Pausefully Magazine

the online magazine about life as a creative process


Ashoka’s choice, our choice

By Richard Reoch


These days in a world of aggression and cruelty, we all face a choice. Are we to be part of the global spiral of violence or are we to find a way out of it – not only for ourselves, but for all humanity?

We are not the first people in history to face such a choice. One of the greatest examples of a human being taking a stand and making a difference was Ashoka, the emperor who turned from the path of bloodshed to become a great humanitarian.

Ashoka is the Indian ruler of whom the British historian H.G. Wells wrote:
“Among the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone—a star.”

Ashoka was a sacred administrator who took a deep interest in foreign policy, religious tolerance, the administration of justice and humanitarian affairs. He is credited with starting one of the first hospitals in human civilization. He extended his concern not only to the realm of human beings, but also to animal life and the environment.

But he was not always this way. And that’s what makes his story so poignant, not only to me, but to almost anyone with whom I speak these days.

The story goes that at the end of a ferocious military campaign, Ashoka stood on the battlefield among the corpses of his enemies. In the distance he saw a monk walking on the battlefield. We can imagine him in his armour, surrounded with all the trappings of victory, seeing this solitary figure in a saffron robe, carrying nothing but a begging bowl. So struck was he by the monk’s composure and radiance, that he is said to have thought to himself: “How is it that I, the victorious Emperor Ashoka, who has everything, on seeing this monk with only a robe and bowl, feel that I have nothing?”

Thus it was that Ashoka, the mighty conqueror, abandoned the path of violence and was transformed into one of the greatest social benefactors of his age.

According to the Tibetan tradition, Ashoka was a mass murderer. He came to power by eliminating hundreds of his opponents and at one point is said to have erected a vast killing ground, a kind of human abattoir, known as “Ashoka’s Hell.” Here he ordered that ten thousand people to be put to death. But again, Ashoka was transformed. A Buddhist monk strayed into the killing ground. Through the power of his spiritual practice in the midst of the carnage, the monk brought both the Emperor and his chief executioner to the path of enlightenment.

Perhaps these stories are exaggerated to make their point, but Ashoka is clearly a powerful role model for our age. I feel this not because he was famous, respected, and had a reputation that endured for centuries, but because he demonstrated the power of human choice. It is clear from all the evidence that he actually went through a process of personal transformation.

Some historians say he wasn’t nearly as hideous as the early Buddhist texts made him out to be before his conversion. But it is clear from what we do know of his history and from the edicts carved on his pillars and rocks, that Ashoka made a choice. As one of the edicts says: he replaced the sound of the drum with the sound of the dharma. He turned from the path of destruction and cruelty to the path of tolerance and compassion.

That’s a choice we all face in our lives today. Everyday we are involved in mass murder. In the Shambhala tradition this period of time is known as the dark age. It is an era of extreme aggression. One way or another most of us are citizens of countries at war. In fact it is hard not to be involved in at least some aspect of the more than 20 wars currently being waged across the globe. Most of us are inescapably involved in war economies in our countries and some would say that the global economy as a whole is the economy of a world at war.

Extreme aggression is the first characteristic of the dark age. The second characteristic is extreme materialism. The devastation they wreak together is terrifying.

Rampant materialism, raging greed and consumption have reached proportions where their consequences amount to a war of aggression waged not only against specific nations. This war threatens the survival of our species as a whole. It threatens the survival of countless other species. It threatens the biosphere of our planet.

We are all taking part in this war, just by virtue of having bank accounts, living in the part of the world that rides on the back of the rest of the world and, through our life styles, contributing to the rape of the planet.

The Buddha faced this dilemma too, in his lifetime. He grew up as a prince, part of a warrior clan. He left his palace in search of the path that leads to the cessation of all suffering. This is what many people would call "choosing the spiritual life."

Sometimes we tend to think that the spiritual life involves complete withdrawal from the world. But that was not the example set by the Buddha. He was a social radical. His vision of serving humanity is one to which I have always turned for inspiration when confused or downhearted. In the forty-five years that he spent teaching, he created alternative communities everywhere he went. They were based on economic and social policies that embodied sharing wealth rather than possessing it, and expressing our common humanity rather than the superficial differences that so often divide us.

Take for example, the bowl and robe of the monk that Ashoka saw in the distance. The bowl was known as the “sharing bowl”: all the food collected each day was shared by the community in collective meals. The robe was dyed in the very colours that were used to stigmatize the “untouchables” of the caste system. The Buddha’s followers deliberately identified themselves with the most marginalized members of society.

Ashoka followed in those footsteps. He put his spiritual ideals into practice. He transformed not only himself, but his society – abolishing many cruel practices, introducing religious tolerance and concerning himself with justice.

A lot of us are starting to examine our own lifestyles – what work we do, what we eat, where we bank, how we get around. In all these little areas of our lives we can make the same choice that Ashoka made. Having been raised as a Buddhist, I wanted to do something in my life that would help alleviate human suffering. That led me to work for Amnesty International – opposing political imprisonment, torture and executions.

In exactly the same way, more and more people are trying to work or contribute in some way to organizations and social movements that promote justice, help people in need, protect the environment or address major changes needed in society – either at home or abroad. Everyone who does this is, to my mind, a noble heir of Ashoka.

These choices can come down to very simple matters, like what we eat. When I have a choice, I tend to be a vegetarian, not out of rigid principle, but because of the suffering other creatures on the earth and in the seas endure when they are slaughtered or captured for food.

Other people take food awareness further. They make a point of not shopping in supermarkets and support local stores instead. That’s good for people’s livelihoods and tends not to tie us in to the excesses of agribusiness, which often contribute to social and environmental degradation elsewhere in the world.

Choosing an ethical bank is another great choice. During the first invasion of Iraq in the 1980s, I switched to an ethical bank that advertised the fact that none of its investments went into the arms trade. Not only that: the bank refuses to invest our money in companies with a proven record of unjust employment practices. We can be sure our money doesn’t support tyrannical regimes or other forms of oppression. There are now many such banking and investment opportunities and that’s a choice I recommend to everyone.

Finally, when I’m at home in London, I ride a bicycle or use public transport whenever possible. That just a commonsense choice that benefits the planet, the whole city and is better for my health as well!

For me, one of the key points about Ashoka is that although his life seems to have been changed by contact with a Buddhist monk, he didn’t feel the need to become a monk himself. Nor do we have to. What he chose was a way of governing, a way of living in society that was wrapped in the intention of wisdom and compassion. Wrapping ourselves in that intention is a choice we can all make.


Richard Reoch is the President of Shambhala, the global mandala founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that works to create enlightened society. He is a former senior official of Amnesty International, a trustee of the Rainforest Foundation, and currently Chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka working to end the Buddhist world’s longest running war.



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