The Dangers of Mixing Religion and Politics

KyaemonJune 8, 201017min960


The Dangers of Mixing Religion and Politics

Western Shugden Society – The Dangers of Mixing Religion and Politics | Western Shugden Society (WSS)

Everyone raised in modern democratic nations realises the imperative of separating religion and politics. Painful history has shown the great dangers that arise when these two are intertwined.

The spiritual path is profoundly damaged by being mixed with politics. Politicians make laws that citizens must abide by – but no laws can govern what someone believes, and to enact laws that criminalise someone for what they do believe is clearly unjust.

From the other point of view, politics are damaged by being mixed with religion. A true democracy can only thrive when people are confident to express their opinions freely and debate, but in a theocracy one politician can assert their view to be divine, and all dissent to be sinful.

Both of these problems have seriously arisen within the Tibetan community. The Dalai Lama makes laws forcing people to abandon their heartfelt beliefs, and stifles debate of his policies invoking teachings on relying upon the spiritual guide.

Please read the following extracts from the new book by the Western Shugden Society: ‘A Great Deception’:

Dharma and Politics

As clearly shown throughout much of human history, mixing religion and politics in general is a great mistake. In the context of this book, religion refers to Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma. Buddha taught that all living beings experience without freedom or choice, in life after life, the recurrent cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death, known as ‘samsara’. The fundamental purpose of all Buddha’s teachings is to show how to achieve liberation from samsara by overcoming attachment to it, and how to help others to achieve this same liberation.

Although skilful political activity may bring temporary benefits, the main purpose of political activity is to find happiness within samsara through trying to change external conditions. Political activity and political objectives therefore lie within samsara.

The result of Dharma is to destroy samsara, whereas the result of politics is to keep us within samsara. Through practising Dharma, Buddhists try to overcome attachment to samsara, whereas through political activity people try to fulfil desires that increase their attachment to samsara. The desires underlying our attachment to samsara include desire for wealth, power, fame and pleasure, all of which are mistakenly viewed as sources of real happiness.

For these reasons, Dharma and politics are completely opposite in their views, aims and results. The consequences of mixing Dharma with politics will always be at best bad, at worst catastrophic.

The Meaning of ‘Mixing Religion and Politics’

Mixing religion with politics means using religious faith for political aims. Because of the terrible atrocities that have been perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion, it is often said that religion is the cause of much suffering in the world. However, when practised purely, religion cannot cause suffering. It is not religion itself but rather the exploitation of religion for political objectives that has caused and continues to cause so much suffering in this world. For example, in the West it is clearly understood that mixing religion and politics has been the cause of many problems, and of the sufferings caused by the Crusades, the Inquisition and the numerous European wars that have been fought in the name of religion, even in modern times. The western experience is that mixing religion and politics does not work. Because this is clearly recognised, in almost all countries throughout the West today there is a clear separation between ‘Church’ and ‘State’.

The Tibetan System of Government

In direct contrast, in Tibetan society not only is there no clear separation between ‘Church’ and ‘State’, but the union of these two is the very basis of government, even today. The Tibetan name for their system of government is ‘bö.zhung chö.si nyi.den’ (bod zhungs chos sri gnyis ldan), which means the ‘Tibetan Government of both Religion and Politics’. As Phuntsog Wangyal, who established the London-based Tibet Foundation, says:

‘The term “Chö-si nyi-den” appears for the first time in the Seventeenth Century when the Fifth Dalai Lama reorganized the Government of Tibet as … the “Ever Victorious Tibetan Government of Ga-dän p’o-dr’ang”.

‘Religion is different from politics. But there was never any attempt in Tibetan history to separate the two. Rather the ruling class, first the aristocracy and later both the aristocracy and the monasteries, encouraged their union.’1

Although the system of ‘Chö-si nyi-den’ had previously existed in practice, it was the Fifth Dalai Lama who consolidated the existing arrangements and standardised them into hard-and-fast rules. As the self-proclaimed and infallible embodiment of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara and as the supreme secular head of state, the Fifth Dalai Lama made the institution of the Dalai Lama the core symbol for the union of ultimate political and religious power. As Phuntsog Wangyal again observes:

‘ … the supremacy of the Dalai Lama does not mean that the Dalai Lama always exercised supreme power, but it does mean that he is the ultimate authority in which supreme power over religion and politics rests.

‘The institution of the Dalai Lama has a dual role, that of politics and religion. He symbolises the force that links two principles into a single institution.’2

Thus, the mixing of religion and politics was institutionalised by the Fifth Dalai Lama, and it is from this point in Tibetan history that the catastrophic decline begins that led to the loss of Tibet.

This intermingling of religion and politics can be seen in a whole series of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s actions, including his construction and naming of the Potala Palace; his relationship with his Spiritual Guide, the Panchen Lama; his reliance upon and institution of Nechung as the State Oracle of Tibet; his twice-attempted invasions of Bhutan; and his military campaigns against the Jonangpas, Kagyupas and Bönpos, and their forced conversion to the Gelug Tradition.

The Fifth Dalai Lama’s most significant creation from mixing Dharma and politics was the institution of the Dalai Lama itself. Through the fusion of supreme religious and political authority in one single person, the Fifth Dalai Lama became the self-appointed ‘God-King’ of Tibet. All of the actions of the Dalai Lama were thus to some extent contaminated by this union of religion and politics. None of his religious actions could be totally free of political implications, and likewise none of his political actions could be totally free of implication for the religious sphere. All of the Dalai Lama’s religious and political actions, no matter how insignificant, carried the full weight of both his supposed religious infallibility and his absolute political authority.

The Potala Palace had the dual function of serving both political and religious objectives. On the one hand, the construction of the Potala itself was first intended to provide the Dalai Lama with an impenetrable fortress against military attack in the event that his powerful Mongol allies withdrew their support and second to serve as a potent symbol of his absolute political authority. On the other hand, in so naming the Potala, the Dalai Lama was identifying his residence as the earthly abode of the Buddha of Compassion, and himself as its resident, Avalokiteshvara.

Although from a religious point of view, even the human emanations of Buddhas need to accept and rely upon their Spiritual Guides, from a political point of view the Fifth Dalai Lama could not bridge the gap between his absolute authority and the propriety of relinquishing authority to his Spiritual Guide. How could the fountainhead of absolute religious and political power, to whom all others are subordinate, ever subordinate himself to a Spiritual Guide? This intrinsic contradiction within the Fifth Dalai Lama’s position destroyed his spiritual relationship with his Spiritual Guide and created a poisonous precedent for future Dalai Lamas, especially the present Dalai Lama who claims to have a special connection with the Fifth.

One example of how the Fifth Dalai Lama regarded maintenance of his political power as more important than his duty as a Buddhist practitioner was his efforts to destroy the power of two important officials whom he considered to be rivals to his political authority. (These events are described below in Chapter 8.) When they took refuge in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the monastic seat of his own Spiritual Guide, the Fifth Dalai Lama raised an army to attack it. He dismissed his Spiritual Guide’s attempts at conciliation; and some years later, in an unprecedented act of public disrespect, the Fifth Dalai Lama did not even attend his Spiritual Guide’s funeral.

Many of the actions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, through which he became known as the ‘Great Fifth’, were in fact from a spiritual point of view extremely negative political actions. Some of them were catastrophic for Tibet both spiritually and politically, and provided the stepping-stones that in the end led to the loss of Tibet as an independent Buddhist nation.