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
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
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
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
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
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.