Monk’s have opinions too

Several days ago there was an article in Channel News Asia about the Thai government upset at monks joining the ongoing Red Shirt Rally in Bangkok. Apparently the Prime Minister has warned monks to stay away from the protests.

In fact monks are like any other Thai – they have opinions too. The reason Thailand keeps them away from politics is to stop popular teaching monks using their ‘moral credentials’ to sway voters for one party or another. It is probably a good idea.

This comes from the time of the Buddha. Monks were those who left the householders life, and their involvement therein. They went to the forests to meditate and pursue enlightenment, and not politics. As the Buddha himself was a prince of a minor semi-independent kingdom, there were political nuances for him too. He was keen to keep the monks order independent of the politics of the day.

Chiefly, the ‘politics of the day’ meant the families of Ariyan Bloodline that ruled the various kingdoms of the area. There was always intrigue, alliance, arranged marriages and the like. Once ordained monks had to stay out of it, and give up their old positions. Famously when a group of 5 of the Buddha’s high born relatives ordained, they had their barber ordain first so he would be senior to them (monk’s seniority goes by time since ordination).

Modern day Sangha’s do get involved in politics to some level. In Sri Lanka temples and teachers support various political parties, though there is a natural distance between their religious authority and their political sympathies. When they give dhamma talks they will always be based directly on stanzas from the Pali canon, which are then expanded and explained. Such talks then are not politically driven – such views are presented separately.

Thai temples also support Red or Yellow shirt ideals. Just ask about, and most people will have an idea of which temples support which group – though the view is as likely to be wrong as correct. But gladly the monks limit their support to private conversations, and do not make public declarations.

Monks feel that even if they should not be involved in party politics, they are quite free to take a moral stance, which is why so many have joined the Red Shirt rally over the last few weeks. Naturally, where the line is drawn between politics and morality is very flexible….

You may not however know, that the Buddha also took a moral stance in the politics of his era. At one point his home city of the Sakyan Kingdom was at odds with their neighbours the Koliyan clan. The arguement was over water rights, as a shared dam had run short of water and the two kingdoms took arms against each other. In fact, though the Buddha was from the Sakyan side of the water, the Koliyans were a closely related Ariyan kingdom, with much intermarriage between the two. They were both also vassal states of the much larger city of Kosala.

As the two armies came to clash, the Buddha went and sat between them. He told them their blood was worth more than water, and the armies laid down their weapons and the crisis was over.

Later on, in the last year of his life, the Sakyan Kingdom got into another scrape – this time with the much bigger and more powerful Kosala kingdom. The Sakyans had offended the mighty prince of Kosala, by giving him as a bride a woman who was only half from the Ariyan bloodline, and half slave woman. His army moved to attack the Sakyans, and once again the Buddha went to sit between the two armies. The angry king withdrew his forces, but came again the next day. Three times the Buddha sat between the armies, and on the fourth day, he withdrew, and his home city was destroyed.

So even the Buddha got involved in politics on moral grounds, setting a precedent for today’s struggle in Thailand. When he sat between the two armies, the bare-branch tree he sat under was on the Sakyan territory. The attacking king, who also respected the Buddha, asked why he was sitting on the Sakyan side. “The shade of ones relatives is cooler” he replied.

So rightly or wrongly the monks feel they can go and sit on the side they feel is morally right.

Click here for the full story on the Buddha’s stand between the armies, compiled directly from the Sutta commentaries.

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About Cittasamvaro

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10 Responses to Monk’s have opinions too

  1. billzant says:

    ” He was keen to keep the monks order independent of the politics of the day.”

    “But gladly the monks limit their support to private conversations, and do not make public declarations.”

    Isn’t attending a public demonstration a public declaration, far more than a private opinion?

    Isn’t it the case that once you put on the orange robe you represent what orange robes represent – the integrity of monastic life? Political life is fundamentally corrupt and Thaksin has been legally found guilty of corruption. Is it appropriate for orange robes to be active in this world of corruption?

    For an orange robe to attend a Red public demonstration isn’t that particular robe then supporting someone who has broken the laws of the land? If the orange robe is not supporting the law of the land doesn’t that bring into question all orange robes?

    Would it not be legitimate for monks to call for political parties to give an equal share of the cake for all the peoples of Thailand?

  2. Cittasamvaro says:

    Well, that’s a moral judgement. If you make a moral judgement then you expect the ‘moral’ establishment to follow ….
    But as pointed out, the monk’s have opinions too. They don’t feel they are involved in party politics so much as a struggle for what is right (democracy in this case).
    The robe is not a symbol of the ‘law of the land’ as the Sangha may well feel that some laws are wrong.
    But as you say, yes, by attending the demonstrations those monks are making a public viewpoint heard.
    I should add that the Sangha is much less involved in politics and governance than any Sangha in other countries.

  3. billzant says:

    Sorry what is the moral judgement?

    Monks do have opinions but doesn’t the wearing of the robe carry with it a certain responsibility, and therfore a control on the public expression of those opinions?

    I was not suggesting that those in robes substantively create the “laws of the land” but by supporting a movement that has been corrupted by a man who is legally a criminal it can easily be claimed by that criminal that the monks support him in crime. This is why entering a political arena in any form can leave monks open to abuse. At the same time if monks are publicly active in going against the law of the land, is that not an encouragement for lawlessness? It is not the disagreement with the laws that is the issue but the public display that the law of the land can be disrespected.

    This is why I suggested the politically neutral, yet morally integral position

    ” to call for political parties to give an equal share of the cake for all the peoples of Thailand?”

  4. Marcus says:

    From an excellent article on the Buddha and politics:

    “The Buddha had no blueprint for a peaceful or a fair society, nor did he advocate or practice any form of what we would call political activity.

    The Buddha seemed to feel that all political activity is inherently pernicious, because politics has to do with, on the one hand, power, and on the other with grand abstractions like freedom, democracy, justice.

    Following a path of conduct based on power and on abstract principles, the Buddha must have felt, would always lead to trouble.”

    – Zoketsu Norman Fischer

    http://www.everydayzen.org/index.php?Itemid=26&option=com_teaching&sort=title&task=viewTeaching&id=text-57-30

    • billzant says:

      Dear Marcus,

      My views concerning political activity are similar to the referred article. It has always seemed to me that if there is dukkha in the world then the politicians as some form of leaders can be given some responsibility for creating this dukkha. Not attaching to the cravings that are part of the power that goes with political ambition seems to be the Path.

      Yet at the same time I support “Engaged Buddhism”, where do you go?

      For the sake of this discussion it would be interesting to know whether the Vinaya makes any statement regarding political activity.

      Hope you are keeping well,

      All the Best,

      Bill Z

  5. Cittasamvaro says:

    The moral judgement is about Khun Taksin. The monks in the Red Shirt rally have a different opinion.
    They feel they are taking a moral stance, not a political one. Of course, lots of people have the opposite opinion.
    Ideally of course, monks would be completely neutral, but they are also Thais and citizens so that would be asking too much. Thailand does have the least politically active Sangha of all the Buddhist countries.

    “The Buddha had no blueprint for a peaceful or a fair society, nor did he advocate or practice any form of what we would call political activity.”

    I’d agree with this line wholeheartedly. The Buddha was not the one to ask for advice on raising children, managing kingdoms etc… even though he did his best (with some nice, but limited teachings). He was an expert on Enlightenment, and unsurpassed at that.
    I am not sure there is any solid sutta evidence that the Buddha felt politics to be ‘inherently pernicious’ – guess I should read the full article….

  6. billzant says:

    Bhante,

    I have my own opinion (moral judgement) as to whether Khun Thaksin is corrupt but in my comment above I was discussing the legal question, and Khun Thaksin has been found guilty by the law of the land. My concern remains that monks are demonstrating against the law of the land.

    Are law and morality the same thing – perhaps in an ideal society?

    Politicians use and abuse power, by entering a public demonstration those wearing the orange robes are allowing their own accrued responsibility to be used by these politicians.

    If these monks wished to make a statement concerning the need for greater democracy, such a statement could easily have been made in a non-political manner.

    In this case the legitimate desire for greater redistribution of wealth in Thailand has been used or manipulated by a politician, Khun Thaksin, and as a result legitimate needs remain unheard. What is happening in the corridors of power as to why “democrats” don’t redistribute I have no idea, that is the real sadness of the involvement of the politicians such as Khun Thaksin and Khun Abhisit.

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    Bill Z

  7. Piyadhammo says:

    Friends,

    The Kathavatthu Sutta speaks directly to this matter of appropriate speech for the monk. Ajahn Jayasaro, for one, is unequivocal in stressing that a monk’s responsibility is to teach the Dhamma ; that a true samana will devote himself one-pointedly to the training. Otherwise, by espousing a political position, a bhikkhu stands to alienate those who perhaps would have been receptive to Dhamma teachings. As terms go, “pernicious” seems fairly apt considering how the Buddha frequently groups kings and ministers of state with robbers and others of low moral fiber.

    Kathavattu Sutta Topics of Converstaion 1 (AN 10.69) trans. Tahn Ajahn Geoff

    I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Now at that time a large number of monks, after the meal, on returning from their alms round, had gathered at the meeting hall and were engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation about kings, robbers; ministers of state; armies, alarms; battles; food, drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women; heroes; the gossip of the street; the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world or of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.

    Then the Blessed One, emerging from his seclusion in the late afternoon, went to the meeting hall and, on arrival, sat down on a seat made ready. As he was sitting there, he addressed the monks: “For what topic of conversation are you gathered together here? In the midst of what topic of conversation have you been interrupted?”

    “Just now, lord, after the meal, on returning from our alms round, we gathered at the meeting hall and got engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation about about kings, robbers; ministers of state; armies, alarms; battles; food, drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women; heroes; the gossip of the street; the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world or of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.”

    “It isn’t right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation ….

    “There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun and moon, so mighty, so powerful — to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects.”

    With metta,
    Piyadhammo

  8. Cittasamvaro says:

    Thank you Venerable. I love the list of unsuitable topics such as ‘well-talk’ which must have been where all the gossip went on…. For those who have not studied suttas very much this is a list often repeated throughout the Tripitaka.
    In the Upakkilesa sutta these conversations had developed into dispute, with the monks “quarrelling and brawling, and deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers”
    The Buddha told them to stop, and they told him to go off and be peaceful somewhere and they would take care of putting an end to the dispute – which means trying to win of course.
    But it is interesting that even the Buddha’s direct disciples in the forests of India were got caught up in these things – so much more so will the Thai Sangha. All things considered, Thailand has a pretty good and restrained Sangha.

  9. Richard says:

    Hi guys,

    When all this kicked off a few years ago, I found myself getting utterly embroiled in it all – to the point where I was stressing myself out trying to get my opinion understood by others. I was busy judging and gosspiping until I realised that I should be firmly rooted in the middle way; therefore, now I simply observe what it going on, try not to get emotional about it and certainly don’t talk about the political situation anymore (although I still harbour an opinion).
    If we become embroiled in it, we become attached, which defeates the point of Buddha’s teaching, as we all know – it is all ‘gileyd’ (not sure how to spell that Thai word phonetically in English – hopefully you’ll know what I mean!). It doesn’t matter whether some monks of Buddha’s time, or of this time choose to get involved, it doesn’t mean that it is right of them to do so. I simply feel that if I, as a simple and unadept layman, can aviod this obvious pitfall, a pitfall which derails the mind from its intended course, then why can’t they? Anyhow, whatever, none of it is actually that important in the grand scheme of things…up to them!

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