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religio-philosophical system which presents a world view. This understanding of Buddhism, it is argued, among other considerations, has a bearing on church and state relations. In exploring aspects of religion and statecraft, the Paper adopts a historical-doctrinal viewpoints rather than one based on popular Buddhism, i.e., the day to day practice viewed historically. The social and political philosophy manifested in matters of governance was framed within a spirit of humanism markedly evident in the Edicts of the famed Indian Emperor Asoka. In many respects Buddhist ideals of statecraft embodying principles and practices such as the rule of law, deliberative democracy, procedures of governance and the social policies of the Asokan welfare state bear a striking similarity to Enlightenment values in Europe. This remarkable consequence of East-West dichotomies, the paper concludes, may create the space for a civilizational dialogue, not a 'clash of civilizations.'
Buddhism, Politics,
and Statecraft
Laksiri Jayasuriya
Buddhism viewed generically as a broad church is a
religio-philosophical system which presents a world view. This understanding
of Buddhism, it is argued, among other considerations, has a bearing on
church and state relations. In exploring aspects of religion and statecraft, the
Paper adopts a historical-doctrinal viewpoints rather than one based on
popular Buddhism, i.e., the day to day practice viewed historically. The social
and political philosophy manifested in matters of governance was framed
within a spirit of humanism markedly evident in the Edicts of the famed
Indian Emperor Asoka. In many respects Buddhist ideals of statecraft
embodying principles and practices such as the rule of law, deliberative
democracy, procedures of governance and the social policies of the Asokan
welfare state bear a striking similarity to Enlightenment values in Europe.
This remarkable consequence of East-West dichotomies, the paper concludes,
may create the space for a civilizational dialogue, not a clash of
Key words: Buddhism, Politics, Statecraft, Philosophy, Asoka
Laksiri Jayasuriya is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Australia.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture September 2008, Vol.11, pp.41-74.
2008 International Association for Buddhist Thought and Culture
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
I. Introduction
The practice of politics has been closely interwoven with other activities
in social and political institutions. Politics, as a specific type of human
activity, is based on a form of association pertaining to the ‘accumulation,
organization and marshalling of power to govern and control the principal
institutions of society’ (Harris 1989a: 1). In this sense, politics, as having a
bearing on the science of government or the theory and practice of statecraft,
has long been associated with the ‘Abrahamic faiths’Judaism, Christianity
and Islamwhich regard the goal of salvation as a matter of revelation. These
theistic faiths identify the affirmation of a God as ‘a supreme being or an
individual transcendent to the world [and suggests] that human authenticity is
authorized by [an] ultimate reality’ (Gamwell 1995: 31).
Historically the Abrahamic faiths, according to the religious tenets of
each particular faith, have been predisposed to influence the mundane world
including the political and social order in different ways (Arjomand 1993).
They have sought to ‘reconstruct the mundane world ... acccording to the
appropriate transcendental vision’ (Eisenstad 1993: 15). In the case of
Christianity, it was only with the advent of modernity in the age of
imperialism and industrialization that ‘secularization’ or the separation of
church and state since the 18th century has been taken for granted in the
western world. But, given the changing pattern of church-state relations in
recent times, Berger, a long time advocate of ‘secularisation theory,’ now
argues that ‘modernity does not have to be inimical to religion’ (Berger 2005).
But, how does Buddhism, often characterized as an ‘other worldly
religion with ’a gnostic distaste for the worldly order’ (Harris1989b) fare on
the broad question of religion and state relations? Before endeavouring to
answer this we need to pose a prior question which revolves around the often
debated question whether Buddhism, being non-theistic, should be classified as
a ‘religion.’ The idea of a ‘religion’ is generally associated with a
comprehensive set of beliefs and concepts about the nature of the ultimate
reality that gives meaning and purpose to the lives of those who adhere to a
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
particular faith.
On these grounds, it could be well argued that Buddhism too warrants
being identified as a religion. For instance, the Buddhist notion of the supreme
state of Nirvanathe ultimate to be achieved as the goal of salvation provides
a spiritual dimension for the individual i.e., a particular self-understanding in
terms of a larger transcendental reality. Buddhism is distinctive as a religion
in that it sought to sanction or authorise the day to day life of an individual
without positing a ‘personal god’ or a transcendent/supreme being. This
understanding of Buddhism as a ‘religion’ also entertains a Durkheimian sense
of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘experience of the sacred’ in a manner different to the
theistic religions (Ling 1973; Kolakwaski 1982).
Buddhism, however, is best characterised as a metaphysical/philosophical
or a religio-philosophical system which presents a total view of the world and
man’s place in it, including a prescription for the ordering of human affairs.
However, in considering the socio-cultural dimensions of Buddhism, we need
to acknowledge that from its earliest days of origin in India, Buddhism has
proved to be remarkably flexible and adaptable to different social and
geographical environments. Historically, this ‘tolerance and liberality of its
thought’ (Pratt 1928 quoted in Jayatilleke 1967) accounts in part for the three
Great Traditions of Buddhism or Schools’
Theravada, Mahayana and
Vajrayana. It is perhaps nowhere better evident than in the present day with
the emergence of New Buddhism and ‘Western Buddhism’ (Batchelor 1994;
Brazier 1999), as well as the Dalit Buddhist movement (Navayana) in India
inspired by Ambedkar, following the mass conversion of Hindu untouchables
in 1956 (Omvedt 2005).
Of the three Schools or Traditions of Buddhism, Theravada, the oldest
of these is associated with Early Buddhism (Southern Buddhism), and is found
mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand. The modes of practice
of this tradition give primacy to self-transformation and emphasise the practice
1 Early Buddhism, or Canonical Buddhism, refers to the compendium of the Buddhist Teaching in the
Pali Canon (see Rhys Davids 1977 and Ling 1981a). For Mahayana scriptures which were mainly in
Sanskrit (see Suzuki 1963; Williams 1989). The Vajriyana or Tibetan Buddhism is a later School with
an emphasis on ceremonial practices and ritual (see Powers 1995 and Tucci 1980).
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
of meditation, in attaining liberation or salvation through one’s own effort. The
Mahayana tradition (Eastern Buddhism), though originating in India, exists
mainly in countries extending from China, Vietnam and Korea to Japan and
documented in texts such as the Lotus Sutta. The Mahayana, unlike the
Theravada tradition is more communal by virtue of its emphasis on social
transformation and social activism. The third dominant School or Tradition of
Vajrayana (Northern or Tibetan Buddhism) shares much in common with the
other two Traditions, and is associated mainly with Tibet, Nepal, Butan,
Mongolia, and parts of China.
Whilst there are marked variations, of theory and practice, between and
within different forms of Buddhism, in their understanding of Buddhism as a
religious system, there remains a solid core common to all the doctrinal
renderings of Buddhism (Gethin 1998). Conceptually this common core is
enshrined in the three signata or fundamental axiomatic principles of the
phenomenal worldanicca, anatta, dukkha (impermanence, no self, and
suffering) and the Four Noble Truths: the existential fact of suffering its
cause, its cessation; and the path leading to its cessation. In short, Buddhism
is a religion with a broad church based on an underlying commonality of
practice around the shared foundations of the Buddhist ethic, prescriptive of
moral virtues governing wholesome actions.
Focussing specifically on the analysis of the relationship between
Buddhism and Politics (or the State) one can consider this from either one of
two perspectives: doctrinal or in terms of popular Buddhism.
The doctrinal
or textual approach first looks at Buddhism in terms of how it is portrayed in
the classical teachings, and refers primarily to the expositions contained in
such historical texts as the compendium of Early Buddhism. Popular
Buddhism, or ‘cultural Buddhism’ (King 1996) highlights the practice of
Buddhism in the daily life of its adherents, and manifest in local expression
of religious customs and practices (Gombrich and Obeysekera 1988; Ling
2 This differentiation is similar to that proposed by Redfield (1956) between the ‘Great’ and the ‘Little’
traditions, which is applicable to all the living religions. Others such as Evers (1965) and Ames
(1964) reject this distinction. See Ling (1973) for an appraisal of these points of view in relation to
Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
1981). Here, one takes a distinctly sociological perspective locating Buddhism
more as a social and cultural phenomenon in countries where the majority of
the populace are adherents of the Buddhist faith (e.g., Sri Lanka, Thailand,
Burma, and Laos).
In adopting a ‘popular Buddhism’ point of view, one is confined to
country case studies with a view to locating the practice of Buddhism within
a given socio-historical context (Harper 1964; Harris 1989a). Taking this
approach, Sri Lanka, for instance, stands out as a Buddhist country with a
long history of maintaining a close interactive relationship between the
monastic order, the state, and wider community, which has continued from the
colonial times to the present day (Phadnis 1976; Seneviratne 1999;
Bartholomeuz 1989). Likewise, a distinct feature of Buddhism in contemporary
Thailand is the link between state and religion, which is legitimated by the
constitution and the people (Sukumaran 1977; Swearer 1970).
More generally, however, there are marked differences with respect to
statecraft, political institutions and practices in contemporary Buddhist
countries, i.e., where the majority are followers of Buddhism. These variations
clearly reflect the different socio-historical circumstances of each country such
as the extent to which external influences arising from colonialism,
globalisation, or modernisation have shaped the historical character of religious
institutions and religious practices (Scheter 1967). Clearly a comprehensive
understanding of Buddhism and politics requires an exhaustive comparative
study which is a task beyond the limited confines of this essay. Instead, the
focus here will be primarily on an exposition and analysis of the political
dimension of Buddhism with reference to the historical texts, the standard
doctrinal Buddhist literature. In adopting this perspective we avoid conflating
‘disparate and historically distinct cultures and political systems of Asia’
(Harris 1989b: 1).
This more textual and historical account of Buddhism and politics will
show above all, that Buddhism was equally concerned with the mundane and
transcendental worlds. More specifically, it will endeavour to demonstrate how
key features of the lay approaches to governance were a derivative from the
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
logic and rationale of monastic governance. The principles of lay governance
were most clearly evident in the theory and practice of statecraft of Emperor
Asokadescribed in some quarters as the ‘greatest king’ (Wells 1946)who
pioneered the classic model of a ‘Buddhist kingdom.’ No doubt the Asokan
model of governance was to become an ‘ideal type’ adopted in different ways
by other Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and
Cambodia and to a lesser extent China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea.
II. Buddhism
A Socio-Political Perspective
1. Early Indian Experience
Looked at historically, Buddhism outlined ‘a far reaching and original’
compendium of ideas, a religio-philosphic system, which was ‘subversive of
the religion of the day’ (Rhys Davids 1896). For this reason some maintain
that Buddhism was essentially an Indian system ‘which grew out of the
intellectual work of [the Buddha’s] predecessors’ (Rhys Davids 1896: 76).
Buddhist teachings were formulated at a time of profound social and economic
change and turmoil in Indian society. This era of early Indian history was
marked by new forms of social and economic relations built around trade and
agriculture, and was closely associated with the rise of urbanism and a new
mercantile community.
The new social order now included an increasingly dominant group, the
new rich ‘middle class’ of landowning farmers and merchants, many of whom
were the chief patrons of Buddhism. These patrons of the Buddha were
imbued with a spirit of individualism bordering on selfishness, which not only
challenged the orthodoxy of the Brahmin social order but also presented an
intellectual and philosophical challenge to the Buddha.
However, this Buddhist thinking sat uneasily in the context of the social
and political institutions of traditional society, grounded in an institutional
3 Chakravarthy (1996), Wagel (1966), and Uppreti (1997) document the social and political context in
which Buddhism flourished in India. See also Thapar (2002).
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
fabric based on a caste-based society (varna-jati) linked to the Vedas. The
emergent social order reacted strongly against the rigidity and the dominance
of a culture which denied individual autonomy, human freedoms and
legitimated inequalities. In particular, the new urban mercantilism rejected this
hierarchical ordering of society in terms of a divinely ordained sacrosanct
social structure made up of four social classeskshatriya, brahmins, vaishya
and sudras (nobles, brahmins, traders and work people, and the outcasts).
What we see here is the extent to which Buddhist ideas and its
philosophical rationale endeavoured to cater to the needs and interests of an
agrarian/trade oriented society in a new more urban/secular social environment.
The Buddha virtually became the spokesperson of the new urban based
merchant class in rejecting Brahmin orthodox, particularly the religious
justification of social inequalities arising from the status ordering of human
relations. Interestingly, the Buddha’s preference for a more open society was
characteristic of what prevailed in the smaller tribal oligarchies (gana sangha
or clan republics) than the larger monarchical kingdoms (Kosala and
The smaller tribal oligarchies or confederacies, particularly the Vajjian
confederacy, proved to be a fertile catchment for the Buddha. According to
Ghosal (1959), the functional and utilitarian social practices of the Vajjian
clan republics in promoting happiness and prosperity were imbued with a
sense of public spirit, pragmatic forms of governance and moral rectitude. This
more open liberal political culture which also included respect for elders,
women, and holy persons, was more congenial and receptive to the teachings
of the Buddha.
But as it turned out, the Buddha, by acting in close accord with groups
such as the Vajjians, was cast not just as a religious teacher with a new
philosophy, but a social critic, a revolutionary social theorist. The Buddha was,
indeed, a social reformer, reminiscent of a Martin Luther in Christendom, who
dared to challenge the Brahmin orthodoxy on such issues as an omnipotent
creator or a divinely revealed social and political order. Assuming that both
the Roman Catholic Church and Brahmanism are ‘sacrificial systems’ [which]
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
‘places the essence of religion in sacrifices’ (Clarke 1869: 715), Buddhism, by
stimulating ‘a process of self-cleansing’ (Chaitanya 1975: 89) bears comparison
with Protestantism arising out of Catholicism. This led many early students of
Buddhism in the late 19th century to characterise Buddhism as the
‘Protestantism of the East’ (Clarke 1869) in that Buddhism was seen as a
‘critic and complement to the reigning orthodox of Brahminism’ (Deakin
This led some scholars to regard Buddhism simply as a variant of the
classical Hindu Vedantic tradition on the grounds that ‘in all essentials
Buddhism and Brahmanism form a single system’ (Coomaraswamy 1964: 221).
Accordingly, Hindu scholars often cast the Buddha as an Avatar
an incarnate
of the God Vishnuwho only sought to bring about a reformation of Brahmin
religious practices such as those pertaining to sacrificial rites. In rejecting this
interpretation others such as the Dalit theorists regard Buddhism as an
independent moral and social philosophy. These theorists see Buddhism as
offering a more liberal and humanistic alternative to the classical Vedantic
tradition associated with Brahmanism, one which offered a far more radical
and revolutionary creed of social conduct (Omvedt 2005).
The philosophy and political ideas which evolved during the reign of
Emperor Asoka (208 BCE - 239 BCE), heavily influenced by Buddhist ideas,
sought to challenge the orthodoxy of Indian social and political theorizing
(Ling 1973; Thapar 2002). The classical theory of statecraft in early India was
based on the Vedas, and included such notions as the divine origin of rulers,
the absolute power of the monarch, and the superiority of the upper castethe
Brahmins. These ideas, characteristic of Hindu philosophy, were well
documented in Hindu mythology in such works as the Ramayana and
Mahabharatha (Jayasuriya 1997). Later, during the reign of Chandragupta
(Asoka’s grandfather) these Brahminic ideas of politics and statecraft were
given formal expression in the writings of the influential political theorist,
Kautilya around the 3rd century (see his magnum opus, the Arhtasastra). A
central feature of Kautilya’s political philosophy was the justification offered
for a monarch’s absolute power and authority including the use of coercion
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
and violence in matters of governance.
The art of government for Kautilya rested primarily, but not exclusively
on the exercise of force for the pursuit of material interests and also the
maintenance of order (Armojanad 1993). As a political theorist Kautilya was
very much in the mould of a Machiavelli for whom ‘might or what was
expedient was right’ (Jayatilleke 1967). This political credo stood in sharp
contrast to the implicit theory and practice of the Buddhist approach to
statecraft which was based on the wheel of moral righteousness and singularly
based on non violence. This was what subsequently influenced Asoka in his
approach to governance which was clearly inspired by Buddhist notions of
social and political theory (Ling 1973). A later Mahayana text (Ariyasatya
Parivarta Sutta) not only commends the avoidance of war and violence, but
also encourages the resort to negotiations and strong alliances in matters of
conflict resolution (Harvey 2000).
But, barring a few notable exceptions (e.g., the work of Jayatilleke 196
7), the Buddhist attitude to politics received scant mention in the Buddhist
literature, as well as the scholarly work of political theorists. This lacunae of
Buddhist scholarship has, however, been rectified by the recent work of a new
breed of scholars associated with the Dalits in India (Omvedt 2005). Foremost
among these is the political scientist, Kancha Ilaiah (2002) who has carved out
a new territory of Buddhist scholarship by emphasising the ‘this-worldly’
rationalistic nature of Buddhist philosophy.
This new Buddhist scholarship
documents lucidly the extent to which the Buddha has strong claims to be
regarded a ‘political philosopher’ in addition to being an original religious
thinker (Omvedt 2001). This mode of theorising, contrary to scholars such as
Max Weber (1966), stands in sharp contrast to the widely held view that
Buddhism is primarily as an ‘other worldly’ religion concerned with personal
salvation (Gombrich and Obeysekera 1988; Queen and King 1996).
By contrast, the Buddha, as portrayed by Ilaiah (2002) and others,
stands out not only as a great social reformer but also as a political thinker
4 The defining work of the Sri Lankan Buddhist philosopher (Jayatilleke 1967) has been further developed
by the Dalit scholars (followers of Ambedkar’s Buddhism in India). Sangharakshita (1986) documents
this recent work on Buddhist political philosophy. Also Ilaiah (2002) and Omvedt (2001, 2005).
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
(if not a ‘political philosopher’) who sought to ‘reform and humanize the
mercantile economy, the patriarchal family and the monarchical state [by
challenging] Brahminical political theorists’ (Omvedt 2001). Admittedly, the
claim that the Buddha was a ‘political philosopher’ remains a contested issue
mainly because there is no clear evidence that the Buddha attempted to
develop an explicit political philosophy or to formulate a distinct form of
political practice. The general consensus is that the Buddha’s teachings (the
dhamma), without necessarily formerly outlining a political philosophy in
abstract terms, nevertheless contained profound insights of a social and
political nature (Ling 1981a, 1985).
The political dimension of Buddhist teachings though not systematically
formulated as in the exposition of Buddhist philosophy and psychologythe
is best understood as an offshoot of the more clearly well
formulated expositions of Buddhist social and moral philosophy set out to
accompany what was essentially an ethic of ‘human liberation’ (Swaris 1999).
The exposition relating to a Buddhist social philosophy may be readily
discerned primarily from four Discourses
portraying the kind of society which
is morally acceptable and logically defensible in terms of the fundamental
tenets of Buddhism. All these normative prescriptions are framed within a
spirit of scientific humanism and commended to those who wish to govern in
accord with the Buddhist teachings and abiding by the ‘Middle Way.’
Buddhist social philosophy, in brief, presented a systematic and
functional framework for fashioning a pattern of social relations that was
clearly attuned to the needs and demands of the new social milieu, especially
the political culture of the rising ‘new middle class’ at the time of the
Buddha (Thapar 2002; Swaris 1999). In these circumstances, the Buddha
sought to restrain the growing spirit of individualism characteristic of this
social climate by proposing a more ethical and humane way of characterising
5 Jayasuriya (1963) and Gethin (1998) provide a good introduction to the Abhidhamma which constitutes
a later addition as the Third Basket of the Buddhist Canon.
6 For an exposition of the Discourses in the Buddhist texts on the social dimensions of Buddhismthe
Kutadanta, Agganna, Cakkavatti, and Sigalovada Suttassee Ling (1981a). These were later expanded
by Mahayana theorists such as Nargarjuna. Emperor Asoka warrants comparison with Emperor
Constantine who used the Christian religion as the official creed of the Roman Empire.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
the place of the individual in society. This, among other considerations,
included a concern for others and acceptance of difference, as for instance, in
the positive attitudes to social differentiation of ‘race’ or caste (Malalasekera
and Jayatilleke 1958). This way of thinking was also reflected in the Buddhist
attitudes towards other religions which showed a greater willingness to accept
other faiths (Jayatilleke 1975). Confronted with the religious pluralism
of the
times, the Buddha readily acknowledged ‘every form of [rival religious beliefs]
as a possessor of some degree of Truth’ (Pratt 1928, quoted in Jayatilleke
2. Monastic GovernanceA Form of ‘Deliberative Democracy’
Many of the crucial features of the Buddhist approach to social
philosophy and political governance derive from the principles and practices
governing the organisation of the monastic community (the sangha). A
distinctive feature of the monastic community, over and above the social and
moral dimension of Buddhist practice, was its rules and procedures for the
management of the monastic community. The monastic community was
governed and regulated by a well formulated code of conductthe Vinaya
which formed an integral part of the Buddhist Compendium, enumerating the
rules and procedures governing the structure and functioning of the monastic
According to this mode of governance, the brotherhood of monks
(sangha and later nuns) was established on ‘democratic foundations with a
constitution and code of law governing their conduct’ (Jayatilleke 1967). The
day to day affairs of the sangha were governed by a liberal culture of
equalitarian inter personal relations. There was no formal hierarchy or dynastic
favouritism in the monastic order. It was not social status but other
characteristics such as the seniority of a monk, determined by the date of
ordination, that guided inter personal relations within the community. In fact,
the Buddha’s own son when ordained as a monk took his place in the
7 The Brahmajala Discourse No 3 which enumerates some 62 types of ‘religions and philosophies’
(Walshe 1987).
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
monastic community according to seniority.
The monastic code of conduct stipulates that the individual life of a
monk is immersed in a Brotherhooda community of persons ideally seeking
liberation from greed, hatred, delusion, folly, conceit, and ignoranceand
living in communal harmony, with communal property and a bare minimum of
one’s private material possessions. In addition to pursuing spiritual needs of
the monastic order, the monastic code specifically indicates that the sangha
has a responsibility towards the wider society of lay persons who cater or
assist the community in meeting their daily needs. In short, there was a deep
sense of social responsibility, of caring and compassion underlying the
mutually constituted relationship between the monks and lay followers.
This form of monastic governance contained many features of statecraft
present in the self governing confederacies and republic rather than the large
monarchical kingdoms of he North, such as Kosala and Magadha. Whereas the
monarchical kingdoms were guided by Brahmanic notions of a divinely
sanctioned superior class of rulers, the self governing confederacies had much
in common with the logic of the humanistic Buddhist ethic. For instance, it is
reported that on one occasion the Buddha exhorted the citizens of the republic
of Licchavis or Vajjis of Vasili who were threatened by a rampaging
aggressive monarch (Ajatasatru) from one of the large kingdoms to act
prudently and skilfully using more democratic forms of conflict resolution. The
Buddha suggested to the republics that if they wished to maintain their
independence they should strengthen their more democratic forms of
governance. These include holding regular and frequent assemblies to discuss
affairs of state collectively with each other, endeavouring to carry out the day
to day tasks of governance in harmony, and paying due heed to established
practices and customs (Mishra 2004).
This normative code of conduct
included the primacy attached to human freedoms and the equality of all
human beings was more characteristic of governance in the self governing
8 Mishra (2004), in his succinct and readable account of this episode, draws pointed attention to an
inherent conservatism in governance (e.g., paying heed to custom0 alongside other more liberal
features such as participatory decision making. This indicates the functional and pragmatic nature of
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
confederacies. The principle of equality in Buddhism, applied equally to the
relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and was a governing principle in
matters of statecraft.
However, this ‘radical egalitarianism’ (Swaris 1995) and the idea of
equality in a universal community became somewhat problematic in relation to
the issue of gender equity that arose on the question of the ordination of
women as nuns. This was most apparent when the Buddha took some time in
agreeing to admit women into the monastic order, and, in fact, had to be
persuaded by Ananda, one of his trusted disciples. He agreed to their reasoned
arguments but with some conditions attached, namely, that nuns will agree to
abide by additional rules which did not apply to the order of monks. In
accepting ‘women as spiritual equals,’ the Buddha, while not discounting the
fact that their social role was culturally prescribed, still provided women with
avenues of self expression.
The fact that ‘the Buddha is often seen as the most enlightened classical
philosopher on the role of women’ (Coomaraswamy 1984: 80), testifies to the
Buddha’s pragmatism in his willingness to entertain and consider rationally
dissenting points of view more generally on such questions as the role of
women in the monastic order. This flows from the Buddhist philosophical
stance that ‘the ought is not an absolute command or necessity but a
pragmatic call to recognise the empirical existence and adopt solutions to
whatever problems associated with it’ (Kalupahana 1995a: 45) in accord with
the moral code. Here again, we note the remarkable commonality between the
modes of governance of the monastic community and the self-governing
Furthermore, the liberal and humane culture of the clan republics was
mutually supportive of the monastic community as they were more inclined to
a ‘democratic’ non authoritarian
style of governance, characterised by such
features as a regard for majority opinions in decision making, regular meetings
to conduct affairs of state, etc. There is no doubt that the more liberal
political culture of the gana sanghas or tribal republics was central in
9 Fromm (1955), among others, identifies Buddhism as a non authoritarian religion.
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
formulating the nature and character of the monastic community as a social
organization. Overall there is no doubt that this model of governance was
clearly attuned to the needs of peace and harmony in a small community with
a view to maintaining long term stability and continuity as a well knit social
To this end, the Buddha gave pride of place to communal deliberation,
face to face negotiation, regular meetings of the community, and
encouragement to engage in free and frank discussion. Given the value placed
on reason and rational thought, consensus was to be achieved by a process of
reasoned choice rather than a blind belief in a prescriptive code. There was
clearly a consensus in collective decision making arrived at in accord with
‘Constitution’ of the Community, its code of conduct rules, conventions and
form of practice. At least within the monastic community a strong ethos of
debate and discussion amongst equals was recognised.
In an oft-quoted text (the Kalama Sutta), the Buddha advises those with
doubts about the truth to discover the truth themselves by a process of
rational inquiry untrammelled by faith or tradition.
By encouraging
disputants to adopt a dispassionate and critical attitude, employing logic and
reason in resolving religious and philosophical disputes, this went sharply
against convention. The Kalama Sutta or the Charter of Free Inquiry (Bhikku
Soma 1963) drew pointed attention to the importance of rational thought,
which preceded the European Enlightenment by many centuries. This also led
to the Buddha being labelled in some quarters as a ‘sceptic’ for adopting a
non dogmatic cautious attitude governed by reason.
Some like Batchelor
(1997), characterise Buddhism as an agnostic faith, and Sen (2005) even
regards agnosticism as a ‘foundational characteristic of Buddhism.’
This form of governance was conducive to maintaining a plurality of
discourse, more akin to the Socratic method of dialogue than the prevalent
10 Evans (2007) has offered an interesting argument suggesting that this treatise extolling the merits of
rational inquiry can be subject to one of two interpretationsepistemological or ethical.
11 Gallop (2007) alludes to the agnosticism of Buddhism as particularly appealing to Western intellectuals,
He points out that Batchelor (1997) aligns Buddhism with Thomas Huxley’s definition of agnosticism
as a method of resolving differences on the grounds of demonstrable reason.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
prescriptive doctrinaire approach of the Brahminical code. The underlying logic
and rationale of governance was that it was a form of ‘deliberative
democracy’ which was participatory and permitted accommodating differences
of opinion and even dissent without imposing majoritarian decision making
principles. Irreconcilable dissent as that which occurred at meetings of the
several Councils of the monastic fraternity (e.g., at the Third Council during
the reign of Asoka) led to an amicable agreement to differ and the formation
of different sects.
III. Governance and the State: A Buddhist Perspective
1. The Asokan Model of Statecraft
The Buddhist model of monastic governance was destined to have a
profound impact on social and political thought in Asia, especially in Buddhist
countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. This legacy was transmitted
through Emperor Asoka with his core Buddhist ideas, principles, and practices
being the template for formulating his unique form of political governance
embodying a code of secular law.
The rationale for Emperor Asoka’s model
of governance, though primarily inspired by Buddhist practices, also bore the
impact of the historical legacy of modes of governance inherited mainly from
the self governing confederacies or tribal republics. These democratic principles
of governance, for instance, were enunciated in the Vajjian constitution and
included a detailed exposition of the structure, and mode of operation of the
Vajjian judicial system.
At the time of the Asokan Empire Buddhism was not just a religious
belief system but also ‘a social and intellectual movement influencing many
aspects of social life’ (Thapar 2002: 200). Asoka’s concept of the Dhamma
often used as
12 These Buddhist legal principles (e.g., four avenues of injustice) were also apparent much later in the
Sinhalese legal treatisethe Niti-Niganduwawhich contains a summary of civil law in the Kandyan
period (Jayatilleke 1976: 13).
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
a synonym for Buddhism ... was aimed at creating an attitude of
mind in which the ethical behaviour of one person towards another
was primary and was based on a recognition of the dimity of human
beings (Thapar 2002: 201).
These influences were also evident much later in the social and political
climate of India particularly during the Mauryan era (321-185 BCE). As a
consequence, the ideals of democracy manifest in Buddhist social and political
philosophy were seen as the best form of governance to the extent that it
generated ‘principles of statecraft [denoting] a democratic welfare state’
(Jayatilleke 1967: 81), mainly embodied in terms of a specific understanding
of kingship. Contrary to the prevailing idea of a divinely ordained monarch,
the idea of a king as a chosen leader, it was argued, has arisen historically as
a social contract. Accordingly the people by mutual agreement selected one
person as the ‘the king’ in the hope that he could be relied on to maintain
law and order, and social harmony.
The Buddhist view of kingship, particularly the duties and
responsibilities of a chosen ruler was governed by the notion of the social
contract, one that waspropounded long before Hobbes and other western
expositions. The Buddhist idea of ‘social contract’ proposed an evolutionary
view of society opposed to the Brahminical view of a divinely ordained
monarch and also society.
These views were spelt out in the Discourse on Genesis (Agganna
and were described in the following terms:
When the earth had been formed and vegetation of low, then
higher grade, had evolved, till at length the earth brought forth an
abundance of cereals, there developed agricultural life, and human
families and households came into existence. As households came
into existence, food began to be stored, land came to be divided
among individual owners and boundaries had to be set up, thus
giving rise to rights of property. Now someone of greedy disposition
13 See Ling (1981a) for details of the Aganna Discourse; also Gnanarama (1996). Harris (1989b) provides
a useful critique of the idea of a social contract.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
would encroach upon another’s property. The rest would take him to
task and charge him with trespass. Thus strife and injustice entered
into the life of humans, necessitating the institution of protective and
punitive measures till at length a ruler was chosen by the people’s
consent (sammata) to maintain justice, the rest giving their support to
him, that is to say, like law abiding citizens (Wijesekera 1962: 6).
What is emphasized in this concept of kingship was ‘a democratic
conception of state and law’ (Jayatilleke 1967) based on the principle of
equality. Thus, the king is a ‘Great Elect,’ (Maha Sammata) i.e., chosen by
the people as a whole and authorised to rule. This is also based on the
assumption of the equality of man and that the king is only primus inter
pares, and exercises authority only by virtue of the social contract. The duties
of a compassionate ruler, set out in the Discourse entitled Cakkavati
Sihananda or the Universal Monarch, specify ten virtues
that constitute the
essential elements of the Buddhist ethic and social philosophy. Accordingly,
a king is generous, has his senses under control, ready to make
sacrifices, straightforward in dealings, gentle and kind, able to suffer
for the people’s sake, free from anger and resentment, he is
compassionate to all, tolerant and very approachable.
This Discourse recommends that a ruler fashions his conduct as an
‘enlightened altruist (Jayatilleke 1967: 59) on the grounds of self interest and
expediency.’ These ten virtues which formed the basics of legislation depicts
an ‘ideal type’ characterization of the ‘monarch’ or ‘ruler’ who was expected
to act with a sense of moral righteousness, and for which in return the people
agreed to give the king ‘a portion of rice’ for fulfilling his duties and
In the absence of constitutional checks and safeguards against the
arbitrary exercise of power, public opinion alone was the only safeguard
against a wicked ruler or tyrant who acts unrighteously. One example cited in
14 In Pali these ten Royal virtues are dana, sila, pariccāga, ājjave, maddava, tapa, akkodha, ahimsa,
khanti, and avirodha (Gnanarama 1996). See Ling (1981) for this Discourse (Cakkavatti Sihananda
Sutta) on the Universal Monarch.
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
texts of how public opinion operates was that of a king who proposes to
sacrifice his throne rather than allow his son to atone for his transgressions.
However, the people rejected this and demanded that the son be banished
from the kingdom. And the king’s response was to act in accord with ‘the
people’s will.’ In another instance, a Queen who demanded that she be given
absolute authority by her husband, the king, was denied this request on the
grounds that the King was not ‘an absolute Lord.’ This again serves to
underline the fact that the exercise of the power and authority associated with
kingship is constrained by public opinion, the voice of the people.
The duties associated with a monarch denote a highly principled and at
the same time eminently reasonable and sensible way of resolving complex
problems which included guidelines for fashioning acceptable social relations
(Kalupahana1995a; Guruge 2007). Kingship, no doubt, was limited by one’s
capacity to act within the guidelines of the teaching, the dhamma, i.e., the
principles of moral righteousness. Accordingly, the maintenance of the
normative orderthe code of righteousness, was seen as a prime requirement
of a good ruler. What made the exercise of powerpolitical power and
authoritylegitimate lay in the ability of the person exercising this authority
to act skilfully in striving to uphold the principles of compassion, equity and
justice. These principles were enshrined in the moral code of righteousness,
and were equally applicable to a lay person as well as an administratorbe
he a monarch or lesser official. In this regard, there are many examples in
later Buddhist Mahayana texts such as the Mahavastu, of the specific advice
given to rulers. For instance, the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna
(circa 150
- 250 CE) in his advice to the Satavahana dynasty enjoins the monarch to
actively support the work of doctors, set up hostels and rest houses, eliminate
high taxes, care for victims of natural disasters and keep profits low (Mishra
This clearly affirms that the norms of compassionate justice enshrined in
the Buddhist ethic and moral order provides no rational basis for a ruthless
15 Nagarjuna, the philosopher/monk who probably lived in the 2nd century CE, generally identified as
founder of the ‘Middle’ School of Buddhism (Madhyamaka) belonging to the Mahayana tradition
(Gethin 1998). See Kalupahana (1995b) for an exposition of Nagarjuna’s moral philosophy.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
culture of greed and selfishness characteristic of some perverse forms of
individualism or unadulterated forms of ‘laissez faire’ thinking. Considering
that the welfare of the community of monks was heavily reliant on the
goodwill and patronage of the kings or the governing authorities of the
self-governing republics, there emerged a skilfully engineered reciprocity in the
relationship between Buddhism and the State. This was well reflected in the
patronage and support the Buddha received from key personalities of the self
governing republics and also from some of the kingdoms such as the rich
influential merchant Anathapindaka. Here again this serves to draw pointed
attention to the inherent pragmatic and utilitarian attitudes of the Buddha in
dealing with mundane matters subject to the proviso that these did not infringe
the broad parameters of the ethical code.
2. Buddhist Social Philosophy in Practicethe Asokan Model
The meaning and significance of Buddhist social and political philosophy
is best revealed in the Asokan practice of statecraft which incorporated
Buddhist ideals of governance in the pursuit of social justice and peace. The
normative code of the Asokan ‘welfare state’ spelt out clearly the Buddhist
ideals of a ‘just society’ as one in which there was equality, economic
prosperity and the practice of the good life. These moral and social values
were exemplified in the Buddhist notion of welfare built around the seven
virtues or skilful actions of ordinary lay persons. These virtues refer to
refraining from: taking life, stealing, confusing speech, and uttering falsehoods,
malicious speech, frivolous talk, harsh speech and being attached to vulgar
sensibility, not only as abstentious but positively.
The practice of these
virtues which formed the basis of legislation that ensured peace and stability
underlines the raison d’etre of the Buddhist social ethic, namely, that the
concern for the welfare of others, was considered integral to the personal
morality of salvation.
16 Kalupahana (1995a) provides a useful summary of these virtues taken from the Brahmajala Sutta
Discourse 1 on the Brahmas Net (Walshe 1987). He notes that these are not merely abstentions but
also the more positive aspects of a virtuous being. It includes welfare of oneself and others.
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
The social ethic of Buddhism, revealed in the Asokan welfare state,
stands in sharp contradiction to critics of Early Buddhism such as Max Weber
(1966) as well as the more recent proponents of ‘Protestant Buddhism’
(Gombrich and Obeysekera 1998). These theorists mistakenly argue that
Buddhism became ‘this worldly’ only in response to modernization or
westernization by emulating Christian/Protestant ideas of service. However, the
critical stance adopted by students of Early Buddhism such as Max Weber
(1966) was made more on doctrinal grounds, namely, that the subjectivism of
the Buddhist individualist ethic amounts to a selfishness.
This, it was
suggested was a preoccupation with the transcendental, and an indifference to
human welfare and the improvability of society.
The either/or fallacy inherent in this juxtaposition of egoism and
altruism has been exposed by scholars such as Jayatilleke (1967) who have
shown that the life of a lay Buddhist unlike those in the monastic order, has
to be lived within a distinctly social context. For this reason, unless one
conflates the lay and ascetic moral code of conduct, Buddhism was never
limited to a ‘private form of salvation concerned with the illusory
self-contained individual’ (Ling 1985: 117). Philosophically, the ‘methodological
individualism’ of Buddhism, understandably asserts the centrality of the
individual and one’s personal freedom and autonomy. But, at the same time,
the Buddhist ethic places limits on an unbridled individualism by
acknowledging the interdependent relationship between the individual and
society. Consequently,
this inevitability entailed a concern with social ad political matters
[which] receive a large share of attention in the teaching of the
Buddha. ... To attempt to understand Buddhism apart form the social
dimension is futile (Ling 1973: 140).
The exposition of the basic tenets of Buddhist social philosophy makes
17 Tambiah (1976) makes the valid point that Max Weber may have overstated his view that Buddhism
as a religion was confined to ascetics and individual salvation. The Weberian analysis of Buddhism
was also evident in those (e.g., Gombrich and Obeysekera-1988) who sought to characterize Sinhalese
Buddhism in the 20th century as ‘Protestant Buddhism.’ Holt (1900) provides a useful overview and
critique of this highly problematic descriptive epithet.
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
it abundantly clear that the individual’s conduct borne out of a sense of moral
righteousness is attuned to confront and respond to the realities of the
mundane world. Importantly, the practice of the Buddhist social ethic was
eminently pragmatic and utilitarian in the form of an ‘enlightened realism’
(Wijesekera 1952; Jayatilleke 1969: Gnanarama 1996). Indeed, this is what has
enabled Buddhism to deal more effectively with the impact of the forces of
modernization in a socially acceptable and morally responsible manner
(Jayasuriya 1997; Guruge 2005; Harvey 2000). Put simply, the Buddhist social
ethic, out of which arose much of the theory and practice of Buddhist politics,
was very much concerned with ‘the public world and its structures,’ which
included, among other things, economic and political institutions. This social
ethic, according to Schumacher (1973) and others, was also applicable to the
economic life of human beings. For example, from a Buddhist perspective
poverty is frequently associated with adverse economic conditions, and can be
alleviated by providing for a more equitable distribution of wealth. The latter
as a policy strategy of poverty alleviation affords some measures of social
security which is likely to ensure the welfare of society as a whole.
The Discourses relevant to social and political philosophy (see Note 6)
highlight the importance of frugality, resourcefulness and control over
excessive craving and conspicuous consumption. In one Discourse (the
Kutadanta Sutta) the Buddha has acknowledged that having a gainful
employment is more important than the possession of, or access to, goods and
services routinely produced. The emphasis placed here on work, among other
reasons, is also because the ethic of diligent work was conducive to moral
progress, and even seen ‘as a boon to be enjoyed’ (Ling 1979: 113).
But importantly, these prescriptions testify to the ‘middle way’ as an
approach to social well being and spiritual progress. They constitute the
normative guidelines for public policy in terms of the ideals of the Universal
Benevolent Monarch who ‘is concerned not only with the material welfare of
his subjects but also their moral well-being’ (Kalupahana 1995a: 123). As the
Buddha states in the Vinaya, ‘he who serves the sick serves me.’ The King
of righteousness (called the Cakkavartiraja) exemplified in the Emperor Asoka
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
was one who not only provided welfare for the destitute, but also established
a welfare state. The ‘welfare state’ of Emperor Asoka, sought to emulate the
model of the benevolent Universal Monarch whose philosophy of
compassionate love portrayed in the Buddhist texts is neatly expressed in one
of Emperor Asoka’s Edicts as follows:
All men are my children and as I desire for my children that they
obtain every kind of welfare and happiness both in this world and
the next, so I do desire for all men’ (quoted in Jayatilleke 1962).
Asoka’s welfare state policies and his statecraft in general were by no
means utopian or idealistic in that ‘entrepreneurship and money making were
positively endorsed as long as these were done by righteous means’ (Omvedt
2001). In so arguing, the Buddha showed how ‘the moral life and the
acquisition of wealth can go together’ (Kalupahana 1995a: 122). No doubt this
in part again reflects the sense of realism and pragmatism, characteristic of
Buddhism, in the day to day Buddhist politics in dealing with the mundane
world. Historically this way of thinking, is best illustrated by the fact that as
previously noted many of the Buddha’s main patrons and lay supporters of
the monastic community were drawn from the urban centred rising new middle
What was distinctive of the Asokan welfare state was that, contrary to
Brahminical code of social conduct, it was built essentially on a ‘Buddhist
Humanism’ wherein human relationships are tempered by compassion, love,
sympathy and care for one another’s feelings. Thus ‘the worker-master [was]
not abolished but it [was] humanized ... [and] far from a relationship of
slavery’ (Omvedt 2002). Indeed, even Max Weber, despite his dismissive
comment on the Asokan welfare state as ‘a historical accident’ (Harvey 2000),
was constrained to admit that this was the:
first time in the Hindu culture ... there appeared the idea of the
‘welfare state’ of the ‘general good’ (the promotion of which Asoka
regarded as the duty of the king). ‘Welfare’ ... was understood to
mean spiritual welfare ... but also rational and economic action’
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
(quoted in Jayatilleke 1962: 88).
The Asokan principles of statecraft that evolved in the 3rd century BCE
may well have influenced the thinking of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna
in outlining a ‘compassionate socialism’ of welfare policies. In the classic
treatise, Jewel Garland of Royal Counsel, Nagarjuna enumerates Guidelines for
Social Action given to his friend and disciple, the king of Satavahana in
central India (Thurman 1985a). These guidelines specify principles of
tolerance, justice, and generosity as the essential elements of a Buddhist social
order, inspired by the moral injunction that the king must put the collective
interests or the ‘common weal’ ahead of himself, that is the ‘people first’
(Thurman 1985a).
The key features of state policy developed and practiced in Asokan
times comprised ‘a system of public morality and social welfare [based on] a
sophisticated radical analysis of the human situation’ (Ling 1973: 166) which
filtered across over time to many Buddhist countries notably to Burma and Sri
Lanka. In Burma the first Prime Minister of an Independent Burma, the late
U Nu (1948-1962), is remembered as a devout Buddhist who was committed
to the ‘restoration of Buddhism and the sangha [and] a socialist welfare state
programme remarkably similar to English Fabianism’ (Matthews 1999).
Likewise it may be well be argued that the Sri Lankan welfare state which
evolved in the late colonial state (Jayasuriya 2004) and grounded on a notion
of the ‘equality of minimum need’ ... [may have been] sanctioned through ...
Buddhist thought and practices’ (Coomaraswamy 1984: 82). Tambiah goes
further and suggests that in several countries of southeast Asia ‘Buddhist ideas
... legitimate a kind of socialist welfare policies’ (Tambiah 1973: 18) which
may in part derive from the act that the king or ruler was in the ideal form
cast as a ‘Buddha like’ figure (a bodhisattva) who came to be seen as the
defender of the ‘bowl and robe’ (Tambiah 1976: 226).
Importantly, this draws pointed attention to the historical continuity from
the time of the Buddha to Emperor Asoka, of the triangular inter relationship
that prevailed between the king or ruler, the monastic order or the sangha,
and the people. The relationship between the monastic community (the sangha)
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
was not just with the society which sustained it, but more importantly, with
the ruler or the State. Despite the fact that in principle the sangha does not
recognize or formally relate to the State (understood as a monarch or ruler) in
reality this formal distancing was severely constrained. The compelling fact
was that the monastic order could not survive without a minimum of political
supportwhether it was from a monarchy or a republic. Indeed, early
Buddhist practice shows ‘a kind of ambiguity towards political power’ (Ling
1981b: 32), be it of the monarchical or republican variety.
This casts a new light on the notion of the secularisation of religion,
i.e., the ‘separation’ between church and state, which according to conventional
political theorising, was seen as a post Enlightenment phenomenon in western
society. This devaluing of religion in matters of state was a notable feature of
European secularism in the post-Enlightenment period of anti clericalism which
echoed the spirit of Volatire’s critique of the ancient regime with his famous
cry ‘destroy the infamy’ (Berger 2005). This form of European secularism,
especially in France, differs from that prevailing in America where secularism
provided no constitutional legitimacy except for a guarantee of religious
freedom by the state. In general the idea of secularism which still remains a
distinctive feature of the liberal secular state in western societies (Bader 1999),
has been associated with the loss of the importance of religious values and
beliefs in guiding affairs of state.
But, as we have shown, the rationale of secularism was implicit, if not
explicit, in the Buddhist ideals of governance as revealed in the Asokan
polity. The principles and values of the European Enlightenment, such as
equality, tolerance of dissent, freedom, and justice, were remarkably congruent
with the political philosophy of Emperor Asoka. This certainly contradicts the
views of those who argue that the ‘ideas of “justice,” “right,” “reason” and
“love of humanity” [are] predominantly, perhaps even uniquely Western values’
(Himmelfarb quoted in Sen 2000). As Sen (2005) persuasively argues, there
are substantive grounds for locating democratic ideas of political principles and
practices as pre-dating Athenian democracy.
Adopting Buchannans’s definition of democracy as ‘government by
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discussions’ (quoted in Sen 2005), Sen goes on cite Emperor Asoka as one
who championed public discussion in matters of governance, resorting to a
kind of ancient Indian version of ‘Robert’s Rules of Order.’ This commitment
of Asokan political philosophy to a deliberative democracy, one of broad
discussion of public issues, also entailed a proviso, namely, that in advocating
‘restraint in regard to speech there should be no extolment of one’s own sect
or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions; and [also] that it
should be moderate even on appropriate occasions’ (Sen 2005: 16).
IV. Conclusion
The foregoing account of the relationship between Buddhism and
politics, particularly as it relates to statecraft, highlights, among other
considerations, the need to reclaim a much neglected facet of Buddhist
thought, namely, the ‘this worldly and rationalistic nature of Buddhist thought’
(Omvedt 2001). The Buddha was, indeed, a profound social thinkerthough
not necessarily an abstract theorist in the western philosophical traditionwho
chartered new ways of thinking not just about the human condition, but also
about the place of the individual in society. This understanding of Buddhism
decries the oft made misunderstanding or misinterpretation in some quarters
(e.g., notably Weber 1996) that Buddhism, particularly Early Buddhism was
confined to personal salvation and indifferent to the concerns of the mundane
world such as ‘the reconstruction of the political centres’ (Eisenstadt 1993: 19)
of society.
On the contrary, as we have shown, Early Buddhism had a ‘well
developed view of social and political matters’ (Tambiah 1976: 25) which has
remained a powerful template, providing normative guidelines for the theory
and practice of all aspects of statecraftbe they in the domains of economic
and social welfare, or in matters of governance of the polity. This value
system was not to be applied rigidly or arbitrarily, but skilfully bearing in
mind the moral considerations governing an act such as in the application of
Laksiri Jayasuriya: Buddhism, Politics, and Statecraft
the principle of non killing (Omvedt 2001).
These normative ideals were framed alongside one of the earliest
statements of a ‘deliberative democracy’ which gave Emperor Asoka a unique
place in the history of ideas and political thought. Asokan style ‘Royal’
Buddhism provided a ritual legitimation of kingly rule and perhaps, the ‘most
visible link between church (the sangha) and the state’ (Matthews 1999).
Unlike, Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official creed of the
Roman Empire, Asoka never made Buddhism a state religion. Furthermore, by
his willingness to accept dissent and commitment to tolerance of other faiths,
Asoka looked upon sectarianism with strong disfavour (Ling 1973). Following
the precedents set by the Buddha, Asoka strove to ensure ‘religious freedom
by supporting not just the Buddhist monks but ascetics of other religious
sects’ (Harvey 2000:116); and also by striving to negotiate differences through
participation and consensus building. The Asokan model of governance was
informed by what Sen (2005) terms a ‘foundational agnosticism and
commitment to public communication and discussion’ (Sen 2005: 182).
Democracy understood as a way of thinking and acting implies a
rational commitment to freedom, equality and tolerance in a pluralistic society,
profoundly open minded, if not agnostic. This form of democracy and social
theorizing is fundamentally a secular ideal which served as an ‘ideal type’
model for many Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand.
It has also sometimes been described as generating a kind of pragmatic
‘accommodative secularism’ (Bartholomeuz 1989) in determining state
compliance with some forms of religious practice. At the same time the
Sangha (i.e., the Church) was readily available to act as the moral conscience
of the community, and thereby ensuring the accountability of the rulers. This
was clearly evident in the recent action of the Burmese Buddhist monks
against the authoritarian Generals at the helm of the state.
When looked at from the point of religion and politics, Buddhism as a
religious system remains profound and relevant in contemporary society
because of its ‘deeper ontological roots.’ Just as therapy from a Buddhist
perspective did not stop with the ‘removal of the malaise but proceeded to
International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture
[work on] the quality of Being, advocacy of democracy and integrative social
and international relations had deeper relevance to the spirit’ (Chaitanya 1975:
85). The Buddha favoured democracy not just as a question of the
constitutional or legal right of equality and ‘the absolute worth of the
individual’ but more as an affirmation of the moral obligation cast on the
individual to act within a code of conduct based on such values was the ideal
of human dignity, equality of respect and worth of the individual. These are
congruent with social ideals and values which are identified as the most
important and distinctive characteristics not just of liberal thought but of the
western intellectual tradition (Gardner 1966).
The distinctly rational and deliberative nature of this mode of thinking
bears a remarkable affinity to a key tenet of the European Enlightenment,
namely, the power of reason or the primacy given to rational thought. The
Buddhist mode of governance based on deliberation and participation,
highlighted a predisposition to logical reasoning within a quieting spirit
directed towards skilfully determining the best and morally defensible outcome.
Admittedly this becomes more problematic when considered in relation to
another key feature of the European Enlightenment, namely, the perfectibility
of human nature, insofar as perfectibility is not entirely dependent on
reasoning. However, as Sen persuasively argues, while these two ‘pillars’ of
the European Enlightenment make ‘quite distinct claims ... the undermining of
one does not disestablish the other’ (Sen 2000: 34).
The remarkable convergence of those two intellectual traditionsthe
western and the Buddhist or ‘Asian’has been acknowledged by several
western scholars (e.g., Fromm 1955, Thouless 1962, and Cousins 1984), as
well as to use Bhabha’s pithy phrase, ‘vernacular cosmopolitans’ like
Ambedkar. These scholars also attest to the great humanizing effect Buddhism
has had throughout Asia and also more widely. However, importantly, the
‘vernacular cosmopolitans’ were committed to a crossing of cultural domains
and boundaries by reconnecting Buddhist thinking with the rest of the world.
They did this without being indigenist or asserting the sovereignty of a
particular intellectual tradition (Ganguly 2007). This ‘translation of cultures’
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... It does not believe in a metaphysical deity, meaning that mythological beings distinguish it from other theological beliefs (Tomalin, 2007). Buddhism, on the other hand, is best described as a philosophy that gives a comprehensive vision of the universe and man's role in it as well as a prescription for the structure of human affairs (Jayasuriya, 2008). Buddhism, thus, is a science of the mind, not a religion. ...
... 16). Buddhism has proven to be incredibly adaptive to and versatile in many social and geographic contexts (Jayasuriya 2008). The interest in Buddhism is linked to liberal and democratic values in Russian cultural and social contexts as well. ...
... The Buddhist goals of a "just community," defined as being one where there is fairness, economic success, and the observance of virtuous lifestyles. This was explicitly spelled out in the ethical norm of the Asokan "welfare state" (Jayasuriya, 2008). Buddhism has substantial historical roots in colonial politics and other contexts characterized by severe power disparities, economic injustice, and hegemony. ...
Buddhism aspires to impart truthfulness, beauty, morality, kindness, contentment, and enlightenment in its believers. Buddhism's primary teachings may also provide viewpoints for political science courses. The main objective of this paper is to identify human values and social values in modern society as the essence of Buddhist teachings that are significant in Political Science Education and modern civilization. As a review paper, this paper contains a comprehensive introduction to Buddhism, its basis, teaching methods, and educational approaches. The paper extensively uses secondary data in its methodology. The data were analyzed using the content analysis method, and the findings were discussed as the themes that emerged. Then, a contemplative conclusion on Buddhist teaching and its pedagogical components is included. The major implications of Buddhism for Political Science Education have been indicated. The conclusion is then that Buddhism provides such constructs for education as personal freedom, intelligence, wisdom, moral, talent, non-violence and the secular persons, and that it can be a significant source of the curricular contents for Political Science Education.
... Regarding the power distance dimension, Theravada Buddhist world views are associated with a non-hierarchical authority structure in several ways. Its fundamental principle states that everyone, including the Buddha, is considered equal as all human beings, who are subject to the same sources of sufferings (Jayasuriya 2008). ...
... In addition, the teachings of the Buddha are not to be believed based only on faith; enlightenment can only be achieved through one's direct experiences and personal realisation through critical investigation and reasoning on the true nature of reality (Jayasuriya 2008). ...
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Previous experiences have shown that the implementation of planning policy does not always lead to the originally intended territorial management outcomes. This issue is particularly crucial when policy ideas, institutions, models and programmes are transferred into places with different cultural settings without adaptations (Knieling and Othengrafen 2009b; Sanyal 2005). These unexpected consequences in planning practice and management outcomes have brought a significant amount of attention to the importance and roles of culture on shaping decision-making in territorial management process and determining transferability of a policy (Friedmann 2005a, 2005b; de Jong and Mamadouh 2002; Sanyal 2005; Ostrom 2005a; Knieling and Othengrafen 2009b). However, conceptual frameworks that seek to understand the roles of culture and its implications for spatial planning are still rather limited.This study presents and applies an integrative conceptual framework which is used to explain how culture, planning policy and territorial management outcomes are interrelated, and what the implications are for spatial planning. The framework integrates relevant theories and ideas from anthropology, organisational management and political sciences to understand influences of culture on spatial planning. The integrative framework suggests a way of characterising territorial management in the form of ideal types. This helps simplify cultures regarding territorial management to make them comparable. It enables an analysis of ‘cultures’ that includes a broader scope of culture than existing frameworks that focus primarily on ‘planning cultures’ expressed in forms of planning systems, organisations and instruments. This broader scope includes also the implicit expressions of culture in informal forms, such as ideas, customs and social behaviours shared by involved actors in the management of a given territory.The framework also offers two analytical perspectives to investigate whether culture is an important element (or context variable) explaining planning practices and territorial management outcomes in different settings. These perspectives are the analysis that assumes a stable state of culture (a synchronic perspective) and the analysis that considers culture as dynamic and interrelating with other context variables (a diachronic perspective). Findings derived from the analysis of the case studies based on these two perspectives help draw theoretical conclusions about how planners may deal with culture in order to improve planning practices.The study investigates territorial development processes in the context of floodplain management in urbanised delta regions. This specific context is selected because of its strong relations between physical attributes and spatial planning activities. The analysis is carried out based on a comparative approach at two levels. At the cross-national level, the Rhine-Meuse delta region in the Netherlands and the Chaophraya delta region in Thailand are used as case studies. The comparative approach is useful for this study because culture can be best understood in a relative form. The sub- national analysis emphasises comparison of floodplain management in three selected districts in the Chaophraya delta region. The two levels of analysis are carried out in order to understand whether the influences of cultures on planning practices and territorial management outcomes at different scales of development are affected by similar elements. Besides the theoretical contribution, this study also contributes methodologically through development of a common conceptual framework that can be applied to the analysis of various issues in territorial management, which is not limited only to the subject studied here. The framework is also expected to be applicable for the analysis of territorial management in a diverse range of cultural settings.The findings derived from a synchronic analytical approach validates arguments given by previous studies (such as de Jong and Mamadouh 2002 and Stead et al. 2008) regarding the importance of ‘conformity’ between policy content and local cultures for enhancing achievement of policy implementation and transfer. The findings from a diachronic perspective contribute to understanding of dynamic dimensions of culture as interrelating to other context variables. It reveals that cultures regarding floodplain management can be categorised into two parts – (i) the part that is significantly affected by core values and (ii) the experiential part of culture with close relationships with physical environments. Each dimension of culture regarding floodplain management is sensitive to each part of culture to different degrees. Furthermore, the analysis reveals two fundamental conditions required to promote effective management of collective tasks. They are (i) a unified perception towards shared problems and solutions; and (ii) management that acknowledges local institutions throughout planning process.In short, the conceptual framework proposed in this study proves to be helpful in gaining a better understanding of culture regarding territorial management and its implications for spatial planning. The findings imply that despite the significant influences of cultural preconditions in shaping planning practices and territorial management outcomes, planners may use spatial intervention mechanisms to ensure that outcomes match initial policy objectives. This could be done through the promotion of caution and cultural sensitivity in policy design, and in selecting appropriate implementation mechanisms to match the local preconditions.
... After the subjugation of the Kalingas he resorted to Buddhist faith. That is one of the reasons why there is also a so called 'Buddhist' tradition (Jayasuriya 2008) in Indian statecraft, which represents the idealist strand that is said to start with the Buddha and has besides the emperor Ashoka other iconic representatives like the Moghul Emperor Akbar or the Mahatma (Kim 2007). ...
So far no one has devised a typology of Indian strategic thought and labelling of grand strategic worldviews has been arbitrary and superficial. Therefore, this thesis seeks to develop an analytical instrument that allows for the comprehensive delineation of India’s deeply-rooted strategic traditions. In order to build such a typology (called the ‘subculture-cleavage model of grand strategic thought’) two theoretical concepts are employed; firstly, strategic culture provides the empirical reference as well as the conceptual consistency to take hold of India’s ideational strategic pluralism. Secondly, cleavage theory as a heuristic tool adopted to international relations peculiar circumstances, helps to structure the different strategic subcultures along two conflict dimensions; one addressing the various ideological perspectives on grand strategy, the other taking the normative debates surrounding India’s cultural identity into account. These two semi-permanent ideational elite cleavages have been deduced by mapping the so-called pluralist strand of India’s strategic culture debate. Eventually, each cleavage, is constituted by two assumptions, which define three paradigmatic positions respectively. In the case of the ‘normative grand strategy’ cleavage (the outside dimension) these are a realist, institutionalist and an idealist grand strategic paradigm; while the cross-cutting ‘cultural identity’ cleavage (the identity dimension of grand strategy) is marked by the following range of culturalist positions: a secularist, pragmatist and revitalist paradigm. Both cleavages combined structure India’s ideational strategic pluralism in terms of nine strategic subcultures. Finally, these subcultures, should, to various degrees, be detectable in basically every Indian foreign and security policy contestation, vying for discursive hegemony in the formulation, assessment and ultimately legitimation of strategic choices. In the framework of neoclassical realism these strategic subcultures work as intervening ideational variables. To make them fulfill this task, future research has to develop an appropriate model of change (when do which ideas become dominant).
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As one of the world’s only constitutions to recognize Theravada Buddhism as the state religion yet not include a religious exemption to the universal franchise for its monastic community, Cambodia’s Constitution stands out as an anomaly. This article traces the ways in which the realities of this remarkably inorganic approach to religion—enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution in 1993, pursuant to a heavily internationalized peace process—have subsequently been shaped by debates occurring within Cambodia’s Buddhist institutions, rather than judicial ones. Drawing on data derived from archival research and a series of ethnographic interviews conducted during 2017 and 2018, I home in on decades-old debates about the voting rights of Cambodian monks to show how individual monks justify their participation in electoral politics through a mixture of both secular and religious arguments. The on-the-ground reality of the extension of the franchise to the Buddhist clergy in Cambodia, in other words, is ultimately shaped by an ongoing contestation within the sangha , with proponents and opponents of a religious exception grounding their arguments simultaneously in constitutional and theological vocabularies. The article sheds light on a singular constitutional arrangement—a unique relationship between religious and state institutions that has so far received relatively little scholarly attention—and highlights an instance of constitutional practice that occurs beyond the reach of both judicial and other state institutions.
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Buddhism is among the oldest religious traditions of the world. It is based on the life and teachings of Siddharta Gautama. The message of world peace is the greatest contribution of Buddhism to the human civilization. This paper aims to study the spread of Buddhism in the Southeast Asian region and its relations with the ideals of peace in contemporary period. Theoretically paper relies on the post-colonial history writing tradition. It adopts descriptive and analytical method to study the subject matter. Conclusions of the paper are drawn after scrutiny of primary and secondary literatures. A thorough study reveals that Buddhism has a glorious past in the Southeast Asia. The practice of Buddhism in the region was popular even prior to the beginning of recorded history. Different monuments provide tangible evidence, and deep-rooted essence of Buddhism in the socio-cultural practices of the region are intangible testimony to this. Paper argues that inter-religious issues in the region and especially current situation of conflict between people of different faith can be resolved by following philosophy of Buddhism in true sense. Abstrak Buddhisme adalah salah satu tradisi agama tertua di dunia. Hal ini didasarkan pada kehidupan dan ajaran Siddharta Gautama. Pesan perdamaian dunia adalah kontribusi terbesar agama Buddha bagi peradaban manusia. Artikel ini bertujuan untuk mengkaji penyebaran agama Buddha di kawasan Asia Tenggara dan hubungannya dengan cita-cita perdamaian pada masa kontemporer. Secara teoritis penelitian bertumpu pada tradisi penulisan sejarah paska kolonial. Analisis penelitian mengadopsi metode deskriptif dan analitis. Kesimpulan dari artikel menunjukkan, bahwa agama Buddha memiliki masa lalu yang gemilang di Asia Tenggara. Praktik agama Buddha di wilayah tersebut sudah populer bahkan sebelum dimulainya sejarah yang tercatat. Monumen yang berbeda memberikan bukti nyata, dan esensi Buddhisme yang mengakar pada praktik sosial budaya di wilayah tersebut adalah kesaksian tak ternilai bagi studi ini. Kajian ini berpendapat bahwa masalah antar-agama di wilayah tersebut dan terutama situasi konflik saat ini antara orang-orang yang berbeda keyakinan dapat diselesaikan dengan mengikuti filosofi agama Buddha dalam arti yang sebenarnya.
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Buddhism is among the oldest religious traditions of the world. It is based on the life and teachings of Siddharta Gautama. The message of world peace is the greatest contribution of Buddhism to the human civilization. This paper aims to study the spread of Buddhism in the Southeast Asian region and its relations with the ideals of peace in contemporary period. Theoretically paper relies on the post-colonial history writing tradition. It adopts descriptive and analytical method to study the subject matter. Conclusions of the paper are drawn after scrutiny of primary and secondary literatures. A thorough study reveals that Buddhism has a glorious past in the Southeast Asia. The practice of Buddhism in the region was popular even prior to the beginning of recorded history. Different monuments provide tangible evidence, and deep-rooted essence of Buddhism in the socio-cultural practices of the region are intangible testimony to this. Paper argues that inter-religious issues in the region and especially current situation of conflict between people of different faith can be resolved by following philosophy of Buddhism in true sense.
This paper employs a “variegated governmentality” framework to analyse Bhutan’s well-known Gross National Happiness (GNH) agenda. GNH is both a philosophy and form of governance that the Royal Government uses to guide national policymaking. While previous research frames GNH in terms of Foucault’s early discussion of governmentality, it does so by establishing monolithic characterizations of governance rationalities and positioning them against one another. By contrast, we suggest that GNH can be more productively understood in terms of Foucault’s more recently translated work as embodying multiple governance rationalities situated alongside each other and locally understood as complementary. From this perspective, recent promotion of neoliberalism within the country can be understood not as an intrusion of “western rationality” upon a distinct GNH but rather as a component of the complex bricolage that GNH has become. We suggest that this produces an indigenous form of biopower, which we term ‘Buddhist Biopower’, appealing to a combination of Bhutanese tradition and religious belief to legitimize the state’s claim to govern in the interest of the population. A policy review of Bhutan’s GNH Index and Eleventh Five Year Plan is conducted to illustrate this analysis. In this way, the paper brings together research concerning multiple governmentalities and variegated neoliberalization to illuminate the complex ways that biopower can be exercised in the contemporary world.
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The Kālāma-sutta is frequently cited as proof of the rational and empirical spirit of early Buddhist epistemology, ‘The Buddha’s charter of free enquiry’, according to Soma Thera. A close reading, however, calls that interpretation into question. The Kālāmas do not ask what is the truth, and the Buddha does not tell them how to find it. Rather the Kālāmas ask ‘Who is telling the truth?’ in what may have been the pursuit of sacred or quasi magical power through the person of a teacher. The Buddha, in turn, encourages them to adopt a set of attitudes and actions, which includes choosing a teacher. The method of evaluation that the Buddha gives, which includes the famous ‘know for yourselves’ is found to be as least as much ethical as it is epistemological and to invoke the opinion of authority and the public. The Buddha here seems to call for a decision that is partly based on faith, and the Kālāmas respond not with independent research, but with an act of faith in committing themselves to (and being accepted by) the Buddha.
The history of Buddhism extends over two and a half millennia. It has spread into a number of originally unrelated cultures and exercised great influence over much of Asia. No other religion has existed in such disparate cultures as a major influence for so long. Over 50 per cent of the population of the world lives in areas where Buddhism has at some time been the dominant religious force. Inevitably it has responded to differing circumstances, and local customs and ideas have influenced it in many ways. Adaptability has historically been a marked feature, arising no doubt from some of Buddhism’s most distinctive and central notions. Yet there is also continuity.
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