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Should Monks be Involved in Politics


Opinion of a friend on this issue, "should monk be involved in politic". This is what he says;

Should monks be involved in politics? This question has been asked often, but I think it cannot be answered with clarity until one defines what politics is. Merriam Webster defines it as :

a : the art or science of government
b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy
c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government

 If one takes the very broad definition in (b) above, then a monk who drafts a letter or puts his name in a petition calling for a change in policy, say regarding allocation of land for temples, would be involved in politics.  So politics may range from participation in partisan politics (such as joining or supporting a political party) to just political activism.  I think we generally view the participation of monks in the former negatively but we are accepting or even encouraging of the latter. But in the middle part of this spectrum there is a great area of overlap.

We generally have a poor opinion of politicians considering how dirty partisan politics can be. Participation in this business taints its participants as almost every politician, regardless of their party, practises poor speech and action at some time and another. So the idea of monks involving themselves in partisan politics is highly disagreeable to many.  However, I think participation of monks in political activism may often be beneficial.

If we look at the history of Buddhism, Buddhist monks who have played pivotal roles in establishing Buddhism in Asia involved themselves with kings and governments. This is true not only of China, Japan, Tibet, etc but is equally true in Theravada countries. No doubt, politics is not the role of monks as envisaged by the Buddha.  However, throughout history, monks have become highly influential persons in their community and in fulfillment of their responsibility to protect the religion and the community of Buddhists, they have invariably been drawn into political activity. 

In recent history we have many examples of monks who have sought to benefit the population through political activity. This has been the case in the independence movement of Myanmar ( U Wisara).  Ven Walpola Rahula, one of the most respected scholar monks of Sri Lanka was also involved in politics and was a leading voice in the Nationalist movement.  More recently, it was the Burmese monks (notably U Gambhira) and the saffron revolution that nudged the wheel of democracy rolling in Myanmar again resulting in Aung San Su Kyi being returned into government. Similarly, monks have influenced kings and governments in Thailand and Cambodia.  Ven MahaGhosananda, the most respected Cambodian monk in recent history also served as a representative of the Cambodian nation-in-exile to the United Nations during the Khmer Rouge years and was also an influential figure during the peace talks during the 1980s.  And in Malaysia, any monk who is associated with the Malaysian Consultative Council (MCCBCHST) can be said to be involved in political activity.

Some monks have proven to be terrible politicians (probably the worst example is when a monk assassinated the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka). But I think that generally, the position of Buddhism in S E Asia would be a lot less secure if these monks had not involved themselves in politics in one way or another.during the course of history.  Buddhism is protected by the governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka and this could have come about only through the political involvement of monks.

I think we cannot paint with a broad brush to say monks should not involve themselves in politics. What is more important is the nature of their engagement, their motivations and objectives, and whether their political activism is a betrayal or an inspiration of their monastic ideals.


Name with-held

Bugs Tan
7th March 2013


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