ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)