Buddhist ethics at a national level

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Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 2:44 am

I've been thinking lately how Buddhist ethics are not really appropriate or desirable at a national level.

For instance, we avoid killing as the first precept, but a nation needs to employ violence to suppress and/or deter internal and external threats. If you don't have a police force capable of utilizing lethal force there could easily be chaos. Likewise, a military (a force trained to kill and destroy hostile parties) is necessary for national defence. At times lethal force has to be used.

Stealing is also problematic because at the end of the day a lot of financial systems which benefit a nation are sophisticated forms of exploitation designed to get people as much unearned wealth as possible, whether it be from exploitation of the local proletariat or foreign labour. This is actually necessary because it is access unearned wealth which keeps your people calm and placated. If your country is living beyond its carrying capacity, it is unearned wealth from abroad that makes up for the deficit.

You could ask people to sacrifice, but people seldom voluntary sacrifice. They become accustom to a certain standard of living and collectively don't downgrade without some kind of revolt.

As we were discussing elsewhere, sexual misconduct to a certain extent is tolerated. Pornography, prostitution and so on might have to be undesirable albeit tolerable vices in a society which values freedom of expression, and would rather not try to stamp out sin.

With respect to lying, a government has to regularly do this to keep the population in check. Honesty and transparency don't really work. You need some level of propaganda, too, to keep the masses on the right track. If you don't do it, then someone else hostile to you will have their own propaganda and benefit from your own lack of skilled lying.

In a dog eat dog world, I can't really see Buddhist values being appropriate at a national level. It would possibly prove quite disastrous if you were in any kind of position of power or not protected by a big brother.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby yegyal » Mon Aug 05, 2013 4:05 am

What is more appropriate for a monk, to renounce samsara or justify it?
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 4:15 am

yegyal wrote:What is more appropriate for a monk, to renounce samsara or justify it?


That's irrelevant to this discussion.

The ethics of a monk are totally different from the ethics of running a nation.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Monsoon » Mon Aug 05, 2013 4:58 am

So what? :shrug:

Morality/ethics can never be forced on people.

Meaningful change only occurs under one of two distinct conditions:

1. If enough people willingly adopt it to create a ripple out effect.

2. Survival imperative.

Legal systems and national/international policies may seem to constrain behaviour but they do little to address the underlying issues, and thus our societies exist in a state of tension. Breakdowns frequently occur.

Also, when referring to anything as a 'national level' it would be well to bear in mind that a nation is not a single entity and cannot be treated as such.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 7:35 am

Monsoon wrote:Morality/ethics can never be forced on people.


Actually it can be.

I was discussing a related subject with an elderly Singaporean gentleman today. He said Singapore used to be a lot like China where people would spit and litter, but they introduced heavy fines and the behaviour stopped. Now people seem to appreciate a clean city. Even the foreigners keep in line for the most part.

Likewise, I think certain morals can be forcibly instilled in people over the course of time, but whether that is right or not is another issue. It is possible though.

1. If enough people willingly adopt it to create a ripple out effect.


And you can force people to adopt it through strict rules and punitive measures for those who do comply. You might not call it meaningful change, but it will have the desired effect if the system operates as it should.

Also, when referring to anything as a 'national level' it would be well to bear in mind that a nation is not a single entity and cannot be treated as such.


No, a nation can be defined. It is a subjective designation, but one that has legal and linguistic functions.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby lobster » Mon Aug 05, 2013 8:45 am

Depends which Buddhist ethics you are aware of. Many systems engage or change the idea of Buddhist or religious ethics to suit an agenda. You are no doubt aware of this in for example in Sri Lanka or in monastic 'politics'. Many of us are fortunate in being able to practice Buddhism. However it might be difficult to openly practice in highly Islamic states or to practice any ethical Islam in parts of Buddhist Burma.
In the future it might be that being a Sangha member is seen as a form of mental illness. So is ethics just a justifying construct?

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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Monsoon » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:26 am

Apologies Indrajala but I think you are incorrect. Morals that are forced upon people are rarely strongly held, and often easily bypassed with the right inducement.

I understand your point concerning the coercion of people into patterns of behaviour though.

No, a nation can be defined. It is a subjective designation, but one that has legal and linguistic functions.


Only in the broadest sense, and I wasn't referring to definitions but rather the relationship between nation/state and its populace. The stance of the nation is often contrary to that of sizeable portions of the population. In other words, if you ask at the individual level if people think their government represents them well I doubt you would get much in the way of solidarity.

At a guess I would say that most people don't give much thought to how their respective governments/nations generally conduct themselves, as long as it doesn't overly interfere in their daily lives.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby shaunc » Mon Aug 05, 2013 10:20 am

Don't most of us do this to some extent. I try my best to keep the 5 precepts, but the fact of the matter is that occasionally I have to box on with the best of them. I try to rationalise my indiscretions by telling myself that it was necessary & unavoidable, the big question is of course in whose opinion.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 11:03 am

Monsoon wrote:Apologies Indrajala but I think you are incorrect. Morals that are forced upon people are rarely strongly held, and often easily bypassed with the right inducement.


Really? Look at the success of nationalism where people become ready to lay down their lives for the state, or throw away their religious morals to kill and steal for the country. Or for that matter, look at how successful new Marxist morals and ethics were in the Buddhist world not so long ago.

These new morals can be forced on a Buddhist country and suddenly the youth are ready to murder the monks they used to fold their hands to. It became for them a moral duty to rid the world of what they perceived of as oppression and exploitation.


In other words, if you ask at the individual level if people think their government represents them well I doubt you would get much in the way of solidarity.


I guess it depends on the country. In a lot of Asia people get upset if, as a foreigner, you criticize their government of which they personally identify with.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby kirtu » Mon Aug 05, 2013 12:47 pm

shaunc wrote:... but the fact of the matter is that occasionally I have to box on with the best of them.


What exactly do you mean by this? You are saying that "circumstances" force you to depart from the five precepts? What circumstances other than saving a being's life could possibly do this?

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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Aug 05, 2013 4:12 pm

Yes, doing what is right is hard or near impossible on a large scale..and the closer you get to having power or influence, the more being ethical cannot be part of the calculus if you want to continue, isn't that samsara?

Not sure where you're going with is, that it's best for Buddhists to support authoritarian governments or something?

You could just as easily draw the conclusion that it is not worth a Buddhists time to support political organization at all, or that they should do a small part to put some "non samsaric" ethics out there.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Zhen Li » Mon Aug 05, 2013 4:57 pm

It doesn't seem to be a huge demand to wish for a government to abide by the five precepts.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 5:19 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Yes, doing what is right is hard or near impossible on a large scale..and the closer you get to having power or influence, the more being ethical cannot be part of the calculus if you want to continue, isn't that samsara?


Retaining power often entails opportunism. You bend your own ethics to suit circumstances, or just ignore them altogether.


Not sure where you're going with is, that it's best for Buddhists to support authoritarian governments or something?


If such a state is pro-Buddhist, it might be in the interests of the sangha to support such an arrangement. This could of course backfire in numerous ways, but there are plenty of historical precedents for this.

You could just as easily draw the conclusion that it is not worth a Buddhists time to support political organization at all, or that they should do a small part to put some "non samsaric" ethics out there.


If you have some kind organization or institution that depends on society, then you need to interact with the state and greater society. This might mean being influenced and/or influencing political processes.

Unless you're self-sufficient and free of government control, you need to deal with the state. There's no place on earth today where you can realistically do this any longer.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 5:20 pm

Zhen Li wrote:It doesn't seem to be a huge demand to wish for a government to abide by the five precepts.


The five precepts are just the basic morals of Buddhism, but these can be translated into other terms like non-violence, honest and so forth, all of which are characteristics a successful state cannot abide by unless it is somehow under the protective umbrella of a charitable power that does all the evil for them.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby kirtu » Mon Aug 05, 2013 6:04 pm

Indrajala wrote:The five precepts are just the basic morals of Buddhism, but these can be translated into other terms like non-violence, honest and so forth, all of which are characteristics a successful state cannot abide by unless it is somehow under the protective umbrella of a charitable power that does all the evil for them.


Greenland has never been in a war. Iceland withdrew from the Iraqi War and does not need the US or UK for a protective umbrella (at least not since the end of the Cold War). It is true that with a single exception, Buddhist countries without militarizes disappeared. But after the 20th century we can try again to live in peace without the naked worship of force.

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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 05, 2013 6:28 pm

kirtu wrote:Greenland has never been in a war. Iceland withdrew from the Iraqi War and does not need the US or UK for a protective umbrella (at least not since the end of the Cold War). It is true that with a single exception, Buddhist countries without militarizes disappeared. But after the 20th century we can try again to live in peace without the naked worship of force.

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Greenland and Iceland are not pertinent examples for a few reasons. Their populations and economies combined, they are largely irrelevant in the world. They are both still under the protective umbrella of NATO, which is comprised of nations which do use a lot of naked force to get what they want.

Both are relatively very new nations and it wasn't so long ago were occupied during WWII.

You can suggest we try to live in peace, but that's easy when you're sitting in a first world country without predatory neighbours or in a region with increasingly scarce essential resources like water.

On a world with finite resources there will never be peace. There can only be periods of relative stability, which will then falter resulting in bloodshed, genocides, war, atrocities, famine and so forth.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Zhen Li » Mon Aug 05, 2013 7:14 pm

It's probably not realistic to expect countries to give up defensive measures, which can take forms such as armies.

This may mean having the threat of possible death to forces hostile to the country, but it is not beyond the stretch of the imagination to at least expect them to never wage offensive war or to not uphold the death penalty.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby MaitriYNOD » Mon Aug 05, 2013 7:39 pm

Contemporary national politics are concentrated chunks of samsara. Of course, as human beings we cannot extricate ourselves entirely, as any monastery will lie within the borders of some sovereign nation or another, but the fact that the gears of all states are greased with theft and violence is testament to faults of samsara. Renouncing conventional politics and involvement with state systems to the best of one's a ability is something that will benefit a practitioner.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Monsoon » Mon Aug 05, 2013 10:28 pm

Really? Look at the success of nationalism where people become ready to lay down their lives for the state, or throw away their religious morals to kill and steal for the country. Or for that matter, look at how successful new Marxist morals and ethics were in the Buddhist world not so long ago.

These new morals can be forced on a Buddhist country and suddenly the youth are ready to murder the monks they used to fold their hands to. It became for them a moral duty to rid the world of what they perceived of as oppression and exploitation.


I don't think you are talking about morals here. You are talking about behavioural conditioning though, which is a little different. THe breaking of a moral is not a moral in itself,

In a lot of Asia people get upset if, as a foreigner, you criticize their government of which they personally identify with.


Step away from external threats and ask the local people what they think of their government and you will generally not find the nationalism that you are stating above.

Overall I find your argument in this thread very troublesome. If I have a moral that says I should not kill, then I do not kill (or seek to avoid it). If my government tells me to kill and I obey then my moral wasn't really a moral at all but a behaviour imposed upon me by an outside agency.

Indrajala, it may be that I am in error in what I have said so far, and as I do not wish to offend by offering further argument I will withdraw from this thread. I will offer my deepest apologies for disagreeing with you though.
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Re: Buddhist ethics at a national level

Postby Astus » Tue Aug 06, 2013 12:02 am

About the need of armies and killing:

The last time Hungary was attacked was in the 16th century by the Ottoman Empire, and (unsurprisingly) most of the country got occupied until the end of the 17th century. Mostly before and after that the army was used to attack other countries. It seems to me that the whole concept of "you need weapons to defend yourself" is wrong and mistaken. Just as on a personal level there are certain individuals who are intent on killing, occasionally there are military leaders who want to conquer the world. But just as the majority of humans don't run around murdering others, countries rarely rise to take over everyone else's lands.

It might be that in the USA it is OK for the police to shoot people, but that is not normal in most European countries. Death sentence in the EU is also abolished.

I believe it is possible to have the law of non-violence and other basic Buddhist values govern a society. That's what the rule of a Cakravartin is about. And while there are wars on Earth even now, billions of people live in peace.
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