Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Does Buddhism Presuppose or Propose Apoliticism?

One question that occurs to me is whether we can claim that Buddhism presuppose or propose “apoliticism.” But what is “apoliticism”? It is said to be “apathy and/or antipathy towards all political affiliations. (1) Being apolitical can also refer to situations in which people take an unbiased position in regard to political matters. (2) The Collins Dictionary defines apolitical as ‘politically neutral; without political attitudes, content, or bias.‘” (Wikipedias.v. apoliticism). Initially and doctrinally I think Buddhism as represented mainly by the ordained community of monks and nuns, who were the main addressees of the Buddha’s teachings, can said to be “apolitical” but perhaps not so much in the above senses but rather in the sense that an ordained Buddhist monk or nun should not get involved in “worldly matters.” Obviously “political matters” are seen intrinsically as worldly matters. Ordained Buddhist monks or nuns should not get involved in, or, interfere in political matters. They should remain detached from them. They should not, however, be anti-political because a political atmosphere or power that is opposed to or antagonistic towards Buddhism or Buddhist community of monks and nuns would not be favorable to the existence of Buddhism itself. The pragmatic challenge from a Buddhist perspective is how to be apolitical and yet live in a world governed by politics.

Historically, there have been monks who were also politicians but doctrinally it would be perhaps not easily justifiable. The next issue is: What about lay Buddhists such as kings or rulers? How political or apolitical should they be? But such a question is tantamount to the question: How worldly should a Buddhist be? In the end, it is up to each individual lay Buddhist to decide for himself or herself. 

In course of time, the Bodhisattvayāna (Mahāyāna) ideals have been used to doctrinally justify the compatibility of religion (i.e. in this case Buddhism) and politics. Even Mahāyāna teachings would, however,concede that worldly and political affairs are essentially messy, and ultimately, each bodhisattva would decide for himself or herself to what extent he or she indulges or engages in political affairs and each bodhisattva would be solely responsible for his or her attitudes and actions.


  1. Hi Dorji,
    if I understand rightly the question seeks an answer (or answers) concerning the practical feasibility of philosophical insight! Since this problem seems to occupy many sincerely interested seekers, let me propose a few general stimulations – perhaps there is something useful for others. Owing to limited space I will split the message.

    1st part:
    I believe, essentially and in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist context, we [as “passionate” seekers and developers for understanding to strengthen ethical visions] want to comprehend the natural harmony of Nagarjuna´s “two truths“ (satyadvaya) immunity.

    In our ambition (sambhara-marga) to check the definite certification about the “truth-status“ of Nagarjuna´s provocative stipulations spontaneously a fine verse of Tsongkhapa´s gentle and sharp-witted “lamrim” (“gradual path-exposition”) advices flashes forth:

    “So long as the two understandings – of appearance,
    which is undeceiving dependent origination,
    and emptiness devoid of all theses – remain separate,
    so long you have not realized the intent of the sage.“

    (“lam gyi gtso bo rnam pa gsum“ / “The three principal aspects of the path“, transl. by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, 2003).

    In his endeavoring attempt to get to the heart of our cognitive perplexity, Tsongkhapa kindly offers the quintessential description of the existential challenge to master.

    Now concerning Nagarjuna, his soteriology appears to be even deeper as we hastily or prematurely could imagine because he describes the phenomenological interdependences from the standpoint of ordinary language habits – and that´s a preliminary philosophical necessity because otherwise we never could understand “the hidden“ (paroksa / “beyond sight“), not to mention the “deeply hidden“ (atyantaparoksa / “further beyond sight“). This means (if this interpretation sounds acceptable) that Nagarjuna, with his intended critical philosophical training (prayoga-marga), wants to initiate in our everyday thought manoeuvers a so-called “mental revolution” (asrayaparivrtti).
    His discerning examinations represent the 180° turning point (“the facing of reality”) of the intended 360° mental rotation ( = the “total mental revolution”)]. Through Nagarjuna´s expertly guided pointers we become epistemically fortified to (re)find personal conviction about the “absolute“ [sunyata-direct-perception = awareness-facing reality-perception (darsana-marga) with the fascinating opportunity arising therefrom to assimilate (if will and training goes conform) this peerless personal experience in everyday action (bhavana-marga) with the final objective of perceptive integrality in life as such (asaiksa-marga)].

  2. 2nd part:
    This insinuates, that we should (try to) understand his repeated, probably painstaking and seemingly endless (at the risk of becoming boring) argumentations as a “signalization“, “the door of entrance“ to explore subsequently (if enthusiastically motivated enough) “the hidden“. Further, and bafflingly enough, the so called “hidden“ shouldn´t be literally seen as “deeper“ (in lying under the surface of reality), rather, it´s the surface itself (it´s precisely the “absolute nearness itself“) which (thereby) is hiding itself (and therefore figuratively is indicated as deep) – that´s the incredible, yet fantastic, wonderful cognitive puzzlement to solve!

    And still further, if that were not complicated enough, from the pedagogical standpoint, “regrettably“ Nagarjuna´s excellent hint(s) towards the two truths entails, for exactly this reason, the “separation“ [the epistemological dissonance] of “reality as such“ / “thusness“(tathata) [into the designated “two truths“]. So even we all naturally/instinctively [envisaged from the philosophical prajna (insight)-standpoint] and unconsciously [seen within the sense of “moha” = the blending of cognition] assimilate reality as such, the price for this cognitive naturalization must be unawareness/unknowingness (avidya) [hence, the ontological thrownness].

    Accordingly, I would say that Nagarjuna gave us the definite liberating pointer (!) but with the epistemological handicap of thereby splitting (evident/natural) reality into the “two truths“ (satyadvaya). In this way the pedagogically created advantage of pointing towards sunyata-direct-perception intended for teaching (the purpose of explaining) “unfortunately“ involves the epistemologically consequential disadvantage of splitting reality – with, now in turn, the corresponding defying difficulty to find the reunification.

    But it seems to me that in our quest for liberation we have no other choice (didactically seen), it´s unavoidable (what is meant is the philosophical regret/sorrow of splitting reality) because otherwise no one could ever figure out “reality as such“ (the harmony of the “two truths“). So, figuratively indicated, we have to initiate the “philosophical looping“ (asrayaparivrtti) through Nagarjuna´s virtuos (the theoretical stroke of genius) , as well as virtuous (the practical stroke of genius) examinations to attain critical reality-assurance and by this gained “self-reassurance” our quest for practical understanding will be directed towards the “deep“ and thereby one will be catapulted towards the “vast“, superb ideal of the bodhisattva!

  3. 3rd part:
    This, briefly suggested, appears to be the fundamental philosophical problem that a philosophically seeking person has to tackle. The pragmatic challenge (“apolitical“ – “political“) depends on that investigation and how far one becomes able of clearing up this enigma [different proposals for a solution generate different views (siddhanta) and eventually induce differing practices (marga / yana)…].

    Personally, I mean, the valence/measure of the bodhisattva-ideal lies precisely in the practical down-to-earth validation (bhavana-marga and asaiksa-marga) of sunyata-direct-perception (darsana-marga) and thereby the indicated pragmatic challenge [“apolitical“ (lokottarajnana / supramundane knowledge) – “political“ (laukikajnana / mundane knowledge)] becomes an affair of diplomatic navigation in cognitive transcendence (nirodha) where selfless (“selfminimized“) intention (prajna) combined with ethical resourcefulness (upaya) will facilitate the collective labours to promote a healthy society [metaphorically describable as a buddha-ksetra ( = buddafield or compassionate atmosphere of living).

    Kant, for example, says: “Sape audere (dare to know, have the courage)! Dare to make use of your own understanding/reason!“
    [to come out of the designated “self-imposed mental immaturity“ (samsara)].

    Alas!, this fine recommendation is a very delicate one (Kant melancholically knew it) and can, in the philosophically saddest case, even provoke madness (Vajra-hell!) and other practical absurdities …; hence, indeed it can be a huge pragmatic challenge (“the union of the two truths“).

    I think the bodhisattva (endlessly) strives and yet doesn´t intrinsically strive [understood in the prajnaparamita (virtuous transcendental) sense] for the optimal balance of this paradoxical, “merely” appearing circumstance of the “two truths” (“merely”, because the didactical term/idea of “appearing” / “appearance” reflects the necessary pedagogical consequence of a philosopher´s conceptual model of reality-splitting; it´s conceptually considered unavoidable…).

    So the personal mastering (considered as Vajrayana) of the latent dichotomy between worldly detachment / sedateness (“not getting involved in worldly matters“) and emphatic world-participation / construction (“involvement in worldly affairs”) decides about how one becomes agile to generate his/her personal “art of living“. In buddhist scholastic context, I like the proposed solution to exemplify the possibility of “free choice” (depending on personal inclination, aspiration and capacity) by using so-called “bodhi-ideals“ (“fulfillment ideals”): Sravakabuddha, Pratyekabuddha and Bodhisattva as explained in the the brilliant “Abhisamayalamkara” / ”Ornament of realizations”).

  4. 4th part:
    I would say that a bodhisattvic inclined personality never wants to neglect the valuable “common-sense“(!) [prthagjana-cognition], yet concomitantly the bodhisattva tries, as far as possible, to support his/her natural inclination towards “common-sense“ with “scientific-critical attestation“ [prajna-cognition]. This deliberate personal commitment towards “common-sense“ grounded in (aspired) insight (prajna) channels the bodhisattvic drive (upaya) to a fundamental, very precious task formulation, expressible by the following question:

    Why do we (instinctively/naturally) perceive reality as we perceive it and not otherwise?

    This question implies a truly searching debate concerning a very complex philosophical notion with far-reaching consequences, defined in buddhist vijnaptimatra(“cognitions-only”)-context as “bhrantijnana“ (denoting the philosophically imputed “erroneous/illusory/flawed cognition/knowledge“ of reality). It represents another of the many soteriological hints directing the gradual move (“the philosophical quest“) towards a possible (conceptually ultimate) reality-appreciation, buddhistically assigned as the dialectical apprehension of reality.*

    * [ = “apoha“ = “cognitive exclusion process“; “dialectical, negative compelling process of imputation“; if we want, the “non-plus-ultra”, or “the limit of philosophical proudness” of our conceptual investigations about reality-cognition proposed from the buddhist advanced perspective; this indicated “proudness” represents the result of a very delicate philosophical inspection which should not be overstretched because otherwise the sliding / falling in the infinite conceptual “view-abysses” with practical consequences will follow; shortly said “philosophical proudness” discreetly manifests through “practical humility”].

    In this context “bhrantijnana“ has to do with the irresistible cognitive situation of “believing“ / “the cognitive urging attribution, naming“ and the adequate/dauntless “cognitive handling“ of precisely this “nudging believing“ – a decisive reflective stage (bhumi) which, again metaphorically rendered, “separates the wheat from the chaff“ because only a truly/honestly/faithfully inclined aspirant [hence a (nascent) bodhisattva] will become proficient “not to close his/her eyes facing the ordinary/worldly“ [prsthalabdha-laukikajnana/“pure post-concentrative mundane knowledge“].

    Briefly alluded, thereby, in the philosophical sense, our smart attention will be drawn towards the fundamental problem of cognition itself, namely the so called “Universalienproblem“ (“problems of universals“) and such a solution-oriented research work demands absolutely everything of a man´s “philosophical curiosity“!

    A great deal of time [through worldly withdraw, understood as the cognitive retreat = jnanasambhara (knowledge accumulation)] and work [by means of worldly engagement, understood as the cognitive involvement = punyasambhara (merit accumulation)] will be required for someone eager to penetrate adequately this fantastic enigma.

  5. 5th part:
    We could perhaps acknowledge that the bodhisattva-ideal itself, in (re)finding the “well-balanced attitude“ within the natural cognitive way of mental proceeding (“the cognitive modus operandi“) represents the “middle way“ (madhyama-pratipad) or the “art of living“!

    Hence, envisaged from the training-perspective, the bodhisattva must (by his/her self-imposed task formulation) refurbish deeply and extensively the cognitive cleavage of cognition itself. The path becomes a way of self-acceptance (leading to the liberating dissolution of the suggested cognitively appearing paradox – a paradox, which in practical-natural applicability never was one…).

    However, since the philosophical proposition to find such a liberating consummation requires so much educative preparation it appears frustrating that we all can undergo (or will have the courage for) such a long process of elaborate thinking.

    And yet (!), under no circumstances, should we become depressed by such a silly remark because we fortunately have another extraordinary solution (“yeahhh, how wonderful”), much more accessible, to (re)find the cognitive desirable moment(s) of peace (pratisamkhya-nirodha):

    “faith / trust“

    [in religious reliable transmission and the devotional, “healthy-common-wise” following of it].

    But again and surely, we must confess, that´s easier said than applied! *

    * [“Aha!”, here we see, the conceptual proliferation (prapanca) restarts again; the foppish seduction / trap of “Mara” (“the devil”)…;
    “Mara, are you here?!” “Evidently, yes, I know you too well, you are always here, you smart flatterer!”
    But nonetheless, I trust that “well-oriented philosophy (even essentially it´s nothing more than subtle “prapanca “) “can“ become the promoter to “defeat” Mara.
    “Ha, ha, ha, what a joke!”, because even though I know that Mara will defeat me again and again, it doesn´t matter because I infinitely trust that we always will find again and again Buddhas teachings!
    Hey Mara!, sorry, ultimately you have no chance, the compassionate Buddha always comes back!].

    I will close here with my verbiages; it immediately reminds me on a formidable verse from the Bible:

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven“ (New Testament, Mathew 5:3).

    Good luck friends; stay tuned!
    Sincerely, mikael.