Commentary on Gary Snyder’s Buddhist Anarchism

My approach to understanding anarchist-buddhism is going to begin with re-tracing my own steps towards it. My starting place was Gary Snyder’s short essay, “Buddhist Anarchism”. 

I grew up as a kid in the suburbs of Seattle, fascinated with the natural world around me even as some of its last unmanaged holdouts were finally gobbled up by tract housing and strip malls. For my friends and I, an abandoned construction site, ruined old houses by the lake and camping in the tiny greenbelt by our homes were just as wild and adventurous as time spent in “wild” nature. We tried our best to enjoy our time there, swaddled in the relative comfort and safety of a middle-class suburban neighborhood. But we also knew that something was horribly wrong with this picture, but lacked the words to express it. Depression, drug overdose and suicide were also common occurances for young people. The shadow side of progress was hard at work wrecking young minds and turning them into more pulp for the American mind-mills and lifeless dead-end service economy. It was either that or learn to be a computer programmer. 

At some point in my late teens I came into contact with the work of “Beat” poet Gary Snyder and his eco-anarchist-zen buddhist philosophy. In Snyder’s work I found the heartfelt rebellion against the destruction of my world from someone who knew it intimately. Snyder had also grown up in the suburbs of Seattle, and had witnessed first-hand the earlier stages of “progress” which had nearly finished destroying the Puget Sound lowlands. Through Snyder I discovered both anarchism and buddhism, two philosophies which have been in my life ever since. 

For many people with strong convictions, religious, political or otherwise, we often experience “conversion” events, otherwise known as “aha! moments” or just that difficult-to-pinpoint time when something just “clicked” for us and became a part of us whereas before it had been an object of curiosity. In that way strong, moments of conversion to all-encompassing, passionate philosophies which drive us to act, like anarchism, function a lot like religious conversions. Combining the two can be a very heady mix. I mention this because I clearly remember the times when this happened to me, for buddhism and anarchism in relatively quick succession. Snyder’s work, experience with psychedelics, travel, loss, exploitative and deadly dull working conditions, meditation practice, as well as the novel “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. LeGuin were all keys which helped open these doors. The idea of a spiritual/social/political awakening is implied in Snyder’s Buddhist Anarchism and is a common feature in most religious anarchisms I have come across. It seems that even more so than secular or atheist anarchists, religious anarchists place great faith in the ability of human kind to “wake up” to reality. This is a powerful motivating factor from the converted, but can also hinder our efforts to connect with others who we may perceive as “un-awakened” to whatever our Big Truth may be, or who are not interested in the flavor of “salvation” we are evangelizing, and may encourage sectarianism rather than movement together with all others towards common goals.

Snyder makes the implicit connection between his zen-buddhism and anarchism most explicit in “Buddhist Anarchism”, (later retitled and revised as “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”) but the philosophy is pretty consistent throughout his entire writing career. I suspect that Gary’s essay has had a great deal of influence over the years, particularly in the environmental movement, but is more rarely mentioned in buddhist circles . While powerful, it has some huge errors, gaps and blindspots. In fact, it is because of the brevity and incompleteness of Gary’s essay that I began studying the concept of buddhist-anarchism more seriously. Reading the essay at face value makes the idea seem self-evident, but the theory begins to generate some friction once it encounters samsara (our cyclical experience of frustrating everyday reality). What follows will be a commentary on “Buddhist Anarchism” which aims to understand, criticize, flesh out and ground in fact the ideological sketch which Gary makes. 

Snyder makes two major claims about buddhism in his opening paragraphs: 

BUDDHISM HOLDS THAT THE UNIVERSE and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love, and compassion, acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The point of being a “Buddhist”—or a poet, or anything else for that matter—is to follow some way of life that will bring about personal realisation of this from the-beginning state, which cannot be had alone and for one “self”—because it cannot be fully realised unless one has given it up, and away, to all others.

Snyder affirms a core theme Mahayana buddhism, that “All beings have buddha-nature”, or a “basic goodness” beneath all our crap, predatory-competitive instinct and anxieties, and that liberation/buddha-hood is the heartfelt experience of this realization. Perhaps the most influential scripture to stress this universal concept of buddha-hood is the Lotus Sutra, which we will see later is an important text for several buddhist anarchists in the Zen and Pure Land traditions long before Snyder. He stresses the importance of interdependence — all beings are “empty” of an inherent, lasting, essential “self”–  and that therefore liberation is an endeavor which involves the entire community of sentient beings throughout time and space. The notion of giving one’s self, “up, and away, to all others” is reminiscent of the Diamond Sutra, influential in Snyder’s Zen school, which counsels aspiring buddhas (in other words, us buddhists) to not reify any concept lest they fall into duality, and particularly on the importance of giving various gifts, from the material to the spiritual, without regard for gift, giver or recipient. I read the Diamond Sutra in the summer of 2013 on a backpacking trip across Japan (inspired in part by Gary Snyder) and found its message of selfless generosity mirrored in the interactions with various people I met, from hitchhiking to camping, and sleeping rough on a subway platform. Selfless generosity and acceptance are what got me through that summer and made it such a memorable experience.

He then follows this glowing praise with a criticism:

In the Buddhist view what obstructs the effortless manifestation of this natural state is ignorance, fed by fear and craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyse-out the degree to which human ignorance and suffering is caused or encouraged by social factors, and have generally held that fear and craving are given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems.

Noting the three causes of dukkha (suffering, stress, pain, angst, dissatisfaction), Snyder points to the fact that at their core buddhism and anarchism share a similar goal: to identify and correct the root causes of suffering. For buddhism, dukkha is driven by three mental processes: craving for the pleasant, fear/hatred of the unpleasant and ignorance of the causes of dukkha and how to end them. The Buddha’s teachings prescribe an antidote to this ignorance and a method for disidentifying with and releasing the causes. Anarchism, and social(ist) philosophy in general analyzes the social-material world, the ways in which it is organized to bring about suffering, and the ways in which it could be reorganized to minimize suffering. I am not confident that I can say no buddhist philosopher has ever formulated a theory of dukkha which accounts for social-material causes, but it certainly was not a common approach until recent times. To the extent of my knowledge the idea of deliberate social-political-economic change through mass movements has not been well-theorized anywhere in the world prior to the 1700s. It is still a very young idea with a lot of room for growth. Since Buddhism has been in contact with socialism, many such attempts have been made with varying results and will continue to come up as Buddhist Modernism (an important concept in Buddhist studies which I will probably tackle in a later post) evolves.

Snyder continues his criticism by noting the morally ambiguous nature of buddhist spiritual technologies such as meditation. He also points out that however cosmic aspirations of liberation are, they still manifest in the world as the attainments and works of individuals. 

Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation and boundless compassion, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating individuals from their psychological hangups and cultural conditionings.

The claim that meditation and insight liberate people from their “cultural conditioning” and “hangups” is a little dubious. While it is quite true that meditation practice can have profoundly beneficial effects on thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it is certainly not a perfect cure, even at very high levels of realization. The harmful actions and views of many “enlightened” masters says otherwise. Despite an awakened view of reality, people are still people. They can still be quite racist, xenophobic, patriarchal and abusive — all examples of cultural conditioning. They can also be influenced by any number of psychological hangups, which in recent years are often exposed by disclosure of sexual misconduct of teachers towards students. Some people suggest that these people are just not enlightened enough, or that full awakening is no longer possible. Others do not dispute their attainments and mastery and redirect criticism towards the views of awakening presented and “sold” to people. Daniel Ingram, a self-proclaimed arahant (fully awakened person) has an excellent breakdown of the various ways enlightenment is misrepresented in spiritual “advertising” and scripture which I find very convincing. I would rather live in a world with attainable yet insufficient enlightenment than a world with no enlightenment at all. In fact I think this last view of necessary-but-insufficient enlightenment in particular gives support to the buddhist anarchist argument: awakening and freedom from the personal experience of dukkha is possible but is not complete without morality (sila) and recognition of social responsibility. 

An anarchist sila is social, much as the vinaya (monastic code) was for the buddha’s sangha, helping people to restrain their worst habits before, during and after their training. Social anarchist sila recognizes the importance of individual’s interdependence with society (and the natural world) and provides checks against our worst potentials by changing the harmful cultural conditioning which enables so much of this bad behavior.

Anarchism neither claims that humans are fundamentally good or bad, only that we have the potential for great good when ethical actions are socially incentivized and harmful ones are disincentivized. What we have now is a society which rewards the most rapacious and cruel with great wealth and power, despite the fact that our world equally contains the germ of better possibilities, hidden in the realm of everyday life. Anarchists rarely claim that implementing their ideas will solve every possible social problem and bring about an eternal perfect utopia. What they have proposed more often is an insufficient utopia which nonetheless frees sentient beings to pursue peace and happiness to the greatest degree possible while always leaving room for improvement.

Perhaps if we looked at awakening more like late Uruguayan poet and journalist Eduardo Galeano describes the path towards a utopian future we would be better prepared for its challenges: “Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”

Snyder then hones in on the many many failings of Buddhist religious institutions to live up to their ideals, something which many people unfamiliar with buddhism know almost nothing about.

Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or support the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This is death to Buddhism, because it is death to compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

Pointing out, remembering, criticizing and learning from these many instances is a key part of the buddhist-anarchist project. This is something Snyder gets very right. This is also a critique anarchism is especially well-suited to make. In most instances, from the ancient Indian emperor Ashoka’s conversion, conquest and rule to medieval Tibet’s hereditary theocracy; from Zen priests in pre-war Japan supporting imperial expansion as a holy war to modern day ultra-nationalist monks in Thailand and Myanmar leading pogroms against Muslims and Mindfulness consultants bringing inner peace and harmony to militaries, police departments and corporate boardrooms to create more compliant foot-soldiers and employees: buddhist tyranny most often arises when the sangha is dependent on or involved in the workings of the state and social elites. 

In America we often think of the separation of church and state as a means of protecting the secular nature of the state from christian rule, but in these instances it could also be seen as protecting the church/sangha/dharma from the corrupting nature of the state. Snyder points out that acceptance of tyranny is not a result of scripture as much as it is an adaptation to changing political circumstances. The closest scriptural example I can think of is a cynical political interpretation of the “middle way” philosophy which winds up expressing itself as a kind of buddhist Nuremberg defense, avoiding extremes of resistance or enthusiastic support for harmful policies. Obviously this is a terrible way to misread the middle way, but people still do it to justify all sorts of awful things. Buddhist anarchism must necessarily reject this wishy washy centrist interpretation of politics and make clear its rejection of the state and all forms of institutional violence and oppression.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance about the nature of contemporary governments, politics, social orders. The national polities of the modem world exist by nothing but deliberately fostered craving and fear — the roots (both socially and psychologically, if you trace back far enough) of human suffering. Modern America has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated, and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself or the persons one is supposed to love. The conditions of the cold war have turned all modem societies, Soviet included, into hopeless brain-stainers, creating populations of “preta”—hungry ghosts—with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil. and forests, and all animal life are being wrecked to feed these cancerous mechanisms.

Here Snyder starts to bring his criticism back home to address the ills of cold-war America. Without the references to preta, this could be seen as an anarchist, radical left or standard 1960’s counterculture’s rejection of industrial capitalism, environmental destruction, government, consumerism, domestic violence, and rising rates of dissatisfaction and mental illness in the supposedly spiritually impoverished West. With context, the preta is an uncannily accurate representation of the modern affluent consumer. With the growth of TV, computing, mobile devices and the internet our preta are also starving for attention and connection. The depression/loneliness epidemic hadn’t yet hit the mainstream when Buddhist Anarchism was written, but it is extremely relevant now in most modernized/capitalized countries.

What I think is especially clever here is that he brings back the three poisons doctrine and turns its analytical lens on the social problems of his/our culture. The rhetorical move here is a little bit reductive or misleading as to the true meanings of the ideas, but nevertheless effective at speaking to a buddhist audience (or at least one that is sympathetic to buddhist/religious/spiritual ideology, as his was). This strategy of shifting the inner focus of buddhist doctrine to critique society is a common tactic of buddhist anarchists before and after Snyder. While I agree that it has rhetorical value, it should also be careful of being interpreted too literally, lest we stray into fundamentalism.

Next Snyder (very succinctly) digs into individualism: 

A human being is by definition a member of a culture. 

This short sentence packs a lot of critical value. As members of a profoundly, and maybe at times pathologically, individualist culture, we can have a difficult time seeing how deeply the ideology influences our behavior and causes harm. The famous quote from former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, that there is, “no such thing as society,”, only individual people, speaks to this depth of indoctrination in modern neoliberal capitalist society. While societies being an abstraction composed of units of individual inter-action is true to some degree, it can only be partially or relatively true, not the ultimate truth status it is assigned by hardcore individualist fanatics. 

From a buddhist perspective, as Snyder does, we might counter Thatcher’s belief with the position that there is ultimately no such thing as an individual. Conventionally you or I exist separately. But ultimately, we exist via dependent origination, and “inter-are” with all the rest of matter, space, energy, consciousness and time, and that even these categories are themselves empty of true existence. An anarchist or critical sociological rebuttal may add that what we call the self is at least partially socially constructed. Much like how concepts like race, gender and nationality are “social constructs”, abstract categories without grounding in fact but which nevertheless have real consequences in society, the self is something profoundly shaped by its environment. It is an individual unit, but the unit, much like a single ant in a colony, cannot exist or form an identity without its culture. Human beings are so profoundly attuned to and dependent on the attention, care and acknowledgement of others that our mental and physical health depends on these interactions at the most basic neurochemical level to function. When we are deprived of contact with others we fall into depression, illness, anti-social behavior and the rest. Individualism has its place, but it can only thrive when in balance with community. Anarchism and buddhism both have their individualist and social strains, but here is another instance in which a “middle-way” approach, rejecting both extremes, is wholesome and skillful.

From his rejection of pure individualism, Snyder suggests that as an interdependent system of sentient beings, the behaviors and consciousness of individuals and societies are connected.

A culture need not be mindless and destructive; full of contradictions, frustration. and violence. This is borne out in a modest way by some of the findings of anthropology and psychology. One can prove it for himself through Buddhist practice. Have this much faith—or insight—and you are led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change and personal commitment to some form of essentially non-violent revolutionary action.

I take issue with the idea that buddhist practice naturally or inevitably leads to perfect compassion or belief in radical social change. There are simply too many counterexamples of people who attain great mastery of buddhist practices (or at least influential seats in the clerical hierarchy) but remain thoroughly conservative, fiercely defending the status quo which keeps them in power, however violent and oppressive. It is certainly possible to awaken to or enhance awareness of social ills through buddhist practice, but it is by no means inevitable. Just as contemplative practices can be used to “bypass” major psychological issues, relationship problems and so on, it can be used to dampen concern, urgency or will to act for the betterment of others. At its best practice keeps one balanced while active, compassionate but unafflicted by suffering, able to move skillfully through all manners of emotions in the midst of the total chaos we live and move amidst. 

Snyder takes this idea even farther, into a vision of buddhist counter-culture few buddhists from the past 2,600 years would recognize (except perhaps the rebels of the early medieval tantric movement in India). Here he writes a psychological profile of a buddhist anarchist utopia, which absolutely rejects materialism, wealth, violence, consumer culture, sexual and emotional repression and is moved by “natural” expressions of human freedom, love and contentedness.

The disaffiliation and acceptance of poverty by practising Buddhists becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practise of meditation, for which one needs “only the ground beneath one’s feet” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by “communications” and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfilment of natural desires (not the repression of them, a Hindu ascetic position which the Buddha rejected) destroys arbitrary frustration-creating customs and points the way to a kind of community that would amaze moralists and eliminates armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Actual Buddhist cultures throughout history have mostly not looked much like this. Buddhist cultures in reality have more often than not been extremely materialistic, with devout and wealthy lay followers spending lavishly on temples, monuments and religious artwork in order to cultivate “merit” for earning favorable conditions in next lives. Perhaps only in certain instances of the monastic community have some of these traits been expressed, at least the ones related to renunciation. What Snyder proposes here is a perfusion of monastic behaviors (poverty, pacifism, seclusion) into secular society, with all of its drives and distractions operating at full force but in a way which is supposed to actually satisfy us. This is not buddhism as anyone has ever known it before, but it is certainly something to aspire to and work for. Moreover, it is a utopia not necessarily dependent on any one ideology or religion. A future utopia where everyone has to be a buddhist or an anarchist sounds pretty insufferable to me.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy—which some believe to be the intellectual statement of Zen—sees the universe as a vast, inter-related network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and holy. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this illuminated realm. The hawk, the swoop, and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint, we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in helping those who suffer.

Here what I think snyder is getting at is the problem of the relative and absolute in relation to ethical action. In Buddhist philosophy this is also known as the doctrine of Two Truths. Most famously articulated by Nagarjuna and adopted by most Mahayana sects after him, including Kegon and Zen, the idea points to the idea that no “truth” about reality is completely objective or valid to the exclusion of all others. For example, Snyder’s metaphor of “the hawk, the swoop and the hare” is attempting to portray an absolute view of reality, from the eyes of a buddha, in which there is no actual duality between phenomena, subject or object. In this view morality takes on an absolute role, where everything is “necessary and holy”. The relative view serves to balance this non-dual absolutism, reminding the enlightened that they are in fact still mammals and still members of society to some extent, with responsibilities to others. The buddha or bodhisattva (aspiring buddha-potentiality within all beings) further synthesizes the absolute and relative into a whole which is truly non-dual, in that it is relative, absolute, relative and absolute and neither relative nor absolute. It is not that there is a higher or lower truth anymore than there is a higher or lower self, just that there are ways of communicating the mostly inconceivable experience of awakening to reality which are more appropriate to particular circumstances. The aim of this approach is to balance the seemingly contradictory imperatives of perfect wisdom and perfect compassion: detachment  from and involvement in the suffering, already-enlightened, endless, and beginningless, constantly arising and passing world. The so-called “transcendent” is actually fully immanent in all things. To “transcend” the world is to enter and inhabit it completely. 

Next we get to the most frequently-quoted idea of Snyder’s Buddhist Anarchism, and for me one of the more problematic aspects.

The mercy of the west has been rebellion; the mercy of the east has been insight into the basic self. We need both. They are both contained, as I see it, in the traditional three aspects of Buddhist practise: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the psyche to see this for yourself—over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.

I don’t have any problem with Snyder’s thoughts on the three trainings. What he presents is a very coherent method of practice for buddhist anarchists, or “engaged buddhists” more generally. At the time Snyder was learning and writing about Buddhism, and even now, people from all around the world very much believed in the dichotomy of “eastern” and “western” Eurasian cultures and emphasized their differences, leading to the idea of a “clash of Civilizations”. At the same time as “westerners” were objectifying the east through the lens of orientalism, thinkers in the east began to respond by objectifying the west via “occidentalism”. Many of Snyder’s Zen mentors were part of this movement, causing some scholars to describe Snyder’s thought as critical occidentalism, a critique developed by the east towards the west based on cultural objectification. As Brown writes of Snyder’s Zen, it, “…began not with a Western appropriation of an Oriental “Other” but in a historical context in which Zen missionaries, beginning in the nineteenth century, offered to the West what they called a New Buddhism…” which was “informed by the history and demands of the Japanese state in Japan’s imperial contact with the rest of Asia and its defensive stance against Western imperialism”.

We now know far too much to fall into such narratives. The idea that the east and west each offer a “basic mercy” that the other does not possess has to be false. Rebellion and revolution has been a historical constant since the beginning of civilization in all corners of the world where it has appeared, from the Yellow River Valley to the Rhine and Upper Mississippi. 20-21st century Asia has absolutely experienced more rebellions, revolutions and revolts than anywhere in the so-called west. Similarly, insight into the “basic self” (or lack thereof)  has been available everywhere for those willing to search for it, via meditation, prayer, ceremony, entheogenic medicines and logic. The two mercies are no doubt a powerful combination. But they are always available to those with human faculties for inquiry. What I think is actually true is that particular traditions or techniques Snyder recommends combining originate in specific times and places, namely, the European enlightenment philosophies and social movements which birthed modern “democracy”, “revolution” and the rest, and the Buddhist ideology and trainings which began in ancient India and were revived and reworked by Asian Buddhists in the 19th century to revive buddhism in the face of European imperialism. For more on destroying the east/west dichotomy I suggest David Graeber’s essay, “There never was a West”

Graber writes using the concept of “western democracy”, which can inform the story we’re working with here as it has significant overlap with the history of ideas which formed around revolutionary social change. People often identify the origins of democracy (and western philosophy) with ancient Athens. But neither Athens, nor ancient Greece and the larger mediterranean civilizations of antiquity were isolated from the rest of the world. Oligarchic democracy was relatively common in India during the Buddha’s time, even in the government of the Sakya clan Siddhartha was born into. The governance of the early monastic sangha functioned democratically too. During the time of Greek expansion under the emperor Alexander a distinct Greco-buddhist culture emerged in areas colonized by Greek armies, and it is very likely that Indian philosophies reached and influenced the Greek philosophers who we claim as founders of Western-ness. So neither democracy nor revolution can be said to have any exclusive relation to the West.

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural or economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless society; “the sexual revolution”, “true communism”. The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be realised that whatever is or ever was worthwhile in any culture can be reconstructed through meditation, out of the unconscious. It means resisting the lies and violence of the governments and their irresponsible employees.

Snyder’s last paragraph, on the implications of a revolutionary praxis of sila, is a condensed form of his prescription for liberating social action. It is neither buddhism nor anarchism, but it is a buddhist anarchism. I’m not very familiar with Hegel, but his idea of aufheben/sublation comes to mind here: An idea which simultaneously abolishes, preserves and transcends the contrasting ideas which preceded it. “Old stuff” Snyder says, which has not existed yet even as its potential has always existed in the meditative “unconscious”. Sometimes anarchism runs into issues by overtheorizing social-material problems and under theorizing psychological ones. Buddhism runs the opposite risk. To be social anarchists we must first be capable social beings. To enact social change we need to have social skills to interact with, inspire and learn from others, and to act as a collectivity rather than isolated “individuals”. To ground our minds and develop wholesome social skills inner work is needed, which meditation can play an important part in, skills which then need to be tested in the environment of a supportive community. I suspect that somewhere in this mix of self and other, means and ends, is where the potential of a buddhist anarchist praxis might exist and be effective. 

Fighting back with civil disobedience, pacifism, poetry, poverty—and violence, if it comes to a matter of clobbering some rampaging redneck or shoving a scab off the pier. Defending the right to smoke pot, eat peyote, be polygamous, polyandrous, or queer—and learning from the hip fellaheen peoples of Asia and Africa attitudes and techniques banned by the Judaeo-Christian West. Respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, no dualism of ends or means—never the agent of an ideology but willing to join in group action. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old.” Old stuff. So is Buddhism. I see it as a kind of committed disaffiliation: “Buddhist Anarchism.

I especially appreciate Snyder’s take on the role of violence in social revolution. The Buddhist ideal of absolute non-killing is rarely upheld by the authorities, and is then turned around on the oppressed to shame us into passive acceptance of the violence and exploitation we experience.

While strict adherence to non-violence may be appropriate for the monastic community, it runs into problems in the world. First off we have the paradox of tolerance: if one is tolerant of intolerant behavior, intolerance wins. But by opposing intolerance, do the tolerant become intolerant themselves? There are also the issues of pacifism (active opposition to war, killing, violence, which may at times use non-lethal violent means bounded by ethical limits) and what I call “passivism” where even self-defence, and active resistance (for example sabotage and property destruction) are considered violent and unacceptable. To me, an act like the people of Minneapolis burning down the 3rd Precinct police station during the 2020 George Floyd uprising is an example of non-violent resistance. No one was killed and it catalyzed the entire world to march in solidarity against the police. De-arresting someone who has been snatched by the cops at a street demo is non-violent, even if you need to get a little rough to make the rescue. Sabotaging an oil pipeline to stop corporate destruction of indigenous homelands, water and the climate is non-violent. But to people in power and those held under their ideological sway, the mere act of daring to resist is violent. To some even raising your voice and expressing anger is violent. But to change anything we need direct action: taking responsibility for our world without the intercession of representatives, authorities or experts.

Anarchists are quick to criticize passivism but end up lumping it in with pacifism/non-violent direct action, even though most anarchists I know are strongly opposed to killing in all but the most extreme circumstances. From a buddhist perspective one could see active resistance as a compassionate action, where we seek to protect ourselves from harm and our oppressors from the karmic consequences of their misdeeds. We express our anger, but our anger is grounded in love. Love for ourselves, for others, even to a certain extent to our enemies/oppressors, as hard as it may be. This love towards the oppressor is not a permissive love. It is tough love, make no mistake. It is anger. It is the anger of the wrathful dharmapala (dharma protectors), the terrifying mythical beings who use swords of wisdom and compassion to cut through all delusion. When we see our fellow beings messing everything up, so completely out of control as to be a danger to themselves and others, we have to intervene. Other times tough love means shaking things up, making people uncomfortable, sounding the alarm and generally being a nuisance to polite society. Obviously this “i know better” form of tough love can be a slippery slope, but it is helpful to keep in mind for anarchists to mediate their tendencies to violence and buddhists to mediate their civil passivism.

At the end Snyder brings us back around to some of the most famous anarchist aphorisms, the unity of means and ends and building the new world in the shell of the old. In the light of the rest of the text it becomes possible to see how these aphorisms may apply to buddhism as well, even if they point to slightly different goals. It is a nice way of wrapping things up while leaving the question of buddhist anarchism open for readers.

So many thanks to Gary Snyder for opening the floor for discussion and everyone else who has commented since. His work is very much a product of its time but nonetheless useful for us today. We’re still a long way off from where we need to be. But our theory can’t be isolated from inter-action. The doing is the learning and the learning is the doing. 


Sources, Notes and Further Reading

Gary Snyder, “Buddhist Anarchism” 

Gary Snyder, “Smokey the Bear Sutra

A potential role for buddhist anarchism could be to protect dharma from capture by priests, kings, states, corporations and brands and make sure it is squarely in the hands of the people. Fudo Myo-o dharmapala was a particular favorite of Gary Snyder, parodied in his “Smokey the Bear Sutra”. He gives Smokey a “vajra shovel” to put out the fires of ignorance. We could give our anarchist dharmapala something else (maybe a vajra slingshot?)

Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy by Paul Messersmith Glavin

Enrique Galván-Álvarez “Why Anarchists Like Zen? A Libertarian Reading of Shinran (1173–1263)”. In Essays in Anarchism and Religion: Volume 1. Edited by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos & Matthew S. Adams. 2017. Available free online at

David Graeber, “There never was a West”. 

The Zen of Anarchy: Japanese Exceptionalism and the Anarchist Roots of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance by James Brown 

Zen and the Art of Treason: Radical Buddhism in Meiji Era (1868–1912) Japan  by James Mark Shields

Zoe Baker “Means and Ends: The Anarchist Critique of Seizing State Power”

The Two Truths Doctrine in buddhism: 

Dependent Origination 

The Lotus Sutra

The Diamond Sutra

The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia by Donald K. Swearer

When the U.S. Government Tried to Fight Communism With Buddhism 

Nirvanaless: Asian Buddhism’s growing fundamentalist streak

Elizabeth J Harris Violence and Disruption in Society: A Study of the Early Buddhist Texts

Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

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