Before we dive deep into understanding what “Buddhist leadership is, we need to first of all get a comprehensive understanding of the term “leadership” “Leadership” is derived from the term ‘lead’—which on the one hand means metal, believed to have originated from the Indo-European meaning ‘flow’ (an allusion to the metal’s low melting point)”. The other meaning is believed to have originated from “a pre-historic West and North Germaniclaithjan.” This in particular meant “way” or “journey.” Thus the term ‘lead’ etymologically meant to “cause to go along one’s journey or way” (the Online Etymology Dictionary).
In the modern times, the synonym of leading is to ‘guide’ which has an origin from the Old French word, “guider” (to guide, lead). While the term “ship” comes from the Old English word ‘scipe’ which in this context is used to indicate a quality, action, power, skill or craft. The term “leadership” therefore, is the act of leading, directing or guiding an organization or state or a group of people. A leader leads and extends influence beyond the “chain of command”, creates a positive environment and develops others as well as guide the community to achieve a common goal.
Over the years, there has been a paradigm shift in the meaning of the term ‘leadership’. Various institutions describe the word leadership based on the nature of their work despite of the generally accepted definition. In the political arena for instance, leadership is trusted to retain legitimacy and credibility in developing constructive and meaningful policies to address societal needs. While in the spiritual or religious realm, spiritual leaders are tasked to understand God’s will or the essence of life and make efforts to influence others towards pursuing God’s purpose or the purpose of life in general.
In the modern world however, ‘leadership’ has remained a concept rather than a practice in our institutions; if not, we have done a lot about describing it than empirically incorporating it in our dealings with the social world. A case in point, those who assume leadership in Africa have witnessed only ruthless, violent, power-hungry and corrupt movements. Moreover, they are more drowned into personal acquisition of material wealth rather than leading and guiding their subjects towards national development, or making constructive and meaningful policies geared at transformation and success. This has posed a life-long challenge to the development in the region. Furthermore, current leadership has come with a number of ideologies which have divided society into different groups—leading to terrorist groups, rebel groups and violation of human rights. Leadership of this nature also designs a spacious room for pride and arrogance within leaders. To cut this thread however, we need to establish a well-structured and decentralized model of leadership. Buddhism pretty much can offer this model. We have already witnessed the most cruel leaders change from cruelty to sainthood (Dhammarāja; King Ashok of the 3rd Century BC was one of these ceremonial leaders) as a result of applying Dhamma. This is therefore a clear and classic example ascertaining the leadership based on Buddhist principles.
To heighten this discussion, we will need to first of all introduce the term “Buddhist leadership” and give it a rational flavor that it carries. Simply, let’s understand “Buddhist leadership” as the kind of leadership based on the Buddhist principles of righteous governance. Usually, when we talk about ‘Buddhist leadership’, most people have misconceived Buddhism as an anti-social school of thought and pessimistic because of its emphasis on individual liberation and escape from all the ties of mundane and secular life. Moreover, when it comes to leadership or governance, some think of it only in the directions of the hierarchical structure of Buddhists from top to bottom—however, as we shall see in our following discussions, Buddhist leadership encompasses principles that facilitate and guide individuals towards the realization of peace and happiness.
For the duty of a leader is to serve, guide and run errands for others. He shows the ‘right’ way so that others can follow. A leader is seen as a servant and a liberator. Therefore, the term leadership in the Buddhist sense can be defined as ‘the virtuosity, ability to influence, direct and guide others thoughtfully and righteously towards achieving a common objective’. The success of any organized group of individuals is entirely vested in the abilities and skills of their leader. Buddhism embodies all these ideas although they are not found in one particular place—such leadership ideas are found scattered. Our task in this essay is to dive into the Buddhist scriptures to trace for teachings related to leadership or governance.
Principles of Leadership in Buddhism
When Buddhism arose in India, it came with a huge wave of change amid a multiplicity of social confusions—religious diversities, beliefs systems and political insurgencies and ideologies and society structured on caste classification. Some saw the Buddhist movement as a threat to the social dimensions, while to some, the clock of change and social renewal had struck the Indian sub-continent. The concern of Buddhism from its very inception amid all such misconceptions, was social renewal inclusive of the political institution with intent for the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings in the world. With the fact that the Buddha came from a royal family, he was privileged to encounter leaders of his time, and provided them solid principles of good governance. Good governance or righteous governance is one of the concept that Buddhist scholars, practitioners and admirers have tried to preach for centuries back—and some such as King Ashoka, tried to integrate principles of good governance, history recording him as Great Ashoka, a man who was once known as ‘cruel Ashoka’. Good governance requires that skills or leadership alone are enough to govern society rightfully, but also requires embodiment of good virtues—following a prescribed code of moral conduct such as the five precepts, which aim at respect for life, dignity, integrity and truthfulness and accountability. Moral conduct leans at the heart of Buddhist leadership because all unwholesome actions are motivated by the immoral acts of greed, hate and delusion—moral depravity thus implies suffering to the agent or carrier, and the rest in society. While the absence of greed, hatred and delusion implies harmony, peace and prosperity.
The Aggaññā Sutta of Digha Nikāya is a text in the Buddhist scriptures that will never escape mention in regards to leadership and governance. The Sutta expose us to the origin of social institutions inclusive of the political establishment, and presents to us the first leader known as “Mahāsammata”, the “Great Elect” or “the people’s choice”. He was to reestablish order, and lead his followers towards peace, harmony and prosperity. His wage was rice levied from his subject as a token of appreciation for his noble duties and his righteous conduct. The establishment of such institutions came from the human need to promote equality and equity and justice among people—by way entering into a social agreement which saw the first leader throughout the history of human evolution. This sort of structure derived from the people’s will is recognized in Buddhism as democratic and unifying system of governance. The term rājā introduced by Buddhism is given an ethical weight—one who rules on the basis of Dhamma (righteousness), not based on military strength or might. He gratifies the people with justice and righteousness (dhammena janam rañjetiti rājā).
Furthermore, the concept of good leadership/governance is nicely presented in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta of Digha Nikaya, where the Buddha makes reference to a legend king known as cakkavatti (a wheel turning monarch). His rule is characterized by non-violence and rule of law—he never resorts to use of weaponry to conquer other states or destabilize the peace of other nations, but victorious based on Dhamma (adandena asatthena dhammena abhivijiya). What is more significant and interesting in this mythological story, the wheel turning monarch is taken to be like the Buddha since he also embodies 32 bodily marks. Any individual with such marks, is likely to attain Buddhahood—meaning a wheel turner establishes a political order and atmosphere for the secular welfare and a Buddha for spiritual guidance and liberation. The story in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta begins with the Buddha emphasizing monks to dwell in Dhamma and to “take Dhamma as their only refuge”, make it an island of yourself”. Then a wheel turner who rules a realm for a long time, and later decides to retire in a monastery, handing over leadership to his eldest son, leaving him with seven treasures. Out of the king’s negligence of his duties, the wheel treasure disappears symbolizing a fall of kingship in respect to authority and power. When he consulted his retired father about the disappearance of the wheel treasure, he learned that leadership is not a paternal inheritance, but the performance of his duties as a leader is what makes a leader or king.
“My son, depending on Dhamma itself, honouring Dhamma, esteeming Dhamma, worshipping Dhamma, venerating Dhamma, having Dhamma as the flag, having Dhamma as the banner, having Dhamma as the authority, you should provide righteous watch, ward and protection to people in the royal household, the troops, those of the ruling class, and other subjects who are Brahmins, householders of the townships and provinces, to renunciants and Brahmins and to beasts and birds. Let there be not within your territory one who acts in an unethical manner.
Whoever in your territory may be poor, grant them wealth. Whoever in your territory are renunciants and Brahmins that refrain from intoxication and heedlessness, established in patience and gentleness – some who discipline themselves, some who calm themselves, some who bring themselves to appeasement- go to them from time to time and ask them and question them: ‘ What sir, is wholesome, what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy, what is blameless, what should be practiced, what should not be practiced, and my doing what will conduce to my harm and suffering for a long time, and doing what will conduce to my well-being and happiness for a long time?’ Having heard from them, whatever is unwholesome, you should especially avoid it, and whatever is wholesome, you should observe and live by it. This, my son, is the noble duty of a Wheel Turner.”
From the above excerpt from the sutta, the duty of a leader is to make sure that there is equal distribution of resources among all the people in society—neglecting such noble duties impedes justice and equality causing poverty and its associated problems such as immoralities. Leaders are expected to initiate policies aimed at eradicating poverty. This could be in form of planned gifts of money for capital investment—any deviation from this duty results into economic inequality and divisions into different classes (rich and the poor) causing tension, insecurity in efforts to survive and protect what one has. We have seen these cases all over the world—we can therefore conclude that due to poor leadership and governance poverty and social deterioration become widespread. Above all, Cakkavattisihanada Sutta reminds every leader and aspiring governors to respect all forms of life, rule in accordance to the Dhamma, ensure economic stability in society and seek advice from the wise and elders whenever they go wrong.
In principle, there are basically ten principles of governance derived from the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta:
- Generosity—the government of center of leadership should provide donations to poor people for promotion and eradication of poverty.
- Being ethical in every respect—in one’s personal life as well as in public.
- A leader should sacrifice what possession they have for the benefit and welfare other people—this underlines the virtues of compassion and sympathetic joy.
- Honest and truthfulness are admirable principles for good leadership—fulfilling one’s promises, refraining from deception, transparency and accountability in one’s political or leadership dealings.
- Leaders should soft and tender—refrain from harshness, roughness and cruelness. One should be sympathetic, approachable and have concern for other beings in society.
- Energetically committed to the wellbeing of others—austerity i.e. giving up one’s luxuries for others.
- Free from revenge and upholding grudges—one should be forgiving and seek pardon for any mistakes they may have done.
- Compassionate—not using one’s position to causing any physical or mental harm to any living being. One should put oneself in the place of another.
- Forbearance—this is an admirable virtue of any aspiring leader, patience pains but pays.
- One should bear an attitude of reconciliation in times of conflicts or any attacks.
Buddhist Leaders through History
Many scholars portray King Asoka of the 3rd century BCE India as one of the most celebrated Buddhist leaders. H. G. Wells refers to him as the ‘greatest ruler’ that the world has ever witnessed. It was during the war of Kālinga that King Asoka realized the devastations and unfruitfulness of waging wars. In this war, Asoka assaulted even his own brothers, and many people were killed, tortured, and others sent to prisons. The cause of the war was merely greed and desire to expand his empire. However, on his expedition of Kālinga, he was so terrified by the sights. All he could see were only corpses and burnt houses. In one of his famous epilogues, Asoka was horrified by his own actions on innocent people. He sobbed:
“What have I done? If this is victory, what is defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone unborn baby…what is this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of evil or death? Thus, after such self-examination, King Asoka strongly embraced the Buddhist principles of love, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy. He admitted and overtly professed never to draw his sword again in the disguise of any conquest. H. G. Wells, in his work, The Three Greatest Men in History notes that: “After one victorious battle, he is the unparalleled warrior mentioned in the world history in connection with the abandonment of war.”
He was one of the greatest leaders well known in history, who had the courage, the confidence, and the vision to apply the Buddhist teachings of non-violence, sympathy, peace and love to the whole empire not only to humans, but also for kingdoms of flora and fauna, kingdoms of vegetarian, and animal kingdoms.
The Rock Edict XIII expresses referring to the conquest of Kālinga, how the king had become repentant and extremely painful at the bloodshed of Kālinga. In his Kālinga Edict II, he says: “all men are my offspring. Just as for my offspring I desire that they may be united with all welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, precisely do I desire it for all men.”
In Vietnam, the massive sufferings caused by the wars did not spare the Buddhist monastics to dynamically engage in political and social struggles of their country. Thich Nhat Hanh actively drew resources of the Buddhist teachings of nondualism to meet the need for peace by empirically introducing “Engaged Buddhism”. He campaigned against the American oppression and explained the purpose of the Buddhist protests and offered a peace proposal to the Americans in 1966.
We cannot exhaust such leaders, Mahatma Ghandi, and so on applied the Buddhist principles of good governance to meet the needs of their followers.
As discussed above, Buddhist leadership is based on certain principles. Any leader to be successful in their leadership career, besides having leadership qualities should also adhere to those principles described above. Governance is a very crucial and delicate undertaking that needs integrity and consistency. Truthfulness, honest, generosity, forbearance are some of those noble qualities preached in the Buddhist system of leadership.
Andrew Bakaki, 2017
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