Toward a Definition of Buddhist Socialism
By Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD
Author’s Note: The Buddha, (like Marx, Engels and Lenin), etc, taught the philosophical dynamics of a revolutionary path whilst still existing within the world he rejected. Within Asia, Buddhism has always been understood as a powerful counter-narrative to the egos of monarchs, dictators or those who wish to control others for personal gain. It is equally acknowledged that Buddhists have made very good revolutionaries, and this has been particularly for the 20th century, which saw the coming to fruition of Scientific Socialism and Marxist-Leninism. This situation is not reflected in the West to any great extent, as a certain (and generally misunderstood) interpretation of the Dharma has been usurped by the capitalist system, and become a play thing for the bourgeoisie. A further lurch to the right (and what might be termed ‘insanity’) is the use of a distorted Buddhism by the US government as a means to attack and bring down Communist China (as seen in the bizarre ideology of the Falun Gong Cult and the Pro-Tibetan Movement). Where Buddhism has been hijacked in Asia, is where capitalist countries friendly to the West, have embraced the Eurocentric ideology of Islamophobia, and allowed the Sangha to teach greed, hatred and delusion to the poorly educated lay community – resulting in ethnic violence. This is an abhorration which must be overcome with education and the building of Socialism and Internationalism. This article builds on my earlier work which has established how Marx and Engels were complimentary about the progressive nature of Buddhist dialectics, and how Marx stated (half seriously and half in jest), that whilst on holiday by the seaside, he once partook in Buddhist meditation. Buddhism has existed in China for thousands of years and today assists the CPC in the building of Socialism, but what many do not realise is that the USSR possessed scholars who were dedicated to the academic study and understanding of Buddhism, had at least 3 Republics which were Buddhist, and saw Joseph Stalin open an Institute for the Study of Buddhist Culture in 1928. Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a path of revolutionary philosophy designed to illicit radical change at the deepest level of the mind and of society.
Head monks do not control society – they control the mind. The historical Buddha, living as he did within ancient Indian society, did not claim to be a monarch in the political sense (as he rejected caste and his own high standing within the Brahmanic community), and had no interest in leading a society he had philosophically and practically rejected. However, having established these facts as true, it would be incorrect to state that the Buddha was ‘apolitical’, as the Buddhist Suttas (and Sutra) are replete with numerous examples of where he personally interfered in the natural process of events, particularly in relation to preventing or stopping a war, or diverting monarchs from initiating or pursuing other equally destructive social policies. In-short, just as the Buddha had put a stop to all greed, hatred and delusion manifesting in his mind, and had realised the non-existence of self in a changeable (but existing) material world, he sought through his influence, to put a stop to any and all physical activity in the social world that was motivated by ignorance. It may be said that his ‘Dharma’ – or enlightened teachings created an iron-like control mechanism in the Sangha, or his community of celibate monks and nuns. One which was self-evidently good for those who submitted to its structures. Lay Buddhists, although often not celibate in the formal sense, were nevertheless expected by the Buddha to adhere to the Dharma (and in many cases certain aspects of the Vinaya Discipline), whilst going about their daily business. There was not a strict vegetarianism, but vegetarianism was the natural conclusion of the Dharma if applied correctly to its logical end. Animals were certainly not to be used for human consumption, or any other deluded activity. Within Chinese Buddhism, this element of the Dharma has been strictly emphasised for over a thousand years, with various emperors declaring the whole of China vegetarian from time to time. The problem in ancient India was that the Buddha and his Sangha ‘begged’ for their sustenance from the poor and the ordinary, with these people having sometimes only scraps of waste meat (left over from their meals) to be given to the monks and nuns. However, as time went on the laity understood the Dharma better, and prepared fruit and vegetables only to be served to the Sangha. As matters stand in the Vinaya Discipline, an ordained member of the Sangha must not receive meat from an animal killed in their presence, or killed with their knowledge. Any meat given must be a part of wasted food that would otherwise be thrown away or given to dogs, etc. In China, for instance, as Buddhist monks and nuns only eat rice and vegetables, and never milk or eggs, they are essentially ‘vegan’. For the Buddhist laity, the onus is toward ‘blameless’ living, and an essential (if not crucial) part of this expression of Dharma is the practice of loving kindness and compassion toward all living creatures. From a dialectical position, this inevitably means a shift towards a meat-free diet, and disassociation with any form of animal exploitation. Interestingly, Karl Marx states in his ‘Das Kapital’ that prior to the industrialisation of farming in the UK, ordinary British people had a grain-based diet, with expensive meat only being consumed by the nobility. During the Revolutionary Wars in China, Mao Zedong advised the peasant farmers to stop slaughtering their oxen so that rich people could eat the meat. A living Ox was far more valuable as a cultivator of farm land for the ordinary people as rice, fruit and vegetables could be grown in vast amounts due to the hard-work of this animal, guided by human hands. The living Ox was to be valued as a toiler of the land, and treated with care and respect. Being a vegetarian or a vegan undermines the capitalist system and the industrialised farming process. This is a simple but highly effective lifestyle choice common in China and throughout Asia, and is a trend steadily growing in the West (even amongst non-Buddhists).
The treatment of animals with respect by the Buddha is not a unique aspect of the Dharma, but is rather the consequence of treating all beings with loving kindness, compassion and a wise consideration. This requires training the mind through meditation, a mind-culture that is designed to uproot greed, hatred and delusion as habitual psychological and emotional patterns routinely manifesting across the surface of the mind. What happens in the mind is often a straightforward reflection of the forces manifest in the environment, but also includes genetic issues associated with evolutionary survival requirements. This is why the practice of meditation cannot happen effectively unless the behaviour of the body is modified through discipline. Activities that encourage greed, hatred and delusion in the mind must cease so that the mind can be calm and its activity ‘stilled’. This is not an easy task, and often involves an immense struggle to counter natural impulses that are nevertheless suffering-inducing. As predatory capitalism operates through the presence of greed, hatred and delusion, the Buddha’s condemnation automatically undermines and deconstructs the very foundations of this most exploitative and oppressive of ideologies. The Buddha’s philosophy, being anti-greed is therefore anti-capitalist, and as his ideal community does not advocate a hierarchy of any kind, there is implicit and explicit within Buddhism the roots of a Socialist equality (which rejects all feudal notions of ‘rank’ or ‘caste’). Of course, this is not a sterile equality, as a distinction is made according to experience, with monks and nuns with longer service acting as guides to the lesser experienced. Within larger Buddhist monasteries and temples, it is also the case that whilst all being essentially ‘equal’ in principle, a differentiation is made according to natural ability and talent, which is used to decide which monastics will fulfil which task or function within the community – with a Head Monk being simply an administrator of the Dharma in the context of co-ordinating all the different aspects of daily life. Although the monastic who has lived the longer life whilst ordained is given these positions of responsibility, it is also true that sometimes a younger person is ‘voted’ into a position of responsibility due to their recognised virtue. Therefore, Buddhist communities (both lay and monastic) may decide matters through seniority, or use the one person, one vote system. However, within Buddhist thought, responsibility does not equal power, and a Buddhist in a position of responsibility must have no greed, hatred or delusion in their mind. This is because a mind which is calm is a mind which possesses clear and optimally functioning thought processes which are defined as the production of wisdom within Buddhism. This type of wisdom is the correct use of a sharp dialectical mind which operates from a non-inverted position that does not mistake myth for reality, or reality for myth. Consequently, all decisions are generated toward the greater good of the entire community. This is the classless nature of Buddhism.
As Buddhism values wisdom, and given that Buddhist wisdom is defined as the cultivation of correct understanding and practice of the Dharma, this is the only differential social aspect, but even then it is an expedient rather than an official post or dogmatic rank. The community of monastics (and lay followers) is ordered through the disciplinary content of the Vinaya, and the thousands of explanations found in the Buddhist Suttas (Sutras). At its base, good moral and ethical behaviour for a Buddhist is cultivated and maintained through the uprooting of greed, hatred and delusion, in thought, word and deed. This does not mean that a passive attitude is adopted toward life, on the contrary, although an adherence to the Dharma stimulates an active mind and a controlled persona, thought and action become imbued with a dynamic energy that seeks to integrate with the conditions of material reality, and thereby work in the best interests of society and of humanity. Of course, a mind free of greed, hatred and delusion, according to the Buddha, is a mind full of loving kindness, compassion and wisdom – it is not simply a tabula rasa. Quite literally, the mind becomes ‘empty’ of greed, hatred and delusion, and sees through the delusion of a permanent self. Therefore, the enlightened is ‘empty’ of all taints of ignorance, and understands that although the physical world exists, it is in a constant state of change (indeed, in the Agganna Sutta the Buddha imparts a theory of evolutionary development). This means that the physically existing world is ‘empty’ of all forms of permanence, and although elements combine to form this or that entity, eventually all things dissipate. To this end, Nirvana – or the ‘extinction of the fire of desire’ – is defined in negative terms. A person who has acquired the state of Nirvana has acquired nothing at all, as Nirvana is the mind essence free of false beliefs (in a permanent self), and unruffled by greed, hatred and delusion. Karl Marx, of course, refused to define the state of Communism, other than the withering away of the State, free of all vestiges of predatory capitalism and its oppression and exploitation. Marx, like Buddha, describes the most profound states of human evolutionary development through what it lacks, or does not contain, rather than what it might be like. This might be interpreted as the stripping away of those states which hinder, trap or regress an individual and a society. Both philosophers emphasise the ‘path’ toward this exalted state which has ‘no state’. On this path, the ignorance of greed is transformed into the wisdom of communality (Socialism) and finally Nirvana (Communism). This is a matter of rejecting certain types of deficient communality, and working (through psychological and physical discipline) to achieve the inner and outer conditions for a better existence premised upon the highest principles humanity can achieve.
Philosophical Buddhism relies upon a pure understanding of the Dharma, but as Buddhists are human beings, greed, hatred and delusion infects their minds just as these taints pollute all minds. Therefore, the standards within some contemporary Buddhist countries have fallen drastically, particularly where Western imperialism and modern capitalism has penetrated. Some wear the saffron robe with a mind enthused with a destructive lust and desire, and use their status as a Buddhist monastic to spread the very greed, hatred and delusion the Dharma is designed to uproot. Instead of relying upon the Buddha’s wisdom, money and profit (and exploitation of others) have become key attributes to these corrupt individuals. The Dharma is ‘sold’ to the highest bidder, and no longer taught properly. Buddhist leaders openly support the greed and ignorance of capitalism, and advocate Islamophobia (and other racisms). Others advocate the abandoning of the Vinaya Discipline and any form of Buddhist training, whilst encouraging lay-people to assume the titles and robes of the ordained Sangha. Of course, the bourgeois media is quick to present this highly corrupt form of Buddhism as ‘typical’ of the Buddha’s philosophy, whilst simultaneously presenting the mythology of theistic religions as material ‘fact’. This situation can be clearly discerned and is obviously the product of greed, hatred and desire. As the Buddha taught, these trends of conditionality are brought into existence through thought and behaviour, and it is through thought and behaviour that these conditions will change. This is the Buddha’s expression of dialectical and historical materialism. When confronted with this ignorance, there most only be loving kindness, compassion and wisdom – even if that wisdom is ‘cutting’ in its delivery (the Buddha offended numerous people during his lifetime by relying upon the truth in every situation). When the ignorance of others is radically revealed, this is wisdom acting in a compassionate manner, and is the highest form of education.
The Buddha rejected the society of his day because it was, in his view, premised upon the polytheistic ignorance of unfounded belief. He stated that after examining (and practising) the various meditational paths assumed to realise the reality of ‘atma’ - or ‘breath of life’ (often translated as ‘soul’) believed to have been imported into the human body by a divine being at conception – no such entity existed. Furthermore, after intensely examining the fabric of his mind, he did not see any divine entities (such as suggested in the various Brahmanic texts). As ‘atma’ did not exist, there was no assumed agency to link humanity to an unseen godly realm, and no unseen hand directing human affairs. The Buddha stated that humanity was responsible for its own actions, and that before realising full and complete enlightenment, the belief in a polytheistic pantheon was to be expected. This explains why the Buddha appears to suggest a rich psychological realm of gods which represent different aspects of desire and need. When interpreted in the light that when greed, hatred and delusion is uprooted, the mind stops generating and projecting this imagery, it is obvious that the Buddha does not subscribe to a godly realm, or view such a realm as existing in reality. The Buddha often criticises wrong view, which is the generation a false idea in the mind, and the mistaking of this false thought for a material reality in the physical environment. This is the attachment to thought that defines the unenlightened state, which assumes a mistaken ‘idealistic’ interpretation of reality. Thoughts in the head are mistaken for objects (and mechanical processes) in the environment. This definition of inverted thinking is very similar to that found in the works of Karl Marx, particularly ‘The German Ideology’. As a consequence to this predicament, the Buddha teaches the principle of ‘non-identification’ with thought. This is achieved through psychological and physical discipline, and is intended to rectify the routine functioning of a ‘false consciousness’, and the generating of a ‘true consciousness’. In this regard, the Buddha’s notion of ‘karma’ is in reality a psycho-physical vehicle that emphasises cause and effect as manifesting in the mind, body and environment, which clearly teaches that experience is generated by human beings through interaction within society. Society is the agency through which individual and group karma is shared and experienced – hence the Buddha’s requirement that an ideal society should be premised upon non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion, and guided by loving kindness, compassion and wisdom.
The Buddha entertains the notion of theistic entities, clearly establishes what they are and how they work, but ultimately dismisses their viability. As most people in his day naturally believed in the existence of gods, the Buddha’s approach appears to be one of ‘weaning off’ of this entrenched set of beliefs. He understands that a straightforward denial of the existence of gods would probably lead to intensification of this habit of belief, when in fact he is aiming – through his Dharma – to the abandoning of all false views. As there is a dalliance with theism, Buddhism cannot be said (strictly speaking) to be ‘atheistic’, but as the Buddha states that in the enlightened state that perceives reality as it truly is, gods do not exist, then Buddhism should probably be termed ‘non-theistic’ – as there is no reliance upon a theistic entity when correctly practising the Dharma. This demonstrates a remarkable tolerance to different beliefs, one that although not ultimately agreeing with theistic worship, nevertheless understands and accommodates such beliefs where they occur. This probably denotes a pragmatic approach from the Buddha, who anticipated resistance to his new way of thinking. Furthermore, his replacement of human willpower over that of divine willpower as the driving force of karma, presented a radical departure from the usual empowerment of gods, particularly as he acknowledges that the processes of nature and the biological body lay by and large outside of the agency of human will. Evolved existence, or co-dependent origination as the Buddha defines it, has no discernible ‘first cause’ that could be attributed to a divine being, and consists of mutually reinforcing and conditioned elements. There is natural karma, and there is willed karma in the human realm. Various conditioned processes generate the body and brain (from which the mind emerges), and the mind, through volitional activity, can influence the material world through patterns of physical behaviour (such as ‘labour’, for instance). In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx discusses the relationship and interplay between consciousness and the world, acknowledging the primary role of matter (of which the body and brain are constructed), and how the emergent mind can affect the physical world through constructive thought and action. As for the Buddha’s different realms of rebirth, it must be remembered that the Buddhist teachings have been edited and ‘directed’ toward certain viewpoints at various times in history (usually by competing Buddhist schools), and that insertions or additions are not unheard of. However, through the skills of modern philology it is clear that much of what comprises the Buddha’s teachings are old, with only a small number of alterations here and there. These inconsistencies can be easily discerned by comparing their content with what the Buddha says elsewhere and to a greater extent. Even if the teachings on rebirth is not an addition, it must be understood that within the Abhidhamma – or the monkish commentary upon the Suttas (Sutras) – the general point of view is that the Buddha is talking metaphorically, and is referring to a ‘moment by moment’ existence whilst an individual is still alive. In this model, one moment is one lifetime which is replaced by the next moment – or the next life – and so on. This interpretation makes much more sense, but it is an understanding that until recent times has been preserved only for the ordained Sangha, with the superstition of literal rebirth being allowed to exist within the lay community as a means to inspire good or better moral behaviour so as to avoid a bad rebirth. As is clear, this type of thinking is ignorant and very similar to the Brahmanic understanding of caste and divine punishment, etc.
At the point of enlightenment, the Buddha states that Karma and rebirth cease. This makes sense if it is understood that in such a state the surface movements of the mind have stopped and there is no longer any functioning of volition. However, natural karma – or cause and effect – is still in operation as the world continues to turn and the biological processes of the body continue to regulate and control themselves. In the more conservative schools of Buddhism, such a realisation can only happen to a monastic living in a quiet and secluded place. His or her life from this moment onward is one of quiet contemplation and nothing more. In the more liberal schools of Buddhism, however, this is not the case, and such an achievement is only a major breakthrough which involves an empty mind integrating (through interaction) with the material world. The thought processes re-activate but operate in a thoroughly new manner inspired by the fact that the empty essence of the mind has been realised and thoroughly penetrated. The mind moves, but as it is free of all ignorance, even this movement is ‘still’. Freed of all selfish impediments, such an individual is able to work toward the welfare of all beings whilst remaining compassionate, wise, but unattached from all circumstances. There is feeling, but no one feels. Whilst sat in meditation, the origin and movement of all thought is perceived, as is the innate connection between material reality and thought. Indeed, although the Buddha states that thoughts appear in the mind, and that material objects manifest as events external to the body, nevertheless, there are some categories thought (recorded as ‘Dharmayatana’) which the Buddha defines as occurring in the mind, but which are constructed of physical matter (regardless of its rarefied nature). This description allows for the material basis of apparently immaterial thought, and follows the logical analysis of neuroscience which states that the mind ‘emerges’ from the physical brain, is causally related and connected, but cannot be reduced or identified with the brain itself. The Buddha’s schematic for existence is physical matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and consciousness (the five aggregates). It must be stated that the Buddha’s definition of ‘consciousness’ is only a type of basic (and undeveloped) awareness between a sense organ and a sense object, and does not correlate with Western notions of consciousness (which include the entire function of the brain-mind nexus, and can sometimes be conflated with ‘spirit’ as opposed to matter). Within the Buddha’s treatment of ‘mind’ there is no suggestion of a spirit operating in opposition to physical matter, as the mind manifests as a conditioned process within material existence.
The Buddha rejected the social structure of his day and lived aside from it – usually on the outskirts of towns and villages (as he and his fellow monastics had to be in walking distance of population centres so as to beg for food and water on a daily basis. The monarchal authorities tended to tolerate this behaviour and even grant the Buddha free land exempt from taxation and military conscription, providing he or his monks did not agitate to overthrow or change the prevailing political power structures outside these special ‘Dharma’ areas. Instead, the Buddha advised lay people who still lived within conventional society to follow the law of the land whilst applying as best they could, certain key aspects of his radical path. The Buddha appears to be looking for an almost Gramsci-esque revolution within society, one which does not oppose but does transform from within. The idea being that if enough Buddhists occupied important posts within a society, eventually they could influence political policy and slowly make very real cultural differences. This also applied to Buddhists occupying any position whatsoever, which might influence others overtime. The Buddha was aware that he and his followers did not possess the numbers or the mind-set to violently engage the monarchy, their armed forces, or their supporters within Brahmanic society. History demonstrates that this Buddhist attitude did succeed in India long after the Buddha’s passing, although it was aided and abetted by various monarchs who thought the Buddha was right. This also led to Buddhism spreading far and wide around Asia and possibly into the fringes of Europe (at least in reputation). It is an interesting issue to consider whether the Buddha practised militant non-violence, rather than a form of passivity, despite his aversion to overt physical violence, death and destruction. In modern times, Buddhists living in areas of the world controlled by Western imperialism (especially during the 20th century), put into practice the Buddha’s injunction to conform to the law of the land, have took-up arms in battles of self-defence in the name of Socialist Revolution (i.e. Marxist-Leninism). The point here, is to use violence to end violence. Or, to manifest a controlled and morally justified violence to counter a greater violence already being applied to these enslaved populations. Although the onus is not to kill for the Buddha, within a society controlled by ignorance it may be that a self-defensive form of martial vigour might well be required. Evidence suggests that although this might not be ideal, the Buddha did teach anyone who came to him, including soldiers and military men. This attitude may be contextualised by stating that in many Asian countries, martial arts, although used for warfare and defence of the realm, have also been used as vehicles of health-building and spiritual development, as well as general self-defence if needed. As the Buddhist purges the mind of greed, hatred and delusion, the practising of the physical movements of the martial arts become a daily ritual designed to calm the mind and rejuvenate the body. Within China, this is particularly true of the Shaolin Temple tradition, and the temples of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism in general. In fact, the Buddha’s ideal world is one full of progressive development and free of ignorant violence – this compares favourably to the Socialist phase of Revolution where all the most destructive aspects of capitalism are destroyed and the working class leads society toward Communism.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2018.