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Buddhist political theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-ZB007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Buddhist political theory is normative thinking about politics from a Buddhist perspective. In other words, it is Buddhist ideas about what government should do and why [see Political philosophy]. Starting with the earliest records of the teachings of the Buddha, there are brief discussions about how governments should rule scattered throughout Buddhist texts. Until the mid-nineteenth century CE, almost all of these texts assume that government for laypeople will be an enlightened but absolute monarchy. Starting in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in response to pressures and opportunities created by European colonialism, there was a fairly rapid move away from monarchy and toward various forms of democratic, or at least popular, government (sometimes more in name than in practice). Among contemporary Buddhists in many countries, there appears to be wide but not universal agreement that, to the extent Buddhism has any view on politics at all, it sees democracy as an acceptable, perhaps even preferred, system of government.

The Buddhist approach to political theory is quite different from other approaches, such as those from the Islamic, Confucian, Christian, or broadly Western traditions. The Buddhist approach appears to arise from a handful of key ideas: (1) that reducing suffering is the central concern of both individual existence and collective political action; (2) that suffering arises from a conflict between what one wants or expects and what life actually gives one; (3) that in most – but not all – cases changing one’s mind is easier and more fruitful than trying to change the world; (4) that acting based on desire will lead one to be reborn according to the fruits of one’s actions (the theory of kamma or karma); (5) and that, therefore, treating each other well is not only a kind or good thing to do, but is in everyone’s best self-interest.

Citing this article:
Moore, Matthew J.. Buddhist political theory, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-ZB007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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