Saturday, February 28, 2015

Buddhist Politics in Babylon

     I considered myself to have lost interest in politics after realizing the peculiar fact that what is right and just from a political point of view is not necessarily right and just from a moral or spiritual point of view. A very obvious example of this divergence is war. Some wars are mass murder by just about anyone's standards, but some, like the Allies' position in World War Two, could be called politically justified, even necessary—unless, that is, one were to consider Nazi Germany's and Imperial Japan's conquest of the world to be a good thing. After living in rural Burma for many years I further lost faith in politics after realizing that people living in material poverty in a brutal, incompetent military dictatorship could actually have less suffering in their lives than those living in a relatively affluent and relatively free democracy. (Although I would agree that it would be ideal if we could somehow eliminate those institutions and phenomena that practically nobody can remain happy with, like torture chambers and famines.) Forms of government seemed almost irrelevant to what matters most in human life, namely happiness.
     Shortly before my ordination as a bhikkhu, and before I lost interest in politics, I seemed to be gradually creeping rightwards along the political spectrum, although overall I was probably still well left of center. Sometimes I voted a split ticket, choosing a Republican politician if he seemed to be more competent or otherwise better suited for the job. I considered myself to be, unofficially, a "social eco-libertarian"—"social" in the sense of considering any person, especially any law-abiding one, to be entitled to enough food, clothing, shelter, and medicine to live a healthy life, and to enough education to fulfill his or her worldly potential; "eco" in the sense of assuming that nobody has the right to wreck the ecological balance of the earth through pollution, overpopulation, or whatever, regardless of their reasons for doing so; and "libertarian" in the sense of valuing individual liberty over competing factors like security. I figured true libertarianism sounded right philosophically, but was probably politically not the best form of a social system, since the resultant rampant liberty might weaken the internal stability of a country. It leaned me somewhat toward the right, however. (I'm pretty sure libertarians are considered to be right of center.) But I could never be a devout conservative—I once vowed that if Ronald Reagan's face ever appeared on US currency I'd emigrate to Australia. 
     Then recently, since going back to America in 2011, I have noticed myself becoming more politically inclined. One of the first symptoms of this appeared after I watched, from curiosity, a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: Romney seemed like a shark with a plastic smile glued to his face, with Obama obviously (to me) functioning at a higher level of consciousness, so in a state of mild alarm I registered to vote, and voted for Obama—or maybe, to be more accurate, against Romney. (It may be that even the wisest, most capable president may deflect the juggernaut of American policy only a few degrees from its course nowadays, but still…)
     Even more recently, I finally got around to reading a book that a nice person donated to me a few years ago, The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen. It's one of those thick, dry, heavy books which are invaluable to someone living in a cave with almost no access to bookstores or, as they greatly slow down the rate at which said cave dweller consumes his limited supply of reading material. Aside from history books, Sen's book may be the most politically-oriented book I've ever read. It's largely about political philosophy, and social ethics. It's about justice. 
     One issue that the author, a Nobel laureate in Economics, addresses is whether, or to what extent, justice and what is "right" should come from without or within, explicitly or implicitly. That is to say, to what extent should justice be imposed upon us by laws, rewards, punishments, established social conventions, etc., and to what extent it should arise spontaneously from the conscience and free principles of free and responsible individuals. I realized, with some surprise, that some of his discussion overlaps with some of the stuff I've been writing on this blog, like "Eleutherophobia" (29 Nov 2014), and especially "Accepting Responsibility" (8 Nov 2014). It turns out that I'm verging toward going stark, raving political. Hopefully mindfulness practice will help me to keep it under control somewhat.  
     Sen, being of Bengali ethnicity, with regard to this matter of the true home of practical justice (in institutions or in the human heart) gives the example of Kautilya and Asoka, two eminent politicians of ancient India. Kautilya was chief political and economic advisor to Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Empire and first ruler over almost all of the Indian subcontinent. The imperial advisor wrote a famous book entitled Arthashastra, which gives his view of how a prosperous nation should be regulated. His thinking has been compared many times to that of Machiavelli. He admitted that personal morals have some sway in determining people's behavior, but he had little faith in them and strongly advised a system in which people are regulated by laws and social conventions, with rewards and punishments when expedient. He seems to have considered human beings in general to be more morally weak and venal than otherwise.
     The emperor Asoka, Chandragupta's grandson, on the other hand, was a devout convert to the new system of Buddhism, and adopted a contrary approach: After his conversion he disbanded most of his armies, freed his slaves, set up rest houses and hospitals all over the country (including even hospitals for animals), sent out Buddhist missionaries to other countries, and set up many public inscriptions exhorting his people to take Dharma to heart, and to act accordingly, so that armies, police, prisons, executioners, etc. would be obsolete and unnecessary. He wanted Dharma in the individual breast to rule the world, not governmental laws backed up by carrots on sticks and brute force. 
     According to Sen, much of modern political and economic theory follows Kautilya, and assumes the human race to be selfish and venal. He writes, "The assumption of the completely egoistic human being has come to dominate much of mainstream economic theory…," and gives plenty of examples. One example he mentions is so-called Rational Choice Theory (RCT), very influential in economics, law, and political philosophy nowadays, which assumes that people tend to make rational choices, and asserts that people act rationally if and only if they are single-mindedly pursuing their own self-interest. Another example is David Gauthier's book Morals by Agreement (Oxford, 1986), in which the author claims that social justice will result from establishing a "right" free market economy with appropriate institutions to keep it in place. Not only will this result in social justice but, according to Gauthier, it will result in "freedom from morality," as the system itself will ensure that our conduct is just and right.
     (As a slight digression perhaps, it seems to me that Gauthier's vision of outwardly regulated "freedom from morality," which, as I pointed out to some degree in "Accepting Responsibility," appears to be the direction that America is taking to some extent, would also lead in the direction of freedom from generosity, since the established social apparatuses would take care of the poor and afflicted, thereby alleviating the non-poor and relatively non-afflicted of the burden, except indirectly through taxation. If so, then the farther this trend of freedom from generosity progresses in the West, the more difficult it will be for a Western Sangha of renunciants to be established in the West, with people being accustomed to the idea that supporting homeless wanderers is the duty of the government, or at least of someone else.)
     Which leads to Buddhist politics; and we may as well start with Asoka. Asoka obviously had a radically different idea from Gauthier. He seems to have felt that if people were encouraged to take Dharma seriously they would do so, and that by thereby cultivating wisdom they would be inclined, spontaneously, without hope of bribes or fear of punishments, to act rightly. We would then have a kind of sophocracy, or rule by wisdom. Not just rule by a wise king or by wise laws and traditions, but actual rule by wisdom.
     His method worked, pretty much, while he was alive, presumably in part because of the reverence the people had for such a devout and righteous emperor; but the Mauryan Empire collapsed shortly after Asoka died. One could reasonably argue that this most inspired of all monarchs was just too damn idealistic. But the other extreme, the road of Kautilya, would appear to lead to "freedom from morality" and a society of irresponsible, materialistic automatons—driven mainly by fear of pain, as in Orwell's 1984, or craving for pleasure, as in Huxley's Brave New World. The Huxleyan West seems to have won out over the more Orwellian East in the modern world, although even the prototype Brave New World, with its superficially happy meat puppets drugged on soma and consumerism, is, right beneath the surface, a spiritual wasteland, a kind of animated death.
     The Buddha himself, although he reportedly associated with kings and brahmin political advisors, appears to have had little interest in politics. In the Temiya Jātaka he is claimed, in a previous life as a royal prince, to have pretended to be deaf and dumb for many years in order to avoid the massive demerit involved in ascending his father's throne and becoming a politician. It is true that he is recorded to have endorsed the subsidizing of poor farmers to help them prosper and to reduce misery and crime, and of course to have disapproved of military conflict and other types of slaughter, and he designed his Sangha as a democracy, yet overall early Buddhism appears to have been mainly apolitical. 
     With regard to justice in particular, the Buddhist theory is that the entire Universe is naturally just, since karmic retribution assures that we all get exactly what we deserve. (Our perspective tends to be too limited to see this universal justice, however, and so we struggle against it. Monotheists who believe in a just, all-powerful God tend to behave similarly.) But from a more local, human point of view, we humans have the ability to choose whether we will exist in a just hell or a just heaven. So it does make sense for us to try to get along with each other, and to alleviate misery when we can.
     In the West, Buddhism appears to be associated with a more liberal political persuasion, definitely left of center, generally speaking. (I include that "generally speaking" qualification because one of the most serious lay Buddhists I've ever known was a staunch conservative Republican Jewish guy with lots of money who insisted that all liberals were dishonest hypocrites.) This tendency for Western Buddhism to lean towards liberalism politically may simply be an artifact of Western culture, however, and may not imply that practical Dharma is essentially leftist. Conservatives of any culture, almost by definition, will tend to prefer their traditional systems over recent imports, so spiritually-oriented Western conservatives would thus be more likely to have recourse to some form of Christianity or Judaism. In a Buddhist country like Burma, however, the right-wing conservatives may be more likely than the liberals to be Buddhist.
     In the past I conducted a rather simple thought experiment by imagining what a truly enlightened society would be like—that is, one in which every citizen was an Arahant. It didn't take much thought to arrive at the conclusion that such a society, politically speaking, would tend toward some kind of anarchistic communism. Obviously, there would be no personal property, and no capitalism, if nobody entertained any greed or possessiveness, and no concept whatsoever of "I," "me," or "mine." Everything would be shared according to need. If there were any formal governmental structure at all it would presumably be minimal, and mainly for basic practicalities like maintaining fire departments, sewers, garbage trucks, etc. Everyone would spontaneously conduct themselves mindfully and more or less virtuously, so there would be no need for criminal laws or police or jails. Even if a few non-Arahants infiltrated the society somehow, like maybe as tourists, missionaries, or venture capitalists, the enlightened citizens would wholeheartedly accept and forgive their unenlightened behavior, even if it was outstandingly obnoxious. 
     It would seem reasonable that, if we wished to move in the direction of a truly enlightened society, then we should try to emulate this kind of radical libertarian communism. A big question, then, is how would we move in that direction? It would appear that there are two main approaches—the same two that were discussed earlier: outward and inward. Approaching an enlightened social system outwardly, via reforms in laws, customs, and established, conformist attitudes, is evidently the more popular path lately, and since it would smack of political communism, or at first at least of socialism, it would justify the view of Buddhist liberalism. 
     But if we consider Buddhist ethics we realize that according to Dharma, "right" and "wrong" are internal, not external; they are matters of volition, not of outward action. So it could reasonably be argued that transformation of the heart should take precedence, and that many of the outward modifications would then follow naturally. If this is the case, then the route modern society has been taking, with social institutions relieving us of personal moral responsibility (except maybe for once a year when/if we vote for institutional reforms), would seem to be heading in the opposite direction from Heaven on Earth.
     If one reads the literature of early Buddhism one may note that the Sangha established by the Buddha was not exactly anarchistic but rather democratic, with plenty of outward rules and regulations, which may seem obviously to contradict my "inner development to enlightened anarchy" ("IDEA") hypothesis. But the literature is describing a system not only primarily for people who are not enlightened, but also one that the Buddha himself may not have intended.
     There is evidence, for example, that the elaborate monastic code of discipline, the Vinaya, was devised after the Buddha's disappearance from this world. There are statements to the effect that the dispensations of previous Buddhas, before Gotama, did not have Vinayas, and consequently did not last very long—which may be intended to justify the anomalous appearance of Vinaya in the most recent dispensation. Also, although the origin story for every rule of discipline includes the Buddha's enactment of the rule, it is also the case that the stories show signs of being added after the fact, and that the rules themselves show signs of being developed gradually, over a period of over a hundred years (the rules concerning proper conduct toward monks following other sects of Buddhism being a rather conspicuous example of this). In the canonical history of the first great council, held very shortly after the Buddha's parinirvana, the story goes that the Buddha's successor as senior monk in the Sangha, venerable Mahā Kassapa, overheard an old monk (who was ordained when he was old, rendering him difficult to train) saying, essentially, "Hey, why all the long faces? Now we don't have the venerable Gotama telling us 'Do this, don't do that' all the time. Now we can do as we please!" This inspired some righteous alarm in Mahā Kassapa, and he decided to convene a great council, mainly for the purpose of establishing a systematic monastic code. Thus the first council was called the Vinaya Sagīti, or Convocation of Discipline. (I am discussing this issue very briefly here, as I don't want to digress any more than necessary. I give a fuller discussion of this perhaps controversial history of Vinaya in the post "Morality and Observances," (16 March 2013).) Also, even with the very elaborate monastic code of explicit regulations, regulating even the most trivial everyday behavior of monks, all but extreme cases are enforced in accordance with an honor system—that is, a monk is not found guilty of committing an offense unless he freely admits to committing it. Obviously, this approach would not work so well in modern worldly society, with criminals being jailed only if they plead guilty in court.
     Even Buddhist Dharma in general, like religious ethics in general, has some explicitly imposed regulators of behavior. The five precepts for laypeople are a well-known example. For that matter, even the doctrine of Karma may be viewed as a more or less explicit regulator, since believers in that doctrine may act in certain ways out of desire for merit or fear of demerit. This is certainly a major factor in the ethical considerations of the typical Burmese Buddhist.
     Yet moral behavior along such lines can be said not to represent genuine virtue at all. Clearly, a person who restrains himself from stealing or committing murder only out of fear of prison, or who tells the truth only out of fear of being caught lying, or out of desire to enhance his reputation for some ulterior purpose, could not be considered deeply moral. As Mary Baker Eddy says, "A man who likes to do wrong—finding pleasure in it and refraining from it only through fear of consequences—is neither a temperate man nor a reliable religionist." Practicing generosity out of a desire for heaven or a good rebirth, or to avoid trouble, is hardly any more virtuous than being generous out of desire for winning more votes in an upcoming election. 
     Even so, this outward form of Dharma, and of religion, is appropriate for beginners. It keeps us out of trouble, more or less, and smoothes our path, so that we can practice Dharma with less distraction and cultivate the wisdom to see firsthand—not just to believe dogmatically—that virtue is its own reward, and that non-harming, and helping others to be happy, is the obvious, natural choice. Virtue does not then hold out any carrots on sticks to lure or bribe us into being good, and although virtue does lead to happiness, we don't practice it out of an ulterior desire for that. Instead, we practice Dharma and virtue the way a skillful dancer dances: We simply do what feels graceful and right, and do it beautifully. We become at one with the Way. Heaven manifests in our hearts, and spreads outwards. As another famous Christian once said, "The letter killeth; the spirit maketh alive."
     The trick is that the outward form for beginners (and in this world almost everyone is a beginner in Dharma) should be conducive to the development of wisdom through accepting responsibility inwardly, not causing us to become virtuous through mere conformity, fear, and force of habit, like sheep. By relieving us of individual moral responsibility, like Gauthier's free market "freedom from morality," society would be effectively shutting down the potential for any significant move toward a truly enlightened society.
     Considering all this, it seems to me that some version of Asoka's method would be the ideal way to go. A society set up to be most conducive to increase of wisdom and evolution toward Heaven on Earth would encourage and honor personal responsibility and the wisdom of the individual, among other things, and would have minimal extrinsic regulation through laws, institutions, or even political correctness and social peer group pressure. Instead of freeing us from morality and making us a society of docile, conformist livestock we would be granted more and more ethical responsibility, with more of a sense of honor and mutual trust involved and fewer bribes and threats. If it could be worked out we might even have an inspired civilization someday full of awake, free, unpredictable people (since after all, freedom implies unpredictability). Imagine what it would look like if we were free just of mindless fashion trends and the taboo on being unusual: One might see a fellow walking down the street wearing a Roman toga, followed by a young woman wearing nothing but sandals and a thong (sigh), followed by a couple wearing bright silk kimonos, a guy wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap, and then two girls wearing metallic jumpsuits. That would be cool. A civilization of free, honest, courageous individuals would also probably be conducive to a fair amount of uproar and chaos, but that's all right too, especially if it helps us to wake up. Let's evolve and let the chips fall where they may.
     Thus a major factor in the establishment of a relatively enlightened society would not be the establishment of more laws and rules, thereby resulting in more lawbreakers and prisons and more hypocrites pretending to follow the standard, but would be the establishment of FORGIVENESS, mutual acceptance, what used to be called "Christian charity." And that regardless of how fucked up and ass-holish people might be. This would practically require, in addition to the courage already mentioned, a decrease in alienation, superficiality, and the materialistic/consumeristic belief that our happiness and unhappiness are determined by external circumstances, and not by our own attitudes. Forgiving enemies can really turn them into friends; and forgiving violent, hostile people can really change their lives for the better, and uplift everyone involved. But statements like these have become platitudes by now, sayings said so many times that they have practically no effect.
     Of course, all of this talk of wisdom-based cultures may be grossly unrealistic in the regular, secular world, especially now that spirituality and profundity have become out of fashion within the popular mainstream. Still, some compromise, a few steps in that direction, would be better than continuing to step toward the conformist, morality-free society of the Brave New World. 
     A more advanced level of social evolution may be manageable in a smaller community, like some sort of commune or ashram. This would have the advantages of being more conducive to a feeling of community, of "us," thereby facilitating compassion, mutual feedback (ideally of a positive, supportive type), and the resolution of interpersonal difficulties and friction through community discussion, instead of through fighting or calling the cops. Additionally, a smaller, more resolutely spiritually-oriented community would be more likely to succeed because it would be more likely to be completely voluntary, with people preferring to follow the rules and play the games of status quo society seeking their happiness elsewhere. (One major reason why Marxist Communism failed in the late 20th century was that it was not voluntarily accepted by the masses it was supposed to help, but imposed upon them, many of them anyway, by thought control and brute force. But I digress.)
     Either way, regardless of the scale of the society, large or small, the key to Heaven on Earth would be to practice goodness and wisdom to the extent that our goodness and wisdom allow, and to accept badness and foolishness, thereby transmuting them into goodness, divinity, and perfection by that very acceptance. Through a worldly eye, everyone may be seen as messed up; you're messed up, I'm messed up—hell, probably even Ammachi the Hugging Saint in India is messed up. (I'm sure some worldly psychiatrist could diagnose her as mentally deranged and hysterical, being the way she is because of post traumatic stress disorder from a difficult childhood, or some such. Jesus of Nazareth and Ajahn Mun of Thailand might easily both be diagnosed as psychotic.) If we look through this worldly eye, and many people have only this one open, it is good at least to remind ourselves that we are no exception to the rule, and that we may as well forgive others their messed-uppedness, since we would like to be forgiven for our own. But if the other eye, the eye of transcendence, opens, and it can open, then we see that everyone and everything is a manifestation of divinity and perfection, even someone who is swindling us or swearing at us at the time. If we can somehow demolish the walls that alienate us and keep us separate, then we can realize that we all partake of the same spirit, and that, deep down, we all share the same "me." Our separation, along with all our presumed causes for craving and aversion, and for endorsing institutions for helping us get what we like and avoid what we hate, are ultimately illusions.
     In conclusion, I would like to say a few words on the topic of justice. Sen's book, and many others besides, seem to assume as an axiom that social justice is the ideal state, and that we should strive to attain it. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that justice is bad, or that we shouldn't bother with it at all, but it does seem that it is not the most important thing, and that it should not be the primary guiding star for the formulators of social systems. (This is setting aside the idea, derived from Buddhist ethical theory, that Karma ensures that the entire Universe is necessarily just anyway.) I am reminded of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, in which a beautiful girl named Aglaia (a symbolic angel, but we needn't get into that) accuses the christlike Prince Myshkin of being unjust because he forgives everybody. Although he is practically the perfect human, he'd make a lousy judge, because he would want to forgive and acquit every criminal who stood before him. If justice means that we get what we deserve, then an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth would be more just than simple, wholehearted forgiveness. But I think forgiveness is better.  


  1. "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice". This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (paraphrasing Unitarian / Transcendentalist Theodore Parker) has been internalized by most liberals like myself. It strikes me as a Romantic view, not particularly Buddhist or Christian. What do you think?

    1. Well, I guess that may apply to the human race overall, but the universe at large would seem not to be tending toward anything in particular, since it's been around an awful long time, so if it were tending toward something I'd think that it would have got there by now. But even with the human race it may be true only in certain respects, and at the expense of other respects.