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Buddhism in the News


Monday, October 04, 2010

Buddhist Bhutan Bans Monastics from Voting.

In the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan monks have been allowed to vote in political elections, but that is about to change. The government says it's to maintain a distinct space between religion and politics. Yet, one has to wonder if they've gone too far in that pursuit since Buddhist clergy have been beneficial over the years in effecting political change that helps create a fertile field for less suffering for a vast, diverse number of people.

Two obvious examples being the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh who both have advocated for political freedoms of all people but especially in their homelands of Tibet and Vietnam.

In fact, Zen master Hanh has developed a form of socially active Buddhism called, "Engaged Buddhism" which teaches Dharma practitioners on how to apply Dharma lessons to real world challenges such as social, political and economic realities. His aim, however, isn't necessarily to favor one political side over another. In fact, during the Vietnam War his group focused on the innocent community caught in between the armies of the Communist and Democratic sides. Engaged Buddhist inspires us to practice the Dharma in ways that aid us in helping our communities become better stewards of the people and its resources (nature and otherwise) so that the collective suffering can be lessened. Hanh embraced this way of engaging the world as a form of following the natural conclusions of compassion combined with the reality of interconnection. In other words, monks and the layity can't practice compassion as called for by the reality of interdependence without being apart of the community.

Engaged was partly inspired by the Chinese monk Taixu. Taixu was concerned about monastics and laity alike in Pure Land Buddhism being distracted and obsessed with working to escape Earth for the otherworldly and supernatural Pure Land. He felt that the awareness of the suffering of others, which engenders compassion to help transform this current life--in this current moment into a happier reality was being lost out of a personal desire for transcendental bliss. It wasn't the belief in an end to suffering via Amida in the Pure Land itself that he was concerned about. It was with his perceived obsession that many had with it, which he felt was disconnecting people from each other, turning people into selfish beings and ultimately preventing the betterment of the society he lived in. It certainly inhibits one from fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vow taught by many Buddhist traditions.

At it's core, the Bodhisattva Vow is a commitment one makes to take action toward helping others within one's community receive the same respect, happiness and betterment that we might have and wish for our own family. This then is a wonderful code for politicians and other leaders today to guide their service for citizens. It goes to show that Buddhist principles aren't simply for spiritual pursuits but can also be beneficial in the public service arena. Still, I think it's important to find the middle ground between politics and spirituality. However, I feel that this decision to outright prevent monks and nuns in Bhutan from voting to be veering off the Buddha's compass of the middle path of finding a healthy balance between politics and spirituality.

Some believe that politicians are incapable of ruling in a just way as politics is driven by desire. Yet, take the example of Emperor Ashoka who used the Dharma as his guide when ruling his people. He was initially a brutal and greedy leader until he was changed by the Dharma, which led him to change many of his ways; including turning toward a vegetarian diet out of compassion for animals. His later rule was motivated by kindness, egalitarianism and philanthropy.

In Bhutan, the monks and nuns may personally decide to avoid politics altogether to dedicate all of their efforts toward spiritual endeavors. However, to prevent them from voting, (if they are so inclined) means taking away peoples' personal freedom, which isn't just antithetical to good government but also to the Dharma's message to not spread suffering and discord. It makes me wonder what the Dalai Lama would think of Bhutan's actions given his views on politics. As well as the reality that Bhutan predominately follows the Tibetan version of Buddhism. Preventing monks and nuns from voting means taking away from communities the many voices of moderation, peace, compassion and happiness that the monastics represent. If we feel that hearing their opinions helps improve life then we'd be silly to prevent those opinions from being registered in the political process.

At the same time, there does need to be a clear line drawn to prevent religion from getting involved in the actual crafting of policy in government. This also goes for preventing government from sanctioning and propagating one religion over another, which raises another question in Bhutan. The Bhutanese constitution that was drafted in 2008 still heavily favors Buddhism, which seems to contradict the government's policy of keeping religion and government separate.

~Peace to all beings~

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NellaLou said...

I wonder if Bhutan has been getting pressure from the Chinese government. If Bhutan reforms it's political system, as it has been doing under the new king, to coincide more with a secular democratic approach should China decide to declare Bhutan part of Chinese territory there is more likelihood of international objection than if they seem to be a monarchy with a theocratic appearance to the west. Just as the west didn't bother too much when the Chinese took over Tibet.

Bhutan borders a number of Indian areas, including Sikkim, which the Chinese claim as their territory. If the Chinese could secure up Indian border areas (as they seem to be doing in now ally Nepal which was formerly under a Hindu king and strongly allied with India)then taking Sikkim would be that much easier.

There is a trend in the area going on right now that would indicate such pressure. In Nepal the Tibetans have been forbidden to vote for the Tibetan government in exile. This is being enforced strictly by Nepalese police who are being trained by Chinese authorities. Since this began with the election of the Maoist government in Nepal the curtailment of the rights of Tibetans has become quite stringent. Nepal, like every other country, doesn't recognize the Tibetan government in exile.

The government in exile handles the incoming refugees in India by providing everything for them since one of the conditions of them staying there is that the Indian government doesn't have to do this. They are more like an administrative body or an aid organization than a political body even with the political titles.

Here is the Nepal story.

One said...

I often struggle with concept of involvement in the now of today's politics. Clearly we can find happiness without pushing into the concerns of today. But could pushing into the concerns of today attach us to the now and prevent happiness and send us down the wrong path. Who knows what's right. Better yet what does it matter if it leads to attachment.

Steven H said...

Banning monastics from voting is a very weird interpretation of "separation of Church and state." It isn't very democratic, not to mention you can't stop people's religious beliefs from affecting their voting. (well, apparently you can, but the idea is absurd and very anti-freedom).

They call him James Ure said...

@Nella Lou. Thank-you so much for adding your insight and knowledge to this issue. It sounds like a lot of pressure and outside forces are converging upon tiny Bhutan. May they all realize that co-operation is the only way for stability and happiness for all.

@One. I do too. Politics is a dirty game a lot of times but leaving society and not being apart of the solution is also an extreme.

We need to know how to me citizen monks and urban Buddhists who help to craft a better society not just through meditation and volunteerism. But through participating in the voting process.

I think it's very possible to find a balance between the two. As with all things it comes down to the middle path.

They call him James Ure said...

@Steven. Exactly my thoughts but apparently it's a "Constitutional Monarchy" but so are many other countries who behave in a democratic way. Places like: Denmark, Japan, Sweden and the U.K.

Banning the monks from voting isn't the way to go about separating the religion from state affairs. As we've seen in many countries (like Burma) the clergy have played a very positive role in pushing for government changes FOR the people.

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