The Pros and Cons of Buddhist Officials running your Government
Gyeongcheonsa Marble Pagoda

The Pros and Cons of Buddhist Officials running your Government

Goryeo Marble Pagoda
Gyeongcheonsa Marble Pagoda

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book The Fireflies of Muju – Ten Weeks in Korea – 2011.

The Benefits and Costs of Adopting Buddhism as a State Religion

The rulers of Silla and the rulers of Vietnam both officially adopted Buddhism as their state religion. Silla did this in 528 and Vietnam did this around 1020 when Ly Thai To took the throne with the backing of several powerful Buddhist monastic leaders. Later, both countries rejected Buddhism as a state religion. Korea’s government turned away from Buddhism when the Mongols took power in 1260 and the Joseon Dynasty was explicitly anti-Buddhist when they took power in 1392. In Vietnam, when Ho Quy Le took power in 1400, he removed the Buddhists from government and they never came back.  

In Korea, there was a marked improvement in the government’s performance, power, and wealth when it adopted Buddhism. King Beopheung of Silla not only adopted Buddhism, he also adopted the Chinese title of Wang (roughly analogous to the word King in Europe). King Beopheung also made significant changes to his government at this time, as he created the post of prime minister, established a ministry of war, wrote a new legal code, and created rules of conduct for his civil servants. His successor, King Jinheung was the man who created the Hwarang, the flower knights.

The Buddhist clergy certainly had some advantages as government officials. They could read and write. This was uncommon in Korea at the time. Korea had no written language, so they adopted Chinese for lack of an alternative. The Buddhist monks publicly forswore wealth, women, and children, so – in theory – they were more likely to be dedicated and honest civil officials. These days I look at Buddhist clergy and think how isolated they are from society but 1500 years ago they were much more involved in worldly affairs. In the 400s and 500s, Buddhists in east Asia openly debated other people on matters of religion. Buddhist monks traveled all over Asia trying to win converts from kings to merchants to the common folk. Today, Buddhists do not do much proselytizing, but 1,500 years ago, they were very active.

However, the nations that adopted Buddhism later rejected it. In its place, Korea and Vietnam installed scholar-officials modeled after China. We call them Mandarin officials. I believe this happened for several reasons. Most importantly, at the end of the day, the Buddhists don’t care about the state. And as a result they don’t put all their effort into keeping it alive. By contrast the Confucian scholar-officials worship the state. They care about the state more than they care about anything else in the world.

Next, the Buddhist have a moral system which is antithetical to many essential state functions, such as: fighting wars, punishing criminals, spying on neighboring states, and making the people wealthy. None of these matter to Buddhist clergy. War is pointless, nations squabbling over who owns what piece of land is stupid. Punishment of criminals is mostly useless because people who commit crimes will be punished after death by being reincarnated into worse circumstances through the implacable operation of the law of karma. Mainline Chinese Buddhists also preached that people’s souls would be tormented in the afterlife for the sins they committed in the current life. Punishing people in this life really only hurts the people doing the punishment, as they incur a karmic burden for inflicting harm on other people – no matter how justified such punishment might be by the state’s criminal laws.

By contrast the Confucian educated scholar officials will do almost anything for the good of the state. Lying for the benefit of the government is entirely appropriate. Deception in war is common to all states but the mandarins will also freely lie to foreigners when it suits the state’s interest. The British found this out to their dismay when they captured the government records of the Qing in the Summer Palace in the year 1860 and discovered what the Mandarin officials were writing to their government in Beijing was nearly the opposite of what they said and wrote to the British government agents over the previous twenty years. It is true, the mandarins believe telling falsehoods is wrong in the abstract, but right and wrong are always measured on the scale of what is best for the state government. So the wrong of lying to another person can easily be justified when the government says so.

Compare this to a dedicated Buddhist monk: he cannot justify lying to anyone, because this causes him to incur a karmic burden on his own soul. Sure the government may benefit, but that’s hardly a benefit when you are reborn in a different nation.

The end result is: having a literate group of people as your government officials is clearly superior to non-literate administrators. But there are degrees of usefulness and the dedicated Confucian mandarin – a man devoted to the state above all else and one who will generally side with any decision made by the lawful executive authority is clearly superior to the sometimes half-hearted Buddhist administrators.

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