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A Tibetan Regent’s Economic Reforms and the Ethics of Rulership

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 27, 2020

The Saṃgha and the Taxman: A Tibetan Regent’s Economic Reforms and the Ethics of Rulership

William K. Dewey
Rubin Museum of Art

This article examines how Tibetan Buddhists believed a state should be governed justly by considering the political agenda of the regent Ngawang Tsültrim (1721–1791) and how he was influenced by the Indian nītiśāstra tradition and similar indigenous traditions of ethical rule. Nītiśāstra originally, under Kauṭilya, promoted wealth and power. Later proponents (both Hindu and Buddhist) more strongly emphasized the primacy of Dharma and justice for the poor, and in this form it most influenced Tibetan Buddhist political thought, including the legislative decrees of Ngawang Tsültrim. He tried to relieve the Tibetan peasants from the heavy tax and labor obligations of the Tibetan social system, and otherwise pursued economic justice. In so doing, he also wanted to ensure that resources continued to flow to the Saṃgha, the supreme field of merit. Accordingly, the decrees targeted aristocratic rather than monastic corruption. They prioritized the maintenance and reform of existing economic obligations over economic development or redistribution of wealth. Ngawang Tsültrim’s decrees demonstrate a tension within the nītiśāstra tradition which can also be found when today’s religions (including socially engaged Buddhism) pursue goals of social justice. These goals may conflict with the goal of spreading the faith, and especially with the social and financial structures that support religious institutions, but may be responsible for social ills. Read article