An Anarchist History of Buddhism from the 1800’s to the 1920’s

Following an inquiry into anarchic elements of pre-modern Buddhist history we arrive in the 19th century, where “anarchism” first moves beyond philosophy and becomes a self-identified force driving social movements. As the primary ideology within the worker’s movement in the 1870’s-1910’s (Gradually becoming eclipsed by Bolshevism and social democracy by the mid 20th century), anarchism grew rapidly and spread around the world, from Paris to Buenos Aires, Chicago, Durban, Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai. It is in this time period that I have been able to find the greatest number of “Buddhist-anarchists”, many of whom were contemporaries, but sadly were unable to connect, unite, or communicate and develop a coherent liberation theology which could be passed down to us. Some were arrested, imprisoned, or executed as martyrs, others recanted their views later in life, or were never particularly involved in activism to begin with, working as scholars, writers and artists.

This history is unfortunately biased towards male figures. Surely many more women contributed to Buddhist anarchism than those who are recorded, but the patriarchal nature of history, Buddhism, and to a lesser but significant degree, anarchism, has erased or ignored their stories. Progress has been made in recent years to highlight the importance of women in Buddhist history and to improve the social standing of women in contemporary Buddhism, but little to nothing has been written about these women’s connections to radical politics.

Much of what I have been able to learn so far occurs in Japan, China and British India, with side trips to the United States and Europe. I suspect that this is not the whole story, and is biased by limited access to academic research and English translations, but it is what I have to work with at the moment. Where anarchist movements do not occur significantly (for example, South and Southeast Asia, with the exception of Vietnam) I will try to highlight anarchic, democratic and libertarian socialist figures or movements where I find them and try to point out their influence on or by Buddhism. Further research is needed into pre-war Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.

One very important consideration to make while searching for traces of mutual influence between anarchism and Buddhism is the conservative, oppressive, and pacifying roles Buddhist institutions have played throughout their long history in Asia and more recently as an international religion. At the end of the 19th century, when socialism and anarchism began to take root in Asia, revolutionaries saw most Buddhist institutions and their doctrines in much the same way as Europeans saw the Christian Church: mostly useless for their purposes, if not a hindrance or an outright enemy to be opposed. However, as with Christians such as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day, a few figures stand out who attempted to fuse their faith and culture with the new doctrines of social revolution. Ironically, in turn-of-the-20th-century Japan especially, Christianity was linked closely to the birth of the socialist movement, and was persecuted by Shinto and Buddhist institutions. It’s interesting to observe how new religious ideas and countercultures can fuse early in their introduction, before the new religion is assimilated into the status quo and the counterculture is pacified, much like Eastern thought in the US during the 1960’s and 70’s.


Japan in the 1870’s-1920’s was one of the most important centers for anarchism in all of Asia, so I will begin there. Arif Dirlik writes that, “The first self-described anarchist in East Asia was the Japanese writer and activist Kotoku Shusui” (1871-1911). Shusui, originally a socialist, was imprisoned for his political ideas in 1905, after a newspaper he ran, the Heimin Shimbun (Commoner’s News), denounced the Russo-Japanese war. In prison he became convinced of anarchism after reading Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops. Kotoku once described the philosophy of Taoism and Buddhism as “the most extreme books…of Anarchism.”

After his release from prison he visited California and spent time with anarchists and socialists, including Emma Goldman, members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”) and radicalized Japanese immigrants. While living in Oakland in 1906 Shusui witnessed the Great San Francisco Earthquake and the devastating fires which followed. He was astonished by the ways people came together to supply each other with food, shelter and medical aid without any leadership or law enforcement, later concluding that what he observed was the people’s natural expression of anarchist-communism, carried out through direct action and mutual aid. The response to the earthquake and his conversations with US anarchists convinced Shusui of the superiority of anarchism over democratic socialism. He returned to Japan in 1906 and popularized anarchism and direct action among the socialist movement, particularly through his writing.

Most importantly for this story, he befriended Uchiyama Gudo (1874-1911), a rural Soto Zen priest and reader of the Heimin Shimbun. Gudo would go on to independently publish articles and pamphlets, some of which connected his religious beliefs with anarchist and socialist principles, becoming the first Buddhist anarchist I know of. In a short article published in Heimin Shimbun in 1904 he wrote

“As a propagator of Buddhism I teach that ‘all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature’ and that ‘within the Dharma there is equality, with neither superior nor inferior.’ Furthermore, I teach that ‘all sentient beings are my children.’ Having taken these golden words as the basis of my faith, I discovered that they are in complete agreement with the principles of [anarchist] socialism. It was thus that I became a believer in [anarchist] socialism.”

While he didn’t develop these ideas to a great depth in his writing, it gives us a solid starting point for connecting the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism with anarchist-communism.

Uchiyama Gudo

Gudo was arrested for writing an inflammatory pamphlet (descibed by the prosecutor as “the most heinous book ever written since the beginning of Japanese history.”) which denied that the emperor of Japan was descended from the gods and was instead merely the descendant of “brigands” who murdered and stole their way to power. He also incited tenant farmers to “stop paying rent to the landowners,” to “stop paying taxes to the stupid government” and to stop “sending your sons into the army” as a means to overthrow the imperial government. Instead he proposed that farmers organize rural tenant-worker unions in order to “take back the wealth that the government has stolen from us over a long time through force and oppression, from the time of our ancestors, and let’s keep it in common!”

In 1911, Gudo, Shusui, and hundreds of other radicals were charged in a conspiracy trial around an alleged plot to assassinate the emperor. This group included three other radical Buddhist priests, Takagi Kenmyo, Sasaki Dogen and Mineo Setsudo, who were all found guilty and later died in prison. Of all these people, only a few admitted to having been in on the plot, but in that same year twenty four of those tried, including Gudo, were sentenced to death by hanging. When he was executed on January 24, it was recorded that, “He gave not the slightest hint of emotional distress. Rather he appeared serene, even cheerful–so much so that the attending prison chaplain bowed as he passed.”

Gudo was expelled from the Soto sect during his time in prison, but after pressure was put on Soto leadership to apologize for their wartime collaboration with the government, his status was restored posthumously in 1993, along with an official apology, and a new memorial at the rural temple he once headed. Gudo wrote several works and letters while imprisoned, including the incomplete Heibon no Jikaku (Common Consciousness) and Gokuchu shuki (Prison manuscript) which began to develop his ideas on anarchism and religion further. However, Gudo’s main focus was always on education, mutual aid and organizing among the peasants with whom he lived, not blending religious and political theory into a coherent system of thought.

The conspiracy trial, known as the Taigyaku Jiken (High Treason Incident), was a particularly brutal attempt by the government to repress the growing anarchist movement, but it was not entirely successful. Many anarchists (including Osugi Sakae and Ishikawa Sanshirō, who we will return to later) escaped the purge. The seed planted in Japan by Kotoku Shusui had also started to spread to the mainland, and much like the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, the incident shocked and radicalized a number of the next generation of Japanese anarchists, including acclaimed anarcha-feminist historian Takamure Itsue (1894-1964) and Zen critic Ichikawa Hakugen (1902–1986).

The majority of Takamure Itsue’s anarchist work occurred after the 1920’s, but she first gained fame for her diary (serialized in a Kumamoto City newspaper) of the Shikoku Pilgrimage in 1918, which circles the island of Shikoku, visiting 88 temples which are considered sacred sites, consecrated by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism. I am not familiar enough with her later work to determine the possible influence of Buddhism, but it was clearly on her mind during her travels as a youth.

Along her pilgrimage she documented the struggles of the outcastes of Taisho era Japanese society who she met: the sick, the poor, the disabled, the eccentric and the mentally ill, many of whom considered her an incarnation of Kannon (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva), the archetype of mercy and compassion; Takamure remarked in her journal that she believed she was more suited to a career as “The God of Boils”, due to frequent requests for her to perform healing miracles, which she begrudgingly pretended to do for the sake of the sick people she met. In her later career she focused all of her efforts on countering the patriarchal history of Japan, contributing to and editing feminist magazines, including the famous Bluestocking, as well as Fujin Sensen (The Women’s Front). Later, she retreated to a house in the country to focus on writing books, and researching obscure village records, searching for women’s equality in the ancient past, pointing out patterns of matrilineal inheritance and marriage before the rise of the large kingdoms and feudal states.

Taigyaku Jiken (1989) by Iri and Toshi Maruki

In the early 1900s many radicals, students and workers from China, Vietnam and Korea came (or were exiled) to Tokyo, where they encountered anarchist ideas and brought them back to the mainland in service of their own struggles. As we saw with Shusui, early Japanese anarchists spent some time in the United States and later translated anarchist theories, such as Kropotkin’s writings on anarchist communism, into Japanese. Indians like Har Dayal who were involved with the independence movement were often educated in England and traveled widely. Spanish Anarchists fleeing the Franco dictatorship often brought their experience of a brief but deeply lived anarchist society to social struggles in Latin America. Many of the prominent Chinese anarchists were involved in attempts to found pan-Asian anarchist alliances against their common colonial oppressors. Similarly, the Buddhist modernists like Anagarika Dharmapala worked internationally to revive Buddhism in Asia, particularly in its birthplace in northern India, as well as proselytizing to the Western world at events like the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, one of the first global interfaith meetings in history. This international exchange of ideas, often driven by conflict and diaspora, has always been important to the growth of the anarchist movement, just as it has been for Buddhist missionaries and modernizers in the last hundred years. This rejection of firm borders, be they national, religious, communal or ideological is a trait which has supported the growth and persistence of anarchist and Buddhist influence in the modern world.


Chinese expats in Tokyo and Paris provided crucial intellectual ammunition for the tumultuous period of rebellion between the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the brief and chaotic life of the first Chinese Republic (1912-1916), the Warlord era (1916-1928) and to a limited extent from the second Republic until the ascension of the Communist Party in 1949. Notable Tokyo residents included Liu Shipei and He Zhen, a married couple who were both anarchist ideologues active in early Chinese revolutionary movements. More on them in a moment.

First it is important to point out that the anarchist circles of early 20th century China in which they operated also exhibited Buddhist influences. While it may be important to point out key figures who published their thoughts, it is likely that many more people believed in similar syntheses of revolutionary and religious ideology. This call to action put forward by a Chinese anarchist-exile group in Paris is suggested by Arif Dirlik to blend Buddhist themes of impermanence with the concept of a “permanent” social revolution towards a receding utopian horizon, a popular theme in libertarian socialist thought:

“Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!!! Since the beginning of the world, there has not been a year, a month, a day, and hour, a minute, a second, without revolution. Revolution moves forward without rest, tireless in its intrepidity. It is the key to the progress of the myriad worlds.” (Xin shiji, No. 3: 3).

Contrast this with the popular verse from Eduardo Galeano:

“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.”

Dirlik also writes, “Not only were there Buddhist monks among Chinese anarchists, but the Guangdong anarchists led by [Liu] Shifu displayed more than a casual interest in Buddhism. Yet their interest did not seem to interfere with the universalist goals of anarchism. It is also possible that Buddhism confirmed their anarchism.”

Liu Shifu

The most clear example of an attempt to fuse Buddhist and anarchist thought is in the work of Taixu (1890 – 1947). Taixu is best known as an influential Buddhist modernist and reformer of the Chinese Buddhist sangha. For a good deal of his youth he was also an anarchist writer and activist.

Taixu was ordained in the Linji (Rinzai) school of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism at age 16 and quickly became interested in religious reform and revolutionary social movements, which he saw as being connected, writing “My social and political thought was based upon ‘Mr. Constitution’, the Republican Revolution, Socialism, and Anarchism. As I read works such as Zhang Taiyan’s “On Establishing Religion”, “On the Five Negatives”, and “On Evolution”, I came to see Anarchism and Buddhism as close companions, and as a possible advancement from Democratic Socialism.”

Taixu, like the earlier medieval Buddhist rebels, was also a Maitreyan millenarian, who believed that by perfecting society, people could hasten the birth of the next Buddha. However, as a modernist who mostly eschewed the supernatural, he emphasized that a perfected society could only be built by the earnest effort of ordinary and enlightened humans working together in this world and in this life, using political, economic, and social (as well as religious) means and ends. In Taixu’s utopia goes beyond a mere Pure Land on Earth, imagining the birth of Maitreya as the collective Buddhahood of a liberated humankind united in fraternal love. Justin Ritzinger writes of Taixu’s thought, “The mind of fraternal love is the direct cause, utopia writ small on the human mind. The implementation of anarchism is the revealing cause that illuminates the mind of fraternal love, which was obscured but never eliminated. This is supported through the elimination of the evil of names [hierarchy], which is the conditioning cause. When these three social virtues are brought to fruition, the corporate [collective] Buddhahood of utopia is realized.” 

Taixu was personally involved with revolutionary movements from 1908 to 1914, after which he entered a three year retreat and then devoted himself to reforming Buddhism. As a young monk he was dissatisfied with the state of the monastic tradition, taking up intensive personal study of the sutras. This lead to his first “awakening” reportedly while reading the Greater Perfection of Wisdom and other prajna paramita texts of the Mahayana. His second “awakening” occurred when a fellow monk, Quiyun, introduced him to revolutionary social thought and suggested they join a Buddhist reformation movement, the Sangha Education Society.

The two traveled to Guangzhou together to establish a new branch of this society in 1910. This plan was a failure, but while in Guangzhou, Taixu and Quiyun began attending the meetings of several of the secret revolutionary societies organizing in the city. He read Chinese and European anarchist thought intensely in this period, particularly translations of Kropotkin in the journal New Century (Xin shiji). As mentioned before, the Buddhist-influenced thought of Zhang Taiyan was particularly convincing, leading Taixu to believe that “anarchism was close to Buddhism and could be approached through social democracy.” Taixu wrote of the need to abolish three evils in society: religion, family and government, to be replaced by freedom, equality, and love. Despite his call to abolish religion, he couched his critique in the language of Buddhist liberation, referring to the famous discourse of Zen master Zhao Zhou in the Wúménguān: “If government is abolished, then each person will be his or her own government and each will be a commoner; so-called dogs all possess the Buddha-nature.”

Revolutionary activity in Guangzhou came to a head with the Second Uprising of April 1911, in which revolutionaries briefly won control but were crushed by Qing military reinforcements. Seventy two revolutionary deaths were confirmed, though the number is likely higher. Taixu and Quiyun were among those who escaped the massacre. They both went on the run, but soon Quiyun was arrested for smuggling weapons from Vietnam and Taixu’s involvement was suspected. Poems he had written were found on Quiyun’s person which commemorated the Guangzhou “martyrs” but Taixu was able to elude capture and leave the province with the help of well-connected friends.

The next year the Qing dynasty was successfully overthrown by the Xinhai Revolution, leading to the first Chinese Republic in 1912. It is worth noting the significance of this revolution: it brought an end to 2,132 years of imperial rule, something which no previous revolution had done, and which was the indirect result of the Guangzhou uprising which Taixu may have participated in. This opening lead to a flourishing of political, artistic and intellectual expression; it also allowed increasing radicalism and revolutionary agitation among those dissatisfied with the increasingly dictatorial republican government under president Yuan Shikai.

Following the revolution Taixu became an influential member of the newly formed Chinese Socialist Party, which grew quickly to about 400,000 members. Taixu represented the anarchist, or “pure socialist”, wing of the party, and soon became and editor of and contributor to the party journal, Social World. The eclectic ideological formation of the party soon lead to a split between the pure socialists and the social democrats. Taixu continued his editing and writing in the new sect’s journal until the party was banned by the Republican government in 1913. Driven underground, he was only able to continue publishing for a few more issues until the paper ceased publication; this second defeat probably clarified Taixu’s decision to enter intensive retreat in 1914. After his retreat he continued to admire the work of anarchist thinkers, especially Kropotkin’s utopian visions, but ceased to involve himself in radical politics, gradually becoming more conservative on social issues even as his religious activism profoundly influenced the modernization of Chinese Buddhism.

At least three other contemporaries of Taixu are also known to have expressed some interest in Buddhist-influenced-anarchism: Zhang Taiyan, Liu Shipei and He Zhen.

Liu Shipei (1884 – 1919) is another interesting figure here. Liu was one of the few Chinese anarchists in this period who saw revolutionary value in Chinese philosophy and religion; he often attempted to tie his theoretical and propaganda writing to Chinese traditions, from Buddhism to Confucius, Mencius, Zuangzhi and tales of mythological figures like Huang-Di, the fabled “Yellow Emperor”. A well educated classicist scholar from a prestigious family of scholars, Liu was initially drawn to revolutionary nationalism, and for a time anarchism, as a means to drive out the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty and restore the Han Chinese culture which he so admired. He contributed frequently to the journal Natural Essence, where his articles displayed a single-minded focus, “to find some kind of Chinese essence which transcended imperial Confucianism”. He additionally drew on Buddhist theories of the mind, illusion, self, and other, in an attempt to explain how the Chinese people could begin to develop a revolutionary subjectivity. This pursuit began to lead him to look into the ancient, pre-imperial past, from which he began to arrive at an internationalist anti-government stance.

He Zhen and Liu Shipei

His political writing forced him into exile in Tokyo in 1907, where he associated with Kotoku Shusui and other exiled Chinese, continuing to publish Natural Justice with his wife He Zhen, writing influential articles on anarchism, feminism, nationalism and Chinese history together. Shockingly, after only a year or two in Tokyo, Liu betrayed the revolution, returning to Shanghai in 1908 with the aid of his friend and literary collaborator Zhang Binglin, where he provided Qing authorities with information on his former comrades. During the Republic he became a supporter of president Yuan Shikai’s ill-fated attempt to make himself emperor. After this failure he became a professor at Beijing University in 1917 until his death from tuberculosis in 1919.

Despite his traitorous turn, his writing had a significant influence on Chinese anarchists in the 1920’s. Peter Zarrow credits Liu’s betrayal to his disgust with the argumentative, fractious nature of the revolutionary social circles, writing that, “Already by 1908 hardly any two notable revolutionaries were on speaking terms with each other.”

Zhang Binglin (1869 – 1936), also known as Zhang Taiyan, was an influential Chinese linguist and philosopher, nationalist revolutionary, anti-capitalist, and Buddhist, a faith he found while imprisoned for his political activity. He often expressed interest in anarchism, offering his critical support for anarchist positions, and was affiliated with the circle of Chinese anarchists in Tokyo who published the paper Natural Justice; personally, he held somewhat more conservative and anti-modern views. His politicized interpretations of Yogacara philosophy were very important to Taixu, and he acted as an early revolutionary mentor and friend to Liu Shipei, with whom he defected from the revolutionary circle in Tokyo.

Zhang Binglin

He Zhen (1884 – c. 1920), Liu Shipei’s wife and lifelong intellectual partner should also be acknowledged here, though her influences from Buddhism are unclear. It is suggested that after Liu’s death in 1919 she became a Buddhist nun and lived in obscurity until the end of her life. He Zhen’s driving interest, by which she arrived at an anarchist position, was feminism; her contributions to Chinese anarcha-feminist theory were immense. While she and Liu made many ideological changes during their career, she never compromised on her feminist stance, always underscoring the importance of women’s liberation to any revolutionary movement.

Historian Arif Dirlik stresses in his treatment of the Chinese anarchists that the relationship between ancient philosophy and anarchist ideology was a “dialectical” process of mutual influence and reinterpretation, not something “determined” by past philosophies. He suggests that for most of the Chinese anarchists at the time, anarchism was treated as something entirely new, and was valued as a revolutionary ideal precisely because of this novelty. He further criticizes the “Orientalist” assumption that nothing in China can ever be new or unique, and instead must be validated and rooted in ancient traditions, urging readers to “make a distinction between the past as a determinant of the present and the past as a reservoir of ideas upon which people can draw to deal with the present.” This approach, which criticizes the importance of authenticity to social and religious movements, is also important to keep in mind when considering concepts such as Buddhist Modernism or Anarchism, or for example, He Zhen’s anarcha-feminism, which “sought no authority in China’s past,” and “acknowledged none.” While it may be helpful to draw on the past for inspiration, we live in the present moment, as it were, and are free to creatively recombine ideas to suit our needs and desires. We can still have an appreciation for history and tradition without the need to forge clumsy, history-distorting anachronisms to justify our ideas.


India, the birthplace of Buddhism, was another great center of anti-colonial activity in this period. As far as I know there was not a large, visible or organized anarchist presence in India, but some of its ideas and practices gained footholds through the work of prominent revolutionary activists, leaders and intellectuals, most famously Har Dayal, Mohandas Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. Buddhism in India had been assimilated into Hinduism long before the modern era, but began to have something of a revival in India around this time, largely through the work of Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma, and Europe, and began to find an indigenous foothold within persecuted minority communities like the Dravidian Dalits of Tamil Nadu. The influence of anarchism and Buddhism are certainly felt in the mid-20th century Sarvodaya movements inspired by Gandhi in India and A. T. Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka, though the anarchism is rarely made explicit.

Maia Ramnath explains the emergence of anarchic movements in India, in contrast to an explicit adoption of Western anarchism among the masses in religious-philosophical terms: “The birth and evolution of Buddhism too (along with certain branches of Vedanta) placed a rational and anti-hierarchical philosophy at the heart of India’s intellectual heritage, countering the Orientalist portrait of Indian culture as essentially defined by hierarchy, autocracy, and unreason. In this case, those seeking counterparts or solidarities might be guided not by Anarchism but instead by that broader principle, tendency, or orientation of which Western anarchism is one derivation or subset. The Liberty Tree is a great banyan, whose branches cross and weave, touching earth in many places to form a horizontal, interconnected grove of new trunks”. Much like Bookchin’s “Legacy of Freedom”, Ramnath’s metaphor is an apt way to compare and include non-Western social movements within anarchism without clumsily lumping them together in a colonial paradigm.

Har Dayal (1884-1939) has been a fascinating and at times confusing figure to study. It is unclear if he ever self-identified as Buddhist, but some of his friends and biographers have identified him as one. He was, according to Emily Brown, “in sequence an atheist, a revolutionary, a Buddhist, and a pacifist”. I suspect he was too much of a free thinker to box himself in with dogmatic religious commitments. In his writing he most frequently identified himself as a Hindu, primarily in the nationalist sense, but rejected belief in popular religious movements in Hinduism such as Vedanta. What is very clear, however, is that he possessed a very deep well of knowledge regarding Buddhist doctrines; his book, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature, was submitted to London University in 1930 as a doctoral thesis, and even today remains one of the best books written on the subject.

Lala Har Dayal Singh Mathur was born in Delhi to a middle class family of the administrative Kayastha caste. He was highly gifted intellectually, particularly with languages, earning Batchelor’s and Master’s degrees in Sanskrit. Many people who knew him describe him as a “polymath” and a “genius” with a knack for writing and public speaking. He then went to England for doctoral studies at Oxford on a scholarship in 1905. There he became radicalized, befriending other young Indian nationalists studying abroad, and leftist radicals like Kropotkin, eventually leading him to a libertarian socialist political orientation. Just before completing his degree, Har Dayal renounced his scholarship on the grounds that the British occupation of India was illegitimate, and returned home to India in 1908 to educate, agitate and organize his countrymen.

In letter to The Indian Sociologist Har Dayal wrote:

“Our object is not to reform government, but to reform it away, leaving, if necessary only nominal traces of its existence.”

Har Dayal 1907

In India he continued to read, write and speak about the national revolutionary cause. It was also during this time that he came to admire the Buddha, frequently reciting Edwin Arnold’s biography Light of Asia from cover to cover. However, that same year he came under suspicion from colonial authorities and decided to flee the country, leaving behind his wife Sundar and newborn daughter. He landed in Paris, where he wrote for the Indian revolutionary paper Bande Mataram and befriended English anarchist publisher of The Indian Sociologist Guy Aldred. He became increasingly obsessed with the idea of using secular, rational “religion” (a “Hardayalist” religion, of course) as a means for national liberation of India and worldwide social revolution. Guy Aldred summarized his ideas at this time, saying

“He now proclaimed his belief in the coming republic, which was to be a church, a religious confraternity, based on an ideal, on freewill and mutual cooperation. Its motto was to be: Atheism, cosmopolitanism and moral law. This republic would not be a state, because the latter represented force and persecution. No modification of its activity, no tinkering with parliaments and senates and parties, could bring up the republic. The latter must grow up by the side of the state, which it would undermine finally” and that he, “also asserted the superiority of woman, declared for anti-patriotism and repudiated
the race idea as a relic of barbarism.”

However, he was unhappy in Paris, falling into a political and philosophical stagnation, and left Paris in 1911 for Algeria, on a quest for religious enlightenment. He soon departed again for the Caribbean island of Martinique to pursue a life of ascetic meditation, modeled on the Buddha’s example. An old friend, Bhai Parmanand, happened to find him there, and successfully persuaded him to resume his revolutionary activity, this time among immigrant laborers in the United States. Before landing on the West coast, Har Dayal spent some time living in a cave on Waikiki Beach in Hawai’i, where he befriended local Japanese fisherman, who regarded him as a kind of Buddhist saint. In 1911 he came to Berkeley, briefly worked as a lecturer at Stanford, and quickly resigned because of backlash over his involvement with revolutionaries. Until 1914 Har Dayal became deeply integrated with local social movements, lecturing all across the Bay Area at dinner clubs, college classes, union halls, and agricultural fields on everything from asceticism to anarchism.

“Exile has its privileges. It is the price paid for the right of preaching the truth as it appears to us….We may pay homage only to our conscience and defy all the governments of the world to make us deviate a hair’s breadth from the path of Duty and Righteousness.”

Har Dayal

Among his activities during this time, he served as a secretary of the San Francisco IWW; co-founded the infamous Ghadar (“mutiny”) party, along with immigrant Punjabi-Sikh workers in Astoria, Oregon; attempted to found a revolutionary monastic organization, named the Order of the Red Flag, which was granted land near Oakland to establish the Bakunin Institute, the “first monastery of anarchism”; set up “Modern Schools” inspired by anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer; and supported the Mexican anarchist Regeneracion movement, lead by Ricardo Flores-Magon. Jaimine Bezboznik writes that, “Har Dayal understood the realisation of ancient Aryan culture as anarchism, which he also saw as the goal of Buddhism. The Ghadar Party attempted to overthrow the British in India by reconciling western concepts of social revolution – particularly those stemming from Mikhail Bakunin – with Buddhism.” Considering that the majority of Ghadar members were Punjabi Sikhs, I’m not sure how true this is of the party as a whole, though it may be true of Har Dayal’s contributions Ghadar ideology. Har Dayal’s colleague and friend Van Wyck Brooks once described him as a revolutionary in the Bakuninist sense, someone who, “has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments of his own, no property, not even a name:’ having broken with the codes and convictions that govern other people and having only “one thought, one passion: revolution.”….[His mind] seemed to combine in a curious way the opposite types of the “yogi” and the “commissar.”

In 1914, Har Dayal was arrested, interrogated, and possibly scheduled to be extradited to Britain, for his support of the Indian liberation movement and for his advocacy of anarchism. Rather than risk extradition, he skipped out on his bail, this time landing in Switzerland, where he would go on to work with Indian revolutionaries in Germany and Turkey, who sought to turn Indian soldiers in the war against the British empire. By the end of WWI, Har Dayal had lost his faith in the revolutionary cause, and petitioned the British to allow him to return to India, recanting his previous radical anti-British views. He even published a book on his experiences in Turkey and Germany which denounced his former comrades and advocated British rule as an attempt to gain favor with the British government for his repatriation. The British happily published the book as propaganda, but refused to allow him to return. Instead he spent the next 10 years living in Sweden, where he worked as an Orientalist scholar and occasional political commentator on Indian issues, repeatedly attempting to return to India. He published his aforementioned thesis on Buddhism, as well as a popular self-help book, Hints for Self-Culture, continuing to lecture on the necessity of moral and intellectual cultivation and seeking a rational philosophical synthesis of Eastern and Western thought.

During this time his writing often took a decidedly Hindu nationalist tone, arguing for Hindu communal supremacy against Indian Muslims. His political ideas in later life were somewhat incoherent, eccentric, and quite inconsistent with his earlier anarchist ideals. In 1938 he was finally granted permission to return to India, but unexpectedly died of a heart attack in Philadelphia while on a lecture tour in 1939.

Har Dayal’s broad interests and radical ideological shifts have made his legacy important to both left and right wing revolutionaries, from Robert Aitken, co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, who lauded Har Dayal as an early Buddhist anarchist, who came “from India by way of London to edify our grandparents and their parents,” to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Har Dayal’s former comrade in the Indian independence struggle and founder of the fascistic, Hindutva ideology of the RSS movement, which is the political backbone of India’s current ruling BJP government, now headed by the infamous Narendra Modi.

The confusing array of beliefs and actions Har Dayal took, suggests Benjamin Zachariah, defy easy biographical categorization, and any neatly packaged, coherent stories are inevitably “illusions created by the biographer,” but that, “the biographical exercise of a historian’s sharing of the long, strange trip does at least illuminate a great number of contexts, spaces and ideologies, all of which impinged upon the life of an individual who is usually rendered as a Punjabi and possibly as an Indian and a nationalist. To avoid such reductionism is, at least, revisionist.” As with other characters I have highlighted here, Har Dayal was a human being, and therefore much more complex than any of the ideas which I am exploring by using the records of his life as an example. Rather than someone to canonize, demonize, and dehumanize, he is simply a person we can appreciate for who he was and learn from in whichever ways we may need to to advance our own projects and understanding.

South Asia, Theosophy and the Birth of International Buddhist Modernism

Two countries included in the British empire’s Indian colonies, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) are Buddhist-majority countries in the Theravada tradition. In both countries Buddhist monks and laypeople participated in anti-colonial struggles. In addition to religion and nationalism, many were inspired by socialism, along with a whole host of ideas imported from Europe. Religious figures in both countries were also among the first to advocate religious and philosophical reforms leading to what is is now known as “Buddhist modernism”, which emphasizes meditation practice, social activism, scientific rationality, and is one of the most popular interpretations of Buddhism exported to the world. These reforms were in part motivated by the need to counter the impacts of European cultural hegemony (Christianity, capitalism, western science) on traditional Asian social and religious practices, providing a sense of national unity that would be capable of organizing the people and driving out the colonizers. The intellectuals behind this modernizing movement cleverly studied European thought, often at universities in the imperial core states, and incorporated the philosophical elements which they perceived as beneficial into their own belief systems as a sort of cultural immunization against European influence.

This international fusion proved highly popular, not only among Asians, but also Europeans dissatisfied with Christianity, Judaism and capitalist scientific materialism. Some of these Europeans became influential figures, particularly in philosophy, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The American Transcendentalists, including early anarchist and author of “Civil Disobedience”, Henry David Thoreau, were inspired by translations of Hindu and Buddhist texts, which lead them to ascetic lives of meditative solitude in the woods of New England and kickstart a uniquely American individualist approach to religion, politics and philosophy.

The Theosophical Society, in many ways a precursor to today’s New Age religious movements, also borrowed heavily from Buddhism, fusing it with European occultism in an attempt to create a new world religion. Theosophists, when they were involved in politics, ranged across the political spectrum, but often tended toward the extremes: some became fascists, others communists or anarchists; most were mainstream liberals or anti-political ascetics. Theosophists and anarchists shared the desire to unite mankind beyond borders, language and religious differences, and encouraged intellectual creativity, free-thought and practicing alternative life styles as a form of resistance to religious and cultural norms of their societies. Anarchists thought this would be accomplished through the worker’s social revolution, using violence if necessary. Theosophists and other religious movements believed in revolution through a global transformation of consciousness. Neither strategy was entirely successful, though it could also be said that neither entirely failed either. Both approaches have had profound influence on modern society, often intertwining in unusual ways.

Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), for example, was a French theosophist, Buddhist, feminist and anarchist who became widely known for her travels in the Himalayas, particularly the influential Orientalist book “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”. She spent most of her life on the road, but returned to France in her later years. Unlike many of the people in this history, she was fairly consistent, remaining an anarchist and Buddhist until her death in 1969, coincidentally a year of anarchist revival during the uprisings in Paris. She was a lifelong friend of the anarchist geographer Elisee Reclus, who wrote positively about Buddhism, which he claimed represented a “brotherhood” of “universal love”, and, similar to his anarchism, proclaimed, “no more kings, no more princes, no more bosses or judges, no more Brahmins or warriors, no more enemy castes that hate one another, but rather brothers, comrades, and companions who work together!” and that “all hierarchy is abolished…there is no role at all for authority.” Reclus also departs from this idealized early Buddhism to criticize its development into a hierarchical religion bound to the rise and fall of states, warlords and the rich as an example of the corrupting effects of institutional hierarchy upon religion. His praise and criticism both demonstrate a familiarity with Buddhist theory and history not shared by many Europeans at the time, who were often inclined to dismiss it as pessimistic, nihilistic or even primitive.

Alexandra David-Néel

Among its many misadventures, the Theosophical Society also adopted and educated a young Indian boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), to become its leader and future “World Teacher”. Krishnamurti was given a world class education and access to religious teachings to prepare him for the role, but when he became an adult Krishnamurti repudiated the destiny chosen for him and dissolved the organization which groomed him, saying, “I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.” In these and other statements he clearly rejects religious, political and even psychological authority as hindrances to human self-development. Because of these views Krishnamurti has been described by some as a kind of spiritual anarchist. Even in “retirement” from Theosophy, he continued to have a good deal of influence among Indian political and religious institutions and elements of the American counterculture in books, and international lectures. He lived most of his later life in Ojai, California, where he continued to write and teach up until his death.

The Theosophists were also deeply involved in the development of Buddhist modernism. Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), an American, co-founder, and first president of the Theosophical Society, spent much of his life in Sri Lanka, where he worked to revitalize Buddhism, building several religious schools and translating Buddhist texts for Western audiences. He was among the first European-Americans to formally convert to Buddhism, along with fellow Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky. He is still regarded today in Sri Lanka as a hero of the national independence struggle. Olcott, a progressive liberal, was a key figure behind the European image of the Buddha as a “liberal freethinker – someone full of ‘benevolence,’ ‘gratitude,’ and ‘tolerance,’ who promoted ‘brotherhood among all men’ as well as ‘lessons in manly self-reliance”, an impression which is promoted and persists today. Olcott’s Sri Lankan colleague Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), an independence activist and Buddhist missionary continued this work, getting Buddhists more involved in nationalist politics, while simultaneously strengthening Buddhist internationalism with his missionary work, founding of the Mahabodhi Society and returning the Bodh Gaya temple to Buddhist supervision. This legacy lead to the development of Buddhist socialism and engaged Buddhism in Sri Lanka, but also to the tragedy of authoritarian Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which has been a driving force behind ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

One figure who emerged out of this Sri Lankan-British milieu who identified himself with anarchism (and to some extent with Buddhism) is the art historian and religious scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy (1887-1947). Coomaraswamy was born in Colombo to a Tamil father from a prominent political family and British mother. His father died when he was only two, so his mother returned to England, where Coomaraswamy was raised and educated. He graduated from university in London with degrees in geology and botany, returning to Sri Lanka in 1902, where he helped establish the first Ceylonese geological survey, earning a doctorate of science in the process. He was profoundly influenced by early English anarchist and artist William Morris (1834-1896), founder of the arts and crafts movement, which Coomaraswamy attempted to adapt for the South Asian independence struggle, emphasizing the libertarian and socialist qualities of traditional village life and craft production. After returning to Ceylon he became an outspoken critic of colonialism and Western civilization in general. He is also notable for being the person to coin the term “post-industrial”, which he used to describe a future society which had rejected industrial capitalism and returned to communal craft production. He was also an early advocate of religious perennialism/traditionalism, a school of thought which claims that all religions contain a common transcendent truth. In this respect he was an advocate for reintegrating Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which he studied intensively in his later years and compared with Western neo-platonism. However, his critics have noted that this assimilation was fundamentally conservative, and may have actually helped to “de-radicalize Buddhism” and “pave the way for Hindu supremacism” in the future.

In contrast to Coomaraswamy’s Hindu-Buddhist anarchist traditionalism, another admirable South Asian activist of note is Iyothee Thass (1845 – 1914), who was one of the first Dalit anti-caste activists to promote conversion to Buddhism as a political act, long before B.R. Ambedkar’s Navayana movement. He served as a leader of the scheduled castes and hill tribes in Tamil Nadu, helping to unify them politically and publishing newspapers which focused on Dalit culture and civil rights. He famously declared that the “so-called Untouchables… were not Hindus”, and were therefore exempt from the discrimination forced on them by the Hindu caste system. Instead he suggested that his people register with the government census as “Casteless Dravidians”. He later invited Henry Steel Olcott to help him reestablish Tamil Buddhism on the Indian mainland, formally converting and then establishing the Sakya Buddhist Society, with branches across South India in 1898. I don’t have any evidence he was involved with anarchism or socialism, but anti-caste activism is an important theme for the big-picture narrative of Buddhist anarchism, and may be one of the first examples of a long tradition of modern Buddhist support for the civil rights of persecuted minorities.

I’d like to make a brief but important digression to here to discuss the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. Iyothee Thass and later radical Dalit activists like Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar saw Buddhism as a kind of escape pod from the Hindu caste system, a religious and social order entirely different and even opposed to the Hindu mainstream. Har Dayal and Ananda Coomaraswamy, however, did not draw such a sharp line between Buddhism and Hinduism, a view which may have been influenced by their more privileged, upper-caste backgrounds, but is not uncommon among Hindus. In fact, Buddhism was created long before the diverse religious system we know as modern Hinduism, and therefore had a profound influence on later Hindu thought. Until Buddhism was wiped out in India, the early Hindu schools of thought, Buddhism and Jainism all co-evolved, competed and influenced each other. In the Buddha’s time, Brahmanism was a major, but not hegemonic religion, based on the same Vedic scriptures as modern Hinduism, but definitely distinct from Hinduism, which draws not only on the Vedas but the Upanishads, many of which were not composed until after the Buddha’s time, including the famous Bhagavad Gita. Buddhism arose out of the same religious sramana social movement as Jainism and later Hindu schools, and its doctrines influenced Indian thought long after its decline as a religion, particularly the Vedanta. Once could say that in India and elsewhere, Buddhism became assimilated into the various Brahminisms which would eventually come together to be named Hinduism, or as Coomaraswamy puts it more bluntly, “Brahmanism killed Buddhism with a fraternal embrace.”

So when we return to the modern era, particularly in South Asia, it becomes difficult to speak of Buddhist anarchism without also considering Hindu anarchism, as many of the Hindu anarchists incorporated Buddhist philosophy into their Hinduism. So to describe Hindus like Har Dayal and Ananda Coomaraswamy as both Buddhists and Hindus is probably more accurate than placing them on one side or the other, and even then I suspect that neither were particularly interested in subscribing to any religious orthodoxy. It also suggests that some consideration of Hindu anarchists like Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo, not to mention their many secular comrades like M.P.T. Acharya, though for the sake of this research I would like to stick to more explicitly Buddhist material. It is really in modern times, particularly with the rise of nationalism, or “communalism” as religious conflict is often called in South Asia, that strictly defined and policed boundaries around the various Indian religions begin to be drawn. So from the movement of the Dalits against caste we have the version of Buddhism as resistance to Hindu supremacy, or Hindutva, and for the early Indian independence activists we get Buddhism as a part of Hinduism, which is itself used as an umbrella term for Indian national identity and Indian religious philosophy as a whole by these mostly upper caste activists, which became a source of criticism from Dalits, Muslims and Buddhists against Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement in the years leading up to independence. I don’t have a preference for one or the other, but it is easy to get confused if these different ideas about religious categorization are not kept in mind.

In Burma similar dynamics of modernization emerged in resistance to British colonialism. In particular, the explosive growth of the Vipassana (“Insight”) lay meditation movement, lead by the Ledi Sayadaw and Mahasi Sayadaw, simultaneously revived Theravada Buddhism, made meditation practice accessible to the masses, provided a counter to colonial christian missionaries, and fostered a sense of national identity which Burmese people used to overthrow British colonial rule. Many disciples of the Vipassana movement became active in the revolutionary movement, and later the first national government, including the first prime minister of Burma U Nu and first accountant-general, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. They were known to advocate for progressive economic policies which they occasionally called Buddhist socialism. The Vipassana movement then went global in the mid 20th century, particularly through the work of later disciples of Ledi and Mahasi, such as S.N. Goenka, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and the other founders of the American Insight Meditation Society. The popularity and secular appeal of Vipassana has had a profound influence on nearly every school of Buddhism, and has formed the ideological and technical base of the clinical-psychological “mindfulness” movement.

Another interesting character in this period is the Irish-born monk U Dhammaloka (1856-1914). Born in County Dublin, we worked his way around the world as a migrant laborer before landing in Burma some time between 1880 and 1870. As a fellow colonial subject of the British empire, he felt an affinity for the Burmese struggle, and while living in Burma was ordained as a monk in 1884. By 1890 he was a fully ordained senior monk who traveled widely throughout the country, preaching to laypeople about the dangers of Christianity, frequently drawing on Western atheism and proto-anarchist writers like Thomas Paine. He was persecuted by British authorities for seditious activity, and became a minor celebrity with the clergy and common people in Burma. Later in his life he traveled throughout Asia, attempting to forge international solidarity between Buddhists of various schools and nationalities.

USA and Britain

There were not many native Buddhists in the anglophone world during this time, and even fewer who were political radicals. As we have seen, many Asian radicals were profoundly influenced by time spent in Europe, Britain and the United States, several even died there, but few stayed for very long. Homegrown Buddhist anarchists were not to emerge in the West until after WWII. Two little-known figures have however come to my attention. Both are anarchist poets and social “Bohemians” who defied the cultural norms of their day and expressed their rebellion in the language of anarchism, though neither appear to have been activists in the political sense.

The first, Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944), born in Nagasaki to German and Japanese parents, spent much of his youth in Philadelphia, where he read Walt Whitman and was so inspired that he traveled to Whitman’s house to study poetry from him. Hartmann was was probably the first American to publish original Haiku poetry in English, among the first to treat photography as a subject for serious art criticism, and one of the first nationally famous Asian-American writers.

The second, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), was a prolific writer of poetry and non-fiction and early gay rights activist who took inspiration from Buddhism and Indian religion more broadly. Carpenter was a comrade of William Morris in the early English socialist movement, and was also a personal friend of Walt Whitman. Considering their shared interests and social circle, it is possible that Hartmann, Carpenter and even Coomaraswamy crossed paths at some point in their lives. Neither Hartmann nor Carpenter wrote extensively on Buddhism, though Hartmann did write a play about the Buddha. Carpenter frequently advocated anarchism in pamphlets and books, writing the influential Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, one of the first anarchist criticisms of “civilization” as opposed to “primitive” indigenous societies. Carpenter also befriended and hosted Ishikawa Sanshirō, former writer for Heimin Shinbun, exiled after the High Treason Incident, who would later return to Japan and become an influential theorist and organizer, eventually co-founding the Japanese Anarchist Federation in 1946. Though Ishikawa was originally a Christian, he was known to draw on Buddhist ideas and practices, including meditation, which he discussed with Edward Carpenter. Hartmann published essays in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine, including a stirring eulogy of Voltarine De Cleyre, and a “manifesto” protesting the High Treason Incident in Japan, and was a regular at the Ferrer Center, an anarchist school and social center in Manhattan, where he would occasionally read poetry or perform scenes from his unpublished plays.

This last section is the one I have discovered most recently, and it is fascinating (but not surprising) that the end ties back to the beginning: Carpenter and Hartmann both had a degree of connection to the early Japanese anarchist movement, Carpenter through his friend Sanshiro, and Hartmann through his involvement in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine circle, which advocated for the defendants of the High Treason Incident in 1910 and ’11, particularly Kotoku Shusui, who had made contact with Goldman and others during his travelsin the USA. Discovering this has lead me to wonder how many more connections have been lost to history when considering the worlds of anarchist and Buddhist internationalism in the early modern era. For example, Sanshiro would have known Uchiyama Gudo and Takagi Kenmyo from the Heimin and the High Treason Incident. Both Hartmann and Carpenter are forerunners of later Buddhist-anarchist artists, most famously the Beats, including Gary Snyder, who coined the term “Buddhist anarchism” (at least in English; Hakugen may have beat him to it in Japanese) in the 1960s. They are not only a missing link for poetry, but for the artistic side of Buddhist anarchism in the late 20th century. Discovering this has lead me to wonder how many more connections have been lost to history when considering the worlds of anarchist and Buddhist internationalism in the early modern era.


I felt tempted to title this essay “Towards an anarchist history of Buddhism”, but beginning things with “Towards” is such a cliche in radical theory that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. However, I do want to emphasize what that “towards” would have stood for: this is an incomplete history, just beginning to be told, just a first draft. I have a limited perspective, limited resources and limited time. I hope that this incomplete attempt prompts others to consider the idea of an anarchist history of Buddhism, see its importance to them, see gaps in my telling of it, and feel inspired (or irritated) enough to critique it and fill it in with local knowledge and expertise which I do not possess.

The main lesson I have drawn from this research is that though they were few and far between, there were indeed many Buddhist anarchists during the heyday of anarchism. A few of them attempted to synthesize their faith in Buddhism with their faith in social revolution, but most left the connection implicit and expressed themselves in other ways. Many of these people, defeated by reaction and repression, rejected by their comrades, or simply lead down other paths later in life, came to reject their revolutionary ideals, while others remained convinced of and in some cases even died for them.

In Asia, the overriding concerns for activists in the 19th and early 20th centuries were anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and national liberation. These movements paved the way for national independence, culminating in the liberation of India in 1947. These movements also set the stage for modern problems of nationalism, ethnic communalism, and neocolonialism, which modern religious and political movements will have to overcome. At the same time, anarchists contributed to indigenous Asian struggles against capitalism, state power and patriarchy, and their influence is still felt, even if their names have been forgotten by most.

Another common theme is the importance of internationalism and modernism to social movements around the world at this time. As I noted before, many of the people named in this essay traveled widely, spoke multiple languages and were interested in theory and literature from around the world. Though many felt the need for nationalism, they also criticized it as insufficient for the kind of total human liberation they sought.

Today were are far more easily connected, particularly through the internet, and internationalism is far more easily realized than ever. Despite this, we are faced with worldwide reaction against internationalism from the political left and the right, even as the most powerful democratic world-revolutions of our time, from the Arab Spring to the Milk Tea Alliance, proliferate horizontally through the web without regard for leadership, borders, or language. Perhaps the bewildering openness of the emerging global civilization has lead many people to retreat into cultural essentialist, nationalist and traditionalist stances from which to make sense of all the chaotic information we are confronted with. When fascist-inspired (or “alt-right”) groups around the world call on their followers to “reject modernity” and “embrace tradition”, it seems to me ever more important that we, following the example of these Buddhist anarchists, insist on cleverly and compassionately mixing up all these static categories and traditions in the service of the total social and religious liberation of all beings.

To put itself to work at freeing the world, anarchism must continue to insert itself into any and all relevant movements and social concerns, from religion to climate change, in order to help them accomplish their own goals. To put itself to work at freeing the mind, Buddhism must continue down the path of modernization that it started in the 1800s, transcending even “Buddhism” and “religion” if it must (and affirming them when appropriate), figuring out an ideology of social action, a “liberation dharma”, which makes it resistant to cooptation by the forces of domination that have held it back from its potential for millennia, but which retains and enhances its essential core insights and practices, supports indigenous and diasporic communities of practitioners, and is adaptable to a variety of local needs. Incorporating the experiences, ideas and critiques of the Buddhist anarchists is necessary to achieve this. We can learn a lot from their examples, but the goal of a theoretically coherent ideology which fully synthesizes Buddhist and anarchist thought has yet to be achieved. Thankfully we have quite a lot left to us to build upon.



Zen at War Chapter 3: Uchiyama Gudō Radical Sōtō Zen Priest Brian Victoria

The Social Response of Buddhists to the Modernization of Japan: The Contrasting Lives of Two Soto Zen Monks Ishikawa Rikizan

Kotoku, Osugi, and Japanese Anarchism Chushichi Tsuzuki

My Socialism by Takagi Kenmyo

Takagi Kenmyo and Buddhist Socialism: A Meiji Misfit and Martyr talk by Paul Swanson

The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue: An English Translation of Musume Junreiki translated by Susan Tennant

A Vision of Anarchist Love Takamure Itsue

Imperialism: Monster of the Twentieth Century Kotoku Shusui

Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan by James Mark Shields

Transnational Anarchism, Japanese Revolutionary Connections and the Personal Politics of Exile Nadine Williams

Walking the Thin Line: Ishikawa Sanshirō and Japanese Anarchism Daniel William Schnick


Anarchism in East Asia Arif Dirlik

Anarchism in Early Twentieth Century China Arif Dirlik

Vision and Revolution Arif Dirlik

Dimensions of Chinese Anarchism: Interview in Negations with Arif Dirlik

Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture Peter Zarrow

He Zhen and Anarcha Feminism in China Peter Zarrow

On the Equal Ability of Humans Liu Shipei

Dependent Co-evolution: Kropotkin’s Theory of Mutual Aid and Its Appropriation by Chinese Buddhists Justin Ritzinger

Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism by Justin Ritzinger

Daoism and Anarchism John A. Rapp

The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness Viren Murthy


Decolonizing Anarchism: Chapter 2 “The Anarcho-Syndicalists” Maia Ramnath

Two Revolutions: The Ghadar Movement and India’s Radical Diaspora Maia Ramnath

No Gods, No Masters, No Brahmins: An Anarchist Inquiry on Caste, Race and Indigeneity in India by Maia Ramnath in “No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries : Global Anarchisms”

A Long, Strange Trip: The Lives in Exile of Har Dayal Benjamin Zachariah

Letters of Har Dayal Saada archives

Brown, Emily C. (1975). Har Dayal: Hindu Revolutionary and Rationalist. Tucson: University of Arizona Press

Relearning Anarchism in India Jaimine Bezboznik

“Taking Responsibility” An Address delivered by Robert Aitken Roshi to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Membership Gathering

M.P.T. Acharya: The Forgotten Indian Anarchist in Europe Who Fought for True Freedom Ole Birk Laursen 

We Are Anarchists: Essays on Anarchism, Pacifism, and the Indian Independence Movement, 1923–1953 M.P.T. Acharya

Freedom From God: Periyar and Religion Karthick Ram Manoharan

South/Southeast Asia/Theosophy

Anada Coomaraswamy Organic Radicals

What is Anarchist Internationalism? Ruth Kinna

Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism Ananda Coomaraswamy

Revolutionary Seer for a Post-Industrial Age: Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Nietzsche Allan Antliff

The Zen Already in Anarchism Spencer Sunshine

U Dhammaloka Wikipedia

Iyothee Thass and the Politics of Naming Ravikumar

Who Was Alexandra David-Néel? A Brief Story of a Buddhist Anarchist Marion Dapsance

Alexandra David-Neel David Guy

Alexandra David-Néel, exploratrice, féministe, anarchiste Union Communiste Libertaire

Buddhist Nationalism and Religious Violence in Sri Lanka

Review of Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement: Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power Ingrid Jordt, review by Erik Braun

There is no Authority but Yourself: Reclaiming Krishnamurti for Anarchy Anonymous, Green Anarchy #20

Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism by Johannes Bronkhorst


Sadakichi Hartmann Wikipedia

Voltarine De Cleyre Sadakichi Hartmann Mother Earth 10 no. 2 (April, 1915)

Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America By Paul Avrich

Sadakichi Hartmann, a “Missing Link” of American Poetry Floyd Cheung

Edward Carpenter Wikipedia

Civilization: Its Cause and Cure Edward Carpenter

Non-Governmental Society Edward Carpenter

My Dear Sanshiro: Edward Carpenter and His Japanese Disciple Chushichi Tsuzuki

Beyond Progressive America: Mother Earth and its Anarchist World (1906-1918) Rachel Hui-Chi Hsu

Yamakawa Kikue and Edward Carpenter: Translation, Affiliation, and Queer Internationalism Sarah Frederick

Working Toward A Decolonized American Buddhism An Tran (Video link)

Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution David Loy

Budweiser Tweeted Two of Umberto Eco’s ‘Elements of Fascism’ Marina Watts

5 thoughts on “An Anarchist History of Buddhism from the 1800’s to the 1920’s

  1. Wow! Super interesting research. This could easily develop into a larger project–it really is of the “toward” genre. Do you plan to write the history from 1920 to today? Contemporary Buddhists SHOULD be deeply interested in anarchist ideas and practices. But, as with veganism, they are NOT, and that lack of interest is head-scratchingly difficult to explain. I suppose reversing things begins with education. This blog is very important in that regard. Thank you! (I’m going to reblog at SNB–with link to here, of course.) Onward!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a bunch Glenn! I do plan to cover the mid 20th century to the present in a later post. I was originally just going to do one, but it turned out to be too challenging to do all in one go. There is a definite shift in interest and tone with the post-war generation, where you get post-colonial Engaged Buddhism in Asia (Thiep Hien and Navayana/Dalit Buddhism most famously), critical reflection on Japanese Buddhism and social movements from Ichikawa Hakugen and other Kyoto school alumni, as well as 1960s counterculture Western Buddhism that we are more familiar with, including Gary Snyder. Nearly all this pre-war material was new to me, so it took much longer than I thought since I kept discovering new people up to the last minute. There is probably much more to uncover in this period in many of the other Asian countries, particularly Korea and Vietnam, which both had strong anarchist movements, but I wasn’t able to find many sources that confirmed connections between the two.


      1. That’s a great idea. I think I would like to wait until I have this history series completed so that I can combine them into a single document, but then I would be happy to upload it.


  2. Reblogged this on Speculative Non-Buddhism and commented:
    Super interesting research on Buddhist and anarchism. Contemporary Buddhists SHOULD be deeply interested in anarchist ideas and practices. But, as with veganism, they are NOT, and that lack of interest is head-scratchingly difficult to explain. I suppose reversing things begins with education, which makes this blog very important.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s