A Buddhist perspective on causes, impacts and solutions


Prepared by Dr Nigel Crawhall, Hout Bay Theravada Buddhist Centre
for the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum

Manopubbangama dhamma

manosettha manomaya

manasa ce padutthen

bhasati va karoti va

tato nam dukkhamanveti

cakkamva vahato padam.

Mind determines all states of being
Mind is highest, these are formed by mind
If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts,
then suffering follows one even as the wheel, the hoof of the ox.

The Dhammapada

This paper sets out some reflections on the Buddhist faith and the issue of corruption in the State sector, with particular reference to South Africa. The aim of the paper is to share Buddhist theological and philosophical insights and tools about the significance of corruption and some of the pathways out of the problem. The material is offered for the Buddhist and inter-faith networks to raise awareness amongst members and to contribute to a society that is more conscious of its behaviour, upholding values of integrity, wisdom and good governance.

Before starting, a few words on Buddhism. Buddhism is not a religion per se. Buddhism, which is known by adherents as Buddha dhamma, is a body of philosophy, elucidation of an understanding of the world, a moral code, and a body of practices (predominantly the use of meditation and self-investigation). There is no creator god, no prophet, and no revelation of hidden and sacred knowledge. Buddhists hold that the truth of the dhamma is available for any human who studies the mind and the patterns of the world in which we live. The path to full enlightenment is available for ordinary mortals, if there is the will and effort to follow the Eightfold Noble path to its conclusion.

There are variances in the denominations of Buddhism, with the different denominations all being based on the teachings transmitted from the historical human figure of Prince Siddharta Gotama, the first Buddha or Awakened One. The Buddha was a mortal man who achieved enlightenment through his own efforts and concentration. For some denominations, there is also an entire complimentary body of orality and literature which followed the historical Buddha?s teaching, and which is shaped by national cultural priorities. For this reason, it is important to note that this paper is based on a Theravadin understanding of the Buddha dhamma, and may be complimented by other insights from Mahayana Buddhist denominations.

This paper looks specifically at corruption in the public service, the theme adopted by the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum. The principles elaborated apply to anyone who takes what does not belong to him or her, particularly through coercion or the abuse of power. There are many forms of corruption, in one?s personal life, in the family, in the private sector and so forth. However for the purposes of this paper, the focus is on those who work for the State and are meant to adhere to ethical and moral norms and standards associated with public service and the protection of the Constitutional order and democratic values and procedures.

The emphasis on the State sector needs to be immediately contextualised by South Africa?s past. South Africa has moved through a wide range of different systems of governance and social organisation: from traditional hunter-gatherer band societies, with their emphasis on social cohesion, freedom and mobility; through to more stratified societies and the rise of powerful kingdoms from in-migrating agro-pastoralist populations, with accompanying wars, conflicts, periods of peace and co-existence, and the formalisation of principles of Statehood and citizenship. This was followed by several centuries of colonisation by Europeans, with complex patterns of Statehood designed by the colonisers, and expressed as de-humanisation and dispossession of local and indigenous peoples, including genocide against the original hunter-gatherer peoples.

This violent colonial regime began to mollify in the 20th century with the advent of human rights, but suddenly swerved into a particularly systematic and dehumanising regime anchored in a complex ideology of State manipulation of identity, known as ?apartheid?. Any discussion of contemporary behaviour needs to take into account this particular history of violence, discrimination, colonial occupation and the struggle for both human dignity and universal adult suffrage. Any South African reading this text, will already be agreeing, disputing or experiencing strong feelings about the preceding rapid historical overview. Whatever one?s perspective, we start with a foundational set of Buddhist premises ? nothing happens without pervious conditions giving rise to the current situation (paticca samupada / dependent origination); and secondly, there is an ultimate moral logic to the universe, the law of kamma (also written as karma), which is a law of cause and effect. The more harm we do, the more the harm and the underlying mental states transforms us personally and the world around us. The more good we do and the better our underlying mental states (generous, compassionate, equanimous) the more we improve as individuals and impact positively on the world.

In Buddhist understanding, morality is not subjective. It is a universal and eternal aspect of the uncreated world ? the ultimate dhamma. How we experience this is, however, closely associated with our own life experience, culture, historical circumstances and the power of our analytical and compassionate mind to overcome the subjective experiences and connect us to universal principles of ethics and morality (sila).

The Eightfold Noble Path (atthangika-magga), the Lord Buddha?s guide to how we may each achieve enlightenment, is built on three major component ? the ethical elements (sila), the concentration factors (samadhi), and wisdom (pa??a). Wisdom is itself a combination of the disciplined application of ethics, life experience, and the strengthening of our powers of concentration and consistency. Wisdom (as distinct from knowledge) does not grow in us from just thinking about right and wrong, it comes from effort and practice, as well as reflection and stillness. Thus, the practice of ethical conduct and the arising of wisdom ? a necessary component for enlightenment – are intimately entwined. If we are unwilling to develop all three capacities of ethics, concentration and wisdom, then we are bound to be trapped in the experiences of dukkha (stress, dissatisfaction, suffering).

In the context of a previously racist, sexist, violent and dehumanising regime (albeit one with its own system of rule of law, separation of powers and formal approaches to Statehood, citizenry and governance), the actions of citizens and civil servants need to be understood as necessarily needing to address the previous negative kamma and its results (vipaka). These results include poverty, inequality, and other related dependently originated outcomes, including family violence, extremely high incidences of rape and child abuse, other forms of crime, widespread problems of anger (both suppressed and expressed), and complex mental states and identities linked to shame, senses of inferiority and superiority, victims and perpetrators, and those struggling to shift to a new consciousness.

Corruption in this context is both a manifestation of the previous bad kammic forces and the results of such mental states; as well as generating fresh forms of suffering, bad kamma and negative results. If we do not root out the underlying causes as well as the practices of corruption, we continually renew the cycle that has haunted our relationships and quality of life. The onus is on all who understand the dhamma or other religions to recognise that eliminating corruption, either through suppressing it or actually awakening greater morality and a sense of self-responsibilisation is inherently important for freeing South Africa from its past and creating a better future for all.

On the one hand then, we can see that corruption is hardly surprising and emerges from a painful history, fed by opportunism and self-rationalisations (?I deserve this, after all the bad things that happened to me / people I identify with…?), and at the same time, permitting corruption maintains the poisons of the past and infects the quality of our future, not to mention the quality of life of those who are the perpetrators and the victims. Ultimately, corruption is associated with the three core poisons identified by the Buddha, and hence needs to be targeted for elimination, both for the good of the individual and for the society.

Buddhism cites three poisons or three unwholesome roots (akusala-m?la) as playing a major role in the arising of suffering (dukkha). These are classically given as greed (lobha, also tanha – craving), hate (doha) and delusion or ignorance (moha). The unwholesome roots are all karmical volitions, i.e. they arise from our mental state, our will and intentions, our state of wisdom / ignorance, and they have karmic consequences, not least of which is eventually a rebirth in a unhappy destiny or painful realm of torment.

The unwholesome roots are accompanied by generally unwholesome mental factors associated with all unwholesome actions (volitions), these being 1) lack of moral shame (ahirika), 2) lack of moral dread (anotatappa), 3) restlessness (uddhacca) and 4) delusion (moha).

We can conclude from this, that an individual who engages in corruption is suffering from several underlying problems ? he or she is craving something ? this could be wealth and materialism, or it might be about the exercise of power and the temporary burst of confidence it gives. He or she is likely engaging in some form of hatred or at least a lack of compassion for the victim of his or her crime, implying a further state of mental and emotional damage. There is a serious absence of moral insight or wisdom. He or she is likely to have levels of torment about this practice (fear of being discovered, guilty feelings, anger, shame, defensiveness, a will to commit other crimes to keep from being caught out). And, evidently, he or she is wilfully engaged in sustaining ignorance about the world and the impacts of his or her actions.

The more the individual engages in these unwholesome activities, the deeper the trouble gets, and the more serious the consequences. Fundamentally, the corrupt official is also not in control of his or her mind; the craving, desires, greed and ignorance dominate and torment the individual, poisoning his or her quality of life and the relationships with others.


The Eight Fold Noble path explains quite clearly how one can free oneself from suffering and ignorance. Each element of the path is important ? speaking the truth, understanding the dhamma, sustaining a right livelihood, making an effort to purify the mind, studying one?s own behaviour and concentrating to develop ethical conviction, concentration powers and wisdom through its application.

Central to the path of liberation is ?right understanding? (samma-ditthi) ? one must understand the difference between right and wrong, and the consequences of our actions. If we understand the causes of suffering, and that there is a path to freedom, happiness and ultimate enlightenment, then we also see the benefit of living a wholesome life and committing to the path.

Hearing the dhamma is an important step in developing right understanding, but then there is the will to embrace the teachings and put them into practice. Another directly evident element of the path to liberation is ?right effort? (samma-vayama). Right effort helps us understands the types of efforts which we need to develop. These include avoiding unwholesome intentions, habits and actions; overcoming existing bad habits; deliberately developing oneself as a wholesome being; and maintaining good habits and purity of heart.

For Buddhists, we have an opportunity to continually review our conduct on the occasion of taking the Five Precepts, obligatory for all practicing Buddhists. Precept 2: I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking things not given (Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami) directly requires us to consider whether things that come into our possession are indeed meant for us, or have been taken against the will of others, and are not duly ours. This is an obvious violation of our ethics, and if we reflect on how we came to breach such a precept, the investigation leads back to the other Precepts and the message of the Eightfold Noble Path.

Developing mindfulness (sati) and equanimity (upekkha) are practices which help us recognise unwholesome mental states, intentions, habits and actions, and develop the skills and will to adjust these appropriately. Equanimity acts as an antidote to unresolved issues of anger, a sense of victimhood or the need to blame others. As these two wholesome practices become fused with our regular thinking and behaviour, so we also see the benefits of a virtuous life.

Though it is normal in Buddhism that we expect the individual to awaken to his or her own suffering and ignorance, it is also the case that we need to recognise the systemic character of such corruption ? both its institutional manifestation and its psycho-social basis. This behoves us to sustain checks and balances that constrain the behaviour of those who are deluded. We do not want negative karmic habits to pollute and despoil our young democracy. We have this opportunity to build a more just, humane and healthy society by ensuring that the political institutions and duty-bearers help carry us forward to an improved state of consciousness and well-being.

Without resorting to violence or other transgressions of our ethical system, Buddhists should consider the importance of resisting State-based corruption, reducing the opportunities for its manifestation, and taking time to engage with those around us to help promote an understanding of why this practice is so toxic to the individual and the society. This must include challenging those who have developed a delusional argument of self-justification of the habits. The path to freedom and happiness is built on strong ethical foundations, an accurate understanding of our own mental capacity, strengths and weaknesses, and the benefits of rousing sufficient effort to improve our moral character, and the positive consequences that flow from this.

Our response to corruption does not need to be anger and condemnation, but rather correct analysis and compassionate support for those who need to stop this practice, or recover from its consequences.

In sum, Buddhists consider that corruption is an unwholesome state of mind, which causes suffering, and contributes to an unhealthy society. It is important to challenge this behaviour with compassion and insight, guiding those individuals who can change their behaviour to do so. As this unwholesome condition arises in the mind, the transformation of the behaviour must also address knowing and guiding the mind. Such an effort may seem unattractive to a corrupt official, however, following a righteous and noble path is in itself rewarding, and brings real benefits, including inner happiness, self-respect, and the love of those around us. Where the individual is unable or unwilling to transform his or her behaviour, appropriate sanctions should be pursued to prevent such behaviour which erodes the moral integrity of the current society, and infects future generations and their chance for happiness.

May all sentient beings be at ease and freed from suffering.

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