Politics has always been part of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhists texts, the Tipiṭaka, contain numerous references to and discussions of kings, princes, wars, and policies. Later Buddhist texts, up to the present day, likewise contain advice to rulers about how to govern well, warnings about the dire consequences of ruling poorly, and admonitions to avoid arrogance and ignoring the needs of the common people. In the realm of political practice, since the time of the historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama (Sanskrit, Siddhārtha Gautama), Buddhism has both influenced governments and been identified by governments as a source of their authority and legitimacy. Buddhist monarchs have ruled Buddhist-majority realms across Southeast and East Asia at various times over the past two thousand years, and even today many nations in Asia understand their governments to have a duty to rule in a way that is consistent with Buddhist values. In many other Asian nations, Buddhism is an important ethical and religious tradition, even if it is not explicitly incorporated into the political system. Despite this long history of a connection between Buddhism and politics, Western scholarship in the 20th century went through two phases—an early phase, strongly influenced by Max Weber, which saw Buddhism as being either apolitical or even antipolitical and focused solely on releasing practitioners from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara); and a later phase, in which Western scholars began to study the political writings and history of Buddhism more carefully, revealing both the normative political ideas in the Buddhist tradition and the complex practice of politics by Buddhists and in the name of Buddhism. Thus, the earlier controversy over whether Buddhism contains any political ideas at all has been replaced by more nuanced debates about how to interpret the primary texts that do overtly discuss things like kings and laws, about whether those texts reflect a normative preference for monarchy or republicanism, and about the future direction of Buddhist political thinking. (That said, many Buddhists today continue to see Buddhism as rightly being apolitical.) There are also a number of narrower questions that scholars are focusing on, such as how “Buddhist” the political and legal systems are in countries that nominally have governments guided or inspired by Buddhism, the compatibility or incompatibility of Buddhism and ostensibly “Western” ideas like human rights and international law, and how to understand the various ways in which Buddhists today are engaging in political action.
There are at least three separate issues that scholars investigate under the title “Buddhism and politics”: (1) the normative political content of Buddhist texts and practices, as discussed in Moore 2016; (2) the historical interaction of Buddhist teachers and communities with various political authorities and forces, as explored in Harris 2007; and (3) the contemporary political activity of Buddhists, as explained in Friedlander 2009. Gard 1952, Gard 1956, and Gard 1962 are essential sources for identifying primary texts relevant to politics. Pardue 1971 provides a broad overview of how Buddhism has affected politics in Asia, while Bechert 1973 focuses on changes in Buddhist ideas about politics beginning in the 19th century. Myint 2015 focuses on the political ramifications of the “emptiness” doctrine. Moore 2016 references and discusses a large proportion of the primary and secondary literature, and is an essential starting point.
Bechert, Heinz. “Sangha, State, Society, ‘Nation’: Persistence of Traditions in ‘Post-Traditional’ Buddhist Societies.” Daedalus 102.1 (1973): 85–95.
An analysis of how the relationship between sangha and state has evolved over time, especially since the 19th century, by one of the preeminent Western scholars of Buddhism.
Friedlander, Peter. “Buddhism and Politics.” In Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics. Edited by Jeffrey Haynes, 11–25. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
A helpful overview of the history of Buddhist interactions with politics, including fairly up-to-date discussions of the political status of Buddhism in countries with large Buddhist populations.
Gard, Richard A. Buddhist Political Thought: A Bibliography. Washington, DC: School of Advanced International Studies, 1952.
An essential source for information about primary texts that discuss politics, though in some cases discussions of the texts are so brief as to not convey much information about their contents. Gard was one of the few American scholars to focus on Buddhism and politics in the mid-20th century, and his work is seminal for identifying sources and issues.
Gard, Richard A. Buddhist Political Thought: A Study of Buddhism in Society. Bangkok: Mahamakuta University, 1956.
More like an outline of how to study this topic than a thorough treatment of it, but still containing some helpful information.
Gard, Richard A. “The Saṅgha: Buddhist Society and the Laity.” In Buddhism. Edited by Richard A. Gard, 191–231. New York: Washington Square Press, 1962.
An essential source, with helpful information about primary sources that discuss politics.
Harris, Ian, ed. Buddhism, Power and Political Order. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
An essential collected volume, with essays on a variety of topics by leading scholars.
Kawanami, Hiroko. Buddhism and the Political Process. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
An essential collected volume of essays by leading scholars from several fields, in part reflecting on the pioneering work of Ian Harris (several of whose books are mentioned elsewhere in this entry).
Moore, Matthew J. Buddhism and Political Theory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Focuses on the normative discussions of politics in early and traditional-era texts, and then compares them to the ideas of several Western thinkers. Contains extensive bibliographic references to primary and secondary literature.
Myint, Tun. “Buddhist Political Thought.” In The Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Edited by Michael T. Gibbons, 390–396. New York: John Wiley, 2015.
Focuses on the relevance of the Buddhist “emptiness” doctrine for politics.
Pardue, Peter A. Buddhism: A Historical Introduction to Buddhist Values and the Social and Political Forms They Have Assumed in Asia. New York and London: Macmillan, 1971.
Broad historical overview, now a bit dated.
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