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A Buddhist Perspective on Politics

Amaranatho's picture

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‘Let one not neglect one's own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one's own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.’
Dhammapada 166 1

What is politics?
I find it very interesting to notice the number of words that I know and that I can see in operation and yet be unable to define. ‘Politics’ is one of those words. I see politics in action on the TV, in the paper, in daily life, in the monastery, and yet what does ‘politics’ mean? Good old Wikipedia tells me that it’s ‘the process by which groups make decisions.’ From a Buddhist perspective the outcome of a decision is based on our intention and in order to be clear with what our intention is, we really need to understand who we really are. The focus of Buddhism is on freeing the heart, understanding that all conditions, regardless of what they are, when grasped or pushed away, lead to suffering. The Buddha encouraged monks and nuns to focus on freeing the heart rather than on politics.

When we do try to understand what politics is, we find a rather complex web of conditions. Our views and opinions are learnt within a cultural, social and political environment. So, for example, if you are brought up in a far-right political environment, then a far-right political decision will probably feel correct; and if you are brought up in a far-left political environment, then a far-left political decision will probably feel correct. Of course, as we engage more with other people our views may change, if we reflect on them. The emphasis in Buddhism is on the middle way of not going to extremes. How then do we do this?

Cause and effect
Each condition has causes and effects. Sometimes they can be clearly seen and other times they are entangled within a more complex set of conditions. Our intention also has an effect on this process: are we doing something to hurt another/ourselves or are we doing it to be helpful? Intention is like a physical push – it moves our thoughts in one direction or the other. As we look at how our mind operates and simply notice rather than react to the thoughts, we can better see these conditions for what they are. Being mindful of our thoughts, the mind tends to calm down naturally and peace and discriminative wisdom arises. We are then able to respond to situations in a more flexible way, not based on conditioning but on compassion and empathy. This is neither dull nor boring, it is alive and spontaneous, and willing to learn whatever knowledge is needed to help the situation. As we do this, it can encourage other people to do the same. Thus we develop a field of care, rather than judgement and empowerment, rather than power over others. In order to do this, in the initial stages you need a wise leader and group of people who help to sustain the momentum of such a project.

The Buddha’s rules of government
The Buddha developed ten rules for the government of a peaceful country called the Dasa raja Dharmas 2:

1) be liberal and avoid selfishness,
2) maintain a high moral character,
3) be prepared to sacrifice one's own pleasure for the wellbeing 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.

King Asokha (304–23 BCE) was a terrible king, who ran a huge empire from Pakistan to Bangladesh. When he saw the carnage after a battle, he sought refuge in the Buddha’s teachings. He put the Buddha’s teaching into action, transforming the society by reducing crime and promoting respect for all faiths and none, with his message spreading to Greece and Rome. As the Buddha noticed, conditions arise and cease; so it is with all good conditions. There is also the opposite, a natural cycle. We can see this with Ashoka’s empire – it arose, it peaked, and then it declined and then another cycle started.

The more that we see these cycles of birth and death and don’t get lost in the cycle, the more free we become and notice that ‘this is the way it is’. Everybody is getting exactly what they need. It sometimes feels very unfair, unjust or completely right and we can notice that. We are not agreeing with it or liking it, we are just accepting that ‘this is the way it is’. From this acceptance a suitable action or piece of wisdom can arise that benefits oneself and everyone. This allows us to make a choice about our action by body and speech.

If you look at the actions of the Buddha, some of them could be called conservative and others could be called liberal. Some days the Buddha would emphasise the internal work one has to do, That is understanding the mind and how greed, hatred and delusion cloud our vision. On other days he would emphasise external work. That is what needs to be done in the community. The Buddha also knew when things had reached the stage of being a lost cause, and then he packed his things and left the community. In recent years the integral approach developed by Ken Wilber has given a more precise language for discussing this and many other issues of the contemporary world, which balance the internal and external. 3

As we notice the connection between cause and effect (how intention shapes this connection, and so how internal reality connects with external reality and vice versa) then we develop options for actions that go beyond praise or blame, good and bad, and find ways to live a life based on non-harming and peace. Which do you choose?