Should a Buddhist Monastic hold Political Views: An Example from the Māgandiya-sutta


In 1963 Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term Engaged Buddhism.  This type of Buddhism asks certain question, for example, should the layman simply acquire merit and seek a better rebirth? Should the monk simply be a field of merit? Should not the layperson also meditate? Should the monastic also be involved in the world, even in politics?


Buddhism addresses the problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha). In the past the origins of dukkha are twofold: ‘craving’, characterised as greed hatred and delusion and ‘ignorance’, characterised as ignorance of the way things are (that there is suffering and that things are dependently originated). In this understanding there is nothing wrong with the world but with the way in which we perceive things. We perceive the world with greed, hatred and delusion. Social structures are, in a way, part of the problem: they enforce craving and ignorance.

Engaged Buddhism analyses social structures and finds that suffering may originate from them. It identifies certain political, economic and social institutions as manifestations of greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddhist can then strive for social liberation.

The Māgandiya-sutta

Thich Nhat Hanh held that ‘views’ (diṭṭhi) are central to his social engagement. But there is clearly something uneasy about the notion of social engagement in that the holding of opinions, beliefs and views (political or religious), could clearly become an object of attachment. To act socially, politically and religiously is surely to act with the aim of changing social and political structures, to fight for what one thinks will be a better system. Clearly strong views and beliefs are required. What does Buddhism have to say about this dilemma?

In the Māgandiya-sutta (Sn 835-847), which is from the Aṭṭhakavagga, the Buddha informs Māgandiya that purity is not got by views, learning or knowledge, or by precepts and vows, nor by absence of these.[1]  It is by detachment and non-dependence that one achieves calm.  Māgandiya contends that if purity is not found by means of views, learning or knowledge, or by virtuous conduct and vows, nor by absence of these then the teaching is ‘foolish’ (momuhameva, Sn 840). The Buddha replies:

‘Dependent upon view, inquiring, Māgandiya, […] you have become infatuated in respect of what has been grasped, and hence you have not even the slightest notion (of what I am talking about).  Therefore you regard (it) as foolish.’[2]

The sutta then goes on to explain the cognitive process of those free from attachment:

‘One who has knowledge does not become proud because of view or thought, for he is not like that.  He cannot be influenced by action or thought, for he is not like that.  He cannot be influenced by action or learning; he is not led into attachments (to views).

There are no ties for one who is devoid of apperceptions.  There are no illusions for one who is released through wisdom.  But those who have grasped apperception and view wander in the world, causing offence.’[3]

This, I think, is the same attitude realised by those who practice the ‘view that is noble and emancipating’ (diṭṭhi ariyā niyyānikā).  One could argue that passages such as these are explaining the vision of the one who is ‘accomplished in view’ (diṭṭhi-sampanna).  It describes the stream-entrant who has no-views in the sense of having no craving for views.  It is in this setting that we should understand the advice to adopt right-view and abandon wrong-view.  Right-view is the expression of the cessation of craving, not the adoption of a correct proposition.  Right-view is not a doctrine itself, but should be understood as correct knowledge of doctrine.

There are clearly some issues at stake in the understanding I am arguing for.  I will attempt to address one of these.  In a discussion of the nature of nirvāṇa Paul J. Griffiths has considered the problems involved in a proposition that is not intended to state a position, which is not intended to become a view.  It can propose (for example, a course of action), but must not be susceptible to craving and attachment.  He discusses the dilemma faced by the Buddhist who states that ‘all views about nirvāṇa are false’ having to concede that this is false because ‘all views about nirvāṇa are false’.  Stated differently Griffiths is considering the dilemma that the statement ‘all views are false’ is a false view, because ‘all views are false’.[4]  However the Buddhist position, it seems to me, expresses the knowledge that ‘all craving leads to dukkha’ and this itself is right-view.  I think it is this process that the texts are describing.  Whether we think that this is a tenable position, is, perhaps, besides the point.

Buddhist Social and Political Engagement

It is in this context that one might begin to understand the nuances of Engaged Buddhism and the lessons offered by parts of the Buddhist Canon on how a Buddhist can be socially engaged.

Clearly there is a subtle way in which the Buddhist can have opinions and beliefs about social and political structures and can use them as guiding principles in social engagement. However, as rigid positions or beliefs they collapse and embody dukkha itself.

[1] na diṭṭhiyā na sutiyā na ñāṇena (māgandiyāti bhagavā)

silabbatenāpi na suddhimāha,

adiṭṭhiyā asasutiyā añaṇā

asilatā abbatā nopi tena, Sn 839.

[2] diṭṭhiñca nissāya anupucchamāno […]

samuggahitesu pamohamāga

ito ca nāddakkhi aṇumpi saññaṃ

tasma tuvaṃ mohuhato dahāsi, Sn 841.

[3]na vedagu diṭṭhiyā na mutiyā

sa mānameti na hi tammayo so,

na kamamunā nopi sutena teyyo

anupanito sa- nivesanesu. 

saññā cirattassa na santi gatthā

paññā vimuttassa na satti mohā,

saññaca diṭṭiñca ye aggahesuṃ

te ghaṭṭayantā- vicaranti loketi, Sn 846-47.

[4] Griffiths, On Being Mindless, p. 157, note 63.


3 thoughts on “Should a Buddhist Monastic hold Political Views: An Example from the Māgandiya-sutta

  1. Very interesting, but could do with a proofread to fix typographical, spelling and grammatical errors. I’d happily distribute it further if those were fixed up.

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