With the recent controversy over a compromise to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, with Congress threatening to de-fund everything from AmeriCorps to NPR, and with fiscal battles raging at the state level, government spending and revenue have become surprisingly hot-button issues.
What’s even more surprising is how much classical Buddhist thinkers have had to say about taxes and fiscal policy. Now is a perfect time to survey some of their thoughts on these topics. Rather than serving as a liability, these thinkers’ cultural, political, and historical distance from us can give us some much-needed perspective on our own time and place.
In the Acts of the Buddha 2:43, the Buddhist philosopher-poet Asvaghosa (circa 80-150 CE, north India) praises the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana:
43He did not wish to raise inordinate taxes,
he did not with to take what belonged to others,
he did not wish to reveal his foes’ adharma,
he did not wish to carry anger in his heart.
Two things jump out immediately. First, Asvaghosa equates wishing to raise inordinate taxes with wishing to take what belongs to others – in other words, theft. Second, taking inordinate taxes/theft appears alongside the much more obvious – and, many of us might think, much more serious – transgressions of defamation and hatred. The focus of the first line – especially with Asvaghosa’s emphasis on intention – seems to be not on taxes, per se, but on greed for them. And whether Asvaghosa’s concern is with greed for taxes or with the taxes themselves, he takes the matter just as seriously as the more personal shortcomings that we’re use to hearing about in dharma talks.
While it’s uncertain what role greed plays in Asvaghosa’s objection to excessive taxes, the Mahayana Buddhist Scripture Requested by Surata is painfully obvious. In the following excerpt, the bodhisattva Surata upbraids the corrupt king of Sravasti (I have written more about this scripture here):
Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
And punish the innocent for no reason.
Infatuated with your sovereignty,
You never heed
The future effects of yourkarmas.
Surata obviously objects to the king’s high taxes because they are a result of his greed – for power and for money – and also because they hurt Sravasti’s citizens.Perhaps the most famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna (circa 150 – 250 CE, south and north India) objects to high taxes in his Precious Garland 4:252-253, almost entirely for the latter reason:
252Provide stricken farmers
With seeds and sustenance.
Eliminate high taxes levied by the previous monarch.
Reduce the tax rate on harvests.
253Protect the poor from the pain of wanting your wealth.
Set up no new tolls and reduce those that are heavy.
Also free traders from other areas from the afflictions
That come from waiting at your door.
Here Nagarjuna isn’t just concerned about taxes’ financial effects, but also their emotional ones. He advises the king to whom he is writing to protect the poor from pain and to free traders from afflictions, both affective terms. This is hardly a liberal position. Neither is Nagarjuna laying out a strictly libertarian position; he clearly believes in government subsidies, as shown by the first two lines (and the rest of the Precious Garland, where he calls on the king to implement extensive education and social welfare programs). His sophisticated awareness of the needs of different constituencies – farmers, the poor, businesspeople – is also noteworthy.
So, Asvaghosa equates excessive taxation with more personal transgressions, especially theft; Surata objects to the covetousness that high taxes inflict on a king and the financial pain they inflict on the citizenry; and, Nagarjuna objects to the financial and emotional pain that the undue hardship of high taxes cause. The renowned Nyingma Buddhist philosopher and teacher Jü Mipham Gyatso (1846-1912, Derge, eastern Tibet) nicely sums up all of these sentiments in his Advice on the Way of the King, saying,
Forcefully taking a reasonable tax from the wealthy,
even when they haven’t offered it,
is like being compensated.
This is not “taking what hasn’t been given.”
Forcefully taking from the poor
can be either a wrongdoing or not a wrongdoing:
In order to prevent gamblers and prostitutes
from wasting the wealth obtained illicitly,
if you take from them, it is said to benefit both
and is not a wrong-doing.
When someone has lost property through fire, etc.,
tax them lightly.
If one doesn’t care for the sentient beings
who haven’t any means, this is a wrong-doing.
Later, he reiterates,
If one doesn’t collect taxes which are reasonable,
and not take equally from the rich and poor
according to their situation, is that just?
From all subjects who pay taxes
take in accord with their land,
the season, and their wealth, without harming their home.
Do not burden them unbearably.
In the manner of a cow eating grass,
one shouldn’t destroy the roots.