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buddhism and politics

March 12, 2011

As a Buddhist, I do my best to apply Buddhist teachings and practices to all aspects of my life, including my political activism. This, of course, raises some questions, such as, What sort of political philosophy is most compatible with Buddhism? and Does Buddhism support socialism? As a democratic socialist, I’d like to say yes, but the teachings of the Buddha that are recorded in the Pali Canon are more or less apolitical, so applying them to my political philosophy requires a bit more investigation and thought.

The Buddha doesn’t explicitly promote a particular political philosophy, being more concerned with problems of ethics and phenomenology. But he does give some pragmatic advice to lay-followers within the existing political economic system of the time, mainly dealing with generosity, honesty and fulfilling one’s duties in society (e.g., DN 31). So in answer to the first, I’d say that Buddhism itself is compatible with pretty much any political-economic system as it predominately deals with developing virtue, concentration and discernment within whatever worldly circumstances we’re confronted with, not the circumstances themselves.

Moreover, I agree with Richard Gombrich that, “The Buddha’s Dhamma represents a strong form of what has been called ‘religious individualism'” (Theravada Buddhism, 72). I say this because the teachings on kamma (literally ‘action’) focus on individual actions and their consequences, and not so much collective or societal actions. So Buddhist virtue ethics are generally seen as a personal matter that each individual is encouraged to explore and develop on their own.

As for the second question, there’s nothing in the Suttas to suggest that the Buddha was either for or against private ownership of the means of production, especially in the modern industrial sense. That’s not a question anybody could have foreseen 2,600 years ago.

Furthermore, while it’s true the Buddha encouraged generosity among his lay-followers, and that his monastic community has a relatively egalitarian communal structure, his teachings were also quite popular with the rising mercantile class in India at that time, and many of his wealthier lay-followers were merchants. In fact, I think the Buddha’s advice to the lay-community regarding livelihood sounds more like some kind of enlightened entrepreneurialism than socialism.

In DN 31, for example, the Buddha advises lay-followers to use a portion of their income for personal use, including charitable donations, but he also advises that some of it should be used for business investments and saved for hard times, as well. This shows that the Buddha wasn’t necessarily against consumption, private property rights and/or the accumulation of wealth, but there are suttas which seem to suggest that he was at least in favour of some type of welfare-state.

There’s the case of DN 5, for example, where the brahmin Kutadanta asks the Buddha for advice on how to best conduct a great sacrifice. Kutadanta, who was evidently wealthy, had been given a village and some land by King Bimbisara, which he ruled as a king himself. On being asked by Kutadanta — who had a legion of animals waiting to be slaughtered — how to perform a great sacrifice, the Buddha answered with a fable about a great king who asks his chaplain a similar question.

Long story short, the king (i.e., the state), who’d amassed great personal wealth but whose kingdom was “beset by thieves” and “infested with brigands,” is told by his chaplain that taxing the people, executing and imprisoning them, or simply banishing them from the land won’t solve his kingdom’s problems, and is given this advice:

To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in open houses.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the Buddha would object to a more egalitarian, socialist society that tries to limit the economic and societal conditions which foster things like greed and violence, and the way Buddhism has affected me personally has lead me to adopt more socialist-leaning views. As Albert Einstein put it, “the real purpose of socialism is… to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development,” and I have a hard time not getting involved when I see what I perceive to be people being preyed upon by greed, hatred and delusion.

Before I became interested in Buddhism, I didn’t really have any political-economic views to speak of. In fact, I was completely uninterested in political economy whatsoever. After years of studying and practicing Buddhism, however, I began to take more of an interest. This was partially due to cultivating compassion and being more sensitive the suffering of others.

Of course, it became clear to me early on that the world was imperfect, and that there is, and always been, suffering in the world. I also realized that it can’t be ‘fixed,’ that there are no perfect solutions. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to do what we can to make things better, and that’s certainly compatible with Buddhism and Buddhist ethics in general. But more specifically, I think that the seemingly unrelated aims of communism/socialism and Buddhism are actually quite compatible, even in the sense that Karl Marx uses it, i.e. the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the working class. For example, in The German Ideology, Marx writes:

Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

One of the things that I really find interesting in Marx’s writings is his materialist conception of history and the idea that “the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production.” While Marx’s theory was set within a specific context — that of the complex relationship between the production and reproduction of material requirements of life and the historical development of human society — I think it has much wider implications.

For example, I’m of the opinion that things such as identity are conditioned, at least in part, by the historical and material conditions that we find ourselves in, and that changes in those conditions can fundamentally alter our identity and the ways in which we express ourselves, and vice versa. Not in a rigidly deterministic way, however, but in a complex and symbiotic way.

This idea isn’t necessarily new, of course. The Buddha, for example, developed similar ideas about identity in his teachings on kamma and dependent co-arising. In short, he viewed our sense of self as a continuous process—something which is always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli. Furthermore, he observed that there are times when our sense of self causes us a great deal of suffering, times when we cling very strongly to those momentary and fleeting identities and the objects of our sensory experience on which they’re based in ways that cause a great deal of mental stress.

But whereas the Buddha’s focus was primarily on how to liberate the individual from their suffering by mastering this process of ‘I-making’ and ‘my-making,’ Marx’s focus, the bodhisattva that he was, was primarily on how to liberate society from their suffering and alienation by changing the material conditions that support it. Of course, I disagree with some of Marx’s ideas and methods, but I still find a lot of his writings worth reading. Hell, even the Dalai Lama once said:

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. I just recently read an article in a paper where His Holiness the Pope also pointed out some positive aspects of Marxism.

As for the failure of the Marxist regimes, first of all I do not consider the former USSR, or China, or even Vietnam, to have been true Marxist regimes, for they were far more concerned with their narrow national interests than with the Workers’ International; this is why there were conflicts, for example, between China and the USSR, or between China and Vietnam. If those three regimes had truly been based upon Marxist principles, those conflicts would never have occurred.

I think the major flaw of the Marxist regimes is that they have placed too much emphasis on the need to destroy the ruling class, on class struggle, and this causes them to encourage hatred and to neglect compassion. Although their initial aim might have been to serve the cause of the majority, when they try to implement it all their energy is deflected into destructive activities. Once the revolution is over and the ruling class is destroyed, there is [not] much left to offer the people; at this point the entire country is impoverished and unfortunately it is almost as if the initial aim were to become poor. I think that this is due to the lack of human solidarity and compassion. The principal disadvantage of such a regime is the insistence placed on hatred to the detriment of compassion.

The failure of the regime in the former Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.


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