Self esteem is a natural condition, and most people seek power, position and success over others and fear losing the advantage. These drives are a result of what in Buddhism we call the mental defilement of conceit, or, in more modern terms, the instinct for self preservation. As long as people are still uneducated, still underdeveloped -- as long as they cannot live with wisdom -- their actions will be driven by such desires.
In a community, however, such drives, if not contained or suitably controlled, easily become causes for conflict and division. They are an important obstacle to social development and peaceful coexistence. As an example, if, in a public meeting, the speakers' only intention is to show how clever they are and feed their egos, and the listeners are not interested in opening to the views of others, the meeting will probably turn into a heated argument and lead to no good result. The only way out is to release tension by injecting some humor into the meeting or to appoint a chairman to keep things under control and make the final decisions. In both cases the meeting is not as effective as it could be.
Meetings are an important function in a democratic system because they provide a channel through which people can offer their personal potentials for the social good. They are a melting pot for the collective knowledge of their participants. They also provide a way for us to add to our own storehouse of knowledge through listening to the ideas of others. However, when they are not properly conducted they do not achieve the desired results and become obstacles to the development of democracy.
This being the case, how do we rectify the situation? The solution lies in finding some common factor which all the participants in the meeting can equally look up to and surrender to, something which is larger than each of the individuals within it.
In an autocracy, everybody surrenders to the power of the autocrat. They must listen to and believe in what he says. They live and work together harmoniously and abide by the laws out of fear and subjection to the autocrat's power. However, we have seen that submitting to power figures out of fear is not a very desirable motivation for behavior.
If they aren't bowing to a human power figure, societies often submit to a supernatural one, what they call "God." With God as the ultimate authority, there is a common ground to which all the members of that society can submit. However, this is still not a satisfactory method for people who desire democracy because it is another form of autocracy -- it is tainted with fear, and thus does not allow for full development of personal potential. It is also not free of the possibility of factionalism -- many gods lead to many factions.
People in countries which have a strong sense of nationalism are fired by a strong drive to make their country into a great power, and everybody submits to the good of the country. Even though there may be conflicts and contention on a personal level, whenever a matter of national concern arises, all forget their personal grievances and conflicts of interests and harmoniously give themselves to the national cause. However, this method is not in accordance with the real meaning of democracy and it has its hazards -- it leads to fanaticism and intolerance. The sense of beneficent interest is only for one's own race or nationality and one can easily be persuaded to exploit others.
Another ground of common interest is adherence to an ideal, which can be just as powerful as nationalism. People can easily surrender to strong ideals or political views, and groups of people with similar political ideologies are easily mobilized to realize their aims. It is not only an intolerant kind of harmony, but also leads to a very extreme kind of energy. People with strong political ideals tend (like religious fanatics) to be very zealous in their undertakings, but only in favor of their own attachments and ideals. As long as their ideals are seen as valid they can be extremely zealous, wiping out anything or anyone that stands in their way, but as soon as their fervor weakens they eturn to their original state, having gained nothing in terms of personal development. Political zeal does not lead to personal development because the zealots are not acting from wisdom: their zeal is not coming from their own inner understanding, but from an externalized ideal. Since it is not wise thinking, it is not desirable in a democracy.
Those who are not motivated by any of the above causes tend to be unmitigated individualists. Even so, there are times when even they can be inspired to forgo personal benefit for the good of the community, such as when war threatens. When their country is threatened by an aggressor people can be easily brought together and mobilized. But their "sacrifice" is made in order to protect self interests, and as soon as the threat is over they go back to their previous individualism.
In face of all this, what is the position of a democratic society? It has been said that people who are working together to create a democracy must be motivated by wisdom. The aim is to create a society that is of optimum benefit to both the individuals within it and the collective whole, and this aim is realized by carefully looking into things and perceiving that which is based on truth, benefit and goodness.
People who are motivated by a desire for truth, goodness and benefit will try to find that factor which can be most effectively used to solve the problems of life. They will be willing to sacrifice their time and energy and will be open to information from all sides, as long as it leads to an understanding of the truth. They will not be concerned with minor details which are irrelevant to their search for truth, such as personal disputes and emotional reactions. With the true facts of the incident clearly before them, these minor details will be passed over. The desire for truth is what motivates their action, and it is to the truth that they are willing to submit themselves. With such an attitude, meetings will be imbued with an atmosphere of research and learning, and this is the most desirable environment for a democracy.
Therefore, in a democratic society, people will yield to each other for the sake of truth, goodness, reason and benefit, for that condition which is really attuned to solving problems. Take a look at any relatively successful democratic society and you will see this aspiration for truth at work.
Truth, goodness, reason, benefit and problem solving can all be described with the one Buddhist term "Dhamma." Thus it could be said that in a democratic society, people will yield to each other out of respect for the Dhamma, and the Dhamma is held above any one individual or any personal interests.
People who uphold, respect and submit to the Dhamma are called in Buddhism "Dhammadhipateyya," they are "governed by Dhamma." In a successful democracy, all people must be Dhammadhipateyya, all must uphold the supremacy of the Dhamma.
The drive that causes people to cling to selfish interests and to compete for dominance and fame is called in Buddhism mana (conceit). If the search for power and influence becomes so extreme that it is an obstacle to the search for truth and righteousness, if it has a destructive effect on community well-being, mana is said to be at odds with Dhamma. Wherever mana obstructs Dhamma it must be checked. Mana must yield to the Dhamma, and people must practice according to the Dhamma rather than mana. This is what is meant by adhering to the Dhamma.
Tanha, craving, must also yield to the Dhamma. If the search for personal happiness is so extreme that it has a destructive effect on the Dhamma, such as when people take advantage of each other and resort to crime, tanha must be checked. Craving must yield to the Dhamma, and people must practice in accordance with the Dhamma rather than craving. This is another way of adhering to the Dhamma.
Views (ditthi) are another condition which can obstruct Dhamma. While everybody has views of some sort, we must be able to let go of our views and listen to others, even those with which we do not agree, for the sake of the Dhamma, that which is true, good and beneficial. If, having carefully considered the Dhamma, one's personal views are found to be wrong, one must be willing to renounce them and embrace the Dhamma. Even if you are attached to an ideal or school of thought, you must remain open to other sources of knowledge. If you are spreading some teaching or religion, you must do so in a way that accords with the Dhamma, not in a way that is bigoted or that oppresses or deceives others. In this way, views, too, must submit to the Dhamma
By adhering to the Dhamma even in a negative sense, by giving up pride, craving and views in favor of the Dhamma, people are capable of governing themselves. When they have this capability, democracy becomes a viable reality. The kind of people who can govern themselves are those who uphold the Dhamma. Thus, democracy is government by people who are (in the main) Dhammadhipateyya, who do not let the operation of craving, pride and views take precedence over the Dhamma.
Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase "government of the people, by the people and for the people." This idea is widely upheld as a standard definition of the word democracy. However, it is unlikely that Lincoln intended democracy to be merely government by the people. The point of his statement is the relationship between government and the people. When we are dealing with democracy we must also look into its people. If democracy is government by the people, it follows that the quality of a democratic state is determined by the quality of its people. Whether a monarchy is good or bad depends on the quality of the monarch. Similarly, the quality of a democratic government, where the people are the administrators, depends on the quality of its people.
The greatest kind of monarch is the universal emperor. In the Buddha's teachings it is said that a universal emperor must have the quality of being Dhammadhipateyya, he adheres to the Dhamma. An emperor or monarch who does not adhere to the Dhamma will only be interested in his own happiness and pleasure. He will follow his moods and govern according to his own desires, exercising his power to oppress the people. An emperor or monarch who is established in the Dhamma (Dhammadhipateyya) will use his wealth and power to create benefit for the people in the kingdom, and the people will live happily.
In a monarchy the highest power rests with the monarch. That is why good government hinges so much on the monarch being an upholder of Dhamma (Dhammadhipateyya). In democratic government the power lies with the people, and so the responsibility for quality of government becomes that of the people. In other words, wherever the power lies, that is where there must be Dhammadhipateyya.
If the people do not adhere to the Dhamma, if they do not use wisdom but simply follow their own desires and preferences, they will not be able to govern themselves and democracy will not work. It is the people themselves who will suffer exploitation and contention. In the end they may invite a dictator to take over for them and put things under control.
For democracy to work, the people must be educated and trained to become Dhammadhipateyya, upholders of the Dhamma. When they possess this quality, it can be expressed through the vehicle of the democratic system.
The Dhamma which is to be upheld may be divided into two main levels. The first is the level of righteous conventions, rules and regulations. The second, higher level is that of truth, righteousness and benefit. It is so much higher than the first level that it is virtually impossible for most people to see. As long as Dhamma in the higher sense is not clear, we must in the meantime adhere to Dhamma in the lower sense by maintaining and abiding by the laws and regulations.
Since the people of a democracy must be governed by Dhamma, it follows that their elected representatives must also be upholders of the Dhamma. They must understand that democracy does not mean simply following the wishes of the masses or indulging them to get their votes. The people are in a sense the holders of power in a democracy, even though they all have to bow before the laws of the land. As the holders of power (through their votes) we must be careful not to fall for the fawning and indulging of politicians who want our votes. We should rather adhere to the Dhamma, and respect those politicians who most closely adhere to the Dhamma, even though they may sometimes prevent us from indulging our desires.
Politicians who do not uphold the Dhamma are fickle. While they are on the election campaign they promise everything, but once they get elected and attain power they use their power to oppress the people and serve personal interests. A good politician who upholds the Dhamma is established on constant principles. He doesn't oppress the people, but he also doesn't pander to their whims or indulge them in ways that are destructive. He maintains the Dhamma, because his aim is to serve the people.
To demand democracy is to demand development
There are two discernible features of a democracy. One is that the life-style of its people will be moderate, and attuned to the Middle Way. Its factors and functions are balanced and in harmony, neither deficient nor in excess, neither too strict nor too slack. There is an awareness of moderation and balance. The other is an awareness of human potential. All people have a potential that is capable of development and utilization to realize a fulfilling life and constructive and harmonious community.
The recognition of human potential also implies that human beings require development. Their wisdom and mindfulness need honing so that they can look at things with discernment and use their liberties intelligently. Wisdom that is well developed informs us of the proper and balanced way to live. Thus, human development culminates in the development of wisdom and also in the attainment of a good and balanced life-style, which is democracy. The two are the same.
Creation of democracy is a task that requires concerted effort, which implies concerted use of wisdom. Concerted effort does not mean extremism or fanaticism; it refers rather to single-minded application to the task at hand, to patience and perseverance rather than sporadic bursts of energy followed by inaction. It entails maintaining our sense of balance in the face of crises rather than getting all excited over them for a short time and then forgetting all about them. We must be able to look into problems with wisdom and impartiality to gauge just what their causes are and only then will we find real solutions to them.
The ability to investigate in this way is not something that can be created overnight, it requires prolonged and persistent education. Long term plans demand consistency and keen intelligence. Democracy is not an instant commodity which can be just plucked off the shelf, and it can't be demanded through demonstrations. Without sufficient understanding of the way to develop a democracy we may end up spending all our time running around the beginning of the path and never getting there. Demands for democracy should be based on an awareness of both its forms and its heart. Most of the demands for democratic reform we hear of these days are for the forms of democracy rather than its heart. Demands for democracy are in effect demands for development, and that begins with us. We must be able to look into ourselves and see whether there is democracy in our heart.