Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Taxes: Buddhism and Fiscal Policy

By Joshua Eaton

With the recent controversy over a compromise to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, with congress threatening to de-fund everything from AmeriCorps to NPR, and with fiscal battles raging at the state level, government spending and revenue have made a lot of headlines lately. Many people are surprised to discover how much ancient Buddhist thinkers have had to say on such a pertinent—and mundane—topic. Now is a perfect time to look at some of their ideas. Rather than serving as a liability, these thinkers' cultural, political, and historical distance
from us can give us some much-needed perspective on our own very modern difficulties.

In the Acts of the Buddha 2:43, the Buddhist philosopher-poet Asvaghosa (80-150 AD, northIndia) praises the Buddha's father, King Suddhodana:
43  He did not wish to raise inordinate taxes,
      he did not with to take what belonged to others,
      he did not wish to reveal his foes' unrighteousness,
      he did not wish to carry anger in his heart.
Three things jump out immediately. First, Asvagosa's focus doesn't seem to be on taxes so much as on greed for taxes. Second, he equates this greed with theft; for Asvagosa, the desire for taxes is always a desire for another's property. Third, greed for taxes and theft appear alongside the much more obvious—and, we might think, much more serious—transgressions of vengefulness and hatred. Overall, Asvaghosa seems less concerned with how much taxes are actually collected than with the motivation with which they are collected, and he takes the matter just as seriously as the more personal shortcomings that we're use to hearing religions preach against.

Asvaghosa's critique of greedy taxation is subtle, but the Scripture Requested by Surata—written in India but found in the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons—is blatantly obvious. In the following excerpt, the bodhisattva Surata upbraids the corrupt king of Sravasti (I have written
more about this scripture here):
     Your Majesty, you levy harsh taxes
      And punish the innocent for no reason.
      Infatuated with your sovereignty,
      You never heed
      The future effects of your karmas.
Surata obviously objects to the king's high taxes because they are a result of his greed for power and wealth, and because they hurt Sravasti's citizens. Like Asvaghosa, he equates this greed with
the much more obvious crime of punishing the innocent; after all, harsh taxes hurt people who have done nothing to merit punishment. Finally, Surata identifies two causes for the king's greed:
megalomania and disregard for future consequences. Surata is telling us that a person with both of these qualities is willing to hurt others to satisfy their own greed; those of us who witnessed the behavior of many in finance, banking, and real estate during the 2008 economic crises can hardly disagree.

Surata is concerned with both the greed that motivates harsh taxes and the pain it causes the
citizenry. In the Precious Garland 4:252-253, Nagarjuna (150 - 250 CE, north India)—perhaps the most famous Buddhist philosopher of all time—objects to high taxes almost entirely for the latter reason:
252 Provide stricken farmers
      With seeds and sustenance.
      Eliminate high taxes levied by the previous monarch.
      Reduce the tax rate on harvests.
253 Protect the poor from the pain of wanting your wealth.
      Set up no new tolls and reduce those that are heavy.
      Also free traders from other areas from the afflictions
      That come from waiting at your door.
Here Nagarjuna isn't just concerned with taxes' financial effects but also their emotional ones. He advises the king to whom he is writing to protect the poor from pain and to free traders from afflictions—both affective terms. What's interesting here is that Nagarjuna is laying out a position at odds with both stereotypically liberal and conservative positions. He believes that taxes are painful to the citizenry, but he also clearly believes in government subsidies. (Earlier in the Precious Garland, Nagarjuna tells the king to implement extensive social welfare programs.)Finally, his sophisticated awareness of the needs of different constituencies—farmers, the poor,foreign traders—is a testament to Buddhism's overall political sophistication.

So, Asvaghosa equates excessive taxation with more personal transgressions, especially theft; Surata objects to the covetousness that high taxes inflict on a king and the financial pain they inflict on the citizenry; and, Nagarjuna objects to the financial and emotional pain that the undue hardship of high taxes cause. The renowned Nyingma Buddhist philosopher and teacher Jü Mipham Gyatso (1846-1912, eastern Tibet) sums up all of these sentiments nicely in his Advice on the Way of the King, saying,
     Forcefully taking a reasonable tax from the wealthy,
      even when they haven't offered it,
      is like being compensated.
      This is not theft.
      Forcefully taking from the poor
      can be either wrong or not:
      In order to prevent gamblers and prostitutes
      from wasting their illicitly-obtained wealth,
      if you take from them, it is said to benefit both
      you and them, and is not wrong.
      When someone has lost property through fire, etc.,
      tax them lightly.

     If one doesn't care for those sentient beings
      who haven't any means, this is wrong.
Mipham goes on to reiterate,
     If one doesn't collect taxes that are reasonable,
      and doesn't take equally from the rich and poor
      according to their situation, is that just?
      From all subjects who pay taxes
      take in accord with their land,
      the season, and their wealth, without harming their home.
      Do not burden them unbearably;
      Like a cow eating grass,
      one shouldn't destroy the roots.
Mipham's attitude toward prostitutes and gamblers aside—the latter have always had a special place in my heart, since they include most of my male relatives—one cannot help but appreciate the sophistication of his position. It underscores much of what's best from all of these thinkers: that taxes must be reasonable and harmless; that the circumstances of a citizen's life, livelihood, and wealth must be taken into account when calculating their tax burden; that special care must be given to those in need; and that rulers are morally responsible for how they handle their citizens' wealth.

Buddhism is often called the middle way. These Buddhist thinkers offer us a middle way between our liberal and conservative extremes by proposing a morally-grounded government that is both limited in its reach and focused on those in need. It might be an ancient idea, but it could hardly be more timely.

Joshua Eaton recently graduated with a master of divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University, and is currently editing an anthology of Buddhist teachings on social justice. His full bio can be found at his website, Formed From Within.

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