Kovit and I finished our meditation session and walked to the kitchen for ice tea and a snack. He smiled, then said that he always gets hungry after meditating. I replied that perhaps he should contemplate on something other than food during his sessions.
Kovit is a nephew of my late step-mother, Tippy. He has been visiting family members in the US during his vacation from work. Kovit is employed by a hotel chain in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Like most Thai men, he lived for awhile as a Buddhist monk. Whenever we get together, meditation is a big part of our visit.
Kovit took a sip of tea, leaned back in the chair, looked at me and grinned. I knew that we were about to enjoy a Dharma discussion. He asked, “What would happen if our leaders were required, by law, to follow the Eightfold Path?”
To clarify the terminology for non-Buddhist readers, I will give you a capsulized definition of this basic teaching. We begin with the Lord Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”:
1. The truth of Dukkha (translated variously as anxiety, stress, unsatisfactoriness, or broadly, as suffering) is that things and experiences bring unhappiness.
2. The truth of the origin of Dukkha is clinging to and craving what is pleasant and being averse to what is unpleasant.
3. The truth that it is indeed possible to cease the unhappiness of Dukkha.
4. The truth of liberation from Dukkha is that following the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to cease Dukkha.
The aspects of the Eightfold Path are:
1. Wise or right view
2. Wise or right intention
3. Wise or right speech/communication
4. Wise or right discipline
5. Wise or right livelihood
6. Wise or right effort
7. Wise or right mindfulness
8. Wise or right concentration
Kovit said that his question about leaders following the Noble Eightfold Path is not a frivolous one nor a spur of the moment thought. He said that he has often pondered the terrible problem of unethical leadership in the world. Even the governments of outwardly theocratic nations pay scant lip service to the supposed ethics they espouse. In fact, religiously oriented governments have very poor track records regarding the ruling of countries.
I asked how we could require politicians, clergy, and other leaders to subscribe to the Eightfold Path while we simultaneously are to avoid the evils of theocracy.
Kovit replied that our leaders do not need to be Buddhists to practice the Eightfold Path because it has parallels in the teachings of other religions. A person does not even need to be religious at all in order to practice this path. There is no need to believe or disbelieve in any religious dogma or follow any religious heirarchy. The Eightfold Path is simply a time-tested way to diminish suffering.
Even though the points are numbered, they work together as a whole. They don’t need to be learned in any particular order, however, the traditional ordering allows us to better understand how each one leads to and works with the next one. The words “wise”, “right”, “unwise”, and “wrong” are sometimes misused, so Kovit prefers the words “skillful” and “unskillful”.
Kovit paused and looked into my eyes for several seconds. He then asked how my life changed when I became aware of the wisdom of looking directly at life. Did I begin to accept that my life is composed of both joy and sorrow? Did I begin to understand that by clinging to my own opinions about how life is “supposed” to be and trying to impose my narrow expectations upon life that I only increase my dissatisfactions?
I responded by saying that this is a simple truth to understand but a difficult one to actually practice. Yes, I fully understand that an honest understanding of my own point of view can help to melt away my unhappiness.
Then Kovit asked what kind of leadership would we have if the head of government and his cabinet members practiced only this one aspect of the path. These people would also realize that their expectations and their possible reactions to events create Dukkha. Their reactions of prejudice, hatred, greed, lack of compassion, unwillingness to forgive, and so forth are at the root of disputes and wars.
He reminded me that this is not strictly a religious or theological understanding. It is both a secular and religious lesson that has been understood for hundreds of years. Yet, over and over, people keep repeating unskilled thinking, opinions, and resentments. Instead, by practicing only wise, right, skillful understanding our leaders would possess a positive, helpful asset. This one requirement alone would increase the amount of joy in our world.
I commented that this first part would naturally merge into the second part, wise or right intention. When we or a leader put aside hopes, fears, expectations, and narrow opinions, there is no more need for manipulation. We don’t need to weasel our way into the workings of society or government. We and our leaders will have pure intentions.
Kovit looked at my old mechanical, windup wristwatch and said these points work like clockwork gears. When a leader practices wise or skillful intention, his or her words naturally follow suit. The leader who practices skillful speech understands that words are powerful things and must be used with the intention to help, not harm. Skillful speech includes abstaining from lies, not engaging in malicious speech, abstaining from harsh words, and not falling back on idle chatter or gossip. We are wise to extend these skills to our mental dialogue, too.
Likewise, once we understand the wisdom of wise outlook, compassionate intent, and right communication, we realize that skillful discipline is necessary to help us retain the life lessons of the other aspects of the path. When our leaders practice the wise discipline of giving up complications and self-righteous opinions they enable a more clear understanding among other people, other nations, and other belief systems.
What about Right or Wise Livelihood? Is political leadership, itself, a right livelihood? Kovit and I discussed this aspect for several minutes and came to the conclusion that as long as the politician, or clergy, or business CEO directs her or his actions under the advisement of the rest of the Eightfold Path that questions of work and the economy will play themselves out. Our nations have yet to experience the wisdom of leaders who practice this path. This aspect is part of what drew us into this discussion.
Of course, the previous parts directly lead to wise or right effort or actions. This is a moral outline to consider when following the path. This is when we understand the wisdom of abstaining from theft. Does the leader know not to steal or have the nation steal anything? Sexual misconduct is included in this part. Does the political leader, clergyperson, and CEO not engage in molestation, rape, infidelity, or sexual deception?
Most importantly, does the leader abstain from killing? The pages of history are filled with the mass murders of war. Does the leader sincerely know the implications of the destruction of any living thing?
How about Skillful Mindfulness? This topic is highly in vogue these days. Why should our leaders practice wise mindfulness?
Kovit says this is a good foundation for our leaders and each individual because all of us, together, form nations and must constantly interact with each other. Basic mindfulness is the simple, continuous, accepting, non-judgmental awareness of our world and our place in it. This is a pragmatic, grounded awareness, not some sort of idealized woo version of the Universe. It is imperative that leaders fully and realistically understand what is going on. The leader can then be aware of difficulties but not take action that will cause additional suffering.
All of these lead to the last part of the Eightfold Path, wise or skillful concentration. In a secular world, this might be the most controversial or difficult point. It is the culmination of the other seven points. They are distilled into the practice of meditation. The wise leader will regularly practice spiritual or secular meditation or contemplation in order to reinforce the Eightfold Path. Right or skillful concentration acts as a guide and conscience for the leader. If our leaders practice this, in concert with the rest of the aspects, she or he can more readily guide us in a mutually satisfactory manner.
I had to admit that I like the idea of requiring leaders follow the Eightfold Path or something resembling it. I wonder how we can begin such an experiment.
Kovit urged me not to fret about it. He held my gaze for about a minute or so. Then he advised that I can always be my own wise leader. I can do so by personally practicing the Noble Eightfold Path, myself.
We both erupted into loud laughter.