Buddha’s teachings and lessons on state-craft and diplomacy for rulers and diplomats

1 May 2018 - 247   - 0

By Satharathilaka Banda Atugoda

The epistemology of Buddhism is so vast that the varied realms of knowledge which existed from ancient times in the world, flourished with drawing from the teachings of the Thathagatha. The sea of knowledge in his teachings has been categorised into pitakas, by his pupils, during sangayanas (buddhist councils) and has been organised into three baskets.

  • Abhidhamma Pitaka - the deeper essence of Buddha’s teachings;
  • Sutta Pitaka - the doctrine propounded in the form of stories, to ease comprehension, by bhikku, bhikkuni, upasaka, upasika, and other prathagjanas.
  • Vinaya Pitaka - the code of conduct and compendium of rules of the pupilage, as mentioned above.

These epistemological baskets contain knowledge relevant, to statecraft, kingship, administration, relations between, and among states, how they could be nurtured, and enhanced, and techniques in enhancement of ties, and resolution of conflict situations. The branch of knowledge dealing with this inter-state segment of relations came to be known as diplomacy. The word ‘diplomacy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘diploma’ which means folded into two, referring to old documents such as passports and passes; the people studying these documents to advise the rulers were called ‘diplomatists’. A synonym to this word in Sinhala is ‘the lekam mitiya’, a collection of files used by Sinhala ‘purohithas’ in the process of advising the kings.

An eminent authority on diplomacy Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1929), in his unique work ‘Satow’s guide to diplomatic practice defines diplomacy as follows: ‘Diplomacy is the application of knowledge and tact to the conduct of official relations, between the governments of independent states, extending sometimes also to their vassal states, or more briefly still, the conduct of business between states by peaceful means’. This definition is more British and contemporary.

This segment of knowledge has been filled heavily with succeeding civilizations, Greek, Roman, and Arabic. In modern times it has been fed by French, British, German and other European practices. They did influence the growth of diplomacy. In Jambudhweepa however, inter-state relations were influenced by Vedic teachings and of course, by the teachings of the Buddha. When assessing the sea of contributions made by the Buddha to this segment, it can be described as colossal, and it was known as the discipline of ‘Rashtra Palanaya.’ In effect Buddhist teachings contain more a wealth of knowledge in the field of modern diplomacy, than other civilizational contributions.

Buddha’s teachings however, did not interfere in the administration of States, but the spiritual and material content of the knowledge imparted by him gave effective advice to rulers to resolve the issues emanating in their realms. The rulers drew inspiration from the doctrine and venerated the blessed one and sought advice on crisis situations. King Kosala, who was a ruler during the Buddha’s time was one example of a king who imbibed the Buddha’s teachings, in a spiritual and a material sense, while implementing welfare measures based on the teachings of the buddha. Apart from other references, in the Samyuththa Nikaya, there is a special compendium called ‘Kosala Samyuththa’, dealing with King Kosala’s counselling of the Thathagatha for advice. Three vaggas, Bandhana, Apuththaka and Kosala describe in detail the advice of the Thathagatha to King Kosala. The segments of advice drawn by the rulers in State-craft became the code for diplomacy, defining it as ‘the art and skill in handling intra and interstate relations, without hostility’. There are a large number of instances in the Tripitaka, where the Thathagatha, had taught statecraft, the emergence of rulers, and the methodology of conflict resolution. Most quoted examples are Chakkavaththi Sihanada Sutta, Agganna Sutta, and Saptha Aparihana Dhamma. While discussing the ‘contribution of the doctrine to the discipline of diplomacy’ I hope to touch on some of them.

The Buddha - a born emperor versed in diplomacy

Prince Siddhartha was born a prince in the Sakya clan of the Kshatriyas, and was trained to be the Chakravarthi, of all four domains of Jambudhweepa. He learnt statecraft and diplomacy, known as ‘Rajya Shilpa’ of a prospective king. Attaining the Buddhahood, he excelled in worldly matters, although his teachings were in the domain of spirituality. Naturally the kings, emperors and diplomats approached the Buddha for resolution of individual and collective problems concerning the state. In the Jataka stories of the Pansiya Panas Jataka, the Buddha took examples from his past lives born to royalty, signifying that the diplomacy was a natural inheritance to him throughout his sojourn in Samsara. The Buddha himself was born as a Purohitha to many kings and rulers, as witnessed by Mahaushada Panditha or in the Ummagga Jataka and Maha Vijitha in Kutadanta Sutta where he advised the king against a sacrificial ceremony to be held, and saved many a life of an animal. A very moving example of his human touch, was the Angulimala story, during his life-time. Papanca Sudani, mentions that Angulimala’s father, Gargy himself was a purohitha to King Kosala, or a chaplain to the king, as Miss. Horner likes to call him, a chief diplomat of the courts. He as a faithful adviser does not intervene, even when, the king orders Angulimala to be arrested and killed, while his wife Mantani, the mother of Angulimala, with motherly love decides to meet her son on that fateful day when Angulimala had waited for the last victim to complete his vow. It is to avert this, ‘mathru gathana’ and end this crisis that the Buddha goes to tame this brigand, who of course, later became an Arahant. The rest of the conversation is seeped in diplomatic language, which could be emulated by the modern diplomats. The Buddha used the language of possibilism, and not the language of determinism, especially when speaking to rulers. He advised them that, ‘the disputes could lead to anarchy, so it is possible that it would be detrimental to the kingdom and society’. (Dhammapada). The advice to his disciples, when making sermons is relevant to diplomacy; for example the approach to speak on crisis situations, is ‘alapana’, ‘speaking not before invitation’, ‘lapana’, explain connections, and ‘sallapana’ ‘speaking to parties concerned, to motivate them to resolution’. The Buddha used his clairvoyance and skills both in this life as well as past lives, when making his sermons. It was already stated how the Buddha stood for human rights, animal-rights, and preservation of the environment which are issues, the present day diplomat is called upon to protect in United Nations organisations and also nationally.

Resolution of conflicts - emergence of rulers

The Buddha expounded on the origin of the universe, in the Agganna autta to samaneras Vasistha and Bharadvaja, described in the Digha nikaya. It is a sutta dealing with the greed and ignorance of humans, as evolution continued, and its relevance to this essay is the theory on emergence of the state, and state-craft and diplomacy. He explains how in the concept of ‘Mahasammatha’, the ruler was chosen to settle disputes which emanated. Firstly, he was responsible for distributing the produce gathered among the prathagjana, (worldly beings.) Mahasammatha, in the course of time became all powerful and ruling structures were established by him, namely, administrators, diplomats, armed forces, farmers and artisans and service personnel to serve the community; categorisation of the society to castes, Kshatriya, Brahmana, Vaishya and Shudra, was in fact a result of these functional structures. The Buddha explains lucidly the functionality of these systems, in state craft. The people chosen to perform varied duties were meant to deal with them without fear or fervour to society. The Kshatriyas were the ruling caste from whom, officials dealing with inter-state and intra-state relations were chosen who were designated as ‘diplomats’. (This term is used in this essay for convenience, although they were called ‘purohithas’.) They established, nurtured and developed relations with states, and also resolved conflictual situations in inter-state affairs. They were called ‘rajya-purohithas’. At the early stages these officials performed administrative functions in the state as well as in affairs between states. This institutional base as taught by the buddha became the foundation on which diplomacy and state craft was built. The buddha himself resolved a war which emerged between the Sakyas and the Koliyas on the distribution of water of the river Rohini.

The doctrinal training of the sangha influenced statecraft

The buddha structured his disciples to four main categories, bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika and taught the worldly and spiritual knowledge relevant to bring discipline and order to society. The rulers who became buddha’s disciples infused the structures of the buddhist society to administration structures under different names and the varied professional bodies were based on the buddha’s functional-oriented societal divisions. The advisors, security chiefs, diplomats, educationists and cultural leaders, agriculturists, artisans, and other service personnel were appointed by rulers learning buddhist methods. The buddha trained his bhikkhu fraternity in patience, understanding the psychological status of beings receiving the message of truth, and simple ways of conveying a new body of knowledge. Then he requested they teach his message travelling far and wide in compassion to humans.

‘Caharatha Bhikkawe,

Charikam Buhujana hithaya

Bahu jana sukhaya

Aththaya hithaya

Deva manuassanam’

This method was also infused into the code of diplomats, as they too had to travel to lands unknown to develop relations between states. The code of conduct based on patience required, was learnt from the Buddhist teachings through the sermons of bhikkhus. Since the time of the buddha the rulers approached him for advice in sending emissaries to neighbouring states. Most quoted is the Mahaparinibbana sutta in Digha nikaya when the buddha advises Brahman Vassakara the chief minister of Magadha, that King Ajatasattu’s desire to annex Vajji would fail as long as discussion, debate, conciliation, consensus, reconciliation, and decision and sticking to action, based on decisions, was followed by them. Ven. Ananda conveys this piece of advice from the buddha to the king and his failure is averted. These tenets became the epitome of inter-state negotiations by diplomats. These teachings preceded the theories propounded by Greeks and Romans in the field of diplomacy.

Sutta pitaka and knowledge of state-craft and diplomacy

Another sutta - the Chakkavatthi-Sihanada sutta, teaches how the wheel of counselling in diplomacy should be based on the high morality of rulers. The rulers of neighbouring states respect rulers who possess high morals making it easy for diplomats to negotiate issues. It states the basic elements of good-governance, of King Dalhanemi, comparing them to seven treasures; wheel treasure (authority), horse treasure (assa ratana), elephant treasure (haththi ratana), jewel treasure (mani ratana), woman treasure (iththiratana), householder treasure (gahapathi ratana) and the counsellor treasure (pathinayaka ratana). These personify the power, military strength, wealth, people-power, women power, and diplomatic power which rulers should possess. These teachings were imbibed into the ethics of governance and intra-state and inter-state relations. The latter duty was entrusted to the purohitas or diplomats, making good governance successful. The great nikayas, Digha, Majjhima, Samyuththa, Anguttara and Khuddaka contain a vast amount of teachings relevant to modern day diplomacy. The buddha taught the abhidhamma and vinaya to make the universe a better place for beings. While teaching the suttas, the contents of Abhidhamma and Vinaya were thus included for humans to understand them easily. The Kutadanta sutta outlined the methods of developing the economy through agriculture, animal husbandry, commerce, and developing friendly relations between and among neighbouring states. The role of the purohithas in implementing the plans are enumerated, for example even the distribution of seeds among farmers and obtaining the support of neighbouring janapadas. This enhances the ability of the king to rule under ‘dasaraja-dharma.’ The Sigalovada sutta explained the methods of inculcating ethics in humans to prevent vices, like debauchery, indulging in liquor and drugs, and wrong methods of livelihood. The advisors had to implement these ethical codes taught as explained in Chakkavaththi Sihanada sutta. In Maha Govinda sutta a minister of King Renu was given the task of delimiting his kingdom into seven regions for ease of administration. As a professional purohitha, a diplomat, he did it consensually getting the consent of the Kalingas, Assakas, Avantis, Seviras, Videhas, Angas and Kasis. Perhaps these constituted the seven Janapadas. The ministers of that era were similar to the present day diplomats and they performed the tasks of both bi-lateral and multi-lateral diplomacy as seen from these examples.

Lessons from Abhidamma: The Buddha propounded the deeper essence of his teachings to Mathru Divya Puthra in Thusitha Devlova as he knew that they could easily be comprehended by persons of high intellectual attainments. This segment of knowledge taught the greater doctrine of Metta, Karuna, Muditha, Upekkha, the Sathara Brahma Viharana, the four noble truths, the paticca samuppada, anicca, dukkha, anathma and other deeper teachings which corrected the wrong behavioural patterns of worldlings; they contain the inner attainments required of rulers and purohitas. The buddha himself demonstrated by practice how to resolve conflicts, Yakshas and Nagas in Lanka, tame ones in the animal kingdom like Nalagiri who were sent to harm him by Devadatta, through Metta and Karuna.

It is indeed a tall order for present day diplomats, to follow the seven treatises of Abhidhamma Pitaka, Dhammasangini, (classification of Dhammas), Vibhanga, (Divisions) Dathukatha, (teachings on natural elements), Puggal Pannatththi, (designation of individuals), Kathavaththu, (points of controversy), Yamaka, (book of pairs), Patthana, (book of causal relations), dealing with the mind and psychology of beings. However, it is interesting to read that scholar, E.J. Thomas stating as far back as 1947, that Abhidahamma should be taught in Ceylon schools, in his work, “History of buddhist thought”. Kings of Sri Lanka like Kassapa committed the Dhammasangani of Abhidhamma into gold plates for usage in his Royal Courts, in the 10th century. King Vijayabahu 1 too used Dhammasangani in courts according to the most venerable Nyanaponika Thera. It is probable that study of issues in the courts and law were carried out according to the theories expounded in the Dhamma. Indian emperor Asoka used the knowledge in analysing state issues while they were committed to writing. It is a he who gave up Dig Vijaya propounded by Kautilya and absorbed Dhamma Vijaya when he found that the former was the cause of his annihilation of a generation of human beings in his wars to expand his domains. The Buddhist Nyaya tracts, like Vada, Vada-Adhishtana, Vada-Alankara, Vada Nigraha, Vada Bahukara, used by Vasu Bandhu, in his state crafts led to discussion, debate and conciliation. Milinda-pannha is another example of debate which ensued between the Greek King Menander and Venerable Nagasena, on the deeper aspects of the dhamma where the king accepted that the intellectual possessions in the doctrine were relevant to statecraft and diplomacy. Venerable Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhi Magga is a great example of the buddha’s analytical teachings, on ‘cause and effect’, collation of facts, their interpretation, and synthesizing them for debate, discussion, conciliation, and decision. This methodology could be used in international diplomacy. In fact, eminent Sri Lankan justice C. G. Weeramantry who adorned the seats of the International Court of Justice gave a dissenting judgement on weapons of mass destruction, even against powerful world powers, due partly to his being versed in the doctrine in all its facets though he may not have been born a Buddhist. The pronouncements by the United Nations and its representatives and the relevance of the doctrine when the day of Vesak was as accepted as a ‘day of observance’ demonstrates further the significance to world peace.

Lessons from Vinaya Pitaka

The Vianaya Pitaka is the first set of codified moral rules for the sangha, consisting a code for conduct for mind, body and word, in a spiritual sense. It has been used in varied organisations from ancient times. The major teachings contain nirodha, and elimination of dukkha. This segment has been relevant for spirituality but in a material world, the elimination of people’s suffering is the duty of rulers and diplomats. It was taught that attainment of nirodha is possible, by sila, sikkha and sikkhapada. They are equal to codified conduct like Dasaraja-Dharma, to rulers assisted by diplomats. The sangha was monitored in their adherence to rules by sanghadikarana, similar to the judiciary for lay-persons. Vinaya rules for the sangha are similar to the penal code for lay persons and corrective measures. These vinaya teachings have been imbibed to laws of the land and world bodies like the United Nations and other regional organisations.

Thus it is seen that kings and emperors from Ashoka to the rulers of the present day Buddhist world, independent India in fact, chose the dharma chakra and the Ashoka lion symbol of saranath as the national and state symbols, in the national flag and its insignia. In Sri Lanka and all other Theravada buddhist countries the buddhist doctrine is the key fountain from which knowledge flows to statecraft and diplomacy. The United Nations recognised Vesak day as a day of religious observance signifying the contribution of the doctrine of the buddha, to international peace and international diplomacy.

The contents of this essay are an excerpt from the writer’s dissertation for his masters degree at the faculty of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the Kelaniya University.

(The writer was an ambassador at the Sri Lanka Foreign Service.)


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