Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought
Walton, Matthew Joseph
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This dissertation is a work of comparative political theory that draws attention to how religious beliefs can generate fundamentally different conceptions of what is political. I argue that Theravada Buddhism is the source of the conceptual framework within which most Buddhists in Myanmar think about politics. Specifically, being embedded in the Theravada moral conception of the universe, Burmese Buddhists understand the political as a sphere of moral action, governed by particular rules of cause and effect. Within this framework Burmese Buddhists vary as to their interpretation of particular concepts and the degree to which they see Buddhist teachings as relevant to politics; however, I demonstrate that this framework and Buddhist conceptions of politics continue to be salient for contemporary political practice in Myanmar. There are also variations between Theravada Buddhism as it is practiced in Myanmar and in other countries, as well as important differences in interpretation and emphasis among Burmese Buddhists themselves. I examine these variations while also comparing Burmese Buddhist political thought with other religious and cultural traditions. Buddhism in Myanmar has provided a repertoire of "raw materials" which people have used to make sense of their political environment. These include a particular conception of human nature, an understanding of the universe as governed by a law of cause and effect that works according to moral principles, a conception of human existence as fundamentally dissatisfactory, and the acceptance of a range of methods to overcome and escape its dissatisfactory character. I explore how Burmese Buddhists have used these ideas in deploying arguments regarding the nature of politics, the proper ends of politics, alternative conceptions and methods of political participation, and a range of understandings of "democracy." My findings not only illuminate a relatively unexamined tradition of political thought, they also help us to understand some of the challenges facing a democratic transition in contemporary Myanmar.
- Political science