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Buddhism and politics, a little known teaching of Buddha

by Pierre To
16 minutes to read
Buddhism and Politics

A teaching on Buddhism and politics from the book "The Teaching of the Buddha from the Oldest Texts" by Walpola Rahula.

"Those who imagine that Buddhism is concerned only with supremely high ideals, high moral and philosophical thoughts, ignoring the social and economic welfare of the masses, are mistaken.

The Buddha was interested in the happiness of humanity.

For him there was no happiness possible outside a pure life based on moral and spiritual principles.

But he also knew that it was difficult to lead such a life if the material and social conditions were unfavourable.

Buddhism does not regard material well-being as an end in itself; it is only a means to an end - a higher and nobler end.

But it is an indispensable means to a higher end for human happiness.

Buddhism therefore recognises that a certain minimum of material conditions is conducive to spiritual success, even when it comes to the monk engaged in meditation in a secluded place.

The Buddha does not separate life from its social and economic background; he sees it as a whole, in all its spiritual, social, economic and political aspects.

The Buddha's teaching on politics

The Buddha's teaching on ethical, spiritual and philosophical matters is fairly well known.

But little is known, particularly in the West, about its teaching on social, economic and political issues.

And yet there are many speeches that deal with these subjects and are found throughout the ancient texts.

Let's look at just a few examples:

The Cakkavattisihanada-sutta of the Digha-nikaya clearly states that poverty (daliddiya) is a cause of immorality and crimes like theft, deceit, violence, hatred, cruelty, etc.

The kings of ancient times, like the governments of today, sought to suppress crime by means of punishment.

The Kutadana-sutta of the same nikaya says how futile this is; it denies that this method can ever be effective.

Instead, the Buddha suggests that crime should be stopped by improving the economic condition of the people.

It says that seeds and other necessities for agriculture must be provided to farmers and cultivators; that capital must be made available to merchants and other corporations; that adequate wages must be paid to employees.

When provided with the means of earning a sufficient income, the people will be satisfied, they will be free from fear and anxiety and, as a result, the country will become peaceful and free from crime.

This is why the Buddha reminded the laity of the importance of improving economic conditions.

This did not mean, of course, that he approved of accumulating wealth with greed and attachment, which is in contradiction with his fundamental teaching, nor did he approve of using any means to earn a living.

There are certain professions, such as the manufacture and trade of arms, which he condemned as harmful livelihoods.

The Buddha's teaching on Happiness

A man called Dighajanu once visited the Buddha and said to him, "Lord, we are ordinary lay people leading a family life with wives and children.

Could the Blessed One give us some teachings that will lead us to happiness in the world and beyond?

The Buddha replied that there are four things that lead man to happiness in this world:

Firstly: he must be skilful and efficient, conscientious and energetic in whatever profession he is engaged in, and he must have complete knowledge of it (utthana-sampada).

Secondly, he must guard his hard-earned earnings (arakkha-sampada); (this is to protect his earnings from thieves etc.).

All these ideas must be seen in the context of the time.)

Thirdly, he must have good friends (kalyana-mitta) who are faithful, learned, virtuous, liberal and intelligent, who help him to keep himself on the right path and guard against evil.

Fourthly: he should spend reasonably, according to his income, not too little, i.e. he should not accumulate greedily, nor indulge in extravagance - in other words, he should live within his means (samajivikata).

Then the Buddha outlined the four virtues that lead a lay person to happiness in the afterlife:

Firstly: he must have faith and confidence (saddha) in moral, spiritual and intellectual values.

Secondly, he must refrain from destroying life or harming it, from theft, deceit, adultery, lying, intoxicating drinks (sila).

Thirdly, he should practice charity, generosity, without attachment (caga).

Fourthly: he must develop the wisdom (panna) that leads to the complete destruction of suffering, to the attainment of Nirvana.

Buddhism and politics: the economy

Sometimes the Buddha even went into detail about saving and spending money, as for example when he told the young Sigala that he should spend a quarter of his income on his daily needs, invest half of it in his business and put the last quarter aside for the unexpected.

The Buddha once told Anathapindika the great banker, one of his most devoted lay disciples, who had founded the famous Jetavana monastery in Savatthi for him, that a layman leading ordinary family life has four forms of happiness:

the first form of happiness is to enjoy economic security or sufficient wealth obtained by fair and honest means (atthi-sukka);

the second is to spend this wealth liberally on himself, his family, friends and relatives and on meritorious acts (bhoga-sutta);

the third is to be free from debt (anana-sukha);

the fourth The only form of happiness is to lead an upright, pure life, without doing harm in thought, word or deed (anavajja-sutta).

It is worth noting that the first three kinds of happiness are economic in nature, but that the Buddha finally reminded the banker that material and economic happiness 'is not worth the sixteenth part' of spiritual happiness which is the result of pure and good living.

It can be seen from these examples that the Buddha held economic well-being to be a condition of human happiness, but that he did not recognise progress as real and true if this progress was only material and deprived of a spiritual and moral foundation.

While it encourages material progress, spiritual Buddhism promotes a happy, peaceful and contented society.

The Buddha against war

The Buddha not only taught non-violence and peace; he went to the very battlefield and intervened in person to prevent a war, in the dispute between the Sakya and the Koliya who were ready to fight over the Rohini waters.

And his words prevented King Ajatasattu from attacking the Vajji kingdom.

Buddhism and politics: how to govern

In the time when the Buddha lived there were rulers who ruled their states unjustly, as there are today. They levied excessive taxes and inflicted cruel punishments.

The people were oppressed and exploited, tortured and persecuted.

The Buddha was deeply moved by this inhuman treatment.

The Dhammapadatthakatha relates that he then turned his attention to the problem of good government.

His ideas must be appreciated in the social, economic and political context of his time.

He showed how a whole country can become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the leaders of the government, i.e. king, ministers and officials become corrupt and unjust themselves.

For a country to be happy it must have a just government.

The principles of this just government are set out by the Buddha in his teaching on the "Ten Duties of the King" (Dasa-raja-dhamma), as given in the Jataka.

Of course, the word 'king' (Raja) of old must be replaced today by the word 'government'.

Therefore the "Ten Duties of the King" now apply to all those involved in government, heads of state, ministers, political leaders, members of the legislature and administrative officials.

The Ten Duties of the King

1- The first of these ten duties is liberality, generosity, charity (dana). The ruler should not have greed or attachment for wealth and property, but should dispose of them for the welfare of the people.

2 - High moral character (sila). He must never destroy life, cheat, steal or exploit others, commit adultery, say false things, or take intoxicating drinks. That is, he must at least observe the Five Precepts of the Law.

3 -Sacrifice everything for the good of the people (pariccaga). He must be prepared to sacrifice his comfort, his name and fame, and his very life for the sake of the people.

4 - Honesty and integrity (ajjava). He must be free from fear or favour in the performance of his duties; he must be sincere in his intentions and must not deceive the public.

5 -Amability and affability (maddava). He must have a gentle temperament.

6 -Austerity in habits (tapa). He should lead a simple life and not indulge in luxury. He should be self-possessed.

7 - Absence of hatred, ill-will, enmity (akkodha). He should not hold a grudge against anyone.

8 - Non-violence (avihimsa), which means not only not harming anyone, but also striving for peace by avoiding and preventing war and anything that involves violence and destruction of life.

9 -Patience, forgiveness, tolerance, understanding (khanti). He must be able to bear hardships, difficulties and insults without getting carried away.

10 - Non-opposition, non-obstruction (avirodha). That is, he should not oppose the will of the people, not thwart any measure favourable to the welfare of the people. In other words, he should stand in harmony with the people.

It is needless to say how happy a country would be governed by men with these qualities.

And this is not a Utopia, as there have been kings in the past, such as Asoka in India, who established their kingdoms on the basis of these ideas.

The Buddha said:

"Never by hatred is hatred appeased; but it is appeased by benevolence. This is an eternal truth.

"Anger should be overcome by kindness, malice by goodness, selfishness by charity and falsehood by truthfulness.

There can be no peace or happiness for man as long as he desires and craves to conquer and subjugate his neighbour. As the Buddha again said:

"The victor causes hatred, and the vanquished has fallen into misery. He who renounces victory and defeat is happy and peaceful. The only victory that brings peace and happiness is the victory over oneself.

"Millions can be conquered in battle, but he who conquers himself, he alone is the greatest of conquerors.

Ashoka, the great Buddhist emperor

It is a consolation and a hope to think today that there was at least one great ruler, famous in history, who had the courage, the confidence, the imagination to put this teaching of non-violence, peace and love into practice in the administration of a vast empire, both internally and externally, Ashoka, the great Buddhist emperor of India (3rd century B.C.), "the beloved of the gods", as he was called.

He had initially followed the example of his father (Bindusara) and grandfather (Chandragupta) and wanted to continue the conquest of the Indian peninsula.

He invaded and conquered Kalinga, annexing it to his empire.

Several hundred thousand people were killed, wounded, tortured and taken prisoner during this war.

But when he later became a Buddhist, he changed and was completely transformed by the Buddha's teaching.

In one of his famous edicts engraved on rock (Edict XIII on rock, as it is now called), the original of which is still legible today, the emperor, referring to the conquest of Kalinga, publicly expresses his 'repentance' and says that it is 'extremely painful' for him to think of this carnage.

He declares that he will never again draw his sword to undertake a conquest, but that he "wishes all living beings non-violence, self-control and the practice of serenity and gentleness.

This, of course, is considered by the Beloved of the Gods (Asoka) to be the greatest conquest, the conquest by piety (dhamma-vijaya).

Not only did he renounce war for himself, but he expressed his desire: "that my sons and grandsons should not think it worthwhile to make a new conquest...that they should think only of that conquest which is conquest by piety.

This is good for this world and for the world beyond.

It is the only example in all of human history that a victorious conqueror, at the height of his power, still in full possession of the strength that would allow him to continue his territorial conquests, nevertheless renounced war and violence in favour of peace and non-violence.

It is a lesson for our world today. The ruler of a vast empire publicly renounces war and violence and embraces the message of peace and non-violence.

History does not show that there was a neighbouring king to take advantage of Asoka's piety and attack him with arms, or that there was any revolt or rebellion in his empire during his lifetime.

On the contrary, peace reigned throughout the country and it seems that distant lands outside his empire willingly accepted his benevolent leadership.

Buddhism and politics: perfect government

Buddhism aims to create a society that would renounce the ruinous struggle for power, where tranquility and peace would prevail over victory and defeat;

where the persecution of the innocent would be vehemently denounced;

where one would have more respect for the man who conquers himself than for the one who conquers millions of beings by military and economic war;

where hatred would be overcome by friendship and evil by goodness;

where enmity, jealousy, malice and greed would not poison the minds of men;

where compassion would be the driving force behind the action;

where all beings, including the humblest living thing, are treated with justice, consideration and love;

where in peace, friendship and harmony, in a world of material contentment, life would be directed towards the highest and noblest goal, the attainment of the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana.

See also :
Theravada Buddhism
The life of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
Representation of Buddha, the fat one and the skinny one

A text from the book :

The Buddha's teaching according to the most ancient texts" by Walpola Rahula

Today there are many currents in the Buddhism and different teachings that sometimes deviate greatly from the original teaching.

If you want to know more about the real Buddha's teaching I advise you to read this book, the essentials are there and the most courageous or the wisest can certainly reach enlightenment with it:

 "The reThe Buddha's teaching according to the most ancient textsVerend Rahula received the traditional training of a Buddhist monk in Ceylon.

[The book he has kindly asked me to present to the Western public is a luminous and accessible exposition of the fundamental principles of Buddhist doctrine, as found in the most ancient texts, those called in Sanskrit 'the Tradition' (Agama) and in Pali 'the Canonical Corpus' (Nikdya), and to which Reverend Rahula, who possesses an incomparable knowledge of them, refers constantly and almost exclusively.

Paul Demiéville

Find it on Amazon.co.uk

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