Time to review role of monks and nuns in politics says Samdhong Rinpoche

Samdhong Rinpoche gestures during a public talk in McLeod Ganj, India, on 13 April 2018.

Samdhong Rinpoche gestures during a public talk in McLeod Ganj, India, on 13 April 2018. Tibet Sun/Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 13 April 2018

The time has come to review if monks and nuns involving themselves in politics is right or not, said Samdhong Rinpoche during a public talk on Democracy and Unity in McLeod Ganj. The talk was organised by the National Democratic Party of Tibet.

He said that Burma and Thailand are two Buddhist countries where monks and nuns have no role in politics. “They have to disrobe if they want to be involved in politics,” Rinpoche explained.

Appreciating Bhutan’s system of not allowing monks and nuns to participate in elections, or religious leaders not even being allowed to teach during the elections, he said, “I find this to be a good way.”

“In our case, I can’t say if it’s good or bad to have monks and nuns in politics, but I feel that it will be good to review the matter.”

“I had been saying that it will be bad if the monks and nuns are manipulated for political gains. That will render Buddhism as a whole in a bad light.”

The exile Tibetan administration has seen monks holding high posts over the years. Rinpoche himself held the post of Kalon Tripa (equivalent to Prime Minister) for ten years, from 2001 to 2011. He was the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile for ten years before that.

The current Speaker Khenpo Sonam Tenphel and his deputy Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok are both monks.

Nine out of ten representatives from the five religious sects are monks. A representative from U-Tsang and another from Europe are monks, making the total monks in the Parliament to be 11 out of the 45 total members.

Rinpoche explained that there is nothing wrong in monks and nuns being elected as representatives from their religious backgrounds in the Parliament. That is democratic, he said. But such representative’s work should exemplify their religious background.

“Their election should be meaningful,” he said.

The concept of the “combination of religion and politics” (chosi zungdrel) goes a long way back in Tibet’s history.

With regard to the relationships of religion and politics as laid out in the exile Tibetan Charter, Rinpoche said that the presence of relgion doesn’t hinder the practice of democracy for the Tibetan people.

Although Buddhism is the state religion, at the same time citizens have the freedom to practice any religion of their choice.

Speaking about unity, Rinpoche said in a democracy there can be differences of opinion over various issues without dividing people.

He said that if someone is doing good, they should be appreciated, and if one makes a mistake, it should be pointed out. But that the mistaken action is separate from the person making it.

Rinpoche challenged the common view that democracy began in the West. He said that it started in India a few thousand years ago.


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