Buddhism and democracy

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The relationship between Buddhism and democracy has a long history with many scholars claiming the very foundations of Buddhist society were democratic.[1][2] Though some historic Buddhist societies have been categorized as a feudalistic, it can be argued that the relationship between peasants and land owners was often voluntary. Free thinking Buddhist societies supported autonomy. Peasants had mobility and could own land themselves.[3]

Modern views[edit]

14th Dalai Lama believes that both Buddhism and Democracy share a common viewpoint saying "not only are Buddhism and democracy compatible, they are rooted in a common understanding of the equality and potential of every individual."[4] He believes that the ancient Sangha functioned democratically.[5]

Mipham Chokyi Lodro, the 14th Shamar Rinpoche, wrote a book, "Creating a Transparent Democracy" in 2006. Shamarpa proposes a transparent democracy where each citizen has self reliance and empowerment through a decentralized government system. Rather than a top-down control system, in which power flows down from national, to state to city, the system builds from village level up. Local units on the village level, combine to form the higher levels of government as well.[6] The system relies on the banning of all propaganda, the dissolving of political parties[7] and an education system that teaches competence in governance to all citizens. Transparency and self-reliance are indeed Buddhist values, but also universal... Where Shamarpa's proposal becomes distinctly Buddhist is his definition of the function of law. Protections are provided to the (1) Earth, natural environment, (2) human beings, and (3) animals. The Earth itself serves as the model for an ideal government, and it is the international community's responsibility to protect the natural environment.[8]

David Kaczynski believes that Buddhism and Democracy need each other saying:

The ideal of democracy in the West, with its emphasis on process, inclusiveness and human dignity, is imbued with many of the qualities and insights of the dharma....Can there be a truly democratic politics without dharma in the broad sense? Is there anything more needed in public life than the dharma?[9]


Early Buddhism[edit]

The spread of Buddhism led to the spread of Democratic values throughout Asia.[10] Kurt Kankan Spellmeyer stated Buddhism and Democracy have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning.

Links between the dharma and democracy have intrigued scholars for generations. Tribes like the Buddha’s could be found everywhere in the 6th century BCE, but the Shakyas stand out because their form of government strikingly resembles that of ancient Athens. According to Buddhist sources, the Shakya republic was governed from its capital, Kapilavasthu, by an assembly (the parishad) of five hundred citizens. Though not as large as the Athenian assembly (with its quorum of six thousand for major decisions), the Shakyan legislature needed an officer to manage the proceedings and so elected a raja, something like our Speaker of the House.[1]

Egon Flaig concurs claiming that early Buddhist practices were an outgrowth from republican city-states of ancient India.[2] He describes them as "often governed by a council of nobles (sabha) made up of male aristocrats, ruling either on its own or with the help of an assembly (samiti)."[2] Ajahn Brahm claims "the longest sustaining democracy in the world in the Buddhist sangha."[11]


The Aggañña Sutta of the Pali Canon introduces a figure named "Mahāsammata" (Pali; lit. "the Great Elect") as the first monarch. The scripture elaborates on the formation of civilization that occurred with the adoption of ownership. As theft became a major societal concern, it was decided that an ruler should be elected to ensure the punishment of evil and preservation of righteousness.

Mahāsammata is also said to have been responsible for the establishment of caste and law.

Later Buddhism[edit]

German historian Markus Rüttermann has found in the 12th through the 14th centuries "several Japanese monasteries were making decisions by majority vote."[2] B. R. Ambedkar believed Buddhism to be a Democratic religion which led to his conversion[12] and founding of the Navayana school of Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

There are many fine examples of Buddhist values integrating with government process to produce transparent democratic states. However, when religious leaders serve as government administrators, without forfeiting their religious authority, the result can be unchecked power. After the 16th century in Tibet, Buddhist leaders were inseparable from government administrators. The concept of samayas, vows to the guru, became a tool for suppressing people's rights and manipulating political authority.[13]

Shamar Rinpoche of the Karma Kagyu Lineage saw religion and politics as working against each other in Tibet. Lamas as ruling class gave the country enduring structure and order, but many people put unquestioning faith in their spiritual leaders, with very little room for critical judgement of political decisions. These concerns were put forward by Shamarpa at a meeting in Varanasi India in 1998, called by the Dalai Lama. The meeting was attended by heads of Tibetan schools as an effort to better the future of Tibetans.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Spellmeyer, Kurt. "Is the Dharma Democratic?". Archived from the original on December 1, 2017. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d Kierstead, James (2018). "Democratic from the Start". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Archived from the original on February 5, 2018. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  3. ^ http://www.columbia.edu/itc/ealac/barnett/pdfs/link3-coleman-ch3-4.pdf
  4. ^ Gyatso, Tenzin (January 1999). "Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy". Journal of Democracy. 10 (1): 3–7. doi:10.1353/jod.1999.0005.
  5. ^ Gyatso, Tenzin (April 1993). "Buddhism and Democracy". Dalailama.com. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  6. ^ Shamar Rinpoche. "Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model."Bird of Paradise Press (2006) pp. 1–8
  7. ^ Shamar Rinpoche. "Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model."Bird of Paradise Press (2006) pp. 13
  8. ^ Shamar Rinpoche. "Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model."Bird of Paradise Press (2006) pp. 11–12
  9. ^ Kaczynski, David (October 21, 2016). "Why Democracy Needs Dharma". Lion's Roar. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  10. ^ Leidecker, Kurt; Kirthisinghe, Buddhadasa P. "Buddhism and Democracy: Two Essays" (PDF). Buddhist Publication Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 25, 2013. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  11. ^ Brahm, Ajahn (December 14, 2017). "Why the Buddhist Sangha is the World's Oldest Democracy". YouTube. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  12. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (December 13, 2017). "Ambedkar, Buddhism and Democracy". The Wire. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  13. ^ Shamar Rinpoche. "Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model."Bird of Paradise Press (2006) pp. 17-18
  14. ^ Yeshe Dronma, "The Reincarnations of the Kunzig Shamarpa the Red Crown Lama of Tibet". Dorje and Bell Publication (1992) pp.50-51

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Shamar Rinpoche. "Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model."Bird of Paradise Press (2006). ISBN 978-0996505918