Buddhism Buddhist Statecraft
James A. Benn, Stephanie Balkwill
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0269


In the modern day, the connection between Buddhism and statecraft is readily seen in the Theravada monarchies of Southeast Asia; however, in premodern times, Buddhist kings and Buddhist methods of statecraft were commonplace across South, Central, and East Asia as well. This link between Buddhism and political leadership is rooted in two powerful legends that came out of the early tradition and which have been invoked across all of Asia. The first is that of the birth and life story of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, who was himself a prince of a small kingdom and destined to be either a “Wheel-Turning King” (cakravartin) and universal monarch or an “Enlightened One” (buddha). Though his father preferred that he extend his birthright by becoming a universal monarch, he went on to renounce palace life, go in search of awakening, and become a buddha. Nonetheless, the mythic connection between the Buddha (otherworldly power) and the Wheel-Turning King (worldly power) remains an essential aspect of a buddha’s identity. The second legend is that of Mauryan Emperor Aśoka (r. 262–238 BCE); uniting the Indian subcontinent through violent means, Aśoka is believed by the tradition to have converted to Buddhism and then become the religion’s most generous and powerful benefactor who ruled according to Buddhist law, or dharma. Across the entirety of Asia, connections between Buddhism and statecraft have taken on regionally specific forms. There is a long history of rulers in South and Southeast Asia who have sponsored Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and have sanctified their rules and their reigns through close relations with the monastic community. In the Tibetan context of the practice of Vajrayāna Buddhism, rulers themselves became identified as bodhisattvas in a system reminiscent of the divine right of kings in Europe. In East Asia, there was a Chinese-style bureaucratic governance that looked to the Buddha as an otherworldly figurehead while translating long-standing Chinese imperial systems into something that we might call “Confucian with a Buddhist inflection.” As Chinese modalities of statecraft were adopted and adapted by other polities in the East Asian cultural sphere—notably, Korea and Japan, but also Vietnam—this Chinese form of imperial Buddhism became a mainstay of East Asian life throughout the entire premodern period. Therefore, we can see various different manifestations of Buddhist statecraft in theory and practice across Asia and throughout history up until the present.

Foundations of Buddhist Statecraft

It was not simply rulers eager to legitimate their reigns or support their governments that looked to Buddhism for ideological and logistical support; indeed, Buddhists themselves have long thought about and written about the state, its leadership, and its governance. Taking Buddhist thinking about the state and worldly authority as a cornerstone of what we can call Buddhist statecraft, this section explores Buddhist notions of dharmic kingship, Buddhist political ideologies that have often developed alongside the state, as well as Buddhist notions of law (the word dharma is used here too) that have both conformed to and conflicted with the state. This section begins by enumerating primary Buddhist sources in English translation, and continues with secondary studies that explore these foundations of Buddhist statecraft in a variety of historical and geographical locales.

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