Ashoka’s Dhamma


Ashoka’s Dhamma can be read in some of the edicts. He followed a custom in India where, if a king donated, say, the produce of a village to support a temple or a religious order, like the Jains or Shramanas, like the Ajivikas, of course tax officials and other officials are liable to make encroachments and start demanding some of the produce for themselves.

So, there was a custom of engraving the grant in stone. Rather difficult to take away, rather difficult to obliterate quietly, not like a document that you can tear up or that you can have conveniently burnt and then fail to remember just as it was. He followed this system. At the important places in India, he selected some great rock, or crag, or boulder, or he would erect a pillar, and on this he engraved the principles of dhamma on which the country was to be run.

They can be roughly summarised in three forms of compassion. It became, the ideal was – and it was partially actualised – as a sort of welfare state, with hospitals, even for animals. Trees were planted on the long roads, wells were dug, and this was successful. The country – the prosperity of the country – did, in fact, make a great surge. The next was proper relations between the… Of the classical relationships: teacher-pupil, parents-children and so on. Lastly, individual morality. These were the three.

This is worth reading, this reign, as an example of what can be done. This emperor started off with a particularly ferocious war against the south east part of his country, which was very rich, powerful, and which he had to conquer in order to unite India. He did so, but the figures were something like 100,000 people were killed, and 150,000 he took prisoner and moved them to another part of the country. The records say many times that number were missing. He had a great shock – an internal shock – at this. Then he began to propagate the idea of rule by dhamma.

The Indian presentation, the Indian mind, is not the same as the mind of the people here or the mind of the people in China. It’s the sort of urbane and rational presentation in Plato’s dialogues, for instance, where, when the man simply refuses to see, Socrates says, “Well, I don’t know how I can help you anymore. We’d better leave the point.” Rational principle is laid down, and then the individuals are expected to apply that principle to individual cases.

The principles are, as a matter of fact, those of the traditional Indian medicine, the four noble truths: disease, cause of the disease, the state of health, and the remedy. The last two became changed round. This is a rational presentation. It had to be supported by some degree of austerity. The Indian mind expects that, to back up a rational presentation, a man has to be relatively free from the clingings and attachments to the world. Otherwise, his reason will be polluted.

We don’t have this concept here of reason being polluted, but we do see this in our history of science quite often. When Young proposed his wave theory of light, one of the reasons the opposition gave for rejecting it was that it was unpatriotic because Newton had proposed a corpuscular theory. This is known as a ‘pollution of reason’. It had to be backed by austerity. Lastly, it had to be traditional. One could say, “Buddha was anything but traditional,” but very soon a tradition established itself.

The stress on the concrete instance is not so great. The Indians are great arguers. They have brilliant capacity for analysis, and it had to be presented in that way. The Buddha, as you know, refused to go into the metaphysical arguments. Talk about kings, talk about fear, talk about politics, talk about gossip, talk about metaphysical questions were all regarded by him as unprofitable, but, nevertheless, the Indian mind quite soon began to produce quite elaborate metaphysical systems on the basis of the practice.

But the practice remained in the background of the metaphysicians, and they were expected to be able to demonstrate some of it in their practical lives. It was never far from the idea of renunciation. Not necessarily a complete renunciation, but the ability to renounce in small things.

It may be that, when we read the presentation of Buddhism in early India, with the mania for long lists all numbered, things that were learned by heart, by people who have trained their memory to an astonishing extent, there’s something added about it, but this is because we don’t see a man walking down the street with nothing. That was always there when Buddhism was at its strength in India. That was always there, and the mere sight of such a man can give courage, without his saying a word.

When I’m complaining that I don’t get as much as somebody in Birmingham does for the same job, I feel really embittered. It makes a mockery of what I’m getting, when I know that he’s getting more. Then I see that men walking with nothing at all, afraid of nothing, hanging onto nothing. It can make a great change, but, if we only read it in the books and we don’t see this, then it can seem very dry.

As you know, one of the principles was that the things of the world don’t have the absolute value that we tend to attach to them. This is not only in Buddhism but in nearly all the religions of India: “Not this. Not so, no. No, not that,” as the things come up, “No, not that. Not that.” We can know this, and accept it and realise it, but it has to be exemplified somehow.

This is not an Indian example, but it’s one that I saw the other day: a Japanese artist, one of the best in this style, Suiboku, who is a woman. She was giving a demonstration in London just very briefly. In conversation afterwards, she mentioned that she had done some Zen and she had been given this form, the Zen form of it: “No, no, no.” She said that it had been a help to her in her art, and she had felt she had gone a long way into it.

Then she became ill suddenly, and the illness looked very serious. While she was in hospital, she heard that her house, and all the pictures that she’d been preparing for a new exhibition, had been burned down completely. It was a new house and she hadn’t insured it. She said then that at that moment she had an enlightenment when she realised she now had nothing. She said, “It suddenly…” She said, “My Buddhism suddenly came to life.”

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Early Indian Buddhism

Part 2: Terrific austerities are condemned

Part 3: Buddhists developed strong logic

Part 4: Ashoka’s Dhamma