The Buddha and Enlightened Democracy

Dear all,

As our community and Centre continues on its ever surprising journey of transformations on this wee Earth, I thought to share a small tale of some very big changes and some very surprising and forgotten history from our deep past.

The following is part of a very, very old story – one very nearly lost, and seldom understood. It comes to us from the Pali Mahaparinibanna Sutta – the set of direct stories and teachings of the Buddha which were retained and recording in the ancient Pali language. It is unique, in so far as this Sutta (or Sutra in Sanskrit) was not preserved in all lands or by all lineages: quite notably, it does not seem to have been included in the Tibetan Kanjur or standard Tibetan compilation of canonical works.

This story is thus quite precious and needs passing-on like a true heirloom of the lineage of victorious ones. It is a tale from the last days of the Tathagata – the tale of his final teachings to the assembly of Vaisali, shortly before the mahaparinirvana. Remarkably, and mostly erased from history, it was the Buddha’s instruction on enlightened polity – or what may with some freedom call, “enlightened democracy”.

As it goes, it so happened that King Ajatashatru of Magadha, son of the dharmaraja Bimbisara, desired to make war on the republic of Vaisali and the Vrriji Confederacy. The Vrrijians, and particularly the Vaisalians, were lay devotees to the Three Jewels. They were frequent hosts to the Buddha and the arya sangha of bhikksus and arhats. It so happened to be the case as well that the Vrrijians were a confederation of democratic republics, boasting that they were ruled by a great assembly of 84,000 rajas rather than merely one, and found inspiration and leadership in their first lady, the courtesan Ambapali.

Because of their public-spiritedness and dedication to the civic virtues taught by the Buddha, that sangha of warriors were widely found to be undefeatable. Even the growing empire of Magadha – the future ecumenic treasure of Ashoka Maharaja – could not contend with the Vrrijians in open battle.

Thus King Ajatashatru sent his chief minister, the brahmin Vassakara, to speak to the Buddha. The king sought thereby to learn the source of the Vrrijian sangha’s strength and, ergo, how to break it. Ajatashatru knew that Tathagatas did not lie or dissemble, and would speak truth when posed the right questions.

Vasskara thus drove his chariot forth from the capital Rajagriha to nearby Vulture Peak Mountain to appear before the World Conqueror. After exchanging many courtesies and pleasantries, Vassakara spoke plainly of the king’s wish to destroy his enemies, the assemblies of Vrrijians.

The Buddha, it is said, turned to Ananda and asked that venerable one, “Ananda, have you heard that the Vrrijians hold regular and frequent assemblies?”

“I have heard, my lord, that they do.” Ananda replied.

“Ananda” spoke the Tathagata, “as long as the Vrrijians hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. Have you heard that the Vrrijians meet in harmony, break-up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony?”

Ananda assented that he had so heard.

“Ananda, as long as that is the case, the Vrrijians may be expected to prosper and not to decline. Have you heard also that the Vrrijians do not authorize that has not been authorized, and do not abolish what has been authorized but proceed according to what has been authorized by their ancient tradition?”

“…That they honour, revere, and salut the elders among them, and consider them worth listening to? … That they do not forcibly abduct others wives and daughters and compel them? That they honour, respect, revere, and salut the Vrrijian shrines at home and abroad, not withdrawing proper support made and given before? … That proper provision is made for the safety of arhats, so that arhats may come in the future to live there and those already there may dwell in comfort?”

“I have, my lord” replied Ananda to each question in turn.

The Bhagavant, interrupting his discourse on assemblies, turned to the brahmin Vassakara and said, “Once, Brahmin, when at Vesali, I taught the Vrrijians these seven principles for preventing deline… as long as these seven principles remain in force, the Vrrijians may be expected to prosper and not decline.”

At this Vassakara interrupted the sermon and replied roughly, “Certainly, if the Vrrijians uphold these seven principles, King Ajatashatru cannot conquer them by force, but only by propaganda and setting them against each other. Now, Reverend Gotama, may I depart? I am busy and have much to do.”

“Brahmin, do as you see fit.” replied the Buddha.

And so, it is said, did Vassakara report back to King Ajatashatru of Magadha. And through propaganda and diplomacy, after many defeats, did the king finally raise divisions within the Vrrijian sangha, weaken them from within, and capture Vaisali.

But, the Buddha’s sermon on assemblies was not complete. He summoned the assembly of monastics through Ananda, and continued.

“Monks, I will teach you seven things conducive to welfare. Pay attention, and I will speak.”

“Yes lord”, the assembly replied.

“As long as you hold regular and frequent assemblies; meet, break-up, and carry on business in harmony; do not authorize what has not been authorized already; do not abolish what has been authorized, but proceed to what has been authorized; honour, respect, and revere elders of long standing, long ordained, parents and leaders of the sangha; do not fall prey to desires which arise in you and which lead to rebirth; are devoted to forest retreats; preserve personal mindfulness to magnetize the good among companions and put others at ease, you will be expected to prosper together and not decline.”

“Seven more things will I tell you are conducive: as long as you do not rejoice, delight, and become absorbed in business; in chattering; in sleep; in keeping company; in evil desires; in mixing with evil friends; and do not rest content with partial achievements on the journey, you will all prosper together and not decline.”

“Seven more things will I tell you: as long as you continue faithfully, modestly, abhorring wrong doing, with learning, exertion, with established mindfulness and prajna, you will all prosper together and not decline.”

“Seven more things will I tell you: as long as you develop the enlightenment-factors of mindfulness, investigating phenomena, energy, delight, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity, you will all prosper together and not decline.”

“Another seven things will I tell you: by developing the perception of impermanence, egolessness, of what is to be rejected, what is a danger, of how to overcome, and of cessation, you will all prosper together and not decline.”

“And these six things conducive to living together: to both privately and publicly  show maitri in body, speech, and mind; sharing rightful gifts; keep consistently the rules of conduct; persisting in them in private and in public; continue in the noble view that leads to liberation and remain so aware in private and public, you may be expected to prosper, and not decline.”

Having thus fully clarified and established the basis of an enlightened society ruled by assemblies, the Tathagata, Gautama Buddha, gave a comprehensive discourse on the ground, the path, and the fruition of shila, samadhi, and prajna. That foundation established, the Buddha with Ananda departed Rajagriha and Vulture Peak Mountain, in time arriving at the Grove of Ambapali near the city of Vaisali. But that is another story.

That then is the tale to tell. And, as do the Mukpos sing to one another in the Epic of Gesar of Ling, “If you understand this song, it will be sweet to your ears. If not, there is no way to explain it. Brethren of Ling keep this in your mind.”


Appreciatively Yours,

Colin Cordner