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When Leaders Set Forth on the Path: Qualities of a Dharmaraja


The Buddhist traditions have often celebrated leaders, both in government and outside of it, who become Buddhist. This is why the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. c. 268–c. 232 BCE) is viewed not only as a dharmaraja (a king who rules by the Dharma), but as close as they come to the legendary chakravartin—a title that denotes a wheel-turning king who actively disseminates the Buddhist message. In the Common Era, Huvishka, an emperor of the Buddhist-patronizing Kushan empire (30–375 CE), was given the lay title “set forth on the Mahayana” (Mahayana-samprasthito) in a Sanskrit manuscript fragment housed in the Schøyen Collection in Oslo.

Buddhist texts have long been concerned with leadership because leaders always exist in the context of community. The sangha was therefore preoccupied, from its earliest days, with the various kinds of leadership that Buddhism touches: from the sangha, to households and villages, and obviously at the governmental level.

Instructions or pronouncements on society, politics, and economics are found in some of the early Buddhist scriptures, including the Mahahamsa Jataka of the Khuddaka Nikaya. According to the Mahahamsa Jataka, a leader should be responsible, honest, and willing to make sacrifices as needed. These qualities are further described as tenfold virtue, also known as “tenfold royal virtue” (dasa-rajadhamma): generosity, morality, self-sacrifice, honesty, gentleness, self-control; non-anger, non-violence, forbearance, and uprightness (danam silam pariccagam, ajjavam maddavam tapam; akkodham avihimsanca, khantinca avirodhanam). 

Generosity (dana) in the context of leadership means that one gives fully and willingly of themselves to those for whom they are responsible. The leader is prepared to sacrifice his or her own pleasure for the well-being of the people by giving away belongings and by helping in human development, both material and non-material. Generosity is followed by morality (sila), which is moral character consisting of three aspects: physical, mental, and vocal. Self-sacrifice (paricagga) is avoiding selfishness and practicing altruism for the welfare of others. A leader must be willing to sacrifice personal pleasure or interests such as comfort, name, and fame. Honesty (ajjava) means sincerity, truthfulness, integrity of the mind. This attitude is a kind of absence of fear or favor. Gentleness (maddava) possesses a quality of having a friendly, kind, and sympathetic attitude and outwardly expressing that through daily acts, such as good manners. Leaders push themselves while thinking twice before stretching others.

Self-control (tapa) familiarizes a leader with a life of (relative) simplicity and not being controlled by his will, emotions, and desires, so that he can withhold his participation in pleasures. The characteristic of this quality is to pacifying his ego and pride by performing his duties without indolence. He should not choose a life of luxury or consume inordinate resources. Non-anger (akkodha) means being calm even when insulted or rebuked. The quality of this virtue is forgiving and friendly, above evil intentions, hostility or hatred, and remaining calm in amid provocation.

Non-violence (avihimsa) does not hurt other people, maintains an attitude of kindness, is happy with peace, avoids all attitudes of violence and destruction of life. Forbearance (khanti) is patience in the face of obstacles and difficulties, without hesitating to serve the public good. A leader should have humility when facing insults, thus giving rise to understanding and wisdom when making decisions. Uprightness (avirodhana) or non-confrontation is not to oppose and obstruct the will of people. A leader should help people make progress in accordance with the purpose and ideals of his or her leadership.

Good governance channels people’s ​​talents and ambitions to achieve national goals,  sustainable development, and social justice. One aspect of good governance is considered to be the proper management of a country’s economic and social resources for development. A leader who possesses moral character is also an example to the people, who can see how emulating their character can make a difference in their own daily lives.

In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha is said to have taught about the economic inequalities that divide the world into rich and poor. The sutta identifies the basic problem of a state as food supply, which needs to be solved first before all subsequent problems can be addressed. There is a story about a thief who was caught and brought before the king. The thief explained that he simply stole the wealth of others because he was poor. So the king gave him some money and asked him to start a business. Then other people decided to steal something to receive similar treatment from the king. However, this time the king ordered the thieves executed. The leader must therefore be able to discern the difference between intentions and the possible results of such intentions. 

The Buddha explained the moral of this story: “Thus, from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife, from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased, from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, the taking of life increased, and from the increase in the taking of life, people’s life span decreased and their beauty decreased.” (Walshe 1995, 399)

The Kutadanta Sutta of the Digha Nikaya mentions a king, Mahavijita, who wanted to organize a large-scale sacrifice to ensure his personal comfort and welfare. However, his chief minister advised against it: “If Your Majesty were to tax this region, that would be the wrong thing to do. Suppose your Majesty were to think ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats, and banishment,’ the plague would not be properly ended.” The chief minister then offered a solution, thus: “To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder, to those in trade, give capital, to those in government service assign proper living wages.” (Walshe 1995, 135) The king followed these three instructions and gave what was necessary and relevant to the people.

Politics around the world is being shaken up and destabilized by forces beyond the control of national leaders. The tenfold royal virtues could act as a decisive factor in all fields of people interest. As the head of a community or a country, his inspiring ideals should guide people to live happily and healthily. Therefore, the well-being of a nation depends heavily on actions taken by its leader, and the leader must rely on virtue.


Walshe, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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