As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.
During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.
Prof. Ling further notes that,
Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”
Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:
So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”
Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.
The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.
What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.
When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”
Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.
The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.
Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,
[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”
The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.
* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976
** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955