The Social Dimension of Buddha's Teaching

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Then he went on to teach four things that lead to long-term benefit: confidence, generosity, moral discipline and wisdom

Political teachings of the Buddha

Before he renounced the throne to be religious seeker the Buddha must have gained extensive experience in government administration. And although he became a religious teacher, he frequently came into contact with kings and officials of the various states in which he moved and taught. As well, his disciples include a number of kings. 

The Buddha had disciples from both the republican states that existed in northern India as well as the monarchies. He gave teachings impartially to all, not advocating one form over another.  Rather he taught that whatever the form of the government, the guiding principle of the state should be the Dhamma, the law of righeousness. The sovereign body of the state does not have the right to use its power for its own advantage, because it is subject to a higher law — the ethical law of Dhamma.

Thus the Dharma — this moral, spiritual principle of righteousness — becomes the governing standard of all the particular forms of government — the standard against which we can measure all the laws passed by a state, all the lines of conduct undertaken by a ruler. And to rule in accordance with the Dharma the government must provide for the material welfare of its citizens, and it must also establish conditions that promote their moral and spiritual development.

The Buddha does not stop at generalities. He lays down specific ways for the ruler to substantiate the Dhamma in its administration.

One formula he gives is the four evil motives to be avoided:

  • Partiality or favoritism — showing attachment to certain people or ideas
  • Anger or hatred — intense aversion toward people
  • Delusion — to be confused, dull-minded
  • Fear  — to act out of fear and timidity

On the positive side, the Dhamma teaches that the government, especially the ruler, should observe ten standards — the ten royal virtues. These are often illustrated in the Jataka tales, the stories of the Buddha’s past lives.

  • Generosity — A ruler should be generous, should be ready to distribute the wealth of the kingdom to the people. He should make sure that everyone has the basic necessities of life, that no one should be depreived of a place to live, proper food and clothing.
  • Self-discipline — A ruler should be well disciplined in his conduct. He should observe the five precepts (not to kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, misuse intoxicants).
  • Self-sacrifice — A ruler should ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the kingdom, ready give up everything for the benefit of his subjects, even to give up his own life.

  • Justice — A ruler should administer his realm with justice, with equality towards others, not with favoritism or partiality.
  • Gentleness — A ruler should be gentle, loving, and kind to all the people.
  • Austerity — A ruler should be austere in his own way of life; he shouldn’t be addicted to luxurious enjoyments. He should live simply, content with the basic necessities.
  • Kindness — A ruler should be free from enmity, from hatred and ill will.
  • Non-violence — A ruler should rule with non-violence. He shouln’t conquer by violence, he shouldn’t be disposed to afflict violent punishment on others.
  • Patience — A ruler should not rule from anger and should remain persistent despite difficulties.
  • Non-opposition — A ruler should not oppose the will of the people but always follow their will when it accords with what is right.

The Buddha's approach to war

The Buddha teaches clearly and explicitly that to rule in accordance with Dhamma, the ruler has to avoid aggressiveness and attempts to conquer by violence.

Time and again the Buddha teaches in one way or another that violence must be avoided, that peace can never be established by force and conquest  The Buddha says that when one side conquers another the conqueror only breeds resentment in the one who is defeated, while he himself must live in constant anxiety worrying that he will be defeated in turn. Neither side really wins the battle; the conqueror also loses, as he can never find happiness or be free from worry and anxiety through his victory.

The Buddha teaches that there are four kinds of conquests a ruler should make:

  • Conquer the evil person by goodness.
  • Conquer the liar by truth.
  • Conquer the stingy by giving generously.
  • Conquer the hostile nan by love and by goodness.

For it is only by love, the Buddha teaches, never by hatred and violence, that hatred can be brought to sooth?  It is only by peace, by patience, by kindness and compassion that the cycle of violence and revenge can be brought to a stop. Dhammapada quote here ? " Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal."

Bhikkhu Bodhi - Since this is "Ashoka" might we add something about King Ashoka's rule as a manifestation/representation on the social dimension on the Buddha's teaching?