Constitutional monarchy is the best form of governance, even better than the one America has, Professor Robert Thurman said at a talk on Buddhism, Democracy, and Dharma Rajas in Thimphu recently.

He cited principles from the legendary Buddhist King of India, Ashoka’s edict to support his statement.

Buddha did not change the idea of kingship completely during his time, while Ashoka following Buddha’s principles did, he said. Buddha in a way changed it by refusing to be the king and going off to be enlightened which was a huge shock to the vedist society at that time.

By Ashoka’s time, he said, the Buddhist institutions were more powerful and Buddhist knowledge was more widespread in India.

The professor said that he extracted five Buddhist principles from the edict that Ashoka had carved on rock.

The first principle is transcendent individualism where the flourishing of an individual is what the society is for rather than the collectivist idea like communist and ancient type of collectivism.

“Luckily when they do flourish and learn the nature of things, they voluntarily become altruistic because when an individual learns about reality they realise that their wellbeing is tied up with the wellbeing of others,” he said. 

“Then they do serve the collective but out of their free will, out of their creativity.”

This is a totally different picture than being coerced into something or having to work like slaves for some aristocratic elite of some kind, he said.

Non-violence is the second principle because if human life form is so valuable as an evolutionary platform, then to take a human life or taking any kind of life is bad.

The third principle says that the purpose of life is education, because every individual learns from birth until death and not just when they are in school. Their deepest purpose is to always learn because the human embodiment is made for learning.

The fourth principle is socialism that is voluntary altruism in the society.

The fifth principle is constitutional democratism. In the case of Ashoka, he was still an emperor but he made a big fuss on how his edicts was available to all his citizens and was concerned that all of them have an equal opportunity to develop themselves.

He said that the democratic system that America has, is better than some systems but it is not the greatest system.

“I think democracy is the best form of government but there are different kinds of democracy and the question of the executive is very critical.”

The problem with a democracy without a strong executive, even the executive not requiring election in any direct sense is important because otherwise everybody in the parliamentary system is a danger, they are sort of for sale. “This is what has happened to America. Checks and balances have failed to prevent an unfit person from becoming the president.”

He said that he begged the His Holiness the Dalai Lama not to abdicate. Like the queen of England, she does not go to the parliament or be party to legislation but stands for a morale principle and mediates certain excessive political party conflicts. “That’s what your Dharma Raja does and that I think is preferable.”

Prof Thurman said it is not preferable for everyone to be elected. Therefore, mercantile power can subvert the larger wellbeing of the people.

While one can say that a bad or tyrannical king can threaten the individual, he said that this is true but more likely in history, there were times an individual has been badly threatened when the aristocrats get too powerful in absence of a central head or head lama who can quiet them.

“The reason they are more oppressive to the people are they fight with each other and they draft people into their army,” he said. For instance, in Chinese history, the worst periods were when there were weak emperors and the best periods were when an emperor had risen through rebellion against the past corrupt dynasty and taken the individual people’s needs and interest seriously.

The principles of Ashoka,were also supported by Nagarjuna who wrote the Precious Rosary of Advice. 

He said that the Bhutanese are lucky to have a Dharma Raja. 

He said that His Majesty The Fourth King came up with the brilliant concept of Gross National Happiness, which is going conquer the political science world eventually.

“The concept magnified as a sociological and political principle with a ministry and all is brilliant,” he said. “He came up with this concept, which fulfills in modern context, Shakyamuni Buddha’s, Ashoka’s and Nagarjuna’s teachings.”

Gross National Happiness means that individual happiness is the purpose of the nation because the country is not going to have national happiness if individuals are not happy. “It means taking into consideration, how decisions affect not the bosses, not just some owners but how it effects individuals in the society, so it fulfills the idea of transcendent individualism.”

The king is an exemplary individual and sets the example for all individuals and he is not for sale – that’s the key thing, he said.

He doesn’t get a campaign donation to win an election like the president does and he can’t be controlled by the merchants or the aristocrats completely.

“He represents the freedom of individual and since the purpose of individual is to be happy, those individuals who understand kingship enjoy the happiness of the king.”

The problem with total democracy like communism is their key emotion is jealousy and to compete with the next guy.

So dharma rajas are not for sale either by aristocracies, corporate powers or money, which is what ruins American democracy, he said.

“Actually a 100 and some years ago when Bhutanese went to the kingship model, it was actually extremely fortuitous because the people went back from Buddhacracy or lamacracy under the Zhabdrung lineage where a monk was ruling.”

Bhutan, he said, went back to a royal king with the responsibility and with some kind of defense because it encountered British invasion.

He said that this enabled Bhutan uniquely to survive as an independent culture with the deep principles of a Buddhist society. “You did it and kept it alive but you are under stress today,” he said.

He said Bhutanese have challenges from all directions to preserve GNH and to show that there is a modern form of it that really works, thrives successfully, taking advantage of the blessed natural environment and blessed lineage of Dharma Kings who can control any mercantile excesses expressed through a parliament.

“Tibet and Mongolia got destroyed in the 20th century because they were still in a lamacracy, which could not defend itself.  The two can learn from Bhutan,” he said. “You are the inspiration for that.”


Tshering Palden and Nima