Participating in Politics

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For nearly two decades, the leader of the democratic opposition in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been held prisoner in her home or placed under comparable restrictions by the ruling junta. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "Tell us the difference between politics and meditation," an interviewer asked. Suu Kyi replied:

Well, if you're meditating and a mosquito comes and bites you, you have to think, "Biting . . . biting . . . biting." And you are aware that the mosquito is biting and you just keep sitting there. You don't stop the mosquito and you don't try to shake it off.

But politics is not like that. We try everything we can not to hurt others and create feelings of antipathy. But if people are doing things that are unacceptable to us as the party that represents the democratic movement, we can't just sit there and say, "They are doing it .... They are doing it .... They are doing it." And not do anything. For instance, they have been sentencing our people unjustly to prison. We're not going to meditate and say, "They've been unjust .... " We're going to do something.

In her simple statement, "We're going to do something," Aung San Suu Kyi speaks for many Buddhists who believe that one must participate actively in social and political affairs, and that such participation is not alien to Buddhism.

Doing something

The leaders of most societies are themselves confused and engrossed in greed, hatred, and delusion. They are like the blind leading the blind. If they do not have peace of mind, how can they lead others?

Sulak Sivaraksa

For most of Buddhism's long history, the domains of society, politics, and religion were inseparable. Though the monastic order founded by Shakyamuni rejected a number of social norms, the Sangha had considerable social impact. In the Asian cultures that were predominantly Buddhist, the influence of Buddhism was as pervasive as the influence of Christianity in medieval Europe. Today, most of the formerly Buddhist countries have been so affected by modernization and Westernization that they only offer glimpses of their traditional character. While few Buddhists would suggest that it is possible or desirable to return to a premodern alliance of sacred and secular, many are seeking constructive ways to actualize nonsectarian religious values in public life.

Like Aung San Suu Kyi, politically active Buddhists argue that one must be conversant with the important events and forces of the present day, and respond accordingly.

  • In Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya, the country's biggest charity, seeks to making a positive difference in the lives of rural Sri Lankans. Led by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, this grassroots movement reaches 15,000 villages and is based on Buddhist-Gandhian philosophy, dedicated to the sustainable empowerment of people through self-help and collective support.

    "It is not as much what we do to alleviate rural poverty but the way in which we do it which makes us so effective and sustainable – through the active participation and engagement of the villagers themselves."

  • Dharma Master Cheng's Tzu Chi Foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan for nearly 40 years. A volunteer-based, spiritual as well as welfare organization, Tzu Chi Foundation has dedicated itself in the field of charity, medicine, education, environmental protection, as well as the promotion of humanistic values and community volunteerism.

  • In England, a meditation teacher campaigns for Parliament.

  • In Thailand, Buddhist leaders speak out for democratic reform.

  • Thai monks are “ordaining" trees to protect forests targeted for clear cutting.

  • Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-93), the leading reformer of Thai Buddhism in the past century, sought a Buddha-Dhamma that transcends the differences between the various schools of Buddhism. He preferred the term "Buddhayana." His teaching focused on how we create suffering by clinging to "I" and "mine."
  • In Sri Lanka, monks attempt to mediate between warring ethnic groups.
  • In Massachusetts, a Vipassana meditator directs the Cambridge Peace Commission.
  • In cities around the world, Zen students go on "street retreats" with the homeless.
  • The California-based Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded "to bring a Buddhist perspective to the peace movement, and the peace movement to the Buddhist community," has over four thousand members in the United States and around the world.
  • The International Network of Engaged Buddhists, based in Thailand, coordinates worldwide efforts on human rights, education, and alternative economics.