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HH The Sangkharaacha

Reflections on Buddhism and Politics

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Reflections on Buddhism and Politics by HH The Sangkharaacha


Buddhism has always been seen as an Asian religion. We see it filtering into the Western world and as with any new representation of something that has been around for a long time, it sometimes isn't as true to original as it might be. In Asia today, we see extremes in politics. In China, we have Communism. In Thailand, we have an Absolute Monarchy that is sometimes a Constitutional one. In Burma (Myanmar) we have a Military Junta. And yet, these nations have a history built on Buddhism. It is interesting that regimes such as the Communist regime in China and the Military Junta in Burma have made public worship a crime - both nations have a poor human rights record. So, is the case that Buddhism, which focuses on being good and on promoting peace and love, gets in the way of Governments that seek to do just the opposite?


Was Buddha a politician? Let us look back. Buddha was born a Prince, Siddhartha Gautama was his name and his father was the King of the Úâkya nation, one of many Kingdoms that forms the modern day Nepal. But despite his high birth, Buddha didn't see himself as a politician - neither did he act like one. Political philosophy as we know it, conservatism, capitalism, communism, socialism - these things were defined and followed long after the time of the Buddha. In his time, politics was a different matter. Countries were ruled by Kings not by elected bodies and so when he was asked what we should expect of our rulers, he gave us a moral code - a checklist almost, to see just how good our rulers are and to see if we should follow their regimes and their governments.


The first rule of good government according to the Buddha was to be liberal and avoid selfishness. By this, the Buddha meant that governments should always progress and reform as they learn new things. They should protect civil liberties and take a measured approach to things. In modern times, liberal usually connotates being pro- many things that conservatives or republicans are anti-. But in truth, to be liberal, means to assess, re-assess and progress. So, the Buddha said that leaders should be liberal. He said that should avoid selfishness. Let us look at Imperial Russia - the palaces became more opulent as the people became more hungry. Was this selfishness? Surely, by selfishness, the Buddha meant that we should all be equal? No. Such a thing would mean that the Buddha was a communist and many leaders in China have claimed that he was. It is my belief that by telling our rulers to be unselfish, Buddha meant that our rulers should remember their subjects and his message of progress and unselfishness is a message that runs throughout what we follow as Buddhists.


The Buddha said that our rulers should, maintain a high moral character. Why? Well, Buddha also told us that rulers should lead a simple life for the subjects to emulate, something that they would not be doing by being immoral. If we hear that a politician has taken drugs, we lose respect for that politician because he is immoral. He has clouded his judgement with something that is illegal and therefore, he has betrayed the trust we as the electorate put into him. We are told that drugs are wrong and bad for us - so how can we emulate the life of a politician who does bad things and desecrates his body with drugs? Drugs cost money - one who buys and uses drugs, is not leading a simple life.


Buddha told us that our rulers should be prepared to sacrifice one's own pleasure for the well-being of the subjects. How many rulers can we honestly say have ever lived by this? Why does Budda say this? We know that good karma only comes when we help our fellow man and live with him as brother and brother. Nobody objects to success but is it right for a rich man to sit down to a 5 course meal when some have gone without food for days? Our conscious should tell us that we should help those who are poor. We should give alms. But if our rulers are leading a simple life, then the poles of rich and poor are not so far apart and the rule of sacrificing luxury so that everyone can enjoy a good quality of life, is not a hard one to achieve.


What the Buddha tells us next is, I believe, at the heart of Buddhist teachings. He tells us that our rulers should be honest and maintain absolute integrity, be kind and gentle, be free from hatred of any kind, practise patience and exercise non-violence. Our rulers should respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony. When we look, these things are actually all the things we see in the Eightfold Path; Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. If our rulers have all these things, they are being good people and are following the teachings of Buddha. Then we can emulate them and become good people also. It is a cycle - a wheel.


In a perfect world, all rulers would follow these things and because they refuse to exercise non-violence we wouldn't see wars or genocides. Because they refuse to exercise illegal trade deals, we wouldn't see poverty. But we don't see these things and our rulers do not follow these things. Buddha tells us what to do. He tells rulers to respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony, so if we show our rulers that we want peace and harmony, they must respect that and in turn, begin to follow the Eightfold Path and be good governing officials.


Now, Buddha knew of the troubles caused by the weaknesses of human beings. So he said, "A good ruler should show no fear whatsoever in the enforcement of the law, if it is justifiable" - justice. Way back in the 5th century, we see that peace, harmony and justice were vital to good government. What has changed in the 16 centuries since? Buddha tells us that a good ruler must possess a clear understanding of the law to be enforced. It should not be enforced just because the ruler has the authority to enforce the law. It must be done in a reasonable manner and with common sense. Abusing our position is wrong. It goes against our countrymen and we spread upset and hurt, thus rejecting the teachings of Buddha.


So, if Buddha taught us the rules for good government, doesn't that make him a politician? No. It makes him wise. Governments are nessecary but their rule isn't always right. Each Government must be noble in it's outlook and in it's outreach and if rulers follow the teachings of Buddha, goodness and peace become interwoven with the people. These rules not only apply to rulers - this is not advice to stay in Government. This is advice to be a good person. Buddha does not advocate imperialism or communism - he advocates being good. He says that our rulers should be moral, good and just. He says that they should be gracious and patient, loving and kind, accepting and wise and not afraid to admit mistakes or take actions that may make them unpopular, as long as those actions are for the good of those who put their trust into that ruler.


Politics is seen today as a grubby and an underhanded institution that has become ravaged by corruption and greed. If we want to know how good our rulers are, let us ask ourselves if they follow what Buddha said. Are they;

  • liberal?
  • moral?
  • honest?
  • gentle?
  • generous?
  • non-violent?
  • patient?
  • impartial?
If they are all of those things, they follow the teachings of Buddha and we can follow them. In that way, they follow Buddha by leading lives that we can emulate and we are all better people for being ruled by our leaders and they are better for ruling us in that way.


Contemplate. And learn.


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