Buddhist Wisdom Applied to Social Matters
Aung San Suu Kyi
An Editorial Note:
The following text expresses the
social wisdom of ancient Asia. It is
useful for all countries, Eastern and
Western. It does not apply to kings and
statesmen only. It teaches decisive lessons
to every leader, social, philosophical or
religious. It is especially important for the
theosophical movement in the 21st century.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Buddhist
Social leader in Burma, received the Nobel
Peace Prize for 1991. Her lifelong struggle for
freedom has been heroic: she teaches by words
and by example. “The Duties of the Kings” is part
of her book “Freedom From Fear and Other
Writings”, Penguin Books, 338 pp., 1991, pp.169-173.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
“While a private individual may
be bound only by the formal vows that
he makes, those who govern should be wholly
bound by the truth in thought, word and deed.”
(Aung San Suu Kyi)
The Buddhist view of world history tells that when society fell from its original state of purity into moral and social chaos a king was elected to restore peace and justice. The ruler was known by the three titles: Mahasammata, “because he is named ruler by the unanimous consent of the people”; Khattiya, “because he has dominion over agricultural land”; and Raja, “because he wins the people to affection through observance of the dhamma (virtue, justice, the law)”.
The agreement by which their first monarch undertakes to rule righteously in return for a portion of the rice crop represents the Buddhist version of government by social contract. The Mahasammata follows the general pattern of Indic kingship in South-east Asia. This has been criticized as antithetical to the idea of the modern state because it promotes a personalized form of monarchy lacking the continuity inherent in the western abstraction of the king as possessed of both a body politic and a body natural. However, because the Mahasammata was chosen by popular consent and required to govern in accordance with just laws, the concept of government elective and sub lege is not alien to traditional Burmese thought.
The Buddhist view of kingship does not invest the ruler with the divine right to govern the realm as he pleases. He is expected to observe the Ten Duties of Kings, the Seven Safeguards against Decline, the Four Assistances to the People, and to be guided by numerous other codes of conduct such as the Twelve Practices of Rulers, the Six Attributes of Leaders, the Eight Virtues of Kings and the Four Ways to Overcome Peril. There is logic to a tradition which includes the king among the five enemies or perils and which subscribes to many sets of moral instructions for the edification of those in positions of authority. The people of Burma have had much experience of despotic rule and possess a great awareness of the unhappy gap that can exist between the theory and practice of government.
The Ten Duties of Kings are widely known and generally accepted as a yardstick which could be applied just as well to modern government as to the first monarch of the world. The duties are: liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance and non-opposition (to the will of the people).
1) The first duty of liberality (dana), which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people, makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens. In the context of modern politics, one of the prime duties of a responsible administration would be to ensure the economic security of the state.
2) Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example. When the king does not observe the dhamma, state functionaries become corrupt, and when state functionaries are corrupt the people are caused much suffering. It is further believed that an unrighteous king brings down calamity on the land. The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.
3) The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity and sometimes as self-sacrifice. The former would constitute a duplication of the first duty, dana, so self-sacrifice as the ultimate generosity which gives up all for the sake of the people would appear the more satisfactory interpretation. The concept of selfless public service is sometimes illustrated by the story of the hermit Sumedha who took the vow of Buddhahood. In so doing, he who could have realized the supreme liberation of nirvana in a single lifetime committed himself to countless incarnations that he might help other beings free themselves from suffering. Equally popular is the story of the monkey king who sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm and who was the eventual cause of his death. The good ruler sublimates his needs as an individual to the service of the nation.
4) Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations. There is a Burmese saying: “With rulers, truth, with (ordinary) men, vows”. While a private individual may be bound only by the formal vows that he makes, those who govern should be wholly bound by the truth in thought, word and deed. Truth is the very essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who referred to himself as the Tathagata or “one who has come to the truth”. The Buddhist king must therefore live and rule by truth, which is the perfect uniformity between nomenclature and nature. To deceive or to mislead the people in any way would be an occupational failing as well as a moral offence. “As an arrow, intrinsically straight, without warp or distortion, when one word is spoken, it does not err into two.”
5) Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people. It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless. In Wizaya, a well-known nineteenth-century drama based on the Mahavamsa story of Prince Vijaya, a king sends away into exile his own son whose wild ways have caused the people much distress: “In the matter of love, to make no distinction between citizen and son, to give equally of loving kindness, that is the righteousness of kings.”
6) The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoins the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline. The self-indulgent ruler who enjoys an extravagant lifestyle and ignores the spiritual need for austerity was no more acceptable at the time of the Mahasammala then he would be in Burma today.
7, 8 and 9) The seventh, eighth and ninth duties – non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (kshanti) – could be said to be related. Because the displeasure of the powerful could have unhappy and far-reaching consequences, kings must not allow personal feelings of enmity and ill will to erupt into destructive anger and violence. It is incumbent on a ruler to develop the true forbearance which moves him to deal wisely and generously with the shortcomings and provocations of even those whom he could crush with the impunity. Violence is totally contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. The good ruler vanquishes ill will with loving kindness, wickedness with virtue, parsimony with liberality, and falsehood with truth. The Emperor Ashoka, who ruled his realm in accordance with the principles of non-violence and compassion, is always held up as an ideal Buddhist king. A government should not attempt to enjoin submission through harshness and immoral force but should aim at dhamma-vijaya, a conquest by righteousness.
10) The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well-known stories from the Jatakas. Pawridasa, a monarch who acquired an unfortunate taste for human flesh, was forced to leave his kingdom because he would not heed the people’s demand that he should abandon his cannibalistic habits. A very different kind of ruler was the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation on earth, the pious King Vessantara. But he too was sent into exile when in the course of his strivings for the perfection of liberality he gave away the white elephant of the state without the consent of the people. The real duty of non-opposition is a reminder that the legitimacy of government is founded on the consent of the people, who may withdraw their mandate at any time if they lose confidence in the ability of the ruler to serve their best interests.
By invoking the Ten Duties of Kings the Burmese are not so much indulging in wishful thinking as drawing on time-honoured values to reinforce the validity of the political reforms they consider necessary.
It is a strong argument for democracy that governments regulated by principles of accountability, respect for public opinion and the supremacy of just laws are more likely than an all-powerful ruler or ruling class, uninhibited by the need to honour the will of the people, to observe the traditional duties of Buddhist kingship. Traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government.
On the role of the esoteric movement in the ethical awakening of mankind during the 21st century, see the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.
Published in 2013 by The Aquarian Theosophist, the volume has 255 pages and can be obtained through Amazon Books.