few years ago, in the middle of a weeklong meditation retreat, I joined the queue to speak to the group’s most senior teacher. I’d spoken to him before, of course, many times, both during one-on-one practice discussions and in more informal settings, like the potluck lunches the group organized every now and then. But this time I had some questions I wanted to ask, and they weren’t about meditation. They were about him.

I was thinking about taking refuge, the ceremony in which you make a more formal commitment to the practice. I wanted to find out more about what I was getting into, so I did a bit of research online into Buddhist communities in the United States generally, and into the one I was sitting with in particular.

What I found was, well, concerning. Besides the lurid allegations about various Buddhist teachers in the U.S., there was a bit of specific gossip about the group I was in, and about its head teacher. I didn’t know whether the things people were saying were true, and even if they were, they didn’t seem serious enough in themselves to make me want to leave the group. But I did have some questions.

Which isn’t the same, actually, as wanting some answers. In fact, what answers I might get wasn’t so important to me. What was important to me was that the teacher be open to questioning—even (or especially) when the questioning was about his own behavior. And I genuinely expected that he would be. The group as a whole put a lot of emphasis on maintaining an open, questioning mind-set, and the teacher had a reputation as someone who didn’t put too much stock in formality.

I realized my mistake within minutes of entering the room. When I tried to explain why I was worried by referring to a scandal at another Buddhist group, he told me that most of the gossip that was reported about teachers was just false. When I told him I was thinking about taking refuge, he told me not to, since I was clearly doing it for the wrong reasons. He also told me I had no right to be asking these questions. For much of the conversation he was shaking with rage.

That, to say the least, was not what I’d been expecting from a senior Buddhist teacher, especially one whom I had previously known as a genial and open-minded man. Suddenly I felt very alone, in that retreat center hours from home, in a group that hung upon the teacher’s every word.

Later, I went to a friend I trusted, an older man who’d sat with the group for years but had already let slip that he had some doubts about the head teacher. When I told him what had happened, he told me the teacher had clearly “fucked up”—and not for the first time either, but that people who clashed with him tended just to leave the group. As we turned back toward the retreat center, he said to me, with a mixture of regret and resignation, “This is a great community. But you have to realize that it’s not a democracy.”

“Not a democracy” would probably be a fair description of many Buddhist groups in the West. The teacher is often a revered figure. I’ve noticed that this is especially the case in Zen and Tibetan groups, bastions of guru yoga, in which the teacher is seen as a path to enlightenment. But I’ve also seen teachers in vipassana circles being accorded an uncritical kind of veneration.

Related: Why I Quit Guru Yoga

Part of the reason for this, I think, is the idea of dharma transmission, a sort of apostolic succession in which intimate knowledge of the dharma is said to be passed down from generation to generation, ultimately going back to the Buddha himself. As I’ve seen time and time again in various groups, teachers who have transmission hold not only spiritual but also institutional authority: they’re often deferred to when it comes to making decisions for the group. Indeed, they are held in such high regard that the usual checks and balances—financial auditing, a board of directors, and so on—are often felt to be unnecessary.

The result of this is that many sanghas suffer from an alarming democracy deficit. Formal consultation with ordinary members of the group is rare. Leaders are almost never elected. Decision making by democratic processes such as voting is virtually unheard of.

That should surprise us, for Western Buddhists tend to see themselves as cooperative, progressive folk. Many of us would probably uphold egalitarianism and democracy as key values. Yet most of our groups are organized in a way that we’d never tolerate in our governments or even, increasingly, in our workplaces.

Why is this? There are many possible explanations, but my hunch is that a big part of the reason we give teachers so much power is that we think that’s what Buddhism is. At least, a lot of us have come to assume that firm guidance by a wise teacher with an ancient lineage is part and parcel of the Buddhist tradition.

That impression is not entirely wrong: the enlightened master certainly is a fixture of many Buddhist traditions, as any encounter with koans will tell you. But it’s not the whole of Buddhist tradition. Buddhist tradition is vast and varied, and there are many different strands within it. One of these strands—albeit one we don’t hear much about—has a great deal to convey about democratic theory and practice. Moreover, this is no marginal, newfangled part of the tradition, but one that goes right back to some of the most ancient texts in the canon.

For some practitioners, democratic values may be enough in themselves for them to start taking steps to make their sanghas more democratic. To them, the fact that democracy has a place in Buddhist tradition will be neither here nor there. But I suspect that there will be more than a few Western Buddhists who still worry that moving away from what they see as time-honored forms of practice in a hierarchical environment will mean that they are no longer practicing Buddhism. That is simply not the case.

As for the rule, that when decisions are made, one should put into effect the opinion of the majority . . . ancient scriptures say . . . among three people to follow what two of them think. . . . This has become a good practice . . . from the past into our present.

These words were taken from a document held in a Japanese temple. The document is dated to 1355, and it comes from Gakuen-ji in Izumo Province, one of the oldest and largest monasteries in the country. What were these monks up to? Was their apparent enthusiasm for making decisions by majority voting just an exception, an eccentric departure from what other Buddhist temples were doing at the time?

Apparently not. As the German historian Markus Rüttermann has shown, several Japanese monasteries were making decisions by majority vote during the same period. The monks of Jingo-ji in Kyoto, for example, also made decisions facing the community by majority vote, according to a temple document dated to 1185. So the monks of Gakuen-ji were not a breakaway sect. They were representative of a common way of doing things among Japanese monastics from the 12th to 14th centuries.

Some will see this phenomenon as interesting enough in itself: a whole tradition of Buddhist monasticism where majority decision making was the norm! But skeptics about Buddhist democracy will want to ask more questions. For instance: was this Japanese tradition itself an anomaly, an aberration from the mainstream of Buddhist monastic practice?

Let’s look back at the words I have just quoted from Gakuen-ji. They don’t merely say that majority decision making is a “good practice.” They also say that it has been around for a long while, “from the past into our present.” And they claim that the practice is sanctioned by “ancient scriptures.”

Gakuen-ji temple in Izumo, Japan
Gakuen-ji in Izumo, Japan, where 14th-century monks made decisions by majority voting | JTB Media Creation, Inc./Alamy

Which ancient scriptures are these? It’s a good bet that the reference is to the vinaya—the set of scriptures relating to monastic practices, parts of which contain discussions of majority voting. Particularly interesting is the Fivefold Rules of Discipline, which tradition asserts was brought from Sri Lanka to China in the 5th century by the celebrated Chinese pilgrim Faxian (Fa-hsien), who translated it from Sanskrit.

The Rules of Discipline text outlines seven different techniques for resolving disagreements, among which is “finding out of the will of the majority.” It then describes several different areas of disagreement for which voting may be appropriate, at least under certain conditions. It also describes the use of voting sticks, which can be handed out and then counted.

As the German scholar Egon Flaig writes in his book on majority decision making (Die Mehrheitsentscheidung, 2013), similar discussions are found in the Pali vinaya, especially the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta, the Mahavagga, and the Culla- vagga, texts that became part of the canon by the 4th or 3rd century BCE. Flaig points out that they are the earliest texts we know outside Europe dealing with decision-making procedures.

In these texts, majority voting emerges as perhaps the central way in which decisions should be made within the monastic community. Voting is held by secret ballot (using voting sticks) or by show of hands, or by whispering one’s preference into another monk’s ear. It’s also laid down that a course of action is illegitimate if the assembly leader knows that the majority doesn’t agree with the decision being taken. At the same time, if there’s a dispute about how monastic rules are to be applied, the decision can be taken by a committee elected for the purpose as well as by a majority vote in the monastic assembly. When it comes to ordination, or for decisions of very personal nature, unanimity is recommended. The monastic assembly has a leader, furthermore, and he can strike down decisions if they threaten the unity of the sangha. And older monks can ask younger monks to relinquish their opposition if they think an important law is at stake.

All the same, the evidence for democracy within Buddhist monasteries is quite strong. Japanese monastic records show that majority voting (Japanese, tabun) was certainly practiced in Japan from the 12th to 14th centuries; and the vinaya texts suggest that this was not a new development but one in accordance with a tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of Buddhism.

Related: Is the Dharma Democratic?

Might this tradition go back even further than that? Egon Flaig thinks so. He suggests that democratic practices in early Buddhism grew out of the context of the republican city-states of ancient India, which flourished in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. They were often governed by a council of nobles (sabha) made up of male aristocrats, ruling either on its own or with the help of an assembly (samiti).

Were these city-states democracies? Much of the answer hangs on who got to attend their assemblies, which have been compared to the popular assemblies of ancient Greece. Unfortunately, the halls in which the ancient Indian assemblies were held could probably hold only around 500 people, far less than the 6,000 or so that could meet in the open-air assembly (ekklesia) of classical Athens. Rather than being a genuinely popular assembly, then, the samiti may have simply featured a slightly less restricted elite than the sabha. It’s true that some Greek sources, like the 1st-century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus, used the Greek word demokratia with reference to the Indian city-states. But by this point Greek authors had started to use the same word for any nonmonarchical or republican state. So Flaig is probably right to stop short of calling the Indian city-states democracies; he uses instead the term “para-democracies.”

More important, as Flaig himself admits, the Buddhist monasteries were more democratic than the Indian city-states in one crucial respect. Where the city-states had a council of nobles and a slightly less elite assembly, the Buddhist monasteries did away with the council of nobles, and made do with just an assembly. Moreover, it looks like their assemblies included all monks, not just an elite subset.

It may well be, then, that though the earliest Buddhists received some democratic ideas from the republican city-states of ancient India, they decided to go further along the democratic road themselves. In other words, the idea of doing things democratically in ancient India may have been not just something in the air. It may have been a distinctive part of Buddhism as a movement, right from the start.

That this may have been the case is hinted at in a Pali canonical text, Digha Nikaya 16, which relates how the chancellor of the king of Magadha comes to the Buddha to ask whether he should attack the confederation of the Vajii, a league of republican city-states.

The Buddha doesn’t respond directly, but notes that alongside a number of other positive practices the Vajii have frequent and well-attended assemblies, and he suggests that as long as they do, the king of Magadha will never conquer them. The idea that democracy is good partly because it helps you vanquish your enemies may not seem like a very Buddhist one. But in a fiercely competitive world like that of the ancient Indian city-states, there could have been no higher recommendation for the practices of popular rule.

There is, then, good evidence that democracy was something that Buddhists have long thought about and practiced. Indeed, Buddhists have been thinking about and practicing democracy as long as there have been Buddhists at all. It may even be the case that one of the things that made the earliest Buddhists distinctive was that they took democratic decision making further than anybody else.

For those of us who place importance on acting in accordance with tradition, there is no reason to reject democracy in our sanghas. Democratic practices such as making decisions by majority vote have at least as solid a place in Buddhist history as authoritarian practices such as dharma transmission.

Indeed, you could argue that Buddhist authoritarian practices were simply a reflection of the authoritarian institutions that have been the norm in many countries for much of human history. The democratic practices, by contrast, might plausibly be considered an intrinsic part of Buddhism as an intellectual and spiritual movement—a part that has been eclipsed or pushed to the side for too long.

Where does this leave us as practitioners? Well, it means that we now have a choice, even if we want to insist on cleaving to Buddhist tradition. Do we emphasize the more authoritarian parts of the tradition, or the more democratic ones?

If we emphasize the more democratic aspects of the tradition, we should probably not worry too much about what democracy looks like precisely in our individual communities. Electing leaders would be one way of doing it, as would taking votes on all key issues facing the community, following the lead of monasteries like Gakuen-ji.

But there are also any number of ways in which more democracy can be injected into a group. Service positions could be filled by pulling names out of a hat, for instance. In the group I currently sit with, the task of leading an evening session rotates through regular attendees on a weekly basis. In a group I used to sit with in San Francisco, a silver owl or a plastic bug (any object will do) was passed around, giving the person holding it the momentary right to uninterrupted speech.

I myself wouldn’t be surprised to find out that such practices are more common than we think; probably many small groups have set themselves up in a democratic way as a matter of course. We shouldn’t make the mistake of seeing this as the kind of thing that you do only if you aren’t a real Buddhist group that doesn’t know about sacred traditions like dharma transmission.

Conversely, those Buddhist institutions—and there are plenty of good ones—that do continue to uphold practices like dharma transmission should be aware that they represent thereby one part of the tradition—not Buddhist Tradition, period. They should also be aware that they can easily move away from such practices without being less Buddhist as a result.

And where does this leave me, half a decade on from the shock of my one-on-one encounter with that senior teacher? For a while, of course, I was put off the whole practice. After some thought, though, and some conversations with friends, I decided to take refuge after all, though with another teacher. And I don’t regret it.

Since leaving that community, I have sat with vipassana groups, Hindu-related meditation groups, and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). For a few years I was a fully signed-up member of a Zen group, but eventually the focus on the teacher was, once more, too much for me (even though that particular teacher seemed pretty down to earth).

Today I sit with a small group that professes no lineage or transmitted teacher. We meet on a basis of equality, as people who are interested in meditating together and talking about it afterward.

Is it a Buddhist group? I don’t necessarily see it like that, and we don’t signal that message to the outside world. More than anything else, it’s a group in which meditation is practiced, and most of that meditation proceeds in a Buddhist manner (rather than, say, a Christian or Hindu one).

At the same time, though, there’s nothing un-Buddhist about it. And it’s especially not the case that it’s un-Buddhist because we do things in an egalitarian way. There’s no reason to think that we’re not following Buddhism simply because we don’t have a teacher whom we look up to spiritually and in terms of decision making.

Actually, if I think about it at all, I feel that the earliest Buddhists, who clearly cared about democratic modes of organization, would approve of the way we do things. I feel as though we’re carrying on their tradition of spiritual equality, and that gives me a lot of contentment.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .