Power Transition: Are we still waiting for a philosopher-king, or a wheel-turning monarch?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

History tells us that the transition of power from one ruler to the next is not always smooth and peaceful, but is often brutish and violent. The brutish and violent transition of power from one ruler to the next is amply illustrated by what happened to the three successive emperors of the Roman Empire. The reign of Caligula, the third emperor, came to a violent end when he was assassinated in a conspiracy among senators, courtiers, and even members of his own imperial bodyguards. Claudius, the next emperor, met a similar fate when he was poisoned to death, possibly by instigation of his wife Agrippina. Nero, the fifth emperor adopted by Claudius, was spared from death by assassination but took his own life amid the chaos he created with his cruel deeds, which included the killing of his mother Agrippina and the savage treatment of Christians.

Among students of Buddhism, King Bimbisara of Magadha is known as one of the royal benefactors of the Buddha and his Sangha. King Bimbisara’s rein came to a tragic end when he died imprisoned by his own son, who would become King Ajatasattu. Remorseful of his act of parricide, King Ajatasattu would later become a royal benefactor of the Buddha and his Sangha, and was the patron of the First Buddhist Council held after the Buddha’s passing. Despite his good deeds as a generous supporter of the Buddha and his Sangha, King Ajatasattu, too, could not escape a tragic end of his reign, for his son Udayabhadra is said to have assassinated him. King Pasenadi of Kosala, another royal benefactor of the Buddha and his Sangha, also met a similar tragic end when he died of exposure because he could not return to his capital Shravasti as his son had taken over the throne while he was away.

Hereditary inheritance is one way to avoid the brutish and violent transition of power from one ruler, or leader, to the next, which has been widely adopted not only by empires and kingdoms but also by families, businesses, and organizations. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a hereditary transition scheme in which the seat of the Shogun was passed on from the father to his eldest son. While such a hereditary transition scheme was transparent as it made it clear who the next Shogun would be not just to the immediate members of the Shogun’s family but also to the people who supported the Shogunate as ministers and vassals, it was not without controversies and power struggles, especially when the eldest son was deemed unfit to become the Shogun for one reason or another. For example, Hidetada was able to become the second Shogun after Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, passed away because his two elder brothers were not available to inherit the throne: the eldest had committed hara-kiri due to his conflict with Ieyasu and the next eldest had become an adopted son of another influential samurai family. The transition of Shogunate from the Second Shogun Hidetada to the Third Shogun Iemitsu was also not without controversies. While gaining the status of the successor after the death of Hidetada’s first son, Iemitsu was regarded by many around him, including his own father, as unfit to be a Shogun for his erratic behavior and frail constitution.

Choosing the successor by election, in contrast to these historical examples, seems to be a safe and uncontroversial system of power transition that is free from the pitfalls that accompany the succession of emperors, monarchs, and shoguns. This explains why most countries of the world today adopt the electoral system to choose their political leaders, including the United States. In that the country’s leader is chosen every four years by nationwide voting, the presidential election system in the United States appears to be the model of smooth and peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. That even this system is not without controversies is made abundantly clear by the turmoil that the United States is going through after the 2020 presidential election, with the outgoing president refusing to concede defeat in the election, thus preventing the smooth transfer of responsibilities from the old to the new administration.

The events unfolding in the United Sates show that having the democratic form of government is no guarantee for the smooth and peaceful transition of power. It was Plato who characterized democracy as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.” (Republic, Book VIII, 558) And it was the disorder aspect of democracy that prompted Plato to argue for a philosopher-king, where “political greatness and wisdom meet in one”: “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” (Republic, Book V, 473) The Buddha also expressed a similar idea in his conception of raja cakkavatti, or “wheel-turning monarch”: “A wheel-turning monarch, a just and righteous king, who thus provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for all, is the one who rules by the Dhamma only. And that rule cannot be overthrown by any hostile human being.” (Anguttara Nikaya, 3:14) Looking around the world, we must say that we are still waiting for such a philosopher-king, such a wheel-turning monarch. But waiting for such a philosopher-king, such a wheel-turning monarch, would be futile unless we all become philosophers, Dhamma practitioners.