19 June 2012

Good Governance II: the primacy of virtue

The ‘Sila’ component of the Dasa Raja Dharma

In the Anguththara Nikaya, i.e the numerical discourses of the Buddha, the section containing ‘fives’ includes an elaboration on ‘the five great gifts’ which are ‘not open to suspicion and are un-faulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and priests.  They are the abstinence from taking life, from taking what is not given, from illicit sex, from uttering falsehood and the use of intoxicants. This is what is referred to as the ‘Panca Sila’ (the five virtues), where practicing Buddhists voluntarily determine to locate themselves within the disciplinary boundaries pertaining to the relevant abstinences.

 This is basic ‘sila’, there being of course more challenging or stringent (if you will) determinations of self-discipline (e.g. ata sil or the Eight Precepts, dasa sil or Ten Precepts and the 227 rules of the Bikkhu Patimokkha that a fully ordained bikkhu is required to abide by).  Sila is the cornerstone upon which the entire Noble Eightfold Path is built and its practice is defined by the middle three factors, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. 

Sila is clearly a Buddhist concept that makes for much discussion, elaboration and application.  In this instance, my task is to explore connections between sila and governance, with reference of course to the Dasa Raja Dharma or the ten pillars of good governance. 

For the smooth functioning of society and the enthronement of justice, prosperity and peace, the ruler or the government is required (among other things) to embody in the minimum a discipline with respect to the five precepts.  When a person or persons holding high public office conducts himself/themselves in private and public life in such a manner then it becomes easier to combat bribery and corruption, violence and indiscipline, inefficiencies and wastage.

The good king would not only be a seelavantha or an adherent to the disciplines associated with sila but set up and/or strengthen institution and norm/value that help foster these virtues.  Let’s take the five precepts and explore.

Let’s begin with the act of taking life, of facilitating life-taking and in the embedded ‘negative’ of causing injury.  The Buddha does not distinguish between the life of a human being and that of any other creature.  In our society meat-consumption as well as animal-slaughter is not prohibited either by law or by religious edict.  Buddhists are not ‘ordered’ not to eat meat, for example.  It is left as a ‘choice’.  The norms associated with religious freedoms can include sanction of meat-eating and even animal-sacrifice (for religious purposes).  It is an issue that needs to be debated but which people are scared to in view of treading on rights-toes.  Should not be this way in a democratic society where the principle of debate and discussion and the triumph of the rational over emotion should be what is respectively underlined and sought.  At the core however is the matter of deliberate choice, a decision to abstain at the most important ‘personal’ level.  This amounts to affirming the principle of example-power. 

‘Pranaghathaya’ (destroying life) is not about animals only.  It is about killing people and in the case of governance structures that contain relevant preventive mechanisms including the instrument called ‘pain of punishment’.  Outside of the ‘inevitabilities’ pertaining to war situations (covered by other ‘rules’ that override the general contained in the Dasa Raja Dharma), capital punishment would be classed as a violation by the Buddha.  In the case of the ruler(s), we have to include political assassinations, the unwarranted use of force that could result in deaths and stringent measure to ensure that those who contravene relevant laws are pursued and brought to book.  Punishment of offender is required.  Looking the other way is not sanctioned.  Political conveniences are required to be abhorred in the matter of dispensing justice.  We are lacking, I conclude.

‘Adinnaadaana’, my friend and benefactor of sorts, Nalin Swaris says, is about a commitment not to extract by force or otherwise properties which ought to be used instead on the premise of sharing; daana referring to justice and sharing rather than charity. If the ruler sets aside for personal use that which is common property or abuses power prerogatives to secure for him/herself exclusive or privileged use of properties, he/she compromises the edicts of good governance. 

We are talking, however, not about tweaking regulations but outright theft, of passing laws or abusing existing laws courtesy loophole and interpretive prerogative to secure lands and other assets on terms (lease for examples) that the general public cannot obtain.  We are talking of proper laws and their equal application. We are talking of power-abuse; of ‘cuts’, commissions, graft etc.  We are talking of audits that rulers do not subject themselves to or dodge using position and arm-twisting ability.  Included here is white collar crime.  Bribery. Corruption.  Money laundering. The quiet ‘approval’ of certain drugs and the design and implementation of policies that favour the favoured and not the general public.  We are lacking, I believe.

Illicit sex.  That’s a tough one when it comes to issues of governance, but I believe that metaphorical application is possible.  It is about who one chooses to bed with and why.  It is about unholy pacts and partnerships, agreements stamped behind closed doors that have nothing to do with pursuing the public good.  It is about choosing one’s friends, the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of it all.  The ruler is judged by the company he/she keeps and the manner of and choices pertaining to appointments to positions of power.  The ruler must at all times ensure that the processes of selection are above board and designed to ensure that the right person gets the right job.  The ruler has to ensure that systems prevail over whim in the matter of appointment.  The ruler must ensure that the system corrects for human error.  I look at the 17th Amendment and say ‘flawed’.  I look at the 18th and say ‘flaw eliminated’ but original flaw (that which the 17th was supposed to correct) remains.  We are lacking.

Lying.  This is about promise. About manifesto and mandate.  About adhering to the dictum yatha vadi thatha chari (do what you say/recommend, say what you do, i.e. be transparent).  It is about transparency and practicing what one preaches.  It is about accountability.  It is moreover a deliberate decision not to engage in word-play and twisting, in re-interpreting mandate to justify choice or in using power given for one purpose to do that which has not been sanctioned.  It is about being beholden to the general citizenry and deferring to their preferences and indeed obtaining in one way or another what their preferences might be at different times given different contexts.  It is about dialogue and discussion, debate and disagreement. It is about being humble enough to acknowledge error.  It is about not doing the convenient thing but the correct thing.  I like to think that all these things are included in the sila pertaining to the commitment to abstaining from lying. We are lacking, sadly.

Then there is intoxication.  Again the metaphorical application is of greater use.  ‘Mathata thitha’ or a full stop to intoxications/intoxicants is laudable for reasons that could run into several articles.  Alcohol consumption and smoking are not illegal. There are restrictions to there where, when and who of drinking and smoking of course, but there are innumerable ways to bypass the relevant bylaws.  Subtle encouragement is sanctioned.  The relevant industries have powerful lobbies. Rulers need to decide not to pander to such lobbies however advantageous it could be to their respective careers.  There is absolutely no point in abstinence if the violation in different forms is encouraged by sloth in the matter of enacting relevant legislation, applying the same and launching a nation-wide campaign at all levels and in all sectors to educate the public about the dangers of substance abuse. 

Intoxication is not just about consumption of alcohol and other substances.  It is about losing one’s mind, about deliberately acting in ways that impair the employment of reason and deference to good sense and most of all the neglect of common good in the process.  Where rulers get intoxicated with power, the public gets short-changed. Where ambition and ego end up footnoting reason and suppressing the primary purposes of power (to rule justly and wisely), good governance flies out of the window.

We have constitutional articles that are made for power-intoxication.  In this context it is all the more imperative for rulers and rule-makers to be more circumspect and vigilant about the abuses they themselves might perpetrate and the tragedies that they might unleash on account of being endowed with powers that are not congruent to ability to manage given ego, ignorance and ambition.  If sobriety is the relevant medicine, the political pharmacies seem to have run out of stock. Sadly.

I believe that sila is a key foundation stone for moving towards better governance.  There is a lot of reference these days to the panca sila, the five precepts.  It is a concept that is alluded to frequently by those in high positions of power, the President included.  There is much pleading for sila on the part of the public.  There is the white clothes and pirith nool.  There are alms-givings and seela vyapara (programmes focusing on observing the precepts).  There is a clasping of hands, and the regular ‘deferencing’ to the Maha Sangha.  There is ‘appearance’ and ‘spectacle’.  There is little substance.  Not in the governing and not in the governed and, let us not forget, not in those aspiring to replace those in power.  That too is telling. 

Where sila is practiced there is always restraint, always circumspection, self-criticism and humility.  These are qualities that are of great value when it comes to governance.  We are lacking, but need not be, I conclude.

[Originally published in the Daily Mirror, September 2010]

The following is the complete set of articles on the Dasa Raja Dharma

Dana: the virtue of giving

Sila: the moral component of the Dasa Raja Dharma]

Pariccaga: the third element of the Dasa Raja Dharma

Ajjava: the discourse on honesty and integrity in governance 

Majjava: the kinder, gentler elements of governance

Tapa: the virtues of austerity and restraint 

Akkodha: the need to eschew enmity

Avihimsa: incorporating non-violence into good governance

Khanti: the virtue of patience and tolerance

Avirodha: a must-cultivate for the effective and benevolent ruler



Ranilj said...

Quite a heartening article!

Writers effort to interpret a guide line from the 3rd precept to governance is interesting. I just think the 3rd precept is about containing one major element to Nirvana: "Raga". It is totally a different element to governance.

"The one, who chooses to bed with" is a debate in itself. Most Kings, the good Dayakas of the Buddha are said to have had "Anthappuras" suggesting many sex partners! Surprisingly Budun didnt warn any King on this element (as far as I know)

Lying - I think in SL we refer to it as it relates to the past; not much about the future. It s good that we make ourselves concious that giving false promises is also lying. And to evade that will require developing a totally diffent virtue in many of us Sri Lankans: "Estimation"; the estimation about what is possible in the given environment & conditions and the estimation of timeframe.

Ranilj said...

well I meant ..one major obstacle to nirvana..