Burmese Buddhist Political Thought


A review of Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought, by Matthew J. Walton

Our cultural upbringing, our mores and customs, our manners and practices, and, in particular, our religion (or lack thereof) constitute that pathology that we often call one’s moral worldview. If, as social scientists or humanities scholars, we accept this much, we may also concede that such a moral worldview might have further consequences on how we think and act in various situations: socially, politically, economically, or otherwise.

Take the case of a religion like Buddhism—or more specifically, “Burmese Buddhism” (p.12) —as Matthew J. Walton does in his dissertation Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought. Does being brought up (indoctrinated?) into something like a contemporary Burmese Buddhist “moral universe” have consequences on how one goes about her politics and politicking? The essential argument of this dissertation is that this “Theravāda view of the universe as governed by moral causal laws has been the primary lens through which Buddhists in Myanmar have thought about and engaged with the political realm” (p. 235). This moral worldview is not simply how one “thinks” about politics but also how one “engages” with politics.

In short, one’s religious coloring of morality has consequences on the political stage.

This dissertation is a wonderful example that causation has a subtle side. This may be unfair, to use the word “causation” here with Walton’s dissertation, since he never uses this diction himself. One assumes that causation is an unpopular term since it often indicates that the study at hand espouses some sinkhole of tawdry positivism, where causal relations must be linear, additive, boringly Humean, or drowning in untethered, though somehow correlated, statistics. However, “causation,” as opposed to “causality,” has another more inclusive meaning, whereby it serves as a blanket term for all those processes and conditions that constitute the way that things are in real life (Milja Kurki, Causation in International Relations: Reclaiming Causal Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

To understand how Walton’s utilizes this subtler type of causation, a useful analogy may be to imagine that veritable pool table and set of billiard balls. The usual doctoral candidate in political science in America is taught to identify and measure the billiard balls as they bounce about the table. One ball with the number “religious action” hits, or does not hit, another ball numbered “political consequence,” and thus the causal relation is identified empirically, since either the one ball strikes the other or it does not. Walton’s study of religion and politics is still about causation; though instead of investigating the “religious action” ball striking, or not striking, the “political consequence” ball, he chooses to study, say, the felt upon which these balls roll. Take the felt away or change it for another material and the billiard balls inevitably move about in a different way, regardless of what strikes what. That is, remove the Burmese Buddhist moral universe outlook of actors (the felt in the analogy) and replace it with some other religious-cultural moral outlook (some other grade of tabletop felt meant to represent secularized Protestantism or radicalized Islamism) and actors will be causally constituted in a different way than the Burmese Buddhist moral universe when politics are actuated in real life by real people.

This all means that what Walton has undertaken is a fantastically important and interesting investigation into some of the deeper cultural-moral fibers as taught by Buddhist religious leaders — despite their monkish disavowals of any political consequences (pp. 211 – 221) — in a nation that is undergoing massive political changes toward what appears to be deeper political liberalization and wider democratization.

Methodologically, such a study involves grappling with the hermeneutic, as well as in-the-field surveying of Buddhist monks, political activists, and knowledgeable Burmese participants in Myanmar’s changing political environment. This dissertation evidences that both are done well. From the textual side, Chapters 1 and 2 must work with Buddhist scripture and commentary in Myanmar, including various concepts that may be unfamiliar to those of us normally unimpressed by maroon-garbed baldheads pining after some mixture of the supernatural and the ascetic. All of these Buddhist terms, with their various Burmese shadings, defy any rough regurgitation here. But what Walton means by “moral universe” is very important and should not be ignored. Let us quote in full:

“…I have chosen to use the term ‘moral universe’ to denote what I believe has been the aspect of the traditional cosmology that outlasted the fall of the Burmese monarchy, was transformed as a result of its encounter with colonialism and modernity, and continues to shape Burmese Buddhist political views today. I use this term to refer to the moral law of cause and effect that constitutes the logical framework within which Burmese Buddhists reason about the world” (p.11).

The Burmese Buddhist moral universe thus seems to contain elements of both religious myth and shared cultural anxiety. It is one of the defining concepts of the study and a useful way to get a handle on the nexus of culture and religion that colors the majority of Burmese Buddhists’ worldview. If any one concept deserves life after dissertation, it is this Burmese Buddhist moral universe. Other researchers of this corner of the world would do well to adopt it in their works.

Chapter 2 expands beyond Burmese Buddhist texts as well. From a political theory perspective, the analysis provided on U Hpo Hlaing’s Rajadhammasangaha — a 19th century “manual for King Thibaw” (p.85) — is well done by Walton. U Hpo Hlaing is the closest thing that Myanmar has to a “political philosopher” and to include it in the dissertation alongside Buddhist scripture was a deft move. Those who have had classes in the Western tradition of political philosophy will recognize something of a Machiavelli in U Hpo Hlaing, both in the sense of his Discourses and his Prince (Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd Ed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

To invoke Machiavelli here on a review about the Burmese Buddhist moral universe may seem strange, particularly since Walton does not make the connection himself to U Hpo Hlaing (though he does mention Machiavelli once in a footnote for another Burmese writer, p. 90). But one feels inspired to do so because of Walton’s engagement in what is termed “comparative political theory (CPT)” (p. 27). Throughout the monograph, Walton will refer to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Dewey, and others because of one or another “similarity” that “is striking” (p. 223). Indeed, Walton is correct on this point. The most salient comparison Walton argues for between elements of the moral universe and a concept from the Western tradition is in Rousseau’s “social contract” (pp. 83 – 87). Interpretive liberties of what, perhaps, Rousseau meant by “social contract” need to be taken to justify the comparison, but Walton negotiates a path through the minefield of comparative hermeneutics creatively and is able to deepen a discussion of this particular concept begun by earlier CPT scholars (Andrew Huxley, “The Buddha and the Social Contract,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 24, no. 4, 1996, pp. 407 – 420).

Chapter 3 is most striking for its review of how Burmese thinkers and politicians have used Marx in the past. To misinterpret Marx and Engels at least once in one’s life may be something like a rite of passage, regardless of whether one is from “the West” or “the East” or somewhere pleasantly in-between. But to review how so many Burmese have gone about their Marxist misinterpretations makes for a captivating read. Utilizing texts composed by members of the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club and others makes sense. They go a long way in documenting how “Marxism” evolved over time in Myanmar and what it meant to different Burmese actors who read these texts. Some of these Buddhist interpretations would have simply been unfathomable to a reader of Marx from, say, early 20th century Columbia or Algeria. These analyses support the argument that something like a Burmese Buddhist moral universe is causally at work. Chapter 4 continues to build upon the argument with a review of what “participation” means within the Burmese political context. There is nuance between what “politics” signifies to different societies across the globe; in the case of Burmese word for this (ngai ngan ye) we learn that terms like “politics,” “participation” and others are still contested to this day as much as they are influenced by the Burmese Buddhist moral universe.

From the perspective of contemporary Burmese national politics, Chapter 5 is the most arresting. Not everyone in an advanced, industrialized liberal democracy thinks of their governmental regime in the same way. The words “liberal” and “democracy” are as maligned as they are misunderstood (T.F. Rhoden, “The Liberal in Liberal Democracy,” Democratization 22, no. 3, 2015, 560 – 578, doi. 10.1080/13510347.2013.851672). Thus, that democracy, with or without the liberal, is also a contested subject in contemporary Myanmar should not surprise. Walton’s discussion on how much of this debate (this “fight”, p. 124, really) is colored by the moral universe of Burmese Buddhists is the reason we cannot ignore this dissertation. How liberal or how democratic the regime in Myanmar becomes is directly related to how Burmese Buddhists think about and function within their moral universe. Take away or replace this particular manifestation of the moral universe and political liberalization-democratization ought to evince a dissimilar milieu of societal values and hence different level or quality of liberalism and democracy in Myanmar. On this democracy discourse, Walton reviews the works and speeches of current Burmese politicians as well as those of yesteryear. These are coupled with interviews in and around Myanmar.

Of particular note are the writings and speeches of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). Because of Walton’s concern with the hermeneutic, the reader must challenge one’s self to revisit ASSK as a political thinker and not only as a deft politician with a seat in parliament. Walton argues that ASSK has “proved to be very skilled at situating her ideas about democracy and human rights within a Theravadin-influenced Burmese discourse on politics and communicating them to Burmese audiences” (p. 206). Of interest is the phrase she once used of “revolution of spirit” (p. 208). In the past, one might have viewed this as just a bit of poetic flourishing to ASSK’s writing on issues like freedom and democracy. But in light of the moral universe argument, one recognizes the importance that ASSK imputes to an “individual’s commitment to correct moral practice” (p. 208) for democracy to flourish in the Burmese context. The above is one small vignette of a fuller review of ASSK’s works and speeches by Walton. Also covered in the dissertation are the palpable effects of the Burmese Buddhist moral universe on propaganda-like communications by those in the government, particular those with a military past, by other democracy activists, and by the monks themselves. Within the monkhood, we learn that there are also contesting views on what democracy should mean in the Burmese context, yet all of these arguments are also in their own way constituted within the moral universe.

There is a narrow path between insight and bias and Walton maneuvers along this route with ease. That he respects this part of the world and the traditions within Buddhism, both in the philosophical sense and in the religious sense, is obvious throughout. But this never becomes a burden upon the secular or skeptical reader in the way that too many an anthropological analysis on Buddhism will often slip into the promotion, protection, or promulgation of some peasant ideology or exotically irrelevant cult. To put this another way crudely, yet succinctly, the reader does not have to care or feel for these people or their worldview. More powerfully, Walton’s argument on the moral universe means that no matter what we may think about it, we most definitely cannot ignore the concept of the moral universe in the Burmese political context. These are not just moral notions in people’s heads. These are palpable ethics that shape a national majority of a population’s worldview and their engagement with the ongoing processes of political liberalization and democratization.

Walton’s argument on the moral universe worldview and its effects on how Burmese Buddhists have “thought about and engaged with the political realm” (p. 235) is powerful and imaginative. For this reviewer, it is also very convincing. From the perspective of comparative political theory, the dissertation helps to fill a void in political analysis of texts from the Theravāda world that are too often ignored, or simply unknown, by many scholars of political philosophy. Overall, this is an important and original dissertation with which future scholars and researchers on Myanmar’s politics will have to contend. I will be looking forward to reading the published monograph resulting from this dissertation.

T. F. Rhoden
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science
Northern Illinois University

Primary Sources
Buddhist texts
political works
in-depth interviews

Dissertation Information
University of Washington. 2012. 265 pp. Advisor: Christine Di Stefano.

Image:  Penang, Malaysia: Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple.  Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply