Category Archives: Buddhism

Buddhist Political Philosophy (Karma)

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Karma. It’s a word that brings up ideas of cosmic retribution coming to us from past lives. It’s a metaphysical, even scary sounding concept, but not one you’d use to make sense of world affairs.

Personally, I can’t imagine explaining world affairs without karma. Everything in the world arises as a result of a set of causes and conditions and from everything that happens or comes into being, new causes and conditions arise.

Karma is the principle of actions and consequences. From a Buddhist perspective, karma refers specifically to human intention and the action accompanying that intention.

The Buddhist theory of karma assumes that:

  1. Human beings have agency;
  2. Human beings act by exercising their will;
  3. The actions of human beings have consequences for them.

In Buddhism, human will is subject to many physical, mental, emotional and environmental influences. Political entities are even more complex. The nation-state, for example, is made up of territory, population, government and international recognition as such.

It’s government, however, that ultimately influences what the state is and what it does. What government doesn’t affect its own people through its laws and policies? What countries don’t affect others through their choices in foreign policy?

Everything that becomes, or changes must do so owing to some cause;
for nothing can come to be without a cause
(Plato).

Karma also explains how the actions of nation-states affect both themselves and the world. The events of 9-11 and the policies of the Bush Administration squashed civil rights at home and devastated Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of Donald Trump resulted from many conditions, including a severe recession, widening economic disparities, and the American electoral system.

But karma isn’t just something that happens to nations; it’s something that nations create. Getting the causes “right” moreover, produces the right effects. Economic growth and development in China, for example, came through a well-planned economic policy and strategy.

The state can produce good karma, that is it can act morally and produce positive consequences, e.g. prosperity, peace and stability at home and elsewhere. In Buddhism, this comes through the state following its dharma, that is in fulfilling its moral purpose of relieving people of distress and enabling their well-being.

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Buddhist Political Philosophy: Dharma

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Dharma is of fundamental importance to Buddhist political philosophy.

Dharma comes from the Sanskrit “dhri” which means to support, to sustain and to uphold. It refers to the universal moral law which is also identical with our essentially moral nature as human beings. Acting in accordance with dharma means being good and doing good to others.

Socially, dharma is realized when we fulfill our obligations to one another. In Buddhism, this means treating one another with empathy, compassion and in a spirit of love, fellowship and brotherhood.

Politically, dharma is moral governance. Good government in Buddhism is moral government, that which relieves the suffering of the people and enables their well-being. This is accomplished by laying a strong economic foundation for the people and and ruling in a spirit of benevolence, justice and non-violence.

History is full of examples of rulers acting in accordance with and implementing dharma. Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE) and Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE) proclaimed respect for all religions throughout their empires. The Han Dynasty sought to relieve famine through a granary system, while the Buddhist period of Chinese history saw the establishment of hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and rest homes for the elderly.

… to be continued in Part III.

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The End of Suffering: Buddhist Political Philosophy (Introduction)

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I’ve long been interested in the idea of a Buddhist political philosophy.

Buddhism has long been criticized for being unconcerned with political or social reality. Indeed, most books written on Buddhism in North America today deal with psychic subjects like meditation and mindfulness, while others (Buddha in the Boardroom and The Buddha on Wallstreet) align Buddhism with modern day capitalism.

These questions have failed to engage with the deeper questions of Buddhist philosophy. They have also failed to question the basic premises of our liberal-democratic capitalist system. Such questioning is even more pressing given the loss of public confidence in our institutions following years of war, conquest, financial crises, bank bailouts and demagogues.

Buddhist political philosophy offers a new way and timely of thinking about and imagining our political reality. I look forward to writing more about it here.

 

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The Buddhist Diwali

 

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Diwali is the festival of lights for only a few Buddhists in India and Nepal. There are reasons though why their brethren should look at Diwali in a new light.

Buddhists celebrating Diwali do so in remembrance of Emperor Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE). Around the year 260 CE, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and adopted the principles of the Dharma as the basis for his governance of his empire.

The practice of government should not tolerate suffering.[1] Ashoka in his edicts emphasized the importance of humane government and the welfare of his people. His state built infrastructure and provided free medical care to his subjects. He advocated religious tolerance and called for harmony and respect between all sects in the empire.

He is considered by many Buddhists as the ideal cakravartin,[2] the universal sovereign who rules benevolently. Ashoka unified the subcontinent and and his policy of Dharma applied equally to all of his subjects. In preaching virtue and benevolence in government, he can be seen as a political counterpart to the Buddha.

In today’s darkness, the light of Diwali deserves to shine in Ashoka’s example.

 

[1] Mencius

[2] Skr. “wheel turner”

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A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors below ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

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Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

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Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He inspires me nonetheless and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

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Thought, Intention, Action

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“The fragrance of flowers…blow not against the wind.
But the fragrance of virtue blows to the ends of earth”
(Dhammapada 4:9).

Written by Randeep Singh

Love. Compassion. Joy. Equanimity. These are the “four immeasurables” in Buddhism. They are referred to invariably as “mental states” to be cultivated through meditation.

But can these “immeasurables” not be something more? What good are love, compassion, joy and equanimity if they exist only in our minds?

Buddhism is not just the practice of meditation. It is the practice of how mental discipline can be cultivated together with wisdom and ethical conduct to end suffering. The four immeasurables as a form of meditation teach one to cultivate love, compassion, joy and equanimity first with respect to oneself, to people close to one, towards a neutral person, towards an otherwise hostile person and towards the whole world.

This methodology can also be applied towards ethical behaviour. One can exercise love, compassion, joy and equanimity so they ultimately embrace all persons. What better way is there to end suffering than spreading love, compassion, joy and equanimity? Those are the true immeasurables, the fragrance of virtue blowing against the wind.

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