During the life of the Buddha, local kings and leading citizens became important supporters and sponsored the new community. In spreading Buddhism throughout India, and beyond, the Emperor Ashoka played an important role and both then and later gaining the support of local leaders was crucial – notable examples being Prince Shotoku in Japan, or the various Mongolian Khans who supported Tibetan Buddhism. There are Buddhist monarchs today in Thailand and Bhutan. In pre-communist Tibet, for several centuries, the Dalai Lamas held both political and religious leadership, and the current Dalai Lama, in exile in India, has considerable influence.
The historical Buddha himself however rejected his alternative career of local ruler/king (or as predicted at his birth, emperor) in favour of a higher calling. In one sense, Buddhist monastics have renounced the world and thus not involved in day to day political matters: ‘kings and politics’ are one of the topics that monastics are advised in the Pali Canon not to waste their time discussing. However, it is near impossible in practice to have nothing to do with politics, as political issues are also ethical ones, and not getting involved is a political act. Throughout Buddhist history, Buddhist monastics have been important advisers to rulers, and the historical Buddha’s advice to his royal friends is recorded in the Pali Canon. At times, he was directly involved in political matters, such as when he intervened to stop a war. Generally the advice is to obey government: ‘I prescribe, monks, that you meet the king’s wishes’ is an oft quoted saying (particularly by kings and those in power); however the Buddha was not afraid to speak truth to power where required, such as pointing out that alleviating poverty would do more to solve crime than harsh punishments. There have been occasions in Buddhist history where monks have even been involved in political violence as well as peaceful political protests. Lay Buddhists are involved in politics from top government levels (the modern world’s first female prime minister was a Buddhist, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960) to grass-roots activism. It is possible to interpret Buddhism as supporting either socialist or conservative politics, monarchy or revolution. As happens with other religions, in some Buddhist-majority countries Buddhist identity can become entangled with national identity, in both benign and dangerous ways, the latter seen for example in the Sri Lankan civil war or contemporary Myanmar.
Two examples of Buddhists involved in politics are Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and the current Dalai Lama. Ambedkar (1891-1956) was born into a Dalit family and suffered caste discrimination. He nevertheless gained an education and became the chair of the committee that drew up the constitution of independent India in 1949. He adopted Buddhism (as he saw it) as a faith that was Indian but unlike Hinduism (as he perceived and experienced it) without caste prejudice, and just before he died, he and 400,000 followers became Buddhists. There are about 7 million Ambedkarite Buddhists today (but 200 million Dalits in total).
The current Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and set up an alternative government in exile in India. He campaigns for a free Tibet, and has become a highly respected international figure (except by the Chinese government). Though he has expressed understanding for the few Tibetans who have been involved in armed resistance, his own resistance is peaceful and non-violent, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1989.