Friday May 5, 2006


Yesterday I cast my vote in the local council elections. I went down to the library, took a slip of paper, placed my cross in what seemed to me to be the most appropriate of the three boxes, posted it into the plastic bucket and went home. As I wandered back through the spring sunshine, I found myself thinking about the action I had just performed. What does it mean to cast a vote? What is this democracy about which we are so concerned? What is the mystique that surrounds democracy, and what are the harms that come from this mystique? What is politics anyway?

I’ve been meaning to write about politics for some time here on thinkBuddha. I don’t think of thinkBuddha as an overtly “political” blog, but nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more I see that questions of politics rumble away in the background of many of the things that I write. Sometimes it is more explicit – as in my recent post on Žižek – whilst at other times at is more implicit than explicit – for example in my post on Martial thoughts. Nevertheless it is often, perhaps always, there.

In some Buddhist circles, “politics” is a dirty word, as if politics was a byword for coercion, control and oppression. Many who are happy to say that ethics is an integral part of the Buddhist path would shrink from saying that politics should have any part to play in a life of Buddhist practice.

Part of the problem is one of definition. Whilst “ethics” popularly means something like “how I can be good to others”, “politics” is popularly taken to mean “how I can oppress others.” But attaching these values to the two terms is not necessarily helpful. Ethics is about ethos: how I comport myself, how I behave as an individual. Politics is about the polis or the collectivity: how it comports itself, how it behaves corporately. And we are rooted both in ethics and in politics. Sometimes we find ourselves caught between the two.

So it is not that we should be political, but rather that we are political, whether we like it or not. Aristotle’s definition is quoted so often – Anthropos phusei politikon zoon: man is an animal of the polis – that it is possible to forget its significance. We are social animals. Like ants and baboons. It is a part of our nature to be tangled up with others. We naturally form associations with others, we gather into groups. So even when we are most alone, we are tangled up with others. Any tendency to dismiss politics and to focus only on ethics, is to succumb to a kind of mistaken individualism and to miss what might be called our in-built sociality. We cannot evade politics any more than we can evade ethics.

When the future Buddha went forth from his home to the homeless life, sometimes this departure is talked about as his “leaving society” (and thus, politics); but it was no such thing. Firstly, he joined a well-established society of wanderers, philosophers and practitioners; and secondly this society itself was entangled with the settled society of householders. You cannot leave society. You can only change your relationship to it. Even on a desert island you are in society with others. To claim to be apolitical, or to be uninterested in politics, is thus a political stance.

The Buddhist tradition talks about the “three jewels”, or the three precious things, that must be guarded for us to be able to practice. The first is the buddha – the principle of awakening. The second is the dharma – very loosely speaking ( dharma is one of those tricky and almost entirely untranslatable words) the teachings and methods that enable us to awaken to our true situation. But the third is the sangha – the community in which this process takes place. Aristotle says that every polis is “an association of persons formed with a view to some good purpose.” This would serve as a good working definition of the Buddhist idea of sangha as well. The question we find ourselves asking is not just how we are to act as individuals, but how we are to act collectively or in relation to collectivities. It seems to me that, taking a view of politics from Aristotle, Buddhism recognises the centrality of politics in our lives.

A Buddhist friend once said to me that he had often wished that the Buddha had only come up with the first two “jewels”, that life would be so much easier without the third one: other people. But then he added that the Buddha knew what he was doing. Awakening, to take on any true meaning, must take place in community with others. I might risk going against certain aspects of the Buddhist tradition in which the pratyekabuddha or “solitary Buddha” is recognised, to say that I cannot see how it is possible for there to be such a thing as a purely solitary awakening. Or, to put it another way, I cannot see how there can be an awakening that is not at the same time both ethical and political. Giving such centrality to the idea of sangha may be attesting to this fact. As I see it, the centrality of sangha puts politics at the heart of Buddhism.

In his book The Compassionate Revolution: Buddhism and Radical Politics, David Edwards writes

if we are serious about the relief of suffering, we need to combat greed, hatred and ignorance as manifested in ourselves as individuals but also as manifested in […] institutions. The two tasks are inseperable.

But to return to yesterday’s vote. I wonder if the problem of this limited view of politics is not restricted to the Buddhist world. For if we identify political action merely with the casting of the occasional vote, or with the comings and goings of party politics, we forget that we are continually called upon to act and respond politically, that the day-to-day decisions of our lives are both ethical and political; in so doing, we blind ourselves to the political realities at the heart of our lives.

# · Dave

A lot of challenging points here. Nicely done! Your argument makes ample good sense to me, but then I have the luxury of living outside the sangha, in a rather isolated situation at that. So I’ll be most interested in seeing how others respond.

# · dale

Yes, beautifully put. We are political whether we like it or not; that’s just the kind of animal we are.

I share the buddhist tendency to shy away from politics, not primarily because it’s coercive, but because (mostly by way of meditation) I’ve realized that never are my thoughts more cramped, vindictive, and repetitive than when I’m thinking about “political issues.” Spaciousness and generosity disappear in a twinkling.

I hope that I can someday return to politics without returning to that mental prison. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in this life, though.

The politics of the sangha—that’s another can of worms I’m reluctant to open. I keep toying with the can-opener and then putting it back on the shelf :-)

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

A good rant. I think we Buddhists (and dare I say it we FWBO Buddhists) often attempt to forget our social aspect. Apparently the original definition of “idiot” was something like “someone not interested in politics” – idios from the Latin for “own, private”. Many Buddhists are then, from what you are saying, idiots in the true sense of the word :) There is an idiotic tendency to self pre-occupation amongst people who do a lot of introspection.

I would add a caveat to your discussion of the three jewels however. The Sangha jewel is not the polis of Buddhists, nor the polis of the ordained. Strictly speaking the Sangha Jewel, the Sangha refuge, is the Aryasangha – those who have attained at least the path of stream entry. One cannot really go for refuge to ordinary people, nor to the collective of Buddhists.

The whole thing of our relationship to the group is fraught. Without a social context most of us don’t function very well, but the price of membership in a group is conformity with group norms – and nonconformity can be punished quite harshly. The stongest punishment in the vinaya is shunning!

You characterise the Samana tradition as a “well established society”, but I think you may be over stating things a little. The Samanas were a disparate lot, whose only uniting characteristic seems to have been their rejection of Brahminism and the authority of the Vedas. And in the end the Buddha to be, rejected even the Samana groups and went out on his own. His constant advice in the Pali Canon is to leave society behind and devote yourself to solitude and meditation. I think by this that he means something more radical than simply being alone and remaining entangled in the group. Neither is he suggesting we become idiots. I think the Pali Canon Buddha’s nonconformity is a lot more subtle than some of the Siddha’s (for instance), and is more interesting for it. However for all that the Buddha and the Arahants remained in relationship to their society – the relationship was symbiotic which Reggie Ray brings out in his Buddhist Saints in India.

With respect to politics a lot of the cynicism comes from the day to day behaviour of politicians. In GoogleUK, type “liar” and hit “I’m feeling Lucky” and you get taken straight to Tony Blair’s official govt bio. The trouble is that politics and politicians seem to be inseparable. The temptation to be an idiot is pretty strong!

# · Tom

Taking the view from the online article “The Path to Liberation for the Buddhist Laity,” a broader view of the aryasangha became necessary after Buddha’s death.


# · Will

Thanks for your comments, folks. A few thoughts. The first concerns the aryasangha. So in response to Jayarava: whilst your caveat may be theologically (or whatever the Buddhist equivalent is) impeccable, the problem is that, here and now, I have no idea who is arya in this doctrinal sense and who is not. Try as I might, I can only see more or less ordinary people. So where do I go for refuge? To go to refuge to an idea of the aryasangha seems to be rather limiting.

I’ll stick by my claim about the well-established samana society. This doesn’t mean that it was unified. Only that this kind of non-conformism was well-established as a way of going about your life at the time of the Buddha. They were a well established society of the disparate…

Despite these objections, I like the etymology of “idiot” – I have a weakness for etymological arguments, and I agree that there is a rather interesting kind of nonconformity going on with the Buddha. Perhaps a rather interesting kind of conformity as well!

Thanks for the aryasangha link, Tom. And, Dale, get down that can-opener, and let me know how you get on!

Best wishes,


# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

If the Aryasangha seems a bit abstract then how do you get on with the Buddha and the Dhamma? The Buddha, if there ever was a Buddha, has been dead for 2500 years – how does one go for refuge to him then? And the Dhamma, as we have received it is self-contradictory, and sometimes quite barmy! Could it really be a refuge?

If the ordinary Sangha is your refuge, then it is not much of a refuge. In my experience the ordinary sangha is a major disappointment at times, and a minor disappointment virtually all the time! In short the ordinary sangha are a source of dukkha, not of relief from it.

So you have a dilemma.

I don’t feel I have this dilemma for two reasons. Firstly I have an imaginative connection with various members of the Aryasangha – through things like studying the Pali texts, going on pilgrimage, practising visualisations, and reading about the lives of the Saints. Secondly I cautiously and provisionally believe I have had contact with the Aryasangha on a few occasions. So to me the Aryasangha is very much alive and present, and I can go for refuge to them.

The second kind of experience is quite rare for most people – including me. However the first, the imaginative connection, is open to all, and limited only by the imagination, which need not be limited at all. For instance in imagination the laws of physics need not apply, magic is possible, beings of light can manifest. It’s almost as if we go for refuge to the extent that our imagination allows us to come into contact with the Divine. Or it could all happen in dreams! If you go looking for the Aryasangha you do find them, but you have to know where to look ;-)

Dh. Subhuti’s criteria for a true refuge are interesting. A refuge is a true refuge when:
1. it is permanent (ie not subject to old age, decay and death).
2. it transcends our own death
3. it is unconditioned
4. it is of unlimited depth
5. it is of unlimited breadth, and
6. it is ultimately beautiful.

There’s no point in simply broadening the definition of the Aryasangha because the label is not the important thing – a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, but a poo would still stink even if you called it a rose (May the Bard forgive me!)

To sum up: Going for Refuge requires a leap of imagination.

I really enjoy ThinkBuddha and these threads that develop as a result of your posts. Thanks!

# · Tom

Manual Trackback. This post is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Apr 30 – May 6, 2006.


# · Will

Thanks for the mention, Tom.
As for the aryasangha… I think that it may be getting off the point to get too involved in this here: material for another post, perhaps? But my own perspective is rather different from yours, I think, Jayarava. Which may be why you point out that I have a dilemma but that you don’t (!) My own approach doesn’t really sit well with beings of light, the Divine, or things that are permanent, ultimately beautiful and unconditioned. I’ve quoted Honen before here, who said somewhere that he could imagine no Pure Land more beautiful than the sight of the peach and plum blossom outside his window…
But I don’t think there is a dilemma because it is a matter of seeing which of the teachings here and now ( dharma ) lead to a freedom from entanglement in the sufferings of this world ( buddha ), and which contexts ( sangha ) support this. It is on this level that the terms take on meaning for me. But, as I said, I’ll write more on this later.

Right! Back to politics!

All the best,


# · Nacho

Will, you and I keep thinking along the same paths. Let me skip the historical time warp and come to the now. The idea that a Buddhist ethics needs to be lived presently is central, and that includes being as Aristotle indeed noted Political Animals (beings). BTW, Giorgio Agamben has a wonderful section on this in his Homo Sacer. I don’t make the distinction of a sangha polis, although I see the Sangha as a part of the polis. The frustration is that somehow many folks in a sangha believe that entering the stream is distancing themselves from the ethical dimension of the polis. Hence, many come to sangha and say things like “I’ve left the political stuff behind,” “I don’t understand it all anyway,” or even “I don’t know much about it so I don’t worry about…” Of course, I hear that from my students and other folks, not just some sangha members. I think, in the most kind fashion, that this is an expression of delusion. It is a multiplication, a splitting that only confuses. It limits the dharma and the path of the bodhissatva. As you note, the political, is not separate from the ethical.

The best way I’ve come to see this lately is through the concept of ethos, but not ethos as traditionally understood, but ethos as “dwelling place.” In scholarship on Rhetoric there is some interesting theoretical work going in this direction. Ethos as dwelling place is a primordial meaning that can be derived from the Classical literature. It truly points to the ground of being, to standpoint, and position to the place from which we launch forward. Politics seen within this light of ethos of dwelling place (not static either) is an interesting notion, and one that I am trying to weave into a paper on church and state. We’ll see how it works. Thanks for the post!



# · Will

Yes, I’ll go with that modification, Nacho – the sangha as part of the polis.

I read Homo Sacer a couple of months ago. There were a load of papers on Agamben at the conference I went to, and not to appear entirely ignorant, I ploughed through a few books. I was particularly impressed with Homo Sacer, and I think I’ll need to return to it at some time. It was at the back of my mind as I was writing this post.

Ethos as dwelling… are we wandering towards Heideggerian waters here? Yikes!

I’d be very interested to see your paper on church and state when it’s done.


Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles