The Buddhist Ethic of Kingship

Kuensel Online, November 27, 2007

Timphu, Bhutan -- Professor Robert Thurman is a widely known geshey in the west and is highly regarded by Buddhists all over the world. He is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor at Columbia University in New York and describes himself as a rimé, or a non-sectarian non-partisan follower of Tibetan Buddhism.

<< Professor Robert Thurman

He spoke to Kuensel about democracy, Buddhism and on the talk “Dharmaraja - The Buddhist Ethic of Kingship, according to Nagarjuna’s Rosary of Jewels.”

What brings you back to Bhutan?
I love Bhutan and I was very happy to come, to see Bhutan again. This time, I had the opportunity to bring several good friends of mine, who are very interested in Bhutan and in helping Bhutan. I visited Bumthang, Phobjikha, to see the cranes and to see Gantey Trulku. We also went to Punakha briefly; it’s a short trip because my friends are in business, so they have no time.

What is your take on Bhutan with all the political changes taking place?
Well, I don’t really know much about it. I know that the Crown Prince became King and he has been getting ready to take charge of the government and a lot of preparation is undergoing for the election and it seems that things are going really well.

It’s very surprising that His Majesty the Fourth King retired so quickly, but I think that the new King seems to be doing very well, so things are going very well for Bhutan.

Whereas the rest of the world is a huge mess, America is an enormous mess, the Middle East is a huge mess, China is an ecological disaster, but Europe is doing pretty well actually and so is Bhutan.

What do you think about democracy in Bhutan?
Well, I think it’s an inevitable process, it’s like the tide coming in and everyone seems to be very enthusiastic about it, but I can’t give a very well informed opinion. I think I have heard since I’ve been here that some of the people, who know the working of the government and who know the true situation of Bhutan, are a little bit worried that the process of campaigning, that politicians maybe raising people’s hope too high.

So there are other statesmen, who are trying to sober their expectations. But I think that you couldn’t have a better King than the Fifth King to carry on the tradition. He is doing a wonderful job from what I hear.

Why this particular topic for a talk?
In honour of the new King, because Bhutan is a Buddhist country with a mainstream Buddhist tradition. I guess there are a few people with other religious orientation, which is fine in modern situation, especially since Buddhism is very tolerant; and in conducting Kingship in a Buddhist setting, there’s a lot of good advice from ancient Buddhist teachers.

Particularly Nagarjuna: I’m a great fan of his and he wrote several works, giving advice to Kings. I’ve studied those works and written books about them. So I thought it would be a good topic to talk about the nature of Kingship and the interesting paradox that Nagarjuna points out, that it’s very likely that a good and strong executive is an essential thing to maintain the interest of individuals in a society. So there is an interesting paradox that you need a strong central leader to guarantee the rights of the people and therefore the idea of a constitutional monarchy is pretty close to a Buddhist ideal. Plus, Nagarjuna gives a lot of interesting details that people will be surprised to know because his works are about 1,800 years old.

I wrote a book called Inner Revolution and in this book I’ve a chapter discussing Nagarjuna’s advice and I also analyzed the main principles of Buddhist leadership or Kingship.

There are five principles: the first principle I call Transcendent Individualism. In this, it is the single figure of the King that guarantees the strange paradox of democracy, because democracy means ruled by the people. What that means is that the purpose of a nation is the nation’s citizen. It’s not the citizens doing things for the nation but it’s the nation doing something for its citizens.

In the case of a Buddhist nation, the most important thing in the universe is that an individual being attains nirvana or is freed from suffering. Therefore, the society should be oriented to making possible that the maximum number of individuals can attain enlightenment.

In a society everyone has duties but the most important and heaviest duty is the King’s. So, the King has to have a primary purpose in life and that is to be enlightened himself, to set an example to his citizens, because it’s a Buddhist society.

Buddhism has a very interesting paradox and that is, yes, it’s very important to be a bodhisattva and serve the people, but you can’t really serve people well until you have wisdom, compassion and certain qualities of an enlightened person. That’s the first thing of a Buddhist King, the first duty is to himself, to develop full potential as a human being. That’s the first principle.

The second principle is Non-Violence. This is very difficult for a ruler or a King, because there are some criminals and they have to be punished or there are some threats to the nation and it has to be taken care of, so it may seem a little tough.

But Nagarjuna ruled out capital punishment. Even criminals should not be killed, but you might kill someone if they try to harm your family, but generally you try to correct criminals and educate them. The analysis of self-defense is kind of tricky in Buddhism, you can’t necessarily be perfect but you tend towards the principle of non-violence.

The third principle is difficult to explain in English because there is no real word for it but I call it Educationalism. What this means is that the primary industry of a Buddhist society is education of its citizens because, for any human being, the most important thing they can do is to learn. Buddhism is very different from any other religions because Buddhism does not teach that you can achieve nirvana just by faith, faith is not sufficient to be free from suffering.

In order to be free from suffering, you have to have a understanding of the nature of the world and therefore Buddhism is definitely a system of education. There is a term in Sanskrit, Shiksha, which means education, moral education, mental education, wisdom education or prajna (wisdom). We think, in the modern context, that education is when someone is suitable for a job, has a livelihood or makes a contribution, whereas in the Buddhist view, the primary idea is to learn what is lifelong and it should result in enlightenment.

The fourth principal is basically Socialism, which means that society should take care of the individual because human life is so precious. This principle is about a socialist system, a democratic socialism but not a communist or dictatorial socialism.

The fifth principle is a strange one, it’s hard to deal with because it gets into this paradox of individualism and the paradox is that a society is collective and, in order to survive, the society has to have the service of its citizens. Yet, in a Buddhist society, the primary aim is individual liberation for all its citizens, so its kind of going both directions at the same time. In other words, the society needs the service of its people but its primary purpose is the development of its citizens. If it’s a proper democracy, because it is ruled by the people, for the people, so that’s like two opposite things, but life is full of paradox.

What is the relationship between Buddhism and democracy?
The key point of this issue is the first principle, which I’ve extracted from Nagarjuna’s writings, which is Transcended Individualism. This means that the purpose of any society is the fulfillment of its individuals. That’s the reason for democracy: the people are the rulers and they elect some leader and, if the leaders are bad, then they can remove the them and put someone else. So it does fit with the idea that the most important element of a society is its people. Therefore, Winston Churchill said that ‘a democracy is the worst possible system of government except for all the others.’

How can Bhutan ensure that both Buddhism and democracy flourishes?
That’s the third principle, Educationalism, that is to say, Bhutan can do that if the citizens of Bhutan are fully educated as to the teachings of the Buddha. That means that Buddhists understand the teaching of the Buddha and use the teaching of the Buddha and be enlightened about the nature of the world. If they can do that, then they will be both democrats and they will be using the teachings, that’s how we can ensure that. It’s an educational issue. I believe that Bhutan is a very important contributor in making other very industrialized countries realize the importance of GNH not GDP.

Is not the concept of Kingship, Buddhist or otherwise, a throwback to the past?
I don’t think so at all. Constitutional monarchy, I think, is actually preferable to electoral presidency. What is nice about Kingship is that someone is bought up since childhood to have a sense of duty and a sense of self restraint and a sense of compassion for their citizens. The obligation of the nobility to care for those who are depending on you. A good king in a democratic or constitutional setting is the best form of government and Bhutan should consider itself very fortunate for its natural preservation, culture and tradition, which is still being maintained. This is truly the virtue and the accomplishment of the monarchy here.