Buddha’s Way of Governing

Lionel Wijesiri (Daily News)

Ven. Dr. Walpola. Rahula, in his book “What the Buddha Taught” says, “Those who think that Buddhism is interested only in lofty ideals, high moral and philosophical thought, and ignores any social and economic welfare of people, are wrong. The Buddha was interested in the happiness of men. To him happiness was not possible without leading a pure life based on moral and spiritual principles. But he knew that leading such a life was hard in unfavourable material and social conditions.

Buddhism is primarily a contemplative religion (or a great philosophy? -TW). Nevertheless, from its earliest times there has been a strong social justice ethic, born from the fundamental principle of compassionate action. According to the Buddha, as human beings we make choices that have consequences. If these choices are made with wisdom and compassion, the outcome will be happiness; if they are made with greed, hatred, and delusion, the outcome will be suffering.

In the sphere of social justice, the Buddha pointed out that, while it is normal for people to want to experience the pleasures of life, when greed becomes excessive it creates conflict. This conflict is rooted in the reality of limited resources: the earth is generous and abundant, but can only supply so much. When some decide to take for themselves beyond what is reasonable, others go without. Thus, inequality is born, from which stem jealousy, distrust, lies, crime, and violence. To manage these stresses, humans invent social constructs such as laws, customs, classes, private property, and government.

Dhamma Rajya

From the evidence of the Buddha’s discourses, or suttas, it is clear that early Buddhists were very much concerned with the creation of social conditions favourable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values.

Our history shows us when Buddhism became the shaping ideal of the State, and Buddhist ideas and ideals were used to build a just and righteous society, a period of great prosperity will be ushered. It consists of material, moral, and spiritual. It is the only true solution to the manifold problems in the modern world.

A truly noble and righteous ruler would live in accord with dharma, ruling without violence or coercion. Here is a succinct summary of a king’s duties according to an early Buddhist text. “What is the duty of a Noble emperor? Depending on the dharma, honouring it, revering, cherishing it, one should establish guard, ward and protection according to dharma for one’s own household, troops, nobles and vassals, for Brahmins and householders, town and country folk, ascetics and religious, for beasts and birds. Let no crime prevail in the kingdom, and to those who are in need, give property.”

The Buddhist texts give many parables of kings who exceeded the bounds of dharma, and who through their greed brought their people to suffering, and ultimately sealed their own fate as well.

Good governance

The Buddha preached non-violence and peace as a universal message. He did not approve of violence or the destruction of life, and declared that there is no such thing as a ‘just’ war. He taught: ‘The victor breeds hatred, the defeated lives in misery. He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and peaceful.’ Not only did the Buddha teach non-violence and peace, He was perhaps the first and only religious teacher who went to the battlefield personally to prevent the outbreak of a war. He diffused tension between the Sakyas and the Koliyas who were about to wage war over the waters of Rohini. He also dissuaded King Ajatasattu from attacking the Kingdom of the Vajjis.

The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.

The Buddha elaborates the point, ‘When the ruler of a country is just and good, the ministers become just and good; when the ministers are just and good, the higher officials become just and good; when the higher officials are just and good, the rank and file become just and good; when the rank and file become just and good, the people become just and good.'(Anguttara Nikaya)

In the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta, the Buddha said that immorality and crime, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, could arise from poverty. Kings and governments may try to suppress crime through punishment, but it is futile to eradicate crimes through force.

In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha suggested economic development instead of force to reduce crime. The government should use the country’s resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. It could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to entrepreneurs and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with human dignity.

In the Jataka, the Buddha had given to rules for Good Government, known as ‘Dasa Raja Dharma’. These ten rules can be applied even today by any government which wishes to rule the country peacefully. The rules are as follows:

1) be liberal and avoid selfishness, 2) maintain a high moral character, 3) be prepared to sacrifice one’s own pleasure for the well-being of the subjects, 4) be honest and maintain absolute integrity, 5) be kind and gentle, 6) lead a simple life for the subjects to emulate, 7) be free from hatred of any kind, 8) exercise non-violence, 9) practise patience, and 10) respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony.

Moral duty

Regarding the behaviour of rulers, He further advised, (1) a good ruler should act impartially and should not be biased and discriminate between one particular group of subjects against another, (2) a good ruler should not harbour any form of hatred against any of his subjects, (3) a good ruler should show no fear whatsoever in the enforcement of the law, if it is justifiable, (4) a good ruler must possess a clear understanding of the law to be enforced. It should not be enforced just because the ruler has the authority to enforce the law. It must be done in a reasonable manner and with common sense. — (Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta)

The Buddha’s emphasis on the moral duty of a ruler to use public power to improve the welfare of the people had inspired Emperor Asoka to do likewise. Emperor Asoka, a sparkling example of this principle, resolved to live according to and preach the Dhamma and to serve his subjects and all humanity. He declared his non-aggressive intentions to his neighbours, assuring them of his goodwill and sending envoys to distant kings bearing his message of peace and non-aggression.

He promoted the energetic practice of the socio-moral virtues of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, benevolence, non-violence, considerate behaviour towards all, non-extravagance, non-acquisitiveness, and non-injury to animals. He encouraged religious freedom and mutual respect for each other’s creed. He went on periodic tours preaching the Dhamma to the rural people. He undertook works of public utility, such as founding of hospitals for men and animals, supplying of medicine, planting of roadside trees and groves, digging of wells, and construction of watering sheds and rest houses. He expressly forbade cruelty to animals. Sometimes the Buddha is said to be a social reformer. Among other things, He condemned the caste system, recognized the equality of people, spoke on the need to improve socio-economic conditions, recognized the importance of a more equitable distribution of wealth among the rich and the poor, raised the status of women, recommended the incorporation of humanism in government and administration, and taught that a society should not be run by greed but with consideration and compassion for the people.