Creating a Transparent Democracy by Shamar Rinpoche: power to the people

Creating A Transparent Democracy: A New ModelCreating A Transparent Democracy: A New Model by Shamar Rinpoché
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My path to this book began at Christmas 2014, when I received a copy of Buddhism Today magazine in my stocking. I didn’t get to it until about April, when I discovered that the fall/winter 2014 issue was devoted to Shamar Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who died in Germany in June 2014.

I remembered that Shamar Rinpoche was one of the four “dharma regents” who had been tasked with continuing the work of the 16th Karmapa, a senior Tibetan lama, after his death in 1981. As a student of this same lineage of Buddhism, I was sad to read about Shamar’s death, and read the whole magazine with interest. One of the things mentioned in passing was that Shamar had written a book of political philosophy, Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model. As a late-blooming student of political science, I found this fact most intriguing, and immediately ordered a copy online from a bookseller in India.

I quickly saw why the book was mostly to be found in India: not only was it published there (by New Age Books of New Delhi), but the book is primarily addressed to India and to what Shamar perceived to be the political problems of his adopted home in exile from Tibet. The book begins with the author’s “Letter to the Indian People,” in which he offers these critical observations:

Unfortunately, in this land of great thinkers, small political minds primarily at the state level have wrecked [sic] havoc on the average citizen. The once-powerful ideals of democracy and self-rule have given way in many instances to inequity and corruption. The legitimate development needs of villagers and urban slum dwellers go unmet. The levers of power are far from the people most in need.

Shamar’s little book is an effort to solve these problems, and it amounts to a fresh constitution for India. But the text itself never names India, and the ideas presented could be applied to any large federal state, such as, for instance, my own country of Canada. Many of the author’s ideas for improvement are technical and administrative, but he also offers a number of proposals that are bold and innovative.

The author begins with a preface, then an introduction, followed by a chapter entitled “Overview,” all to make sure that the overarching vision of his document is clear. In his preface he says that at age 18 he was inspired by reading, in translation, some lectures by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, which convinced him that “all forms of cruelty and torture are wrong in principle, and totally unacceptable as a means of securing a leader’s power in a truly democratic and civilized society. . . . [T]he only legitimate power to govern people in modern society is power that is granted by the people themselves, that is, power that is gained through democratic means.”

So there you have it: this Asian Buddhist teacher espoused a political philosophy that could have been voiced by John Locke or the authors of the Federalist Papers. I found it striking that it was specifically the issue of torture that set Shamar on his path of political thought. Years ago I might have thought that this reflected the fact that he was writing in the great East, a place where collectivism and authoritarian government were the rule and the rights of individuals routinely trampled. Now, with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and other instances of government-perpetrated torture in the West, it’s clear that the issue is indeed, sadly, global. We too need Shamar’s vision of a torture-free state.

In his introduction, the author asserts that there are three things “necessary to enable humans to gain the maximum benefit from a democratic system of government.” The first of these is the most revolutionary in the strict sense: political power must flow up from the grass roots to the top, and not the other way around. Shamar’s whole system is an effort to achieve this. The second requisite is that citizens “must become politically literate before they can fully participate in self-rule.” This means that the state must provide a universal political education to its citizens—but this must not constitute propaganda, for the third requisite is precisely that “all forms of political propaganda should be banned from public life.”

This third point, interestingly, seems to be the one that the author regards as most important for his aim of realizing a transparent democracy—that is, one free from corruption. Here in Canada we tend to regard the blandishments of politicians as part of the routine if unfortunate flow of political life, but in Shamar’s eyes the fallacious rhetoric of politicians and the credulity of good-hearted but uneducated villagers form a toxic combination that is inimical to democracy. In his proposed system he is at pains to break this pernicious cycle.

In brief, Shamar proposes to create a bottom-up democracy instead of a top-down one by having the members of each successively higher level of political representation and legislation—from village to town to county to district to state to the federal level—selected from the level below it. Thus, each village sends one representative to the town council, the town council sends four representatives to the county council, and so on. At the federal level, the prime minister is popularly elected. The power of the prime minister is kept within bounds in part by “the head of the country,” who might be either a king, a queen, or a president, and in part by the third pillar of the three-part state, the judiciary.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Shamar’s whole proposal is the greatly expanded role he sees for the judiciary in his fully “transparent” democracy. Whether or not Shamar ever read Montesquieu, who I believe is the main architect of the concept of the separation of powers in government, he takes this concept very seriously indeed and his proposed state is shot through with it. Not only must a special constitutional court rule on the constitutionality of every law before it can take effect, but there is also a court of government oversight tasked with monitoring the actions of government generally, and even a full-on “judicial army”—an armed service under the command of the “chief of courts.” This army is equal in size and power to the “people’s army” under the command of the prime minister.

You can see from this selection of ideas that Shamar Rinpoche has put much thought into his proposed state, and has not shied from making bold innovations to the democratic system as it is now practiced. One thing I especially appreciate is that the author proposes making government officials, especially the head of state, swear oaths to uphold the laws of Earth, and to pass no legislation that is damaging to Earth.

I have questions about whether his system may intrude too much on individual freedoms here and there, and whether his bottom-up approach really would empower the bottom and keep undue power away from the top. But I find his proposal to be an exciting and creative addition to political thought of whatever hemisphere of the Earth. If nothing else, the fact that a serious, Western-style work of political theory, one that is intended for practical use, has been authored by a man who was, let’s not be afraid to say it, in Buddhist terms, an enlightened being, makes it of special interest and, perhaps, of special potency to effect good, should any society become inspired to implement it.

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