The Buddha came from a warrior caste and was naturally brought into association with kings, princes, and ministers. Despite his origin and association, he never resorted to the influence of political power to introduce his teaching, nor did he allow his teaching to be misused for gaining political power. But today, many people try to drag the Buddha’s name into politics. They have forgotten that the new political philosophy as we know it really developed in the West long after the Buddha’s time. They must remember that the Buddha was the supremely enlightened one who had gone beyond all worldly concerns.
There is an inherent problem in trying to intermingle religion with politics. The basis of religion is morality, purity, and faith, while that of politics is power. In the course of history, religion has often been used to give legitimacy to those in power and their exercise of that power. Religion was used to justify wars and conquests, persecutions, atrocities, rebellions, destruction of works of art and culture. When religion is used to pander to political whims, it forgoes its high moral ideals and becomes debased by worldly political demands.
The thrust of the Buddha-dharma is not directed at the creation of new political institutions and establishing political arrangements. Basically, it seeks to approach the problems of society by reforming the individuals constituting that society and by suggesting some general principles through which the society can be guided toward greater humanism, improved welfare of its members, and more equitable sharing of resources.
There is a limit to the extent to which a political system can safeguard the happiness and prosperity of its people. No political system, no matter how ideal it may appear to be, can bring about peace and happiness as long as the people in the system are dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion. In addition, no matter what political system is adopted, there are certain universal factors that the members of that society will have to experience: the effects of good and bad karma, and the lack of real satisfaction or everlasting happiness in samsara—a world characterized by dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), and anatta(egolessness). To the Buddhist, nowhere in samsara is there real freedom.
Although a good and just political system that guarantees basic human rights and contains checks and balances to the use of power is an important condition for a happy society, people should not fritter away their time by endlessly searching for the ultimate political system in which people can be completely free, because complete freedom cannot be found in any system but only in minds that are free. To be free, people will have to look within their own minds and work toward freeing themselves from the chains of ignorance and craving that keep them in bondage. Freedom in the truest sense is only possible when a person uses dharma to develop his character through good speech and action and to train his mind so as to expand his mental potential and achieve his ultimate aim of enlightenment. Reforms imposed by force upon the external world have a very short life because they have no roots. But those reforms that spring from the transformation of inner consciousness remain rooted.
This does not mean that Buddhists cannot or should not get involved in the political process, which is a social reality. The lives of the members of a society are shaped by laws, regulations, and economic arrangements that are influenced by the political arrangements of that society. Nevertheless, if a Buddhist wishes to be involved in politics, he should not misuse religion to gain political powers, nor is it advisable for those who have renounced the worldly life to lead a pure, religious life, to be actively involved in politics. A stanza from theDhammapada best summarizes this sentiment: “The path that leads to worldly gain is one, and the path that leads to nibbana by leading a religious life is another.”