Dharmic citizenship

In a number of Buddhist traditions political activism is discouraged. Almost certainly this stance arises from their institutions’ heavy reliance on royal or other powerful patronage, which could be withdrawn if dharma practitioners translated their ethics into political convictions, let alone action. Typically, though, Buddhist hierarchs’ offering mass support for transgressive regimes – today’s Burma and Sri Lanka offer telling examples – has always been welcome.

The Buddhist rank and file’s engagement in critical political activism is typically condemned by the hierarchy in such countries as a form of egoism. ‘Back to your cushions! Turn your back on the world like a good arahant!’ goes the message.

In the west, we inherit a quite different tradition. Aristotle suggested that one wasn’t fully human if one wasn’t involved in civic and political affairs. You owe your involvement to the communities to which you belong and which underpin your way of life. Such involvement teaches you how the world works. To be politically active was a matter of coming of age, and civic virtue.

Aristotle contributed to a strand of (ancient and modern) political philosophy called civic republicanism. Nothing to do with being for or against monarchy, but everything to do with the idea that public affairs – res publica – should be transacted openly in public and by the public, that is, by the citizens. The polar opposite is tyranny; the (now much travestied) US constitution of 1787 rests on this foundation.

The Buddha’s own political community by birth – the Sakiyan republic – seems to have run on somewhat similar lines as the contemporaneous Greek city states, and evolved a similar doctrine of active civic virtue. (See the opening sections of the Parinibbana sutta, dealing with the Vajjians, to get a taste of it.)

To our modern democratic sensibilities, both the Sakiyan and Greek models fall short by making citizenship – the right and responsibility to participate in public life – so exclusive. Nonetheless they highlight the dignity and active responsibilities of citizens. The work of a citizen in ancient Athens was virtually a full-time job! And couch potatoes were considered contemptible know-nothings. The Greeks invented the word ‘idiot’ just for them.

The coming of universal suffrage in most western countries during the 20th century (Aotearoa New Zealand in the 19th) constituted the modern democratic revolution by simply spreading (at least in theory) that dignity and responsibility of citizenship.

So how do we stand in relation to the affairs of the political communities in which we’re enrolled as citizens at the federal, state and municipal levels? Virtually all political and policy questions raise ethical issues, not least ones to do with equity, justice, human rights, peace, environmental sustainability and climate change. As followers of an ethical path which must encompass these issues, we can’t remain passive and indifferent to them.

For those of us who’ve been exercising our democratic rights in Australia for a few years, this is a daunting thought. Let me give you two examples of where our democratically-elected government got completely out of line, ethically and legally, with ongoing devastating consequences: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and the continuing, traumatising incarceration of asylum seekers (together with the racist dog-whistling and xenophobia that government ministers have used to legitimate this policy, and the gratuitously cruel way with which it’s actually implemented).

We belong to the political community that elected the governments that have perpetrated these transgressions in our name.

It’s a heavy ethical burden to bear. We hardly cover ourselves with glory by remaining couch potatoes in the face of such enormities.

Then there are the more insidious but equally destructive governmental transgressions for which we bear ultimate responsibility, such as the defunding of women’s and children’s refuges at a time when the mass media are making us acutely aware of the death and trauma caused by domestic violence. On average, each week in Australia a woman is murdered by her domestic partner. State and federal governments are defunding other vital services, such as child protection, in the face of the crying need for them.

Then there’s the way that the federal government has done its damnedest to protect the coal industry by hobbling the development of renewable sources of energy while hypocritically boasting its commitment to curbing global warming. We still live with the threat that the Adani coal mine will win government approval – and a billion-dollar donation in our name.

Politics matters

Finally, as dharmic citizens, we must note an important difference between the Buddha’s time and ours. In the Buddha’s time the main calamities that people faced were droughts, floods, other natural disasters, diseases, epidemics, and myriad medical conditions that today are preventable or curable. They also faced an intractably much higher risk of violent death at the hands of warlords and other ruffians.

The wisest and kindest ruler in this world could do little about all this calamity (though the Emperor Ashoka, a Buddhist convert, gave it a damned good shot in India, in the third century BCE). Politics didn’t matter all that much back then.

Today, the situation could hardly be more different. On one influential calculation, 200 million people were killed during the 20th century as a result of government orders – in wars, genocides and massacres (‘democide’). Add to that the millions of victims of contrived famines – in the Ukraine, India and China for starters. Yet more millions die of starvation and preventable diseases because of the systemic maldistribution of food, drinkable water, health services, and pharmaceuticals. (Let us not forget in this context that the current Australian government makes a virtue of cutting its foreign aid budget in the name of fiscal responsibility.)

And still more millions will shortly have to leave their home countries through intergovernmental failure to take action against global warming and the consequent rise in sea levels. Will we show the millions of climate refugees kindness and hospitality – not just out of compassion, but from a sense of our own responsibility for their plight?

Nowadays politics matters like never before! Really matters! So get real about what it means to tread an ethical path. Be a dharmic citizen, not a couch potato!

• This talk was given to Kookaburra Sangha, Sydney, in March 2018. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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  1. Freida Maverick
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    What a timely and pointed article/talk. In this era of identity politics, I prefer to call myself a dharmic citizen rather than a secular Buddhist. Thanks Winton for this label. But to call myself a dharmic citizen implies that I’m not a couch potato (or an “idiot” lol), and that I’m “real about what it means to tread an ethical path” – I really want to be on this path! So I’m going to call myself a dharmic citizen and try to live up to this label to the best of my ability 🙂

  2. Michael Slott
    Posted September 1, 2018 at 1:51 am | Permalink


    Your admonition to Buddhist practitioners to become Dharmic citizens is on the mark. You make the basic point well: “Virtually all political and policy questions raise ethical issues….. As followers of an ethical path which must encompass these issues, we can’t remain passive and indifferent to them.”

    Let me just add a couple of points, not to disagree with what you said (my guess is that we probably agree on these points), but to lay out my sense of the connection between Buddhism and politics.

    The Buddha’s insights about how we suffer and how suffering can be mitigated provide us with some valuable guidelines for sustaining productive, political engagement over the long-term.

    First, to the extent that suffering (in all its dimensions) and the conditioned nature of our experience are recognized as pervasive, unavoidable facts of life, we are less likely to adopt a sectarian and/or utopian perspective premised on the notion of human perfection.

    Second, the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all beings and processes, allows us to better recognize that the outcome of political projects is mostly not in our control. We can engage passionately in a cause that we deeply believe in, but not be devastated by an outcome that we did not forsee or want.

    Third, the Buddhist understanding of the crucial role of the personal dimension in political activity is crucial. When we are aware of how certain emotions, such as rage and aggression, can negatively affect our political engagement, we are more likely to focus on our core goals and promote a sense of loving kindness and compassion among people.

    While these insights are tremendously important, I don’t think that Buddhism (whether in a secular or traditional form) provides either an overall analysis of social problems or an understanding of the essential elements of social change. For that, we need other perspectives, including humanistic Marxism, pragmatism, theories of participatory democracy, feminism, etc. As we try to figure out which theories and practices best promote human flourishing for all people, understanding and internalizing the insights noted above can help Buddhists play a productive role in this collective process of social transformation.


  3. Posted September 1, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Mike, for that very useful complement. I chafe a bit at the standard translation of dukkha as ‘suffering’. As the Buddha specifies it in the first discourse, the Pali word stands for the difficult and unavoidable aspects of the human condition. Dharma practice focuses not just on their amelioration, but also on understanding their human meaning. These days, given the much higher impact of bad social and political arrangements on people’s lives, we should add to the Buddha’s dukkha list (sickness, ageing, death, etc.) the destructive effects of these arrangements on billions of people’s lives: global warming, serial warmongering and genocide; institutionalised racism and sexism; relative deprivation; social exclusion; growing inequality; the global maldistribution of food, health care and clean water; and social injustice in all its forms.

    These additions to the dukkha-list all come within the purview of Buddhist ethics. Significantly, they’re all politically actionable as well. Buddhists and others of good will need to act on the basis of effective political programmes, not just sanctimonious virtue-signalling. And you’re dead right, we can’t simply extrapolate the contents of reforming programmes from Buddhist teachings alone. Your list of extra-dharmic sources in your last paragraph would recur in mine too. But I would add northern European social democracy as it developed before its capitulation to neoliberalism from the 1980s.

    Its outstanding exemplar in my view was Ernst Wigforss, who masterminded and drove the social-democratic breakthrough in Sweden from the 1930s. My friend Geoff Dow and I have tried to capture and reissue the essence of his politics in our book, Politics against pessimism: social democratic possibilities since Ernst Wigforss (2013). Though he wasn’t a Buddhist, he illustrates what an effective Buddhist political activist might look like. He hoovered up every reformist theory and ideology he could lay his hands on (including all those on your list, Mike), and baked them into a political programme and electoral platform that shattered the all-powerful conservative forces in his country. That programme subsequently worked in practice.

    Wigforss also modelled a virtue that, I suspect, many Buddhists would naively demur on: political efficacy. Political processes are highly conflictual and riddled with vested interests. The more ethical our cause is, the more energetically hegemonic interests will resist it in defence of the status quo, and the more serious we must be in outsmarting them and mobilising against them. Gandhi is the exception that proves the rule – that sweetness and light can never replace the will to win on a highly contested terrain.

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