Buddha’s Political Philosophy

By: Stefan Schindler

Do not build fifty palaces, your highness. After all, you can only be in one room at a time.
Nagarjunaa second century CE Buddhist sage, to an Indian king

Nagarjuna’s suggestion – combining wisdom and wit – exhibits the essence of Buddha’s political philosophy: simplicity, humility, compassion.

To open a vista onto Buddha’s vision of a just society, this essay takes a brief look at Siddhartha Gautama’s life story; sketches the Buddhist worldview; traces the evolution of Buddhism; and concludes with an outline of Buddha’s political philosophy.

Along the way, we’ll draw parallels between Buddhist and Platonic thought, and reference the embrace of Buddhist ideals by peacemakers in the modern and postmodern world.

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. … Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance. … We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.Thomas Merton

Buddha’s Life Story

Siddhartha Gautama was born a Hindu prince around 567 BCE, in the Nepalese foothills of the Himalayas. He died at the age of 80, around 487.
After a sheltered and princely upbringing, Siddhartha was shocked by a sudden encounter with old age, sickness, and death. He also encountered a wandering mendicant radiating equipoise, whom Siddhartha took as his model. Leaving palace and family at the age of 29, Siddhartha spent the next six years as a forest ascetic.

Finally realizing that self-denial was no better than self-indulgence, he chose a Middle Way. He bathed, ate, and sat beneath a rose-apple tree, meditating all night. Enlightenment occurred with the rise of the morning star.

A few weeks later, Siddhartha Gautama – now a Buddha (“awake”), and called Shakyamuni: Sage of the Shakya Clan – delivered his first sermon.

In a deer garden beside the ancient city of Benares, he taught his first five disciples The Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of freedom from suffering, and the Eightfold Path to freedom.

The Buddhist Worldview: Heart-Centered Rationality

The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of all forms of Buddhism.
Shakyamuni was more teacher than preacher; more psychologist than metaphysician. Accordingly, the Four Noble Truths make no reference to the gods. They are a set of suggestions and guidelines that leave our fate in our own hands.

First he offers a diagnosis of what might be called the alienating illness of the human condition. Then he offers a therapy: a simple yet rigorous and challenging eight-step program for healing and awakening.

The First Noble Truth perceives the problem. Too much suffering (dukkha) exists; it is mostly unnecessary; it is counter-evolutionary; it is mostly human caused.

The Second Noble Truth identifies the primary cause of suffering as ignorance (avidya). Ignorance gives rise to greed, hatred, and delusion, the three passions (or “poisons”) that keep suffering in motion.

Samsara (“circling”), the continual cycle of birth and death, is not in itself suffering. Samsara is the world of constant change, what Buddha calls “impermanence” and “co-origination”. To be stuck in samsara is to experience anxiety and suffering. But it is ignorance that unleashes the thirst (tanha; in Sanskrit: trishna) that creates suffering.

At the center of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, a pig, a rooster and a snake bite tails in an endless round of thirsting for samsaric satisfactions:

1. The apparent satisfactions of self-preoccupation and greed.

2. Of hostility, hatred, and scapegoating, to justify the grasping frenzy.

3. Of delusion, to sustain a worldview that breaks the heart.1

The Third Noble Truth announces a possible cure: nirvana. Nirvana means “blown out” – extinguishing the fires of ignorant passion that perpetuate samsaric suffering. By becoming awake to the nature of suffering and its root in ignorance, it is possible, individually, to achieve joyful and creative equipoise amidst the samsaric absurd, and collectively, if gradually, to transform social absurdity into something approximating The Peaceable Kingdom: egalitarian, ecological, demilitarized, cooperative, compassionate, reverent, and festive, where all individuals have maximum opportunity for self-discovery and creative service.2

The Fourth Noble Truth provides a healing prescription in the form of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a Way to awakening, to nirvana. The eight steps on The Path are: Right thinking, speaking, intention, action, vocation, effort, concentration (mindfulness), and meditation. Note that “right action” is re-emphasized in “right vocation.” All livelihood is to be “a path with heart,” guided by The Healer’s maxim, “Above all, do no harm.” This is Buddha’s Dharma in a seashell. In Buddhist discourse, Dharma is truth, the way to truth, and the teachings that point the way.


“Are you a god?” asked a Hindu sage.
“No,” replied the Buddha.
“Are you a man?”
“No,” replied the Buddha.
“What are you?”
“Awake,” replied the Buddha.

The Three Jewels of Buddhism are: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha – Teacher, Teaching, and Community.

The word Buddha means “awake.”  Budh is a Sanskrit verb.  It means “to know.”   Budh is also root of the word bodhi – “wisdom.” A bodhi-sattva is a “wise-being.”  Sattva is the attribute – the guna, the “middle way” – that stimulates awakening, “recollection,” what Plato calls anamnesis.

Dharma has many meanings, including truth, reality, pattern, doctrine, duty, law, teaching, being, order, virtue, society, and holding.  Dharma is roughly equivalent to the Chinese Tao. Buddha’s dharma – his teaching – changed the conventional meaning of “duty.”  One’s highest duty, Buddha taught, was the actualization of one’s spiritual potential; the enlightenment adventure; what Socrates would later call “care and perfection of the soul.”

Buddhism, like Platonism, has often been misinterpreted as an other-worldly philosophy.  In fact, however, Plato and Buddha share a passion for virtue: the translation of wisdom into ethics.

Wisdom and compassion – prajna and karuna – are “the two wings of Buddhism,” paralleling the Greek roots of “philosophy” (Philos-Sophos: Love-Wisdom). Buddha taught that compassion is the path to wisdom, and also the fruit of wisdom. As a Tibetan sage said: “The reward for service is increased opportunity to serve.”

For Socrates and Buddha, philosophy – awakening – is a raja yoga: a “royal way.”  Philosophy is the journey from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love.  This journey transforms the conventional meaning of duty into a calling to live an examined or “awakened” life. For a bodhisattva, the meaning of life is learning and service.

The journey from ignorance (avidya) to wisdom (vidya, prajna, bodhi) – from folly to freedom, from sleepwalking to awakening – is the journey from samsara to nirvana, then back again to be of service. In this respect, the Buddhist view of enlightenment parallels the journey of the philosopher in Plato’s allegory of the cave in the Republic. In Plato’s allegory, unenlightened thought is represented by prisoners trapped in a cave who can only see shadows cast by the artificial light of a fire. This is a world of illusion (maya in Sanskrit) and is divided from the world of truth (the outside world, where real objects are illuminated by the natural light of the sun), and the philosopher journeys from the former to the latter, before returning to the cave or illusory world to help others find a path out.

The Buddhist use of the term maya does not, however, mean that the world is illusion.  It means that one who thinks what appears is all there is is in a state of illusion.  Just as Plato calls into question the firm division between cave and outside world in other dialogues and parts of the Republic, so too does Buddhist thought break down the firm division between illusion and reality, samsara and nirvana.  As Nagarjuna said: “One who thinks the world is real is dumb as a cow.  One who thinks the world is not real is even dumber.”  Or, in the words of a postmodern poet: “All the world’s a stage; but the bullets are real.”

Buddha drew a provisional distinction between samara and nirvana.  Original, “elder” Buddhism – Theravada – emphasized the journey from samsara to nirvana.   But as Buddhism evolved, Mahayana Buddhism collapsed that distinction, emphasizing nirvana in samsara.

Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka – “middle way” – provokes a distinction between “provisional” and “ultimate” truth, approximating the difference between samsara and nirvana; or, if you will: being in Plato’s cave and being out of it.  By this account, the journey from suffering to non-suffering is almost, but not quite, the journey from samsara to nirvana.  To become “awake” is to journey from ignorance to wisdom, finding nirvanic freedom in samsaric opportunity.

Awakening is, existentially, nirvana in samsara.  This is because, metaphysically, samsara is in nirvana.  We cross to the other shore only to find ourselves on the shore where we stood.  This is a Buddhist version of the holographic Hermetic Dictum: “Microcosm mirrors macrocosm.”

T. S. Eliot echoes Buddhist insight when he observes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

A bodhisattva serves humanity by journeying from ignorance to wisdom, from samsara to nirvana, and then skillfully showing ultimate truth permeating provisional truth.  As in Plato’s Symposium, up and down the stairway to heaven, giving birth to beauty in time.

The adventure to Equanimity – sattva, samadhi, upeksha – is Odyssean.  The awakening quest is a constant test of impeccability; a razor’s edge of challenge and response. Though the stormy voyage to satori leads at last to peace (samadhi) – even bliss (ananda) – one remains surrounded by The Samsaric Absurd.  To be a bodhisattva hero is to endure feeling all too often Sisyphean.  Yet, as Camus says, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Shakyamuni, too, smiles.  Indeed, the first step on The Eightfold Path is “right thinking,” which, in Nietzsche, becomes, “There is nothing more necessary than cheerfulness.”

Asked on his death-bed to summarize his teaching, Buddha said: “Do your best, be detached, and be a lamp unto yourself.”

Buddha was known to say: “Don’t believe in me.  In fact, don’t even believe me.  Find out for yourself.”

The Evolution of Buddhism

Gautama’s life reflects the three archetypal stages in what Joseph Campbell calls “The Hero’s Journey” – Departure, Initiation, Return.  Siddhartha departs the palace; achieves enlightenment; returns to community to begin his career as a teacher.  He teaches the Four Noble Truths.

Siddhartha’s inaugurating political act was almost covert.  He taught his first sermon – The Four Noble Truths – to his first five disciples.  This small group was the beginning of the sangha – the Buddhist Community.

The sangha would grow; slowly for a while, then exponentially.  In 250 BCE, Emperor Ashoka turned his vast kingdom into a Dharma Nation, based on Buddha’s teachings.

Siddhartha’s second political act was revolutionary and counter-cultural.  He created monasticism.  Individuals could drop out of their assigned roles – their dharma, “duty” – in a militaristic and class and caste structured Hindu society, shave their hair, put on a robe, and devote themselves to the enlightenment adventure.

In India, monastics – bhikshus and bhikshunis, monks and nuns – would walk once a day to a nearby village or metropolis in humble pilgrimage for alms.  Hindu tradition honored the opportunity to be of service to those on the spiritual path.  “Householders” gained “merit” in providing monks with food.  A bhikshu or bhikshuni might, in return, offer a short dharma talk.

When Buddhism spread to China, there was a Confucian ethic of self-reliance quite the opposite of Indian generosity.  No “begging” allowed.  Buddhist monks were forced to innovate.

Zen – called Ch’an in Chinese – expanded monastic life to include gardening, thus beginning a work-ethic of enduring practicality and aesthetics.

Monastic life included meditation, chanting, chores, study, debate, and the art of medicine.  Buddhism spread throughout India and Asia largely because its practitioners were healers.  People referred to wandering Buddhists as “medicine monks.”  People were impressed and grateful.  They inquired about therapeutic skill.  Where did the monk learn it?  Who was the Buddha?  What did he teach?

When people heard Siddhartha’s life story, they learned that he was shocked into the enlightenment quest by a sudden encounter with old age, sickness, and death.  Healing, then, would be his mission.3

In Buddhism, healing and awakening go together.

In a sense, Siddhartha’s life set Indian history in motion.  Metaphorically speaking, he turned “the teaching wheel” (dharma-chakra) three times: toward Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantra. 4

Each of these three traditions emphasizes different aspects of Buddhism and holds up a different ideal of enlightenment.

Recalling the Zen of Buddha beneath the bodhi tree, we envision Shakyamuni deciding on three seeds at the heart of his teachings.  These will blossom into Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana/Tantra.  The “three turnings” show The Tripartite Path to Awakening – from arhat to bodhisattva to mahasiddha.

Buddha’s first turning of the Dharma Wheel laid the foundation for Theravada monasticism and the ideal of the meditative arhat. Theravada, the “elder tradition,” emphasizes individual enlightenment; the journey of the aspirant on the path of knowledge from samsara to nirvana, based on a provisional distinction between samsara and nirvana (implied in The Four Noble Truths).  Having achieved enlightenment, the pilgrim is called an arhatArhat means “foe destroyer.”  An arhat has “destroyed” – conquered or overcome – the samsaric passions which act as foes or obstacles to nirvanic freedom.

Buddha’s second turning of the Dharma Wheel – the seed for what might be called the Mahayana revolution – collapses the distinction between samsara and nirvana.  That distinction was initially offered as a provisional, heuristic device.  It stimulates the journey to awakening.  But Siddhartha knew that this provisional distinction could easily be reified into a sharp and dogmatic dualism, as if nirvanic freedom is somewhere else, and something other than what we are at the core of our being.  Mahayana Buddhism adds the clarification that precludes that mistake.5

Nevertheless, the journey to enlightenment must still be made.  Mentors and guidelines are helpful, but each individual must do the hard work alone.  Mahayana thinking, often best expressed in Zen, is inherently paradoxical.  It requires what I call “dialectical thinking.”  Mahayana says that we are already enlightened.  It also says that our primary task in life is to become enlightened.  This is a paradox, not a contradiction.  In Platonic terms, the enlightenment adventure is the journey to “recollection” – to the realization that we are, and always have been, embodiments of the Agathon (the Good, the True, the Beautiful).

Mahayana means “great vehicle.”  Maha is “great” (or “large”); yana is “vehicle.”  Mahayana Buddhism occasionally calls Theravada “Hinayana” (“small vehicle”).  Theravada emphasizes the individual quest for enlightenment; so it only takes a “small vehicle” (a hinayana, or “small raft”) to carry the individual across the river of illusion, from samsara to nirvana.  (The raft is the practice of overcoming the obstacles to awakening.)  But Mahayana says that individual enlightenment is not nearly enough.  The point is to bring everyone to “freedom from suffering;” and to bring everyone across the river of illusion, a large vehicle – a maha-yana – is needed.  And to accomplish this, the enlightened sage must engage in the perpetual practice of compassion (karuna).  And this is precisely what the Buddha did.  Buddha was a bodhisattva.

We may say, then, that Mahayana Buddhism has two, interrelated aspects.  It collapses the distinction between samsara and nirvana, asserting that we are already enlightened (even if, paradoxically, we must pursue that realization experientially).  It also asserts that compassion is the path to wisdom, and the necessary fruit of wisdom, supplementing the arhat ideal with that of the bodhisattva.  A bodhisattva – by definition a compassionate peace-maker – manifests wisdom by helping to establish institutions of social justice.

Grounded in bodhichitta – the bodhisattva ideal of socially engaged compassion – Mahayana Buddhism divinizes Buddha; introduces a majestic pantheon of Buddhas and celestial Bodhisattvas; expands the universe into a multiverse; and says that we are already enlightened.  Nirvana’s delight is the essence of our being and becoming.  Wisdom is compassion with a smile.

Mahayana includes Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.  In Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna is revered as “a second Buddha.”  Nagarjuna was a scholar yogi and early abbot of Nalanda Monastic University.  Nalanda was several hundred times larger than Plato’s Academy.  Nagarjuna founded Madhyamaka – “Middle Way” Buddhism.  Madhyamaka is the lotus at the heart of the Mahayana Renaissance in Indian Buddhism, blooming in the first thousand years CE.

After 500 years of Theravada Buddhist influence, India, at the turn to the Common Era, blossomed into what was, perhaps, the most peaceful, prosperous, and creative culture the world has ever known, becoming The Jewel of Asia with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism and the socially interacting bodhisattva ideal.

New texts emerge, mostly in Sanskrit.  Texts like the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Lankavatara Sutra, and Avatamsaka (“Flower Garland”) Sutra. About 500 CE, Mahayana introduced the long esoteric, thunderbolt Tantric path to enlightenment, called Vajrayana – the “diamond vehicle.”  This is the historical unfolding of Buddha’s seed for the third turning of the Dharma Wheel.

Buddha’s third turning of the Dharma Wheel shows that to be a Buddha is to be a shaman.  In Vajrayana tradition, the ideal of fully awake human being is “transpersonal” – more than merely “human,” and better than being a god.

Tantra is the diamond path to metamorphosis; the yogic alchemy of angelic transformation to mahasiddha.  A mahasiddha is a Vajrayana Magus.  Hermes Trismegistus.  Shaman, healer, sage.

Actualizing Blake’s dictum that “the paranormal is normal,” a Tantric adept, fusing Zen meditation and yogic discipline with shamanic imagination, becomes a “magical being,” with exponential energy for a life of service.

Vajrayana flourished for the next 500 years until the Muslim invasions beginning in the year 1000.  For Buddhist monastic universities – the greatest gardens of learning the world has ever seen – those invasions launched 200 years of nightmare.

By the year 1200, Buddhism had virtually vanished in the land of its birth, the smoke from Nalanda’s smoldering libraries darkening the skies for months.

As historical footnote, we might observe a certain irony.  The Muslims were so impressed by what they had destroyed, they were inspired to recreate Buddhist Gardens of Learning in Islamic mold, giving birth to Hagia Sophia and Andalusian Spain, thus sparking the European Renaissance with its own double culmination in Newtonian science and the French Revolution.

By the time of Buddhism’s disappearance in India, Siddhartha’s Dharma had already spread throughout Southeast Asia.  Also into Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bhutan.  Across Central Asia west; and across the Silk Route east, into Mongolia and China.

Around 500 CE, the legendary Bodhidharma sailed from Sri Lanka and brought meditative Buddhism (dhyana) to China.  By the year 600, dhyana Buddhism in China was merging with Taoism to give birth to Ch’an Buddhism, which, crossing to Japan around the year 1200, became known as Zen.

Beginning in the 7th century, Buddhism crossed the Himalayas into Tibet, where the Tantric tradition in particular, built on a solid practice of Theravada and Mahayana, survived and grew.  Tibetan Buddhism now nourishes the postmodern soul with treasures therapeutic and global.


Said the voice in the bell: “Aim for Beauty, and all will be well.”


Buddha’s Political Philosophy

The demand to abandon illusions about our condition
is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.Karl Marx

Buddha’s political philosophy begins with pedagogy.  Society should exist for the sake of schools; not the other way around.

At the core of Buddha’s political philosophy is the notion that “human life is precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity.”  The preciousness of life is Kantian “dignity,” manifest in what Martin Buber calls “I-Thou” relations.  For Buddha: All is sacred; the only ‘profane’ is not to know that.

Buddha’s political philosophy is therapeutic, because Buddha’s entire philosophy is paideia.  This finds echo in Plato.  Two-thirds of Plato’s Republic is devoted to education.  A “just” pedagogy – a paideia which does justice to evolving beings – is a pilgrimage of centering; nourished by dialogue and debate; manifest in creative talent, “giving birth to beauty in time.”

A just society emerges from schools that are gardens of learning.  Buddha says: Society’s main function is to nourish those gardens, whose fruits are future citizens.  Buddha’s culture-vision is romantic and pragmatic: The primary function of society is to act as pedagogical playground for evolving beings.


Buddha, like Aristotle, was less concerned with the form of government than its consequence.  Monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, or any combination thereof – its measure is benevolence: the social virtue it serves.

Buddha gave advice to many kings.  He recommended universal health care, anticipating Jesus: “Feed the poor; heal the sick.”

Buddha was an ecological and animal rights activist.  He championed a thriving merchant class for stimulating a progressive marketplace of ideas.  He undercut Hindu class, caste, and misogynous prejudice by allowing anyone, including women, into the Sangha.

Sangha members owned no more than a bowl and robe; perhaps also a blanket and staff.  They were obliged to meditate, study, and debate.

They had to learn the alchemy of medicine, and the art of healing.  They balanced rules and reform by democratic consensus.  They were invited to leave the community; go forth as ambassadors of the Dharma; learn by doing; serve the greater good of the greater whole.

Buddha was “a compassionate and pragmatic teacher who was intent on promoting a social order in which people can live together peacefully … in accord with ethical guidelines. (p. 3)

In Buddhist philosophy and practice, “each person rises above the demands of narrow self-interest and develops a sincere, large-hearted concern for the welfare of others and the greater good of the whole.” (p. 110)

“While the Buddha principally aimed at guiding people toward moral and spiritual progress, he was fully aware that their capacity for moral and spiritual development depends upon the material conditions of the society in which they live.  He acutely realized that when people are mired in poverty and oppressed by hunger and want, they will find it hard to hold to a path of moral rectitude. … Thus he saw that the provision of economic justice is integral to social harmony and political stability.” (p. 111)
Bikkhu Bodhi

The highest social virtue is awakening (prajna) – in mindfully compassionate body, speech and mind (karuna).

Compassion is the essence of Buddha’s political philosophy.  In Kantian terms: Wisdom without compassion is like concepts without percepts.  Kant articulates the Buddhist challenge: The task – individual and collective – is to move “from an age of enlightenment to a more enlightened age.”

As a social virtue – at the heart of Buddha’s political philosophy and manifest in the sangha – cooperation takes primacy over competition.  Instead of, “How can I use you to maximize personal gain?” – one bows and thinks, “How can I best be of service?”

While Buddhist practitioners “take refuge” in The Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma, Sangha – “refuge” is understood not so much as a place of comfort as a vigorous adventure in self-discovery and selfless service.

Buddhism asserts (with echoes in Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, and Emerson) that joy and compassion constitute our “natural attitude;” that unity has primacy over separation; that interbeing – universal brother-sisterhood – is the quantum field sustaining the dance of diversity.

Buddha’s famous declaration of no-self – anatman – is not a denial of individuality or soul.  It is a way of showing “soul” as window to the universe.  The universe of interbeing.  Our mutually interpenetrating influence in a unified field spiced with karmic effort and a common pedagogical project.

“Interbeing” (pratitya-samutpadha – “dependent co-origination”) is Buddha’s quantum insight into universal brother-sisterhood.  Universal brother-sisterhood promotes heart-centered rationality.  Heart-centered rationality points to the tension in detached action.

The Taoist name for detached action is wu-weiWu-wei, literally “not-doing,” signifies equanimity, going with the flow, non-interfering.

Yet Lao Tzu, like Jesus and Buddha, was first and foremost a pacifist; and the doing of not-doing (wei-wu-wei) in no way implies indifference to injustice and suffering.  Indeed, the Tao Te Ching – like The Gospels and the Dhammapada (“Sayings of the Buddha”) – articulates a path to peace.

Buddhism has been called “the rational religion” because it balances meditative depth and equanimity with Socratic gusto of scrutiny and debate.  It has been called “religion without God” because it is, at heart, more existential than theological.  Heart-centered rationality is pragmatic.  Buddha’s point is: We are karmic creatures, co-creating the world in which we live; and it is folly to create anything less than beauty.


We might say, in sum: 1) Buddha does not say life is suffering.  He says the unenlightened life is suffering.  2) Buddhism is not an other-worldly escape from life, but a joyful embrace of life as profound and precious opportunity for learning, exploring, evolving, sharing, caring, and creating.  3) Buddha proposes the education of desire, not its elimination.  4) Buddhism as a whole proposes that the meaning of life is learning and service.  5) The Buddhist concept of emptiness (shunyata, which, in Western terms, undermines Cartesian dualism and explodes the Aristotelian notion of “substance”) is best understood as interbeing.


Reporter: “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”  Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Reporter: “Mr. Toynbee, what will future historians say was the most important event of the twentieth century?”  Toynbee: “The introduction of Buddhism to the West.”

Gandhi and Toynbee spoke around the time that Thomas Merton – the first public intellectual to speak out against America’s Indochina Holocaust (euphemistically called “The Vietnam War”) – discovered the profundity of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.  Meanwhile, Einstein was observing that of all the world’s religions, Buddhism offers the best hope for world peace.

Informed by a tragic sense of our apocalyptic trajectory, Buckminster Fuller said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth; we are all members of the crew.”  E. F. Schumacher wrote a book of Buddhist economics: Small is Beautiful.

Each of the above honored the Buddhist worldview because it is pedagogical, egalitarian, liberating, and fosters what the Dalai Lama calls “a common religion of kindness.”

The “golden flower” – the tempered yin of Asian wisdom – has political meaning because modernity needs interiority.

Without the inward anchor, endless craving for outward satisfaction turns humans into schizophrenics, inner frenzy manifesting as social violence.  Buddha’s message?  Beware the Samsaric Uroborus.  The profit-driven Zeitgeist consumes itself.

History is now a race between education and catastrophe.” H. G. Wells

Buddha’s “enlightenment project” helps steer the body politic back from the vortex; toward the shores of sanity and simplicity; toward a Renaissance of The Renaissance, with a new and much needed Global Enlightenment.  Buddha’s political philosophy entails an educational revolution.

In the 1920s, Alfred North Whitehead observed in The Aims of Education: “Boring teachers should be brought to trial for the murder of young souls.”

Whitehead’s howl is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s lament: “The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.”

Socrates set a more vibrant tone for Plato’s Academy: the “Socratic turn,” inward, toward psyche, as ethical tether to the yangful virtue necessary for being-in-the-world-with-others.  Making room for enthusiasmos.  The “Socratic turn” embodies virtue – arête, “excellence.”  The bodhisattva challenge of impeccability “in body, speech, and mind.”

Insofar as Buddha’s political philosophy implies an educational revolution, nothing would be more simple, cost effective, and socially healing than introducing meditation and yoga – and, ideally, tai chi – into our schools’ curriculum.  By teaching students to cultivate inner peace, we embark upon the path to world peace.

The path of knowledge is fraught with peril, because knowledge is power.  Abuse of power, abuse of language, cultivation of inequality and deceit – can tear the heart out of civilization, and frequently do.

Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism.  Manjushri’s sword is called Chanda Hasa – Dreadful Laugh.  Its lightning flash cuts through what Erich Fromm names “chains of illusion.”  Chanda Hasa reminds us not to be seduced by what Kant calls “the glitter” of what Herman Hesse calls “glass beads.”

Howard Zinn observed: “The truth is so often the opposite of what we are told that we can no longer turn our heads around far enough to see it.”  Noam Chomsky adds the Zen twist: “The problem is not that people don’t know; it’s that people don’t know they don’t know.”

Zen is relevant to justice, because no person should be allowed to a position of political authority without first showing that they can sit in quiet meditation for at least thirty minutes.  After all, if they cannot control themselves, why should they be given power to control our destiny?


Stefan Schindler graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College in 1975.  As Associate Professor in the Humanities Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he taught philosophy, psychology, education, and religion from 1976 to 1990.  In 1988, he was awarded the Boston Baha’i Peace Award.  He lived in a Zen temple in Cambridge for a year; an echo of his three years in Japan as a child.  In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he taught at The University of Pennsylvania, La Salle University, The University of the Sciences, and Community College of Philadelphia.

Dr. Schindler is a Trustee of The Life Experience School and Peace Abbey Foundation in Millis, Massachusetts.  He wrote the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Awards for Howard Zinn and John Lennon.  With Justice Lewis Randa, he co-founded The National Registry for Conscientious Objection, and co-wrote the Courage of Conscience Awards for Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama.  Schindler’s books include The Tao of Socrates, America’s Indochina Holocaust, Discoursing with the Gods, and Space is Grace.  He currently teaches courses at Salem State University’s Lifelong Learning Institute.  He is working on his next two books: Buddhism in a Seashell, and The Origins and Evolution of Buddhism in Tibet.

He has also written an article for Political Animal Magazine, called Heart-Mind Cosmos: Panentheism in Mahayana Buddhism and Early 19th Century German Idealism.

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14 Comments

  1. Dhammakayaram

    An excerpt from the article.

    “At the core of Buddha’s political philosophy is the notion that “human life is precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity.” The preciousness of life is Kantian “dignity,” manifest in what Martin Buber calls “I-Thou” relations. For Buddha: All is sacred; the only ‘profane’ is not to know that.”

    I would argue that human life certainly has the potential to become precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity. But this is highly abstract. In reality, human life is not treated as precious. Nor is there freedom and opportunity. At the core of Buddhism is nirvana which transcends the human life world — a world beyond (pārāyaṇa). As Buddhist scripture tells us, all that the Buddha teaches is for the sake of final nirvana or unconditionedness; which cannot be understood by beings who cling tenaciously to the conditioned. In the final analysis the Buddha was not a political animal trying to make an ideal, conditioned world. He wanted us to look within so we might discover the presence of the unconditioned (nirvana). This is certainly at odds with the modern world that works on the outside as if new buildings, roads, washing machines, smart phones and potable water will cause significant change in the human heart. It’s not working.

    • Jeff Bloom

      Is politics reducible to the kind of things you mention here (“new buildings, roads, washing machines, smart phones and potable water”), Dhammakayaram, or is politics more a matter of the human desire for justice?

      I agree with much of what you say, and I think your suggestion is good that there is a problem with regarding “all” as sacred. If “all” is sacred, then what need would there be for change or improvement?

      Still, I think the article at hand does much, or strives nobly, to flesh out some of the political implications of Buddha’s thought. Buddha might have wanted us to turn inward, but inward to what? That is to say, if we turn inward, won’t we find a soul that loves other people, that longs for justice, and that has moral commitments?Further, an inward turn surely has consequences to political life – what are they?

  2. Kevin McCandless

    Fascinating article, Dr. Schindler! I will be reading it through carefully and paying special attention to the comparisons that you make to Plato’s thought.

  3. Stefan Schindler

    I thank the three readers above for posting their comments. Kindly forgive my slight delay in responding. I shall now address, briefly, some of the issues raised.

    Dhammakayaram — You have a lovely name. Kindly let me know what it means. “Dhamma” of course is Pali for the Sanskrit “dharma;” and “kaya” means “body;” but I’m not sure about “ram,” nor about how the three linked together translate. Something, I assume, to the effect of: Respect 1) the body of truth, 2) the body of Buddha’s teachings, and 3) your own embodied life (intrinsically “precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity”). Which brings me to my first point. It is helpful, in understanding Buddhism, to know how Buddha defines human life, human society, and the cosmic matrix in which we live and move and have our being. (I suppose this is true for any religion or philosophy — or, for that matter, politics; such that one may speak of a religious, philosophic, or political “worldview.”) I fail to see how defining human life as “precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity” is, as you say, “highly abstract.” Seems pretty straightforward to me. We have freedoms and opportunities not available to rocks, plants, and animals (and Buddha even says the human realm is better than that of the gods, because we have a better opportunity for nirvanic awakening). We are innately “precious” because we are instantiations of the truth, beauty, and goodness of Dharma itself (understood as “ultimate” reality), and this was a major part of Gautama’s enlightenment during the long night of his vigil beneath the bodhi tree. And of course this realization has ethical and social implications. Hence Buddhism’s emphasis on kindness and compassion (metta and karuna). But, you say, “in reality, human life is not treated as precious. Nor is there freedom and opportunity.” I wonder, though: Don’t you consider your own life (and that of others) as precious? Don’t you have the freedom to make your own choices and to pursue opportunities (like studying and practicing Buddhism) which you find most fulfilling? The entire Buddhist doctrine of karma would make no sense if we weren’t free to make our own choices and also responsible for our actions. And isn’t the point of karma to teach us to be kind and compassionate? Freedom, of course, always occurs within limits. Indeed, without limits, there would be no freedom. Freedom, as the existentialists rightly say, is always “situated” — biologically, historically, socially, politically, economically, environmentally. Not even the Buddha can make you yourself enlightened; at best, he can show the way. Now this, as said, is indeed somewhat abstract (but language generally and philosophy in particular, not to mention science, necessarily employ abstractions). More concretely, I take your point (as I understand it): Too many people in the world are deprived of the freedoms and opportunities they ought rightly to have, because people in power too often abuse that power (at other people’s expense). Well, on this point, you and I and Gautama totally agree. Which is why so much of Gautama’s teachings are ethically oriented. An ethical, sane, peaceful, egalitarian society maximizes people’s opportunities for awakening and service. Buddha agrees with Aristotle that humans are social animals; he even says, at various points in Theravada scripture, that “spiritual friendship is the whole of the Dharma.” I suggest, then, that there is a dialectic here, ethics and nirvana being two sides of the same coin. Even the 8-Fold Path shows that there is no achieving nirvana without “right” (i.e., ethical, i.e, virtuous) action (“in body, speech, and mind”). In sum, then, yes, Buddha teaches that nirvana is the goal; but he also teaches that ethical action is the path to the goal (as well as its result!). And insofar as he emphasizes ethics over metaphysics, one might well say that he is indeed a “political animal.” You are right to stress Buddha’s emphasis on “the inward turn.” Lack of true self-knowledge — i.e., a failure to realize that life is indeed precious — creates immense and unnecessary suffering in the world. So, as Jeff Bloom notes in his reply to your comments, the inward turn has outward implications, toward creating a just society. Finally, I would add a caution about being too mesmerized by the term “unconditioned.” Long and deep meditation on that term might be philosophically fruitful and quite surprising. Buddha points to nirvana, Dharma, the “unconditioned” — but he tends to speak modestly about such “absolutes,” and, being the bodhisattva and pragmatist that he was, prefers to draw our attention to the overcoming of suffering through meditation coupled with ethics (right thinking, speaking, intention, action, vocation, effort, mindfulness). And while I might quibble about the wording of your final point, I bow to what I take to be its essential insight: Western science has given us the tools to destroy the world; Asian “meditative wisdom” offers a sane, pragmatic, healthy alternative (if you will, an inner science) to militaristic and imperial folly on the one hand, and profit-driven megalomania and consumer frenzy on the other.

    Jeff — It’s precisely because “all is sacred” that “we” need to change and improve our mode of being-in-the-world. To say that “all is sacred” is not say that everything is fine (or perfect). It’s a way of reminding people of the vast difference between the way “we” act and the way “we” ought to act. Ignorance of the sanctity of life (and the biosphere) is the root of harm. Does that help to clarify what I meant? I have a feeling that we actually agree, if we can just get beyond the confusion of words. 🙂

    Kevin — As always, a pleasure to hear from you. In the article, I could only point to some Platonic-Buddhist parallels. Much work can and should be done to flesh them out. Still, I hope you found the pointers helpful, and that you found the essay as a whole to be an edifying introduction to the Buddhist worldview.
    ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

    The editors have linked my article to other websites (having mostly to do with philosophy, religion, history, and politics), and some readers have posted comments there. Allow me to share (here) three points that seem worthy of response, relating to Marx, quantum physics, and the soul.

    1) One reader was shocked and dismayed to discover that the opening quote leading to the concluding section (on “Buddha’s Political Philosophy”) was by that communist atheist Karl Marx. Actually, though, when you set aside all the differences, Buddha, Plato and Marx exhibit a common underlying theme: our task is to free ourselves from what Erich Fromm calls “chains of illusion.” Marx was a profound ethicist, with an egalitarian vision of a just and peaceful society; the same is true of Buddha. While they disagree about the existence of the gods, their fundamental aim was the same: to diminish suffering, and to do so with acute attention to the causes of suffering. The reader who was aghast at my Marx quote said I should take a hard look at Russia, China, and North Korea, meanwhile failing to note that these societies are absurd and perverse caricatures of what Marx actually taught through his writings — much in same way, for example, that American politicians too often undermine (with their legislative policies) the “family values” and “Christian ethics” they so boastfully claim to embody and support.

    2) One reader (possibly the same) found it equally disturbing that I would parallel Buddha’s philosophy of interbeing with the holistic vision (of universal quantum interdependence) now hypothesized by postmodern physicists. All I can say is that the reader is still stuck in Cartesian dualism; and that if he would actually do what Buddha did — dive DEEPLY into the psyche — he might find some surprising insights about the cosmos. For myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Buddha a quantum philosopher, with a keen appreciation for the holistic quality of reality as such (which he called Dharmakaya).

    3) Perhaps the most controversial claim in my essay is that Buddha does not deny the existence of the soul, let alone existential individuality — both of which seem to me to be necessary to make sense of karma and reincarnation. I suppose I should have made it more clear that I use the term “soul” as a kind of “connecting thread” linking multiple lifetimes into a coherent pattern (of what is normally pedagogical progress). One reader was appalled at my lack of faithfulness to Buddha’s famous and oft-proclaimed doctrine of anatta (or anatman — “no self” or “no soul”). But when Buddha’s challenges the Hindu notion of Atman (“true self” or “true soul,” identified with Brahman, the ultimate and unifying deity or cosmic force and womb), he is saying that the “soul” is not eternal, unchanging, unconditioned, but, rather, more like an evolutionary, educational, creative project (if you will, a consciously quantum dynamic), not to be reified into an unchanging (Hindu, Aristotelian, Cartesian) “substance.” I’d like to remind the reader that Gautama was wary of dogma, and ceaselessly encouraged aspirants on the path of knowledge to “find out for yourself.”

    Though the sample is small, I’m shocked at how many readers find my essay shocking. I’m hoping that further readers will be less inclined to jump to disagreement (and even disparagement), and more inclined to see it as Socratic stimulation for creative thinking.

    • Jeff Bloom

      I think that your remarks have indeed provided some clarification on the matter. If I understand you correctly now, your claim (which you present as consistent with the principles of Buddhist thought) is not that all life is sacred simply, but that all life is sacred in some respect. This would be similar, I believe, to saying that all life has some intrinsic value or that all life possesses some fundamental measure of dignity. Surely, not all life acts in a manner consistent with that sacred grain within it, or within others, but the task of Buddhism would be to bring other respects into harmony with this one. Is that a fair restatement of your view?

      I have another question for you, this one pertaining to the political dimension of your article. You have said, and I have agreed with you on this point, that Buddhism turns one inward and that this inward turn has outward implications. In other words, Buddhist political teachings operate indirectly upon the outside world. Do you think that is correct? Is Buddhism’s effect on political life primarily indirect? Or is it conceivable that there could be a positive Buddhist political program (the founding or development of a Buddhist regime, for example)?

      • Stefan Schindler

        Greetings, Jeff. Yes, I feel that your first paragraph is “a fair restatement” of my view, and nicely done, too! It resonates with my admiration for the teachings of Matthew Fox, Robert Thurman, and Rupert Sheldrake.

        As for your second paragraph: We agree that the inward turn has outward implications, but I would say those implications are both indirect AND direct. Regarding the latter, and your last sentence-question: India was primarily a Buddhist nation from around 250 BCE to 1000 CE; so Buddhism had a direct effect on its political and social reality (destroyed by the apocalyptic Muslim invasions from 1000 to 1200). Meanwhile, Buddhism was taking root in Tibet. It took about a thousand years — from the 7th century to the 17th — for Tibet itself to become a total Dharma nation (even more than India). In the only instance in Buddhist history (2500 years), Tibetan rulers said to the lamas (and of course I paraphrase): “Here, you take control of the nation. When we try to rule, there is inevitable in-fighting, but you yourselves embody peace and harmony, and that is what we would like for our country.” Prior to the importation of Buddhism (in the 7th and 8th centuries), Tibet was a very successful warrior nation, which conquered just about every region in central and northeast Asia (including Mongolia and China). But the Tibetans would never stay, always returning to the high Himalayan plateau with less oxygen and less humidity (to which they were naturally suited), and the conquered regions would have to pay tribute (which they did). Once Tibetans disarmed and became a Dharma nation, governed, for example, by a Dalai Lama, they became the most enlightened society on the planet (until the Chinese invasion and holocaust beginning about 1950). So “a positive Buddhist political program” — and the founding and development of a Buddhist regime — is not only “conceivable,” it actually occurred twice in history: polymorphously in India (with other religions present, including Hindus and Jains), and quite completely in Tibet for about 300 years (1650 to 1950). Does that answer your question?

        Meanwhile, I should mention that not all “Buddhists” have to meditate. That is to say, while the inward turn is potent and profound, and highly recommended, many bodhisattvas are simply (and deeply) engaged in a life of service, committing to kindness and compassion (metta and karuna) in all they do (including, importantly, peaceful political protest). Hope this helps answer your question. Thanks for asking.

        Also, and finally: As Tenzin Gyatso (the current and 14th Dalai Lama) often says: What Buddhism offers the world, and wants for the world, is “a common religion of kindness.” Conversion to Buddhism is not the point. The point is “awakening” — to the wisdom of love (individually, socially, politically). Again: Buddhism is not so much a religion as a pedagogy for enlightened evolution (and planetary survival!).

        You are (like Kevin) a delightful and illuminating Socratic discourse partner! 🙂

  4. Emmanuel Gift Mulangeni

    It has been worthy reading, but can this Buddhism be practical to a lot of people, or it is more of the self? if it is more of the self, is it not possible that the self awakening can be of different meanings thus creating a chaos in the world? does it have rules and regulations that members have to follow in order to reach awakened world? if yes, would that be self awakening or following the awakening of the one who earlier did so in our case the prince who abandoned his princely world.

    • Stefan Schindler

      The prince “who abandoned his princely world” spent 45 years founding the Sangha, advising kings, becoming a pragmatic social reformer, whose legacy was the transformation of India into The Jewel of the Orient and thus a model for the world. Buddhism is a path to both self-awakening and social awakening, and as a Middle Way is flexible and adaptable, both culturally and across time. Today’s “Engaged Buddhism” speaks to your questions, and I recommend the recent Political Animal article “A People’s Buddhism?”

  5. Geoffrey Wood

    Phenomenal work, bud. Keep it up. Some parts I don’t know about, was there really a peaceable kingdom? Not Ashoka, who was covered in blood first, but later? The essence though is gold. When was this written?

  6. Geoffrey Wood

    Then there’s the Tibet as the most enlightened society … really? I mean, really, not just in some romantic archetypical fantasy? Still feudal, landowners and lamas with most of the wealth, most of the peasantry dirt poor. I haven’t looked much, but I don’t know about that. Is that essential to your essay? That there be evidence we can get there? But you only cite potential myths and legends, no facts, no explanation of how those were dharmic societies, how they differed from before and after, what they did, how the people lived and so on. I don’t know if you’re right and it’s just my Buddhist supremacy radar going off or what.

    • Stefan Schindler

      Tibet has a turbulent history indeed, and fluctuating degrees of economic feudalism informed that history. But from the 17th century to 1950, Tibet was in fact a Dharma-nation, hence a model for enlightened living, with an emphasis on the enlightenment adventure. Tibet, empirically and historically, is not to be confused with Shambhala: the invisible kingdom of perfect peace, wisdom, and joy (perhaps existing on what we might call the astral level). For a detailed history of Tibet that speaks more fully to your question(s), read Robert Thurman’s 40-page “Introduction” to his book ESSENTIAL TIBETAN BUDDHISM.

  7. Stefan Schindler

    will try to reply soon

  8. Stefan Schindler

    I’ll meet you in the Middle Way. Watch Robert Thurman’s DVD entitled TIBET. Also his hilarious DVD called GOD AND BUDDHA, in conversation with Deepok Chopra. Either or both possibly offered on youtube. Then let me know, and I’ll respond in modest detail to your comments and questions.

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