Friday, June 2, 2017

The Bad Ruler (sutra)

Elizabeth J. Harris, Violence and Disruption in Society: A Study of the Early Buddhist Texts (BPS Wheel #392), edited by Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Ashley Wells, Wisdom Quarterly

1. The Forms of Violence
What the Buddha knew
The sutras of the Buddha, as they have been handed down to us, are replete with details about the contemporary realities of those times. They reveal much about the social contexts within which he moved and the faces of society with which he was familiar.
The Canki Sutra shows a Brahmin overlord insisting that the Buddha is equal to him in birth, riches, and the knowledge of the Vedas [the sacred texts of the Indus Valley Civilization and later of India]. He continues:
Indeed, sirs, King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama [the Buddha] for guidance for life. Indeed, sirs, King Pasenadi of Kosala with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama for guidance for life. Indeed, sirs, the Brahmin Pokkharasati with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama for guidance for life [3].
Important here is the reference to kings. The texts show clearly that the Buddha had an intimate knowledge of statecraft.

Records of his conversations with King Pasenadi and King Bimbisara show him speaking in a language which those involved in government could understand. King Pasenadi, for instance, comes through as a man torn between his duties as king, involving some degree of ruthlessness, and his concern for spiritual things. At one moment, he is seen preparing a sacrifice in which many animals are to be slaughtered and menials beaten and, at another, speaking seriously with the Buddha about the dangers of wealth, power, and misconduct [4].

What is significant is the level of knowledge shown by the Buddha about the pressures on a king such as Pasenadi. His use of similes and illustrations, for instance, appeals to King Pasenadi's experience, including the central concern of all rulers at that time -- defense against aggression. At one point King Pasenadi asks about the value of gifts and to whom a gift should be given for the gift to bear much fruit. The Buddha replies:
A gift bears much fruit if given to a virtuous person, not to a vicious person. As to that, sire, I also will ask you a question. Answer it as you think fit. What think you, sire: Suppose that you were at war, and that the contending armies were being mustered. And there were to arrive a noble youth, untrained, unskilled, unpracticed, undrilled, timid, trembling, affrighted, one who would run away -- would you keep that man? Would such a man be any good to you? [5]
The Buddha thereby uses similes from King Pasenadi's military world to indicate that virtue does not depend on birth but on [merit and the] qualities of character. In fact, in a number of texts, illustrations drawn from the context of the state, defense and martial arts can be found. Not only does the Buddha make use of military metaphors, but the texts show that he had extensive knowledge of the strategies of war, punishment, and political patronage. The Maha-dukkha-kkhandha Sutra, for instance, uses graphic description to show that war and conflict spring from sensual desires:
And again, meditators, when sense pleasures are the cause... having taken sword and shield, having girded on bow and quiver, both sides mass for battle and arrows are hurled, and knives are hurled, and swords are flashing. Those who wound with arrows and wound with knives and decapitate with their swords, these suffer dying then and pain like unto dying... 
And again, meditators, when sense pleasures are the cause... having taken sword and shield, having girded on bow and quiver, they leap on to the newly daubed ramparts, and arrows are hurled, and knives are hurled, and swords are flashing. Those who wound with arrows and wound with knives and pour boiling cow-dung over them and crush them with the portcullis and decapitate them with their swords, these suffer dying then and pain like unto dying [6].
In the next part of the sutra, a variety of horrific punishments are described and a keen awareness of their nature is seen:
Kings, having arrested such a one, deal out various punishments: they lash him with whips and they lash him with canes and they lash him with rods, and they cut off his hand... his foot... his hand and foot... his ear... and they give him the "gruel-pot" punishment... the "shell-tonsure" punishment... "Rahu's mouth"... the "fire-garland"... the "flaming hand"... and so on [7].
In another sutra handed down to us, two men are pointed out while the Buddha is talking to a headman, Pataliya. One of them is garlanded and well-groomed; the other is tightly bound, about to lose his head. We are told that the same deed has been committed by both. The difference is that the former has killed the foe of the king and has been rewarded for it, while the latter was the king's enemy [8].

Hence it is stressed that the laws of the state are not impartial: they can mete out punishment or patronage according to the wish of the king and his cravings for revenge or security.
It cannot be argued that the Buddha was ignorant of the political realities of his day. He spurned frivolous talk about such things as affairs of state [9],  but he was neither indifferent to them nor uninformed. On the contrary, his concern for the human predicament made him acutely aware of the potential for violence within the economic and political forces around him.

The political milieu of rival republics and monarchies in northern India forms a backdrop to his teaching, whether the rivalries between the kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha or the struggles of the republics to maintain their traditions and their independence in the face of the rising monarchies [10].
However, the violence attached to politics and statecraft forms one section only of the picture which emerges from the texts. Violence is detected in the Brahminical sacrificial system, in the austerities practiced by some wanderers, and in the climate of philosophical dispute among the many sramana [wandering ascetic] groupings as well as in the area of social discrimination and the economic order.
Religion, to take this first, is seen as a cause of physical, verbal, and mental violence. The violence inflicted through sacrifices is described thus:
Now at that time a great sacrifice was arranged to be held for the king, the Kosalan Pasenadi. Five hundred [lit. "a large number"] bulls, five hundred bullocks, and as many heifers, goats, and rams were led to the pillar to be sacrificed. And they that were slaves and menials and craftsmen, hectored about by blows and by fear, made the preparations with tearful faces weeping [11].
In contrast, the wandering ascetic groupings within this period rejected sacrifice. Denying the authority of the Vedas and a realm of gods to be manipulated, their emphasis was on renunciation, the gaining of insight and philosophical debate.

Nevertheless, a form of violence was present. The austerities practiced by some of those who came to the Buddha were worse than any enemy might inflict as punishment. The Buddha himself confessed to having practiced them before his enlightenment.

In the Maha-Saccaka [12] and the Maha-Sihanada [13] Sutras there is vivid description of the excesses undertaken. Taken together, the two sutras cover the complete range of contemporary Indian practices, which included
  • nakedness or the wearing of rags, tree-bark fiber, kusa grass, wood shavings, or human hair;
  • deprivation of food to the extent of existing on a single fruit or rice grain;
  • self-mortification through lying on thorns or exposing the body to extremes of heat and cold;
  • copying the habits of animals such as walking on all fours or eating similar food.
It was the Buddha's view that such practices were a form of violence, although undertaken in the name of religion and truth-seeking [14].
Undertaken also in the name of truth were verbal battles between different groups of wanderers. The Buddha's followers, in fact, were frequently at the receiving end of an aggressive campaign by other wandering ascetic groups to ridicule their beliefs.

The description of these incidents gives useful evidence of the prevailing atmosphere [15]. In the Udumbarika Sihanada Sutra, Nigrodha the Jain claims:
Why, householder, if the samana Gotama [the Shaman Gautama, the wandering ascetic, the Buddha] were to come into this assembly, with a single question only could we settle him; yes, I think we could roll him over like an empty pot [16].
In the Kassapa Sihanada Sutra, the Buddha speaks out:
Now there are, Kassapa, certain wanderers and Brahmins who are clever, subtle, experienced in debate, hair splitters, who go about, one would think, breaking into pieces by their knowledge the speculations of their adversaries [17].
Violence of state and violence in the name of religion were two faces of the Buddha's society. Violence within the economic order was another. The sixth century B.C. in [what later came to be called] India witnessed urbanization and commercial growth.

The cities of Savatthi, Saketa, Kosambhi, Benares, Rajagaha, and Champa would have been some of the most important centers known to the Buddha, who spent much time in urban environments.

As Trevor Ling argues in his study, The Buddha [18], the growth of these cities spawned individualism and competition in response to changing economic patterns and social dislocation. The potentially violent tensions generated are reflected in the Buddha's teachings through such themes as the rightful gaining of wealth, the place of service and work [19], correct duties towards employees, and the wise choosing of friends.

For instance, a Samyutta Nikaya text contains a conversation between Rasiya the Headman and the Buddha. The Buddha speaks out against those who gain wealth by unlawful means, especially with violence [20].

Then, in the Sigalovada Sutra ["Advice to Householders Discourse"], the Buddha outlines rights and duties for the different social relationships in society [21].

 An employer is advised to: assign work according to the strength of the employee; supply food and wages; tend workers in sickness; share with them unusual delicacies; grant them vacation leave.

The same sutra comments on friendship and says that four foes in the likeness of friends should be avoided:
  1. a rapacious person,
  2. a person of words not deeds,
  3. the flatterer, and
  4. the ne'r-do-well.
"This is fine." (
The study of what the Early Buddhist texts say about violence must be seen against this background of political violence and social change. The empiricism of Early Buddhism also demands this -- the Buddha's appeal to what is observed in society as a basis for evaluating the truth of his teachings [22].
The analysis of historical context calls into question whether any philosophy or thought system can have universal relevance. Since the human situation across the permutations of history is indeed subject to change... More
Sean, they're not talking about me, right?
3. MN 95/ii,167.

4. The Kosala Samyutta (Samyutta Nikaya, Vol. 1) records the conversations which this king had with the Buddha. The examples mentioned have been taken from this section.

5. SN i,97.

6. MN 13/i,86-87.

7. MN 13/i,87.

8. SN iv,343.

9. In several sutras, the Buddha comes across groups of wanderers engaged in heated discussions about kings, robbers, armies, etc. (e.g., DN iii,37; MN ii,1). In contrast, the Buddha advised his disciples either to maintain noble silence or to speak about the Dharma.

10. See Romila Thapar, A History of India (Pelican Books UK, 1966), Chapter 3.

11. SN i,75.

12. MN 36/i,227ff.

13. MN 12/i,68ff.

14. At the end of the Buddha's description of his austerities in the Maha-Saccaka Sutra he says: "And some wanderers and Brahmins are now experiencing feelings that are acute, painful, sharp, severe. But this is paramount, nor is there worse than this. But I, by this severe austerity, do not reach states of further men, the excellent knowledge and vision befitting the Ariyans ["Noble Ones," enlightened persons]. Could there be another way to awakening?" (MN i,246).

15. The Maha-Sakuludayi Sutra (MN 77/ii,1ff.) reflects contemporary realities when a town plays hosts to various groups of wanderers.

16. DN 25/iii,38.

17. DN 8/i,162.

18. Trevor Ling, The Buddha — Buddhist civilization in India and Ceylon (Penquin Books UK, 1973).

19. See Esukari Sutra, MN 96.

20. SN iv,330ff.

21. DN 31.

22. Reference can be made to the following: (a) AN i,188ff. The Buddha's advice to the Kalamas. (b) AN ii,167ff. The Buddha advises the monastics to scrutinize closely anything said to have come from his mouth. (c) Canki Sutra: MN 95/ii,170-71. The Buddha says that belief, reasoning, and personal preference are not guarantees of truth. (d) Vimamsaka Sutra: MN 47. The Buddha urges his disciples to examine his own conduct before deciding whether he is an Enlightened One, and to investigate empirical evidence rather than accept things through blind faith.

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