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Can a Buddhist Monk Be President?

Updated on December 4, 2009

Strange things are happening. I just read - at,8748,0,0,1,0

- that a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, Battaramulle Seelaratana Thera, intends to run for president in the country next January.

It's the first time in the country this has happened, and there are very good reasons it hasn't happened before, if you consider how a Buddhist monk is supposed to behave, and the example of the Buddha himself.

According to tradition, the Buddha had been born a prince and destined to inherit the throne from his father; but had actually run away from home to avoid this "honour", as he thought power and wisdom can't be combined.

The Venerable Battaramulle Seelaratana Thera seems to do exactly the opposite.

When the Buddha organized the first Buddhist community, he did it in such a way that the monks should concentrate at their training in ethics, concentration and wisdom. For their physical survival, they should be completely dependent on the laity, who could give them alms if they thought the monks deserved it, nothing if they didn't.

So all economical matters were to be the business of the laymen.

Which means a Buddhist monk can't sit in a political body deciding about economical matters.

At least if he respects the code of his own behaviour.

Not all do. A group of monks have actually managed to join the Sri Lankan parliament. I don't know if this is against the letter of their rules, the Vinaya, but it certainly is against its spirit.

Now, a Buddhist monk does not need to remain a monk for life. He can revert to lay life whenever he wishes to, and then he won't be bound by the monks' rules any more, and there is no pope whose permission he must ask for.

But he must be either or; he can't both keep the rice and curry and eat it. If a monk first disrobes and then candidates for parliament or the presidency, this is all right; but if he tries to become an MP or a President while still a monk, that is very wrong.

In the Tibetan tradition, this principle has been forgotten long ago, as witnessed by the institution of the Dalai Lama, who - with all respect for the personality of the present DL - is actually not quite a monk as long as he is leading a government, even if it is just a government in exile.

But the Theravada tradition of South and South East Asia takes a pride in being more orthodox than the Tibetans, Chinese and Japanese.

So perhaps the Lankans should try to understand there own tradition a little better.

And not vote for people who dress like monks while behaving like laymen.

See also my earlier hubs


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