Affairs of state are clearly not the focus of Buddhist teachings. Indeed, conversation about ‘kings and ministers’ figure in the many forms of ‘low or animal talk’ that the Buddha recommended we avoid (Anguttara 10.69). This injunction stems from the view that we often engage in such talk simply to exercise our opinions, without useful purpose.
Yet, however contested modern political discourse might be, the function and qualities of leadership are of ongoing relevance in our worldly lives. And when it’s observed that no dimension of life is excluded from the Dhamma it does not surprise that, in addition to diverse spiritual teachings the Buddha gave to various kings of his day, he is also known to have offered them guidance on royal governance.
With the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and ascension of King Charles III, reflection on the role of monarchs – indeed, any form of personal, professional, or state authority – acquires renewed pertinence.
Is there a Buddhist approach to such ancient and contemporary concerns? A list of qualities found in the Jataka Tales, provides one response. The Jatakas present memorable incidents believed to issue from various previous lives of Gotama Buddha. The following ‘Ten Royal Duties’ (also, ’Norms’ or ‘Rules’: Dasa Rajadhamma) appear in the Jataka III,274:
Dana – generosity
Sila – virtue
Pariccaga – altruism, or selflessness
Ajjava – honesty, or integrity
Maddava – gentleness
Tapo – self-control
Akkodha – non-anger, or calmness
Avihimsa – harmlessness, or non-violence
Khanti – patient forbearance
Avirodha – uprightness, or conformity with principles of Dhamma
Even a brief glance will confirm that the list is in harmony with numerous refined qualities recommended by Buddhism to be worth developing… by anyone. In this way, they offer yet another template for contemplation – one to be employed by anyone who has come to revere the kindness, clarity, and beauty of a life governed by wise values.
It can be asked, though: If a man or woman is formally granted a level of public service or authority, does the list of Rajadhammas ‘address’ him or her any differently? One response is to suggest that to deliberately practise them as duties will naturally draw from the person a heightened level of intention and conduct. Ideally, by engaging with one’s responsibilities in the honest spirit of these qualities, one can elevate – even transform – the benefit of one’s service in the world. In so doing, both the role and the person can become truly honourable.