leading inward), and the way I presently understand it the external emerges from the internal study.

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