The Just King’s Vision of Rule by Dharma

Dzogchen Monastery in Derge County, Sichuan. The old monastery was the spiritual seat of Mipham Rinpoche. From discoversichuan.com

Kingship is no longer a mainstream form of governance in Asia. However, it survives in certain Buddhist countries (such as the Chakri dynasty in Thailand, Bhutan’s House of Wangchuck, and the elected monarchy of Cambodia), and throughout history, kingship has been the principal model by which Buddhist thinkers have discussed (and are discussing) politics and ethical rule.

One of the main points of José Ignacio Cabezon’s translation of Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso’s (1846–1912) treatise The Just King is that: “the [book] is meant as a guide to living an ethical life, but also a cause for achieving temporal power.” (Cabezon, x) Many of the principles outlined in the volume form the basis of Buddhist social justice, an important component of contemporary engaged Buddhism. Cabezon’s introduction to his translation offers insights that are superior to what I can express here, suffice to say that the volume is an encouraging step forward in articulating what has always been discussed throughout Buddhist history, but is understated in Buddhist scholarship and activism today: a Buddhist vision for politics and state making.

The treatise was written in 1895, when Mipham was living in Derge, in eastern Tibet. Derge had a king, even though it had submitted to the Qing dynasty of China as a vassal state in 1725. In the last year of his life, the Qing Emperor Yongzheng (1678–1735) had allowed Derge and other states to keep their kings, as long as they paid tribute. By Mipham’s time, however, regional squabbles had exploded into a crucible of violence and instability. It was during his time as a court chaplain and royal tutor Mipham wrote The Just King for Derge’s lama-king, Ngawang Jampel Rinchen. 

The treatise is divided into 18 chapters. Each chapter includes verses that offer insight into more common conceptions of kingship as well as verses that make one pause and think. Consider these passages in the chapter “The Conduct of Kings”:

If you overly cultivate sense pleasures,
it comes back to consume you like fire does grass.
It ruins your glory and reputation.
Hence, being satisfied is true happiness

Even if a single individual were to acquire
all of the wealth on the face of the earth,
that person would not be satiated and just crave more.
So cultivate satisfaction in regard to your desires.

                                                                              (Mipham, 27)

This is reasonable advice and one could imagine that it might appear in royal commentaries of other religious traditions. Moderation and a healthy suspicion of sensual pleasures is a good advice for all powerful people. Yet later, the treatise addresses something that might be relevant to 21st century political debate, namely critiquing the corruption of “the establishment,” or at least the aristocracy:

Evil rulers rejoice
when the royal income is derived
from fines imposed on the people.
How amazing the dishonesty of this degenerate age! . . .

Therefore, whether you are a king, a minister,
or the head of a city,
you should only accept wealth that is legally permitted
and never give a single thought to ill-gotten wealth
                                                                                 (Mipham, 49)

Nobles during this degenerate age
regard their subjects as fodder.
The offspring of scorpions
see their mother as food, and eat her.

                                                          (Mipham, 125)

Mipham is not blindly lauding an idealized vision of kingship in which all rulers are assumed to be good, but rather he stresses that a ruler must earn his legitimacy and the respect of his people. Implicit in Cabezon’s analysis of The Just King and in the book itself is Mipham’s endorsement of the theocratic bent of Buddhist-inspired government; A righteous Dharma king binds individuals that offend the laity to the law of the Dharma and prevents the Buddha’s teachings from degenerating and disappearing. He should worship the Three Jewels and join the worldly and religious legal tradition (Mipham, 193–95). The king should not only embody Buddhist virtue and doctrine, but should also surround himself with lamas who can provide him with Dharma counsel. 

Mipham Rinpoche. From wshx.org 

This aspect of building a competent court with administrative religious influence is discussed in the chapter “Examining the Members of the Retinue.” The relationship between religious advisors and the king should be reciprocal, and not characterized by courtier-like appeasement of the king’s desires, or conversely, the uncritical heeding of the monks’ opinions.

Because the lama is exceedingly sacred,
it is improper to violate his advice.
So if the lama asks too much of the king,
he will make life difficult for him
                                                     (Mipham, 51)   

Mipham makes the case that Buddhist kingship must be paternal in nature, and that compassion and wisdom should be built into the king’s patrician attitude to his subjects. A love for the Buddhist Dharma reinforces the king’s integrity and authority, and holds the realm together. All in all, Mipham argues that a selfless attitude to the people and a ruler’s need to maintain power are not contradictory:

Birds do not gather
at fruitless trees and at dry lakes.
Likewise, everyone avoids
places where royal power has deteriorated
                                                                     (Mipham, 125)

The appendices of the book consist out of two informative chapters about the Indo-Tibetan precursors to the treatise, and a list of 35 duties drawn from the Smrtyupasthana Sutra, which inspired the seventh chapter of the The Just King.

The idea that Buddhism “avoids” politics is an incorrect stereotype. Buddhism, as a whole, transcends politics and is concerned with truths beyond human existence, but Cabezon’s preface makes a good case for Buddhism’s political realities: the Buddha dealt with northern Indian kings in his lifetime, and “Buddhist texts through the ages are filled with allusions to kingship, employing a plethora of both royal images and metaphors of kingly conquest.” (Cabezon, ix) Buddhist monks served as advisors or interlocutors to kings across Eurasia, and these rulers played an important role in the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism therefore has plenty to say about power and good rule, and The Just King is one of the better examples of a narrative of Buddhism’s political wisdom in early modern history.


Mipham, Jamgon. ed. 2017. The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life. Translated by José Ignacio Cabezón. Boston: Snow Lion.

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