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Buddhism and Politics: Patronage, Consolidation and Benevolence

‘It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.’

– Robert A. Heinlein, science fiction novelist, 1973

A recently debunked stereotype in the West has been the assumption that due to its emphasis on transcendence, Buddhism has little to offer political theory and practice. Throughout history, it has been largely apolitical, uninvolved, or apathetic, uninvolved with kings, emperors, or aristocrats. In other words, Buddhism is unaffected by politics, and politics is unaffected by Buddhist thought. This idea might sound attractive or unattractive depending on how you think religions should work (like Stephen Fry, plenty find the Vatican’s official status as a nation-state repulsive, whilst many in the Middle East look proudly upon the history of the Caliphate as a golden age of Islam).

But a closer look actually prompts one to realize that the idea of Buddhism, or any religion, as unqualifiedly apolitical, is actually unfair to the religion. A religion cannot be totally disconnected from society’s mechanisms if it is to influence and facilitate change. Yet Heinlein’s fear looms tall in the backdrop: is there any faith that would not legislate its beliefs into law if it had the political privilege? Buddhism has taken a multi-layered, complex approach to the attraction of political power. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, the Blessed One’s approach has been to work on the patron model, preaching, teaching and disseminating the Dharma in the professional and vocational service of those financing, subsidizing, or paying him. Most institutions, from the most ancient monasteries to the great temples and modern meditation centres, function in this manner (or in a modified form) to the present day.  


The Buddha’s original Community, which was quite small, needed to survive as a functioning unit of spiritual mendicants and teachers whilst remaining true to their principles of focusing on spirituality rather than mundane concerns. The Buddha’s solution was to involve his community with patrons whilst maintaining that crucial, otherworldly priority of seeking Nirv??a rather than political power. Support of the ancient sa?gha from the k?atriya (warrior or noble) caste and wealthy urbanites with power bases in cities and large states was common from the very beginning of the dispensation, when the great majority of the Buddha’s followers and patrons came from cities rather than rural areas, and in the form of merchant-bankers and businessmen (An?thapi??aka), royalty (Bimbis?ra, Vaidehi and Aj?tasatru of Maghada and Pasenadi of Kosala) (Sarao, The Origin and Nature of Ancient Indian Buddhism, Delhi 1989: 42), and socialites (courtesans such as Ambap?li or wealthy daughters like Uppalavann?. See also Zürcher, “Han Buddhism and the Western Regions”, Leiden 1990: pp. 170 – 1). The genius in the Buddha’s strategy was to secure a relatively stable future for his Community and remain in a position of influence whilst not presuming to assume political power, which was officially left to the king. In other words, legislation was a secular deed, one that could be influenced but not enforced by the Community.

The precise point of consolidating the patron relationship in the present day is not only to maintain the ancient ascetic tradition from which the Buddha arose, but also to act as a natural bulwark against the doomsday scenarios of writers like Heinlein. Buddhist politics imposes on itself a built-in safeguard that prevents its religious leaders from assuming, at least in name, the title of a secular individual (contrary as it is to the monastic calling). What is required now, therefore, is the consolidation of the mutual trust and relationship between monastery and patron.

There are some accusations that charges Buddhism with appropriating Western values, imposing them on itself in order to gain legitimacy and converts among Westerners. This is an inappropriately bold contention. A secular, nonreligious government that allows all faiths to share the plans of salvation they offer, to coexist without launching military crusades against each other, is ideal for the nonviolent model of Buddhism. In the Indian tradition we hear of ‘Buddhist’ kings, emperors like A?oka the Great of the Mauryas or Kani?ka and Huvi?ka of the Ku???as who were personally attracted to Buddhism and therefore made it the state religion. These assertions are simply incorrect: the reality of Indian kingship (and imperial politics across Asia) is that the patronage of multiple faiths was, unless in special circumstances, more common than the support of a single one.

While every faith has its political weaknesses and shortcomings that must be addressed in its spiritual and academic communities, Buddhism is ideally situated in the secular, non-religious sphere to share the transcendental message of the Buddha because of its age-old attempts to distance itself from secular office.

This has some practical consequences. As Buddhists, we must ensure that our politics have tolerance and pluralism built into it. It would be useless to be all-embracing in our philosophy and theology, only to keep our engagement with society narrow and intolerant. It is beneficial for others who have every right to disagree with Buddhist thought, and it is also respects the ancient Community’s loyalties, which was to serve Dharma rather than nationalism or any kind of political –ism that has been tested and failed. Ironically, it is when a nation can hold many faiths together, while consolidating the patronage of Buddhism, that it deserves deep and intense admiration indeed.

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