Being a ruler requires clear understanding: study the past and present, know when to be active and passive, temper force with mercy, be kind to one’s subordinates, benefit the people, and give equally. ~ Buddha
Leaders in governments around the world, and especially in the United States of America, face a deeply divided country and political government. This type of situation has plagued leaders and rulers throughout time, and continues in our modern world. So for the new (or re-elected) leader, what lessons from Buddhist teachers and leaders can they use to bring harmony and progress to people in their land?
Eightfold Path for Government
Practicing Buddhists worldwide aim to follow the “Eightfold Path“, which provides the guidelines to lead a moral life. Here are some ways it can be applied to government:
- Right View: Look at any issue or situation as it truly is. Free your view of hatred, greed, and delusion. Are you acting on the best interest of the people, or your own ego?
- Right Intention: Be resolved to rid both yourself, and what you have control over, of anything wrong and immoral. For example, can you eliminate corruption? Resolve to end it.
- Right Speech: Make the best use of your words ensuring you do not create false speech, abusive speech, or speech that creates division. Bring people together, not apart.
- Right Action: Ensure your conduct is morally correct. Strive to abstain from taking life, stealing, and misconduct (affairs). This includes those who work for you, and any sphere of influence you have control over.
- Right Livelihood: The traditional description for right livelihood is specific to not trading in weapons, save trading, killing, or anything that causes suffering or disillusionment. Although a leader cannot make all these things go away in a modern world, they can help create the conditions to make them less desirable or needed.
- Right Effort: Make sure you don’t use wrong or harmful thoughts, words, and deeds in your elected office, and strive for good. Negative attack ads and partisan speeches only create conflict.
- Right Mindfulness: Too often, our “monkey mind” takes over and we fail to pay attention to what we are saying or doing. As a leader, an entire country may be depending on how you handle legislation or how you talk to a visiting diplomat. Make sure you do not act or speak with any inattention or forgetfulness.
- Right Concentration: Mediate. No, really. Being a leader involves stress, conflict, and more work that anyone can imagine. Meditating has been shown to have many health benefits, but more importantly it can help you center yourself after a long day and build up your mental calmness.
Good Governance, Buddha Style
Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of the worldwide Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, wrote about politics in his new book titled “Life” (click here to view on amazon.com):
- A good government is one that likes what the people like and hates what the people hate.
- Good government promotes the well being of its people by reducing taxes, strengthening infrastructure, and developing a prosperous economy.
- Such a government would raise the level of education and culture, respect religion, integrate the races, and establish a harmonious, secure, and stable society.
- To provide a pure and healthy environment a good government plants forests, conserves water, and emphasizes environmental protection.
These are well balanced thoughts about good governance that would be widely accepted by the vast majority of people anywhere.
Buddhist Leadership in Practice: King Ashoka
In Buddhist history, no King surpasses the greatness and wisdom of Ashoka (also known as “Ashoka the Great”). He was once a fierce and brutal warrior King who was in constant wars with his neighbors to expand his kingdom and gain wealth. It was not until his last major battle against Kalinga in 261 B.C., which had resisted his kingdom for years, that led to over 100,000 killed and became a turning point for Ashoka. Seeing the destruction he had caused turned him to the teachings of the Buddha which helped lead his kingdom to nearly 40 years of relative (but not absolute) peace and prosperity.
What we know of his reign can be found on ‘rock edicts‘, although many of the engravings are now lost to history. Here is how he used the Buddhist teachings to transform his kingdom:
- Practice Right Behavior “Dharma is good, but what constitutes Dharma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.” (Pilar Edict Nb2 S. Dharmika)
- Create Benevolence: Ashoka believed in using the power he had as king (the same can be used by leaders with entrusted power) to make the conditions his people lived in better.
- Provide Kindness to Prisoners: Although we take our legal system for granted today, it wasn’t always this way in history. Ashoka stated: “It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing. I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners’ lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts.” (Pilar Edict Nb4 S. Dhammika)
- Help Protect Nature: Although there is debate as to whether he had much power over this, Ashoka led by example and all but stopped hunting, killing, castration, and other activities that harmed and killed animals.
- Encourage Religious Tolerance: The world Ashoka grew up in was a caste system, much like that of the historical Buddha. He created the example still used in Buddhist countries today (or aspire to be): all religions are respected.
- “All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.” (Rock Edict Nb7 S. Dhammika)
- “Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.” (Rock Edict Nb12 S. Dhammika)
- Helping the Sick: From Jesus to Buddha to Muhammad, religious leaders have always placed those at life’s most fragile point at the highest level and encouraged their followers to do the same. Although we have moral obligations to the sick, Ashoka took it a step further by providing medicinal support. In a time when modern hospitals like we have now would have seemed almost magical, he provided support in the only way he could. “…made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.” (Rock Edict Nb2 S. Dhammika)
Being a leader in government provides you the opportunity to create great progress and change, but also face fierce opposition and hatred. By applying some Buddhist concepts to your leadership style, you can gain perspective and a steady mind that can help you bridge the gap and create compromise and peace. The end goal is always to make a better life for those under your leadership, and you can make it happen.
- The beginning of this article changed on 09 November 2016 to not be specific to any particular elected individual.