E24 -

Aaron Ross Powell joins the show to discuss the intersection of libertarian political theory and the religion of Buddhism.

Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor
Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of Libertarianism.org’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.


Discussions of Buddhism typically revolve around lofty topics like reincarnation and the nature of the self. Policy debates about tax rates and international trade seem to be outside of the Buddhist focus. Aaron Ross Powell joins to discuss how the ethical principles of Buddhism apply to the world of politics.

Further Reading:




0:00:02.1 Paul Meany: Hi, everyone. This episode is a little different than usual. Normally, I chat alone about historical figures, but I wanted this show to cover a wide array of topics and people we wouldn’t usually encounter. Every now and again, there are some things that are just outside of my reach, but thankfully, that means I can rely on the expertise of others. So today, I’ll be chatting with Aaron Ross Powell, who is the director and editor of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org at the Cato Institute about the intersection of libertarianism and Buddhism.

0:00:28.6 Paul Meany: So Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, but I really don’t know a huge amount about Buddhism, and I wouldn’t be the only person to say that. I’ve only met a handful of Buddhists, and that’s probably because in America, only about 1% of people are Buddhists, and nearly half of them all live in California. And then where I’m originally from in Ireland, Buddhists make up 0.02% of the population or something like that, so I just haven’t really met so many. So, now I have you, Aaron. So you’re working at the intersection between Buddhism and libertarianism, but whenever I think of Buddhism, I would never think of libertarianism. I’d always think of some sort of kind of hippie Democrat or something like that, or I’d think about Buddhism as in practicing reincarnation or meditation or interesting views about the nature of the self, but not politics. So how did you get into politics and Buddhism?

0:01:18.4 Aaron Ross Powell: I got into politics through the punk rock scene in Detroit, Michigan, in high school, and then in college, meeting my now Free Thoughts co‐​host, Trevor Burrus, who got me into libertarianism and political philosophy, and then that ended up bringing me to Cato. Buddhism is a much more recent thing for me, within the last five years maybe. I had always had a general interest in ancient philosophy. And as is the case for many people with that interest, what that really meant was ancient Greece, so I decided it was probably better to be less provincial and branch out. And I was a little bit familiar with Buddhism, or at least compared to other Eastern philosophical traditions, I knew something about it, and so decided to start there.

0:02:14.0 Aaron Ross Powell: And in my reading, I just came to think that Buddhist philosophy had an extraordinary amount of truth to it, that the diagnosis of the human condition, that the solutions, the ethical and epistemic and metaphysical systems that were built on top of that seemed to ring quite true, and were just incredibly rich as a field of study. And so I have obsessed over it for the last several years and have come to think that it’s really unfortunate how little thinkers in the West and even libertarian free market classical liberal types are unfamiliar with this tradition, because there’s a lot in it for supporting the cause of liberty.

0:03:06.3 Paul Meany: Was Schopenhauer one of the first Western philosophers to incorporate Buddhism?

0:03:11.7 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a little bit unclear, the influence of Buddhism on the West. There’s evidence that the Greeks were familiar with Buddhism, that they had met up with Buddhists. The Greek Pyrrhonists seemed to have been heavily influenced by it. There’s also some evidence that David Hume was familiar with it, and you can see in Hume’s ideas on the nature of the self or his pushing back on Descartes’ Cogito, things that look awfully Buddhist, and there’s some evidence that he spent time in a library that had Buddhist texts. So there’s been kind of an off and on or beneath the surface line of influence, but it’s hard to tease all of it out. Certainly, more direct engagement with Buddhist thought is a more recent thing. But I also have found that a lot of Western philosophers who engaged with it tended to misunderstand it or mischaracterise it, so its basic ideas of Duḥkha, the kind of nature of suffering, tends to get read incorrectly by a lot of Western thinkers, including I believe, Schopenhauer, about just what that means. But yeah, there has been this engagement, but it still is not a thorough one. Western philosophers tend to be pretty ignorant of it in general.

0:04:45.7 Paul Meany: So a lot of people talk about Buddhism kind of like Stoicism or Epicureanism in that it’s not really like a religion. You don’t need to believe in too much, you don’t need to believe in any supernatural deities. It’s more like a philosophy for life and a guide to life. So what are the main principles of how Buddhists ought to live, and then how does that relate to Buddhism and politics?

0:05:10.3 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure. So the core idea that the story is that Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, noticed that there was suffering in life. So not that life is entirely suffering, which is kind of the mischaracterisation, but that we have suffering in our lives, and that this suffering isn’t just pain, but also what might be translated as unsatisfactoriness, or stress, or just general lack of contentment, and he decided to try to figure out how to overcome that. And the core of the theory that he came up with is what’s called the Four Noble Truths. And so the first noble truth is Duhkha, which is this suffering, which is basically the truth is that suffering exists, that it’s present in life. The then second noble truth is the origin of this suffering, which he saw as, essentially, craving, that we suffer because we become attached. We crave things, we want things, we want things to be permanent when they’re not. Impermanence is a big part of Buddhist philosophy. And so that kind of grasping at things to make things that are impermanent pretend that they’re permanent, or to hold on to them, or to want them is what drives this ongoing cycle of dissatisfaction and makes other forms of suffering worse.

0:06:54.4 Aaron Ross Powell: And then the third noble truth is that it is possible to overcome this, that we can get to an end or an overcoming of this kind of suffering, of Duhkha. And then the fourth final noble truth is the, what’s called the Eightfold Path, which is the practical steps that we can take to get there. It’s kind of the prescription. And so this gets analogised a lot, and the Buddha himself used a lot of medical analogies.

0:07:21.9 Aaron Ross Powell: And so the first noble truth is recognising what’s wrong with the patient, the second is diagnosing the cause of the ailment, the third is seeing that it is possible to cure the ailment, and then the fourth is the prescription for doing that, is the way that we can overcome it. And everything about Buddhist ideas then flows from those four noble truths, and the core of Buddhism as a practical philosophy is found in that noble Eightfold Path.

0:08:01.9 Paul Meany: So, so far, Buddhism sounds more like a personal thing. It’s not exactly a very big political project. So what have people said about Buddhism and politics in the past? Are there many people who’ve interpreted this? Is it a large field, is it a small field?

0:08:15.7 Aaron Ross Powell: Early Buddhism didn’t have a lot of political theory, and a lot of that was because it was a monastic renunciation philosophy. So the goal of Buddhist practice, certainly at the time of the Buddha, was personal enlightenment, was the personal overcoming of this suffering, and so it was very much a self‐​focused thing. You go off and you practice meditation and develop virtues and correct your take on the world, and then you can overcome suffering on your own. And so to the extent that political issues played into this, some of the early texts have the Buddha giving advice to kings, but that advice is usually just of the form of, even as a king, you should try to live based on Buddhist principles. And so you should make an effort not to cause harm, not to be dishonest, and all of the other kind of Buddhist virtues should be lived, even in the realm of politics, but it’s fairly thin. There isn’t a comprehensive political theory of say, the origins and nature of the state, or legitimacy of power and so on.

0:09:35.0 Aaron Ross Powell: As Buddhism grew and became closer in various countries to centres of power, it interacted a bit more, but again, seems to have adapted to the locations. So you’ll find Buddhist nationalism, you’ll find, say in Japan during World War II, the Zen leaders and Zen schools pretty heavily embraced the militarism of Japan, but Buddhism has typically been this personal‐​focused philosophy, and you can get to politics via its ethics. In modern times and in the West, we’ve seen the emergence of what’s described as engaged Buddhism, which is a movement that says, “Look, Buddhists, it’s not just about enduring suffering for yourself, it’s about ending suffering in the world,” about putting this Buddhist compassion into practice. And so therefore, Buddhists should not disengage. The ideal is not the monk sitting under a tree in the forest, it’s instead someone out in the world trying to improve the state of the world for everyone. And this has become a large and very strong movement within Buddhist politics.

0:11:00.2 Aaron Ross Powell: The issue, and it’s part of my project and a lot of my research and writing, is that I think there’s not a real strong consideration among engaged Buddhism of political theory. Instead, what you see is engaged Buddhists tend to be regular progressives, but they’re not regular progressives because there is something inherent in Buddhist ideas that points towards progressivism. They’re regular progressives because that’s kind of what they were, either before they came to Buddhism, or it’s what all of the people they know believe. And so there’s just a jump from, “Buddhism tells me I should be compassionate.” I think the way that you’re compassionate is to be a progressive. Therefore, Buddhism is a progressive, in the political sense, philosophy. And I don’t think that’s quite true.

0:11:53.7 Aaron Ross Powell: I think if we go back and we look at the underlying ethics, we look at what the Buddha and early Buddhist thinkers actually did say when they were talking to kings or talking about political issues, we get something that looks much closer to free markets, individual liberty, libertarianism, than we do the large and interventionist welfare state that a lot of… Or even the socialism, that a lot of engaged Buddhists seem to embrace.

0:12:28.3 Paul Meany: So what are some of the main political principles that apply to politics from Buddhism? What would a Buddhist take on something like taxation, for example?

0:12:37.1 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure. So I think the place to start when we’re thinking about how we might apply Buddhist ideas to political questions is the core ethical idea of Buddhism is non‐​violence, is non‐​harm. Buddhists are not supposed to harm. The basic kind of action guidance in Buddhism is the five precepts. And these are the things that like basically, you’re expected to live by these, and if you don’t live by these, then it makes it really impossible to kind of advance on that Eightfold Path, to advance towards an end of suffering and enlightenment, because these things will always be dragging you down. And these precepts include “Don’t kill” or “Don’t cause harm,” and also “Don’t steal,” but steal is maybe not the best translation of the original poly‐​phrasing. A better translation is, “Don’t take what has not been given to you freely.” So Buddhist monks were beggars. All that they owned was a robe and an alms bowl, and they would have to wander into the village and beg for their food. And so the precept says, “Don’t take what was not given to you freely.”

0:14:02.9 Aaron Ross Powell: So to begin with, taking those seriously causes problems for a lot of state action, because a lot of state action necessarily is about either harming people or threatening them with harm if they don’t behave the ways that you want them to, the ways that the laws, the legislation tells them to. And taxation is, by definition, taking what was not given to you freely. If people voluntarily gave money to the state, we wouldn’t need taxation. Taxation is simply saying, “You have to give me money, and if you don’t, I’m going to threaten you, punish you.”

0:14:40.5 Aaron Ross Powell: And so the very core of the state, definitionally, is at the very least in tension with, but probably outright violates these two core Buddhist ethical precepts. There’s some routing around that in the idea there’s… So Buddhism has a lot of traditions and one of them, one of the early ones that split off and has become the dominant one is the Mahayana tradition. And in Mahayana, they developed the idea of what’s called the Bodhisattva, who is this… Essentially, it’s what you’re aiming for, it’s like the ideal kind of state of virtue, and it’s also the idea that if you become enlightened, you succeed in the Buddhist path. Instead of going off and just being by yourself and blissing out, you should dedicate yourself to advancing the interests of others, that that compassion could kind of keep you bound to this Earth, that you shouldn’t… And Buddhist about these cycles of rebirth. And one of the effects of becoming enlightened is ending these cycles of rebirth, and the Bodhisattva is supposed to refrain from doing that until he or she has helped other people to become enlightened.

0:16:05.4 Aaron Ross Powell: And one of the ideas within Mahayana is that kind of the Bodhisattva as this enlightened being can bend or break the ethical rules because they have the insight to see that sometimes bending or breaking the ethical rules will create more good than sticking to them. I’m not convinced that gets around the prohibitions because certainly, most voters and most politicians are not Bodhisattvas, so they don’t really get that out and have to stick to this.

0:16:41.4 Paul Meany: I noticed that Buddhism has kind of a similarity to the ancient Greek philosophy, Epicureanism. Does it have some… The Epicureans thought that political office was something you shouldn’t really bother pursuing ’cause politics won’t lead to a good life. It’s constant anxiety, constant craving. Is Buddhism, does it have a similar take on political office, like Buddhists can be politically engaged, but holding power is a different kind of matter?

0:17:04.3 Aaron Ross Powell: I think it’s gonna depend on the tradition. It’s gonna depend on the culture. There certainly are… There are nations that are officially, or at the state level, Buddhist, such as Thailand. In general, early Buddhism said the best way to practice was to disengage from the world. So you leave your family, you become a travelling mendicant, and you focus entirely on your practice, on meditation and related things in order to progress on the path, but there’s a strong tradition… Like if you read the early Buddhist texts, a lot of it is the Buddha and his followers talking to lay people who aren’t doing this, who have families, have jobs, have responsibilities, and they’re not told “You can’t be a Buddhist unless you shave your head and become a monk.” So the rules or the strictness of the behaviour is a bit lessened for them because they don’t have the luxury of dedicating all of their time to practice.

0:18:19.3 Aaron Ross Powell: And running for office, if you think, if that’s your job, that’s what you need to do, you could certainly do that and be a practicing Buddhist. And there are practicing Buddhists in political office, certainly, but even in that role, if you want to be a practicing Buddhist, you would still need to abide by these basic moral principles of non‐​violence and honesty and not stealing and so on. And so that’s going to run up against the responsibilities of the politician, of the ruler and so on. And that plays out in the early texts. So in the Chakkawaththi Sutta, the Suttas are the early… Or what we refer to as like… They’re the main Buddhist texts. So a Sutta is a recording of what the Buddha said. They read kind of like Platonic dialogues. And in this early one, it’s the Buddhist talking to… It’s called the Wheel‐​Turning Monarch, who’s kind of the great king, and is told… The great king is expected to follow these things. So then the great king says, “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit sexual misconduct, don’t lie, don’t drink alcohol.” Intoxicants interfere with the ability to practice. And this is really interesting, the great king advises the other rulers to maintain the current level of taxation. In other places, it’s said that taxation should be maybe like 10% of the crops or something. So much, much lower than what we have right now.

0:20:04.2 Aaron Ross Powell: So yes, I think that definitely, you can… You don’t need to entirely avoid political office, some traditions are gonna say the only way to really practice is to avoid all of that, but others don’t, but at its core, you need to continue to apply Buddhist ethical precepts and those are going to complicate some of the issues in politics.

0:20:30.4 Paul Meany: So the ideal Buddhist following the principles given to them would probably be something kind of like anarchists, or communitarians maybe of a sort?

0:20:39.0 Aaron Ross Powell: I think so. And in fact, if we look back at the early Buddhist communities or at the community of monks that the Buddha himself was the head of, I believe that the political theorist Matthew Moore, who has a very good book on Buddhist political theory, said that these early… They were called sanghas, was the community of practicing Buddhists, that the early sanghas were based on what he referred to as a form of enlightened anarchism. So there were lots of rules for monks, and we have thousands of pages of these rules, but there wasn’t a coercive angle to it. So the punishment, if you, say you were a monk and you violated one of the precepts, so you murdered someone or you stole something, the punishment was disassociation. The sangha would essentially ask you to leave, but there wasn’t violent retribution. And the Buddha, or the leader of the sangha was a leader in the sense of being the person that other people looked up to and learned from, but he wasn’t a political leader. There really wasn’t such a thing. And there’s a strong sense in which decision making was kind of by consensus or discussion, and not by dictate.

0:22:09.8 Aaron Ross Powell: So yeah, I think that in an ideal world, if we had all perfectly enlightened beings, we wouldn’t need the state, and therefore it would be anarchist. The tension is that we don’t live in that world, that there are people who want to do bad things to other people, and we need a mechanism to prevent that, and so the state might be that mechanism. And so there might be reason to think we kind of need this thing, but certainly, Buddhist ideas would say that it’s going to necessarily be doing things that we ought to be worried about.


0:22:52.9 Paul Meany: Thanks more for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast. And if you did, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you may listen to podcasts. Visit the website www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org to find more podcasts like this one. I hope to see you next time.