Do no evil, practice only good, purify the mind
Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya
Generally speaking, Buddhists do not involve themselves in politics beyond advocating a method of governance and diplomacy that decreases suffering for all beings. However, from time to time, Buddha and Buddhist leaders have been asked by political leaders for their counsel. I'll share a few of these stories after briefly introducing the Buddhist theory.
Buddha's mission was to eliminate stress and suffering. He taught if people replace greed, anger and ignorance with generosity, compassion and wisdom, then they will be free of stress and suffering.
Since this is a cause-and-effect (karma) relationship, his counsel to kings was no different than his counsel to beggars. If beggars or kings increase their generosity, compassion and wisdom, then they will be free from stress.
Though this is an overly simplified explanation, I will leave it at that for the sake of brevity.
During his life, Buddha gave counsel to kings and princes when they came for it, but for the most part was only politically pivotal in one instance. The kingdoms of Kapilavastu and Kilivastu were going to war, so Buddha traveled to where the armies were stationed.
Buddha put himself between the armies, and the soldiers from both sides refused to fire their arrows while Buddha was present. In this pause, Buddha called to the chiefs of the respective armies to come to him.
He asked them why they were about to battle and they replied they were fighting over water to use for irrigation. He asked, "How much value do you think water has in comparison with the lives of men?" They replied, "Little value."
Buddha then asked, "Why do you destroy lives which are valuable for valueless water?" Both chiefs scratched their heads, as they had not thought about it quite that way.
Buddha then said, "Since people cause war through misunderstanding, thereby harming and killing each other, they should try to understand each other in the right manner."
In this case, the two kingdoms came to see the needs of the other and war was averted. With Buddha's intervention, the two kingdoms learned to share and work for mutual benefit.
Because the chiefs put away their greed and anger and harnessed their generosity, they stopped what certainly would have been great suffering for the many families who would have lost members.
Another story is that of Ashoka the Cruel. King Ashoka was a bloodthirsty tyrant who waged mammoth battles. However, after one such battle he reflected on the carnage and turned against war. He went to speak to the monks at the Buddhist temples and became a strong Buddhist practitioner who started teaching about the sanctity of life.
He became a vegetarian, outlawed hunting, directed that funds be used to build schools instead of armies and passed edicts to ensure that all people were treated equally regardless of their politics, religion or caste.
He returned conquered lands to their former kings and apologized for his aggression. These previously conquered nations later became trusted allies.
Ashoka the "Cruel" would eventually state, "All men are my children. I am like a father to them. As every father desires the good and the happiness of his children, I wish that all men should be happy always." (The use of "men" during this period referred to both men and women.)
Ashoka conquered his greed, anger and ignorance by cultivating his generosity, compassion and wisdom, thus creating peace and well-being for himself and his subjects.
The last story takes place in East Asia. An Indian monk named Bodhidharma was called to the Chinese emperor's hall. The emperor boasted to Bodhidharma that for Buddhism he had numerous temples built, statues carved and paintings commissioned.
He then asked Bodhidharma triumphantly, "How much merit (good karma) have I earned?" Bodhidharma replied, "No merit (good karma) whatsoever!" Needless to say, the emperor was not pleased and dismissed him.
The point Bodhidharma was making to the emperor was no merit had been earned because he was "greedy" for merit (and fame), so in the end, despite his perceived "piety," he only strengthened his greed, thus earning no merit. This story doesn't end like the other two, but it's a good story anyway.
Buddhists have acted primarily as advocates for political policies that decrease stress and suffering, but political leaders in the past also have asked them for counsel. The counsel is always the same: "Do no evil, practice only good, purify the mind."
Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya is the abbot of Middle-Way Meditation Center in Danbury.