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  • Political AuthorityThe Two Wheels of the Dharma
  • Whalen Lai

“The twin wheels of the dharma The two wings of the dove”

The twin wheels of the dharma, one of power and the other of righteousness, is the classic metaphor in the Buddhist view of the state and the saṅgha. We will first register the distinction of that metaphor by going back to its historical roots, showing how and why it is more meaningful for Buddhists than for Hindus. Then we will map its structural growth sociologically, weigh its overall strengths and weaknesses, and consider other Buddhist options for civil order and interstate relationships. Finally we will examine the price of modernity and the crisis of authority that Buddhist culture faces.

Toward a Genealogy of the Twin Wheels

The legend of the Buddha is by now well known. Prince Siddhārtha left family and home, and renounced the kingdom and the world. He had seen the inevitability of suffering. He vowed to find its cause to eliminate that result. After his enlightenment, he reflected upon releasing that path to the world. When the Buddha so taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to his old companions at Benares, tradition then remembers that as the Buddha “turning the wheel of dharma.” The wheel (cakra) is a metaphor; it refers to the wheel of a sun chariot and is now on the national flag of India. That cosmic wheel has rolled on since time immemorial; as saṃsāra, it has been endless suffering. That is, until the Buddha so turned the sun wheel anew, marking it possible for the first time end that cycle and point the way to nirvāṇic liberation. History was so changed with that act of the Buddha at Benares. Mankind turned a corner. Christianity sees the event on the cross to be, likewise, a break in time. History as we know it had ended. The end time, the eschatological kingdom with its promise of a new heaven and a new earth, have dawned. The price of Adam’s sin was death. Christ’s resurrection turned that around.

In Buddhism, the normal course of life and death (rebirth: saṃsāra) also ended [End Page 171] with the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The path to nirvāṇa was open. The city of nirvāṇa is in sight. Or as a Buddhist miracle would tell it, the water of the Ganges flowed backward in response to an act of truth (satyāgraha).

The event at Benares when the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma anew may be a major inspiration for the ideology of the twin wheels. In general, Hinduism needs only to presume one wheel; it does not count a second. Although Hinduism knows its share of renunciation and liberation (mokṣa), the Brahmanical system set down by the Vedas is committed to safeguarding the sanctity of the caste system. It can absorb mokṣa under the larger law for its varāśramadharma. The renunciation is ideally the last station in life, coming after formal retirement from active household duties, and well approaching old age and a good time for learning how to transcend it. Buddhism challenged the caste system by setting up the saṅgha, a new Buddhist community. Hinduism lacks that call for reconstituting society. It does not know the “saṅgha and state” tension that Buddhists know like Christians would the tension between church and state. In the end, the Vedānta philosophy in Hinduism does not postulate that tension. The ātman-brahman identity of self and universe is inherently monistic.

This is not to say Hindus do not face a basic conflict between two contrary worlds. It does but it solves it differently. The tragic dilemma in the Bhagavadgītā is that Arjuna, who came to embrace nonviolence like a Buddhist or a Jain would, was eventually persuaded to fight, namely, to perform his caste duty of being a warrior, ready to kill and be killed. That, in a Greek tragic term, is the dike of some cosmic dharma wheel. Oedipus Rex, in the end, must bow to his fate and lot...