Several days ago there was an article in Channel News Asia about the Thai government upset at monks joining the ongoing Red Shirt Rally in Bangkok. Apparently the Prime Minister has warned monks to stay away from the protests.
In fact monks are like any other Thai – they have opinions too. The reason Thailand keeps them away from politics is to stop popular teaching monks using their ‘moral credentials’ to sway voters for one party or another. It is probably a good idea.
This comes from the time of the Buddha. Monks were those who left the householders life, and their involvement therein. They went to the forests to meditate and pursue enlightenment, and not politics. As the Buddha himself was a prince of a minor semi-independent kingdom, there were political nuances for him too. He was keen to keep the monks order independent of the politics of the day.
Chiefly, the ‘politics of the day’ meant the families of Ariyan Bloodline that ruled the various kingdoms of the area. There was always intrigue, alliance, arranged marriages and the like. Once ordained monks had to stay out of it, and give up their old positions. Famously when a group of 5 of the Buddha’s high born relatives ordained, they had their barber ordain first so he would be senior to them (monk’s seniority goes by time since ordination).
Modern day Sangha’s do get involved in politics to some level. In Sri Lanka temples and teachers support various political parties, though there is a natural distance between their religious authority and their political sympathies. When they give dhamma talks they will always be based directly on stanzas from the Pali canon, which are then expanded and explained. Such talks then are not politically driven – such views are presented separately.
Thai temples also support Red or Yellow shirt ideals. Just ask about, and most people will have an idea of which temples support which group – though the view is as likely to be wrong as correct. But gladly the monks limit their support to private conversations, and do not make public declarations.
Monks feel that even if they should not be involved in party politics, they are quite free to take a moral stance, which is why so many have joined the Red Shirt rally over the last few weeks. Naturally, where the line is drawn between politics and morality is very flexible….
You may not however know, that the Buddha also took a moral stance in the politics of his era. At one point his home city of the Sakyan Kingdom was at odds with their neighbours the Koliyan clan. The arguement was over water rights, as a shared dam had run short of water and the two kingdoms took arms against each other. In fact, though the Buddha was from the Sakyan side of the water, the Koliyans were a closely related Ariyan kingdom, with much intermarriage between the two. They were both also vassal states of the much larger city of Kosala.
As the two armies came to clash, the Buddha went and sat between them. He told them their blood was worth more than water, and the armies laid down their weapons and the crisis was over.
Later on, in the last year of his life, the Sakyan Kingdom got into another scrape – this time with the much bigger and more powerful Kosala kingdom. The Sakyans had offended the mighty prince of Kosala, by giving him as a bride a woman who was only half from the Ariyan bloodline, and half slave woman. His army moved to attack the Sakyans, and once again the Buddha went to sit between the two armies. The angry king withdrew his forces, but came again the next day. Three times the Buddha sat between the armies, and on the fourth day, he withdrew, and his home city was destroyed.
So even the Buddha got involved in politics on moral grounds, setting a precedent for today’s struggle in Thailand. When he sat between the two armies, the bare-branch tree he sat under was on the Sakyan territory. The attacking king, who also respected the Buddha, asked why he was sitting on the Sakyan side. “The shade of ones relatives is cooler” he replied.
So rightly or wrongly the monks feel they can go and sit on the side they feel is morally right.
Click here for the full story on the Buddha’s stand between the armies, compiled directly from the Sutta commentaries.