Applied Idealism: A Buddhist Perspective on the Necessity of Government

By Sheng-Yen | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Applied Idealism: A Buddhist Perspective on the Necessity of Government


Sheng-Yen, Harvard International Review


The Venerable SHENG-YEN, Ph.D., is President and Founder of the International Cultural And Educational Foundation of Dharma Drum Mountain.

While Western views on the relationship between church and state have been studied and debated profusely, relatively little is known about the relationship between Buddhist tradition and the state. With the renewal of Buddhism in parts of East Asia and its rise in the West, an understanding of Buddhist views of the role of the state is of relevance in today's global society. The popular conception of Buddhism in the

twentieth century is of a religion that emphasizes withdrawal from the world and pursuit of solely spiritual goals. It may therefore come as a surprise that Buddhism places great emphasis on positive engagement with the world at both the grassroots and governmental levels. While Buddhists as a rule have tended to maintain a low profile, except in instances where other Buddhists or their countrymen have been under attack, Buddhism's emphasis on positive engagement is based on a well-developed theory of social organization and government which can be traced back to the original teachings of the Buddha himself.

Like many Western ideologies, Buddhism advocates equal rights for all people, including the right to life, education, and political enfranchisement. Human rights begin with education, and Buddhism thus recommends that people be taught the definition of these rights. In principle and in the strictest sense, Buddhism sees government as a violation of human rights because it serves to contain the people and set up laws that prohibit them from performing certain actions. In the ideal society, people would learn not to commit crimes against others. The people's motivation for respect of others' rights would lie exclusively within themselves and would not depend upon fear of punishment. This concept of the ideal society and state is not the only one of its kind.

Because societies, as they have existed to date, have not been ideal, Buddhism recognizes the need for government and its role in promoting and maintaining peace and stability. From the Buddhist perspective, the objective of government is the protection of human rights. The state should ensure that the needs of all the people are well met, regardless of age, socioeconomic level, or educational background. The people should be happy and contented. Buddhist theory also advocates an ideal of democracy in which subjects of appropriate age and educational background have the right to vote to determine their future.

Regarding the role of the government in providing for a society's social needs, Buddhist theory advocates that the government provide for the education of the populace, as well as maintenance of order with minimal infringement upon individual rights. Government should establish the necessary institutions, including those of education and criminal justice. However, unlike the systems of some Western democracies today, Buddhist theory advocates that more emphasis be placed on educating the populace about the importance of the law and why it should not be broken in the first place, rather than relying on harsh punishment.

A Pragmatic Approach

Buddhists also acknowledge that the instruments used to govern must match the requirements of society as it exists on a practical level. It is well known that compassion and non-violence are two of the basic Buddhist principles: adhering to them means that one should love one's enemy as oneself. However, Buddhism does not advocate an inflexible application of these principles. If these principles are applied literally, internal and external enemies can easily take advantage of a society's weaknesses and undermine the peacefulness and stability of that society. As long as the ideal society does not exist, the instruments of government must include the coercive power necessary to punish wrongdoers and to prevent military invasions. …

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