Can Buddhists Engage in Military or Political Activities?

Buddhism is not a politicized religion, so Buddhists do not have political ambitions. But politics concerns administration of public affairs, and as members of the general public, Buddhists cannot live independently of politics.

Politics includes both political rights and the power to govern; political rights belong to the people and the power to govern pertains to the government. Buddhists are at least are entitled to all their political rights, and should exercise their rights of election, recall, initiative, and referendum.[1] In recent Chinese history, the words of the eminent Master Taixu that [monastic] Buddhists should “concern themselves with political affairs but not hold [appointed] office” are worthy of consideration.[2] Monks’ and nuns’ responsibilities are to practice and teach the Dharma, so it is not appropriate for them to hold and execute political power. But they should exercise their political rights, especially when it concerns matters of their immediate concern. According to this principle, monastics should be allowed to vote and to run for elected office in order to offer the opinions of Buddhists regarding national development. Otherwise, Buddhists’ rights and interests would be ignored. Similarly, we can see that Śākyamuni himself often gave valuable advice to kings and ministers. Of course, for those monastics who are urgently seeking to escape from the three realms, even political rights can be forsaken. Unfortunately, in today’s society, you can hardly escape obligatory service to the government even if you go to secluded places deep in the mountains!

Lay Buddhists, on the other hand, may engage in military or political work. A lay Buddhist with ideals, aspirations, and enthusiasm should contribute what she can in any way at any level.

But according to the precepts formulated by the Buddha, monks and nuns may only expound the Dharma to people serving in the military, and cannot themselves join the military. If the law forces monastics to join the military, it is equivalent to coercing them to return to lay life. At this time [1965], the law does not exclude monks from compulsory military duty.[3] This is because Chinese Buddhists have not stood up for themselves. Although there is a Buddhist association, it is not well organized,[4] and no minimum qualifications have been set for becoming a monastic. No concrete proposals or sincere requests have been presented for the government to consider. In Thailand, this kind of problem was resolved long ago with laws that exempt monks from military service without allowing people to avoid military service by posing as a monk. In the United States, Christians from two denominations opposed to military service, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Society of Friends [Quakers], have been exempted from military duty. Instead, they have served as chaplains in the military or as volunteers in important civil services.[5]


  1. These are the four rights guaranteed by article 17 of the ROC (Taiwanese) constitution. For an online English translation, see http://www.gio.gov.tw/info/news/constitution.htm#sec2. Trans.
  2. In an article published in the July 1946 issue of the Jianjueshe Weekly (vol.1, no.1), titled “The San˙gha and Politics” (sēngqié yuˇ zhèngzhì 僧伽與政治), Taixu makes the statement above in reference to monastics. In Taixu’s view, monastics should participate in political affairs as all citizens are entitled to do, and even serve as elected representatives that perform advisory and legislative functions. However, Taixu believed that monastics should not hold appointed office (performing judicial or executive functions), which among other things would be too time-consuming and might require them to directly violate monastic precepts, e.g., in punishing criminals or using military force. His article is reprinted in Taixu 1970b. Trans.
  3. Previously, all Taiwanese men who passed health requirements were required to perform military service. But starting in 2000, it became permissible to apply to do other forms of national service for reasons of religious belief. By 2003, such nonmilitary service typically involved performing social, environmental, medical, or educational work for a period of thirty-three months. (Men performing military service did so for only twenty-two months.) Applications for nonmilitary service required at least two years’ commitment to a religion, extensive documentation, certification from a registered religious institution, and an interview. However, recently Taiwan has been moving in the direction of ending all mandatory military service. As of November 2006, military service was only sixteen months, and nonmilitary service, which was also possible for reasons other than religious faith, was only sixteen to twenty months. For current policies, see the webpages of the Conscription Agency on the Ministry of Interior’s website (http://www.moi.gov.tw/home/). Trans.
  4. This association is the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China(baroc). For details, see Jones 1999, 137–77; Sheng Yen’s critique of the baroc is given on p. 175. Trans.
  5. For more on the situation in America regarding alternatives to military service, see Rosten 1955. Author.

SOURCE:

Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A Contemporary Chan Master's Answers to Common Questions. (2007)
by Master Sheng Yen | Translated by Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang. | ISBN 978-1-55643-657-4

ADDITIONAL NOTES ON SOURCE:

Lists of errata, suggested changes and comments by Douglas Gildow