Jul 17, 2006

Buddhism and Anarchism

E.M. wrote in the comments;

Interesting to see contact between Buddhists and anarchists in this forum; there really isn't much mutual awareness between the two. Perhaps Bhante will, in future, write a column on "Buddhism and/or/as Anarchism"?

Anarchism as a political philosophy has always intrigued me. In large part because the Anarchists seem to be the only ones who think and speak clearly about the nature of the state. Unfortunately, I don't think they always think clearly about the realities of human nature. Kropotkin wrote a great little book "Mutual Aid" where he argued that altruistic behaviour is natural for humans, and even animals. His argument was largely anecdotal, collecting stories of people and animals behaving unselfishly. No doubt he hit on an important truth; compassion and loving-kindness are part of the human make-up.

Sad but true, except for the arahants ( a rare breed), we are also deluded and defiled and one could just as easily collect a book full of anecdotes of human folly, cruelty and treachery.

I see anarchy as an ideal state; not to be attained in reality. It would work if humans were sensible, they wouldn't even need to be perfect I think, just sensible and kind. I'd go futher and say that sensible people would just naturally live in a happy anarchy. Government, as I understand it, is a necessary evil. Because, as a species we are not always sensible or kind.

In the Agganna Sutta (Digha 27) the Buddha laid out a mythological history of the human species to explain such things as the origins of the state and the caste system. In part at least, this was his way of deflating the pretensions of the brahmin caste. This mythical history turns our modern myth of progress and evolution on it's head; this is a story of steady decline; we didn't evolve from lower forms, we devolved from higher ones.

This devolution is described in several phases, each fall triggered by the defilements of the beings. The part of the story of interest here is the establishment of government. Here is the relevant passage (from M. Walshe's translation)

Then, Vasettha, one greedy-natured being, while watching over his own plot, took another plot that was not given to him, and enjoyed the fruits of it. So they seized hold of him and said "You've done a wicked thing, taking another's plot like that! Don't ever do such a thing again!" "I won't," he said, but he did the same thing a second and a third time. Again he was seized and rebuked, and some hit him with their fists, some with stones and some with sticks. And in this way, Vasettha, taking what was not given, and censuring, and lying and punishment too their origin.

Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying and punishment. And they thought, "Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice." So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice and he agreed

"The People's Choice" is the meaning of Maha-Sammata which is the first regular title to be introduced. "Lord of the Fields" is the meaning of Khattiya, the second such title. And "He Gladdens Others with Dhamma" is the meaning of Raja the third title to be introduced. This then, Vasettha, is the origin of the class of Khattiyas, in the accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, and in accordance with the Dhamma, not otherwise.

So the Buddha's theory of government was basically of the social-contract type. In the pristine state of nature, before greediness arose, there was no government and no need for one was felt. Notice one interesting detail; it wasn't just the stealing that the people perceived as a new evil, but the censuring and punishment as well. They didn't want to have to do these evil things, so they appointed one amongst themselves to take on this onerous task for them.

This election by the people was an important part of the Buddha's argument, because it directly criticized the Brahminical theory that the castes were inherently appointed by Brahma from the beginning. (In their creation myth, the brahmins emerged from Brahma's brow, the Khattiyas from his arms, the Vessas from his belly and the Suddas from his feet)
In Western history we had the "Divine Right of Kings." These ways of thinking gave the state or the king a special, inherent status and a sacred right to rule. This the Buddha denied by describing the state as something the people themselves created for their own purposes. And something created specifically to keep the "evils" of censure and punishment contained to a specialist class.

As a side-note, it's somewhat amusing that the very first election was made with such irrelevant factors in mind as who was the "best-looking." Richard Nixon sweating and shifty-eyed vs. JFK with his gorgeous head of hair.

The last paragraph may be a bit obscure. Maha-Samatta, according to a note by Walshe, was the title of the legendary first Solar King who founded the Sakyan race. Khattiyas were the warrior-noble caste in ancient India, and the rulers. Raja came to mean king in the monarchial period, but originally meant any one having sovereignty; i.e. a citizen in a republic. (Not everyone in the early republics were of the citizen class of course) Sovereignty, briefly defined, means the recognized right to use force upon others; legitimate violence.

One last note on the text; when the Buddha says this is "according to Dhamma, not otherwise" I think that Dhamma means according to natural law, as opposed to the brahminical idea that the establishment of government was a metaphysical act, an intervention by deity, outside of and above ordinary nature.

With that as background, I'd like to get back to a statement I made at the beginning; that anarchists are the only ones who speak clearly about the nature of the state. I would like to make one important point here; most political theory tends to assume that it is the state which grants rights to the citizens. Nothing could be further from the truth. No state in history has ever done that, nor is it even theoretically possible. The state exists specifically to limit the individuals rights, which are absolute in a state of nature or anarchy.

The best states have historically propounded "Bills of Rights" and so forth. But these are not gifts to the people. They are simply promises made by the state not to take certain rights away. The first ten amendments to the American constitution (remember that? it's kind of an obsolete 18th c. thing, doesn't much apply now) probably the best of these various Bills of Rights ever written, makes this explicit in the language; "..congress shall pass no law..." or "...the people's right shall not be infringed..." (quoting from memory, may not be exact) I think the founders of the American republic were conscious of this idea when they wrote it. Jefferson once said, "that government is best which governs least."

Of course, government has a natural tendency to accrue power and authority to itself. The power elite has never actually liked the social contract idea. In a monarchy, they sacralize the person of the monarch. In republics, they sacralize the abstract entity known as the State. This is taken to an extreme in Fascist systems. Symbolic emblems of the state take on a quasi-magical resonance; roman eagles, fasces, swastikas, hammers-and-sickles, stars-and-stripes. The idea that the state exists as a convenience for the people is lost and now the people become tax-payers and cannon-fodder to feed the hungry maw of the state.

I guess when they asked that big good-looking guy if he'd like to earn a little extra rice, it seemed like a good idea at the time.


Marcus said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo,

A great post, as clear and thought provoking as your Dhamma talks (I attended the retreat you taught at IMS this June). I think this will be a favorite blog of mine as the years go by.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the good read.

Rodrigo el Zambullidor said...

Re Anarchy: The only real law is in your heart, so the ones that have figured this out are destined to be anarchists.

Anonymous said...

clear and to the point..Friday morning breakfast for the head

On the one ton temple bell
a moonmoth folded into sleep
sits still.....buson