An Anarchist History of Buddhism: 400 BCE-1800 CE

I dislike the liturgical lists of revolutionary heroes, martyrs, writers, etc. which we rely on to define ideologies and history. But I can’t deny it isn’t useful for legitimating arguments and telling interesting stories. Buddhists who were also anarchists, anarchists who were Buddhists; People inspired by both Buddhism and anarchism but self-identified as one, both, or neither; Buddhists who thought, acted or organized in anarchic ways; Anarchists who practiced, thought or organized in accordance with “Dharma”, etc. The list of people who were both Buddhist and anarchist, and who left behind some written or spoken words which attempted to synthesize the two (and did so well) is exceptionally small.

The following list is a mix of all of the above. There are surely more people out there, but these are who I have learned about so far. Most have had much more extensive biographies done on them, and can even be found on wikipedia, so I will keep these bios short and editorial.

To begin with, we have to look at ancient history. Buddhism is 2,600 years old. A lot happened between 400-480 BCE (approximate birth or death of the Buddha), 1870 CE (approximate birth of modern anarchism) and now.

People occasionally claim, as did Bhante Sujato in this 2020 video, that they think of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, as an anarchist. As a rhetorical move it is interesting because it does highlight the features of the Buddha’s teaching and religious movement, which went against the grain of Brahminical religion and social norms at the time, such as the ordination of women, rejection of caste, the consensus democracy of the sangha, and the rejection of private property in favor of collective ownership and mutual aid. This does point out core similarities between Gautama’s prescriptions for living an ethical – and therefore liberated – life, and the theory of anarchists thousands of years later, which suggests that maybe both groups are on to something about this private property, hierarchy and happiness stuff.

But I don’t think it is sufficient to call the Buddha an anarchist outright. He may or may not have had theories about society, equality, and politics, but they were seldom said or recorded. He frequently refused to answer questions about metaphysics and always reminded his students to bring their attention back to dukkha and the end of dukkha. Social and political speculation not directly related to the eightfold path was probably also something he chose not to speak about. What we know of the Buddha during his life and the order after his passing is that they frequently advised kings, wealthy merchants, and so on, and never told them to abolish themselves or join a movement to create social change. Whether or not this silence could be interpreted as tacit approval or tactful omission is unclear. The emphasis was always on a personal liberation through practice. However, it is also clear that the Buddha had little confidence in the spiritual prospects of most kings, soldiers and merchants of war and violence, often being “mentioned in the same breath with thieves” in scriptures, along with constant exhortations against killing of any kind under any circumstances, which is hardly a teaching compatible with the State if taken seriously. Perhaps the Buddha is best thought of as a fellow traveller, dipping on occasion into the same deep well of human insights about social and political freedom as the anarchists have.

Though again far from an anarchist, Buddhists often look back to the reign of Emperor Ashoka (268 to 232 BCE) for their political cues. Ashoka’s government does provide some insight about Buddhist thought applied to politics: He established edicts in protecting freedom of religion, the rights of animals (abolishing animal sacrifice and establishing veterinary hospitals), and created a system of public healthcare and housing, abolished the death penalty and renounced war. In Ashoka’s government many modern Buddhist leaders in Southeast Asia have found precedent for founding social democratic welfare states, and it does support the idea that Buddhism applied to the political-economic world does somewhat resemble socialism. Unfortunately Ashoka’s legacy has also lead to the persistence of idealized theocratic monarchy within Buddhist thought. Ashoka’s government and every subsequent state claiming inspiration from it have still replicated the inherent violence of autocratic rule, with its armies, policing and prisons, bureaucracy, courts, taxation, conscription, state religion and ethnic caste systems. But this example is still useful for the anarchist project, which bases itself in and affirms socialist economic policies while pointing out the impossibility of peace, equality and freedom under any state system, however “enlightened” or “progressive” it may claim to be. Essentially, Buddhist socialism is a necessary but insufficient feature of a Buddhist anarchism.

Similarly important to the anarchist and feminist project is the Therigatha, a collection of senior Buddhist nun’s poetry composed as early as 600 BCE.

From Wikipedia:

Despite small size, the Therigatha is a very significant document in the study of early Buddhism as well as the earliest-known collection of women’s literature. The Therigatha contains a passages reaffirming the view that women are the equal of men in terms of spiritual attainment as well as verses that address issues of particular interest to women in ancient South Asian society.

Included in the Therigatha are the verses of a mother whose child has died (Thig VI.1 and VI.2), a former sex worker who became a nun (Thig V.2), a wealthy heiress who abandoned her life of pleasure (Thig VI.5) and even verses by the Buddha’s own aunt and stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami (Thig VI.6).

While not explicitly political, the Therigatha stands as a testament to the achievements of the early bhikkhunis (nuns), who had to organize and speak out to be accepted by the Buddha and his male followers. This struggle continues today, because the bhikkhuni lineage of the Theravada tradition died out (or, more likely, was strangled by the many obstacles and rules laid down by the Buddha and later male monastics). The bhikkhuni lineage suvived in several Mahayana schools, but women were often still degraded, maligned, and subordinated to a patriarchal religious hierarchy. The Theravada bhikkhuni lineage is currently attempting to reestablish itself, but this effort is meeting with great resistance from powerful, conservative male monastic leaders in the Theravada. This is a clear instance of the personal being inherently political. Though they were not “feminist” poems by a modern standard, by asserting the inherent validity of their religious enlightenment as women, the bhikkhunis of the Therigatha built and sustained an important institution of women’s religious and social freedom from within a deeply patriarchal culture.

From the ancient India I’m going to leap forward to 875 CE China, where the Daoist anarchist tradition, which dates back to at least 400-300 BCE and is best known from the works Dao De Jing, Zuangzhi and Bao Jingyan’s “Neither Lord nor Subject“, first intersected with Buddhism in the political thought of Wu Nengzi. Like earlier Daoist anarchists, Wu Nengzi rejects government and hierarchy as a corruption of the “original simplicity (si), primeval unity without hierarchy (hundun), and especially ziran (the natural or spontaneous)” and includes in his critique a “Buddhist-influenced” rejection of the duality between life and death, and rejecting the need for material goods in this life. John Knapp writes that lack of concern for the material in favor of the transcendent “undermines his anarchism”, a flaw Hakugen Ichikawa also pointed out in Japanese Zen. The significance of Wu Nengzi to this project is less the conclusions we reached and more the evidence that Daoist anarchism and Buddhism were meeting and mixing around his time. Daoist thought was hugely influential in the development of Ch’an (Zen), and many of its Western countercultural admirers and converts like to point out the subversive, absurdist and antiauthoritarian currents which famously animate its discourses. I suspect that this is the influence of Daoism and its anarchist interpretations at work within Buddhist doctrine. This does not make Zen inherently anarchist either, but it might help explain why such an anarchistic spirit of freedom and humor appears in its otherwise rather rigid, authoritarian structures.

In the medieval period I have not been able to find much substantial evidence for anarchist ideology. What is abundant, however, are peasant uprisings and rebellions against established states, many of which were founded on millenarian, often heterodox, interpretations of Buddhism and often organized as secret societies, such as the infamous White Lotus, which stirred up numerous revolutions in China between the 1300’s and the 1700’s.

Millenarianism is a common tendency in most major religions. It critiques the present as an age of sin, decay, war, chaos – “the end times” – and suggests that the coming of a savior who will usher in a golden age is near at hand. In Buddhism this is almost always tied to the coming of the next Buddha, Maitreya, who will liberate the people, bring peace and restore the world’s natural order. Countless cults and rebellions have sprung up around charismatic people claiming to either be Maitreya or to have special knowledge of or communion with him. Many of these rebellions shared a belief with medieval Christian heretics in their ability to bring about a “Kingdom of Heaven” or a “Pure Land” on Earth. They usually promised peasants relief from taxation and conscription, and thus challenged the primary sources of grain and labor which formed the foundation of feudal government.

Like their European counterparts, they were often chaotic, violent, and brutally suppressed. One very dramatic account from Ngo Van serves as an example of the kind of violence revolutionaries of this period had to go through: “In 1120, in Zhejiang, the special taxes levied to pay for the construction of the Imperial Palace at Kaifeng provoked a brief uprising led by a Buddhist secret society influenced by the spirit of subversive Taoism. The rebels, poorly armed, strict vegetarians who worshipped demons, massacred the rich, government officials and dignitaries. When its leader Fang La was captured after a year of fighting, the rebels escaped the repression that was in store for them by means of collective suicide.” Exciting, badass, even, but not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time. This sort of tragedy would play out thousands of times across the feudal world, for the most part inspired by whatever useful religion or ideology people had at hand to resist their oppressors.

Another example comes from the Ikko-Ikki (loose translation: “single-minded” leagues for mutual defense) movement in Japan. The Ikko-Ikki were a social movement of autonomous Shin Buddhists who defied and frequently revolted against their feudal masters. The many Ikki uprisings took place between the 1350’s and the 1580’s. The Ikki became more organized under the religious leadership of the Jodo Shinshu head priest Rennyo (1415-1499), though he never lead, controlled or instigated any of the uprisings among his followers. The most famous uprising was known as the Kaga Ikki. In 1486-47 a coalition of Ikki composed of peasants, monks and lesser nobility rose up and overthrew Togashi Masachika, the daimyo of Kaga Province (Modern day Ishikawa Prefecture), installing Togashi’s uncle in his place as a figurehead. For the first time in Japanese feudal history, commoners ruled an entire province for over 100 years, until their eventual defeat by Oda Nobunaga in 1582.

If these groups we active today we would almost certainly see them as dangerous religious extremists. But many anarchist historians have seen in the Christian heretics the origins of social revolution and the ideals of anarchy and communism, so why not acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of heretical Buddhist peasant-messiahs, organizer-priests and bandit-kings are also a part of this legacy? Surely the spiritual cousins to the Diggers, Levelers and Anabaptists existed within heretical Buddhism. We may not know them now, but as James C. Scott puts it, many of these revolts were lead by stateless peoples against systems which sought to categorize, civilize and exploit them. Their continuing “illegibility” to the official history of “civilization” is a testament to their revolt. May they remain forever invisible and free.

One other example from this period comes from a colleague, Wei Kang, who studies the early Dzogchen movement from an anarchist, post-structuralist perspective. They point to “the communistic period of the dzogchen universalist movement among the stateless periods in the 19th century” as a radically non-sectarian, not-exclusively-buddhist (with its adoption by Bon and other nomadic shamanic traditions) intercultural, “indefinable, ungovernable groundswell” of religious revival and philosophical subversion of established Buddhist orthodoxy and clerical hierarchy. Dzogchen’s emphasis on “non-meditation” certainly fits with this theme of negation, critique, evasion and illegibility. I recommend following their work, which includes their many thoughts not only on Dzogchen translation, but musings on anarchism and post-structuralist theory which are all way above my level of philosophy or meditation practice.


The Buddha: The Social Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism by Trevor Ling

Thanissaro Bikkhu “Getting the Message

Elisée Reclus “Anarchy, Geography, Modernity

Ngô Văn “Ancient Utopia and Peasant Revolts in China

James C. Scott “The Art of Not Being Governed

John A. Rapp “Daoism and Anarchism”

Why Anarchists Like Zen? A Libertarian Reading of Shinran (1173–1263) Enrique Galván-Álvarez

Ikko Ikki and Kaga Ikki Wikipedia

Therigatha Wikipedia

6 thoughts on “An Anarchist History of Buddhism: 400 BCE-1800 CE

  1. Reblogged this on Speculative Non-Buddhism and commented:
    Part 1 of Reed Ingalls’s excellent and long-overdue “A History of Buddhist Anarchism.” Looking forward to more from Reed!


  2. “but musings on anarchism and post-structuralist theory which are all way above my level of philosophy or meditation practice.”
    Q.V. SNB’s Glenn Wallis, todays crypto-antinomian par excellence


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