[Summary: thoughts on the role of monks and religion in protests. Particularly in light of recent events in Tibet]
The Saffron Revolution
Can Monks Protest?
This question came up last year with the troubles in Burma, and now again with the Tibetan problems. Monks are supposed to be peaceful aren’t they? Are they ‘allowed’ to make political protests?
Monks rules are called Vinaya, and most often it is said there are 227 rules. In fact this is not accurate. A number of the 227 ‘rules’ are not followed, and for many of them we don’t really know the original meaning. But there is a superfluity of rules in the Vinaya, far beyond the 227. Regarding the protest issue we can determine that monks were not supposed to become involved in partisan politics, which includes not giving endorsement to a particular political faction. On the other hand, monks are supposed to speak up for what is right. The Buddha himself was an advisor to all the ruling dynasties of the region, and to many influential figures. A peaceful demonstration, for a non-partisan cause lies within the boundary of the Vinaya. Indeed we have a couple of examples of the Buddha’s own ‘protests’ from the history of the region.
The Buddha’s Sakyan kingdom lay against the river Rohini whose waters were shared by the neighbouring Kolian kingdom. Both states were small and vassals under the larger more powerful city-state of Kosala. Both states were also closely related within the Ariyan clans and by their Royal families. They shared a dam across the Rohini for irrigation purposes, but growing populations and a drought brought the two sides to the brink of battle. When Gotoma heard about this he quickly journeyed to the scene and placed himself between the warring factions and told them
blood is worth more than water
Both sides lay down their weapons and settled the dispute through dialogue.
In the final year of Gotoma’s life another, even more bitter dispute broke out this time between the Sakyan clan and Kosala. Now Vitatubha, the new King of Kosala, was bent upon revenge for a deception the Sakyans had played upon his clan. The Buddha positioned himself between the two armies as before, and the two sides similarly retreated. But Vitatubha was not to be easily mollified, and again brought his great army to attack the Sakyans. In all the Buddha positioned himself between the armies three times, and on the fourth did not intervene. The Sakyan city of Kappilavatthu was destroyed.
Buddhism beyond Buddha
In considering the role of monks, their rules, and moral obligations we have to accept that Buddhism has outgrown its roots. The Buddha taught men and women to leave their homes and families, to live in the forest under the trees to meditate and attain to enlightenment. He never proposed any kind of system on which to base a society. The bits and pieces of advice he did give to kings and towns are hardly the Code Napoleon. The Buddhism that we have today has a different role; one that has outgrown its origins. Monks took on the role of village teachers and educators. Temples took on roles of community centres, and Buddhism became ‘engaged’ in social affairs, in economics, in governance etc… Therefore it is fitting to look beyond a crusty vinaya that was designed for a particular, and rather extreme lifestyle.
Who are the Protesters?
We also have to consider who the monks are that are protesting. Not many monks actually meditate or strive for enlightenment. Many are in the temple for purely social or economic reasons. Others are happy to remain as monks fulfilling administrative or educational roles. All are products of the society around them just as much as they are products of the Buddha’s Sangha, and as such can be expected to carry the feelings of their society just like everyone else. If there is cultural suppression or repression, then that strata of the society will feel it, and react when the pressure builds too high, whether they are monks or not.
So Can They?
In modern times, preaching is not enough. Monks must act to improve society, to remove evil,
….says Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a high-ranking lama….
There is the responsibility of every individual, monks and lay people, to act for the betterment of society
So yes, monks can protest. One would hope that the saffron badge would be used respectfully, but when a people are repressed by military governments, there comes a point when it is hard to blame monks for being citizens of their culture. One would also hope that protesting monks does not become a common fixture – and these boundaries have been stretched in recent times, such as with the thousands of monks who have lobbied for Buddhism to be made a state religion on two occasions of constitution forming. Should monks lobby for environmental causes? Or against corruption? For equality between the sexes or races? Is there a slippery slope ? We will have to wait and see.