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What Is a Buddhist King?

Updated on October 27, 2009

 After writing two earlier hubs about Buddhism and political power -

- I got a question from a commentator:

"What is a 'Buddhist' king anyway?"

A good question, and I would like to add two others:

1. Is a Buddhist king at all possible?

2. Has there ever been a Buddhist country?

I personally think the answer to both questions is "no".

As to Buddhist kings, the classical legend says that the Buddha had been born a prince, but that he found it impossible to develop wisdom in the palace, so in order to avoid becoming a king, he made what is usually called "the Great Renunciation" (which, in a more irreverent wording, means he ran away from home).

In the collection of the Jataka stories, there is one about how the Buddha-to-be was born in an earlier life as prince Temiya; but when he found out that his royal father was imposing cruel punishments on his subjects, for example the death penalty, he thought it isn't possible to rule a country without sowing a lot of unwholesome seeds - and he remembered that, after having been a king himself in an even earlier life, and acting as kings use to do, he had had to boil in hell for eigthy thousand years as a result.

So he started acting as if he were mentally retarded, and did so right up to the age of puberty, when he was finally declared unfit to be a king and became a hermit instead.

(This seems to me to be a story with a tendency that we today could call Anarchistic - or perhaps I should say Anarco-Pacifistic, to avoid associations to more violence-oriented Anarchists.)

It is also said, according to traditional legend, that two kings became lay disciples of the Buddha during his own lifetime: Pasenadi of Kosala and Bimbisara of Magadha (two countries in what is now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India).

But it seems that this didn't help their political ambitions, for both were ousted from their thrones by their own sons, and Bimbisara even murdered by his son and successor, Ajatasattu.

The Sutta about the last days of the Buddha, Maha Parinibbana Sutta, begins with a story how this parricide king, Ajatasattu, tried to get the Buddha's advice about how to invade a neighbouring republic. Instead, the Buddha repeated the advice he had given to this republic how to remain independent, and how to remain a republic.

Finally, there is in the Tipitaka some mentions of a so-called Cakkavatti, often rather freely translated as a "Wheel-Turning Monarch". Whether such a person is supposed to have ever existed, or to be just an ideal for rulers to try to live up to, is debatable - the Tipitaka is not a text-book in history.

In any case, there are two important things said about a Cakkavatti:

1. He both gets and retains his power without any use of violence whatsoever. (That's a point where the emperor Asoka doesn't live up to the Cakkavatti ideal; he got his power before his conversion, by using a lot of violence. I don't think there has ever been a chief of state, or chief of government, who managed to live up to it.)

2. As long as he remains a ruler, even he can't get enlightened; there is no such thing as an enlightened monarchy.

According to traditional legend, it was said about the new-born Prince Siddhattha - the Buddha-to-be - that he would grow up to become either a Cakkavatti or a Buddha; but even he couldn't be both, and that was why he ran away from home before inheriting the throne from his father.

For the reasons above, a combination of Buddhism and Monarchism seems to me not to have a solid foundation in the classical texts of Buddhism.

I think the basic ideology of a ruler, of any ruler, regardless of his public claims, is Machiavellism (which existed long before Machiavelli; some of his ideas can be found in the Arthashastra, written a couple of millennia before he was born).

As to Buddhist countries, Buddhism is a way to be realized by each person individually (paccattam veditabbo viññnuhi.) It is a way going against the stream of this world (patisota), so you can't expect a whole country to follow it, although it may be more or less influenced by it.

And sometimes, certain ethical ideas of Buddhism are easier to find in openly Non-Buddhist countries than in countries that claim to be Buddhist. The death penalty, for example, is abolished in almost all of Europe (which proves it isn't needed), but retained in Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Also, Buddhism seems to have originated in a climate of free and open discussion; at least, that's the impression I get when reading the stories in the Tipitaka about the dialogues between the Buddha and his opponents.

In later Asian history, this climate is not so easy to find; but it arose in the West from the Renaissance and onwards, and may have made it easier for Buddhism to be accepted by many Westerners.

And this would probably make it quite impossible for Pope Benedict to write to Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy, as the four Mahayanakatheras of Sri Lanka have written to their President, and ask him, as they have done, to suppress all books who present his religion in a way he doesn't like.

His own faithful would just laugh him out.


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      chanakya 5 years ago

      if u think that he is not competent so why aru people making coment about him.i think u people are not capable of making coment about great BUDDHA.u and your religon are realy down in front buddha philosophy,u need to b broad minded to know buddha. japan worlds 2nd largest rich contry following buddha why not u i dnt know.u shamful hindu.

    • Gunnar Gällmo profile image

      Gunnar Gällmo 8 years ago from Stockholm

      That's a Hindu story that is not accepted by Buddhists. Hindus often try to include other religions and philosophies in their own fold, e. g. by claiming that the Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu; but the other religions and philosophies may not be amused. Anyhow, Krishnadasa Kaviraja lived in mainland India about two thousand years after the Buddha, at a time when Buddhism was extinct there (it survived in Ceylon), so I don't think he was competent to speak about it.

    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 8 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      In the Caitanya Caritamrita by Krsna das kaviraj, it is said that Buddha incarnated to fulfill the wishes of the atheists that there is no God and to deny the authority of the Vedas.