Four Foundations of Buddhist Anarchism

In this project I am going to explore the connections, conflicts, compatibilities and contradictions of a possible buddhist anarchism and delve into histories of social movements and persons who have advocated and embodied it. 

Here, anarchism modifies buddhism, specifying a particular way of interpreting and practicing the buddha-dharma. Buddhist anarchism is as much a critical, deconstructive work as much as it is a creative project. There is not a singular, existing ideology of anarchist-buddhism. There are buddhists who have been and are anarchists. There are anarchists who have been influenced by or practice buddhism. There are anarchist-buddhists who talked about and intermingled their ideologies and there are anarchist-buddhists who prefer to keep their faith and their politics separate. There have been social movements which were motivated by buddhist, anarchist and broadly libertarian-socialist ideas and there are those without such clear ideological lines which are still describable as having “anarchist-buddhist” theories and practices.

Broadly speaking the 4 ways I am exploring anarchist-buddhism are the creative, the critical, the comparative and the personal.

The creative approach aims to build an anarchist-buddhism out of scattered bits and pieces. It is unabashedly constructive and gregarious, knitting together globe-spanning ideas and histories to justify its own project. It has the potential to give voice to radical buddhists and seed the world of buddhism with ideas and practices which lead to personal, social and universal liberation. It runs the risk of being appropriative, incoherent, sectarian, orientalist and reductive. Hopefully the other 3 ways as well as open dialogue will help keep this tendency in check. This is the approach I am most excited about and also most wary of. It is all too easy for my biases, privileges and socialization to mess it up. Still, something has to be put forward and advocated, if only to be the object of critique for others who are building something better. 

Many attempts at describing buddhist anarchism have come from white american men who have converted to or been inspired by buddhism, most frequently the japanese zen school as exported by D.T. Suzuki and the Shin Bukkyo movement. There are some really huge issues with this buddhist anarchism which become apparent once you start digging into the details, which I will address later, but they get enough right to keep the idea alive. The most coherent of these attempts were made by Gary Snyder through his writing and by Robert Aitken through his activities in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I fall into this “lineage” as well, having been heavily influenced by Snyder in my early teens. To my knowledge not much progress has been made since the 1960s-70s towards positively defining buddhist anarchism. More recently there has been some really excellent critical scholarship which I will draw on, as well as more recent theories of buddhist anarchism from a Theravadin perspective, which I believe is a step in the right direction from the sectarian zen view.

More importantly, I believe that an effective buddhist anarchism will be impossible to define and create without the leadership of asian activists struggling in contexts where buddhism is a major social and political force. I can speculate from my perspective as a minority-within-a-minority-within-a-minority ( 1% of americans are buddhists > ⅓ of these are non-asian converts > who knows how few of these are also anarchists or even activists) but I am very limited. It is like trying to imagine a Dorothy Day trying to theorize and practice catholic anarchism while living in Nepal (0.03% Catholic). Mostly-white-convert-buddhists already take up way too much space and visibility in American buddhist discourse. Much better that we have a buddhist anarchism which is relevant to buddhist diasporic communities living here.

Since decolonization asia has been rocked by wave after wave of revolution. The old orientalist idea of asian culture as being homogeneously “collectivist, passive, obedient to authority” could not be more wrong. As I write this the people of Myanmar are once again risking their lives to overthrow the military junta which has continued to resist democratization with a cockroach-like tenacity and a nearly 45 year uninterrupted reign of war and terror against the people. In such a devoutly buddhist country with such powerful, resilient and long-lived social movements, buddhist anarchism could become a powerful weapon in the hands of the people against the state and powerful religious institutions. Because at the end of the day, that’s what anarchism (and some would say buddhism) really is: a weapon. A weapon is a tool, a means which is congruent with its ends but is not the end itself. It has the ability to open minds and smash states but only when wielded by the people who need it most. I can imagine what that weapon might look like or how it works, but I can’t use it very effectively. An anarchist buddhism for my culture would be best suited for guiding and safeguarding the growth of the dharma in my country, steering it away from more hierarchy, abuse and capitulation to capitalism. So I do hope that this writing makes its way to my dharma brothers and sisters fighting the good fight and is of use to you.

The critical approach to anarchist-buddhism attempts to criticize buddhism from an anarchist view, anarchism from a buddhist view, western buddhism from an anti-colonial view and maintain a critical skepticism of the project of buddhist anarchism itself. Critical thinking is needed to keep ideology from becoming narrow, euro-centric, dogmatic and self-cherishing. Critical thinking is important to buddha-dharma and to anarchism, and its methods are how we delve deeper into the messiness of the human mind/society on our quests for liberation. Dogen famously said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.” Thus we see how the process of careful introspection and “ruthless criticism of everything existing” (Marx) leads to profound insight about the nature of the self. This insight “must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” So in this approach, I will mostly be drawing on scholars of buddhism who present much more nuanced critiques than I could ever hope to come up with on my own. Here, we will mostly be defining buddhist anarchism by what it is not: exposing, analyzing and peeling away the centuries of hierarchy and domination embedded in buddhist tradition as well as the simple, misguided, orientalist and racist assumptions “westerners” (even fans of buddhism) bring to our study of buddha dharma. Hopefully we can even get around to destroying the irritating false duality of “eastern/western” and provide a more accurate theory of culture which is appropriate for our project.

Next, comparative approaches to buddhist anarchism examine doctrines, practices and histories of the two traditions to identify their similarities and differences. For example, comparing the anarchist and buddhist theses on the origins of suffering, or the means to/meaning of freedom and morality. Ultimately, comparing the two ideologies, which originated millennia apart and have entirely different goals, is going to be pretty shallow, but the mere act of placing them in dialogue has great potential for sparking new ideas and projects. Christian, jewish, pagan and islamic traditions have been given this treatment by anarchists, scholars and faith-based activists, so it is important that buddhist thought be given equal importance. Many of the asian buddhist anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries developed their ideas this way, comparing their beliefs and attempting to synthesize them with european philosophy and religion.

The personal approach doesn’t take many creative liberties. It simply searches for the words and actions of people who were or are some combination of anarchist and buddhist. Both anarchists and buddhists look to our heroes and martyrs as examples for how to act. They can serve as inspiration, guidance or as cautionary tales. We are still enthralled by the ghost of the Great-Man theory of history, however illusory, dead and buried it may be. I think that mythologizing these people the way we do is problematic, even a bit dehumanizing, but it has instructive value and grounds our ideas in historical fact. We can look at what others have done, what has worked for them, what hasn’t, and hypothesize what is needed for us now based on our understanding of their experiences. Finding these people can be difficult, because few of us ever gain enough notoriety, write enough pamphlets or blow up enough politicians to make it into the history books.

In the present day, I am interested in the words of living anarchist/radical buddhists, particularly the queer, feminist, non-white, working class, anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist buddhists: those of us who may not be “famous” but work tirelessly from the margins for the liberation of all beings. If you’re one of these people too I would love to hear from you. Revolution and awakening are found, fought for and won most intimately in the realm of everyday experience. Our theories don’t pop out of thin air. They grow out of the garden of our lives and are understood by self-reflection and communication. Theory and praxis are an interdependent process. They are the actual movement of actual people in the world, acting and acted-upon, changing and changed by everything else.

I’m looking forward to exploring this idea and getting other people excited about it too.

Edit: After a few months working on this, and as the goals of the project have become clearer, I’ve changed my initial approach. Rather than seeing each of these dimensions as a separate field of inquiry, I’ve been using them as steps in a process. These can be summarized as follows:

  1. Study everything available regarding Buddhist and Anarchist doctrines, criticisms, histories and theories.
  2. Analyze and criticize these sources, individually and in comparison to each other.
  3. Compare these results with my own ideas and goals for the project. See what works, what emerges, what should be discarded.
  4. Sublate, or synthesize new theory, share it, reflect on responses, and then come back to it and revise.

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