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Buddhism and Politics

Interviewee: Paul Harrison
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria
April 9, 2008

From Myanmar to Tibet, saffron-robed monks have been taking to the streets in protest against political repression. Paul Harrison, a professor of Buddhist studies at Stanford University, discusses Buddhist teachings and the acceptable role of monks in politics. “Direct involvement in political activity, strictly speaking, is not sanctioned,” he says. Although non-violence is a primary tenet of Buddhism, Harrison says there has been an emergence of militancy among the religion’s followers since the beginning of the twentieth century. “To some extent,” he says “this is a testimony to the situation in many Buddhist countries where previously things were not so bad in terms of political oppression.” Therefore, members of the sangha, the Buddhist order, he says, feel obliged to take up the struggle to improve the situation of the people.

Harrison says from the nineteenth century on, the role of members of the sangha has been redefined as new forms of Buddhism began to emerge. While some believe it is the proper duty of the members of the order to engage in social activity in order to improve the lot of the people, he says, others hold on to the traditional idea of strict abstinence from such activities. One of the major challenges faced by religion going forward, he says, will be the status of the Buddhist order in society. Previously, he says, the religion had great prestige as well as a lot of resources, but that is “no longer to be assumed.”


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