Being a Buddhist President in Exile

Should the head of a government live out his religious beliefs in office? The Tibetan President-in-Exile Lobsang Sangay argues that that does not necessarily violate the separation of church and state or the freedom of religion or belief.

An alumnus of Harvard University and a U.S. citizen, Sangay goes on to suggest that religion can play a constructive role in society and politics, just as Buddhism has in the decades-long non-violent Tibetan struggle against China’s atheist government, which in the 1950s annexed Tibet and killed tens of thousands of Tibetans for resisting its communist rule. The Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees have been living in India since 1959.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, relinquished all political power to the India-based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), a democratic institution that runs the parliament-in-exile with the president as its head. That can be seen as the separation of church and state, Sangay says. For over three and a half centuries, the office of the Dalai Lama had been at the helm of political and religious affairs.

But that separation has not abolished the role religion has traditionally played, or the influence of the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan society and politics, the president points out. The Tibetan struggle has remained non-violent and resilient mostly due to the worldview of the Tibetans, which is based on their religious beliefs, he adds.

Violence has been incited and/or endorsed by sections of the clergy in the Theravada Buddhist majority countries of Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, but not in Mahayana Buddhist nations or societies like Tibet and Bhutan.

More than 150 Tibetans, mostly inside Tibet, have self-immolated to protest an ongoing brutal repression by Chinese authorities, but they have not used any violence against Chinese officials or people, Sangay says.

Here’s an exclusive interview with Sangay, in which he explains how religion affects the public and private lives in his community.