The Buddha on Government

This Sutta Study is on the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, or, The Lion’s Roar on the Wheel-Turning Monarch.

This is a cool fuckin’ Sutta. It starts off with what might be my favorite Buddha quote of all time:

“You should live with yourself as a guiding light, with yourself as a refuge, without another as a refuge; live with the Dhamma as a guiding light, with the Dhamma as a refuge, without another as a refuge.”

Totally awesome, right? This might seem like an interesting intro to a Sutta where the Buddha presents a metaphor on how a king should govern the kingdom, but it really fits well. For the first few pages, Siddhartha’s teaching the monks how to govern themselves; he’s teaching them how to make their own minds and bodies into utopian kingdoms.

After telling everyone that they’re to guide themselves and be guided by the Dharma, he answers the silent question, “How?” with mindfulness meditation—satipatthana.

A monk lives observing the body as body, energetically, self-possessed, and mindful, having eliminated both the desire for and the despair over the world. A monk observes feeling as feeling… mind as mind… mental phenomena as mental phenomena… In this way, a monk lives with himself as a guiding light.

Satipatthana is what was used to inspire the methods taught by S.N. Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and the Vipassana (or insight) Movement as a whole. We can go over all that in another post sometime.

After that, we get to his parable about the king. The moral of the story is that, like the aggregates, nations are dependently arisen. The overall health of a nation depends on the ethics of its leaders. The Buddha says that a monarch should protect and care for soldiers, merchants, wanderers, and townspeople. The ruler should give money to the impoverished, and seek ethical advice from philosophers and spiritual teachers.

And when it comes to conquering other lands, a great ruler doesn’t use force, but expands and strengthens the kingdom because it’s so healthy that no one would mind being part of it. Instead of, “I’m going to bomb you back to the Stone Age unless you surrender your land to me,” it’d play out like, “Oh, hey. So, you’re doing pretty great, aren’t you? Everyone’s reasonably happy, and your nation’s prospering. Ours isn’t, so, do you think we could, ya know, maybe give you our land and be ruled by you as well?”

Yeah, an unlikely scenario, but that’s the level of awesome that the Buddha’s talking about in this parable: a kingdom so healthy that other kingdoms were willing to just surrender their lands so that they could be a part of it.

In the Buddha’s story, the earth was ruled by a lineage of benevolent monarchs for several generations. Then, one day, the new king stopped asking for advice. He stopped seeking guidance from philosophers, sages, and his advisors. Without counsel, the king just did whatever the fuck he wanted, so the people started prospering less.

The king didn’t protect the people or care for them, and he didn’t give money to the poor. Since he didn’t help the poor, people started stealing. Now here’s where things get interesting.

The king makes what appears to be the most moral choice—instead of punishing the thieves, he listens to their reasons behind stealing, and gives them money. Nice, right? But then, since the king gave those thieves money, more people started to steal shit, thinking that they’d actually be rewarded if they were caught.

Realizing his mistake, the king starts executing thieves instead, hoping that punishment would keep people in line.

Instead, the thieves turned violent; they made weapons and started killing the people they robbed so that there’d be no witnesses. Also, fearing death, the thieves-turned-murderers lied when they were questioned by the authorities. As the land grew more and more violent, people started reporting on their neighbors. “I saw Jim Bob down the street steal a chicken.” This created disharmony in all the communities.

Then it all just keeps going downhill from there. What the story shows is the social element of dependent arising. And just like how an impoverished mind causes the whole host of afflictions, an impoverished bank account causes the whole host of social strife.

Brought to modern times, it means that the problems we face as nations can be traced back to unethical, undisciplined leadership. All the crime, the wars, the greed, prejudice, and hatred all have immoral government at their root. It teaches that the first priorities of a leader should be seeking counsel from compassionate, learned people, and eliminating poverty.

If we can eliminate poverty, then—according to this Sutta—everything else will sort itself out. Without poverty, no one would need to make a living selling drugs, guns, and other black market products. No one would need to prostitute themselves. With those problems solved, a vast portion of violent crime would disappear as well, since most of it’s done in the name of black market entrepreneurs staking out territories and protecting their investments.

Without poverty, envy and jealousy would decrease among the population. Without that and the stress caused by poor finances, people would be happier overall, and since they’d be happier, they’re going to be able to think clearer and make better decisions. They’re going to become less self-centered, more tolerant and altruistic.

The Sutta also shows that reward and punishment are both poor ways to help people. The skillful way is to create an environment that is, in itself, rewarding and hospitable to people’s aspirations.

Anyway, if someone ever says that politics has no place in Buddhism, just send them a link to the Wheel-Turning Monarch Sutta. Even though the Buddha wasn’t especially concerned about the state of the kingdom, he couldn’t deny that such things affect everyone in some way—including the monks.

A broken country, full of murderers, liars, thieves, etc. isn’t going to provide an atmosphere conducive to practice, and it isn’t going to be sympathetic to wandering mendicants chasing after enlightenment.

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