illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Does the Kathavatthu sutta (AN 10.69, accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.069.than.html) reject political involvement, as someone recently suggested?
I don't think so. Ken Jones doesn't seem to think it's so easy either (accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/jones/wheel285.html). Even though they're the most likely to be caricatured as removing themselves from the world, some Theravādins would reject the idea (budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/229.htm), and it's in fact possible to find a book with the contributions of many respected teachers from many buddhist streams about "mindful politics" (amazon.com/gp/product/0861712986/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0861712986&linkCode=as2&tag=koanmu03-20&linkId=J6EPMWYOVUMF4DVO).
To start with, given that the karma of the Buddha could supposedly have led him to become either an awakened teacher or an awakened ruler, separating the Dharma from how we participate (sometimes by complicit silence) to how the world is ruled seems dubious to me! But we can go much further.
On reading any sutta
Sutras are contradictory (gplus.wallez.name/Rz9mMYgYbbK) and their value lies in the contradiction with our views, not when they confirm what we want to hear! This being said, many sūtras are consistent (when those are similar antidotes to similar hindrances). So we might find some sort of consistency, and still question whether a sūtra is addressed to us (our hindrances) or to others… We cannot assume that things are clear or simple, that'd be caricaturing, that'd be missing the context.
The Buddha did not present himself as inherently 'special', and one of the reasons for this is precisely to insist that others too may attain nirvāṇa! Not being 'special' by essence, he didn't state precepts or advices that he then didn't apply… He showed the way, led by example. So when we want to understand some advice by the Buddha, it's often useful to look at what he did. If there's apparent contradiction between his advice and his actions, it's likely that either the sūtra is misreporting events (always a possibility…) or that we simply didn't understand the advice properly!
When we read that the Buddha stated « It isn't right, monks, that [you] should get engaged in (…) conversation about food & drink; clothing… », we should ask ourselves whether we understand this correctly, we shouldn't assume it's necessarily easy and obvious.
The Buddha did talk of food, and of clothing… In fact, these are even part of the "four requisites" and there also are many monastic precepts associated! By reciting the vinaya, monastics would have to talk about food and clothes. By commenting, to instruct others, they also would have to do so… There are several reasons to doubt a literal, naïve, black&white interpretation of the instruction!
The Dharma does cover many societal issues, many social questions: "do not talk politics, only talk of the Dharma" immediately constitutes an apparent contradiction if we interpret the instruction literally!
We ought to cultivate "right view" (which is "complete view", a view beyond our 'personal' or 'individual' opinion, a "harmonious" view that combines all angles, all perspectives… gplus.wallez.name/i74AzY5wEQL).
When we read that the Buddha stated « It isn't right, monks, that [you] should get engaged (…) conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state… », we should also ask ourselves whether we understand this correctly, we shouldn't assume it's necessarily easy and obvious.
Did the Buddha refrain from talking about kings, politics, wars?
It's hard to consider so when, in his last days, he taught of the different degrees of wholesomeness of various politics!
A key sutta, the Maha-parinibbana sutta (DN 16), in fact starts with a political situation and the subsequent advice (commonly titled "conditions of a nation's welfare" (repeating AN 7.19 —or AN 7.21 in some versions)). As made clear from the very first paragraphs of the sutta, it is addressed to a minister, and it talks of customs / laws / policies… It talks of non-violence, of consensus building, of political stability (no gerrymandering!)…
According to commentaries of the Dhammapada, the Buddha also intervened personally on the field of battle, as in the dispute between the Śakyas and Koliyas over the waters of the Rohini (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/burlingame/wheel324.html#sect18).
And simply to spread this sutta or this commentary, monastics do have to talk of kings, of ministers, etc.
Was the Buddha breaking his own advice from AN 10.69? If we assume there's some consistency in spite of the apparent contradiction, i.e. if we're interested in going beyond dualistic views, what's the reconciliation? What's the encompassing view, wider view, complete view ("right view") which unites these?
I think the Buddha's advice itself makes it clear. Does he fall into discussing "oh, this side has always been troublesome, that side has always been right"? No! Instead, he discusses causal processes: "if you speak / act / live in a wholesome way, you'll benefit. If you behave unwholesomely, difficulties will result."
Selflessness implies that one isn't separate from the world, and the world embeds social issues, political issues, karmic consequences… Wholesomeness is generally defined in relation to other sentient beings, not in a vacuum. Compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, are defined in relation to other sentient beings, not in a vacuum (and if it requires to use "right speech" —including right vote— to stop an oppression, a discrimination, a conflict… there's very little Dharma to justify not to do so!).
So what did the Buddha mean when he rejected, for monks, conversations about « kings (…) the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead (…) talk of whether things exist or not. »?
First, the list is contextual: « Now at that time a large number of monks, after the meal, on returning from their alms round, had gathered at the meeting hall and were engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation… »
Monks have received support from laypeople, but such a support is tied to intentions: laypeople support monastics to earn merit and so that the monastics Liberate themselves, help others, spread the Dharma, etc. Laypeople do not support lazy, idle or gossipy monastics. And to maintain the availability of such a support, it is important not to betray the wholesome intentions involved in dāna.
Quoting a sutta out of context is a dangerous endeavour, as it quickly leads to cherry-picking what we prefer, what we want to hear, and to inconsistencies.
Second, the list is of inter-dependent phenomena, so "do not talk about kings", as in… Do not "gossip"! Do not "propagate tales" about them as persons! Do not speculate! Cultivate "right speech"!
Do not fall for the celebrity culture, the royal weddings, etc. But this isn't the same as aversion, or avoidance, of a topic! Freedom is grounded in equanimity, neither aversion nor indifference!
According to the same sutta, there are ten topics of 'proper' conversation: talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release…
So you can talk of the virtue of a king! Not to praise the king, not to take sides, but to praise the virtue itself! Why so? To be inspired, to become virtuous yourself, and to refrain from just counting on others (king or otherwise) to be so! You can talk of non-entanglement, how to cease conflicts, how to support and promote peace… You can discern (and talk of how to discern for oneself) which speech, act, and livelihood are wholesome (the "virtue" section of the eightfold path) and which are not. You can discern the emptiness of borders and of thresholds (how dark does a person need to be to be labelled 'black'?) leading to ignorant labels, to erroneous 'discernments'!
You can talk of the Dharma… and this has social and political dimensions (e.g. against discriminations!).
The Kathavatthu sutta is coherent with the kalama sutta, in teaching not to rely on the fallacy of 'authorities' to decide what's wholesome or not.
You can talk to others of how to judge by oneself whether some policy is wholesome or not, but there's little point in pretending a policy is wholesome or unwholesome just because you say so, or just because it's from this king rather than from that king!
The sutta rejects taking sides, commenting of some 'inherent' or 'permanent' rightness / wrongness of one side… However, it actively promotes using wise discernment (hence discernment of causal processes) instead of identifications, instead of projections, instead of illusory 'permanent' entities.
A policy is wholesome or unwholesome based on the context at hand and what the situation requires, not based on a label. It's not right because it's "Democrat" or "Republican", and it's not right because it's "uncompromising" or because it's "bi-partisan" either (the appeal to majority is a logical fallacy too!): the situation dictates what's appropriate for the benefit of all beings!
« kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not. »
Illusory, impermanent, unreliable entities… or mere narratives, one-sided accounts, preconceptions, prejudices, vanities… speculations over facts… engrossment in the past (glory) at the cost of the present… worldly winds (reputation, praise, blame)…
Sure, all these are advised against. But this doesn't mean non-involvement or indifference, this doesn't turn the buddhist ideal into a "stone statue without any appropriate response to the suffering of sentient beings"!
Practice is embodied and is about wholesome causal unfolding
The current political buzz includes income inequality, trade deals, the environment… all which have major impacts on (availability and quality of) food, on (availability of) medicine, on (availability and quality of) shelter… i.e. on the "four requisites", without which it's extremely difficult for anyone to cultivate wisdom, let alone to attain nirvāṇa! The generic vow "do not harm" has to be embodied, even when it's uncomfortable to do so!
No arhat, no 'candidate' for arahantship, no practitioner can reasonably ignore politics: "right speech" isn't "right silence" (even if, sometimes, silence is right speech in some specific context at hand). The belief in separate existence is the first of the ten fetters: ignoring the plight (political or otherwise) of others is not the Middle Way!
Consider that your political action, for the benefit of all (not of "special interests"), is an aspect of dāna, of generosity, of giving time and energy for the sake of all (others and yourself), for the sake of weakening or even ceasing dukkha!
To refrain from caricatural answers and to refrain from trying to impose our will by force, etc., doesn't contradict creating supportive conditions, leveraging wholesome opportunities, ceasing discriminations, etc. (incl. by influencing policies). The world isn't simple, but it's no excuse for inaction, it's only motivation to educate oneself, to cultivate wisdom, to tune one's mindfulness on causality.
No easy answer: quoting a sutta (or even a few) to justify one's aversion to political involvement isn't the game! Buddhism isn't a political 'movement' (and shouldn't), but it doesn't imply a total absence of overlap of concerns.
See also lionsroar.com/i-vow-to-be-political-buddhism-social-change-and-skillful-means/