13 March 2014

The quality of righteousness and its prerogatives

Elections are about representatives. Leaders.  Candidates believe they are leaders or at least that they can be leaders.  Maybe they know everything there is to know about leaders.  Some, though, may benefit from some salient points made more than 2,500 years ago by the Enlightened One, Siddhartha Gauthama, the Buddha. This is the second of a five-part explication, first published three years ago in 'The Nation'.

 Last week, in this column, I wrote about the quality of Atthagngnu (‘acting with full understanding of meaning’) in relation to the ideal attributes of a king (leader) as laid out in the Buddhist discourse on matters of state and governance.  The second attribute that a king ought to possess or cultivate, according to the Pagnamakkanuvattanasutta (Ref Raja Vagga, Anguttara Nikaya; ‘Grouping on kings’ in the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha) is Dhammagngnu or the quality of being conscious of the righteous.

The great monarch (or leader) would necessarily be endowed with the quality of understanding the dhamma and acting accordingly, i.e. as dictated by the prerogatives of righteousness.  ‘Dhamma’ in general would refer to the core teachings of the Buddha. ‘Righteousness’ (in this context) therefore would have to draw from the recommended distinctions of right and wrong, good and bad as expounded by Siddhartha Gauthama, the All-Knowing, in terms of the interests and wellbeing of the larger polity, sustainability of lives, livelihoods and indeed the particular state.   While conceding that the term is culture-bound, a privileging of the righteousness article (if you will) in matters of governance clearly denotes a willingness or desire to err in favour of the public good. 

Given the overwhelming centrality of things Buddhist pertaining to history, heritage, culture, social organization and political process in Sri Lanka it would not be inappropriate to flag those elements of this dhamma or this particular corpus of principles and guidelines of righteousness in order to shed light on what is appropriate, what is absent and what needs to be instituted.  It must be mentioned that this dhamma as relevant to this particular subject in no way contradicts nor proposes superiority over any other edicts espoused by any other major faith that has adherents among the citizenry. 

The beauty of the Buddha Vachana (The Word of the Buddha) is its applicability in multiple contexts and moreover the encyclopedic proportions of relevant material on a wide range of subjects.  The overwhelming quality has a drawback in that it makes for picking and choosing in order to buttress particular line of argument or justify particular decision or course of action.  I propose that a privileging of fundamental tenets is what would give us the dimensions of ‘righteousness’ relevant to this exercise.

First and foremost a righteous leader would subject him/herself to the discipline associated with the Panchaseela (would not kill, would not steal, would not engage in inappropriate acts of lustful nature, would not lie and would not avail of alcoholic substances) and this discipline would find articulation in all laws enacted and thereby find reflection in the structures of governance.  A righteous leader would not sanction capital punishment, for example, and would ensure that the barbarous practice is outlawed.  Neither would such a leader pilfer the Treasury or leave any room for any and all acts of theft. In short, he/she would correct all systemic flaws that compromise the full and effective functioning of law and order.   

A righteous leader would be fully cognizant of the Ashta Loka Dharma (profit-loss, joy-sorrow, praise-blame and fame-vilification) and relevant vicissitudes.  Cognizant also of the transient nature of all things, he/she would exercise circumspection at all times and treat all these ups and downs with equanimity.  Such a leader would not be swayed by or have ego inflated in times of triumph nor be despondent and helpless when misfortune strikes.  Such a leader, endowed thus with fortitude, would earn the respect and trust of the citizenry. 

A righteous leader would strive to act with fidelity to the Sathara Brahma Viharana (kindness, compassion, equanimity and being joyful at another’s happiness).  Such a leader would earn the affection and support of the citizenry because he/she would be seen as just, good, strong and humane and devoid of qualities such as greed, envy, ill-will and tendency to be extreme in response. 

A righteous leader would embody the qualities that constitute the Sathara Sangraha Vastu (the four kinds of hospitality).  Such a leader would be pleasant in speech, would be generous and giving, benevolent and helpful in conduct and at all times affirm the principle of equality. Such a leader would therefore be just and gracious and accordingly will win the love, affection, trust and support of his/her people. 

A righteous leader, furthermore, would be conversant about the Noble Eight Fold Path to the extent that he/she would use it as a guide to fashion thought, word and deed, refer to it when in doubt or when forced to choose among several options.  A leader benefits much from striving to abide by the following (in their elaborations and interrelationships): Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration (where ‘right’ could meet ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’).  In reflecting on any issue prior to making pronouncement or intervening and also in retrospection the Noble Eight Fold Path can operate as guide as well as benchmark against which a particular course of action can be assessed.  

It is in this manner that a leader acquires the right to be called righteous.   The Dhamma is replete with innumerable insights, points for reflections and guidelines for action, all of which the wise ruler who wishes to remain righteous can draw heavily from.  A leader who takes the trouble to understand and internalize these ideals would be better equipped to deal with adversity.  A leader who in thought, word and deed gives on-the-ground meaning to these notions would find that power accrues to him/her almost without solicitation. 

Conversely, a leader who is ignorant of and consequently violates these fundamental tenets of being and engagement risks losing everything or else will remain in power illegally or on account of coercive instruments at his/her disposal.  It would be a brief reign at best and never one that history will record with anything except disdain.  Such are the conclusions arrived at upon reflecting on the quality of dhammagngnu proposed by the Buddha as a requisite trait for a good king and of course the implications of its absence.    

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukitatta.  May all beings be happy.