On 28 March, Hong Kong’s Tsz Shan Monastery formally opened its museum of Buddhist art to much pomp and fanfare. There was a good deal of gossip in the local Chinese-language media about the prominent figures in attendance: the temple’s benefactor, tycoon Li Ka-shing, the chief monks, and Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, who is currently facing unprecedented social unrest and political crises after her attempted introduction of a now-withdrawn extradition bill.
To any Buddhist who is cognizant of history, this convergence between Li, Lam, and the abbot reflected a classical understanding of Buddhist power: a triple entente between sovereign, donor, and sangha. For much of Buddhism’s 2,500-year history, a close relationship between sovereign, donor, and sangha was the “ideal” vision of political lobbying and compromise in the eyes of most Buddhist leaders. This sewing of karmic seeds in the hearts of donors and sovereigns was a kind of soul harvest that would reap for donor and sovereign alike posthumous salvation.*
If the Tsz Shan gathering reflected an ideal configuration of power that theoretically places clerical leaders in the best place to make a difference, we can look back on March with clear eyes and ask two bold questions. First, were there any missed opportunities in discussing better governance of Hong Kong? Was there anything that the head monks of Tsz Shan could have told Lam that might have given her some opportunity for reflection on the volatile psychology of the city? Despite its strengths and beauty, Hong Kong shares with other financial free ports the existential state of being a flashpoint of social unrest due to political tensions, yawning inequality, and widespread unhappiness. This has sadly intensified since June. Second, does the relative reticence of Buddhist leaders in shaping political narratives betray a well-intentioned misunderstanding about the role Buddhism should play in politics?
Buddhist notions of kingship or rule by Dharma transcended petty political concerns. As British journalist George Monbiot wrote: “But what counts above all else is ideology, as ideology successfully pursued is the means to power. You cannot exercise true power over other people unless you can shape the way they think, and shape their behavior on the basis of that thought. The long-term interests of ideology differ from the short-term interests of politics.” It was certainly true that messengers of the Dharma saw themselves above courtly maneuvers for their own sake, but to engage in such activities were always a skillful means (Skt: upaya) for the propagation of the ideology of the Buddhist faith.
At this point it is important to acknowledge that there are many reconfigured understandings of Buddhist leadership. Diverse Buddhist writers, thinkers, and activists rightly see deficiencies in old ways of thinking. Many of these individuals and movements emphasize much more grassroots and democratic participation. Yet even in the US, where monastic leadership is weaker (sometimes for the better), the 2015 visit of a delegation of Buddhists to the White House was seen as a major milestone in the visibility and prominence of Buddhist activism. Vertical leverage might be old-fashioned, but it still matters.
It is therefore not the case that the traditional vision of Buddhist power is invalid. Rather, it is more likely that this muscle has not been sufficiently exercised with competence and dexterity. Over recent decades, various factors such as the retreat of religion from public life and nation-building priorities in postcolonial Asia might have influenced Buddhists to leverage relatively limited political means to achieve their goals. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule in effectively every country in Asia, but these have largely been for single-issue causes. It also partly explains why, at an international level such as at the UN, the Christian and Muslim presence is disproportionately influential, with Buddhist groups making up a tiny percentage of religious NGOs with special consultative status (with Woodenfish Foundation being one of the few exceptions). An encouraging exception to this decades-long decline of Buddhist discourse in politics is the resurgence of Buddhist diplomacy across Asia, which for all its problems is bringing aspects of Buddhist thought back into the halls of power—which is what the Buddha would have wanted.
As far as a reading of the ancient Pali scriptures go—along with the later Mahayana sutras—there does not seem to be a consistent demand that Buddhists stay silent on politics. This is not to say that Buddhists need to copy the playbook of other religious traditions. Nor is Buddhist politics necessarily even going to be split along the same fault lines as, say, the experience of evangelical conservatism and liberation theology. Yet if we are to discuss progressive Buddhism, or perhaps more neutrally, Engaged Buddhism or even Humanistic Buddhism—is it truly engaged if it actively and neurotically avoids debate about activities associated with governance or the management of people?
The question is not the kind of intellectual position one holds, but rather how Buddhist leaders might be able to make a productive contribution to expressing those positions. There is a case to be made for sober or less popular opinions—more than ever at this point. Moderate or radical, conservative or reformist, whatever opinion one has of this or any other problem, the only Buddhist truth is that all are interconnected. This means that possessing influence in political circles demands the prerequisite of possessing political sense. More often than not, having political sense means that one possesses at least a basic political opinion. These are opinions that need to be heard, for the sake of those who need to hear it most.
Many young people are asking in good faith what their masters and senior leaders think of certain situations. It is important that leaders demonstrate at least some effort at having grappled with these questions, and to come from a place of political conviction. After all, religious practice is an expression of personal conviction and heartfelt sincerity. Politics does not need to be the sole preserve of cynics. Indeed, sometimes it is at its best when it is also about expressing conviction and sincerity.
* Buddhism has always required economic as well as political support, but the sources of both would vary depending on the society and region. The cakravartin par excellence, Ashoka, provided both. From the 12th century to the early modern period in Asia, there has always been some structure of the “priest-patron” relationship. Cross-cultural examples can be found in diverse periods, such as the Tang dynasty between Fazang (643–712) and Wu Zetian (624–705), between the third Dalai Lama (1543–88) and Altan Khan (1507–82), and the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1642–1911). Patron-priest (Tib: cho-yon; Ch: tanxue guanxi 檀越关系) is a typically Tibetan expression and combines the roles of sovereign and donor. Such a distinction might be more useful today because in contemporary Asia, financial firepower does not necessarily come from a politically active source, and vice versa. Economic support is generally derived from private firms or philanthropists, and political influence can be extracted from a diverse range of bases, from lobbying groups to individual politicians and, in the case of countries such as Thailand or Sri Lanka, traditional outlets of government.