Beautiful Buddhist Anarchy

Finishing for now our discussion of civic life, social engagement, and wise governance, I suggest that the most coherent political philosophy from a Dharma perspective is anarchy. This is because of how fully Buddhist thinkers have recognized that violence is implicit in governance, whether those in authority inherit, seize, or are elected into power.

In a short discourse in the Saṁyutta Nikāya (SN 4.20), the Buddha has a thought about power while on retreat: “I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?” Māra shows up immediately to try to convince the Buddha to become a great king, which the Buddha rebuffs.

Why does Māra want the Buddha to become a king? Because then the Buddha would still be under Māra’s power. Kings are unable to avoid violence—coercion is built into the role. So like Temiya the Cripple, in the Jataka tale we looked at a few weeks ago, the Buddha recognizes that there’s no safe way to exercise power.

The anarchist approach fits well with the Dharma because it understands that the only truly sustainable social order comes from freely-given cooperation and self-restraint, not from external discipline, threat, and punishment. Law can hold back the tide of violence somewhat, but barely (and that’s when it’s not committing the violence itself). The only thing that truly can bring peace is people committing to peace willingly, enthusiastically, in their own hearts and communities. That’s anarchy.

Voluntary self-restraint—renunciation—is social engagement, and the heart of both ideal Buddhist economics (Socialist) and politics (Anarchy).

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