Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Whither to separate - the religious and the political roles?

This is about the issue of whether religion should be separate from politics. It is a difficult topic and goes beyond Buddhism. Even in Buddhism, the issue is not limited to Tibet alone. There are many Buddhist monks who also took to the streets to show their political support either as pro or anti-government. Hence in this blog, I shall confine my discussion to the situation in Tibet but mindful that the same principle could be applied elsewhere if appropriate. Firstly I would urge my dharma brothers and sisters to exercise more forbearance in being updated on the issue of Tibet. When people say they want dharma and politics to be segregated, I really am not sure what they mean. Do you mean …

- You do not care about what happens to the Tibetans because it has nothing to do with us, and that you do not wish to receive any posts or messages regarding Tibet-China liberation issue in this Vajrayana Penang forum?
- Or, you do not mind anyone posting issues on Tibet-China liberation issues but only want to receive the messages sparingly?
- Or, are people unhappy that HH the Dalai Lama and HH the Karmapa are playing both the roles of spiritual as well as regarded by most Tibetans as their political leaders?

The real issue is this: if your country is facing wars or being oppressed by another country, is it right for monks/nuns/ and other religious people to say that “well, I am a dharma practitioner… I will have nothing to do with whatever happens to my country. The country can go to the dumps but I will have nothing to do with it. Let other people fight and die for the country but I will not participate. Religious people like me will have nothing to do with the politics of the country.” Is this attitude correct?

What do you mean when people say “to segregate religions and politics”? Do these people mean that during a general election, monks and nuns do not need to come and vote and select the next government? I think that as long as you live in that country, you will have a responsibility to ensure a responsible government is elected. Otherwise, a bad government will affect religious practice. Everything affects everything else. That’s the theory of inter-dependent factors, as far as I understand it. It is not right to remain a pacifist in certain situations. But yet in certain other situations it may be more right to remain a pacifist. It depends on what is the situation and we have to use our judgment. Being too involved in politics may affect our dharma practice, i.e. if we are serious into attaining enlightenment. But we cannot really totally abstain from it too. Like it or not, we cannot leave it entirely to the politicians. In our country, we elect them. In countries where they do not have elections, they may resort to other ways such as over-throwing them by force. Even during the Buddha’s time, Sakyamuni Buddha took the risk and tried to stop the forces of Magadha from annihilating the Sakya kingdom. If you ask me, I will say at that moment, the Buddha was playing the role of political peace-maker, but in a religious way. He did not say “I am a monk, a renunciate…the kingdom and clan is not my problem anymore”. And I would say that that’s exactly the role that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also trying to play now with regard the issue of Tibet.

Someone has to play that role in politics whether he/she is a religious person or not. In trying to segregate politics from religion, are we saying that politicians cannot be practicing people as well? They cannot be a religious person? So what do people mean when they want religions to be separate from politics? What the real issue that is bothering you? The issue of when religious persons should step in and participate in political decisions is never clear cut. A lot of times there will be no clear boundary to demarcate each side. I do not think it is a case of not being able to play both roles. Rather it is about playing both roles clearly and responsibly, if at all anyone needs to play both religious and political roles. Unfortunately, I admit that history did indicate to us that even Tibetans were not able to play both roles very well (for instance, when a few of the previous Dalai Lamas died in mysterious circumstances). Also, a person who plays both roles will be subjected to the risk of being very convenient for critics to blame a religious decision as a political one. The dhogyal issue is perceived by some as a case in point even though the Dalai Lama critics may argue it is indeed a political issue, rather than a religious one. The debate continues till today.

In conclusion, the issue of whether to separate the religious role from the political is not as easy as it may seem. But what is clear is that we should not have a rigid mind that have only one way of thinking. We must try to be more inclusive and expand our compassion to include the struggles of people from other countries. For me, as a mark of gratitude to the ancient Buddhist lamas who were in ancient Tibet, I have always respected their struggles even though I have also resisted being disrespectful to both Tibetan and Chinese side. On the other hand, if we feel that we are being bombarded too frequently with messages about “Free Tibet”, then that is a different issue and can be handled easily. But is it the messages that are bothering us or the person sending them? I confess that I do not always read every email sent to me. If we delete it without opening the mail, soon every mail from that person automatically goes into the spam folder. So, that takes care of these mails, without me generating unwholesome karma with anyone. And the bottom line is that we must be clear what is bothering us. Again it is being clear about the questions – “what is the real issue?” and “why is it disturbing our mind?” Making bodhisattva aspirations are good but do you have the skill to be one? Being skilful with how we deal with various situations and various beings in life is a necessary skill of a bodhisattva-to-be. It needs honing over time. Mine definitely needs a lot of honing. I will leave the closing remarks as that. Thank you.

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