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Prof. Geoff Gallop: Buddhism & Australian Society

Keynote Address by Professor Geoff Gallop for the Australian Sangha Association AGM, Canberra, 10 July 2008

I have been asked to speak to you today about how Buddhists (in particular Buddhist monastics) are seen from the outside. This has provided a dilemma for me. Do I speak as a fellow traveller in the search for Enlightenment? Or, do I speak as a political consultant concerned first and foremost with power and how to acquire it, manage it and use it.

I’m going to choose the latter not only because it is a perspective with which I have some familiarity – hopefully enough… but not too much! I’m also choosing to take the role of a political consultant because I believe there are some considerations therein which should be of value to Australia’s Buddhist community.

In saying this I should make it clear that a good political consultant will have at least some degree of understanding and sympathy for the group, party or movement that he or she is advising. Certainly that is my position on the matter. However, all of us bring prejudices and preconceptions to what we do and sometimes we need to be reminded of what they may mean for our individual and collective futures. It is the role of the political consultant to provide those such-needed reality checks.

What, then, does a political consultant do? They provide advice on power – how to acquire it, how to manage it and how to use it. In respect of the first – how to acquire power – they are interested in both direct and indirect power. In other words in societies like ours they may advise on how to win elections or they may advise on how to influence those who do win elections. They will assess the position of the individual or group or party and advise on the sorts of things that need to be done to improve that position. They will use opinion polls and focus groups to help them make such an assessment. They are concerned with strengths and weaknesses and with political positioning and political power.

This brief summary of what a political consultant does leads me to my first question: Is all of this relevant to a Buddhist or is the very way of thinking associated with political consultancy anathema to the Buddhist point of view?

My simple answer to this question is another question: Why shouldn’t Buddhist be interested in their position and influence? After all, as Laksiri Jayasuriya has noted, “the Buddha was acutely aware that the Sangha could not survive without a minimum of political support – whether it was from a monarchy or a republic”. 1 I’m sure you would agree that such practical considerations can never be ignored.

However, it’s not just a question of survival and co-existence but of political influence. Buddhism does take a position on many of the key issues that face us as a community and I see no reason why that position shouldn’t be as visible and influential as that of other creeds or religions. Indeed there is much about what we might call a “Buddhist politics” that commends itself to a world troubled by conflict, commercialism and consumerism. 2

I say this with full knowledge that there is a view in the community that Buddhism is only concerned with “the individual” and “self-development”. Following from this view is the conclusion that Buddhism is inoffensive and ineffective as a political force. This gives it appeal in our consumer society but as a compliant partner rather than a challenging critic.

What ought to give Buddhism strength is its real interest in the suffering individual and its understanding of politics, society and economics. Indeed the fact that mindfulness and engagement are linked gives Buddhism a real edge in the contemporary battle of ideas. After all many of the alternatives offer only doctrines – claims on the intellect – or prejudices – claims on the emotions. Buddhism, on the other hand, is about the person and the context. It is about people and politics. It is about meditation and movements.

However, as I noted earlier I don’t think this is fully understood. We get glimpses of it when we see Buddhist monks on the frontline of political reform in tyrannical societies and when we see Buddhists actively engage in campaigns for the marginalised or disadvantaged but these remain only that – glimpses.

I’m not saying here that Buddhists should convert the Sangha into a base camp for an assault on state power. Nor am I saying that Buddhists throw themselves into mindless political activity. That would be a travesty. What I am saying is that the Australian community should hear more about and know more about what Buddhism tells us about politics and government.

It may be, of course, that in providing this assessment and this advice I am missing the point completely. Isn’t Buddhism, you may ask, really about a one-to-one engagement between the individual and the Buddha, moderated perhaps by the helpful insights of Monks and Nuns? Doesn’t the individual need to embrace Enlightenment as a matter of reason, evidence and experience?

Yes, this is true but part of what we need to be enlightened about is what it means to live in a community or, to put it more directly, what it means to live in a pluralistic community? Monks and Nuns have reflected on this in respect of their own monastic communities. So too have many reflected on it in relation to communities and nation states. What has been revealed in these deliberations – the importance of free and frank discussion, face-to-face negotiation, and reasoned choices achieved through consensus – is an important addition to our bank of knowledge.

What is remarkable about this is its resemblance to democracy. As Laksiri Jayasuriya puts it

The Buddha favoured democracy not as a question of the legal right of equality and ‘the absolute worth of the individual’ but equally as an affirmation of the moral obligation cast on the individual to act within a code of conduct based on such values as the ‘ideal of human dignity, equality of respect and the worth of the individual’

To put it in even more contemporary terms – Buddhism creates space for a “civilizational dialogue” rather than a “clash of civilisations”. 3

In other words Buddhism is all about how to live in a world of difference, a most contemporary of themes!

The point I am making here is that Buddhism is not an “outsider” looking in or some sort of “Eastern philosophy” connected to other times and other places, it is relevant to Australia today. Indeed there are two reasons for this. The first being its relevance to the important debates about democracy and democratic pluralism as I have outlined above.

In the second place it is not just about the world out there, it is also about the mind and all that troubles it. It is a form of psychology that offers a practical guide to living via its Eightfold Path. This Path, which is a mixture of morality, meditation and wisdom, involves both personal development and engagement, each being dependent on the other. To put it into contemporary political and social terms it is about decisions, decision-making and the decision- maker.

I use the word “relevance” because there is an appetite for both of these dimensions of Buddhism in Australia today. There is a developing understanding that our democracy needs to be enriched and deepened and there is a concern for the personal as well as the social, economic and political dimensions of our lives. This takes us to the issues of creative and inclusive decision-making, work-life balance and emotional stability and intelligence. Let me pose this question: Isn’t there a conception of Buddhist statecraft about which we need to know more? Politics and compassion – surely they can be linked more effectively?

It is important to note that Buddhism has been growing in Australia. Its intellectual orientation, its call to the individual to be properly convinced of his or her beliefs, its practical humanism and its knowledge of meditation and its potential have all played a role in this expansion. This gives Buddhism an important base on which to build. 4

However, the Big Guns associated with the Big Religions still dominate our public spaces. Not only do they have associated organisations playing a key role in education, health and welfare they are only too happy to involve themselves in public policy debates. Sometimes they punch and kick as hard as the politicians who they seek to influence. They trade in doctrines and seek influence by means fair and foul.

At the same time we have seen the re-emergence of a religious politics based on an absolutist ethic and all that entails for our individual and collective lives. In such a world fear is all too often the motivator and force and violence the chosen means. Our public spaces are being filled with the chatter of intolerance and the politics of “hard” as opposed to “soft” power.

There is, of course, a better way. However, if those who seek it are not willing to test that better way in the world of public debate and collective decision it will remain just that – a disembodied theory that attracts the few but doesn’t influence the many.

Let me summarise. Buddhism does have a growing base in our society. In some ways, however, its strengths are also its weaknesses. It’s seen as outside the mainstream and only concerned with the individual; an inoffensive product from “the East”.

Too little is made of the political relevance of its message, the personal dimension in its thinking and what it implies for practice, and the deep understanding it brings about dialogue and democracy in a world of difference.


1. Laksiri Jayasuriya, “Buddhism and Politics: Some Brief Speech Notes” (Perth, n.d.), p.9

2. See my essay “Religion, Politics and Buddhism”, New Critic, Issue 2, August 2006.

3. These points are made and the quotes in this paragraph come from an important but unpublished essay by Laksiri Jayasuriya, “Buddhism , Politics and Statecraft” (Perth, n.d)

4. On the growth of Buddhism see Geoff Gallop, “Path to happiness proves attractive”, Australian: Higher Education, 27 June 2007, p. 36.