Buddhist way to good governance

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The world-renowned meditation master Ajahn Brahm, as he is fondly known, is a Cambridge University graduate in Theoretical Physics. He got ordained in Thailand 40 years ago when he was 23. He is presently the Abbot of Bodhinyana (forest) Monastery near Perth, Western Australia and Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He will be in Sri Lanka for Poson Poya. The highlight of his visit will be a full day Dhamma program at the BMICH on Sunday 15 June   By Ajahn Brahmavamso The oldest multinational corporation in the world is the Buddhist Sangha. As it happens I have the franchise in Western Australia where I am the ‘managing director’ of Bodhhinyana Monastery in Perth and the ‘CEO’ of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. So I should know a great deal about Buddhist good governance. Buddhism has been a positive inspiration for many world leaders. Few know that the British statesman and war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a statue of the Buddha by his bedside throughout World War II, while his wife, Clementine, had a statue of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. I will discuss the Buddhist contribution to good governance using the Buddhist monastic code and other Buddhist principles to illuminate the following three modern categories of governance: Leadership skills, decision making and problem solving. A successful leader is one who inspires others to action (a) by example, (b) by authority, and (c) through kindness. A leader who would ask others to do what they already do themselves is one who leads by example. They will be successful whereas the others, the hypocrites, will be ignored. The Buddha cleverly taught that the leaders of the Sangha should not be allowed to be preceptors or leaders unless they have sufficient virtue, meditation experience, and wisdom. And Kings should be virtuous and diligent (Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta DN26). In other words, Buddhism extols leading by example. There are three types of authority: conferred authority, inherent authority, and assumed authority. Only the first two have any legitimacy and are thus sustainable. Conferred authority is where one is elected to govern. Few in the West realise that the earliest democracy was probably in India, not in Greece as is commonly assumed. In the time of the Buddha i.e. before the time of Socrates, the Vajjian Republic centred around Vesali (on the northern side of the Ganges opposite Patna) was already a long established democracy. All decisions of governance were made by the citizens of the republic meeting in the Sabha (now the name of the modern Indian Parliament in New Delhi) by consensus. When a leader was required, for example, of the army or the treasury, they would be appointed by the citizens. Decisions would only be made when they were unanimous, which meant that after a vigorous discussion, the minority would concede the point and “agree to disagree” by voting with their opponents. We know this because the rules governing the business of the Buddhist Sangha were derived from the ancient democratic model. Such conferred authority was effective because, as the proverb says, “a leader only has the power that others give them”. Inherent authority is where a person clearly merits authority due to their superior knowledge or exceptional abilities. In the Buddhist Sangha, elders in the monastery, that is the monks and nuns who have been ordained for many years, have inherent authority due to their greater experience. Also, learned monks and nuns, and those with attachments in deep meditation or enlightenment, have inherent authority due to their personal accomplishments. In a government, a company or any other organisation, those who have served successfully for a long time, and those with outstanding abilities, will automatically become leaders through inherent authority. Assumed authority is where a person or a group seizes governance for itself through force or contrivance. Since its legitimacy is controversial, it will always be unstable. In the time of the Buddha, Devadatta attempted to assume authority over the Sangha and the result was tragic, as is usually the case. The longevity and strength of the Buddhist Sangha is in no small part due to its leadership being a combination of conferred authority and inherent authority. Similarly, the strength of the early Roman Empire rested on its governing body, the Senate, combining conferred and inherent authority. Indeed, a Roman citizen who was standing for election to the Senate would wear white clothing as a symbol of their stainless conduct in the past, thus claiming inherent authority. The Latin word for white is ‘candidus’, from which we get the word ‘candidate’ or one standing for election. The candidates were subsequently elected to the governing body, thus giving them conferred authority as well. Buddhism suggests, through the monastic rules, that the most effective and sustainable form of leadership is one with a combination of conferred and inherent authority, avoiding all forms of assumed authority. Leadership through kindness A general in the Chinese Army was once asked by the Emperor why his soldiers had such perfect discipline, while other troops had not. He replied that his soldiers would always obey him, because he only told them to do what they already wanted to do! This was not meant as a joke – rather it reveals the secret of leadership. The secret is motivation. The most successful method of motivation is through kindness. Buddhism – and modern psychology too – recognises that attempting to motivate another using anger or fear (known as negative reinforcement) only results in temporary cooperation, long-term resentment and eventual rebellion. Motivating another through kindness (known as positive reinforcement) may be a little slower but it has been shown again and again to lead to long-term commitment and collaboration. The managers of Farrelly and Sons, an engineering firm in the UK that specialises in maintenance, decided to ban all overtime in their company. Their compassionate strategy won a prize for best business practice, because in only 12 months, staff attrition fell to zero, turnover trebled, and profits doubled! Such success is typical when managers lead through kindness. Aleader is the captain, not the team. They are the front pair of feet of the centipede and if the other 49 pairs of feet don’t follow, the centipede gets nowhere. Kindness is the compelling force that beckons all others to follow. The Buddha taught in the Kosambiya Sutta that when the monks maintain bodily, verbal and mental acts of kindness, both in public and in private, then that will generate concord and unity. And without unity, there is little progress. Thus Buddhism extols leadership through kindness. Decision making It is the responsibility of a leader to make decisions. Buddhism’s contribution to the psychology of decision making is profound. The Buddha taught that before making any decisions, one should first ensure that one is not acting out of the ‘4 Agati’ – self-interest, ill-will, delusion and fear. Buddhism teaches us that one of the duties of an ideal monarch (Cakkavatti Dhammaraja) is to practice generosity. What does this mean? In modern-day Buddhism, some people go to the temple to give requisites so that the pretty girl that they like will fall in love with them, or they invite monks to a meal at their office so that their profits will go up, or they give a large monetary donation to a monastery building project so that their name will appear on a big brass plaque. That is not generosity – it is doing a deal. It is a form of business where one gives a sum of money to the temple in return for advertising rights for one’s own name on the big brass plaque. True giving has to be done expecting nothing back in return. Once I received a phone call from a Polish woman asking about a lecture I was to give that very evening. “How much do you charge?” she enquired. “Nothing” I replied. “No. You don’t understand,” she complained. “How much must I pay to attend the lecture?” “Madam, you don’t pay anything. It’s all for free,” I said calmly. “Listen to me,” she shouted down the phone. “Dollars! Cents! How much do I have to cough-up to get in?” “Madam, you do not have to ‘cough-up’ anything at all. We will not take your name, nor press any literature on you. And if you don’t like the talk, then you can walk out at any time. Really, it is free,” I explained. There was a long pause. “Well if it is free, then what do you guys (meaning the monks) get out of it?” I replied “Happiness, madam, only happiness”. Similarly, the ideal form of governance in Buddhism would have leaders embracing self-sacrifice and not self-interest. They would lead without any concern for material reward. Their only reward would be in the happiness of service. I would reflect what President John Fitzgerald Kennedy once said “It is not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for country”, but now applied to the leadership not to the citizens. A decision motivated by ill-will only generates more ill-will. As the famous verse in the Dhammapada states: “Hatred never cease through hatred in this world.” The inspirational leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned unfairly for 26 years. A short time after his release from jail he became president of South Africa with full power to take revenge upon those who imprisoned him. Instead he forgave. He governed without ill-will towards those who oppressed his race. Mahtma Gandhi was beaten many times as well as imprisoned. He too led without ill-will. He once said “I can see a thousand reasons for giving my life for a good cause, but not one reason for taking the life of another.” Such leadership drove one of the most powerful Empires of its time out from his country. I also wish to quote the Russian proverb, made famous by President Yeltsin:”One cannot sit on a throne made of swords.” These anecdotes make clear that governing with ill-will or revenge only make the ruler into a despised despot. All progress is obstructed and the government becomes unsafe. Decisions made from ill-will only generate more problems. When a leader is deluded through self-interest or ill-will, they will misunderstand the situation and make grave errors in their governance. Instead, a leader should put aside self-interest and ill-will and gather as much information as possible before making a decision. Hasty decisions are often wrong decisions. One of the classic Buddhist parables, from the Udana, is a paradigm for good governance. It is the story of the elephant and the seven blind men. Each one of us can know only a part of the whole that constitutes truth. When we hold on to our limited knowledge as absolute truth, we are like one of the blind men feeling a part of the elephant and inferring that their own partial experience is the truth, all else being wrong. Instead of blind faith, we can have dialogue. Fear Many intellectual leaders are crippled through fear of what other people think of them. I have advised many government ministers, a premier and even an executive president “Never allow the media to control your happiness.” Many a government can be imprisoned by a free press! Timidity is not good governance. Many years ago, when I was a monk in Thailand, I was sitting in meditation in a wild forest during the night. There were tigers and elephants in that forest but it was rare to see them. Nevertheless, I knew they were there. My quiet meditation was disturbed by a rustle in the jungle not far away. With cool mindfulness I quickly judged that it was only a small animal a long distance off, and so gave it no more interest. As it came closer, it disturbed my meditation again. As I listened carefully, I soon assessed that I had been wrong before. This was a medium-sized animal, not a small one, and it was approaching the spot where I was sitting. So I returned to my breath, but now I was a little concerned. As it neared my seat my mindfulness became sharpened by fear. I listened intently. This was clearly not a small animal, nor even a medium sized one but this was a huge animal by its sound, probably a tiger, and it was coming straight towards me! I opened my eyes in fear, expecting to see a monk-devouring tiger a few feet in front of me!! But, all I saw was a tiny little mouse! Fear had amplified the sound of a forest mouse into that of a tiger. That is what fear does. It bends the facts into something completely different from the truth. One should never make decisions out of fear. Problem solving A leader’s duty is not only to make decisions avoiding self-interest, ill-will, delusion, or fear, the manager must also be a wise problem-solver. They must be skilful in (a) giving feedback, (b) taking feedback, and (c) creating a meaningful agenda. A leader of a team is responsible for nurturing its members by giving them feedback. In modern business jargon this is called ‘performance assessment’. A team cannot be successful when it is carrying a member who is either not pulling his weight or is downright destructive. It is the leader’s job to ensure that every member of the team is performing well. Most leaders think it is unnecessary to give feedback when things are going well. How wrong they are! Also, they are afraid to give negative feedback, because they don’t know how to criticise without giving offense. They only know how to intervene when the situation is so bad that all they can say is “You’re fired”. It doesn’t need to get to such a sorry state. Buddhist teachings offer effective guidelines for admonishing another. They are found in the Vinaya but are applicable in all areas of governance. First, before admonishing another, one must ensure that one is not doing the same mistake oneself or one similar. Otherwise one will be dismissed as a mere hypocrite. Second, one should be reasonably certain that one has all the facts and is not misconstruing them. Third, make sure that your admonishment is motivated by goodwill. An effective way is to keep to the formula of five instances of praise to every instance of criticism. You point out five things that you value about his work before you bring up the failing. Psychology as well as Buddhism knows that when a person feels valued, he is more likely to be open to criticism and do something about it. Fourth, the criticism should be at the right time and place, certainly never in public where embarrassment throws up an unhelpful barrier, nor where the other person is over-burdened with too many other jobs. Fifth, when admonishing another, it is helpful to make clear that it isn’t his problem nor is it my problem. But it is OUR problem. When the leader and those led share the responsibility for fixing the inadequacies, then there is a very good chance of finding a solution that doesn’t alienate anyone. This is how Buddhism advises to give feedback. Taking feedback Ajahn Chah used to say, if someone calls you a dog, then look at your bottom. If you can’t see a tail there, then you do not need to accept the criticism. You aren’t a dog, so there is no problem. But if you see a tail on your bottom, then thank the one who admonished you. When leaders do not know how to take feedback given skilfully, then they are not only obstructing progress in their organisation but they are also hindering their own personal growth. This is not good governance. Often leaders have to go way beyond their inner circle to get honest feedback. It takes humility, courage and effort for leaders to seek out feedback from beyond the inner circle, and even beyond their outer circle. But without such feedback, good governance is lost. Creating the meaningful agenda It is the leader’s job to articulate the agenda and convince others of its value and embody it through example. In a Buddhist monastery, there is little meaning in our lives unless we aim for Enlightenment. That has to be our agenda and the abbot must reinforce that goal and even embody it, at least to a degree. In a government of a country, Buddhism would promote an agenda more meaningful than mere economic prosperity. One can only admire the King of Bhutan for making Gross National Happiness the main agenda of his government. In a business, profits and share prices are important though not meaningful enough for those employed in the company. Many key employees, the talented pool that drives a company’s success, demand job satisfaction or they leave. They only thrive in a work environment where they learn new skills, develop existing abilities, and have an overall positive effect of the society in which they live. Good governance also requires setting a meaningful agenda. Summary – Karma Buddhist teachings such as the ideal of the ‘Wheel Turning Righteous Leader’ suggest that a better world is possible and that it can be achieved through wise and compassionate governance as described earlier. The Law of Karma means that we have the power to create happiness or suffering, that we are responsible for our future. Leaders carry a greater share of this responsibility than others. When a leader prays to a supernatural being in a temple, shrine or church, they are possibly wasting precious time that could be better used in grappling with the problems themselves. This is called taking full responsibility. It is the underlying message of the Law of Karma. And it is, may be, Buddhism’s greatest contribution to the science of good governance. (From the keynote speech delivered at the United Nations 2007 Vesak celebrations in Thailand.)