While Western views on the relationship between church and state have been studied and debated profusely, relatively little is known about the relationship between Buddhist tradition and the state. With the renewal of Buddhism in parts of East Asia and its rise in the West, an understanding of Buddhist views of the role of the state is of relevance in today’s global society. The popular conception of Buddhism in the 20th century is of a religion that emphasizes withdrawal from the world and pursuit of solely spiritual goals. It may therefore come as a surprise that Buddhism places great emphasis on positive engagement with the world at both the grassroots and governmental levels. While Buddhists as a rule have tended to maintain a low profile, except in instances where other Buddhists or their countrymen are under attack, Buddhism’s emphasis on positive engagement is based on a well-developed theory of social organization and government which can be traced back to the original teachings of the Buddha himself.

Like many Western ideologies, Buddhism advocates equal rights for all people, including the right to life, education, and political enfranchisement. Human rights begin with education and Buddhism thus recommends that people be taught the definition of these rights. In principle and in the strictest sense, Buddhism sees government as a violation of human rights because it serves to contain the people and set up laws that prohibit them from performing certain actions. In the ideal society, people would learn not to commit crimes against others. The people’s motivation for respect of others’ rights would lie exclusively within themselves and would not depend upon fear of punishment. This concept of the ideal society and state is not the only one of its kind.

Societies, as they have existed to date, have not been ideal. Buddhism recognizes the need for government and its role in promoting and maintaining peace and stability. From the Buddhist perspective, the objective of government is the protection of human rights. The state should ensure that the needs of all the people are well met, regardless of age, socioeconomic level, or educational background. The people should be happy and contented. Buddhist theory also advocates an ideal of democracy in which subjects of appropriate age and educational background have the right to vote to determine their future.

Regarding the role of the government in providing for a society’s social needs, Buddhist theory advocates that the government provide for the education of the populace, as well as maintenance of order with minimal infringement upon individual rights. Government should establish the necessary institutions, including those of education and criminal justice. However, unlike the systems of some Western democracies today, Buddhist theory advocates that more emphasis be placed on educating the populace about the importance of the law and why it should not be broken in the first place, rather than relying on harsh punishment.

A Pragmatic Approach

Buddhists also acknowledge that the instruments used to govern must match the requirements of society as it exists on a practical level. It is well known that compassion and non-violence are two of the basic Buddhist principles: adhering to them means that one should love one’s enemy as oneself. However, Buddhism does not advocate an inflexible application of these principles. If these principles are applied literally, internal and external enemies can easily take advantage of a society’s weaknesses and undermine the peacefulness and stability of that society. As long as the ideal society does not exist, the instruments of government must include the coercive power necessary to punish wrongdoers and to prevent military invasions.

Disarmament is a desirable ideal, but Buddhists realize that any state of universal disarmament is precarious, for one nation’s deviation would break the peace and lead to arms races once again.In the optimal scenario, nations would be confident of not being invaded by fellow nations and would voluntarily dispose of their arms and demobilize their troops. In order for this to occur, the largest and most powerful nations would have to be the first to set the example. In the absence of an ideal world order, however, Buddhist theory does not necessarily condemn the existence of an armed force. In order to protect the state from attack, a state’s army must be strong and well-trained but should be used only for defensive and not offensive purposes.

Instead of utilizing armed confrontation as a means of conflict resolution, Buddhist theory advocates what has been termed the “cognitive” approach to international relations. Under this theory of international relations, differences and conflicts between nations exist, but are solved eventually by continued interaction and sharing of ideas. Disagreements between cultures and nations are bound to occur. Even within the same family, people have different tastes, different levels of education, different dispositions. “Cognitive” interactions between these different groups will eventually lead to the discovery of similarities between the most opposite of cultures, and conflict will become less frequent as these similarities emerge. There are numerous examples that this process is effective, if slower than some may like. The success of the “cognitive” approach is already evident in recent developments of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Within the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), many ASEAN members harbored a fear of Mainland China’s increasing economic and military capability, and began to perceive a “China threat,” while mainland China  began to feel increasingly suspicious of the hostilities it perceived on the part of other ASEAN nations. However, through the mainland China-ARF dialogue, initially skeptical mainland Chinese diplomats and leaders were able to meet and build relationships with leaders of other ASEAN nations, leading to increasing cooperation between the mainland Chinese and ASEAN members, and mainland China’s willingness to share information and allow new ARF initiatives.

Consistent with the Buddhist view that government should provide defense against foreign aggression, Buddhist theory also advocates the government’s maintenance of a healthy economy, as successful defense relies on the unity and strength of a nation, including economic strength. As in many Western theories, the Buddhist view is that the ideal form of economic development benefits all people. Economic development involving honest business practices, therefore, is seen as a positive step. In many developing countries today, however, fraud and corruption are prevalent, and as a result, economic development suffers as businesses fail. From the Buddhist perspective, the behavior of industry and the firm should go beyond simple profit-taking—the consideration of benefit should extend to the customer and the employee in addition to the owner. Making money is not wrong per se. After investing time, money, and energy, profits should certainly be enjoyed, but these profits should also be returned to society.

Buddhism’s Societal Role

Within this framework, what is the role of Buddhism and other religions with relation to the state? The role of Buddhism is to develop the moral fiber of the people so that they can be responsible members of society and responsible citizens of their countries. Separation of “church” and state should be maintained, but at the same time there should be active cooperation between these two institutions.

As part of the religious community, the Dharma Drum Mountain Organization in Taiwan aims to achieve the ideal society through its educational outreach, social movements, social service provision and inter-religious dialogue. Education is one of the main foci of the organization, emphasizing basic moral principles, family values, compassion, and ecological awareness. Individual responsibility, accountability, and self-discipline are some of the key Buddhist principles communicated in all educational undertakings. These teachings are communicated to society through various media—courses are conducted for students at the primary and secondary school levels as well as for university students, corporate executives, businessmen and civil servants. In the mass media, national newspaper columns and weekly television programs discuss these same topics in lectures and in more popular formats. In the academic realm, the organization offers graduate level instruction in Buddhist studies and has organized several conferences on Buddhist studies in which scholars from around the world have participated, continuing the advance of Buddhist studies from a scholarly perspective.


[U]ntil an ideal society is realized, Buddhist theory supports peaceful, benevolent, and stable governments which provide education, social services, security, and enforcement of law.

In addition to educational outreach, the Dharma Drum Mountain Organization provides social welfare programs including counseling for married couples and for those in bereavement after deaths in their families. And in accordance with Buddhist principles of frugality and ecological awareness, it has initiated extremely successful national environmental drives in Taiwan, where annual events are organized to clean up and remove environmental pollutants and hazards from various parks and localities, in conjunction with ecological awareness courses. Environmentally sound land management has been a major emphasis of the organization in the development of its rural properties, and has achieved national recognition for its success in the prevention of soil erosion, especially during the typhoon season.

Buddhist theory not only advocates efforts under Buddhist organizations to achieve the ideal society, but also dialogue with and mutual support of other religious organizations engaged in the pursuance of the same goal. Peaceful coexistence with and respect for other religions has always been the Buddhist approach toward the promotion of a peaceful, stable, and harmonious society. Regular participation in interfaith activities, including UN-sponsored dialogues in the Philippines and the United States, and participation in interfaith conferences, including one held in Padua, Italy, last year—sponsored by groups closely associated with the Vatican and joined by representatives of all major religions—also support this goal of harmony.

The efforts of the Dharma Drum Mountain organization have garnered national awards and recognition from the government of Taiwan. Clearly, the government recognizes the positive role of Buddhist organizations in society. Similarly, until an ideal society is realized, Buddhist theory supports peaceful, benevolent, and stable governments which provide education, social services, security, and enforcement of law. Thus, under the Buddhist perspective, government and religious organization work together with a common goal—achieving the ideal form of societal organization.