Dhamma For Governance & Civil Society


Now, I would like to share with you my experience with Buddhism activities in the last 50 years or so. When I was a kid, I wanted to become a scientist. Science enabled me to think logically. However, I was not happy with just logical thinking. I came to truly know how to be happy when I met Buddhism.

But traditional Buddhism was lacking in tackling social issues. At the time, South Korea’s society was witnessing rapid industrialization. Farm villages collapsed, the urban poor emerged, and laborers’ rights weren’t guaranteed. Discrimination against women was serious as well. The dictatorial regime cracked down on democracy movements. In the face of such conditions, traditional Buddhism did not do anything. As a result, I ended up learning about social movements from Christians.

Through such experience, I came to realize that the Buddha Dharma is the process of reaching Nirvana through logical thinking and carrying out social activities. That’s why I came to place importance on social activities.

I have focused on six key activities. First, I developed spiritual practice programs through Jungto. In the last 50 years, South Korea has successfully achieved fast economic growth. Nonetheless, South Koreans rank at the bottom in the world in terms of the level of happiness. This tells us that people cannot be happy solely with economic development. Buddha Dharma is essential to people’s happiness.


This is why I started the Dharma talk. People ask about anything, and I give answers based on Dharma. People are free to share their problems with just about everything, including family, work, school, etc. I think there is no right answer to life. I only seek to guide people to think in a way different from what they are used to. I believe mediation is also necessary. I am also carrying out a program called ’10,000 days of solidarity’ to promote engaging in spiritual practice in everyday life.

Second, eradicating poverty is not a matter that concerns one person or one country but which concerns the entire humankind. Join Together Society (JTS) has worked to eradicate famine, disease, and illiteracy under the motto ‘The hunger should be fed, the sick should be treated, and children should be educated in time.’ JTS is providing help in education and health for the Dalit (the untouchables) in India while building schools for Muslims, indigenous people and the disabled in Mindanao, Philippines. JTS is also carrying out a program aimed at helping indigenous people preserve their traditional culture. JTS is also conducting support programs in Cambodia, Laos and North Korea.

Many around the world are suffering from tsunamis, floods, earthquakes and etc. JTS organized relief activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Phillippines when they were devastated by natural disasters. The day before yesterday, I went to Nepal and inaugurated several schools which were hit by an earthquake a couple of years ago.


Third, through ‘Good Friends,’ I am working to help refugees and improve their human rights. In particular, I have supported North Korean escapees. As you can see by this photograph, many people died while trying to cross the river on the North Korea-China border in the late 1990s to escape the famine in the North.

To help such North Koreans, Good Friends carried out a campaign to collect a signature from one million people and marched down streets. Good Friends is also supporting programs on helping North Korean escapees settle down in South Korea. We are implementing these programs together with other religious groups.

Fourth, military tension is continuously rising between South and North Korea on the Korean Peninsula. Established in 2004, the Peace Foundation is taking part in efforts to ease such tensions.

Fifth, consumerism, or the belief that spending more by producing more is the way to live a good life, has become a common phenomenon in South Korea’s society.Due to that phenomenon, the Earth is slowly dying. Climate change has already brought about natural disasters. To address such problem, I set up ‘Eco Buddha’and am promoting the “zero waste movement,” that centers on eating less and spending less, as part of activities to protect the environment.

Lastly, South Korea’s society is suffering from many problems. To resolve them, I am pursuing various social movements. For starters, the nation’s high youth unemployment rate is a serious problem. To comfort and encourage youths, Jungto Society holds concerts for young adults. As can you can see in the photo below, about 10,000 people participated at a youth concert in Seoul Plaza.

Many young Koreans are increasingly abandoning their religious beliefs. But in Jungto Society, there are relatively many youths who take part in both social movements and personal (spiritual) practices.


Currently, the gap between the rich and poor in South Korea’s society is so serious; it needs to be addressed. And government power is too focused on the president and the capital of Seoul so that power needs to be decentralized and scattered throughout the cabinet and local governments.

I believe that now is the time to socialize the Buddha Dharma. Social movements aimed at eradicating poverty, abolishing discrimination and promoting democracy must continue. Moreover, we need to be prepared to address problems that could newly emerge in the future. Buddha’s Dharma will be necessary for a person to become happy in the face of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and the fourth industrial revolution, including block chain.

At first, my main interest was how to teach young adults about Buddhism in a way that they could easily understand. But later, I became more interested in how we can experience the Buddha’s teachings, the Sutra, in our daily lives. Now, my interest lies in how people can become happy, beyond Buddhist formalities.

When looking at the history of Buddhism, Buddhism has developed from Theravada to Mahayana, Tantra and then to Zen Buddhism. Now, the era of “Engaged Buddhism” has arrived. Such Buddhism first began thanks to Dr. Ambedkar.

Engaged Buddhism has two characteristics; fundamental Buddhism and new Buddhism.

Engaged Buddhism’s fundamental spiritis to go back to Buddha’s teachings. This doesn’t signify returning to 2,600 years ago. Sukamoni Buddha presented answers to problems that plagued the Indian society at that time. New Buddhism must find answers to current issues. In other words, the content of Engaged Buddhism is based on fundamental Buddhism while its formality is based on new Buddhism.

The heart of Buddha Dharma is “Anuttara-same yak-same bodhi.” The term is translated as “unexcelled wisdom of Enlightenment.”

In other words, truth should have an objective fact while being universal. Otherwise, it cannot be called the truth.

An ideology that is racist, no matter how good it may be, cannot be the truth for colored people. An ideology that discriminates based on social ranks could not be the truth for the lower class.

In the same way, an ideology that discriminates against women could not be the truth for women. The thought that a person is poor because he or she was lazy in their previous life is discrimination against the poor. So it cannot be the truth for the poor.

These things show us how traditional Buddhism runs counter to the truth. We must profoundly reflect on how much the Buddha Dharma has deteriorated.


Therefore, traditional Buddhism should recognize as a serious matter the critical mind about equality which Dr. Ambedkar has raised. I believe that now is the time for traditional Buddhism to shift its focus toward securing universality.

Dhamma, Democracy, and Governance – Talk by Dh. Subhuti

A paper delivered at a conference on ‘Social Engagement and Liberation’
at Nagaloka, Nagpur, on 14th October 2016

Dhamma, Democracy, and governance is a subject on which Dr Ambedkar has unique things to say, perhaps unprecedented in Buddhist history. From the time of the Buddha himself onward, the Buddhist tradition has addressed the question of what is good government, but the form of government discussed has always been monarchical or oligarchic. For instance, in the Chakkavatti-sihanada Sutta, the Buddha describes the perfect king: the rājā cakka vattin, the ‘Wheel-Turning King’, referring mainly to his moral character. There is a short section in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in which the Buddha gives advice on how to preserve the integrity of their state against a growing imperial power to the elders of the Vajjiyan Confederacy, which was a male-dominated tribal society, arguably with a quasi-democratic dimension. However, most of what the Buddha has to say on the subject of governance concerns the conduct of kings and he has nothing to say about how government is chosen. And so far as I am aware, that is the case throughout Buddhist history. Famously, for instance, there are Nagarjuna’s  Suhrlekha and Ratnāvalī, in which he gives moral advice to his friend, King Gautamiputra, counselling him to practice the Dhamma and to rule on the basis of Dhammic principles.

During the twentieth century, democracy became a worldwide phenomenon and the process continues still, albeit by fits and starts. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s criteria, in 2015, 8.9% of the world’s population lived in ‘full democracies’, 39.5% in what it calls ‘flawed democracies’, 17.5% lived under ‘hybrid regimes’ – the remaining 34.1% laboured under authoritarian regimes. We could therefore say that the majority of humanity lives in nations that have some claims to democracy – and even those that do not usually pay some lip service to the idea of democracy. Buddhism must therefore address itself to governance in the democratic context if it is to say anything at all about larger geo-political questions.

And Dr Ambedkar, Babasaheb, is probably the first major Buddhist figure to discuss the relevance of Dhamma to democracy, and he is certainly the first statesman of world stature to do so, indeed arguably the only one. It is therefore very important indeed that we look at what he had to say – after all he had considered the issue not merely theoretically, but had embodied his understanding in the constitution of the world’s largest democracy.

[1]       Digha Nikaya 29

[2]       Digha Nikaya 16

[3]       Democracy Index 2015: Democracy in an age of anxiety: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Babasaheb had a great deal of respect for democracy, which he saw not merely as a means of selecting a government but as an ideal, expressed especially in the way in which citizens relate to one another:

An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there should be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.


His equation of Democracy with Fraternity is deeply revealing. Elsewhere, he equates Fraternity with morality and, even more tellingly, with maitrī:

The word fraternity is not an adequate expression. The proper term is what the Buddha called, Maitree.

However, more especially after the failure of the Hindu Code Bill that he had championed, he seems to have acknowledged the limitations of Democracy as a form of government, especially when it was not accompanied by a truly democratic society. He expressed his vehement disappointment with the Constitution he himself had done so much to write:

Sir, my friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. The reason is this: We built a temple for a God to come in and reside, but before the God could be installed, the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We did not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That is the reason why I said I would rather burn it.

Here we might recall the Winston Churchill’s famous witticism about Democracy, in this sense:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

This is very apt. We must be well aware that the practice of democracy has many faults – and we can especially observe those faults if we consider the rising tide of nationalist populism that is capturing the electorate worldwide. And we can see them writ large if we recall that Hitler was voted into power, or at least Germany’s democratic constitution allowed him first to enter power. Mussolini too gained power on the basis of democracy. Of course, they soon moved away from democracy once they had power, which is a lesson for us in these times, not excluding in India: after all both Mussolini and Hitler have some good reputation in India, Europeans and Americans are not a little disturbed to find.

So, right at the start, we have to admit that Democracy as a form of government is vulnerable. It is very vulnerable to being taken over by sectional interests that grab hold of the machinery of power and use it for their own benefit. And the worst thing about Democracy is that it invites the unscrupulous manipulation of people’s gullibility. Populist politicians recognise what people want, what are their hopes and fears. Then they shamelessly solicit their votes by playing on those hopes and fears, telling them precisely what they want to hear. Once in power they continue to work on that same basis, disguising bad government by finding enemies to blame and buying present power at the future’s expense. This is the tactic of the kind of populist, authoritarian, socially conservative, narrowly nationalist political forces that are becoming so dominant in the world today. This is, to be blunt, simply neo-fascism and it often goes with crony capitalism, in which capitalist forces are simply integrated into government, which both serves their interests and tries to harness them to its own ends. We do not have to search hard today to find examples of such populist authoritarianism, both of the left as well as of the right.

And this is not in the electorate’s best interests, though voters often do not recognise it. It has been said that people voting for such political forces is like turkeys voting for Christmas! That is a Christian analogy, so in India we would have to say something like, ‘It is like goats voting for Bakr Id’!

In sum, Democracy is deeply vulnerable and this Babasaheb saw very clearly. He therefore enunciated a theory of democracy and its relation to the best governance, what he calls the ‘Kingdom of Righteousness’ (Dhammarājya), that is based in an essentially Buddhist viewpoint. This, I suggest, should be much more widely known and understood, since it would be to the great benefit of the whole world. I’m going to give you in what follows an interpretive and simplified account of it, one that doesn’t follow exactly the ways in which Babasaheb lays it out, but that I hope captures its essential spirit. If you want to go to the sources in his own writing I can not do better than to direct you to his great work, Annihilation of Caste, and to an important chapter in The Buddha and His Dhamma: Book III, Part V, Section I, §2: To Make the World a Kingdom of Righteousness and other sections.

Before we look at the dynamics of good government, that is Dhammarājya, we’re going to look at the fundamental Dhammic perspective on the dynamics of the mind itself, because only this makes it possible to understand Dr Ambedkar’s ideas.

The dynamics of mind


(iii) Action, skilful or unskilful

(ii) Mental state, defiled or pure

(i) View, ignorant or wise

Starting from the deepest layer of the mind, represented in Fig. 1 above by (i), we’ve got View (Skt. Dṛṣṭi, Pali diṭṭhi), which means not just our theories about life, but our most fundamental, even instinctual attitudes to life, to the world, our basic, foundational orientation on who we are and what the world is, often quite below the level of our own recognition. That underlying view can, of course, be either cognitively obscured or clear, ignorant or wise. In those in whom Wisdom or Insight, vipaśyanā (Pali vipassanā) or prajñā, has not yet arisen, it is always ‘self-view’ that forms the underlying structure of our minds: that is satkāya dṛṣṭi or sakkāya diṭṭhi (there are equivalents in the Mahayana, for instance, in Yogachara there are the ‘defilements of self’, the ātma kleśaḥ). We are, from this level, driven by attachment to our own self-identity or ātman, conceived as essentially unchanging and independent of experience.

On the basis of that view, that fundamental attitude, manifest mental states: emotions, interpretations, desires, even modes of awareness, represented at (ii). Those mental states, arising dependently on the underlying view, are either pure or defiled. They’re skilful or unskilful. And those mental states guide our actions, represented by (iii). If the underlying mental state is skilful we act skilfully for the benefit of self and others: if it is unskilful then we cause harm to ourselves and those to whom our actions are directed.

This is the dynamics of the mind, from the universal Buddhist perspective, as for instance witnessed in the Twelvefold Nidāna Chain (let us say, āvidyā saṁskāraḥ upādāna). Our foundational view conditions our mental states, which condition our actions. This is the basis of Buddhist soteriological theory: we escape from the Wheel of Life, the endless cycles of pain and suffering, by changing the underlying view from ignorance to Wisdom – which, properly speaking, is no longer a view at all but a direct, undistorted understanding of the way things truly are.

However, we do so by working downwards from the actions themselves, which we convert into skilful by the practice of ethics or śīla. Once we have some ethical stability, we can work more deeply on the mental states out of which action emerges, changing unwholesome states into positive and skilful ones. That we do through the practice of meditation or samādhi. Once we have developed sufficient clarity and plasticity of mind, known as śamatha, we can work on that underlying view, transforming ignorance into wisdom, avidyā into prajñā. This is the Threefold Path that the Buddha emphasised over and over again during his last days.

The dynamics of mind and government


(vi) Government

(v) Democratic Constitution

(iv) Voters Choices

(iii) Voters mental states

(ii) Voters views, attitudes, and ideas

(i) Self-view or  satkāya dṛṣṭi

Let’s look now at how the dynamics of mind works in terms of government. Even though this is probably by now fairly obvious, it is nonetheless worth spelling out in detail.

The crucial issue here is at  (ii) in Fig 2 above: voters’ views, attitudes, and ideas. Take questions around the place of women in society, for instance. Whether women are treated as equals to men in society depends on the views, attitudes, and ideas of the most influential or powerful groups. Of course, underneath those views, attitudes, and ideas, which are acquired during this lifetime, learned from the surrounding culture and compounded by personal interpretation of experience, is the most basic of all views: satkāya dṛṣṭi, or its equivalents, represented above by (i). Because we are instinctively attached to our own self, conceived as a fixed and unchanging metaphysical reality, we exalt or abase ourselves in relation to others. This is how all kinds of false social hierarchy come about.

So voters’ views, attitudes, and ideas determine their mental states, which could here be best expressed as how they see and feel about current problems in politics and society, represented by (iii). On the basis of (i), self-view, they acquire a whole mass of (ii), attitudes and opinions, which then drive (iii), their feelings about what is going on the world around them.  When they get to the ballot box, what determines where they will put their cross is those attitudes and opinions and the feelings that are driven by them. So, (iv) they put their cross where they think their interests will be best served, and that itself depends on their feelings and attitudes. And then the democratic constitution (v) determines how all those feelings and attitudes, concretised in a vote, are aggregated to choose (vi) a particular government.

So there is a very clear relationship between fundamental attitudes and the choosing of a government. I mean here really fundamental attitudes, not usually formulated into coherent systems of thought, but opinions and assumptions that we don’t even really know we’ve got,  that boil over – and boil over is a good term for it – into certain mental states. As things happen around us, we have immediate responses and reactions and they then boil over into the choices we make. For example, we hear a certain politician speak about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, as was promulgated in the recent Presidential election in America – and we’ve got our own equivalents in Britain, of course, as elsewhere. When a politician says something like that, it accords with feelings that people already have and with the views that underlie those feelings. So they put their cross in that particular box. And the constitution takes those views and assimilates them to find a majority position that then forms the government. The government is then more or less guided by the policies that led people to vote for it.

Of course, the government then proceeds to manipulate people’s underlying views and attitudes. So it’s a circle, a Nidāna chain. We could even work this out in terms of a Wheel of Government, a Rājya Chakra. Once a populist government has gained power, it starts to manipulate views and attitudes in its own chosen direction, for instance, modifying history text books for schools and changing the curricula in the education system. History books are re-written to make sure that people have the attitudes and ideas that the government supports itself upon and that will lead voters to vote for them again. So there’s a continuous cycle of these processes, which continues through the rounds of elections according to the constitution.

This is what Babasaheb meant when he said he would burn the constitution he had done so much to create. However good the democratic constitution is, the views, attitudes and ideas of people determine their mental states, determine their choices and therefore determine the government. This is how the constitution comes to be occupied either by a metaphorical god or devil – and this tells us who that metaphorical god or devil really is.

[1]    Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1, p. 57. My emphasis.

[2]    Writings and Speeches, Vol.11, p.325.

[3]    Writings and Speeches, Vol. 4, p. 283-4.

[4]    As Law Minister he introduced this bill, which, among other things, was intended to give women equal property rights. The Government of the time, under Pandit Nehru, refused to support it for political reasons and it failed. Its provisions have now been implemented.

[5]    Speech in the Rajya Sabha, 2nd September 1953.

[6]    Speech in the U.K. House of Commons, 11th November 1947.

[7]    The Buddha and His Dhamma, Book III, Part V, Section I, Para. 2.

[8]    Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, DN16.

Dhammarājya and Mind


(v) Dhammarājya

(iv) Democratic Constitution

(iii) Voters choices

(ii) Moral Revolution in the views and mental states of majority of voters

(i) Dhamma = True nature of Reality

Let’s see how this works out in terms of Dhammarājya – the rule of the Dhamma. The basis for Dhammarājya, as represented in Fig. 3 above,  is obviously (i)  Dhamma: the way things really are, the fundamental truth about the nature of reality. On the basis of the Dhamma, as people begin to go for refuge to the Dhamma, (ii) a moral revolution takes place that changes the way they view their experience and therefore changes their mental states. This then leads them to make (iii) choices that are based on that Dhammic moral position, based on that Dhammic wisdom, to the extent that they have it – or at least on Right View, which is the Dhamma as formulated for those who do not yet have Wisdom. These Dhammically based choices then, through (iv) the democratic constitution, leads to the election of (v) a government that is based on the moral principles of the Dhamma – in Babasaheb’s terms, the Kingdom of Righteousness, Dhammarājya, Government based on Dhamma.

This is the fundamental Nidāna Chain here – if you like, the spiral of Nidānas, leading not round and round in a reactive cycle, but upwards in creative augmentation. If we can change people’s understanding of life we can change their attitudes and that will lead to voters making choices that, by means of the democratic constitution, lead to a fair and just society, governed by people with genuine moral principles.

Sangha as the agent of moral revolution


Sangha = Community of all who Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels


  1. Moral and Dhammic training for society
  2. A safe space for those who want to live morally
  3. An example for whole society of striving to live on the basis

of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

The question is: how do we bring about that moral and cultural revolution? It is certainly not going to happen spontaneously by itself. If this moral revolution is to take place, if there is to be a transformation in attitudes, in fundamental ideas about life, and in moral perspective, their needs to be an agent of that moral revolution.

We should be very clear that it is not the job of government to be that agent of moral and cultural change. Indeed, may we be saved from governments trying to change our fundamental ideas too much! If governments that do not represent Dhammarājya attempt to bring cultural change their efforts are bound to be tainted with their own prejudices, as for instance when they revise the history textbooks to express their own ideology. Their efforts simply amount to propaganda for their own particular views.

So who is to do that? Well, brothers and sisters: that is our job! It is our job when we come together in Sangha, for it is Sangha that is the agent of that moral revolution. What do we mean by Sangha? Here I do not simply mean the monks and nuns, as Sangha is often thought to refer to. In the Order to which I belong, we define Sangha in its broadest sense as the community of all who Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels, whether monastic or not. Sangha consists of every man and woman who commits themselves to practising the Dhamma in harmony with others in order to move towards Enlightenment. In the understanding of our Triratna Buddhist Order, this fundamental commitment, this Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, is much more important than how we choose to live out that commitment, whether as monastics or as lay people.

We talk of our own Triratna Order as neither lay nor monastic because we think that these categories are no longer easily applicable under the circumstances of a modern economy and society. We do not accept the hierarchical conception of Sangha common in the Buddhist world: monks at the top, then nuns, then lay people. For instance, I am wearing a white kesa, indicating that I’m not a celibate monk, while my friend Parami wears the gold kesa of an anagarikā, showing she’s taken a vow of celibacy.  Whether Parami is more committed to the Three Jewels than me, and therefore further along the Path, is a matter of her personal qualities and efforts rather than her ecclesiastical status.

We think it’s important that people are known by their moral qualities, their life and work, rather than by their lifestyle choice. So we don’t accord special status to those who take that anagarika vow. I should stress however that we do think that a life dedicated to celibacy and renunciation is extremely valuable, indeed, all serious Buddhists should be trying to live such a life, but that can be expressed in many ways and in different contexts. We therefore consider it more true simply to consider that we are neither lay nor monastic, all simply going for refuge to the Three Jewels and expressing that as best we can in whatever situation suits us best.

Sangha is not just a matter of membership of an organisation or society. What Sangha really means is deep friendship between people within a particular Dhamma community on the basis of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. If we are participants in Sangha we share with our brothers and sisters commitment to those highest of ideals in a very living, practical, communicative way and we try to work together to manifest those ideals in our own lives and for the benefit of others. That is Sangha.

When Sangha is truly Sangha, it is a moral agent bringing to society that fundamental revolution in attitudes and ideas and in moral behaviour that is necessary for Dhammarājya to come about in the context of democracy. That is the task of Sangha. Sangha is there to spread these new moral attitudes. We don’t want government to try, it’s not its job. What we want is for a large number of people within society to commit themselves to the Three Jewels, form Sangha together, come into deep connection and contact with each other and work for the benefit of others.

We could say that this is the duty of Sangha, but we must be cautious about saying that. Sangha truly has no duty. It requires no justification or purpose, it exists in its own right, for its own sake – it is an end in itself: the existence of Sangha is its own meaning. The Sangha as a real, deep connection between people based on the principles of the Three Jewels is a value in itself. But when Sangha does truly exist it will, of its very nature, play an active role in the betterment of the world.

  1. It does so first by providing moral and dhammic training for others within society. That is what we try to do here at Nagaloka. Nagaloka is a manifestation of our Order, it’s a manifestation of the vision of our founder and teacher Urgyen Sangharakshita. And Order members work together through Nagaloka, as well as working in other ways in other contexts, in order to train people to go for refuge to the Three Jewels more and more deeply, more and more effectively.

This then is a very important and very basic function of the Sangha: to spread the ideals of the Dhamma throughout society. If Sangha members do so successfully on a wide enough scale the attitudes of voters will change and Dhammarājya, or at least a better government, will come about.

  1. Then, if Sangha truly is Sangha, it provides a safe space for those who want to live morally. Buddhist in India as well as in other cultures face a big question: how can you live morally and non-violently in a society dominated by violence and injustice? The Sangha provides a space within which you can live out your ideals, even though you can’t always do so within the wider society. This is a very, very important function. If you don’t have that safe space where you know that you can rely broadly on people’s integrity and their ability to relate to you as one who commits themselves to the Three Jewels, what are you to do? It’s a lonely, difficult task. Only the Buddha managed that truly. The rest of us are likely to be corrupted by the society that surrounds us, as many a youthful idealist has acknowledged in their old age, as revolutionary fervour has become compromise with convention. Of course we know the Sangha is not perfect, it’s made up of people who are striving for perfection, who are striving to live out the ideals, not perfect Buddhas. This is always something to remember: the Sangha is on the way to perfection rather than being perfect.
  2. And that tells us the third way in which Sangha acts as the agent of moral revolution in society. The Sangha provides an example for the whole of society of striving to live together on the basis of liberty, equality and fraternity, which is, of course, Babasaheb’s definition of an ideal society. In the Sangha we try to live together without violence towards each other, leaving each other free to come to our own choices and decisions, in equality, without imposing artificial, hierarchical barriers between us, and in fraternity – that is in maitrī.

So the Sangha has the effect of giving people the courage to live like that. If you have never seen Sangha you think it can’t be done. It’s a nice idea, a wonderful dream, but you can’t live it out. Without that inspiration of example, idealism turns easily into disillusionment, cynicism, and compromise with the existing system with all its injustice and violence. We need to see what society could be like, or something closer to what society could ideally be like, if we are to have the courage to transform ourselves and the world. If Sangha is mature enough and widely enough spread, it has an uplifting effect upon the whole society.

This I believe is our common task: to create that Sangha that can provide moral and spiritual training, the Dhammic training for everybody in society who wants it; that can offer a safe space for those who want to live a just and free life; and that can be an uplifting example to all.

Our aspiration should be to build such Sangha so that it can be the truly effective agent of moral revolution in the world. I don’t know what percentage of the population would be required for a turning point to be reached, but we must strive to spread the Dhamma and the Sangha widely enough so that attitudes gradually change and voters make different choices – and Dhammarājya comes into being.

Although the gaining of political power is important, far more important is this transformation of fundamental attitudes within the electorate, as Babasaheb himself saw very clearly:

The political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by the religious and social revolution of Buddha. The political revolution led by Shivaji was preceded by the religious and social reform brought about by the saints of Maharashtra. The political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak. It is unnecessary to add more illustrations. These will suffice to show that the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people.

The task of bringing about that religious and social reform belongs to the Sangha – it belongs to us!

[1]    A strip of cloth or stole worn ceremonially around the neck by members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, emblazoned with three flaming jewels, symbolic of their ordination. The tradition derives from Japanese Buddhism and the word kesa is Japanese, from the Sanskrit kāṣāya, robe.

[2]    Annihilation of Caste, Section 2. 22: Why social reform is necessary for political reform.

Dhamma-based Leadership for Good Governance-Talk By Dato’ Ir. Ang Choo Hong

By Dato’ Ir. Ang Choo Hong,

President, Buddhist Research Society Malaysia

Chairman, Young Buddhist Foundation of Malaysia


Essential and of paramount importance to the governance of any human organization, be it government, large corporation, small enterprise or non-profit organization, is leadership. The success or failure of any human organization can easily be traced to the leadership in that organization. What kind of leadership, then, should be adopted to ensure good governance? This paper proposed that a good and effective leadership should be a Dhamma-based leadership, which, in essence, entails applying the principles of the Dhamma in every aspect of human organization. This had been shown by the Buddha 2500 years ago when He formed and led the Sangha. Some of these Dhammic principles will be explored in this paper.


Good governance entails two major aspects, one is leadership and the other is management. The great management guru Peter Drucker defined leadership as doing the right things and management as doing things right. Good governance therefore simply means doing the right things the right way.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, in one of his speeches in the 1960s, mentioned that many newly emerging nations in South and South East Asia failed to perform well after gaining independence due primarily to poor leadership and management incompetency. This is a clear illustration of the importance of good leadership and management competency in good governance.

Since leadership is doing the right things, it supersedes management in the sense that it sets the vision and direction. Leadership is therefore of paramount importance in the governance of any human organization, be it government, large corporation, small enterprise or non-profit organization. The success or failure of any human organization can easily be traced to the leadership in that organization.

What kind of leadership, then, should be adopted to ensure good governance? We shall examine this issue from the perspective of Buddhism.

Why Dhamma-based Leadership?

To begin with, the Buddha is a leader par excellence. He founded the Sangha, the longest surviving human organization. He influenced the lives of billions of people, including not only people of his time but also people who came after His Mahaparinibbana, and not only in India, but also throughout the world. But more importantly, His influence brought about positive changes in the lives of these people, bringing them happiness, well-being and benefits (sukhaya,hithaya, athya).

The last point is of great importance because not all leaders are good. Some are bad. Leaders have the ability to influence people into doing what they would normally not do, in a coherent manner. Therefore, leadership is essentially the ability to influence. But the influencing, and or the subsequent impact, could be for good or for bad, hence there are good or bad leaders. Hitler, Ganges Khan , Alexander were great leaders of their time, but their leadership brought untold suffering to mankind. They therefore cannot be considered as good leaders. We also see in history how some religious leaders advocated hostility towards followers of other religions, thereby impacted negatively on the lives of other religionists, not only during their time, but also thereafter.

On the other hand, we see the Buddha as a great and good leader, because his leadership brought welfare and happiness to the people of his time, as well as to the billions of people that came later.

Therefore it is important that people who assumed position of leadership must be fully aware of the impact that leadership can impose on the followers, as well as the non-followers.

What we need is the kind of leadership that can lead to positives changes and results. I called this Dhamma-based leadership, or Right leadership or simply Dhammic Leadership.

There are natural laws- Dhamma, operating in this universe. Dhamma-based leaders, Right leaders or Dhammic leaders are people who provide leadership in accordance with the Dhamma, that is, leadership that would bring about positive changes or results within and without the organization.

For a government, Dhammic leadership means a leadership that does not focus merely on GDP, per capital income, but also stresses on GNH, justice, liberty, peace and harmony etc.

For a business enterprise, Dhammic leadership means a leadership that does not focus merely on profit and productivity, but also on social conscience, employee well-being, care for the environment and the like. For an NGO, Dhammic leadership means a leadership that does not stress merely the achievement of set objectives, but also on social harmony, happiness and mental development of all involved.

Morphology of Dhamma-based Leadership

In the course of my study and practice of Dhamma-based leadership, both in Buddhist organizations as well as government department and government-linked companies, I have developed a simple model of what I called the morphology of Dhamma-based leadership.

It comprises essentially four major components, namely, powers, will, (or in Chinese the Qi ), skills and Dhamma principles. The first three components are commonly found in all literatures on leadership and management. They may be called elements of conventional leadership. The fourth component, the Dhamma principles, is a component that infuses itself into the first three. This is the component that turns conventional leadership into Dhamma-based leadership. See Fig. 1

Fig. 1 : Dhamma-based leadership.


Powers of leadership

Leaders must have some qualities or energies that enable them to influence others. We called that powers. Psychologists John French and Bertram Raven first identified in 1959 five basis of power, namely, 1. Legitimate. 2. Reward. 3 Expert, 4 Referent, 5 Coercive. ( and 6 year later added information and connection.)

Legitimate or position power is derived from the position held by the leader. The Buddha was an outstanding leader because he was the Buddha. Monks are, by virtue of their position as monks, more influential than lay people. Buddhist leaders who hold positions in Buddhist organizations are, by virtue of their positions, more influential than ordinary members.

Dhamma-based leaders must be ready to assume position. The position will give them the legitimacy to lead. I often come across people who said they are willing to serve but are not ready to assume any position. They explained that they do not wish to be attached to position but I observed that it is more of a reluctance to assume responsibility. My answer to them is not to over-rate their own abilities: do you think you are so great that you can lead without legitimacy or position?

Reward and coercive powers are often packaged with legitimate power. Dhamma-based leaders cannot reject reward and coercive powers. Rather, they should learn to make good use of these two powers. The Buddha rewarded His disciples with praises and at times recognition such as designating Ven. Sariputta as foremost in the exposition of the Dhamma, Ven. Moggalana as foremost in miraculous power, and so on. The Buddha also admonished errant monks and enacted various degree of punishment for errant monks, including eventual expulsion.

Expert power or knowledge power is the power derived from the expertise of the person concerned. Many meditation masters are well accepted and followed by their disciples simply because they are experts in meditation. The Buddha is an expert on Enlightenment and it is no wonder that He is a leader par excellence. Dhamma-based leaders must develop their expertise so that their leadership would be respected. Leaders in Buddhist organizations must, to some degree, be expert in Buddhism and the Dhamma. It is strange to note that many Buddhist leaders claimed, unashamedly, or perhaps humbly, that they do not know much about the Dhamma, and would refer enquiries on the Dhamma to someone else. It is also sad to note that many Buddhist leaders are unaware of the situation Buddhism is in, despite their holding to position in Buddhist organizations for many years.

Referent power, also known as personal power or charismatic power, refers to the personality of the person that attracts followers. People follow these leaders because they are attracted by the magnetic personality of the leaders. People may even tried to copy their behavior or dresses. Charisma is something that scholars acknowledge as truly exists, but fail to understand how it comes about and how it works. For Buddhists this is not hard to understand. Buddhists understand that charisma is the collective energies or merits that a person is born with, something which he or she carries along from his or her past karma. Of course, charisma can also be developed during this life time since one can continuously accumulate kusala kamma during this life time.

A Dhamma-based leader, like any conventional secular leaders, must possess or develop all or some of these five powers, so that he can exert influence on others. But these powers are not principle-centred. They do not pay much emphasis on Dhamma principles such as integrity, courage, justice, patience, modesty, industry and the Golden Rule. With these five powers but without the Dhamma- principles, leadership can lead to disastrous results and bring untold suffering to humankind and other sentient beings.

The Will to lead

Before discussing the Dhamma principles, we shall first take a look at another conventional component, the will to lead.

Will to lead means a strong, committed and unwavering mind to lead. It encompasses stoic determination and courage to do what it takes to achieve what one sets out to do. More than 2500 years ago, ascetic Gautama make a resolution that he would not get up from his seat under the Bodhi tree unless and until he attained Enligtenment. Dr. Ambedkar, with his strong determination and courage, led millions to the path of liberation. It was not an easy task nonetheless he did it. Nelson Mandala suffered 22 years of imprisonment but that did not break his unwavering determination to fight for a better South Africa.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, in one of his national day speeches, mentioned that the success of Singapore is dependant on one single factor: the will to succeed. He gave an example that during the early days of Singapore’s independence; his government came out with anti-cow and anti-goat laws to rid the streets of these animals. It was met with tremendous objection from minority ethnic group and was about to develop into racial riots, but as he put it, “it was a challenging time, wavered and we lost control of this new nation. We must have the will to see it (the law) through.”

Master Xuanzang travelled all the way from Xi’an to India, enduring hardship and courting dangers along the way, is yet another illustration of what unwavering determination and courage can do. Courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to move on despite fear. Knowing well there were dangers ahead yet Xuanzang headed on to the path. That was truly courageous.

In my years of study and practice on leadership, I have come to conclude that the will to lead is so important that it even supersedes the power to lead. Some people whom I have come across, have no power to lead (in simple layman term they are empty vessel), yet they succeeded in becoming leader simply because they have that strong will wanting to lead. This explains how some nations are ruined by leaders who seized control of the country by force but are incompetent in running the country.

Conversely, there are people who are endowed with the powers to lead, but due to their lack of will, allowed the organization to fall into disarray. Many a dynasty ended simply because the last emperor had no will to lead, preferring to indulge in sensual enjoyment.

It should be noted that “Will” itself is amoral. A strong will to lead can propel one to position of leadership but that does not mean that one would be a good leader. In Dhamma-based leadership, the will must be infused with Dhamma principles to ensure that that leadership is for the good of its followers and non-followers. These will be discussed later under Dhamma principles.


The third component in the morphology of leadership is skill. Management gurus have identified at least the following leadership skills: Motivational skill, communication skill, problem-solving skill and decision-making skill.

Motivation is not about telling something to the followers to “encourage, or inspire” them to do something. It is about the leader doing something to himself, and creating the conditions for others to emulate him or follow him. Dr. Ambedkar motivated millions of Dalits to seek liberation when he himself converted back to Buddhism (he argued that Dalits were formerly Buddhists and this conversion is but a comeback) and then created the conditions for millions of others to follow him by the approach of “educate, agitate and organize”.

The Buddha passed into Maha parinibbana more than 2500 years ago. He is not physically around to encourage anyone of us to embrace his teaching, yet what He did himself –attainment of Enlightenment, and subsequent establishment and institutionalization of the Sangha, continue to motivate billions of people to embrace Buddhism. This is truly motivation.

I would not elaborate further on the other skills, as there are plenty of literatures on these subjects which one could easily refer to. What I would like to do here is to point out that some of these leadership skills or techniques are useful and valid and at times expressed in inspiring maxims such as “Think Win-Win”, “ Your attitude determines your altitude.”, “Smile win more friends than frowning”, “Seek first to understand, than to be understood.”, “ Good is not good enough, go for great”.

Yet, other parts of these skills, as presented by some management gurus, were at times manipulative, even deceptive, encouraging people to use these skills to get people to like them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of potential clients so as to attract their attention, or to engage specialists to boost up their public image.

Hence we note that skills can be used for good or for bad. Some great leaders use these skills to manipulate and deceive their followers. Hitler was very skillful in public speaking. He was a great motivator too. In Dhamma-based leadership, we need to infuse these skills with Dhamma principles, so that the leadership would be for good, and not for harmful or evil objectives.

Dhamma Principles

Power, will and skill are by nature amoral. They can propel one to become a great leader, but that leadership, if tainted with unwholesome intention, could spell disastrous consequences to its followers as well as non-followers. Therefore we need to infuse Dhamma principles into these three areas of leadership.

The Buddha was perhaps the first to propound Dhamma principles in leadership. In the Dasa-Raja-Dhamma the Buddha set out ten virtues of king, which spelt out the character ethics required of a great leader. The ten virtues are:

  1. Dana – generosity
  2. Sila – high moral character
  3. Pariccaga – sacrifice
  4. Ajjava –honesty and integrity
  5. Maddava – Kindness and gentleness
  6. Tapa – austrity of habits
  7. Akkodha- free from jealousy, ill-will and enmity
  8. Avihimsa – non-violence and peace loving
  9. Khanti – patience, forbearance, tolerance and understanding.
  10. Avirodha – non-opposition, non-obstruction. In harmony with the followers.

All ten virtues mentioned are characters of a person; hence I called them character ethics. Character ethics are age-old ethics grounded in the Dhamma. These are ethics that would help a leader to become Righteous leader, or Dhamma-based leader.

To simplify our discussion and for ease of application, I would like to summarize these ten ethics into two, namely kindness and integrity. I am also proposing that Wisdom should be added as a Dhamma principle for leadership. Although Wisdom is not mentioned in the Dasa-Dhamma Raja, the teachings and conduct of the Buddha is by itself a reflection of His Wisdom. Hence we have wisdom or Panna , kindness or Metta-karuna, and integrity or Ajjava as the three key Dhamma principles in leadership.

The Buddha’s teaching placed great emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom, in the words of Herbert V. Guenther, is analytical appreciative understanding. It’s a kind of understanding or knowledge that sees the truth analytically, and appreciates the truth by direct experience. It’s like a light that can dispel the darkness in a dark room. A righteous leader must develop wisdom such that he or she is able to discern good and bad (that’s why Ven. Thannisaro translates Panna as Discernment) and able to make the right decisions.

Gautama Budha, in His infinite wisdom, saved the lives of the people of Vajiian country. By way of having a dialogue with Ven, Ananda, He conveyed a message to King Ajasastru that the Vajiian country could not de destroyed since they practiced the Seven Principles of Non-regression. On hearing the message of the Buddha King Ajasastru of Maghada aborted his plan to invade the Vajjian country. The Buddha also, in His wisdom, did not take side when the Sakyas and the Koliyas were about to go to war over the water of Rohini river. Instead he mediated and brought about a peaceful settlement.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been pressured into taking sides over the Bengali/Rohingya issue. But I think she is wise not to condemn any side but to quietly work for a solution.

Many people remembered the role of Nelson Mandela in dismantling apartheid in South Africa. However, one should also give due credit to the wisdom of President R. W. De Klerk who made this possible. The wise de Klerk discerned what was good and what was bad for South Africa and decided to opt for the good.

Today many leaders do not have the wisdom and courage to make the right decisions. Their minds are deeply rooted in greed, hatred and delusion. They prefer to look at problems from the point of their personal interest, or the interest of their own party, their own organization, or their own religion. It is this kind of Ignorance that continues to bring hardship to many people.

Kindness is another important Dhamma principles very much desired in present day leadership. In our eager pursue for quantitative gain, many governments, business corporations and NGOs have rely more and more on their heads, rather than on their hearts. Leaders are expected to be strategic, tough and result-oriented to the extent that soft skills like kindness and compassion are relegated to a position of no importance, or even seen as a form of weakness. In such an environment, human beings are treated as a commodity in the production chain, and human dignity, happiness and well-beings are side-lined completely.

Contrary to popular belief that kindness is a form of weakness, kindness is in fact a strength, a strength that at times requires courage and dedication as well. On the other hand, it is unkindness, brutality and abusive behaviours that are real weaknesses. I have observed that leaders who behave in such manner are usually leaders who are not in control of the situation, hence weak!

The Buddha was a great, kind and compassionate leader. In His great kindness and compassion he went in search for Sunita the night soil carrier, who was an Untourchable, and enrolled him into the Sangha. He also, together with Ananda, washed and cleaned Ven. Tissa who was stricken with dysentery and was in a dismal condition. The Buddha also approached the fiercest murderer of His time Angulima and converted him to the path of righteousness.

In today’s human organizations, kindness in the person of the leaders alone is not enough. We need to institutionalize kindness into the organizations as well. Organizations must possess corporate conscience or corporate social responsibility that take care of the welfare of employees, customers, clients, and the population at large, as well as all sentient beings.

Kindness must not be mistaken as indiscipline, couldn’t care less or non-punishment. On the contrary, to be kind, there must be discipline and due punitive or reformative measures within an organization. To do nothing and allowed an organization to fall into disarray is not kind, it’s irresponsible.

Another Dhamma principle which is very relevant today is integrity or honesty. Today’s human organizations are huge, complex and resource-rich. That provided the fertile ground for corruptions and malpractices. Many nations, tran-national corporations, enterprises and even NGOS are plagued with scandals that give rise to a crisis of confidence in the leadership.

A yardstick for integrity is “do what you say, say what you do.” This is exactly an epithet of the Buddha. One of the epithets of the Buddha is “ knowledge and conduct” (Vijja- Carana), meaning He does what He preaches.

Warren Buffet once mentioned that when you hired a person, you looked for three things, namely, intelligence, industrious, and integrity. And if the person does not have the last thing, you would prefer him to be dumb! This is very true because many leaders today are intelligent people but their lack of integrity and honesty eventually ruined their organisations. Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto were influential and powerful leaders but their lack of integrity led to their eventual downfall.

Even religious leaders are not spared from the problem of integrity. The financial and sex scandals within religious organizations is no less compared with other non-religious organisations. And every eruption of scandal would create a crisis of confidence in the minds of the followers.

Therefore I advocate that these three Dhamma principles be absorbed and practiced in the power –will-skill morphology of leadership.

Structure, System and the Rule of Law

The discussion thus far emphasizes the importance of personal qualities of leaders. We must, however, not be mistaken into believing that personal quality alone is sufficient to ensure efficient and effective leadership. On the contrary, there are many other factors that must also be put in place to ensure good leadership and effective organization. For example, an organization must have proper structures and systems. Without proper structures and systems, even the most effective leaders are unlikely to deliver tangible results.

In this respect, the Buddha expounded the Seven Factors of Non-regression, which resemble structures and systems of modern day organization. The Seven factors are :

  1. The Vajjians assemble regularly and frequently.
  2. The Vajjians assemble unanimously, rise unanimously, and carry out their Vajjian duties unanimously.
  3. The Vajjians do not establish (new) laws that were not established, (or) cut off (old) laws that were established, and carry on with such laws as were accepted in the Ancient Vajjian Constitution.
  4. The Vajjians honour the elders of the Vajjians, respect, revere, worship and think them worth listening to.
  5. The Vajjians do not coerce and force their women and girls to dwell (with them) against their will.
  6. The Vajjians honour the Vajjian shrines amongst the Vajjians, both within and without (the city), respect, revere, and worship (them), and do not allow the righteous sacrifices that were formerly given, formerly made, to be neglected.
  7. The Vajjians have made good arrangements in regard to the lawful protection, safety, and guarding of the Worthy Ones, so that Worthy Ones in the future can enter the realm, and having entered the Worthy Ones can live comfortably in the realm.

It’s interesting to note that in this particular instance the Buddha’s emphasis is on structure, system and rule of law.

The fact that the Buddha, when advising on governance of a monarchy, preaches the Dasa-Dhamma-Raja, and when advising on the governance of a republic, preaches the Seven Factors of Non-regression goes to show that the Buddha did not have preference over any political structures, but preaches according to the requirements of that political structure. In the case of a monarchy in which the personal qualities of a king is of primary importance He emphasised the importance of human character; and in the case of a republic He emphasised system, structure and rule of law. This is a clear reflection of the Buddha’s wisdom, knowing well all political structures are conditioned and subject to change.

However, even in the case of the Seven Factors of Non-Regression, the structures and systems suggested by the Buddha embedded development of human characters, such as respect for the elders and the fairer sex, honouring religious peoples and protecting customs and rites. This is very commendable because even the best of law could not ensure good governance unless administered by people of good character.



Good governance demands good leadership and good management. Conventional leadership centred around power, will and skill which are amoral. There is a need to infuse into these morphology of leadership with Dhamma principles. My humble proposal is that Wisdom, Kindness and Integrity are the three important principles that need to be infused into our current conventional leadership so that the outcome would be Dhamma-based leadership that would bring happiness, well-being and benefits (sukhaya,hithaya, athya). to all sentient beings.