Prince Siddhartha (before he becomes Buddha), the Great Going Forth

Sita Arunthavanathan, a Sri Lankan scholar of Buddhism and the Pali language, wrote: “Buddha as a religious teacher confined his teachings strictly to religious discipline and questions involving eschatology and soteriology. He refrained from making any pronouncement on the relative merits of the political systems or the political theories that existed in his time. However as Prince Siddhartha he was brought up to be a universal monarch and was given an extensive training in statecraft and military arts. [Source: Sita Arunthavanathan, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com |=|]

“The Buddhist texts show that the style of language the Buddha used in his conversations with kings such as Bimbisara and Pasenadi savouring of military similes, metaphors, illustrations from the context of the state, defence and martial arts, evinced a thorough knowledge of war strategies. Buddha appeared at a time of political evolution when the existing republics were being swallowed up by the powerful neighbouring rulers with the emergence of monarchies. The scattered references in the suttas help us to gain an insight into the political power, authority and duties of a temporal ruler.” |=|

This (prince) feels for the welfare of the multitude.—Nalaka-sutta.

This king felt the weal and the woe of his subjects as his own.—Jatakamala.

Better than sovereignty over this earth, ... better than lordship over all worlds, is the recompense of the first step in holiness.—Dhammapada.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddhism, History and Politics

King Naresuan of Thailand's Ayutthaya Kingdom

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “People are often shocked that Buddhism could be central to the violence of Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or the more than a hundred self-immolations that took place in Tibet in the early 2010s — self-inflicted acts of political violence that confounded both the Chinese government and many onlookers in the West. For many, Buddhism is “a religion of peace” and its adaptation for political purposes, even to inspire violence, feels flat-out wrong.[Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, July 13, 2019]

“Religion and politics have been inextricably linked in Buddhism since its beginnings in ancient India. This is especially true of Tantric Buddhism, which emphasizes rituals and magic. Although today Indian Buddhism manifests mainly as a protest movement against the hierarchism of Brahmanical Hinduism, in earlier times its practice was characteristically associated with small republics and royal courts.

Karl Debreczeny at the Rubin Museum pointed out that, for many people in the West, Buddhism is completely divorced from its history. So many of the beliefs and rites have been stripped away in this view that many Westerners regard it purely as a philosophy, rather than a religion. As well-intentioned as this version of Buddhism might be, it is also a fantasy that places its practice on a higher moral and spiritual plane and erects an unbridgeable distance between us and its real, historical significance in Tibet.

Buddhism and Social and Political Activism

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: On the surface it would appear that Buddhism would not be a religion that lends itself to taking an active role in social issues, given that at its core is the individual search for individual salvation. It is imperative, however, to understand that the Buddha set out for his quest for enlightenment not out of a selfish quest for spiritual fulfillment but out of compassion and the burning desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings, and it is this fundamental emphasis on compassion that informs and orients the Buddhist sense of social justice. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

In the latter part of the twentieth century there emerged across the Buddhist world a phenomenon that scholars and Buddhists alike have labeled engaged Buddhism, a broad and varied movement that addresses issues such as poverty, education, and human rights.

The number of Buddhist organizations addressing economic issues throughout the world has grown tremendously since the middle of the twentieth century. These organizations participate in a staggering range of activities, from those that operate purely on the village level to those with a decidedly international scope. One of the most interesting modern Buddhist groups to deal with the issue of poverty is Sarvodaya, which began in 1958 with the purpose of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues in Sri Lanka. In 1987 Sarvodaya started Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services (SEEDS), intended explicitly to address poverty and economic issues. The goals of SEEDS are nothing short of the eradication of poverty, accomplished through developing, at the local and village level, means for sustainable livelihood. SEEDS provides vocational training, helps local groups develop projects related to agriculture and marketing, assists in technical issues, and provides low-interest loans to help start sustainable projects. Although this is a movement specific to Sri Lanka, countless other such movements have emerged in South, Southeast, and East Asia. For instance, the Metta Dana Project, based in central Myanmar (Burma), is a similar grassroots organization that focuses not only on poverty but also on health care and educational issues. Likewise, the Tzu Chi Foundation, in Taiwan, in addition to addressing a large range of social issues, provides a range of charities and economic relief, including home repair, medical aid, food distribution, and funeral assistance. In India the Karuna Trust, formed in 1980 by a group of Western Buddhists, focuses specifically on India's approximately 6 million formerly untouchable Buddhist converts, sometimes called Dalit Buddhists, providing disaster relief and support for a wide range of economic development projects.

Buddhist groups specifically concerned with human rights began to draw widespread recognition during the Vietnam War, when Buddhist monks took an active role in protesting not only American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia but also the activities of the communist governments in those countries. One particularly prominent figure in this movement has been Thich Nhat Hanh, an outspoken monk who left Vietnam in 1966 and took up residence in France, where he has continued to be an important voice. He is the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat that promotes a cross-cultural, interdenominational appreciation of human life.

Buddhist human rights activists have been particularly active in Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet. The Free Burma Coalition (FBC), for instance, is an umbrella organization that was founded in 1995 by a group of Burmese and American graduate students to address human rights violations by Myanmar's military. FBC is associated with the National League for Democracy, a group that has been led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. FBC is a large network, particularly active on the Internet, of activists, dissident academics in exile, labor groups, and refugees, all working to ensure the protection of human rights in Myanmar's highly volatile political climate. Tibet has been an even more consistent focus of human rights groups since the 1950s and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India. In part motivated by the Dalai Lama himself, numerous groups in the West and in Tibet have worked to monitor and protect human rights in that country by organizing protests, mounting letter-writing campaigns, appealing to foreign governments for political and economic pressure, and so on. Prominent Buddhist organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Fo Kuang Shan in East Asia are also actively engaged in human rights issues, as are countless distinctly Buddhist human rights organizations and movements throughout Asia and the West.

Origin and Definition of Kingship

young Naresuan watches a cockfight

Sita Arunthavanathan wrote: “The myth prevailing at the time of the Buddha was that kingship was of divine origin; it was war that necessitated a king to give leadership. But the Buddhist concept as given in Agganna Sutta (Digha Nikaya) is that kingship originated as a genuine political need of the society as opposed to the Brahmin theory of divine origin and divine creation of the society divided into four castes. [Source: Sita Arunthavanathan, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com |=|]

“According to this sutta, at a certain juncture of evolution, the logical need to show what mother nature offered, to arrest the diminishing of natural resources due to greed, to stop stealing and other vices, prompted a genuine social need for a charismatic leader to arbitrate whenever such a situation arose. Hence the king was a figure chosen and approved by the people (Mahasammata); a logical outcome of a social need. |=|

“Definition of a king as a given in the Agganna Sutta is, "one who makes others happy by righteousness" (dhammena param ranjeti ti raja). Buddhist texts refer to rajas, maharajas and cakkavatti rajas but whatever the title was, a king had to honour, respect and hold righteousness in high esteem. (Cakkavatti Siha Nada Sutta - Digha Nikaya). Consensus among people gave authority to the king and all the power he had, was that of the people. |=|

“This was the emergence of democracy. Moral degeneration (adhamma) due to fighting and friction necessitated a ruler for moral regeneration (dhamma). There were unwritten norms, political law-givers, chaplains (purohita) and others to advise the king and keep him off from indulging in excesses or becoming a despot/dictator. In the Buddhist tradition of social evolution, king was the first among all equals and was not above the law.” |=|

Qualities and Duties of a King

Sita Arunthavanathan wrote: “A ruler was expected to have ten personal qualities such as generosity, liberality, virtue and so on. Four cardinal principles a king had to possess were generosity (dana), pleasant words (piya vacana), welfare of the subjects (atta cariya) and equal treatment of all (Samanatmata). [Source: Sita Arunthavanathan, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com |=|]

“He was also to have the following five qualities: 1) Understanding things with a clear vision (attannu), 2) Knowing that which is righteous (dhammannu), 3) Having a clear idea of limit and measure with regard to punishment, fines and taxes, 4) Knowing the right time for action (Kalannu) and 5) Knowing the assemblages of men (parisannu). |=|

“A king had to rule with justice and equity ensuring security from within and without. Here it must be stressed that moral responsibility lay not only with the ruler but also with the ruled. Each person in the society had a share of responsibility so that the community could present a united front. According to Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta a king's duty could be summarised as protection of the state, elimination of crime, effecting economic stability and ruling in consultation with the clergy (samana - brahmana). The Pali term 'dhammikam rakkhavaranam guttim' mean watch, ward and protection righteously. |=|

Prince Siddhartha in his chariot

“According to this Sutta protection had to be provided not only to the subjects, army, religious bodies etc but even to beasts and birds. Here word 'dhammikam' is of importance because a ruler can give protection even by unrighteous means (adhammikam). There is an illustration in Sutta Nipata where two men who had committed murder being treated in two different ways. One was garlanded because he killed an enemy of the king; the other was bound with ropes because he was a foe of the king. This difference in treatment for the same charge - murder - shows that laws of the state were not always impartial.” |=|

“Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta and Kutadanta Sutta (Digha N) show that violence raises its head when the economy of a country is at a low ebb and the destitute are neglected, consequently crime increases and it is the king's duty to eliminate it. These two suttas say that there will be a gradual loss of values due to economic instability. Men and women would resort to violence if living conditions are not conducive to preserving their lives and they would take to stealing rather than perish. As a result of goods not being accrued to those who are destitute poverty becomes rife. From poverty becoming rife stealing.........violence ........murder.......lying.........evil speech........adultery........incest, till finally lack of respect for parents, filial love, religious piety and lack of regard for the ruler will result." (Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta)” |=|

Ten Royal Virtues

In his sermons, The Buddha said that the qualities of the subjects of a kingdom depends largely on the behaviour of the kingdom’s ruler. He then outlined the Ten Royal Virtues (Qualities) (“Dasa-Raja-Dhamma”) to guide rulers and produce virtuous subjects. The Ten Royal Virtues (qualities) promote by Buddhism are: 1) Dana - Gifting; 2) Parithyaga - Sacrifice; 3) Sila - Virtue; 4) Thapasa - Austerity; 5) lrju - Uprightness; 6) Murdu - Soft; 7) Avihimsa - Non-harm; 8) Akrodaya - Non-ill will; 9) Kanthi - Forbearance; ) Avirodita - Non-conflict.

1) Dana: liberality, generosity or charity. The giving away of alms to the needy. It is the duty of the king (government) to look after the welfare of his needy subjects. The ideal ruler should give away wealth and property wisely without giving in-to craving and attachment. In other words he should not try to be rich making use of his position. [Source: Danister I. Fernando, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

2) Sila: morality - a high moral character. He must observe at least the Five Precepts, and conduct himself both in private and in public life as to be a shining example to his subjects. This virtue is very important, because, if the ruler adheres to it, strictly, then bribery and corruption, violence and indiscipline would be automatically wiped out in the country.

3) Comfort Pariccaga: Making sacrifices if they are for the good of the people - personal name and fame; even the life if need be. By the grant of gifts etc. the ruler spurs the subjects on to more efficient and more loyal service.

4) Ajjava: Honesty and integrity. He must be absolutely straightforward and must never take recourse to any crooked or doubtful means to achieve his ends. He must be free from fear or favour in the discharge of his duties. At this point, a stanza from ‘Sigalovada Sutta. (Digha-Nikaya), a relevant declaration by the Buddha comes to my mind: "Canda, dose, bhaya, moha - Yo dhammam nativattati. Apurati tassa yaso - Sukkha pakkheva candima"), meaning: “If a person maintains justice without being subjected to favoritism, hatred, fear or ignorance, his popularity grows like the waxing moon.”

wedding of Prince Siddhartha, Gandhara, AD 3rd or 4th century

5) Maddava: Kindness or gentleness. A ruler’s uprightness may sometimes require firmness. But this should be tempered with kindness and gentleness. In other words a ruler should not be over - harsh or cruel. 6) Tapa: Restraint of senses and austerity in habits. Shunning indulgence in sensual pleasures, an ideal monarch keeps his five senses under control. Some rulers may, using their position, flout moral conduct - this is not becoming of a good monarch.

7) Akkodha: Non-hatred. The ruler should bear no grudge against anybody. Without harbouring grievances he must act with forbearance and love. At this instance, I am reminded of how a certain royal pupil, an heir to the throne, who had been punished by the teacher for an offence, took revenge by punishing the teacher after he become King! (Jataka Text). Political victimization is also not conducive to proper administration.

8) Avihimsa: non-violence. Not only should he refrain from harming anybody but he should also try to promote peace and prevent war, when necessary. He must practice non-violence to the highest possible extent so long as it does not interfere with the firmness expected of an ideal ruler.

9) Khanti: Patience and tolerance. Without losing his temper, the ruler should be able to bear up hardships and insults. In any occasion he should be able to conduct himself without giving in-to emotions. He should be able to receive both bouquets and brickbats in the same spirit and with equanimity.

10) Avirodha: Non - opposition and non-enmity. The ruler should not oppose the will of the people. He must cultivate the spirit of amity among his subjects. In other words he should rule in harmony with his people.

The Way to Develop the Ten Royal Qualities

The Buddhist scholar Danister I. Fernando wrote: “Buddhism is a way of life. What is mainly essential, according to the noble philosophy of Sakya Muni the Buddha is to follow the Eightfold Path leading to complete emancipation- Nibbana. But it is wrong to conclude that Buddhism is interested only in such lofty ideals and high philosophical thought ignoring the social, economic and political welfare of the people. Buddha was a marvellous repository of loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna) towards all beings and was greatly interested in the happiness of not only the mankind but of all other beings as well. To him happiness was not possible without leading a pure life based on moral and spiritual principles. He firmly believed that such a life was possible only under favourable material, social and political conditions. He considers such conditions as a means to a higher and nobler end. [Source: Danister I. Fernando, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com |=|]

“In Kutadanda Sutta (Digha Nikaya) Buddha explains that in order to eradicate crime, the economic condition of the people should be improved. The relationship between the employer and the employee should be made cordial mainly by the payment of adequate wages, gifts and incentives. The kings (governments) should take this fact into serious consideration and keep the people happy and contented, so that consequently the country would be peaceful and crime free. |=|

“Not only did the Buddha teach non-violence and peace; he also personally intervened in quelling disputes in the field of battle through His sublime Dhamma. For instance, He intervened in the case of a friction between the Sakyas and the Koliyas and prevented a deadly war. Again, King Ajatasattu who was about to wage war against the Vajjis was prevented from doing so, entirely on the valuable advice of the Buddha. Further, our chronicles (Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa) say that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka on three occasions, and having suppressed certain disputes through the Dhamma, established peace in the country, thereby. |=|

“Therefore, we see that while the Buddha put across His philosophy successfully, he also advocated the maintenance of peace and cordiality throughout, which was absolutely essential for spiritual development. He had shown how a country could become corrupt and unhappy when the heads of its government become corrupt and unjust. For a country to be happy, it must have a good and just government. How this form of just government is evolved is detailed in his recommendations entitled "Ten Royal Virtues". ("Dasa-Raja Dhamma" - Jataka Text).” |=|

“In this regard, I wish to make mention of a very great Buddhist Country - Thailand - where the Theravada concept of Buddhism is in practice and where His Majesty the King is loved by all and held in very high esteem with deep respect. His Majesty, seated on the "Bhadrabith Throne" beneath the "Nine-Tiered White Umbrella of States" in the "Baisal Daksin Hall" of the Grand Palace, had pronounced the ancient oath of accession to the Throne, which says, "I will reign with righteousness, for the benefits and happiness of the people". The word "righteousness" is the key, as it leads back in time through over two - thousand five hundred years of history to the Buddhist concept of Kingship. The ideal monarch is expected to abide by the "Tenfold Moral Principles" of the Sovereign, "Tossapit Rajatham" in Thai, * which in our Jataka Text" are called "Dasa- Raja — Dhamma". (From a paper published in connection with the birth anniversary of His Majesty, King of Thailand.) |=|

Economic Teachings of the Buddha

coin from ancient Taxila with a Buddhist wheel

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi: “Certain modern schools of thought like Marxism regard the economic domain as the primary determinant of social existence and dismiss everything else as mere superstructure, a secondary overlay resting on the material substratum. [Source: Bhikkhu Bodhi, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

“Contrary to this view, the Buddha recognizes that there are many interdependent spheres of human activity. These cannot be subjected to any simplistic reduction, but must be seen as interrelated and mutually efficacious. The Buddha took note of the importance of economics in human life and he held that for people to be capable of personal and spiritual progress, the economic foundation has to be secure.

“In many sutta’s the Buddha has pointed out that poverty can lead to the decline of moral values - to stealing, lying, murder, etc., and eventually to complete social chaos. He teaches not only that economics largely determines man’s moral condition, but also that the government has a responsibility to correct any extreme economic injustice. He advises the king to look after the economic well being of his subjects. He says that the king has to give seed to the farmers for their crops and feed for their cattle, capital to the merchants and businessman to conduct their business, and jobs to the civil servants, etc.”

Buddhist Sources on Wealth

He who stints the profit he has made, his wealth will soon be spent and lost.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Vaisravana, the Tibetan god of wealth

The (real) treasure is that laid up ... through charity and piety, temperance and self-control.... The treasure thus hid is secure, and passes not away. Though he leave the fleeting riches of the world, this a man carries with him—a treasure that no wrong of others, and no thief, can steal.—Nidhikanda-sutta.

Of all possessions, contentedness is the best by far.—Nagarjuna's "Friendly Epistle."

May I obtain wealth, and ... may the wealth ... obtained by me be for the benefit of others.—Jinalankara.

Justly I seek for riches, and having sought for riches justly, I give of my ... justly acquired wealth to one, to two, to three, ... to a hundred.—Magha-sutta.

They sought their daily gain righteously; no covetous, money-loving spirit prevailed; with pious intent they gave liberally; there was not a thought of any reward.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

He that is rich but is not contented endures the pain of poverty.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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