If Buddhism Requires Anarchism, Why Didn’t the Buddha Say So?

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about how Buddhist ethical first principles commit Buddhists to probably political anarchism. The basic argument was simple: According to Buddhism, to even begin to practice, one must accept the Five Precepts. The first two are “to abstain from taking life” and “to abstain from taking what is not given.” But by definition, the state must violate these two in order to exist, because laws require force, and ultimately deadly force, for their enforcement, and any taxation that isn’t voluntarily simply is taking what is not given. Thus Buddhists, when they use the state to advance their political goals, are violating the very core of their professed ethics.

One objection people have made to my argument is that the Buddha, while speaking to various rulers during is life, didn’t tell them to abandon rule, and didn’t tell them that the very nature of government violates Buddhist ethics. Given that the Buddha understood Buddhism as well as anyone, this disconnect means I must be mistaken in my interpretation of his teachings.

I’m skeptical. I can think of at least three plausible reasons why the Buddha wouldn’t have publicly spoken to the disconnect between political action and personal ethics.

1. The Buddha taught to his audience.

First, in the vast body of writings known as the Pali Canon, which is accepted by Buddhists as the earliest extant record of the words of their philosophy’s founder, we see the Buddha teaching conflicting doctrines. The traditional explanation for this is that the Buddha was supremely practically minded. His goal was to help others achieve an end to their suffering, and so he taught to the individuals he happened to be speaking to at the particular time. He told each person what they needed to hear in order to progress toward enlightenment, and given that different people have different needs and are in different situations, his teachings varied.

Generally, kings don’t take well to being told their rule is illegitimate. If, upon sitting down with a king, the Buddha said, “If you want to follow the Dharma, you must cease enforcing your will through laws and you must cease taxing your subjects,” it’s rather unlikely the conversation would’ve gone any further, any opportunity to help this person achieve release from samsara precluded.

It is possible, then, that the Buddha decided to focus, in his talks with rulers, on matters he knew they’d be more receptive to, in keeping with his general pedagogical strategy.

2. The Buddha was dependent on rulers.

Mendicants in the Sangha begged for everything. A monk owned only his robe and his alms bowl. The Buddha had no lands, no source of income, no army for his defense. If a ruler grew angry and decided to snuff out his nascent movement, there was little the Buddha could’ve done to stop it. Thus keeping his mouth shut about the incompatibility of ethics and state rule was simply prudence. He could do more good in the world teaching the Dharma, even if it meant staying quiet about politics, than he could dying at the hands of an irritated monarch.

3. The Buddha never fully analyzed the nature of state power.

We know the Buddha was at least somewhat aware of the concerns I raised in my essay. In the sutta SN 4.20, while sitting in private retreat, he asked himself,

I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?

Of course, the answer to his question, at least as it regards all governments then existing and all governments that have existed since, is “No.” It is impossible to have a state that makes and enforces laws without at least the threat of violence, including killing, of those who disobey the law. Otherwise laws are nothing more than suggestions.

But the Buddha lived far before philosophers had adequately mapped out the nature of state power or questioned its moral legitimacy. Then, and even now, the assumption was that state power is legitimate, and the only question worthy of analysis was how to properly use it. Attempts to offer an origin of this power existed, but it was only recently that philosophers began to seriously question its very legitimacy or to poke holes in the standard justifications.

I find it quite plausible that the reason the Buddha didn’t tell rulers that their very rule itself violated the first two precepts is simply because he hadn’t adequately examined the nature of that rule. Like everyone else of his time, he assumed its existence, and couldn’t imagine an alternative. (Except possibly in the mythical form of the Chakravarti, or Wheel Turning Monarch.)

That the earliest philosophers, of which the Buddha was one of the most important, didn’t have the benefit of the 2,500 years of philosophical development and progress we do shouldn’t be held against them. But we also shouldn’t fail to recognize that such progress exists. We simply have thought more deeply about these concepts over the last two thousand years, and so know more. Just as the Buddha held to primitive medical beliefs, he also held to primitive political ones, and part of that takes the form of not thinking through the political implications of his underlying ethics.

Fortunately, the rest of us can now do that for him.

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My Year in Books Part 1: Buddhism

I read 43 books in 2018. That doesn’t include all the ones I needed only to look at part of, or skimmed, or gave up on.

It was a weird reading year. Usually I’m more well-rounded in my reading, but 2018 saw me laser focused on two topics that don’t seem to have much to do with each other. But you gotta go where your interests lead, and the books I finish are always slaves to my interests. Thus 2018 became the year of Buddhism and science fiction novels set in the grim darkness of the far future where there is only war.

Rather than do the typical think of listing all the books, with brief comments on each, I’ve decided to tackle this reading retrospective in essay form, because it was a year of sums being greater than parts. And I’m splitting it in two. This week, we’ll talk Buddhism. Next week, the Imperium of Man.


Twelve of those 43 books were about Buddhism, including the first book I read this year: Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True. Wright’s book holds the odd honor of being both the most personally influential thing I read and also, in retrospect, one of the least interesting. Put another way, it’s the book that got me into Buddhism, but as a book about Buddhism, it’s at best okay. That said, man, did it get me into Buddhism, and what an important intellectual journey that’s been.

I’d read a bit about Buddhism prior to this year, and tried meditation some too when I’d stumbled across one popular mindfulness app or another. But Wright’s book, for whatever reason, hooked me this time around. Made me think this is pretty interesting stuff, maybe I should give it a go of real study. It even got me to attend a three day silent meditation retreat—which turned out to be one of the most valuable things I’ve done in quite some time.

Why Buddhism is True, plus subsequent eleven other titles, convinced me that Buddhism, broadly, as articulated by Siddhāttha Gotama and recorded in the earliest versions of his teachings known as the Pali Canon, is largely correct. It’s the right diagnosis of the human condition, and offers the most valuable, practical, and immediate way to achieve happiness given our nature and the world we’re situated within. I became convinced enough of all this that it’s probably safe to say now, today, given a year’s worth of reading, I’m officially a Buddhist, at least of a sort.

The odd place of Wright’s book isn’t because it’s bad. Obviously, it had a tremendous effect on me, and that’s something I can say of very few books, this year or any before. (The last book that radically changed my worldview in anything approaching the way Wright’s did was Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, which, years back, set me one the path of seeing more questions through an ancient lens and gave me what I still consider to be the most useful and rich way of thinking about moral issues.) It’s more that Wright comes at Buddhism from a different direction than what works for me. His thing’s evolutionary psychology, and he presents the Buddha’s lessons through that. I’m not against evolutionary psychology, though I get the objections to it. When I was an undergrad, my friend and fellow student and now Cato Institute colleague and Free Thoughts co-host Trevor Burrus recommended Wright’s The Moral Animal to me and it lead to the most fun I’ve ever had analyzing literature. The paper I wrote doing an evolutionary psyche interpretation of a Raymond Chandler’s short story is probably my favorite from my college years.

But that’s not my wheelhouse anymore. I’m a philosophy guy, and what’s more an ancient philosophy guy. The ancients—and by this I always meant, before my reading adventures of 2018, the ancient Greeks—understood the issues that matter to me, or at least talked about those issues, in a way that resonates better and that I find more useful than typically modern philosophical approaches. The gift of Buddhism in 2018 was seeing that a guy living half a world away from Plato and Aristotle’s Athens, but at around the same time, was coming up with ideas complementary to my beloved Greeks, ideas that tackled the same problems but from what seemed a more practical—i.e., grounded in practice—direction. Gotama’s teachings are still quite philosophically dense, but his interest is in articulating what concrete steps you and I and the whole of humanity can take right now to achieve stable and lasting happiness.

Wright, then, lead me to Buddhism, but Buddhism didn’t really take until I began to approach it the way I do Greek philosophy, which meant going back to the ancient sources. That took finding Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Western monk in the Theravadan Thai Forest Tradition, and his—it’s impossible to overstate this—incredible website. Thanissaro’s books, all available for free, made up much, but not all, of the rest of my Buddhism reading for the year. Thanissaro is largely a translator of the earliest Buddhist texts known as the Pali Canon, compiled and recorded from the oral tradition about 400 years after the Buddha’s death. But he also has a generally philosophical mindset of a Western sort, meaning that his exegesis of those texts presents things in a way that works well for me. In particular, his The Wings to Awakening is a comprehensive anthology and study guide to the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and is the book I’d recommend to anyone with a philosophy background who wants to study Buddhism through primary texts. (As I noted, all of Thanissaro’s books can be downloaded for free from his website, but this PDF gives instructions on how to request free paperback copies, as well. It usually takes a few weeks for them to arrive, and will cost you nothing more than the stamp to mail him a letter with the list of titles you’d like.)

The year’s worth of all this Buddhist reading introduced me to an entirely new philosophical tradition, not just a set of admittedly extremely valuable tools for self-cultivation. It’s a rich tradition, and one that covers a great deal of ground, in epistemology, morality, and ethics, that stands up easily next to the best ideas to come out Ancient Greece. I’ll explore all this more, and give my longer pitch for why western philosophers really ought to be reading Buddhist philosophers, in an upcoming newsletter.