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.

Buddha Nature: Our Natural Capacity for Perfectibility

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“For Buddhists, the theory of Buddha nature—the notion that natural capacity for perfectibility lies within each of us—is a deeply and continually inspiring concept.” So writes The Dalai Lama in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom. We should note that The Dalai Lama uses the word “theory,” or “notion,” when he talks about Buddha nature. In other words, he is not talking about the “fact” of Buddha nature, which is well established and widely accepted. To the extent that Buddha nature is not an established fact, it is up to us practitioners to confirm the validity of “the notion that natural capacity for perfectibility lies within each of us.”

Do we indeed possess natural capacity for perfectibility? If we do, how do we realize that perfectibility? To answer these questions, we need to know what perfectibility, or perfection, means for Buddhist practitioners. In the Theravada tradition, perfectibility would mean our natural capacity to find the path to enlightenment and attain liberation. The following words of the Buddha suggest the kinds of practices we should follow if we are to realize that state of perfection called enlightenment and liberation: “Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, Ananda, is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfill the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfill true knowledge and liberation.” (Samuyutta Nikaya 54:13)

A practitioner who has successfully reached that state of perfection is called an arahant in the Theravada tradition, which is the last of the four stages of accomplishment on the savakas path for the Buddha’s monastic disciples. At the first stage, one enters the stream and becomes a sotapanna, or a stream-enterer, who experiences the opening of the Dhamma-eye. At the second stage, one becomes a sakadagami, or a once-returner, in whom sensual desire and ill-will are greatly weakened. At the third stage, one becomes an anagami, or a non-returner, in whom sensual desire and ill-will are completely destroyed, and will be reborn in a higher world at death and will attain Nibbana without returning to this world. Finally at the fourth stage, one becomes an arahant, or a worthy one, by the destruction of craving, conceit, restlessness and ignorance, and will attain the final Nibbana without remainder at death. The notion of Buddha nature in the Theravada tradition thus means that we are endowed with natural capacity to become arahants, who attain enlightenment and liberation through our own efforts and practice.

With the development of Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of Buddha nature becomes more widely accepted, with a bodhisattva replacing an arahant as someone who embodies the state of perfection. In order to become a bodhisattva, a practitioner in the Mahayana tradition is asked to cultivate and develop bodhicitta. Thus, Nagarjuna, known as the founder of Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, writes in his commentary on bodhicitta: “In Mahayana this bodhicitta is said to be the very best. So produce bodhicitta through firm and balanced efforts.” (Bodhicittavivarana 105) The Mahayana emphasis on the cultivation and development of bodhicitta comes from the recognition that the Buddha’s decision to turn the Dharma wheel was based on his great motivation to help all sentient beings. As the Dalai Lama points out in his 2014 book, Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, “Bodhicitta—the aspiration to attain full awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings—is the magnificent motivation that enabled Siddhartha Gautama to become a bodhisattva and then a buddha and to turn the Dharma wheel.”

It is in the context of helping practitioners to cultivate and develop bodhicitta that the Six Paramitas have emerged as one of the most important practices in the Mahayana tradition, which are often translated as the Six Perfections. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “The Six Paramitas are called the doors of action because this practice is the basis of the bodhisattva path. … The Six Paramitas are very concrete means for us to cross over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom from craving, anger, envy, despair, and delusion.” (Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Parallax Press, 2008, p.239) In Mahayana Buddhism, practicing the paramitas to cross over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom is not just for our own benefit. As Master Sheng Yen emphasizes, “From the Mahayana standpoint, practicing the paramitas is to practice in accordance with selflessness and non-attachment, and for the dual benefit of self and others.” (The Six Paramitas: Perfections of the Bodhisattva Path, DDM, 2001, p.4)

There is no question that Buddha nature is an inspiring concept that serves as an encouragement for Buddhist practitioners as we practice daily to stay on the bodhisattva path by nurturing bodhicitta in us. What is most challenging for us to stay on the bodhisattva path is that there is so much suffering in the world around us driven by the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion—so much so that it is difficult to practice “in accordance with selflessness and non-attachment, and for the dual benefit of self and others.” But practice we must if we are to make the world a better place for all of us. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who drew our attention to the importance of community when he said: “Beloved community is our only salvation.” For Buddhists, “beloved community includes the whole planet of beings,” as Larry Ward reminds us in his latest book, America’s Racial Karma (Parallax Press, 2020, p.42). Indeed, our bodhisattva practice to develop beloved community must be extended to cover the entire regions of the Mother Earth as home to all sentient beings endowed with Buddha nature.