Book review: Buddhism & Political Theory




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 Matthew J. Moore. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017. 198 pp. (hardcover), US $78.00, ISBN 978-0-19-046551-3.


by Punsara Amarasinghe     15 October 2020

Any attempt in creating connectivity between Buddhism and politics may stand as a paradoxical endeavour with the common depiction on Buddhism as a philosophy which seeks the liberation from all mundane affairs. However, Matthew Moore’s “Buddhism and Political Theory” is a fascinating work that unveils what Buddhism has to offer on statecraft, which has been mainly neglected by western social scientists. Moore has been rather honest by describing his work as a basic text to introduce Western political theorists to the Buddhist political theory tradition and to argue that there are some especially important connections and disconnections between the two traditions. (p.3). The first part of the text can be regarded as a satisfactory effort made by Moore to examine the Buddhist notion of “Government” as he aptly discusses the early Buddhist notion of government. While acknowledging the vagueness of presenting what Buddhism has to offer on government Moore traces relevant Pali cannons as his beacon to find substantive arguments in Buddhism regarding government. The author is indeed neither a Pali scholar nor a Buddhist studies specialist, hence he has relied on the secondary literature and that may have reduced the authenticity of this work. Despite this minor drawback, Moore has given a lucid explanation in the first chapter on the early Buddhist theory of government by taking Aggañña-Sutta and Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutta. 

In doing so he has affirmed the salient differences between the Western idea of social contract theory which stands for acceptances of human beings as rational creatures and Buddhist denial of self which is an anathema for the western conception of government. However, the kind of social contract theory that Moore identified from early Buddhist cannons is the legitimacy of Monarchical authority originated from a primal social contract. Being a political theorist Moore has presented us the Buddhist idea of social contact from the viewpoint of John Locke’s 17th-century famous thesis.

It is interesting to note that the analysis given in chapter three is devoted to discussing the 19th-century transformation of traditional Buddhism by the influx of modernity. Yet it raises a question whether Moor has made an adequate inquiry over what factors exactly impacted upon the rapid transformation took place in the 19th-century Buddhist approach to government because he has totally based on the literature written by Buddhist scholars and anthropologists on the subject.

The next three chapters in Part II are more substantive than what Moore discussed in the first part of the book as these chapters develop a comparative analysis between Buddhist theory of government and the philosophical ideas of the western thinkers. For instance, in chapter 4 Moore brings the idea of the illusion of individual identity through the Nietzsche’s political psychology and Buddhist idea of no-self “Annatha”.

While providing an overview of the Buddhist stance on the denial of self, Moore points out some stunning parallels offered by Nietzsche and Buddhist texts on the structure of the self. Even though Nietzsche himself was critical on Buddhism and believed that his own philosophy was diametrically opposed to that of the Buddha, Moore suggests both Buddha and Nietzsche offer the same description on “self”. However, despite the similarity on the structure of self both Buddha and Nietzsche adhered to a different attitude toward the self’s multiplicity. In Moore’s assessment, Buddha’s position on self was ahead of the curve in its emphasis on abandoning the persistent self-whereas Nietzsche was adamant in his belief in metaphysical self as a factor that would give rise to resentment. Moore argues “The experience of being a persistent self—the illusion that we are united, diachronically continuous selves—is a voluntary lie, one that (with e ort) we could come to see as false and dispensable” (p.81)

Chapter 6 is another interesting chapter discussing the scope of ethics in Buddhism and Moore has distinguished it from the Western conception of ethics by describing Buddhist ethics as a version of ethical naturalism. Moore has used the canonical texts from early Buddhism to introduce the Kamma as the core pillar describing the whole Buddhist discourse on ethics. Yet his analysis remains abridged and provides an outline on how Buddhist ethics have evolved. But in this chapter Moore suggests that Western political theorists should be enthusiastic in the Buddhist perspective of ethics for several reasons. Mainly he points out how Buddhist ethics resonate with a Western tradition of political thoughts that tries to articulate political ethics in an entirely naturalistic language, rejecting appeals to supernatural, mystical, or metaphysical ideas. Ideas of contemporary political theorists such as William Connolly, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have been elaborated in this chapter to prove how Buddhist ethics can be compatible with those political theorists, but the discussion is not adequate to assume how Buddhist ideas can be located along with the ideas of western political theorists.

In the concluding chapter of his readable work, Moore explains how Buddhism nourish 21st-century political theory through the three core ideas he discussed in the book such as no-self, limited citizenship and hypothetical ethics. It is with a sheer sense of optimism that he suggests the necessity of using Buddhist political theory as an alternative model for the 21st-century Western political theorists because it meets the threshold criteria for any political theory (p.144). Notwithstanding, the compelling title and the pertinent issues Moore raised, certain drawbacks have marred the objectives of “Buddhism and Political Theory”. Mainly it lacks a coherent central argument as each chapter reaches its own conclusion by creating ambiguity to fathom what Moore has presented as Buddhist political theory. Also, the extensive use of the secondary source to introduce basic Buddhist ideas can deviate the reading interest of a political theorist who already possesses knowledge of Buddhist ideas. Nevertheless, Matthew Moore’s work still deserves to be appreciated as it has at least persuaded to examine a topic which was much neglected by the main stream social scientist in the West.



Punsara Amarasinghe is a visiting scholar at Global Legal Studies Center at University of Wisconsin Madison and reads for PhD in Law at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He previously held one-year fellowship in Higher School of Economics in Moscow.