Law and Consensus or Impersonal Mechanism?

Ajahn Sucitto

Law and Consensus or Impersonal Mechanism?

Having a centralised authority govern a collective offers the benefits of internal coherence, order and efficiency. However, this also offers power, fame and wealth to whoever occupies the centre; along with rivalries, corruption and assassinations.

Hence the Buddha wisely established his Sangha’s governance on law and consensus rather than by an individual leader. Aimed at excluding unwholesome influences, the Sangha was otherwise inclusive and accepted applicants from all walks of life; within it, caste boundaries were dropped. Its boundaries were held by collective governance, in meetings that were and still are held in tandem with a fortnightly recitation of its moral code.

Any new situations, such as whether driving cars is allowable, can be adjudicated through referring to the great standards (mahapadesa). These state that if a new item or action is in line with what is already allowed, then it is to be allowed: if not, not. The authorities to refer to are (in descending order of validity) the word of the Buddha, the judgment of the entire Sangha, the judgment of a group of elders, and the judgment of a single elder. Occasional meetings at local, national and international levels have provided ongoing clarification in times of dispute. In this way, the Sangha has maintained its longevity.

By and large the mechanism of the State has developed more erratically along similar lines, but with less ethical integrity and with power grabs by individuals and sub-groups being a common feature. Legal structures, a constitution and a collegiate form of government help to diffuse the power; these also perpetuate any state beyond the death of a leader, and guard against his or her lapses into incompetence.

But states are mechanisms. As such, they are impersonal and can continue irrespective of the specific people they involve; they breed a governing elite, members of which can die or retire – and be replaced. People may emigrate or immigrate and the state continues. The overriding principle of the State is not to effect a harmonious abiding in the cosmos, but to hold territory and authority over the people within its boundaries. Accordingly, its governing ministers form an elite that stands apart from the people. It’s never the case now that the leader of the state fights alongside the soldiers, works with the workers, nurses the sick, or teaches the children.

So although a state has the advantage of being impersonal and long lived, it loses reference to the collective mentality and materiality of its people, and in fact to the living tissues of the planet it occupies.

This reflection by Ajahn Sucitto is from the book, Buddha Nature, Human Nature, (pdf) pp. 143-145.