What contribution could Buddhist philosophy offer to theories of democracy?

By YAMADA, Ryusaku

It is very difficult to find any studies of democracy that consider Buddhism. Does this mean that the Buddhist philosophy has nothing to contribute to enrich theories of democracy? We cannot answer this question without considering the Buddhist idea, although I admit that understanding it is not easy even for Asian people like myself. Here, I will discuss three points that would show the prospective insights of the Buddhist philosophy that are relevant to democracy.

              First, we can see an affinity between the Buddhist philosophy and deliberative democracy. Let us glance at several core elements of Buddhism. The first one is the belief in the existence of the Buddha nature or the Buddhahood in each individual’s life. Attaining the Buddhahood means that people “open” their Buddha nature that is inherent in their life. Such a Buddhist teaching shows the radical idea of equality and dignity of each individual and/or each life, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, etc. The second element is the idea of interconnectedness between all humankind. In Japanese, this Buddhist idea is called engi, which signifies correlation, in that nothing happens or exists in isolation from others or the environment. The normative idea of engi is that all individuals expand their self from the smaller self, dominated by egoism, to the larger self that makes coexistence possible by overcoming egoism through the awareness of the omnipresence of the Buddha nature in all humankind. This Buddhist understanding of the self is very different from that of modern Western liberal-democratic individualism, e.g., what Michael Sandel called “unencumbered self.” The Buddhist philosophy encourages engagement and dialogue with others. In light of this, Buddhist teaching can contribute to nurturing an attitude to listening to the other side, which is the basis of deliberative democracy.

              Second, however, we also need to see the difference between the Buddhist philosophy and many accounts of deliberative democracy. Theorists of deliberative democracy often presuppose the existence of a common good that makes agreement possible among political actors, an assumption already critiqued by Iris Marion Young. On the contrary, Buddhism does not assume the existence of a common good at the political and social level. The belief in the existence of the Buddhahood in all humankind does not entail necessarily a community with shared values: rather, the Buddhist philosophy respects difference and/or diversity because it teaches that each individual is unique. It never excludes the possibility that dialogue between people with different interests, ideologies, beliefs, and identities, can turn into clashes. Here, we can see an affinity between Buddhist philosophy and agonistic pluralism. From the viewpoint of engi mentioned above, opponents and antagonists should not be eliminated because they are interconnected. This idea reminds us of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of “adversary” who should not be destroyed but tolerated, as well as of what William Connolly called “agonistic respect.” The Buddhist philosophy tells us that a clashing between opponents is a sort of engagement and a form of connectedness, as long as they do not abandon dialogue. This idea resembles Young’s statement that conflict and disagreement are both part of the usual state of affairs in deliberation. Continuation of dialogue even in the form of disagreement might be more important than achieving agreement. In this sense, the Buddhist philosophy might be able to provide insights that link deliberative democracy and agonistic pluralism.

              Third, the Buddhist philosophy resonates with relatively new kinds of democracy, such as caring democracy, advocated by feminist political theorist Joan C. Tronto. She criticizes traditional liberal democracy that assumes autonomous and independent individuals. Tronto stresses that individuals are often both caring for someone else and being cared for by someone else because individuals are inherently fragile. In other words, anybody can be dependent on others and they should not be regarded as second-class citizens for this. If caring democracy becomes a significant trend of discussion, here would be a place in which the Buddhist philosophy can contribute. An essential feature of Buddhahood is compassion, based on the belief of the inherent Buddhahood in all people. In accordance with ideas of compassion and engi, a Buddhist way of thinking would be such that “we cannot live without ensuring others live,” and this kind of thinking is quite different from modern Western individualistic liberalism. Rather, Buddhist philosophy is very closely aligned with an ethics of care.

              In this post, I briefly discussed three points: the affinity of the Buddhist philosophy to deliberative democracy; the Buddhist possibility of connecting deliberative democracy and agonistic pluralism; and a prospective insight of Buddhism for caring democracy. Finally, I would like to point out a question for the future. Although I believe that the Buddhist philosophy contains many insights that are fruitful for enriching democracy, I am not so sure whether Buddhism provides its exclusively unique theory or model of democracy. The insights of the Buddhist philosophy seem ethical rather than political, and at the present it is not certain whether we can draw from Buddhism any conceptions of institutional procedure for democratic decision-making and any concrete policy contents. Therefore, I shall conclude this contribution with a call for further debates among democracy scholars that discuss Buddhist contribution to theories of democracy. My question to Agora’s readers is: are Buddhist insights for democracy limited to comparatively abstract ethical considerations? Will it be possible to flesh out more concrete suggestions for democratic institutions on this basis – and if so, how?

Ryusaku Yamada is professor of political theory at Soka University, Japan. He has Ph.D. in politics from the University of Sheffield. His research interests include democratic theory, mass society theory, citizenship studies, and feminist political theory. Currently he engages himself in reconsidering political and social thought of Karl Mannheim in England in the 1930s and 1940s. His major work written in English is Democracy and Mass Society: A Japanese Debate (Tokyo: Gakujutsu Shuppankai, 2006).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s