Monday, April 18, 2011

Buddhism and Taxes

Wisdom Quarterly
“Tell me your ninth dream,” the Buddha said to King Pasenadi.

“I saw a deep pool with sloping banks overgrown with lotuses. From all directions, a wide variety of animals came to drink. Strangely, the deep water in the middle was terribly muddy. Yet the water at the edges, where all the thirsty creatures descended into the pool, was unaccountably clear and sparkling. This was my ninth dream. What does it mean?”

“This dream will come to pass in the future, when rulers grow increasingly corrupt. Ruling according to their own whim and pleasure, they will not make judgments according to what is right. Being greedy, they will grow fat on lucrative bribes. Not showing mercy or compassion to their subjects, they will be fierce and cruel. These rulers will amass wealth by crushing their subjects like stalks of sugar cane in a mill and by taxing them to the last penny.

“Unable to pay the oppressive taxes, the citizens will abandon their villages, towns, and cities, and will flee like refugees to the borders. The heart of the country will be a wilderness, while the remote areas along the borders will teem with people. The country will be just like the pool, muddy in the middle and clear at the edges." More

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

[C]lassical Buddhist thinkers have had [something] to say about taxes and fiscal policy.... [T]hese thinkers' cultural, political, and historical distance from us can give us some much needed perspective.

In the Acts of the Buddha 2:43, the Buddhist philosopher-poet Asvaghosa (circa 80-150 CE, north India) 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 [theft],
he did not wish to reveal his foes' [non-]dharma,
he did not wish to carry anger in his heart.

Two things jump out immediately. First, Asvaghosa equates wishing to raise inordinate taxes with wishing to take what belongs to others -- in other words, theft. Second, taking inordinate taxes/theft appears alongside the much more obvious -- and, many of us might think, much more serious -- transgressions of defamation and hatred....

While it's uncertain what role greed plays in Asvaghosa's objection to excessive taxes, the Mahayana Buddhist scripture "Requested by Surata" is painfully obvious. In the following excerpt, the Bodhisattva Surata upbraids the corrupt king of Sravasti (more 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 [deeds].

Surata obviously objects to the king's high taxes because they are a result of his greed -- for power and for money -- and also because they hurt Sravasti's citizens.

Perhaps the most famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna (circa 150 - 250 CE, south and north India) objects to high taxes in his Precious Garland 4:252-253, 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 about taxes' financial effects, but also their emotional ones....

The renowned Nyingma [Tibetan] Buddhist philosopher and teacher Jü Mipham Gyatso (1846-1912, Derge, eastern Tibet) nicely sums up all of these sentiments 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 “taking what hasn't been given.”

Forcefully taking from the poor

can be either a wrongdoing or not a wrongdoing:
In order to prevent gamblers and prostitutes
from wasting the wealth obtained illicitly,
if you take from them,
it is said to benefit both and is not a wrong-doing.
When someone has lost property through fire, etc.,
tax them lightly.

If one doesn't care for the sentient beings

who haven't any means, this is a wrong-doing. More

(Huffington Post) President Barack Obama was caught on an open mic making some blunt and intriguing remarks about the actions of Republicans in recent budget negotiations that produced a deal to avert a government shutdown at a fundraiser in Chicago on Thursday, CBS News reports.