The Just King

The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life

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Jamgön Mipham
José Ignacio Cabezón
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , July
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What might happen if a major public intellectual and scholar of religious studies had the ear of our political leaders? What if the scholar—a master of religious and worldly subjects, who was steeped in political theory and had a flair for poetic verse—composed a systematic, pragmatic, and eloquent guidebook on how to rule ethically and effectively under any and all circumstances? Would our political reality change? 

It is hard not to muse on such questions when reading José Ignacio Cabezón’s The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life. Cabezón offers a fluent translation of a 19th-century Tibetan treatise on “the theory and practice of Buddhist kingship and political ethics” (x), composed by the famed Tibetan polymath Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso (1846-1912). Cabezón prefaces the translation with a concise and accessible introduction. He makes it clear that there is a long history of Buddhist masters taking an interest in good governance and advising monarchs. Cabezón then provides a brief overview of the main text, helpfully summarizing some of the most salient points, such as the qualities of a good king. 

Cabezón also invokes Foucault’s work on “technologies of the self” but makes a crucial distinction in how this theory applies to the Tibetan text. He writes, “This is not a ‘subjectivation’ of the masses … but rather a subjectivation of the ruler, the creation of the king as an ethical subject that makes it possible for him to successfully rule” (xiii). Cabezón further argues that the text is more concerned with the king’s “vertical” relationships to the gods than it is with “horizontal” relationships, for instance with the leaders of neighboring states. In order to have the blessing of the gods, the king must be virtuous, and in order to be virtuous, the king must adhere to the divine law laid down by former Dharma kings (xvi). The king’s power is not absolute since his authority is contingent on the gods’ approval, which depends on his ethical behavior. The introduction also provides a biographical sketch of Mipham and gives an overview of the fraught historical-political context in which he wrote. Cabezón seeks to “capture some of the poetical character of the work by preserving its verse structure and by trying to render each stanza in the same number of lines as in Mipham’s text” (xxvii). 

Mipham is renowned for having systematized his own Nyingma school’s teachings as well as being held up as a paragon of non-sectarianism. His lengthy work, twenty-one chapters composed entirely in verse, draws on Indian Buddhist and Hindu classics of political theory as well as Tibetan texts inspired by those Indian materials. In particular, Cabezón explains that Mipham’s work bridges the Indian literary genres of nīti (practical advice on worldly ethics) and subhāşita (well-spoken verses that convey fundamental truths and offer moral guidance). Cabezón expands on his introductory overview in the first of three extremely valuable appendices, which are written in a more scholarly style than the introduction. Appendix I will be especially satisfying to readers interested in the history of the nīti and subhāşita literary genres.

Mipham addresses his text to a young prince of the Eastern Tibetan kingdom of Dergé’s royal family, who were at the time embroiled in political turmoil. Authority over the region was in flux, with actors from Eastern Tibet, Lhasa, and China all vying for dominance. To add to the trouble, within the royal family, the king was in favor of the elder son taking the throne, whereas the queen sought to secure the throne for a younger son. Cabezón ventures that it was the queen who commissioned Mipham’s text for her preferred son.

Via Cabezón’s masterly translation of layers of aphorism, metaphor, and allusion, Mipham presents his reader with pragmatic advice about how to be a decent and successful ruler. Chapter topics range from “Self-Control” and “Analyzing Your Own and Others’ Speech” to “Compassion” and “How to Conquer the World through Skill in Means.” Although Mipham refers to his work specifically as rājanīti, indicating it was composed for a royal audience, his directives are framed in such a way as to be applicable to anyone who wields authority. 

Perhaps just as intentionally, Mipham demonstrates his own remarkable erudition. Indeed, while reading the translated verses on selecting good advisors, judicious punishment, and avoiding adultery due to the social troubles it so often causes, I was struck by how well Mipham (and Cabezón) knows the Indian and Tibetan materials. In a sense Mipham’s work was as much a systematic study of the preexisting literature as it was a new contribution to the field of Buddhist political theory. 

Without Cabezón’s painstaking notes, many of the intertextual references as well as the metaphors would, at least to this reader, have been impenetrable. The prince was about sixteen when Mipham composed the treatise. I wonder how he fared with the text, given how particular many of the metaphors are to ancient Indian material culture and society, and how variegated the allusions are even when Mipham draws on Tibetan antecedents. Cabezón explains that to be learned in Mipham’s time entailed knowing these texts. I was left wondering whether anyone knew them quite as well as Mipham, and if not, how effective would his literary strategies have been in training the young prince to be a good king? Clearly Mipham’s intention was not only to encourage readers to think carefully about karma and the ethical responsibility that comes with authority, but to contribute to the existing body of literature on ethics.

Along these lines, Cabezón remarks that Mipham’s work resonates strongly with modern Buddhological scholarship. Later he mentions that as one of Tibet’s greatest and most prolific masters of Indian learning, Mipham’s oeuvre would not have been complete if he had not composed at least one nīti treatise.These points strike me as important in understanding the purpose of the text and its relevance to scholarly and cultural production today. 

This book will benefit practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism as well as students and scholars of religion, Buddhist studies, and political studies. When I recently assigned chapter 16, “How to Cultivate the Ten Virtues,” in an undergraduate course, students wondered how Trump might respond to Mipham’s counsel. However, Cabezón indicates that Mipham avoided taking a stand on the controversial political issues of his day. Perhaps Mipham and Cabezón alike were well aware of the probable limits of the impact of such a treatise on kings and presidents. But perhaps they saw the value in the very existence of such a text as a contribution to humanistic thinking about the ethics of power.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dominique Townsend is Assitant Professor of Buddhist Studies at Bard College.

Date of Review: 
June 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamgön Mipham (1846–1912), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in modern times, has had a dominant and vitalizing influence on the Nyingma School and beyond. He was an important member of the Rimé, or nonsectarian movement, which did much to strengthen and preserve the entire tradition. A scholar of outstanding brilliance and versatility, his translated works are eagerly anticipated by English-language readers.

José Ignacio Cabezón is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Formerly a Buddhist monk at Sera Monastery in South India, Professor Cabezón has authored a number of works on Tibetan literature, Buddhist philosophy, and sexuality. He is originally from Cuba and currently resides in California.


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