Buddhism and Politics

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This was originally posted on the website Does this Make Sense?



Militant atheists have been too easy on the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”.

Buddhism – like any other philosophy, religion, or way of life – risks becoming an instrument of the state or a party. There are many examples of moral values being used to justify tyranny. Connections with the state, the military, political parties have in the past morally compromised Buddhism and can do so again in the future. Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism”.

Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military who used the monastic model to make their killing machine more efficient; Buddhists helped Japanese war criminals evade capture.

Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, the precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations, such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

Damien Keown argues that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering (dukkha); Rupert Gethin, rejects Keown’s argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality to be understood and worked through, rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”

Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

According to Amartya Sen, early Indian Buddhists were committed to discussion as a means of social progress and this led to the establishment of councils which considered the demands of social and civic duties and helped to “consolidate and promote the tradition of open discussion on contentious issues”. The third of these councils took place under the patronage of emperor Ashoka who converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths in a war he himself waged. Buddhism became his state religion around 260 BC and under his model of ‘Buddhist kingship’, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood).


In 2011, Sri Lanka is celebrating 2,600 years of Buddhism, the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any nation, with the sangha having existed in an unbroken lineage since its introduction by Ashoka’s representative Arahant Mahinda Thero. There are Sri Lankans today who see that history of protection of Buddhism as integral to their concept of Sinhala identity and nationhood. This can be problematic in a country with so many different ethnic groups. Buddhism is given a special place in the Constitution.

In Ceylon in 1956, Sinhalese-Buddhist activists helped Solomon Bandaranaike win the general election. They wanted as their reward the elevation of Sinhala to the status of sole national language. Many Sinhala students only had unemployment to look forward to and resented the fact that coveted government jobs required a fluency in English and went disproportionately to Tamils. Bandaranaike was strong in Sinhalese Buddhist rural areas; it made sense to please Sinhalese Buddhists rather than Tamils who would not vote for him anyway.

Protests against Sinhala-only legislation led to Tamil deaths. Bandaranaike tried to extricate himself by compromise, which aroused anew the wrath of Sinhala activists. On September 25 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by Venerable Talduwe Somarama a Buddhist priest and Ayurvedic practitioner.

Somarama was recruited to do the killing by Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, chief priest of the temple at Kelaniya. Buddharakkitha’s real motive was the Prime Minister’s refusal to award business deals to a company he had floated. Bandaranaike had referred to Buddharakkitha as ‘that buddy Racketeer”. Buddharakkitha was very rich and had a sexual relationship with Wimala Wijewardene (then Minister of Health and promoter of Ayurvedic medicine; she was the aunt of current opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe).

Robert Kaplan, who has been wrong about many things concerning Sri Lanka, (see http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20090728/fantasies_of_virtue) writing in Atlantic Monthly, says: Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” There seemed to be a lot of blood and soil in their rhetoric of a party called Sihala Uramaya. After zero electoral success, they transformed themselves into the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party). In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. The party won six per cent of the vote and nine out of 225 seats. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

The party maintained a Sinhala Nationalist stance in its politics and advocated wiping out the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) by force. This struck a chord with the general Sinhalese population, tired of Tiger atrocities and broken promises. Nevertheless, it was shocking to many to see robed figures calling for blood. According to Rajpal Abeynayake, now editor of Lakbima News: “The JHU vote bank mainly comprises urban, English-educated, upper-middle-class Sinhala Buddhists from high castes.” The JHU was instrumental in preventing Chandrika Kumaratunga extending her presidential; the JHU joined the governing coalition of new president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Tigers were, indeed, defeated, to the great relief of most people including Tamils. The JHU were instrumental in implementing a ban on smoking in public places and achieved the mandatory closing of liquor stores and a ban on slaughtering and selling meat on Buddhist festivals.

There was soon infighting within the JHU parliamentary group which had been cobbled together just before the polls and lacked unity about relating to government. The monks were involved in a brawl in parliament at the time of the vote for a Speaker. One monk MP, Kolonnawe Siri Sumangala, was hospitalized after a government minister, Mervyn Silva, squeezed his testicles very hard.

By 2005, monk Uduwe Dhammaloka was saying: “The climate is not conducive for monks to enter politics. It is corrupt.” He said the lay people connected to the Sihala Urumaya were opportunist self-seekers. In 2007 the monks of the JHU came under criticism for selling their parliamentary vehicle permits. One of the former monk MPs is accused of molesting five underage novice monks. The JHU now fields only lay candidates.

Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of Irwin’s survey throughout Sri Lanka was: “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.

Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential involvement between self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges appropriately. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adapt them to circumstances. Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.



Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to rule that killing is absolutely sinful and to threaten punishment for murder. Dependent origination, khamma, means if you engage in violence there are likely to be unpleasant consequences – cause and effect, one thing leads to another, shit happens. As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.



Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically because some Buddhists believe that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads them to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.



Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage; Sri Lanka dhammadvipa , the whole island is a sacred relic and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy. Deegalle concludes: “The challenge for a modern Buddhist is to meditate on the Saddharmaratnãvaliya’s message that “the rage of one who vows vengeance cannot be quelled except by the waters of compassion.”