Sep 5, 2007


What is freedom? The common view in the world is probably something like "the lack of restraint in doing what you want." Buddhism takes a higher view and sees the best freedom as the freedom from wants. The goal of the path is often referred to as vimutti, commonly translated as liberation and literally meaning "the breaking of chains." The arahant is one who is perfectly free, and the "master of the pathways of the mind, thinking only what he wants to think and not thinking what he doesn't want to think." This freedom from desire has the result of contentment in the here-and-now, and liberation from the painful process of repeated rebirth. It is, in the last analysis, freedom from the conditioned realm.

Moving down several notches, what if anything does Buddhism have to say about the practicalities of freedom within the conditioned realm, that is to say, political freedom? The Buddha was not primarily concerned with social and political questions, but he does address them here and there. The issue of political freedom does not appear directly. He probably was not a major concern, ancient states did not have the wherewithal to become truly absolute.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The erosion of civil liberty has become a major concern of our time. Especially, but not only, as part of the ubiquitous "war on terror." Even before 9-11 there had long been a drift in western democracies toward a more regulated, surveilled and restricted interpretation of individual rights. This drift has now become a cascade. The United States has pretty much abandoned the fourth amendment as well as habeas corpus, and Canada is not far behind. The UK is probably ahead of the curve with CCTV tracking the citizens every move.

We can't find a definite statement about this in the Buddhist teachings, but we can approach the problem sideways by examining the Buddhist attitude toward the state. We can, I think, determine two separate strands in the scripture.

First, there is a sensible and practical view of the state as a necessary evil. This is evident in the Agganna Sutta and here and there elsewhere. The Agganna presents what modern theorists would call a "social contract" theory of government.

‘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, most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.

This was a conscious retort to the brahminical view of government as divinely instituted. Not so, according to the Buddha, it was in the first instance a human contrivance to deal with human problems, specifically the lack of ethical restraint of some individuals. If everyone keep good morality, we wouldn't need a government at all. A nation of sotapannas would naturally adopt anarchism. It can't work for the rest of us, alas.

So consider what is happening here, exactly what the social contract entails. The populace surrenders some of it's liberty in return for a measure of security. Sound familiar? The practical question for our time is just this; where do we set the boundary between freedom and security?

To think about this clearly, it is important to understand one principle; the state never gave anyone, anywhere any liberty. By its nature, its origin and its very essence all it can ever do is take liberty away. The people give some of their inherent natural freedom away in exchange for an arrangement of peace and safety. This is a rational trade. For example, no sensible person would object to giving up their natural freedom to drive through a red light.

The problem is that if the state was instituted to protect and limit the nastiness of human nature, the rulers of the state are themselves flawed humans. If the state is instituted to protect us, the meta-question is, how can we be protected from the state?

There are two possible answers to this question. The first, which is the second strand of Buddhist political thought mentioned above, is that the rulers must be restrained by Dhamma. This is the central political myth of the Wheel-Turning Monarch, who rules by righteousness not force. It is, in a sense, a transcendence of ordinary politics to a new level. This was the ideal of Buddhist monarchs, often emulated, never achieved. The closest anyone anywhere ever came was probably Asoka, and his Dhamma regime passed away with him.

Other times and cultures have also had their myth of the "Good King;" from Arthur to Aragorn the "Return of the King" is a persistent motif.

The second answer is one of the really valuable contributions of European civilization to the world; the idea of restraining the King by laws. (A caveat here, this is not entirely European, the Buddhist texts mention how rulers should govern according to the ancient laws - but it was formalized and developed methodically in Greece, Rome and Europe) Thus, for an important example, we have the Magna Carta imposed on King John in 1215 (and blown away by Alberto Gonzales in 2006) whereby the King agreed to certain specified limits to his rule.

How does this apply to the social contract? The king (or the republican rulers) are not giving anyone freedom, they are simply agreeing not to take certain freedoms away. The American constitution seems to be cognizant of this distinction in it's wording; "...congress shall make no law etc." (Thus Gonzales assertion that the constitution gives "no grant" of habeas corpus is meaningless and deceitful. Either he doesn't understand the point, or he was being deliberately misleading. )

The bottom line is that if the people are to enjoy civil freedom, the rulers must be restrained somehow or they will naturally limit it more and more. If a way cannot be found to limit the rulers by having them behave morally, then they must be restrained by law and reminded that their authority comes from us, and is a limited exchange. No government can be trusted for long to set the limits of freedom.


Dhamma81 said...

gteThis was quite an interesting article to read. As a U.S. citizen, I see that what you say regarding the government is true. As I have deepened my practice I have turned more and more away from politics and the ups and downs of the state because there is no security in those things. You are correct in that human nature is flawed and the best one can get from a government is flawed leadership. Even if one goes out and votes there is never a candidate that even upholds the 5 basic precepts, and it seems that the way of politics in general is based on lies and deceit. Articles like this make me reflect on just why it is so important to strive towards liberation. Right now we have the opportunity to practice in an environment where the government and other outside forces are not trying to destroy and silence our religious choices. How long this will last is anyones guess. Thanks for an insightful post. Hopefully it wakes a few folks up.

Jack said...

Interesting article, but I think you overlook an underlying cause of the mischief in the U.S. Given a apparent choice between freedom and security, most will choose security - a witless, reflexive instinct to cling to life at any cost, under any circumstance. Given a modern government's ability to create the delusion of great risk, is it any wonder people acquiesce?

Even in the dhamma, for most individuals, clinging trumps the urge to freedom. Only a few are willing to bravely seek something beyond a firmer handhold on what they already have.

The French revolution stands as an example of the confusion about freedom and security. It wasn't about freedom at all; it was about the imminent threat of starvation -- a life threat to security.

Phra Mick said...
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Jon said...

Dhamma81 makes an interesting point about turning more and more away from politics and the ups and downs of the state. That seems to me to be the orthodox Theravada course to follow. Yet the differences between the parties are stark on questions of personal freedom, health care, the environment, wealth distribution and many other issues. Those who claim the parties are more or less alike are not following their votes. An election approaches. What should one do? Be as detached as possible in thought and deed? Preserve an inner island of detachment, but make some modest contribution to the "right" side? Put one's shoulder to the wheel in the cause of human dignity and social justice? For now I'm regarding this as a question to be put aside, and work on personal (and thus apolitical) mindfulness and wholesome states of mind. But this dodge won't work forever...or will it? Should it?

Dhamma81 said...

Jon- The more I've taken the Dhamma as a guide in my life the less I pay attention to or get involved in the whole political machine. Whether one votes democrat, republican or independent matters little,as none of the candidates represents even the five basic precepts. The nature of politics since time immemorial has been caught up with wars, greed, and power struggles, and any candidate that is in office will engage in these things. In my opinion, purifying your own conduct through the practice so that you can better help others where you are able is much better than getting involved in the ups and downs of political life. After all, no candidate is going to relieve the suffering in the hearts of beings, it is up to the individual, and the Buddha laid out the path for us. I admit, it would be awesome if we had an enlightenened populace and an enlightened leader but that isn't going to happen. Good luck in your practice. These aren't easy issues or easy times.

Jon said...

Thanks for responding, Dhamma81. Living in DC it is hard to cultivate political detachment, and sometimes I worry it isn't even right to do so, which leads to doubt...that's why they call them "hindrances" I suppose. My own conduct could do with heaps of improvement so I'll try to follow your kind advice.