Anarchist and buddhist thought are both much too broad to simply slap them together and expect a coherent ideology or practice to emerge. I’m going to attempt a working definition of specifically which anarchisms and which buddhisms I’m using to get a clearer idea of what the resulting buddhist anarchism might look like. For myself, I usually work within the ideas of anarchist communism/libertarian socialism, influenced heavily by social ecology. So my apologies to other anarchists who are working from a different position. I still hope we will find more in common than not.
Working definition of anarchism for this project
Anarchism is a theory of and by the people who made up social movements opposed to capitalism, beginning in the early 1800s and continuing to this day. It had its origins within the early labor movement and there it found its greatest support until its fall from favor following the defeat of the Spanish Revolution and eclipse by Stalinist communism. Since the decline/liberalization of the global labor movement, anarchism has been adopted and adapted to the needs of a variety of social movements, from feminism and gay rights to the environmental movement. It has been adopted for religious reform as well as academic/scientific reform. It is very malleable, even being twisted into a form which supports a limited form of capitalism, though most anarchists reject this view on socialist grounds.
Anarchism is a socialist ideology, sometimes called libertarian socialism or communism, to distinguish itself from authoritarian or democratic socialism. Anarchism opposes the social and political domination of people, animals and nature by the ruling classes of society, be they capitalists, militaries, or governments. Anarchism’s hypothesis is that capitalism, the state and many more diffuse hierarchical social powers (such as patriarchy or white supremacy) inevitably lead to tyranny and that they should be replaced by a society which practices voluntary/free association, cooperative/socialist/communist economic relations and non-governmental, non-representative democracy (as opposed to Republican and oligarchic democracy).
I take care to place anarchism in its context of the socialist movement because when looking at history it is easy to justify anarchism by pointing out religions, philosophies, people and social movements which appear to be anarchist, or at least share common values. It is also easy to look at current anti-authoritarian social movements which do not define themselves as anarchists and apply the label anyways, as if it were a universal or transhistorical category going back to the beginnings of human culture. This strategy lends a lot of weight to the anarchist argument, but I think that it is inappropriate for my purposes here. In general, it tends to favor a eurocentric perspective, rather than placing anarchism within a much larger history of anti-authoritarian movement and thought (Murray Bookchin’s “legacy of freedom” narrative works well for me as something which can encompass everything from Sumerian slave revolts and medieval peasant uprisings to decolonization and anarchist communist theory). I prefer to do the latter, even if we don’t have a simple name which can cover everything. Let people and movements define themselves in their own turns. Anarchism is not so weak an idea that it can’t stand on its own without leaning on the support of allied movements and ideas. In fact, I believe that anarchism is at its best when it expresses the ideas of an active minority of people within a social movement. A world or movement where everyone (or at least everyone who has status or influence) is an anarchist is antithetical to anarchism, which promotes unity-in-diversity free thought and pluralism. Not only is a majority or totality of anarchists undesirable, it is impossible. Instead, anarchists work within movements and disseminate anarchist practices which help these movements achieve their own goals: liberation.
So let’s forget about buddhism, or any other ancient religion or philosophy, being “inherently anarchist”. Early Taoists and Greek Skeptics both made criticisms of states, hierarchies and government, but should be understood on their own terms and their own times. Instead we can point out elements of buddhist thought and history which align with the larger legacy of freedom, of which anarchism is a significant and beautiful part. Later, in the 19th century and on, we can talk about anarchist-buddhists. Prior to this anarchist ideas did not exist, though once they were published they soon spread to every continent of the world in the wake of european colonial expansion and the rise of industrial capitalism. Any buddhist anarchisms we find from this point forward we can see clearly as constructed ideologies, influenced by the times and needs of their creators. From this standpoint of creative non-authenticity we can become more free to imagine and enact our own buddhist anarchisms and social liberation dharmas for the benefit of all sentient beings.
We don’t need to make a distinction between “big A or little a” anarchisms with this definition, which will hopefully save some confusion. Since we lack an agreed upon term for the trans-historical movement, I may refer to “libertarian” or “anarchistic” social movements for the sake of comparison, but I hope to let them be defined in their own words and let the readers decide if they are sufficiently “anarchist” or not.
With our less restrictive view of “is it anarchism-or-not-anarchism?”, anarchists can see the whole field of vital, living social movements fighting daily for freedom from oppression and freedom to pursue a good life. By placing ourselves within this field and fighting side by side with everyone else, we can help safeguard movements towards liberation from the perils of capture by or capitulation to authoritarian institutions and social systems. Our theory is important and worth promoting, but it is not everything. “Toward a world where many worlds fit” is where I would like us to go.
To borrow a metaphor from buddhism, anarchism is a “vehicle” to liberation, not the destination. We won’t need the raft on the other side of the river (but maybe we can re-use the wood).
Buddhism’s adoption of non-conversion strategies, such as inserting itself via meditation in psychology and popular culture without requiring commitment to faith is analogous to how social anarchists propose their theory of social insertion. This idea can be seen at work in modern “leaderless” social movements, though direct influence cannot always be traced or identified as anarchist. By turning practices into memes, tending and planting them in fertile ground and then setting them loose in society anarchism and buddhism have both found novel ways to adapt and propagate themselves, or at least a core element of themselves which can be of benefit for people looking for freedom.
Despite its emphasis on moral training, buddhism has been more consistently ethically compromised/willing to compromise in its transmission from place to place in exchange for patronage and power. From zen support for japanese fascism to american corporate mcmindfulness, sila is one of the first trainings to fall by the wayside even though it is arguably the most important. I guess self-restraint and renunciation just doesn’t sell that well. Anarchism has its issues here as well, as anarchists are not immune to being racist or sexist or otherwise compromising their values (including becoming fascists!), but it has remained relatively consistent in its core oppositions.
Imagine anarchism as a two-faced wrathful/peaceful dharmapala (dharma-protecting deity). Scary on the outside but filled with an ocean of compassion for all beings (Just like most of the anarcho-punks i have known). A frightful deterrent to buddhists who would sell out the dharma and those who would misappropriate it for evil ends. I think that Gary Snyder would approve of this anarchist Acala/Fudo Myo’o, enamored as he was of the animist origins/synthesis of the deity. The practice of inner liberation needs its worldly guardians, and kings, governments, high priests and demagogues have proven themselves totally unfit for the role. Give the people the dharma and forever up the punx in the six realms, the three times and the ten directions.
Finally I want to share a quote from the Rio De Janeiro Anarchist Federation on their vision of pluralism in movements, and why it is important to be open to a variety of religious and political views. Their ideology has been very helpful for me in the past year while reflecting on projects I have been a part of. Buddhist anarchists could aim to work for social insertion within progressive buddhist and religious communities without requiring those communities to be composed only of other ideologically committed buddhist anarchists.
FARJ: Although we believe that social movements should not [be made to] fit within anarchism, we think that anarchism must, as far as possible, be spread within social movements. Going forward we will discuss how this should be done and with what objective. For now, suffice it to say that the social movements which we advocate are not and should not be anarchist, but, rather, are fertile ground for anarchism.
Similarly do we think of the question of religion. Although at the political level we have anti-
clerical positions, we think that at the social level one should not insist on this issue, preventing members of the exploited classes that have religious beliefs from struggling. Many people in the exploited classes hold religious beliefs and it is possible to work with this question within the movements, without impeding these people from struggling. There are many progressive religious groups in the social movements, which are part of the broad camp of the left and with which there is a possibility to work. Social movements “must seek a common basis, a series of simple principles on which all workers, whatever may be [their political and religious choices], being at least serious workers, that is, severely exploited and suffered men, are and must be in agreement”