Requirement of Middle Path and Mindfulness in Politics

Do we in Sri Lanka, as a pioneer and a prominent Buddhist country, follow the middle path? We were at least overtly doing so in the past. But not any longer.

by Laksiri Fernando

( August 18, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some or many of the Buddhist principles can be applied to resolve most of our problems, if employed in a non-sectarian fashion. For example, the methodology of four noble truths can be taken as a scientific approach in resolving social or political problems. In this sense, the concept of Dukkha is about the identification of problems/issues in an objective, in depth and a logical manner. It is said that a proper understanding of a problem is a major part of its solution.

We often name problems as corruption, poverty, crime, torture, underdevelopment, racism, terrorism, separatism etc. That does not mean that we understand them properly. Understanding a problem with its vicissitudes and demarcations is necessary for problem solving. It is not about other’s corruption that we should be concerned about, but corruption as a whole. A holistic approach is necessary.

The next step obviously is to investigate, identify and analyse the reasons and causes for those problems in the same rigour. That is the most profound task. Those are what the Buddha identified as Samudaya. More pertinently, Hethu-Pala or cause-and-effect was the logical theory that he put forward in this respect. What do we mean by Nirodha in the modern-day context or scientific investigation?

It is not only the conviction that when there is Dukkha, there is Nirodha. It is also about the possibility of having different paths toward resolving a problem. This is closer to what most social scientists seek to investigate through scenario analysis or SWOT analysis. Magga therefore is the finally selected path, with conviction, realism and analysis. It is like our road map for solutions. The middle way or the middle path was what the Buddha put forward in this context, in general terms, as the best path or Magga. It is one of the most intricate.

Middle Path

Do we in Sri Lanka, as a pioneer and a prominent Buddhist country, follow the middle path? We were at least overtly doing so in the past. But not any longer. This middle way was prominent in the economic and foreign policy areas during the fifties. But when it came to the language policy or ethnic relations, it terribly failed. The reason was the ethnicity taking over the treasured religious or philosophical principles.

Let us ruminate on the foreign policy area. In the early period after independence, there was an obvious alignment with the West. That was a result of the colonial heritage or mentality. That was one reason why the Soviet Union blocked our membership in the UN until 1955. Even during this period there were instances where efforts were made to strike a balance. The rubber-rice pact with China was one such effort prompted by some economic imperatives. However, during the Kotelawala period, the foreign policy again became one sided. His lopsided policy was reflected at the Bandung conference.

Most prominent advocate of a middle path in foreign policy was SWRD Bandaranaike. He also was the promoter of a mixed economy to mean again a middle path. A mixed economy might be the best even today, taking best out of both the private sector and public enterprises. However, Bandaranaike terribly failed on the language policy and ethnic relations, paving the way for the first major communal riot in 1958. Although Mrs. Bandaranaike apparently followed a middle path in foreign relations, the same cannot be said about economic matters or ethnic relations. Her closed economic policy tilted towards an extreme, even on the foreign front. It was not detachment, but isolationism like in Burma after 1962.

Dudley Senanayake was undoubtedly a successful promoter of a middle path. Even on ethnic relations, he could maintain a measure of compassion like U Nu in Burma (1947-1962). His personality also was in the direction of a middle path.

The same cannot be said about JR Jayewardene, the successor to Senanayake in the UNP. On all three fronts of economic policy, foreign affairs and ethnic relations, his policies were lopsided and to the extreme. Even on constitutional matters it was the case, until he was forced to accept devolution and language rights of the Tamil speaking people in 1978.

Some Other Roots

The wisdom of moderation also can be traced to other philosophies. For example, Robert Ellis has written ‘A Brief Western Philosophy of the Middle Way’ highlighting the works of David Hume and Emmanuel Kant. This is a recent work (2011). However, Ellis’ inspiration initially came from Buddhism, rejecting (black and white) dualism in logic and theory of knowledge.

Even one can trace some Western roots of the middle way to Aristotle who said, ‘virtues in contrast to vices are judicious means between contrary extremes.’ However, most of his logical analyses were dualistic. In recent time, Charles Hartshorne is another one who has come up with the ‘Wisdom as Moderation: A Philosophy of the Middle Way’ (1987). It is important to note how he has begun his exposition.

Starvation is not good, overeating is not good. Caution can go too far; so can boldness. Some persons are kind to friends but neglect their civic duties or obligations to strangers; some support good causes but are unkind to their personal associates.”

Although Hartshorne’s work is philosophical, it equally appeals to common sense and personal life, as revealed in the above quotation.

Among our own academics, David Kalupahana is one who has been the most prominent in explaining both the philosophical and practical aspects of the middle way (‘Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna,’ 1986). As he has pointed out, ‘noble eightfold path’ (NEP) perhaps constitutes the main thrust of the middle path. This has extremely practical relevance in good governance, if implemented or practiced faithfully.

NEP and Good Governance

There are many expositions on the noble eightfold path by Annie Besant, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Walpola Rahula, Henepola Gunaratana, Nayanatiloka etc. As a list, it is simply the following, taken from Ven. Walpola Rahula (‘What the Buddha Taught,’ p. 41).

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

In her ‘Freedom from Fear’ (p. 67), Aung San Suu Kyi implied that while these principles are primarily for personal liberation from suffering, they also have a practical value in politics. This is more pertinent in the case of good governance.

Most importantly, there is a close relationship between these principles and what we understand as universal freedoms and human rights. Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought (including religion), freedom of speech, freedom of action and the right to life (or live) closely go with the first six noble principles, emphasising the other side of the coin, the ‘responsibilities or duties.’

It is an underlying principle in human rights discourse that when there are rights, on the part of the people, there are corresponding duties on the part of the rulers and those who govern a country. It is the connection between the ‘rights holder’ and the ‘duty bearer.’ This does not mean that the citizens are absolved from duties and responsibilities, but more emphasis is placed on the rulers within a system of democracy. Because they are elected on a social contract. This is also the Buddhist theory on ‘Maha Sammatha.’

Then what is the relevance of the last two principles in the list: the right mindfulness and right concentration in politics?

Right Mindfulness

All over the world today, there is much recognition about the Buddhist concept of ‘mindfulness.’ More correct understanding should be on the ‘right mindfulness’ and not mere ‘mindfulness.’ The lack of concentration is the primary reason for ‘defused’ mindedness or ‘wrong’ mindedness. Both are interconnected.

A polity or politics, normally is like a human mind, confused without a focus. Sri Lanka’s Parliament, like many others, perhaps might be the most symptomatic of this confused status. The right concentration through meditation helps a person to achieve right mindfulness and other qualities such as right understanding, right thought, right speech and right action. Could that be the case in respect of the polity as well? Could politics be meditative in any significant sense? Could mindfulness meditation be practiced in achieving better results in our administration? (However, meditation should not be implemented like what the IGP allegedly did to a ‘minor employee’ in the police department!).

A first step in meditation might be to understand the different, contradictory, conflictual and confused thoughts that comes to a person’s mind. The reasons behind them. Some of these thoughts could be illusionary or delusionary. This is also the case in politics. However, a polity is not one mind, but thousands and thousands of minds, while many millions are dormant. A polity cannot sort them out or understand them like in a person’s mind.

What might be possible is for some observers to monitor the events, like observing the thoughts during meditation, sort them out, separate what is real and illusionary, and try to make sense out of what is happening, and publicise them for others and possibly political actors to adjust their behaviour in the right direction. One may argue that this is what is done by the media. This is partly the case as reportage or reflection. But mostly the media is part of the confused thought processes that adds to the confusion.

If we take a good daily newspaper, it is like a snapshot of the political/social mind of the nation. In the case of a website or a web-newspaper, it is more dynamic even new ‘thoughts’ are being uploaded through news, articles or comments in some cases. The question however is whether these processes add to the confusion or help sort them out?

One advantage under modern technology is to almost instantly expose the wrongdoers or bluffers in politics. For example, if Parliamentary debates are fully broadcasted to the people, then the people could make a judgement about who is correct, who is wrong, who is bluffing, who is contributing etc., not to speak of lying. For that to happen, there should be a better understanding about the noble eightfold path or any such moral codes from other religions or secular philosophies.


In liberal philosophy, there is the notion that freedom of expression, dialogue or even arguments could help finding the truth, and contribute to human progress. Also, is the notion that the exposure of false notions or consciousness help human progress. Naming and shaming are two devices in this process. This is often called the ‘free market of expression.’ This is partly correct but not totally. The form is emphasized, but not the content very much.

The ‘free market of expression’ has not managed by itself to stop wars, nuclear arms race, environmental denigration, man-made disasters and more importantly the prevalence of despicable poverty, malnutrition and underdevelopment in the world. Because there is no ‘right mindfulness’ in these discussions or dialogues, not to speak of violent fights and confrontations. Instead of arousing and aggravating confrontations on disputed issues, the Buddhist way could be considered as a path of resolving them through brining realism to the political mind. This is the importance of the middle path, the noble eightfold path and the right mindfulness, if practiced properly. Otherwise, a similar criticism is valid for Buddhism. It is preached, not practiced.



Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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