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The Truth about Buddhism and Politics

The mid-term elections are coming up, and they represent the most important election of our lifetime. 

Of course, that's exactly what they said about the last election... and the one before that.  But this time I think they really mean it.

Naturally, this has resulted in some division in the American Buddhist sangha.  

Some teachers believe that it's the duty of Mahayana Buddhists to encourage people to vote for candidates and support legislation that we believe will help to end suffering for all sentient beings.

Others believe that politics are important, and performing one's civic duty is important, but the Buddhist and political realms must remain separate at all times.

This debate has been going on for as long as the institutions of religion and politics have existed.  Christians talk about it, Jews talk about it, and Buddhists are no exception to the rule.  It's almost as if there's something within us that's drawn to politics the same way that mosquitoes are drawn to bug zappers.

In fact, Aristotle went so far as to say, "Man is a political animal."

Before we unpack that quote, it's helpful to have a good, working definition. defines politics as, "use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc."  

So, Aristotle was stating in no uncertain terms that men are constantly seeking power and control over other men.  It's just who we are, and we can't stop doing it anymore than a cat can stop knocking things off a table.

In the Aristotelian view every dodge ball game, every corporate meeting, and every religion (including Buddhism) is nothing more than a means to an end; a way to gain power.

That's why Greek and Roman emperors routinely declared themselves to be gods.  Religion was power, and he who controlled religion controlled the people.

But what are the implications if Americans accept this mode of thought?  What does it mean for Buddhism if we allow Buddhist practice to become synonymous with politics? 

Recently, I had a brief conversation with Soto Zen Priest Gesshin Greenwood regarding this topic.  Gesshin is the author of the popular Buddhist blog, That's So Zen, and a book called Bow First, Ask Questions Later.  She spent 5+ years in Japanese monasteries, and received Dharma transmission in 2016.

I say all this to say that Gesshin knows Buddhism, and I have a lot of respect for her opinion.

I won't recount the entire conversation, but the short version is that Gesshin agrees with Aristotle. In her mind (and the mind of many Buddhist teachers) Buddhism = People = Politics.  We went back and forth on the topic, and then she asked me the following question:
Despite what the lotus sutra wants you to believe, there never has been and never will be a Buddhism outside of human beings.  Can you point to such an instance of Buddhism that was not man-made?
This question stumped me for a long time because the answer is, "no".  I can't think of a Buddhist teaching that didn't come from a man or woman.  The Abrahamic faiths have some interesting methods for dealing with this type of question.

Judaism teaches that the commandments were given directly to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.  Christianity teaches that Jesus was literally God made flesh.  In both cases, the end result is a religion that is special, holy, and somewhat removed from mere human contrivances.

Buddhism doesn't have that.  In fact, the whole thing hinges on the idea that Buddha was an ordinary man who conquered his suffering through ordinary means.  It's a beautiful teaching, but it certainly lends itself to a materialist worldview; a view that says Buddhism = People = Politics.  

But if we accept that at face-value, the Buddhist path doesn't make sense anymore. 

Buddha gave up an entire kingdom when he realized enlightenment!  If the teachings were just a code of conduct that he made himself, there's no logical reason why he wouldn't have taken his new found morality and returned to a life of luxury.  Instead, he became a wandering monastic.

Furthermore, if the precepts are just man-made concepts, why should we follow them?  If we take a materialist view, is there any real reason why we can't use psychedelics during meditation?  And why should we meditate when we can calm our minds with marijuana?

Meditation, the precepts, the story of Buddha's enlightenment- these things only make sense if there is something deeper at play; something that can't be put into words.  And we lose that something if we treat Buddhism as one in a long list of tools that help men gain power over other men.

Humans are political by nature.  This fact is undeniable, it's a symptom of being trapped in the illusion of a separate self.  But the purpose of practice is to help us break that illusion, not get better at it.

That's why Buddhism can't be reduced to a simple means to an end; a way to gain power for the greater good.  Rather it has always been, and must continue to be, the manifestation of something greater than ourselves; of MU, of suchness, of the Dharmakaya.

That being said, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.  We can be actively engaged politically.  We can vote, pass out flyers, and volunteer for candidates we believe in.  We can even work with activist groups that are striving to build a better world.

But the political path and the spiritual one must remain separate.  

I say this not because politics are unimportant, but because the Dharma is equally important.  I say this because there are countless people who are discussing politics, but there are a precious few who are discussing the 8-fold path.

If Buddhist centers become staging grounds for political parties.  If Buddhist teachers talk more about politics than the Dharma, and use retreats to endorse their favorite candidates.  Then what's the point?  

What does Buddhism provide that can't be found somewhere else?

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The Truth about Buddhism and Politics


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The point was more that Buddhism and politics remain separate. Buddhist centers would never teach that the suffering of those in the margins of society is something to be kept separate from the "dharma." Each dharma practitioner can choose to vote and participate in the political scene and be guided by what they have learned from the dharma teachings. But for the Buddhist center to steer voters or even make suggestions is not what I want to hear. <>

  3. My previous comment was in response to a thoughtful comment that has been removed by the author for whatever reason. However, in connection with this and the question, 'What does Buddhism provide that can't be found somewhere else?' I would like to learn from dharma teachers how to remain unattached to results in the political realm.

  4. There can be no correlation between the Buddhadharma and any political system that fosters suffering. Democratic systems were created as a constitutive basis for the accumulation of power in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age, it is the State system that we have inherited. It would be fair to perpetuate this Samsaric political system that provokes invasions, wars based on the culture of selling weapons, exploiting natural resources, torturing the planet with toxic waste, eliminating indigenous ways of life and culture, it is a system that has promoted differences in sexual identity, races, etc. As policy is currently posed, locally and globally, it is just to perpetuate Dhuka.

  5. Not a badly written article. You're right that the Buddha was not a believer in political power.

    But in Buddhism, there an idea of a kind of ideal ruler: The Cakkravarti Rajah (in Pali: Cakkavatti Raja); the Buddha spoke of them, in his lifetime, as the Agamas & the Pali Canon attest to.

    The Cakkavatti Raja, is what's known as 'A Wheel Turning Monarch / Emperor'. They are said to conquer the four directions, and to rule righteously. They practice the five precepts, and encourage those they rule to, too. The Dharma prospers. People prosper. Their ethical conduct improves... and they end up living for huge lengths of time, like gods.

    These Wheel-Turning Monarchs are said to hold two 'wheels' in their possession. The Wheel of Dhamma (Dhamma-cakka); and the Wheel of (temporal) Power (Anu-Cakka).

    Thus there are two types of power. Temporal (political) power; and Spiritual power (iddhi). Rarely are these shared. Wheel turning monarchs are held to be rare occurrences. The Buddha himself, had turned down the opportunity to become one. Showing his valuing of the spiritual, and prioritising it: he became a monk.

    Laymen though, like you & I, need not be restrained, to the same extent as a monk. And I think a certain degree of temporal power or strength, is handy for a layman. It enables him to defend himself, when attacked, for example.

    For a layman, I think the model of the monarch, is not totally inapplicable, as one to be respected (especially if it is Dharmically applied). It is always worth bearing in mind though, the idea of political power & spiritual power. Both have their place. Ideally they should work together, or co-operate, in the way that the Buddha had been an advisor, to kings (for example).

    Emperor Ashoka, had modelled his leadership (250 years after the Buddha's Parinirvana), on that of the Cakkavatti Raja. His rulership had been one of the most highly extolled & praised, in history.

    The source of the idea of the Wheel Turning Monarch, is to be found in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, in the Long discourses of the Pali Canon. I think if you read it, you'd find it most edifying.

    With Metta / Yours in the Dharma,


  6. Hello dear Alex <3 Thank you for your lovely post! I do often enjoy reading your articles, you have a very interesting perspective <3

    I have to say, this quote from your friend caught my eye.

    "Despite what the lotus sutra wants you to believe, there never has been and never will be a Buddhism outside of human beings. Can you point to such an instance of Buddhism that was not man-made?"

    As for myself, I very much can say "why yes I can" to that question.

    Buddhism has always been very much involved in non-humans as well. And from the very beginning, there were non-humans who have been involved and practiced Buddhism, and taught the Dharma as well. Both historically and otherwise. The 13th Zen ancestor, Kapimala, for example was not human. The Buddhism the Deva practice and other non-humans come to mind. Padmasambhava is a good example, and Arya Tara.

    If it were me, I might mention to your friend, if you talk to her again, that one thing that come to mind when mentioning her quote, is that in the first part of it, she asks one to disregard a Buddhist teaching (that of the Lotus Sutra), that includes examples of non-humans practicing and teaching the Dharma, and then asks one to sort of set aside such examples, and then seems to say, "Setting aside examples of Buddhist teachings that include references to Buddhism that were not man-made, can you think of any examples of Buddhism that were not man made?"

    To my mind, that's a bit like saying, "Setting aside any red Skittles that are in the bag, can you find any red Skittles in the bag?" It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be very easy to ignore something one doesn't wish to see, if one simply chooses not to look at any examples that run counter to what one wishes to find.

    But it is worth pointing out, that that isn't the Zen way. As Kanchi Sosan, the famous Zen ancestor said:

    "The Way to the Ultimate is not difficult; simply give up picking and choosing."


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