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.

When Things Fall Apart

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“The Second Coming,” a poem WB Yeats composed in 1919 and published in 1920, is one of those poems whose influence was not limited to his contemporaries. Despite its shortness with only twelve lines, the poem has been a source of inspiration for successive generations of writers and artists with its apocalyptic message: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. When Yeats composed this poem, the World War I was coming to an end, with negotiations for the peace agreement between the victorious Allies and the defeated Central Powers going on at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and 1920. While the Conference was going on, Europe and other nations of the world were still struggling to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. As a matter of fact, US President Woodrow Wilson, who was at the Paris Peace Conference, was one of the notable individuals who came down with the Spanish flu in 1920, though he was spared from becoming a victim of the pandemic that is said to have caused some 40 million deaths around the world.

As the words describing a chaotic situation, many authors have adopted ‘things fall apart’ as the title of their books. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, uses these words as the title of his novel published in 1958 to describe how the traditional way of life of a Nigerian tribe was disrupted and uprooted by the arrival of European colonialists and Christian missionaries. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Polack, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, use the same words in their 2007 book, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War, to describe the chaotic civil war that was threatening to spillover into neighboring countries. The same words were also used by Ramaa Vasudevan, an economics professor at Colorado State University, to describe the chaotic financial markets that followed the Great Crash of 2008 in her 2013 book, Things Fall Apart: From the Crash of 2008 to the Great Slump. Since ‘things fall apart’ for individuals as well as for communities, nations, and international organizations, it comes as no surprise that Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun who is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, also incorporates these words in her 2000 book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, to describe individuals trying to cope with their chaotic lives.

What about the world of 2020, one hundred years after Yeats published his “The Second Coming”? Are not things falling apart amid the chaos and dread that are spreading around the world with the COVID-19 pandemic? There is no end in sight as far as the number of people afflicted with this disease, with the total number of patients worldwide exceeding 30 million and the death toll approaching one million. Ironically, one of those victims of COVID-19 was Cristina, an American pop singer who released a song titled, “Things Fall Apart,” in 1981 and died on April 1, 2020 due to complications from the disease at age 61. Indeed, we are reminded each day that things are falling apart on many fronts: the health care system, the transportation network, the supply chain of raw materials and goods, the mode of human contact and communication, and so on. The words, ‘things fall apart,’ are popping up here and there in commentaries and opinion pages to describe the chaotic situation of the world in the era of COVID-19.

What are we to do when things are falling apart all around us? Is the Second Coming at hand, as Yeats suggests? Looking at the societal tensions around the world caused by different groups of people exhibiting different patterns of behavior in response to the COVID-19 crisis and other crises like the racial conflict, the refugee problem, and the climate change, it is tempting to agree with Yeats that “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” There is no question that the post-COVID-19 world would be different from the pre-COVID-19 world in terms of the way we conduct our lives. We know, of course, that change and transformation, whether radical or gradual, are always taking place in the world around us. From the Buddhist perspective, what we need to do is to seek peace and happiness in the world of no-coming and no-going, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, namely, in the world of here-and-now. In other words, our spiritual journey is not about seeking the Promised Land in the East, or the Pure Land in the West, but about practicing in the present world full of chaos and fear. As Pema Chodron writes in her 2000 book mentioned above, “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” (Pema Chodron, p. 10) There is no need to look for signs of the Second Coming, for revelation is already within us, if we care to look deeply.