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Matthew J. Moore discusses how Buddhism may align with libertarian tendencies; most importantly the need to think for yourself.

Matthew J. Moore discusses how Buddhism may align with libertarian tendencies; most importantly the need to think for yourself. At the core of Buddhism is the hope or want to escape from suffering, with that being said it is grounded on four noble truths. In traditional Buddhist teaching, there are gods, but they’re all mortal. The universe according to the Buddha has no beginning and no end, and they will all eventually die and be reincarnated.

Matthew J. Moore elaborates on the Buddhist political theory that is more substantiative than simple absolute monarchy. When Buddha talks about politics, Moore claims that it always goes back to a deeper level that there is no self. The Buddha believes that your self is an “ongoing project” and that very fact creates many social disruptions, distractions, and tensions. What could Buddhist politics look like in practice? Moore argues that the Buddha believes that you shouldn’t put a ton of thought or hope in to political duties‐ you should do them, but it should not be the element of your life that makes you feel “free”. Ultimately, Moore argues when it comes to politics and Buddhism, “the quality of your experience matters and the quality of your intention matters.”

Who is the Buddha? Is Buddha thought of as a divine person, as a spiritual being like Jesus, or like one of the Hebrew prophets? Is he a philosopher and not divine? Why would Buddhism have something to say about political theory? Does the Buddha believe that there are human rights?

Further Reading:

Buddhism and Political Theory, written by Matthew J. Moore

Reasons and Persons, written by Derek Parfit



00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Matthew J. Moore. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and author of “Buddhism and Political Theory.” Welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:23 Matthew J. Moore: Thanks so much for having me.

00:25 Aaron Ross Powell: I guess we’ll start with who was the Buddha?

00:28 Matthew J. Moore: That’s a good question. So, the Buddha was an Axial Age religious reformer, born some time between 400 and 600 BC, different scholars argue about the exact dates. And honestly, I think of him a little bit as being kind of like the Luther of Hinduism. So, at that period, we have the religion which scholars call the vedic religion, but which eventually turns into what we now call Hinduism. It’s polytheistic, it believes in the version of reincarnation that today we would call metempsychosis, but that there’s a soul that hops from body to body to body over the course of different lifetimes, and that has a fairly conventional view of there being kind of good afterlives and bad afterlives, which you reach through accumulating karma through various kinds of intentional or willful acts.

01:29 Matthew J. Moore: And the Buddha comes along, and, by tradition, he comes from the warrior caste, so he’s not himself a priest, but he’s well educated in this tradition, and says, “Well, that’s pretty much right, but not quite.” And he makes this series of kind of important innovations, one of them being that, in the Buddhist tradition, the soul is more like a kind of energy. And so, the metaphor we often see is lighting one candle from another. So, there is some spark that moves on, and that is relevantly in that next life, but not a soul that hops from one body to the next, to the next, to next, to the next. And also, the idea that at the end of it all, if we can reach Nirvana, which technically means extinguishment, that we will simply cease to be, in some way. And the Buddha is, unfortunately, extremely vague about that. As opposed to the Hindi vision that we’re gonna kind of join up with Brahman, the kind of God head, and become part of this universal consciousness.

02:36 Matthew J. Moore: So, this just gives you some sense. He’s a reformer he’s someone who turns down a life of privilege and potential power to pursue a religious vocation, and lives to be about roughly 80, and has a long and interesting and well‐​documented life.

02:57 Trevor Burrus: Is Buddha thought of as a divine person, as a spiritual being like Jesus, or maybe more like one of the Hebrew prophets? Or is he a philosopher and not divine?

03:08 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah, good. That’s a great question. It depends a little bit on which tradition you’re in. So, saying Buddhism is a little bit like saying Christianity. [chuckle] There’s a lot of different versions of it. In most versions, the Buddha is not thought to be divine, in the sense of being either any kind of creator, or in the sense of being immortal. The way that the Hindu system that he comes out of works is there’s… Human incarnation is roughly the best incarnation, mostly because it gives you a chance to choose. It gives you a chance to do the right thing and try to live the right way. Below that, there are animal incarnations, then there’s like insects and vegetable, and then you get down to the kind of various Hell realms, where you can become a ghost and all those kinds of things. Above human, if you are… And this is a distinction I really have a hard time explaining to my students, that are always puzzled by it. The goal in Hinduism is not to have only good karma, it’s to have no karma. And so, if you have really great karma because you’ve been a good person, but the actions are done from desire, they’re done from the desire to be good, then you’re gonna end up with a kind of super human incarnation and you’re gonna be some kind of deity. And there’s all kinds of deities within that system.

04:36 Matthew J. Moore: What the Buddha does with that system is, he says, “Yeah, it’s true. If you have a lot of good karma at the time of your death, it is possible to have this kind of divine incarnation, but all that really means is that you’re gonna live so long, you’re gonna forget that you’re mortal, but at the end of the day, you are mortal.” So, in this traditional Buddhist teaching, there are gods, but they’re all mortal, and they’re all… And none of them created the universe. The universe according to the Buddha has no beginning and no end, and they will all eventually die and be reincarnated. And the thing about being a god is it’s actually not that great, because you get there because you had a wonderful life as a person and you’ve chosen to do good things. But you live so long as a god and you have all these fun magic powers that you kind of forget that that was the point in the first place, and so, it’s actually likely to lead you astray. So, most people see the Buddha as a philosopher. There are some traditions, I’m thinking particularly of the Pure Land tradition, that does seem to see him as more of a god, more like a traditional god. But in general, no. Most see him as just a guy who figured it out.

05:46 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, the core… I mean, most people who have heard of Buddhism or know anything about it, it’s this notion of escape from suffering. This rebirth is caught up, the cycles of this rebirth are part of the fact that we are suffering and so it’s by ending suffering or stress that we end the cycles of rebirth. So what’s the core of that? I guess maybe tell us a bit about his central insight, the four noble truths.

06:19 Matthew J. Moore: Sure. So, then I guess I would say that there’s the philosophical version of that, and then I think there’s also a kind of practical version. We’ll start with the philosophical, and then we’ll do the practical. On the philosophical side, the Buddha says, and this is the first of the four noble truths. Look, any human life is going to involve suffering, no matter how happy or wonderful your life is eventually you’re gonna die and everyone you love is gonna die and they’re gonna get sick before they die or they’re gonna get run over by a bus or whatever other thing is gonna happen. And even if what you love is cats, your cat’s gonna die. Or if what you love is nature, well turns out nature isn’t just one thing, right? Eventually, the beautiful Rocky Mountains will crumble into dust and we’ll have plains there instead of mountains. So whatever it is that you love is eventually going to change and that’s gonna make you unhappy. And so there really isn’t a way to avoid suffering. It’s alright. So on to noble truth number two. Where does suffering come from? You know, what’s the cause of sufferings? He says “Well the cause of suffering ultimately is a kind of, some kind of clinging.” We each say, “Well I love the Rockies and I want them to be exactly the way they are today, forever.”

07:39 Matthew J. Moore: That’s always trying to hold on to certainty and sameness in the face of inevitable change. And then he says, “Well, what might the cure be?” And this is the third noble truth. He says, “Well, if you could figure out how not to cling then you could conceivably not suffer.” He says, “Alright, well on to the fourth noble truth.” And this is the deceptive one, right because within the four noble truths is the noble eight‐​fold path. My friend always argues that it’s actually 11 truths. If you could figure out how not to cling, you might not suffer, but how aren’t you gonna cling? And so, Buddhism is really thought of as kind of a practice, a system of teaching yourself how not to cling to stuff. The most common method of course is meditation. And for anyone who’s tried to meditate, part of the point of it really is to let go of expectations, even about what the meditation is gonna do so that instead of sitting here thinking “I must be terrible at meditation because it’s not working, I’m still thinking.” That itself is something also to be let go of so that you can accept what’s happening around you.

08:46 Matthew J. Moore: Briefly, the practical version of all of that is, and I tell this to my students, but also to my children at home. The Buddha says, “Look, life inevitably contains some suffering. When you’re suffering, you have three choices. You can keep suffering, you can change the world or you can change your mind. That’s it.” Keep suffering always seems like a bad idea. So it’s either changing the world or changing your mind and sometimes changing the world is the right thing to do. If you’re tired, you should go to sleep. If you’re hungry, you should eat. But those are changing the world kinds of things. But often and the Buddha says really most of the time, the conflicts that we suffer from are mental. They are things that are self‐​imposed. There’s a famous story about the two darts or the two arrows, one arrow hits, and then you think, “Oh, why me? Why am I always the one who gets hurt?” And that just adds on to your unhappiness. And the Buddha says, you could let go of almost all of that and suffer a lot less.

09:46 Trevor Burrus: Now, in the beginning of the book, you discuss getting into the political aspect of this that we have this rich Buddhist religion and philosophy with hundreds of millions of adherents, but for people in the west, most of the time they aren’t thinking about Buddhist political theory or political philosophy, in the west. And I did a philosophy degree for undergrad, we didn’t touch on eastern philosophy. And there seems to be a hole there that you’re trying to fill, but why would Buddhism have something to say about political theory, and I guess maybe more specifically, did Buddha and his immediate followers have things to say about politics?

10:24 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah, it’s such a good question. This project started out honestly a little bit on a whim where one day I was thinking, “I wonder what I’m gonna work on next?” And I started thinking, “Well, I wonder if Buddha wrote anything about politics or government, or kings or whatever. And if he did, what is it and where is that exactly, and how does one find it?” And so that started… Because I at that point was already a Buddhist practitioner, but I hadn’t really done much scholarship around it. I started trying to understand what are the earliest texts that we have? Are those available in translation, what kind of translations are out there? And a lot of that kind of, just the stuff that keeps professors entertained, but it was very fun for me trying to dig all that up and understand what was there. And then starting to ask, “Okay, well, where in these texts, if anywhere, does he say anything interesting?” of course there were kings in that period, and he talks about kings a lot, but most of the stuff he says is really not interesting at all.

11:24 Matthew J. Moore: “I went to see King Pasenadi yesterday and he said this”, or you know, “We taught the king this”, but there are a handful of places where he discusses fairly directly what appears to be government or theories of government. And I give you a couple of quick examples. So in these early texts there is one where he lays out the kind of origin of the universe and he says, “Look, no one creates the universe. Universe just springs into existence. It goes on its merry way. Eventually it all collapses back down into a tiny little point.”

12:00 Matthew J. Moore: “Then it all springs back out again.” So it’s kinda like a Big Bang, Big Crunch theory. And this happens over and over and over again. But he goes through one of these cycles of what happens. And in essence what happens is that at some point, consciousness emerges and there are kinda ethereal conscious beings. And one of them thinks “What would it be like to have a sensual experience?” And in particular in this case “What would it be like to eat?” And sort of finds something in this ethereal world to eat and becomes greedy. And then there’s this long process by which things get worse and worse and worse and worse and worse. And we end up at a system that looks pretty familiar, right? Where people are growing rice in small individually owned plots and living in small villages. And some of them are stealing from one another, or using violence to prevent some from stealing from each other. And he says this is really where government starts. And what’s interesting about this is roughly 400 BC, there really isn’t in this culture a tradition of contract or the idea of a social contract.

13:07 Matthew J. Moore: And yet what he lays out is in essence a social contract theory. Where he says that people get together and say, “Well let’s pick the person who’s the smartest and the bravest and interesting and the best looking. We’ll make them the king. We’ll give them the power and we’ll give them a share of the rice every year so that they can survive while they enforce the rules.” And so that’s his conception of the beginning of politics. And it was fun to find that and see that that was there. And then there are a few more pieces throughout the texts that they give a little bit more of his idea about what politics should be.

13:40 Aaron Ross Powell: Does he… So we’ve gotten now to there ought to be a king to enforce the laws. But are there… What’s the scope of that king’s power? Is this just totalitarianism, anything goes or does Buddhism limit the state in any way?

13:56 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah it’s… And this is part of what I’m trying to suss out. So of course, most people who are Buddhists today, especially in the west who are Buddhists by conversion, are sympathetic to some kind of small “r” republican politics. They’re interested in something that’s representative, that’s in the interest of the people that’s in some way gonna be, gonna be getting the interests of the people represented. And so there’s a tendency to say, “Well Buddhism has always been republican or it’s always been a small “d” democratic system.” And I think that that’s wrong. You know really up until about 1850 virtually every Buddhist controlled region that we know of, or Buddhist country or Buddhist kingdoms going a little bit further back, are all more or less absolute monarchies. Now it’s true that within the system there are a number of places where the Buddha teaches and where some of these countries have tried to practice a kind of benevolent dictatorship or benevolent monarchism where we have one king but the king is supposed to be inspired by the teachings of the Buddha and is supposed to be ruling in the interest of everyone.

15:07 Matthew J. Moore: And there are several places in the early texts where the Buddha talks about here’s a really great king and what does this great king do? The nobles come to this great king and say, “Hey we really wanna build you this big beautiful palace.” And he says, “You know it would actually be better if you spent some of that money helping people who are poor. And so let’s build a place that the poor can come and bathe. And let’s build pavilions and if they need some gold, they can come and get some gold. Or if they need some land, we can get them some land. And so it’s redistributive, but it’s voluntarily redistributive which I think is very interesting. And again, it’s supposed to be ultimately in the interest of the people. That doesn’t work very well, I think, in practice for most Buddhist polities until you get to this period around 1850 where there’s this enormous sea change and we get to kind of modern Buddhist democratic or republican systems.

16:02 Trevor Burrus: Would you say you’re trying to suss out Buddhist political theory as much ’cause there’s not really anything there? Is that an accurate description or because of what we have or what they might think?

16:11 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah. I mean clearly there has been one historically, right? You know prior to colonialism there were Buddhist monarchies that existed. And they had a conception of the politics they were doing and thought that those were rooted in Buddhism. So there’s a way in which the answer is yeah there is a Buddhist political theory and it’s absolute monarchism. Goodbye, you know, [chuckle] kinda the end of the story. But I think that that turns out to be too simple an answer. That the Buddha… So… Let me give you one of the arguments that a lot of people who see a small “r” republican origin for Buddhism. What their argument is they say, “Look, the Buddha himself never ruled any country. The only community he ever created was the community of monks and nuns”, which is called the Sangha. The Sangha is ruled democratically. It’s perfectly clear. It’s actually in essence it’s a consensus democracy. You gotta get to a point where everyone agrees. There are… He actually lays out extensive I mean really like tediously extensive rules about how trials are to be held, conditions under which someone might be found innocent even though they’ve committed the crime.

17:22 Matthew J. Moore: For example if it the first time the issue has come up or if they were ignorant or if they were mentally ill and so on. He lays out this really very democratic system for the monks. And one of the arguments people make is, “Well, okay, but that’s the only system he ever laid out. So why shouldn’t we think that that’s what he wanted for everyone?” And I think there’s some pretty good reasons to think that he didn’t think that was likely for lay society. I mean in particular the monks are celibate and they own nothing. So two of the most common sources of political conflict that might actually lead to us needing something a little bit different are removed in a kind of artificial way for that little community. And when he talks about politics in another of the early sutras he lays out this vision of where politics is going in the future. It’s all based on verb tense, he says, “This is what’s happened in the past. This is what’s happening now. This is where it’s gonna go in the future.” It’s always monarchy. Now, it might be a better monarchy. In the future we’re gonna have a more enlightened monarch and one who’s gonna rule in the interests of the people but it’s never a democracy.

18:30 Aaron Ross Powell: So we in the western philosophical tradition, we have arguments for monarchy, we have arguments for republicanism, so when we’re looking at political theory as a whole, what specifically does Buddhist political theory bring to the table that’s either unique or at least sets it apart from the bulk of western political theorizing?

18:56 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah, so that’s a good question, “Why bother writing a book?” So I think there are a couple of different things that it contributes. One is that the Buddha teaches that there is no self. And he doesn’t just mean that the conception that we’re sort of separate from one another is an illusion, that we’re all ultimately part of one big universe, he also doesn’t merely that mean there is no immortal soul. You can see those arguments in other thinkers, you need something more radical than that, he says, “The person who you were 10 minutes ago is not the same as the person you are now,” and that there’s really no value in seeing continuity other than for obvious ordinary kind of day‐​to‐​day reasons, like it’s helpful to have names to refer to people and we’re gonna call someone who appears to be the same person by the same name and things like that.

19:53 Matthew J. Moore: But he says beyond that, the idea that somehow your self is an ongoing project that needs a certain kind of direction or care is just wrong. And in fact, according to him, it’s the source of all of our social conflict and all of our social problems. Again, students often have a hard time really grasping this idea, and the thing… The metaphor that I’ve used to talk with them about it is a hurricane. So if you think about it, a hurricane is nothing but a combination of warm air and moisture and yet they’re so distinctive and so powerful that we give them names. So we call them by human names, but at some point, a hurricane will simply blow itself out and that’ll be the end of it. And in the same way, according to the Buddha, people are merely a collection of energy and matter that have spun up through the biological process and created your consciousness and eventually it will spin out and your consciousness and the bits and pieces of matter that make you up will go back to nature and back to the universe and that will be the end of you.

21:03 Trevor Burrus: So if there’s no self who’s… It sounds… A, one, it sounds like Hume a little bit. Two, my philosophy undergrad training has me thinking, “If there’s no self then who is being enlightened and how can someone walk the Eight‐​fold Path, for example, without a concept of a person in the future who will be rewarded for doing it, that, ‘That is me.?’ ” And then I guess the third question is, “Does this make it anti‐​individualistic?”

21:36 Matthew J. Moore: Well, yeah, so… Good. So it does sound a lot like Hume, although Hume I think basically always ends up saying I’ve forgotten the exact wording of this quote, he says, “I can convince myself of all kinds of things as I sit in my chair by the fire but when I get up to answer the door, I don’t actually believe any of them.” So Hume is never quite willing to say, “This really is the case,” but rather says, “Oh it really looks like the case.” The idea of there being a separate individual really does seem to be false or of their being as kind of an ongoing soul really does seem to be false but he can never quite talk himself out of it.

22:12 Matthew J. Moore: Same thing with Nietzsche. Nietzsche and the Buddha have very, very similar ideas about personality, in a way even more so than Hume because they agree that the self, the experience of the self, is made up of smaller kind of sub‐​units, which Nietzsche calls under‐​souls, that together give us the experience of being a self but in fact, really ultimately aren’t. And yet Nietzsche too, at least to argue in the book, I think at the end the day of says, “You can’t give up on that idea because if you do that’s giving up on the idea of having some kind of plan for the future, some kind of commitment about how you’re gonna live.” So I think the person who comes the closest actually, I think is Derek Parfit in “Reasons and Persons”, who… That’s about the only person, the only theory in the western tradition that I think goes as far as the Buddha does. A second piece about that is, “If there is no self,” as you ask, “Who becomes enlightened?” And I think the answer is… What’s the right way to put it? It’s clear according to the Buddha that nature can, like it can spin up a hurricane, can spin up a consciousness and that consciousness can then form beliefs and those beliefs can be false.

23:33 Matthew J. Moore: And so one of the beliefs that we hold as a consciousness that’s just a kind of phenomenon of nature is that somehow we’re permanent, that we’re not merely a temporary accumulation of stuff and energy, but that somehow that that accumulation of stuff and energy really matters. And again, the metaphor is you consider of, imagine a hurricane getting, what do I wanna say, sort of self‐​righteous. [chuckle]

24:00 Matthew J. Moore: And thinking like, “I really matter”, like it matters. “And it’s gonna be a tragedy when I get blown out.” And the Buddha says, that’s basically what people do. And so consciousness is possible, obviously, but what it isn’t is permanent and it isn’t it’s own separate entity. It’s merely the way that the matter and energy have gotten blown together and then eventually it’ll blow itself out. So that’s the kind of who gets enlightened. The third question about is there an individual? I think actually is the most interesting one because that’s where you get to the question of, for example, are there human rights? And I think the Buddha’s answer is no, there aren’t because there are no people, in that relevant sense. And this is where… I’ll give you a short answer and then… Which will probably be unsatisfying and we can talk about it more. When Nietzsche says, “You have to hold on to this conception of the self because otherwise you’ll give up on any ideal about who you want to be, what kind of human you wanna be.” We can see why that makes some sense, that Nietzsche says, “The whole point of existence is to make a project of being the kind of person you wanna be and if you keep pushing hard for that and dedicate yourself to it you can become that and then maybe you can overcome it and become someone new.

25:20 Matthew J. Moore: And in that sense, the self is never really permanent but you can’t let go of it, you have to hold onto the illusion that it’s permanent ’cause otherwise then you just give up the struggle altogether. And I think what the Buddha says in response is, “No actually you could give both of those up”, because by the time you get to that point, or by the time you get to the point where you’re actually choosing, “Am I gonna hold on to this conception of the self or not?” You’ve already cultivated a certain kind of life and a certain way of approaching the world, and a certain way of approaching other people and problems. And it’s not as if… The problem is, that we’re always thinking about Tarzan or the children raised by wolves and well, if they never thought of a self, then they would never actually become human.

26:11 Matthew J. Moore: But the Buddha says, “Yeah but that never happens.” [chuckle] That’s not the issue, feral children are not the problem. The problem is someone who’s 30 or 40 years old who’s really had a life to think things through and is now through spiritual practice decided that they probably aren’t a self. And so that moment that we then are making that choice, “Am I gonna hold on to this fragmentary sense of I’m still thinking that I’m a thing?” And the Buddha says at that point, “It doesn’t matter,” ’cause you’ve already thrown in your lot, you’ve already made your ethical choices, you already have a personality and set of habits. And the fact that you then say, “Okay it’s all an illusion,” in a way isn’t gonna make any difference because you’ve already got momentum towards a certain way of living.

27:01 Aaron Ross Powell: What then repercussions does this idea of no self have for first ethics? And then second, for politics?

27:12 Matthew J. Moore: So I… In the book I argue… Buddhist scholars go in different directions on this so this is definitely a tendentious claim and not something that’s universally accepted. In the book I argue that the Buddhist is what I call a moral irrealist. So he says, “Look at the end of the day there is not absolute moral truth, that there’s nothing that’s right, capital “R,” and wrong, capital “W.” And one of my arguments behind that is, the Buddha says repeatedly that everything is temporary, everything is impermanent. And it would be really odd if what he meant by that was, everything is impermanent except moral truth. He never says… He never comes out and says that but the people who read him as being a moral realist, I think ultimately have to assume that, and I think it just isn’t consistent with the rest of what he teaches. So the Buddha’s claim pretty typically is, look some stuff is gonna help you have a less conflictual life, and some stuff is gonna help you have a more conflictual life. You have no duty to choose the less conflictual, but you’re a fool if you choose the more conflictual. And so he offers, what I think is roughly a Kantian hypothetical imperative. There is no duty to live this way, but if you want to live in a way that’s gonna work out for you well, then this is how to do it.

28:40 Matthew J. Moore: So it’s sort of a how to rather than a thou shalt. So I think on the ethical side you can construct a coherent ethics around that kind of approach. On the political side I think it gets harder. Right, I think if you wanna say, “Well, this is why government shouldn’t violate this fundamental right or this is why we should conceive with people having these basic rights… ” I think that that’s trickier and I think that’s why we have… What I try to say in the book is, we have these ancient texts, we have some more modern texts, and texts in the intervening periods where different Buddhists are trying to work out pieces of this. But what we really have at the moment is an opportunity to try to see what Buddhist politics could look like in practice. There are relatively few countries today that are explicitly Buddhist. Cambodia being one, Thailand, Bhutan, and then there are others of course that have large Buddhist populations or where Buddhism is obviously important, like Sri Lanka. But I don’t think we know yet what a 21st century Buddhist politics is gonna look like.

29:54 Aaron Ross Powell: This question of, so we might not have, on baseline Buddhism something that looks like rights. But Buddhism certainly sets out prohibitions on behavior. And I wanted to ask about that, and the state. And specifically this question of… So the core, the core prohibitions of… Buddhism places on behavior are these five precepts. That anyone who wants to participate, who considers themselves a Buddhist, who wants to kinda enter into this, has to agree to the five precepts, which…

30:30 Aaron Ross Powell: And the second… And they’re kind of the baseline rules that we all would be used to. So, “Don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t become intoxicated, don’t engage in illicit sexual behavior or take sensual pleasures to too much of an extreme.” But the second one, it gets really interesting, raises interesting questions about the role of the state. Which is the second one… Is you have to abstain from, quote, “Taking what is not given.”

31:00 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

31:00 Aaron Ross Powell: And then you mentioned there’s a Thai text that you… A Thai Buddhist text that you you talk about in the book… That sets out rules for kings. And one of them… The line runs, “Another kind of evil deed concerns the wealth and property of others that is not given by the owner. Such things rulers must never take.” So when I read those things about basically two things saying, “Don’t take what is not given to you.” When I read that from my libertarian perspective, I think, “Well then, how do we have a state that’s dependent on taxation, which is by definition taking what was not freely given to you?”

31:37 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah, no. That’s right, and… So the more common gloss on that prohibition is “Don’t steal.” But I agree with the one that you’ve emphasized, that I think a better way to understand that is “Don’t take what’s not given freely.” And in the early text, where we lay out this kind of social contract, in fact it is given freely. The people say, “We need some kind of king. We need someone to be in charge of making and enforcing the rules, and we give them their share of the rice.” I think it’s a 10th, right? “We give them the 10th of the rice freely,” right? This is a voluntary choice, sort of a la John Locke. We’re creating a system and we recognize the system’s gonna need some kinda resources to function.

32:24 Matthew J. Moore: I think you get then to the question of, “Okay, well what about the second generation, or the third generation, or the 150th generation?” You know, is it still voluntary? And although the Buddha himself never says this, I do think that there’s a kind of anarchic peace to it: That really, if we were all enlightened… And there’s one text where he almost says this: “If we were all enlightened, we wouldn’t need government.” You know, that government is in a sense a… From a Christian perspective, a symbol of our fallenness, but from a Buddhist perspective, a symbol of our only partial awareness or partial enlightenment. And that if we could get to the point where everyone was enlightened, all we would have would be the kind of coordination issues that you have within the Sangha, where you have to have some kind of rules about who’s gonna want… Who’s gonna go first, or who’s gonna go second, and that kind of thing.

33:15 Matthew J. Moore: Now, I have to say, personally I’m not ultimately super sympathetic to that view. I don’t think that it’s possible; it’s sort of like the Marxist vision of the after the revolution, where it’s all just matters of coordination rather than fundamental policy choice. But I don’t think the Buddha gives us a lot of ideas about where to go with that. And one way to think about that is, he says in those early texts, “We need the king to enforce the rules,” which seems to imply that the king is gonna have to use violence, right? Because, as I say to my students so often, [chuckle] “It’s only authority if you don’t wanna do it.” If you’re… If the state asks you to do something and you say, “Yeah, that seems like a pretty good idea.” Or, “Yeah, I was gonna do that anyway,” then there’s no need for authority. There’s only a need for authority when the state says, “Do this.” And you say, “No, don’t wanna do that. Think it’s a bad idea, you haven’t convinced me.”

34:14 Matthew J. Moore: So the Buddha does seem to suggest that there is a need for the exercise of authority and the need for the use of violence, even though, of course, the Buddha’s otherwise a pacifist and appears to be a little cagey about authority. So I think we don’t… There’s some places where I think the Buddha suggests, “You need some kind of structure, some kind of government that’s gonna… That is limiting the freedom of individuals, but in the name of a broader protection of the freedom of the community.” But I don’t think he ever lays that out fully. And so I don’t think he answered some of those really important questions.

34:55 Trevor Burrus: One of the things that you point out that is unique about Buddhist political thought when compared to especially western political thought, when you have people like John Locke, who does epistemology but also does political philosophy, of Hume, who does the same. All these people think that political philosophy and involvement in politics is incredibly important in some sense. But you write that Buddhism is radically deflationary about the importance of politics to human life, coming about as close as possible to being overtly anti‐​political without actually embracing anarchism. And that it seems that Buddhists think that politics is mostly a quote, “A tremendous waste of time and effort, as well as being a prime temptation to allow ego to run rampant.” And you…

35:39 Aaron Ross Powell: I wrote a big star next to that in the margin when I was reading the book.


35:42 Trevor Burrus: And yeah, it’s something we think here at the Cato Institute a lot. But it does seem to be something that you point out as much almost clearer about the relevance of Buddhism to political thought, or how Buddhism can illuminate political thought… That they just don’t think politics is a very meaningful endeavor, or he did not.

36:01 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah, and you know… In the book I argue that there is a western tradition that that relates to going back to the Epicureans and the Stoics and… What… I think there’s two different pieces to say about that. So one is, I do think the Buddha ultimately is arguing for a kind of deflationary view of politics and saying, “Look politics is ultimately kind of a waste of time.” But the thing I guess I wanna emphasize, this would be the second piece, is he also says, that he’s not just talking about government. So it isn’t merely that government is a waste of time, it’s the aspiration to achieve whatever it is that one wants through political means. So that for example, one might want to have… Democratic‐​Socialism, and he says, “That’s a nice want but you’re ultimately gonna be wasting your time and you’re gonna be tempted to create a system through which you’re gonna try to control things that’s gonna be really damaging.”

37:11 Matthew J. Moore: But at the same time, if one were to say, “Well what I really want is a libertarian paradise without those kinds of state interventions,” he’s gonna say the exact same thing. He’s gonna say the issue isn’t the government, the issue is the desire, the issue is the underlying thought that through some sort of collective human action, you could achieve that kind of outcome. And for him those would be equally mistaken strategies or equally mistaken desires.

37:43 Trevor Burrus: Now when we think about the… We didn’t lay these out as clear as I want to be. And there are three things and we’ve touched on all of them that you write about that are important for informing Buddhist political theory, the view of the self, the view of politics, and the view of ethics. How do those all work together in the end for lessons that broader about politics and maybe what we can learn about our political systems from a Buddhist standpoint?

38:11 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah. So I think, there’s a couple different pieces about that. So one is, I think that there… Let’s start with the deflation of politics again. That’s the piece that I’ve gotten the most pushback on from other scholars who have asked in various ways, both [chuckle] polite and a little more pointed. Is that kind of a responsible thing to say? And is it a responsible thing to advocate? Are you basically saying to people, “Well don’t worry so much about it, just let things happen and don’t get involved.” And one of the things I try to point out in the book is that the Buddha says in many places, if you owe taxes you should pay them. If you’re due for service in the military, you should go. And that Buddhists shouldn’t be grabbing… There’s a whole series of places where people in the army try to defect and become monks, and they try to say, “Well now that I’m a monk I can’t be in the military anymore ’cause I’m a pacifist and so all of my obligations to the state are gone.”

39:26 Matthew J. Moore: Or prisoners or slaves or people like that. And the Buddha says, “I’m against the war, I’m against the people being imprisoned, I’m against slavery, but you can’t escape your obligations, you can’t escape the judgements that have been put on you merely by running and becoming a monk.” And forbids the Sangha from accepting people who are essentially trying to do that. And there are a couple of other places where he says things that get at this broader point, which is do the things that are sort of conventional within your society.

40:00 Matthew J. Moore: So if your society meets together to make decisions, go to the meeting and make the decisions. If your society pays taxes, pay the taxes. Whatever that is, and if your notice just comes up for jury duty, go do your jury duty. But don’t put a lot of hope into it, don’t think, “Okay, this is what’s gonna make me free.” And at the same time don’t put a lot of frustration into it, don’t say, “This is a terrible imposition upon my freedom,” but rather simply say, “Okay this is the thing I’m gonna do and then I’m gonna get back to something more important which is understanding my spiritual life.” So I really wanted to kind of get a little bit in people’s face about that piece of Buddhism because it’s so contrary to what we think. It’s so contrary to most modern thought and in fact it’s so contrary to the message of virtually all of western political philosophy which goes all the way back to Plato, which is you can’t really be a full self unless you’re engaged in politics. You’re not gonna be your best self unless somehow you’re also a zoon politikon, you’re a political self. And that the Buddhist’s just a nice foil of saying, “Really? Are we sure that’s true? Let’s think about that again.” So that’s one piece.

41:12 Matthew J. Moore: A second piece would be, and it’s related to that, that where he lays out this kind of irrealist moral vision. We’re familiar with that from a lot of different contemporary sources, that’s the post modern view, you see it in a lot of different sources. And it’s not always clear that it makes sense, it’s not always clear that it’s well defended, it’s certainly been very controversial. And I wanted to point out that at least on the reading that I think is the right reading, and of course I wasn’t there 2500 years ago, but the reading that seems like the best reading to me, the Buddha appears to be arguing for that position, and that suggests that he thinks that a, that it’s true, but also b, that it might actually be practical, it might be possible to live that way, and that it’s not merely that idea that Foucault dreamed up one day in a faculty lounge. And then, in terms of the self, whether there really is one, again I think trying to take that Humean, or Nietzschean, or Buddhist idea that there isn’t, where are we gonna go with that? The one thing that I am unsatisfied with about the book myself, and that hopefully future work will let me pursue, is there isn’t really a program here. What there is, is a series of observations that allow us to problematize a bunch of stuff that happens in our politics, but doesn’t necessarily give us a path forward.

42:47 Trevor Burrus: On the question of the view of ethics, which you compared to postmodernism, from a political normative standpoint it would seem to imply that Buddhists shouldn’t think the state should try to impose one view of the good life or one way of living according to moral precepts, but maybe facilitate people being able to fulfill their own hypothetical imperatives and live their lives as they wish. Would that be accurate, possibly?

43:16 Matthew J. Moore: I think it’s right to say that the Buddha is interested in allowing people to pursue what seems right to them, but the question is does that rise to the level of political opposition? And there I think the answer is no. So certainly, if you join the Sangha in a way that’s acceptable to the Buddha, you’re not running away from an obligation or trying to escape a prison sentence or something like that, then the Buddha says “Come, learn what I teach. If it makes sense to you, stay. If it doesn’t make sense to you, feel free to go somewhere else. And if it makes sense to you, then practice it.” There’s a famous example where there’s a town and they say “Keep having all these religious teachers come, including you, and everyone tells us something different. How do we know who’s right?”

44:14 Matthew J. Moore: And the Buddha says, in essence, “Well, for God’s sakes, don’t take my word for it. Figure it out for yourselves. What seems right to you? Does this seem true or not true?” and walks them through it. And I think that really emphasizes the kind of free‐​thinking aspect to the Buddha that’s very appealing. So, clearly the Buddha wants people to be able to make their own choice about that, and to the extent that the social system of his day, and the political system of his day impose that on people, he created a space in which it was possible to live differently. But I don’t think that it ever rises to the point where he would say, “Let’s oppose this political power because it doesn’t do that.”

44:57 Matthew J. Moore: He just never gets there. I think the only time he really opposes a political power is when there’s a king who’s the murderous son of one of his friends. The son kills the father to take the throne and it turns out that the son had been tricked in a previous… His mother was supposed to have been a noble from the Buddha’s own Shakya clan, but in fact was really a slave girl. The clan had tricked his father and the son discovers this in his youth and swears to get revenge, and so goes to try to destroy the Shakya, and twice the Buddha meets him on the road and just says, “Where are you going? What’s your plan?” and the king turns back but the third time, the Buddha says, “Okay,” basically, “The Shakya brought this on themselves by deceiving the father, and I’m not gonna keep defending them. I’ve done what I can do.” But that’s about it. That’s really the only time we see the Buddha doing anything that resembles something like political opposition. So, on the one hand, clearly the Buddha wants people to have the freedom to live by their own values, but he doesn’t seem to bring that to the point of political principle.

46:25 Aaron Ross Powell: Speaking of provide to make this somewhat concrete, we live, right now, in interesting political times. People are fairly worked up no matter what side they’re on in the US. Everyone seems to be really worked up about politics. Everyone has strong opinions about the direction the country’s headed, and how catastrophic or glorious it might be. And, also, Buddhism is on the rise especially in its mindfulness form, is the hottest thing there is in Silicon Valley.

47:01 Matthew J. Moore: It’s everywhere. Yeah.

47:02 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s how many apps you can download for your phone to help you meditate and so on. So for people who are facing the situations that we’re facing today, what lessons do you think Buddhism, as it applies to politics, has for them? What should they take away from this or why should they potentially look to Buddhism as a way to think about and approach these problems?

47:33 Matthew J. Moore: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think what Buddhism says to us about day‐​to‐​day concrete actual politics is the quality of your experience matters and the quality of your intention matters. And so you can have really strong feelings about elected officials or elections coming up or decisions by the courts or whatever it is, one way or the other. But if that leads you to act in ways that aren’t consistent with your broader values, if it leads you to take something that’s not given freely, it leads you to kill or to use violence, if it leads you to intoxication, that that suggests that there’s a problem with you, right? There’s a problem with the way that you’re dealing with that. And again, you can either choose to keep suffering, you can change the world, or you can change your mind. Those are really the only available options. And we might think, “I’d like to change the world but I can’t. I’m unable to do so as an individual.” The Buddha says, “That’s fine, but you’re still gonna have to live through this experience. You’re still gonna have to live through the period in which you’re upset or the period in which you’re elated,” but are always in danger of thinking, “This is so amazing and it’s gonna be amazing forever.” I think the Buddha counsels a kind of caution around that, a kind of caution around either the upset or the elation, and instead of saying, “What could you do that would take it all in stride?”

49:26 Matthew J. Moore: And similarly, what can you do that will reduce social conflict with other people and increase kind of a peaceful interaction? I’ll just give you really quick examples. So, here in the Kalpi campus last fall, I invited the college Republicans and the campus Democrats to meet with me just as an opportunity to talk, a chance to off the record, just get together, talk about their differences, talk about things that had happened the previous year that they might’ve still had some feelings about and see if there was some room for moving forward, collectively could we put together an event, could we do something someway of cooperating. And the spirit of it just was civility. I called it the “Civility project,” but that’s a little grandiose. But the idea just was, “Is there some way which we could move forward together?” And that was inspired for me by the Buddhist teaching, by the idea that I could find a way to maybe help these folks who are otherwise in conflict be a little bit less in conflict.

50:39 Matthew J. Moore: So, that’s not very satisfying, right? It doesn’t tell us who to vote for or who to be happy about winning or losing, but I think it does tell us about how to approach that and that we’re gonna have to live through it one way or the other. And the interesting question is do we have the kind of emotional poise or balance necessary to do that?


51:14 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Test Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate and review us on iTunes. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.