Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?


In the study of Buddhism it has often been noted that the teachings do not point to the changing of the world, but to changing our perception of it – there is nothing wrong with the world but the way we perceive the world. The problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha) is not ultimately to do with the world, but with the fact that people tend to grasp and become attached to all sorts of things. The world is seen with greed, hatred and delusion. This aspect of Buddhist teachings suggests that Buddhist doctrines should not be used to change the world, but to change the way we view the world.They should be used to lessen greed, hatred and delusion and, in so doing, solve the problem of dukkha. What is needed is a way of seeing that reduces and eradicates craving. I would like to consider these ideas and conclude with some comments on how this might affect our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism.

Let me use the Abhidhamma to explore these ideas. Throughout book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an evaluation is given of certain ways of apprehending the world. In the following I would like to focus upon one aspect of what I think the text is describing. Put simply this is that the world can be apprehended with or without craving. This aspect of Buddhist thought has been noted by Steven Collins, who has suggested that this reflects something of a dichotomising tendency within early Buddhism:


‘Anything with conceptual or experiential content was to be assimilated to the impersonal, non-valued side of the dichotomy; since in this sphere everything was dominated by desire and grasping, anything with content became potentially graspable. Against this stood the empty unconditioned nibbāna, susceptible neither to conceptualising nor grasping.’[1]


Buddhism is, at it were, concerened with different orders of seeing, between the graspable, and the ungraspable, between concepts and emptiness, beteen attachment and non-attachment, between craving and calmness. I would like to look at the Dhammasaṅgaṇi to see how it considers this apparent dichotomy. Book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi,the Nikkhepa-kaṇḍaṃ, begins with the following question:


‘Which ‘things’ (dhammas. I leave the term untranslated in the following) are wholesome?
The three roots of the wholesome:Absence of greed, hatred and delusion;The four ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[2] of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are wholesome dhammas’.[3]


With reference to the khandhas, I take this to imply that, when they are seen in their true nature, i.e. as not-self, they are wholesome (this is sammā-diṭṭhi).


The next question asked is:


‘Which dhammas are unwholesome?
The three roots of the unwholesome:Greed, hatred and delusion;The defilements (kilesā) united with them;The four khandhas of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are unwholesome dhammas.’[4]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is clearly stating that the four mental khandhas are unwholesome when they are associated with ‘greed’, ‘hatred’ and ‘delusion’ (lobha, dosa, moha). [5] In this analysis it must be remembered that in the Nikāya and Abhidhamma analysis the term khandha is a neutral term, but the khandhas can become associated with (are indeed prone to), corruption. Primarily they are prone to give rise to the corruption of ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) which distorts the way things really are. Rupert Gethin has commented on the nature of the khandhas in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma:


‘The term upādānakkhandha signifies the general way in which the khandhas are bound up with upādāna; the simple khandha, universally applicable, is used in the nikāyas and especially the Abhidhamma texts as a neutral term, allowing the specific aspects of, for example, upādāna’s relationship to the khandhas to be elaborated.’[6]


The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is using the khandhas in its explanation of two ways of apprehending the world, one ‘wholesome’ (kusala), and one ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). These ideas suggest that the text is attempting to explain two attitudes to the world found in the dichotomy suggested by Collins. The same reality is seen, but the one based on non-attachment is wholesome, and the other, based on attachment, giving rise to corruptions, is unwholesome.


One could state that in this particular understanding of the Buddha’s teachings the entire engaged Buddhism agenda appears fundamentally flawed. Socially engaged Buddhism begins with the premise that suffering is not only caused by mental reactions to external events, but that external events – social, political and economic, for example – can be the cause of suffering. For the engaged Buddhist suffering is not only psychological, to be overcome by such techniques as meditation, but finds its causes in a wide variety of factors. Political struggle, among other things, can then be used as a technique to overcome suffering. I’m not suggesting that either interpretation is correct. They appear to me to both be valid and to have support from different parts of the tradition. I would suggest that the teachings I am considering here offer a criticism, and one that perhaps needs to be addressed, of socially engaged Buddhism. As I have heard it suggested – to think that Buddhism has a political message is ‘wishful thinking’.



[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 113.

[2] I shall return to the use of four khandhas below.

[3] katame dhammā kusalā? tīṇi kusalamūlāni: alobho adoso amoho taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃ samuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā kusalā, Dhs 180, :981. All references to the Dhs are given by page then paragraph numbers.

[4] katame dhammā akusalā? tīṇi akusalamūlāni: lobho doso moho, tadekaṭṭhā ca kilesā taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃsamuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā akusalā, Dhs 180, :982.

[5] The text finally defines those dhammas that are indeterminate (avyākatā), which is not essential for the present discussion: katame dhammā avyākatā kusalākusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipākā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā arūpāvacarā apariyāpannā, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, ye ca dhammā kiriyā n’ eva kusalā nākusalā na ca kammavipākā, sabbaṃ ca rūpaṃ, asaṃkhatā ca dhātu. ime dhammā avyākatā, Dhs 180, :983.

[6] Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 14 (1986), 35-53 (p. 39).


2 thoughts on “Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?

  1. Just to recap for myself, because I think this a well written blog about two sides to Buddhist traditions. Can you please elaborate more on the the statement “wishful thinking” there at the end of your last paragraph? Do you agree or disagree? Thanks. Keep blogging!

  2. Thanks for your comment, and kind words. A number of years ago a leading academic, who I will not name as I have not discussed it with him recently, said this to me. His idea, which I did disagree with at the time, was that to suppose that one will find any sort of coherent and useful social and political message in early Indian Buddhist philosophy, or in the textual tradition, is ‘wishful thinking’. It would be ‘nice’ if such a teaching were found, but it is not.

    Since then I have taught University courses on engaged Buddhism and I think the issue is very complex, and it depends on where we look for social engagement. Unlikely in the ascetic based early Indian tradition, but very possible in other aspects, historical and social, of Buddhism. There is also the notion that ascetic doctrines, soteriological in nature, might be used politically.

    Thanks for stimulating some discussion!

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