Dr. Stephanie Balkwill is a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Her scholarship focuses on the social, literary, and political lives of Buddhist women. She is currently co-authoring a book entitled Buddhism and Statecraft in East Asia.
Many people argue that Buddhists should not engage in politics. Is Buddhism apolitical?
As a scholar who studies Buddhism in medieval China, I find it hard to understand the tradition of Buddhism as anything but political. From my perspective, although the tradition of Buddhism is widely considered to be apolitical and pacifistic in modern, Western culture, this claim reflects a selective modern reading of the ancient sources. If we look at the tradition in its historical reality—that is, if we look at it is a lived tradition instead of a textual one—what we see is that although some texts may advocate a sort of apolitical ideology, in actuality Buddhist texts, images, and teachings have been intimately interwoven into the strategies of governance undertaken by almost every polity that Buddhism has been practiced in. In many cases, it was Buddhists themselves who helped to legitimate the reigns of kings and emperors through a variety of textual, ritual, artistic, and institutional methods. It was also Buddhist themselves who provided rulers with strategies for governing their states. Let me explain.
We all know the story of the historical Buddha’s quest toward enlightenment: because of a new-born prophecy that he would become either a universal monarch or a buddha, the young prince was kept in the palace by his father who clearly preferred the imperial option; however, as he matured, the prince was drawn to worldly matters and eventually renounced palace life in order to seek out the answers to life and death. Later in his life, when he had become a successful religious teacher and a buddha, he returned to the palace and ordained his son into monastic life, thereby ensuring that his father’s kingdom had no heir in place.
Though it is possible to read this story as a Buddhist rejection of political life, the tradition has long read it otherwise and has, instead, emphasized the inherent connection between a buddha and a universal monarch. The connection between the two has been explained in terms of a system of symbiotic authority wherein the buddha rules over the transcendent realm and the king rules over the temporal realm. Because of this connection, Buddhist texts and Buddhist art of all traditions consistently make use of metaphors of kingship when discussing the Buddha and his teaching. Furthermore, from at least the time of the Mauryan ruler Aśoka (r. 268–232 BCE), Buddhists have thought and written about their role in creating political authority through supporting a type of ideal king, the dharmarāja. The dharmarāja was one who ruled in accord with the Buddhist law and who supported the Buddhist monastic community with gifts of land, buildings, and endowments of various kinds. It is not incorrect to say that it was from this type of imperial funding that much of the institution of Buddhism as we know it today was created. In cementing their roles as dharmarājas, Buddhist kings across all of Asia funded monastic infrastructure, created powerful and large-scale pieces of devotional art, and had the Buddhist textual canon translated, printed, and circulated while they also kept Buddhist advisors and ritual specialists in the employ of their various courts.
When we turn to the Buddhist tradition in East Asia, Chinese Buddhists living in the 4th and 5th centuries became increasingly knowledgeable of the Buddhist teaching of the “decline of the dharma”—a doctrine that they were learning about in the Buddhist texts that they were receiving from South and Central Asia. Keenly aware that they were living in desperate historical times wherein all forms of political and religious authority had been lost and hence that the dharma was in decline, Chinese Buddhists developed innovative new teachings that brought the tradition into even further engagement with the political and social world. For example, the Chinese Buddhist sect of the Teaching of the Three Stages was committed to social work among the poor, and, likely because of their social-service work, they were eventually oppressed by the government of their time. A noteworthy fact is that the very government that suppressed the sect also established Buddhism as a state religion and employed Buddhists at court.
As the Teaching of the Three Stages shows us, being political is not a bad thing. In their eyes, the members of the sect looked to Buddhist teachings to create radical forms of social work in their time. Though their specific vision of the Buddhist tradition was short-lived, their interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching as necessarily socially and politically engaged has had a great impact on many forms of Buddhism into the modern day. Indeed, the emphasis on “this-worldly Buddhism” is a cornerstone of the Japanese Buddhist tradition while it also provides the doctrinal basis for contemporary Engaged Buddhism.
Finally, that the Buddhist tradition has been so deeply political across history has also meant that the tradition has developed emancipatory opportunities for some of society’s lesser-served members. As a scholar of the social lives of women, I can often be found talking and teaching about Buddhist nuns. According to the life story of the Buddha, the Buddha rather grudgingly admitted women into his order at the behest of his aunt and caregiver, Mahāprajāpati. Though we have no way of proving the historical veracity of this story, what we can see throughout history is that women like Mahāprajāpati—imperial women of means—have long been ardent supporters of Buddhist nuns. Princesses and Empresses across the entirety of the Asian continent have funded the creation of nunneries for Buddhist women. Having long studied the establishment and social function of such nunneries, it is my contention that Buddhist nunneries have been emancipatory spaces for women; providing shelter from domestic violence, providing the basic means of existence for widows and orphans, providing education, mobility, and community for women of all walks of life, imperially-sponsored nunneries have had a clear and positive impact on the lives of women.
Similarly, Buddhism has provided a means of class-based social change. Recent years have seen large-scale conversions to Buddhism among India’s Dalit, or “untouchable” community and a resurgence of Ambedkarite Buddhism. Born himself as a Dalit, B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) went on to become one of modern India’s most successful and revered jurists. Rejecting the widely-held system of religiously-based social stratification in India—the caste system—Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism and viewed the tradition as inherently and radically anti-caste. More recently, Bikkhu Analāyo published an article that speaks to the Buddhist responsibility to speak out against racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. That important piece reminds us that, as a living tradition, Buddhism provides us with no shortage of tools by which to challenge injustice in our time and, indeed, in our very selves. Bikkhu Analāyo’s piece challenges us to practice Buddhism by engaging in political work that seeks to alleviate suffering, which is, of course, the most basic of Buddhist concerns.
Some Suggestions for further reading:
Anālayo, B. 2020. Confronting Racism with Mindfulness. Mindfulness. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01432-4
Gokhale, Balkrishna Govind. 1969. “The Early Buddhist View of the State.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 89 (4): 731.
Hubbard, Jamie. 2001. Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood: The Rise and Fall of a Chinese Heresy. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Jerryson, Michael. 2017. “Buddhism, Conflict, and Peace Building” in Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Eds. Michael Jerryson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 546-564.
Keown, Damien, Charles S. Prebish, and Christopher Queen. 2003. Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. New York: Routledge.
Reader, Ian. 1995. “Social Action and Personal Benefits in Contemporary Japanese Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 15 (3–17).
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1976. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitaker, Justin. 2019. “1,500 Dalits Convert to Buddhism Seeking Social Equality. The Buddhist Door Global.https://www.buddhistdoor.net/news/1500-dalits-convert-to-buddhism-seeking-social-equality