“Buddhist Political Theory” (hereafter BPT) is an emerging area of interest for academic political theorists working in English in North American universities. This essay shows how BPT can help Westerners clarify their confusion over the political thought of Thich Tri Quang (1923-2019), a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who captured and held the attention of major American media outlets during the “Vietnam War.”
A search of Thích Trí Quang’s name in the digital archives of the New York Times produces at least three hundred articles since the early 1960s. In 1966, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine along with a feature essay about him. Readers were persuaded to see him as the “mastermind of the Buddhist protest movement,” 1 “a charismatic Buddhist monk who helped bring down United States-backed governments in South Vietnam during the war-torn 1960s and pushed for a democratic nation with freedom of religion,” 2 and wanted to know more about this powerful figure foiling their government’s efforts in South Vietnam.
Attention to Trí Quang was also inspired by controversy surrounding his political ideas. He appears to be an elusive, enigmatic, and erratic political thinker. Vietnamese and American commentators at the time and, later, scholars in the West have tried to pin down his politics, offering him contradictory labels: communist, anti-communist, peace-lover, war-hawk. 3 Time magazine asserted that Trí Quang had a “burning desire for power” and called him a Vietnamese Machiavelli. 4 James McAllister argues that Trí Quang is not, as those on the left say, “a peaceful religious leader devoted to democracy and a rapid end to the war” nor is he, as those on the right say, “a communist agent.” 5 Rather, McAllister argues, Quang is anticommunist and receptive to the use of American military power against north Vietnam. The New York Times called Tri Quang an “egotist” 6 and “impressive but puzzling.” 7 Yet, we are still left unclear on what motivated Trí Quang’s politics.
In their attempts to explicate Trí Quang’s political thought, the Western media above appear to overlook the most obvious thing about Thích Trí Quang: as a Buddhist monk, whose Buddhist beliefs might influence or explain his political thought. Western interpretations of Trí Quang have failed to consider his distinctly Buddhist political thinking. It is difficult to identify specific types of Buddhist ideologies that may have influenced him. However, we can consider Trí Quang to be a “Buddhist” in the most general sense, one who did not want to bring attention to differences between Buddhist ideologies, given that he was a leading figure of the Viện Hóa Đạo, the political arm of the Unified Buddhist Church which aimed to unify different sects of Buddhism in Vietnam.
Examining Trí Quang’s political thought from the perspective of BPT can explain the discrepancies in the above interpretations. His politics are consistent with a BPT and expressive of it. Once we appreciate key tenets of BPT—namely, that if politics is to be engaged in, it ought to be engaged in strategically and practically as a means to the end of enlightenment for all—we can better understand Trí Quang’s political thought.
Buddhist Political Theory
Scholars of “comparative political theory”—an emerging subfield of the academic field of political theory—have recently explored a “Buddhist” approach to politics. 8 Although “Buddhism” is a vast and diverse tradition, some general statements can be made about how it would approach politics, just as we might say “Christianity” gave birth to the tradition of political liberalism. According to the political theorist Matthew Moore, Buddhism is overtly antipolitical without actually embracing anarchism. 9 He argues that Buddhists tend to view politics as a temptation to allow the ego to run rampant, as a waste of time and effort, and as ultimately unimportant. For Buddhists, engagement in politics conflicts with the path to enlightenment (in contrast to the Western philosophical tradition which typically views engagement in politics as part of living a good life). Cao Huy Thuần, a student of Thích Trí Quang, put it succinctly: “Temples do not do politics: this Buddhist attitude is as certain as nails driven into a wall… Politics is the domain of ‘dirty hands’ that we [Buddhists] loathe.” 10
However, although Buddhists deflate the importance of politics for a good life, Buddhists understand that politics is inevitable and sometimes even necessary in social life, Moore argues. BPT asserts that one should engage in politics only when doing so would produce social and political conditions that would be better enable individuals to cultivate spirituality and attain enlightenment. Buddhists see “that some forms of government elicit lower levels of social conflict and individual spiritual regress than others.” 11 Unlike the Western liberal tradition, political legitimacy for Buddhists “is not about adequately respecting the autonomy of rational selves, but rather about creating conditions to allow human beings to make spiritual progress.” 12 In short, for BPT, politics ought to be a means to the end of spiritual progress for all. This emphasis on equality of opportunity for spirituality reflects the egalitarian views of the Buddha himself and the challenge they presented to the Hindu caste system. With this in mind, we can now make sense of Thích Trí Quang’s anticommunism. He resists communism because he thinks individuals would be prevented from cultivating spirituality under a communist government. Trí Quang said in 1963: “I, like all educated Buddhists, do not like communism because it is atheistic.” 13
Buddhist Political Theory’s Machiavellianism
We can also now make better sense of his Machiavellian style of talking about politics and why Time magazine called him a Vietnamese Machiavelli. Machiavelli is famous for thinking of politics in pragmatic, unprincipled, “means-to-an-end” terms, which makes Machiavelli compatible with BPT. For Machiavelli, politics is a means to the end of political security and stability. For Trí Quang, politics is a means to the end of a government that permits spiritual flourishing for all. Trí Quang does not have a “burning desire for power” as Time magazine put it, but rather understands that struggling for power is sometimes necessary if it will produce conditions for spirituality.
Similar to Machiavelli’s well-known insistence that violence and cruelty should be used quickly and only for political security, Trí Quang argued that the bombing campaign against North Vietnam should “be concentrated within a short period of time and with rapidly increasing intensity, to force the North to some reaction as soon as possible and to prevent giving the communists enough time to prepare themselves psychologically and militarily.” 14 Acknowledging that it was unusual for a Buddhist leader to advocate violence, Trí Quang was nevertheless in favor of “strong military measures” because he felt that “if the war dragged on at its current level the cost in lives would be more than would be incurred in a quicker though momentarily bloodier affair.” 15 Thus, Trí Quang is not a war-hawk, but expressing a BPT that emphasizes strategic means to an end. Violence, he thinks, is permissible if it is needed: “In my contacts with leaders of the other faiths, I stated a religious war if needed should only be fought for the interests of the parties involved. But such conflict of interests does not exist at all.” 16
For Machiavelli, political knowledge should be gained inductively. One should look at examples in the real world, and then come up with general rules about how politics works (in contrast to a deductive approach, such as Plato who used general assumptions about the nature of the cosmos and human nature to structure facts and predetermine conclusions). Trí Quang’s comments about politics frequently display this inductive, experience-based approach to political knowledge. When asked if the chief executive should be popularly elected, Quang says that he prefers the assembly because “experience has shown that prime ministers or presidents elected by universal suffrage do not truly represent the aspirations of the people.” 17
Consistent with Buddhist political theory’s pragmatic consequentialism, Trí Quang does not have any principled opposition to the U.S. He criticizes Americans for failing to distinguish “between anti-Americanism and opposition against them.” 18 The former is principled, which he finds nonsensical, and the latter is a practical, which he finds necessary. “Anti-Americanism is a natural hatred of the Americans regardless of how good they are… Opposition against the Americans is an attitude of constructive protest. Suppose two people are riding in a car. If one sees the other person is driving unsafely, one has to take over the wheel to prevent the car from rolling into a ditch… Opposition to Americans for blocking the National Assembly, opposition to American support of corrupt lackey governments, opposition to American help in the suppression in Da Nang.”
Trí Quang’s assertion that an inclusive National Assembly (Quốc Hội) is necessary in South Vietnam is expressive of BPT’s view that a good government is one that enables the spiritual flourishing for all. The Vietnamese need “an elected government to create a face for the nation that truly reflects the nation.” 19 For Tri Quang, inclusive representation can better safeguard spirituality for all, regardless of their faith, hence his opposition to the Diem regime: he saw it as favoring Catholics and repressing Buddhists.
Without an understanding of Buddhist political theory—the view that politics is ultimately unimportant yet inevitable and at times necessary to produce conditions for individual spiritual progress—we would be more confused about Trí Quang’s political thought. Without the lens of Buddhist political theory, previous English language writings on Trí Quang saw a shapeshifting, erratic, power hungry, contradictory political figure. However, Buddhist political theory is not principled but pragmatic, and this means it is willing to adopt diverse, seemingly contradictory positions at different moments as part of a larger strategy to achieve particular ends. Cao Huy Thuần, again, put it succinctly:
“My teacher speaks many languages. Some say that he is pro-communist. Some say that he is pro-America. There was a time when he could wear both hats at once. Silently, he said to his loved ones: ‘The more hats one puts on, the more it seems one does not have any hats at all. Conversely, the more hats, the better: you elevate and highlight the special position of Buddhism. Thus, Buddhism should not avoid, but embrace, such paradoxical approaches.’”
Thích Trí Quang also gets us thinking about what it means to appear to occupy a middle space during conflicts, not on one side nor the other. A Buddhist political theory, Trí Quang shows us, is appropriate for this position, as its concern, ultimately, is for human spiritual flourishing for all. He understands the need for South Vietnam to have a positive national identity, to not simply be anticommunist. We should think more about what it means to occupy a “middle space” today. Thích Trí Quang’s Buddhist political theory reminds us that politics may sometimes be best conceived of, not as a competitive team sport where one should pick a side, but as a necessary, though unimportant, means to the end of human flourishing.
- “Determined Buddhist Tri Quang,” New York Times, September 4, 1963. ↩
- Richard Paddock, “Thich Tri Quang, 95, Galvanizing Monk in South Vietnam, Dies,” New York Times, November 20, 2019. ↩
- For a review, see James McAllister, “‘Only Religions Count in Vietnam’: Thich Tri Quang and the Vietnam War,” Modern Asian Studies 42, 4 (2008) pp. 751–782. ↩
- “Vietnam’s Political Buddhism and the War,” Time, April 22, 1966. ↩
- McAllister, “Only Religions Count,” 751. ↩
- “Saigon Buddhism: Complex Mixture,” New York Times, April 15, 1966. ↩
- “Powerful Buddhist Tri Quang,” New York Times, April 20, 1966. ↩
- Matthew J. Moore, Buddhism and Political theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ↩
- Ibid., 2. ↩
- Cao Huy Thuần, “Đại lão Hòa thượng Thích Trí Quang: ‘Một trang lịch sử,’” BBC News, November 10, 2019. ↩
- Moore, Buddhism, 26. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Quoted in Paddock. See note 2. ↩
- McAllister, “Only Religions Count,” 773. ↩
- Ibid., 761. ↩
- Ngo The Vinh, “Ninety Six Minutes with Reverend Thich Tri Quang,” May 5, 1966 https://thuvienhoasen.org/images/file/vXLJaQXt1wgQACli/96-minutes-with-reverend-tri-quang-1966-ntv-pdv-.pdf (accessed October 12, 2021). ↩
- “World: A Talk with Thich Tri Quang,” Time, April 22, 1966. ↩
- See note 16. ↩
- Ibid. ↩