Richard King teases out the links between Marxism, Buddhism and socialism.
The Dalai Lama and Marxism
Dhammic Socialism according to Buddhist principles holds that Nature created beings which must live in groups. Both plants and animals live together in groups or communities. This system we will call ‘socialism’ … in short, it is living for the benefit of society, not for the individual benefit of the person. (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, 1906-93)
In June 2011 during a visit to Minneapolis the 14th Dalai Lama shocked his American audience by declaring himself a Marxist. This was not an isolated or superficial statement on his part but in fact represented many years of reflection on the social philosophy of Marx and its compatibility with Buddhist teachings. Following in the tradition of Buddhist scholars like Trevor Ling, who argued in Buddha, Marx and God that Marx’s critique was aimed at oppressive and transcendentalist ideologies rather than religion in general, the Dalai Lama reads Marx’s famous reference to the opiate of the masses not as a critique of all religion as such, but as a rejection of obfuscating belief systems that justify social inequality.
Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes – that is the majority – as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair … The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason, I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. (Dalai Lama, 1996, Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses)
The Dalai Lama is far from an isolated Buddhist example in this regard. Just as Christianity has influenced left-wing and radical political movements in the West (see James Crossley, Why Christianity Matters to Socialism), in Asia Buddhist teachings have similarly inspired progressive movements and philosophies such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s dhammic socialism in Thailand, the Socialist Party of U Nu in Burma (Prime Minister in 1948-56, 1957-58 and 1960-62) and the Dalit-oriented socially engaged Buddhism of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar in India.
Let us consider the case of Ambedkar. In 1956 a new socio-political movement was launched in India with the aim of challenging the iniquities of the Indian caste system and improving the lives of Dalit or untouchable” communities within India. The central claim of its founder, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar – one of the key architects of the modern Indian constitution and himself from a Dalit family – was that the only way to free oneself from the social iniquities of the Indian caste system is to renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism. Thus, on the 14th October 1956 in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Ambedkar, along with 400,000 fellow Dalits, underwent a mass conversion to Buddhism.
In this way, a new movement was born in India that described itself as Navayāna - “the new vehicle” – a modern representation of the Buddha’s message emphasizing its socially transformative and socialist dimensions. According to Ambedkar, the Buddhist and Marxist worldviews were compatible in their goals, but differed in their means. Whereas the Buddha focused on the non-violent transformation of members of society, Marxist communism, at least in its twentieth-century Russian form, constituted a perpetual dictatorship of the proletariat maintained through coercion and control. According to Ambedkar:
Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation as summarised by the French Revolution in three words, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality. The French Revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasised that in producing equality society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all. (Buddha or Karl Marx? Ambedkar)
What grounds did Ambedkar have for making the claim that the Buddha’s teaching is socialist in nature? One way to answer this question is to consider the early Buddhist attitude to the caste system. The Buddha himself is said to have come from a princely background and therefore a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, though it seems likely that he came from a region of Gandhāra in North-Eastern India where the Brahmanical system of four caste groups (priests, warriors, merchants and servants) was less dominant and so he may have referred to himself as a Kshatriya for ease of reference when engaging with Brahmins for whom the four groupings constituted a natural, universal and divinely ordained form of social stratification.
Judging by the evidence of the Pali canonical texts, the Buddha does not appear to have rejected the idea of classifying people in terms of their personal abilities and in terms of varied functions and roles within society. Differences between people exemplified for him the diversity of beings and is grounded in the natural law of karma and rebirth. It was simply a matter of fact that different people had different qualities, skills and interests - reflecting their diverse levels of spiritual attainment, personality traits and life experiences.
However, what we do find in the early teachings of Buddhism is a refusal to place someone within a certain class-group on the basis of the social conditions or the family into which they were born. Again and again, the Buddha is seen to address people according to their moral behaviour and character rather than their class background, which he rejected as a basis for determining social status. Thus, one of the Buddha’s first disciples, Upāli, was a barber and of low caste status and yet was considered a senior figure in the early Buddhist tradition. This was precisely because the Buddha ranked his followers based upon their mastery of his teachings and seniority of experience rather than their wider social standing.
The communism of the sangha
The Buddha founded a monastic and renunciant community - the sangha, which was based on the principle of common ownership of property, communal decision making, and the promotion of an ethic of non-violence and compassion as a moral prerequisite of membership. The sangha was to be a classless society of renunciates following the Buddha’s teachings and offering teaching, advice and an example to the wider lay society. Within the sangha the Buddha did not countenance any continuation of the caste divisions of wider society. Instead male and female renunciates would practice a communal lifestyle of sharing and ‘consciousness raising’ – acting as an ethical beacon for an alternative way of organising society and a source of inspiration and teaching for the wider lay community to which it remained materially dependent for food and other resources.
After formal ordination, a Buddhist monk or nun in India is said to lose their class or caste affiliation: "entry into the Sangha abolishes all caste identity just as all rivers lose their identity as soon as they enter the sea." (Anguttara Nikāya 8.19). Becoming ordained as a bhikkhu/ni (literally ‘one who shares’) required a renunciation of one's previous social position along with other aspects of everyday worldly life. This might lead us to expect early Buddhism to be a movement attracting those looking for an escape route from the difficulties of low social status in India, but it would be a mistake to think that early Buddhism represented some sort of proletarian movement for the underprivileged in ancient Indian society. If we look at the background of the Buddha's followers as mentioned in the Pali canon, we find that the majority seem to have been comparatively well-educated members of the Brahmin (priestly) and Kshatriya (warrior) classes.
Nevertheless, like Marx, the Buddha frequently criticized the prevailing dogmatic authority of his day – the Vedic tradition of Brahmins who performed and justified rituals such as the fire sacrifice to the gods and saw themselves not only as the main intercessors between the divine and human realms but also as the authoritative voice-box of society. Early Buddhism did not deny the existence of gods – indeed they occur throughout the stories of the Pali canon – but the Buddha displaced them from the centre-ground of practice, arguing that gods remained as bound to the cyclical patterns of karma and rebirth (samsara) as all other sentient beings. All divine beings – even the highest Vedic god Brahmā – the divine archetype for the Brahmin caste, were mortal and subordinate in their authority to anyone who has achieved awakening (bodhi) and liberation (nirvana).
The Buddha, therefore, is presented as focusing not on the placation or veneration of the gods, but on the practical necessities of overcoming suffering (duhkha) and coming to terms with the impermanent (anitya) and compounded nature of existence. In his speech to the Kalamas - a teaching that particularly inspired socialist and one-time Burmese Prime Minister U Nu, the Buddha outlined a pragmatic and empirically-grounded criterion for deciding the validity of any claim to higher knowledge – test it for yourself:
Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.
The Buddha placed ethics at the centre of his message and emphasized the importance of the intention (cetanā) behind an action in assigning moral responsibility. We find a similar move five centuries later when Jesus remarks in Matthew 5:27-8:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
On many occasions the Buddha is found transforming ritual practices into ethical ones linked to the cultivation of loving-kindness and a deep solidarity for the suffering of others. In the Teaching on the Three Knowledges (Tevijja Sutta), for instance, a group of young Brahmins asks the Buddha for advice on the way to achieve union with their god Brahmā saying that their teachers, experts in Vedic lore, quarrel over the correct path. ‘Do your teachers have direct experience of “dwelling with Brahmā?” the Buddha asks. When the enquirers admit that they do not, the Buddha declares that this means that the teachers have no empirical basis or authority to speak on such matters.
At this point one might expect the Buddha to declare the falsity of the Vedic Brahmin path and to encourage the students to join his followers. However, the Buddha then declares that he knows Brahmā and the world of Brahmā and is therefore in a position to speak authoritatively about the way to achieve their goal. The Buddha then proceeds to outline a set of ethical meditations based upon the systematic cultivation of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity. Manifest these virtues in your life and interactions with others and you shall achieve Brahmā status.
Similarly, in the Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha is asked to explain how one might properly conduct the Brahmanical devotional practice of venerating the gods in all directions. The Buddha again steps away from ritual and devotionalism and outlines instead six key social relationships: parents, teachers, family, friends, holy teachers and employees/servants, suggesting that the practitioner cultivates loving-kindness and respect for all. Instances such as this, where the Buddha takes prevailing Vedic practices related to the veneration of gods and translates them into the cultivation of ethically-informed human relationships, have led many to see the Buddha as more of an ethical teacher than a founder of a religious movement. Nevertheless, for those seeking to find grounds for a socialist interpretation of Buddhism, these teachings, despite their potential for ameliorating social relations, seem very much aimed at the level of the individual practitioner rather than society as a whole.
Changing the world through self-transformation
It is important however to appreciate the context of the Buddha’s time. There was no assumption in the ancient Indian circles in which Buddhism arose that social change is likely to occur through some transformative revolutionary moment but generally an emphasis on changing the world through self-transformation. In traditional Asian as well as prevailing western interpretations of the Buddha’s message suffering and transformation are usually pitched at the personal level. This however does not mean that Buddhism was an ancient form of individualism as shown by the fact that the Buddha’s most significant contribution to the global history of ideas is his comprehensive rejection of the idea of a persisting personal self.
In Buddhism, there are no individuals, only dividuals and what we call a ‘person’ is in fact more like a fast-flowing stream or river or a flickering flame of sensations, cognitions and desires. We are a complex bundle of changing material and mental processes with no centralized unitary self or soul hidden within these changing processes. Everything is impermanent (anitya), the Buddha declared, and this has often been taken as a justification for why social revolution has rarely been considered a viable option for long-term social change. Everything decays and ceases to be – including eventually the Buddhist tradition itself. However, there is another side to this. The reason that much of the Buddhist message appears to focus so firmly on the person is because it is precisely the false attachment to the idea of a persisting individual ego at the core of our being which the Buddha identifies as the source of our suffering and of social divisions in the world. Uprooting this strongly held belief is therefore an indispensable part of the path to full awakening.
Today we find Buddhist ideas and practices – such as Buddhist mindfulness meditation, being widely adopted and appropriated as stress-relief in the neoliberal age of growing precarity. Slavoj Zizek, for instance, has suggested that modern western Buddhism, with its emphasis on peaceful meditation and an almost quietistic acceptance of the status quo (the ethics of ‘no judgement’), provides the perfect spirituality and safety valve for advanced capitalist societies. Yet at the same time we have seen the rise of Engaged Buddhism – a late twentieth-century trend which seeks to challenge global capitalism and consumerism through a socially and politically engaged reading of the Buddha’s teachings.
It is important to note that the Buddhist rejection of the individual as a primary, unitary reality means that the ideology underpinning the contemporary neoliberal conception of the human as ‘self-actualizing entrepreneur’ is always in danger of being displaced by the Buddhist emphasis on kindness, compassion (literally “co-suffering”) and interdependence. This of course has not prevented Buddhist teachings and practices from being co-opted by the “self-help” spiritualities that have proliferated in late twentieth and early twenty-first-century capitalist society. It does however cause them to sit uneasily with a deeper engagement with basic Buddhist teachings.
What we might call social problems of violence, social injustice and selfish individualism are traditionally represented in classical Buddhists texts as rooted in what Buddhists call the three poisons – greed (alobha), hatred (dvesha) and confusion (moha), but it is not difficult to see how these individual traits could be mapped structurally onto institutions and ideologies in the contemporary world that promote rampant consumerism, militarism and propaganda (“fake news” and infotainment) over knowledge. Contemporary socially-engaged Buddhists have been making these exact connections in their critique of modern capitalism. As Theravada Buddhist and Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa suggests,
When an individual places self-interest above all and negates the relation view of ‘self,’ the result is greed and selfishness. Neoliberalist rhetoric deludes people and international organizations into believing that profits from multinational corporations will be fairly distributed in society and that any improvement in material conditions is an absolute gain for society. The ideology of consumption deludes people into believing that constant acquisition of goods and power will lead to happiness. (Sivaraksa, “Alternatives to Consumerism” in A. Badiner, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, Parallax Press, 2002: 136)
According to the Theravāda monk Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, sharing is a natural feature of biological life that has become distorted by human alienation and the rise of private ownership:
According to science, before humans evolved there were lower animals and plants, and, before that, single-celled forms of life. In all of these various levels of living things, none ever consumed more than it needed. … They have no granaries or storehouses in which to hoard or stockpile supplies; so they cannot accumulate more than they need. A bird eats only what its stomach will hold. According to our Buddhist scriptures, our problems began when someone got the idea of stockpiling grains and other food, causing shortages for others. Once people began to hoard supplies, problems of unequal distribution and access arose.
The Buddhist scriptural source that Buddhadāsa is particularly alluding to here is called the Discourse on Origins (sometimes misleading described as the ‘Buddhist Book of Genesis’) or Agganna Sutta and it is contained within the Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya) of the Pali canon –a source of many of the Buddha’s teachings that have a more direct socio-political emphasis. What is striking about the Discourse on Origins is the account that it offers of the formation of human societies. The text begins with the Buddha ridiculing the Brahmins for their belief that they are born from the ‘mouth of the God Brahmā’ and therefore cosmically established as the highest and most important social class.
The origins of class-based divisions in society
The Buddha is here referring to an ancient Vedic myth where the different class groups in society are declared to be created by the dismemberment of a cosmic Person (Purusha). The head of the cosmic Person becomes the priests, his arms become the warrior class, his legs become the artisan and merchant class and his feet become the servants. This creation myth, recorded in Rig Veda X.90, dates from around 800 BCE and is the earliest known reference to what we now call the caste system. The Buddha ridicules the myth – ‘do the Brahmins not know that they are born from their mother’s vaginas?’ he asks and in doing so calls into question not only the divinely-ordained nature of the caste system but also the divine right of kings – or brahmins, to rule over others. The text then proceeds to offer a counter origin-story for the rise of class divisions. Again, the primary problem is rooted in the greed and avaricious tendencies of humans.
Initially, the Buddha declares, there is no private property, everything is shared communally. However, some take more food than they need and begin to hoard it. In this way, the idea of private ownership establishes itself. This however causes social conflict as disputes over resources proliferate and divisions between rich and poor emerge. As a result, the warrior class emerges to keep the peace and emergent human communities appoint a morally upstanding and unbiased member of their group to act as the final arbiter and enforcer of law in such cases. This the text suggests is the origin of monarchy as a form of government. The monarch is given the title Mahā-sammatā - ‘Great Elected One,’ reflecting the fact that the authority of a ruler resides in the mandate of the community of peers, not some divinely-inspired right to rule.
Elsewhere, the Buddha warns that in societies where greed and lawlessness are allowed to prevail there is a proliferation of weapons and violence. Failure to distribute resources fairly and equitably and to care for the poor, the Buddha argues, causes stealing to increase and further violence and discord within society. For Buddhist socialists like Buddhadāsa, the Buddha’s message is clear – it is natural for human beings, like other animals, to share resources and it is only through the spread of greed and narrow self-regard that the idea of private property – the lynchpin of the capitalist system, is able to emerge, but at the catastrophic expense of human solidarity.
Later developments within Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna traditions, place even greater emphasis on the importance of compassion and universal solidarity with the suffering of others. Indeed, the characteristic feature of Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism is the establishment of the notion of the bodhisattva (“one who seeks full-awakening”) as a universal ideal motivated by deep compassion for and solidarity with others. Moreover, traditional transcendentalist ideas of liberation (nirvāna) as some kind of spiritual escape from the world become replaced by an emphasis on unending engagement with the needs of others. Nirvāna in the Mahāyāna traditions of Buddhism is no longer seen as a personal aspiration or private escape from the world but rather as the collective liberation of all sentient beings from the weal of suffering. This is why when the Dalai Lama is asked what is the prime purpose of life, his simple answer is ‘helping others’ and why he sees himself simultaneously as both a Buddhist and a Marxist.
See also here for an article on Karl Marx and Buddhism