Power and skillful means

There are several different types of power:  Example power, expert power, positional power, reward power and coercive power.  It is important to understand the relationships between these different types of power and how to misuse power.

  1. Example power is others wishing to emulate you, to identify with you, to wish to associate with you.  This is the highest form of power demonstrated by the Buddhas and Spiritual Guides.  It is essentially the power of your example and the extent to which it inspires others to emulate it or to associate with it.  This is also sometimes known as ‘referrent power.’
  2. Expert power is you possesses some special knowledge or experience which is useful to yourself or others for solving your own or their problems.  In particular, genuine spiritual realizations are the highest form of this special knowledge or experience because it helps people solve their actual inner problems and it helps and protects living beings in this and all of our future lives.  Ultimately, it is only our realizations which have any value to ourself or others, and all of the other forms of power exist solely to serve help share and disseminate your realizations.
  3. Positional power is the power afforded to you by your position in conventional interaction.  For example a teacher has a specific position, and with that position comes different levels of conventional deference and respect.
  4. Reward power is the power to reward others in some way for having done the right thing.  This is very easy to abuse if you offer rewards only to the extent to which others fulfill your selfish wishes.  But it can be used virtuously if for example you are dealig with somebody who has a pure motivation and you are in a position to put them in a position of higher responsibility, then if they do the right thing in terms of serving and helping others, then you reward them with a higher position.  Likewise, sometimes praising, even publicly, the virtues and qualities of others can help inspire them to be even more virtuous and to develop their qualities further.  The fundamental point is what behavior are you rewarding – behavior that has as its objective serving and helping others or behavior that has as its objective serving or helping your own selfish wishes (or worse, behavior that harms others).
  5. Coercive power is the flip side of the coin of reward power.  It is the ability to punish othrs in some way for having done the wrong thing or from having failed to do the right thing.  Like with reward power, the fundamental issue is what behavior are you punishing.  If you are punishing incorrect behavior (specifically behavior that is selfish or harmful to others) then it can be done virtuously.  Wrathful actions are, in essence, the virtuous use of coercive power.

Some thoughts on the skilfull exercise of power:

  1. First, if your motivation for using power is selfish, then any use of power will generate resentment by others, which, in the long-run, will function to generate resistance to your power ultimately leading to its decline.  And, more importantly, you will generate negative karma creating the causes for others to abuse their power towards you.  Any use of power for the sake of helping others, in contrast, is a virtuous use of power and will generate respect and apreciation from others, which, in the long run, will function to increase your power as people come to respect you and want to put you in positions of higher and higher authority (they naturally want to do this because they know you are going to use your power virtuously.  When you use it non-virtuously, they strive to take you down, and eventually they will succeed.
  2. Second, your use of cooercive power should never exceed your expert power.  The rationale for this is simple:  if you are wrong, and you use cooercive power to accomplish your wrong objectives, then people will lose respect in you and generate resentment towards your exercise of power.  This will function to decrease your example power as people will not want to be like you or to associate with you.  In contrast, if you use your coercive power and in the end you are right, then others will come to respect you that you have the strength and backbone to fight for what is right.  Ultimately, children, for example, want to be shown right from wrong, they want to have limits imposed upon them when those limits are understood and known to be just and correct limits.  They may protest your use of the cooercive power, but deep inside them they know you are right and they respect you for your taking a principled stand and being willing and able to fight for it.  Our ability to do this depends upon not having any attachment or aversion for the things the other person can take away from us or inflict upon us.  If we have no attachment or aversion, but instead can transform everything anybody throws at us, then others will have no power whatsoever over us.  We give people power over us by being attached or averse to what they can give or take away.
  3. Your positional power depends entirely upon its perceived legitimacy.  First, others will only put you in positions of power if you have demonstrated a sufficient level of example and expert power.  Sometimes people will put you in a position of power because they hope that with that power you will advance their own selfish, negative agenda.  Do not acquire power in this way because then you are using your power for negative purposes and in such a case it would be better to be powerless.   The one exception to this rule would be if by acquiring the power you will then be in a position to dispose of the person whose agenda is selfish and negative.   Once you in a position of power, its strength will depend upon its perceived legitimacy.  If your purpose is virtuous and for the sake of others, then others will assent to your power, in fact they will seek to reinforce it.  If your purpose is seen to be negative or selfish, then others will not assent to your positional power and they will seek to undermine it (and inevitably they will succeed).  Often what happens is when people are being brought down, they will then resort to the negative use of coercive power in an effort to hang on to power, but inevitably this will only accelerate their eventual decline from power.  The legitimacy of your positional power is also a function of your example and expert power.  If people wish to emulate you or associate with you and if people see you as an expert in the domain which you have positional power over, then people will naturally assent to and even reinforce your position.  People must also trust you.  They will trust you in dependence upon you always telling the truth (lying creates the cause for people to never believe you) and in dependence upon your intentions and purposes being virtuous.
  4. Your pursuit of power should always be kept hidden.  Others naturally resent and fear the ambitious.  If they perceive you as being prematurely ambitious (meaning you seek higher power before you have proven yourself worthy of that power), then they will seek to knock you down and to block your rise.  Ultimately, power is either earned or bestowed.  You earn power through increasing your example and expert power.  It is bestowed upon you by others through your demonstrated example and expert power and your virtuous use of the reward and coercive power that you already possess.  Thus, the best strategy for acquiring power is great compassion and bodhichitta.  You use whatever power you have for the sake of helping others (virtuous use of reward and coercive power) and you increase your qualities and qualifications so as to be able to better help others (virtuous pursuit of increased example and expert power).  If your focus is on creating the causes of increased power then it will naturally be earned and bestowed upon you without you having to explicitly pursue it.  In this way, you can continuously grow in power without being perceived as ambitious.  In reality, within you, you are virtuously ambitious.  You wish to become Heruka, a Chakravatin King.  You wish to become a Spiritual Guide for all beings.  You wish to free all beings from all suffering.  These are incredibly ambitious goals.  But externally, you show none of this since in the end that proves counter-productive.

Heruka is a Chakravatin King, the highest and most powerful position in all of reality.  Learning the virtuous dimensions of power is part of my bodhisattva training, striving to become a virtuous Chakravatin King.  In business it is about how much money you have; within government the bottom line is how much power you have.  Power has enormous potential to corrupt (power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely…).  Therefore, it is very important to be mindful of the legitmate exercise of power and how it is acquired.  Power need not be shunned if your intentions are virtuous, you use that power for the benefit of others and you are able to protect yourself against its corrupting influence.  Indeed power can be sought after if you know you will use it for good.

Your turn:  Describe a situation in which you have used whatever power you have for virtuous purposes.

3 thoughts on “Power and skillful means

  1. I care not for any position of power whatsoever. I expect no one to follow my example. I am no expert on anything, i am in a constant state of self development. I’d rather people not thank me for anything since ALL of my actions are my guru flowing through me. Please speak through me, please think through me, please sit my exam for me, let it all be from you, not me, allow me to not take any credit for any of it.

    Humility in experiencing our magnificent real self is a long and sticky path which can lead to many a person’s downfall. Even high practitioners can fall fowl.

    I try and keep it simple:

    All actions are coming from my purest self.
    All Buddha’s are with me ALL of the time and experience everything with me. They see all lies. If they experience everything with me and emanate this and that, there’s nothing for me to say, that was me, that was all my doing, i helped so and so. Since there are limitless factors which are in play.
    I try not to be trusted, respected, loved, admired (all helpful). As i trust my real self. People are free to think what they choose.
    Basically the less involved in samsara i am, the more my real self (in the pure land) is active.
    If i am put in a position where others are involved and i am decision maker – i hand it over. I handed over my family, my daughter etc to my guru many years ago. Let the decisions come from the pureland, let them come from inner light of wisdom.

    • There is no contradiction between what we are saying. Of course we hand everything over to the guru. But part of that is bringing ourselves into alignment with his wisdom so that we get in the way of him working through us less. If he is Vajrapani, then surely we must learn the wisdom of power in the same way we learn the wisdom of anything else.

  2. I agree, there is no contradiction. You are coming from a more practical point of view from daily life which is totally necessary in ascending the Bodhisattva path. I’m not really in a position of power so i guess i am unable to comment to the depth of your view since you are a diplomat.

    However, the theme closely links in with what i said a while ago about being virtuously assertive. You are the emanation of Heruka in daily life, so you teach others (as if you are Heruka) so that they treat you without delusion.

    Regarding being right when dealing with others, understanding that your opinion is ever changing and incomplete with regards to real truth means you can allow open-mindedness to be present seeing things from multiple-perspectives. I know you do this already 😉

    Buddha said, apparently, that yes we can be successful, powerful, and so on, i’m sure that’s what it said in that book i gave you when we when had that lovely meal in Brussels??

    Gotta go – my exam is tommorrow! Wish me good ‘luck’ ha ha

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