To begin simply, Petr Kropotkin, one of Ichikawa Hakugen’s main political influences, was among the earliest and clearest proponents of anarchist communism. Kropotkin most succinctly summarized anarchist communism as “the no-government system of socialism”. He went on to explain that “It is a synthesis of the two chief aims pursued by humanity since the dawn of its history — economic freedom and political freedom.” In the political dimension, anarchism can further be understood as a radical implementation of democracy — direct democracy — without legislative representation or professional administration, in which every member participates in the collective process of free self-governance.
In 1925 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote that, “Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force.”.. Mikhail Bakunin put it succinctly when he wrote that, “Who says state necessarily says domination and, consequently, slavery; a state without slavery, declared or concealed, is inconceivable; this is why we are enemies of the state”, in perfect agreement with Malatesta, using the word government in place of state, who writes, “There can be no doubt that the anarchist idea, denying government, is by its very nature opposed to violence, which is the essence of every authoritarian system — the mode of action of every government”.
For most anarchist communists, from Kropotkin to Malatesta, Hatta Shuzo, Murray Bookchin, and Ichikawa Hakugen, anarchist “governance”, or political-economic coordination and cooperation, would naturally assume the form of communalism, in which small democratic units, perhaps on the scale of blocks, neighborhoods, or villages, called “communes” (after the radical councils of the Paris Commune) would form the primary decision making bodies of society. These communes, rather than existing as completely autonomous, competitive states in miniature, are themselves interconnected with countless other decision making bodies in a great confederation, where information can be shared, mutual support sought, and important issues affecting all of the people in a given area can be deliberated. These confederal organizations would themselves lack executive decision making power, referring all matters of importance back to the communes for further deliberation and decision making.
The communes of an anarchist society would also coordinate economic activity. The basic difference between a capitalist and a communist economy is the purpose of productive activity. In capitalism, production is carried out for the sake of profit accumulation, and thus an increase in competitive power relative to others, on the part of the owners of the means of production, such as land, machinery, or patents. Communism, on the other hand, is production according to the needs of consumers, with the means of production, as well as their products, being shared and worked among all according to their various needs and their ability to contribute to the productive process. For Kropotkin, communism additionally means a society which has abolished money, markets (buying and selling of commodities, not necessarily simple trade, free exchange, etc.), debt, wealth inequality, inheritance, rent, private property, and commodity production (for the sake of selling and profit) entirely. It is, in its pure form, the economy put to work to satisfy any and all human needs by the most ethical, ecological and equitable means possible.
Capitalism relies on wage labor, often underwritten with slavery and the unpaid domestic labor of women. Communism, in its libertarian sense, abolishes wage labor, slavery, and domestic servitude, and for many theorists, the concept of “work” entirely, to be replaced with voluntarily contributed labor for the sake of producing what everyone needs and desires. At its most utopian, communists reimagine work as a form of play, creativity, and communal care for oneself and others. Without wage incentives or social coercion, the most unpleasant kinds of jobs would go one of two ways: unpleasant and unnecessary work would simply not get done (for example, work at call centers, giant factories, and police departments); unpleasant but necessary work (sanitation, health care, mining) can be dealt with in a variety of creative ways which reduce the time and effort each person needs to put into them. Some jobs which require minimal training or occur only for a limited time can be assigned by lottery, so that nobody is stuck in them longer than they want to be. Others, like mining and industrial manufacturing, can be mostly automated, and hopefully, minimized or eliminated beyond what is necessary to support the needs of society. For so-called “skilled labor”, which requires specialization and more intensive training, there really is no shortage of people willing to do this work. If we freed up the majority of humanity from long, thoughtless toil, and provided free, accessible education to all, nobody, from doctors to farmers, would need to work all that much. As it stands today, many more people want to work in specialized fields than are able to get jobs or training. The money is certainly an incentive, but if money were not an issue for anyone, people would still want to pursue all kinds of interesting and meaningful work.
From a Buddhist perspective, a fully communist economy would mean the near-universal satisfaction of Right Livelihood, a crucial feature of the Buddha’s eight-part path to Enlightenment. Traditionally, examples of wrong livelihood are professions which harm and exploit humans or animals directly and indirectly, such as arms dealing, slave trading, slaughtering animals or selling harmful drugs and poisons. This list could easily be extended. The point is that within an economy democratically governed by the needs and wants of workers and consumers, ethical principles become an intrinsic part of the discussion, a discussion which everyone has an equal and fair say in. Today we are urged to make capitalism more ethical by “voting” with our dollars. But a dollar is not a vote, and it certainly isn’t a fair vote when a small percentage of people have more “votes” than everyone else on Earth combined.
The result of attaining an improvement in human economic and political freedom is said to be a social situation not totally devoid of difficulty and conflict, but one in which the primary anxieties of our times have been resolved, and the full creative potential of each human being has a greater chance to become actualized. As Hatta Shuo put it, anarchist communism would not be a world of dour conformity and labor, but a relaxed, easygoing world “full of poetry and song”. Kropotkin wrote, “Communism is the best basis for individual development and freedom; not that individualism which drives man to the war of each against all — this is the only one known up till now, — but that which represents the full expansion of man’s faculties, the superior development of what is original in him, the greatest fruitfulness of intelligence, feeling and will.”
Freedom itself has many expressions, as we have learned. In addition to the horizontal and vertical dimensions described by Hakugen, it has positive and negative expressions. These are expressed as freedom from things and freedom to do things. Freedom from exploitation at work or at home, for example, or freedom from military conscription, racism, or any other kind of discrimination. These form a complementary whole with positive freedoms, which describe the freedom to do things as diverse as love who we wish to love, to express our true gender (or lack thereof), to have enough to eat, to have a safe and comfortable home to live in, and to feel happy, safe, and loved throughout our lives. To Kropotkin, this gestalt of positive and negative liberties can be summarized as “The “right to well-being for all”. To him, wellbeing means “the possibility of living like human beings, and of bringing up children to be members of a society better than ours”. For all its “radical” posture, anarchism, at its core, has some truly humble aspirations, not far off from what any of us would wish for the people we love. In fact, I would go so far as to say that love is a common, living thread which runs through both anarchism (or other secular humanist and socialist philosophies) and the heart of most religious philosophy. Neither express this core of love perfectly in their actions, but it is there nonetheless. One might say that love, while necessary, is insufficient for actualizing itself in society. Reason is, after all, the complementary “wing” to compassion, or love, by which the Buddha’s teachings are said to rely upon.
Despite being a philosophy which emphasizes negation, resistance, and rebellion, including the limited use of violence for the purposes of revolutionary change and self-defense, when it is at its best anarchism roots its praxis of opposition in love, for oneself, one’s community, and for all beings. Errico Malatesta was especially concerned with making this distinction known, once writing that “Hate does not produce love, and by hate one cannot remake the world.” Buddhists will notice a distinct similarity to verses 3-5 of the Dhammapada, uttered some 2,500 years earlier: “In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Some anarchists propose an absolute form of pacifism, standing against the use of all violence, both for and against revolution. Personally, I do not count myself among them, though I would be the first to admit that I abhor violence and sincerely hope that I never have to inflict any harm on any living creature. Absolute pacifism comes with its own moral dilemmas. It is certainly an admirable code to adopt for oneself, but becomes problematic when considering social questions. Most notably, the abstention from violence in a situation where one could have prevented a greater violence from taking place with the use of limited violence. Further, what counts as violence? Is the destruction of property violence? Is exploitation violence? What about the harm caused to future generations by ecological destruction, or to present generations of non-human life, for that matter? Is causing emotional or physical injury violence? Is violence only violence when it is potentially (or actually) lethal? Put simply, the anarchist position is that the highly constrained use of violence to stop greater violence, typically defined as physical or severe emotional harm done to another being by an oppressor within a relationship of unequal, hierarchical power. An anti-violence in support of peace, and an intolerance for the sake of tolerance is the anarchist way, broadly speaking. David Graeber summarizes the way out of the paradox of non-violence, writing, “While opposing injustice nonviolently… is always morally superior to opposing it violently, opposing injustice violently is still morally superior to doing nothing to oppose it at all.” This is, perhaps surprisingly to some, quite similar to the Buddhist conception of acceptable and unacceptable violence. Both, for example, unequivocally reject war, though in both cases, various figures have found ways of articulating causes which justify war anyways. Even assasination is something of a grey area. Many notable right-wing terrorists in 20th century Japan were motivated by Buddhist doctrine and their own personal experiences of insight. Anarchism, of course, has been more famously associated with high profile assassinations of politicians, nobility, police and capitalists around the world, however, it is my opinion, shared by many other anarchists, that these were largely ineffective, and most often harmful to the success of the movement, alienating the public and drawing severe state repression. Clearly violence is not a black and white issue for most. It is a qualitative concern, which ethical precepts and moral commandments can only help us respond to when confronted with it. To yet again quote Malatesta, who so eloquently intervened in 20th century anarchist debates on the question of revolutionary violence, “Since revolution, by force of circumstance, is a violent act it tends to develop the spirit of violence rather than destroy it. But the revolution conducted as conceived by anarchists is the least violent possible; it seeks to stop all violence as soon as the need to oppose, by force, the material force of the government and the bourgeoisie ceases. The anarchist ideal is to have a society in which the violence factor would have completely disappeared and this ideal serves to halt, correct and destroy this spirit of violence that the revolution, as a material act, would have the tendency to develop.”
Anarchist communists propose social revolution, as opposed to political revolution or reform. What this means is that the goal of revolutionary activity is not to transform or take over existing political structures, but to revolutionize and radicalize society itself against these political institutions. The State, as a whole, allied with capitalism, has throughout history appropriated functions which used to be carried out democratically through social institutions. By taking over these functions, such as policy making, administration, defense and dispute arbitration, the state has gradually deprived society of its functionality and autonomy and has simultaneously legitimized its own continued rule, to the extent where today we can hardly imagine a world where these functions are not controlled by bureaucratic elites. However, for much of human history, this was not the case. Social revolution is in part the process of taking this power back for ourselves.
Most anarchists in history have worked within social movements to carry out their revolutionary activity. Most famously, the global labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries served as its principal vector. Some anarchists have maintained that the labor movement should be the only social movement worthy of revolutionary engagement. Anarchist communists have typically disagreed with this notion, choosing instead to participate in a broad range of social movements which challenge the oppressive power of capitalism and the state. Anarchist feminism (also known as anarcha-feminism) has been an influential tendency in this regard, because not only does it challenge dominant political and economic systems, but also directly attacks patriarchy, arguably an older and more deeply rooted form of oppression which is itself integral to the power of capitalism and the state.
This strategy of radicalizing social movements, uniting them, and urging them towards social revolution, has been most thoroughly developed by anarchists in South America, who typically refer to it as social insertion. This theory, popularly known as especifismo (which translates poorly to English as “specific-ism”) proposes that anarchists think about revolution on two levels; primarily, as it takes place within the social level, a concrete conception of society, all social movements, and people of all political orientations, acting together and against each other in complex ways; secondly, a “political level”, where ideology, strategy, and more abstract concerns are the primary focus. To act most effectively, the especifistas suggest that anarchists organize themselves on the political level, forming organizations with clear lines of ideological, strategic, and tactical unity, thus maximizing the power of their shared vision and hopefully minimizing ideological conflicts in the more concrete realm of social movements, which by nature must concern themselves with people’s material issues more than abstract theories. This is conceived of by them as a strategy of dual organization, with anarchist activity taking place on both levels, but separated into concrete social insertion work, helping social movements which challenge the status quo to achieve their own goals and hopefully radicalizing them in the process, and work within the political level to carry out educational work supporting anarchist militancy, coordinate anarchist activity across many social movements, and create new theory which reflects the experiences and learning of anarchists engaged in real social movements.
Now, why have I gone to all the trouble of explaining this? What relevance does it have to Ichikawa Hakugen and anarchist Buddhism? You may be able to guess where I’m going with this.
Religions are, essentially, social movements. They are not usually the sort which focus on the material needs of people, but on their social, emotional, and spiritual needs (often to the detriment of their material well being). Because of this, the anarchist stance on religion has mostly ranged from the neutral to the downright hostile. Considering the role religious institutions have played in the suppression of revolutionary social movements, this is not at all surprising. But, while people’s inner needs continue to go unmet, religions will continue to take advantage of that fact, for better or for worse. Thus, it stands to reason that anarchists should consider these needs among the concrete issues which they should support through their social revolutionary work. In other words, without a praxis of vertical freedom, anarchist efforts at developing a horizontal freedom, in Hakugen’s terms, may be significantly hindered. From a purely secular anarchist perspective, social insertion and intervention into religious/spiritual movements and discourses from within is strategically viable. Defensively, it mounts a challenge to the conservative nature of religious institutions and beliefs, and gives religious followers ideological tools they may need to resist the growth of religious tyranny, ignorance, and bigotry. Offensively, it gives anarchist practices and beliefs grounding in a movement where positive traits such as personal virtue, love, kindness, mutual aid, communal relations, introspection, and social-emotional wellbeing are prioritized. These are all traits which anarchists ought to develop regardless of religious affiliation, and ones which it stands to develop in by engagement with religious movements that practice them.
For Hakugen, Buddhist social ethics necessarily take the form of anarchist-communism not only because Buddhism generally lacks a robust social ethical worldview, but because it is within relations of anarchist communism, in other words, in a free, caring, open, and rational society, that the best religious values can find their fullest and freest expression. Hence, religious people, as well as revolutionaries, can find common cause to support this strategy.
So, if, for example, following Ichikawa Hakugen, anarchist Buddhists were to turn the focus of their critique towards their own beliefs and faith communities, what might this do to change Buddhism?
Radicalizing the Dharma
First of all, the anarchist critique calls into question traditional clerical hierarchies and dogmas, as well as political alliances between Buddhism and the ruling class. Further, it forces Buddhism to confront long-avoided questions of materiality, justice, and history, and in doing so, helps break free of the static, reductive, myopia common to most religions, which obsesses over the performance of ritual and the nature of the non-dual, the ultimate, the divine, the mystical, etc, and brings this back into dialogue with Emptiness as Form. In Buddhism, anarchism would also help to destabilize traditional teacher-student, male-female, and monastic-lay hierarchies which run throughout the community, privileging certain people and often enabling them to abuse others. This in turn alters traditional forms of practice, which rely on hierarchical knowledge transmission and indoctrination, to be potentially more collaborative, discursive, democratic, and politicized. Changing practice norms in this way turns Buddhist communities as whole towards the world, opposing entrenched anti-intellectualism and passivity towards injustice, producing practitioners shaped by a more active and thoughtful participation in social, economic, political and ecological issues. Finally, one might hope that an anarchist communist perspective in Buddhism will be able to more effectively criticize and delegitimize the neoliberal appropriation of Buddhism as corporate mcmindfulness and commodification. When the Dharma has been appropriated, the anarchist thing to do is to expropriate. In this case, anarchist Buddhists would seek to expropriate a practice and ethos of mindfulness which is fantastically good at reshaping subjectivities, taking it from the hands of capitalists, and reshape it into something which supports political resistance instead of acceptance, democratic leisure time instead of reproduction of unfree labor, happiness over productivity, self-expression over conformity, and concern for community instead of competition, overwork, narcissism, and solipsism.
According to Ron Purser, author of McMindfulness, “A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct…The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.“
The anarchy of enlightenment
Something else which Hakugen’s anarchist critique calls on Buddhism to question, something which aims a critical scalpel at its very core, is the critique of Buddhism’s sacred touchstone: the validity of “enlightenment” (Bodhi), ”wisdom” (prajna), and any authority which it might confer on someone.
What is Buddhism without enlightenment? Such a religion would be a walking contradiction, as the Buddha is said to have remarked, “I teach one thing, and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering”, or, in other words, enlightenment and the practice which leads to it, in the form of ethics, meditation, and critical insight.
A clear, common definition of enlightenment is not easily found between the diverse Buddhist schools of thought. Is it a trait, a state, or mystical attainment? Is it expressible in words or actions? Is it necessarily ethical and social, or is it individualistic, beyond good, evil, and discriminating reason? Does it confer magical powers and psychedelic insights into the cosmos, or is it a more mundane understanding of the way of human happiness, akin to Aristotle’s eudaimonia? Answering such a huge question as “what is Buddhist enlightenment” is far beyond the scope of this essay, as well as my own experience, but thankfully, scholar Dale S. Wright has written a very fine book (with the same title as my question) on just this topic, insights from which I will draw from.
In this book, Wright describes a typology of enlightenments, and puts forward the view that enlightenment differs from person to person, and is conditioned by the relations which produced it in any particular person. Enlightenment is fantastically diverse, according to Wright. If a common thread could be said to exist, I would offer that it is a knowledge, a practice, and a way of being which satisfies the Buddha’s criteria of wisdom which leads to an understanding of dukkha, the causes of dukkha, and the annihilation of dukkha. The Buddha similarly offered as criteria for judging someone’s enlightenment, an observation of their behavior, and the degree to which that person expresses positive traits, such as kindness towards others, in accordance with Buddhist ethics, and ceases to perform negative, harmful behaviors.
This is all well and good, until we look at the actual history of supposedly enlightened persons. For many, their behavior was far from ethical, and certainly imperfect. Hakugen’s entire anti-fascist critique was leveled against generations of Zen masters who, arguably, had attained to the enlightenment offered by their traditions, but who chose, in light of their ideological and material positions in society, to support, and even to carry out, extreme violence, in the forms of terrorism, rape, racism, imperialism, fascism and war. Similarly, the convert tradition of Western Buddhism has been plagued by sexual abuse, usually of students by teachers and others in positions of authority, from teachers both Asian and Western, and often downplayed, rationalized, or covered up on the grounds of these leader’s supposedly ineffable, enlightened, “crazy wisdom”. Could it be that these people were not properly enlightened? Or is it enlightenment itself which is found lacking?
In regards to Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, singled out by Hakugen and Victoria for his imperialist and racist views, his student Bodhin Kjolhede, abbot of the Rochester Zen Center, has written, “They took over half a century to reach us, but the revelations about Yasutani Roshi, like a long-range missile launched from the other side of the world, have hit the Western Zen community hard. The chief casualty: The Enlightened Person. Good riddance! Maybe now we can get out from his or her shadow and see that there has never been an Enlightened Person. There are only enlightened activities—that is, activities (or words, or thoughts) that do or don’t reflect a direct experience of the nondual nature of reality.”
Another famous American student of Yasutani, Bernie Glassman Roshi, founder of the Zen Peacemakers organization, responded to Victoria’s criticism by saying “if we truly see that we are all One Body, then that One Body includes enlightenment and it includes delusion. It includes everything. To understand the One Body, think of a circle. There can be nothing outside that circle. If there is one thing that you can think of that is outside that circle, one delusion that you cannot permit inside that circle, then I suggest that you change your definition of the circle to include that one thing as well. So if your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no anti-Semitism in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment. If your definition of enlightenment is that there’s no nationalism, or militarism, or bigotry in the state of enlightenment, you better change your definition of enlightenment. For the state of enlightenment is maha, the circle with no inside and no outside, not even a circle, just the pulsating of life everywhere.”
One could view these responses in two ways. On one hand, both resort to an argument from the “ultimate” truth of enlightenment, which, being non-dual, includes and negates all categories, including good, evil, delusion, and enlightenment. This may be true from the perspective of the whole, and certainly represents an authentically Zen response to the problem of evil. But, on the other hand, how is it significantly different from any other spiritual cop-out? Could this be seen as Zen once again attempting to evade responsibility for its own ideology and its impact on real humans, enmeshed in the movements of material history? I am inclined to agree with Kjolhede that we, as a community, ought to bid adieu to our notion of an Enlightened Person, but not to enlightenment as such. However, I cannot, as an anarchist, and in light of Hakugen’s thinking, agree to accept oppression as just another part of the expression of non-dual knowledge, or the “pulsating of life everywhere.” It is true that these dualities form an organic whole, and experience relationship of movement and contradiction between universals and particulars, but as human beings we cannot forsake our ability to discriminate dualistically, and to mediate our actions through ethically grounded ideologies and opinions. Even in the light of Zen’s claim to ultimate wisdom, not all actions are permissible, not all beliefs are equally good, and not all actions are equally just. The Zen tradition may have downplayed this, but the Buddha’s own words are quite clear on the matter: “Be quick to do good; restrain the mind from evil.”
The word Enlightenment as a translation for the Sanskrit word bodhi, like all translations, is not exact, and as English speakers, its usage mediates our understanding of bodhi. Some prefer to use the word awakening instead, but, as monk and translator Bikkhu Bodhi points out in an article for Tricycle Magazine, although the meaning of blossoming or awakening are secondary meanings for the root word buddh, the primary grammatical usages of bodhi which are used in reference to the Buddha almost exclusively mean “to know” and “to understand”. So, from this perspective, enlightenment is not merely awakening to a realer reality, piercing the veil of perception, unplugging from the matrix, or experiencing union with all phenomena, but is a cultivation of practical wisdom leading to specific psychological and ethical ends. Someone who has acquired this knowledge is called a buddha, or one who knows, which implies that such a person also knows about matters such as telling right from wrong, up from down, and so on, and is not just a person constantly blissed out in a parallel world of mystical non-duality. If enlightenment is to be judged according to ethical standards, it stands to reason that it must itself be primarily ethical in content. Buddhism has many beautiful and rich seams of mysticism which ornament it, but at times these mystical paths have placed themselves above more mundane ways of expressing liberation, to the detriment of the religion as a whole. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, like Hakugen, affirmed the importance of the mundane in relation to the mystical when he wrote, “A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics. No other standard would have any meaning if religion is held to be necessary good for the wellbeing of the people.”
This focus on the ethical and rational expression of bodhi, with or without a mystical experience to underpin it, lends itself well to the decision to translate bodhi as enlightenment, with its parallels to Kant and the modern philosophical tradition, which identifies enlightenment with qualities of maturity, independence, equality, honesty, critical thought, and the political values of the age of revolutions, most famously, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Perhaps, by taking in the contradictions and diversity inherent in Buddhist enlightenment experiences, we can come to a more mature and ethical understanding of religious liberation which is self-conscious and self-critical enough to take responsibility for the many unexamined and deeply rooted evils within the traditions of Buddhism.
As for anarchism, it offers a relatively practical way of approaching the problems of enlightenment and authority. Mikhail Bakunin once famously wrote, in response to criticisms that anarchists were against all authority, to the degree that they believed in cobblers dictating to doctors how to perform surgery and other absurdities, that he conceded to the bootmaker authority over matters pertaining to making boots, to the doctor the matter of medical diagnoses and surgery, and to the engineer authority over designing safe buildings. What he refused to concede, however, was that any person’s authority or expertise gave them the right to rule over, dominate, or control other people, in other words, hierarchical authority. So, for Buddhists, this makes it relatively simple to institute practices which limit the authority of the enlightened to what their knowledge actually pertains to, i.e. cultivating the knowledge which leads to freedom from dukkha. Japanese priest Shinran, founder of the Jodo-Shin sect, taking this principle to an admirable extreme, once wrote that in his long and illustrious career as a teacher, had not ever had a single “follower”, only a variety of companions and friends on the path of liberation who freely chose to associate themselves with him. His would be a wise example for modern Buddhist communities to learn from.
If enlightenment, or at least its expression, is conditional, then it follows that the kind of practices which one undertakes and ideas one engages with on the path towards it condition what sort of enlightenment one might arrive at. I would go even further in saying that those practices, or means, are of equal importance to their ends. In other words, in practicing Buddhism, we must prefigure the kind of Buddha we would like to become. Even if everyone on Earth realized the same classical, generic, enlightenment it would not be sufficient for creating a just society, because these enlightenments would be realized in a variety of contexts, leading to more or less hierarchical, and therefore more or less potentially harmful enlightened actions. It would then follow that Hakugen’s prescription of a Buddhism which practices Sunya Anarchist communism would condition and lead an anarchist communist expression of enlightenment, a democratized or communalized enlightenment for the people, a post-scarcity Buddhism which seeks the greatest realization of horizontal and vertical liberties within a social ethics of wellbeing for all. It would further indicate an acceptance of a diversity of enlightenments, echoing the irreducible whole of unity-in-diversity, or, as the indigenous-libertarian-socialist Zapatista movement of southern Mexico frames their ideal society, a “world where many worlds fit”.
It is equally important, for anarchism as well as for Buddhism, for there to be goals towards which we can orient ourselves. An anarchism without a utopian social vision to reach towards would be as pointless as a Buddhism without the promise of enlightenment. The point, however, is less to reach a final goal, but merely to cause us to move towards an ever expanding horizon of freedom, which recedes two steps for every step we take forward.
A Sangha where many Sanghas fit
These currents are already at work within the modern Buddhist movement. Intentional, strategic, collective, anarchist intervention in these discourses, communities and practices could only accelerate this process. Anarchist communism, as a social ethic, necessarily enhances Buddhism’s ability to be socially ethical, within communities and as collectives exerting social force by giving an extended set of ethical axioms, heuristics, and practices to determine right and wrong actions in complex modern contexts of justice, conflict and oppression. In return Buddhist philosophy and practice extends the anarchist critique of hierarchy to examine hierarchy’s rootedness in the mind more directly, which in turn supports the development of political militancy in people who have seen through more of their “stuff”. Done right, this may also help people practice a form of mental self-defense against the tentacles of the attention economy, depression-capitalism, statist spectacle, and hypernormalisation. This potentially expands the praxis of anarchism to dimensions it has infrequently ventured into, and better equips it to fight for an expanded range of human needs and desires beyond the material concerns of “bread for oneself”. This would mean to definitively put philosophy and religious practice to work in service of the people. As Marx once wrote, “philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy”.
Practically speaking, for Buddhist anarchists this outward activity would take place on two fronts: on one hand, radicalizing Buddhism through discursive interventions, in the form of critiques, debates and other actions to disrupt the hegemony of mainstream ideology within Buddhist spaces; on the other, connecting Buddhist spaces to the class struggle more directly by participating in it and strategically getting faith communities one may be a part of more closely involved. Together, this brings Buddhism as a whole closer to the class struggle while reforming its internal ideologies through concrete action and learning on the part of all participants, without the need to convert many people or groups to fully adopt any particular ideology, including anarchism.
So, considering all of these possibilities, what are some practical courses of action to take for radical Buddhists inspired by Ichikawa Hakugen’s ideas? These are again only speculative, but to speculate more accurately, we have to consider the diversity of contextual applications Hakugen’s thought might have. Buddhism itself is incredibly internally diverse, and it is unlikely any one strategy would apply to all political contexts, sects, issues, or cultures. So, I’d like to attempt to consider a few, based on my limited understanding of this diversity, from my own constrained perspective. These range in content from the highly specific, applied to regional, communal and individual contexts, to more general ones which can be found in most Buddhist communities.
The first, most direct modern application of Hakugen’s anti-fascist critique which comes to mind is currently in southeast asia, where Theravada Buddhism is the religion of the majority and has close ties to state and corporate interests. Here, Hakugen’s anarchist critique of Buddhism for its collaboration with government, nationalism and war might be used to weaken these relationships and combat the rise of authoritarian nationalism which deploys Buddhist identity as a major strategy for stoking fears and mobilizing communal violence against non-Buddhist minorities. For anarchists in countries like Thailand, Myanmar, or Sri Lanka, this may be a viable tactic to deal with religious problems, one which exploits Buddhism’s mainstream appeal, both to weaken reactionary forces within it and to draw and radicalize new supporters from within its ranks, whether or not any particular militant identifies with the religion or not. If they do, it may further support them by providing a theoretical lens for understanding the struggles of their own faith, culture, and positionality more deeply. If nothing else, a more liberatory alternative to mainstream Buddhism may help some people break free of the political conditioning which comes as part of the standard religious worldview.
In India and other nearby caste-dominated nations such as Nepal and Bangladesh, the situation is again different. Buddhists are once again a minority, but a uniquely politicized minority. The majority of Indian Buddhists today are followers of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who explicitly interpreted Buddhism as a practice of social revolution against Brahmanism. Most of these Buddhists identify as Dalit, and thus experience extreme discrimination and economic exploitation within Indian society. These Buddhists, due to their unique place within the class struggle, have an intimate understanding of class struggle and religious ideology, one which we in the rest of the world should be studying closely. If anarchism were to add anything to their practice, it may offer alternative political strategies to corrupt party politics and the fallacies of electoral social democracy which captures much of the movement’s energy today. A Dalit Buddhist anarchism may strengthen the movement to abolish caste hierarchy by promoting intercommunal self-determination, federation, feminism, solidarity, social ecology, and direct democracy. Because the problem of caste is so deeply embedded in social relations, it relies less on the state than other forms of oppression, like capitalism. In fact, caste discrimination is explicitly prohibited according to the Indian constitution, but because caste is still a social reality, laws against it are inconsistently and rarely enforced. In such a case, the only thing which can finally annihilate caste is an explicitly social revolution. This sort of revolution is what the methods of anarchism are specialized to assist with. In this, anarchism shares a common goal and compatible means with Dr. Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism, which is far more politically radical in its aims and methods than most other forms of Engaged Buddhism. It is the Dalit movement, above all other modern Buddhist movements, which has the greatest social revolutionary potential. Therefore anarchists and radical Buddhists of all stripes should support it, engage in it, propagate it, and learn from it.
In East Asia, Buddhists occupy yet another social position, representing a formerly hegemonic but rapidly declining religious institution with close historical ties to the state and capitalism. Anarchists within this context might go a couple of different ways. For one, they may seize on the recent surge in the popularity of anti-work politics, known in China as the “lying down movement”, which represents a refusal on the part of many young people to participate in the hyper exploitative and competitive labor market, and instead prioritize frugality, happiness and leisure time. Many from this movement have actually come to the conclusion that their goals might be best accomplished by becoming Buddhist monks. Additionally, it may make sense to join in the so-called “Milk Tea Alliance” against authoritarian governments in the region, particularly as the CCP expands its spheres of influence and continues to threaten basic civil freedoms of people within and near China. Finally, they might draw on the consistent currents of rebellion in East Asian Buddhist history, such as the many uprisings supposedly instigated by the millenarian White Lotus Society or the Ikko-Ikki against corrupt regimes to narrate a legacy of resistance which modern people can connect themselves to, and realize the critique against Buddhism made by its opponents in ancient China, who claimed that it threatened, by way of practices which rejected mainstream social ethics, to destroy the family, the economy, and the nation. It is also in East Asia where we find the greatest concentration of Buddhist anarchists from the classical period of anarchist history, between 1900 and 1920. The existence of these figures, such as Taixu in China, Han Yongun in Korea, Uchiyama Gudo, Seno’o Giro’o, and Ichikawa Hakugen in Japan, implies a rich history to be further studied, theorized, and built upon by contemporary activists.
In Europe, the nations of the British Commonwealth, and in the Americas, (or the so-called “West”) the primary target of Buddhist anarchist critique becomes neoliberal capitalism, mcmindfulness, white supremacy and the commodification of religion. Demographically, Buddhists make up about 1% of the population in these countries. Within this minority, about two thirds are first, second, and third generation immigrants, born and raised in Buddhist communities, carrying on diverse Buddhist traditions from their homelands. The remaining third are converts to Buddhism, though their numbers are growing rapidly. This convert population is primarily white, university-educated, and middle class. Paradoxically, it is this minority within a minority which has been overrepresented in global discourse on Buddhism since the late 1950’s, due to their privileged position, which gives them unequal access to money, publishing, leisure, and educational resources. I myself fall into this category, as no doubt will many of my readers. For those of us who find ourselves in this position and share similar political ideas, the move is to disrupt business-as-usual in the growing Buddhist community (or Buddhist industry, as some would have it become), to combat capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy within our ranks, and to build relationships of solidarity and mutual aid within and between our communities, particularly in support of Buddhists who are oppressed by white supremacy, for a mutual flourishing of the Dharma in what is sometimes, as a result of Christian dominance, white terrorism, and xenophobia, hostile territory to religious ideas outside the mainstream. Ultimately, all Buddhists in these contexts should be working towards building a supportive, inclusive, just, and socially active religious movement which is appropriate to the needs of all practitioners regardless of background or belief. Further, we should be linking up with the global Buddhist movement, nurturing a fierce spirit of internationalism and anti-imperialism, with the aim of doing away with the hegemony of nation states, with their wars, their walls, and their borders, forever.
As modern ideological tensions and divides intensify in relation to the contradictions of capitalism, Buddhists will also have to contend with an increase in right-wing sentiments within their own ranks. These, like the broader “alt-right” trend around the world, have arisen in reaction to both social and economic alienation and the victories, and thus increased social visibility and mobility, of minorities, particularly in regards to gender and sexual freedoms and the liberty of people of color and women. This is not to say that this alt-right turn is homogenously Anglophone, white, straight, cis, or male. This reaction is an international phenomenon which acts as a vehicle for a variety of nationalisms and ethnic chauvinisms, both in Asia and the West. And like much of the modern right, use of the internet and digital media technology has lead to the formation of decentralized communities which center around racial, caste, and male resentment, with significant overlap between Buddhist and conservative spaces, such as the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web”, which includes various Buddhist subreddits, podcast networks, blogs, and YouTube channels. The internet, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, is rapidly becoming a central site of Buddhist education and community building. Anarchists clearly have a responsibility to participate in this space, even if it means taking on the task of wading into the muck of the “Buddhist culture wars”, if only to stem the growth of extreme right wing beliefs, if not to complete the imaginary “post-modern neo-marxist” takeover of Buddhism which the alt-right feels so threatened by. Here, as in all of these spaces, theoretical and tactical unity will lend strength to radical critique and action within Buddhism, and concerted collective action, when undertaken by a small but vocal minority, is likely to have vastly disproportionate impact on the religion as a whole, even if its effects may be difficult to measure.
In general, anarchism brings to Buddhism a powerful critique of hierarchy, in the form of its historical anti-clericalism, and more deeply, of hierarchy as a hindrance to the growth of wisdom and compassion. Globally, we need to come together for the purpose of social revolution against the forces which oppress us as human beings, and most urgently, the looming ecological crisis, of which global warming is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As any Bodhisattva would agree, we are not free until all of us are free. Ichikawa Hakugen would add to this that freedom is not confined to spiritual freedom, but is actualized materially and historically. In his words, the true practice which leads to wellbeing, or peace-of-mind, for all, is realized by “creating and verifying itself in the practice of realizing peace and happiness of the world…In other words, peace of mind reveals and confirms itself in the act of constructing a new world through the dialogic tension of the Loka-dhatu in time and the Dharma-dhatu in eternity.”
Having practical work to undertake will be what makes or breaks Buddhist anarchism in the future. As Murray Bookchin, ever the insightful critic of Western Buddhism, once wrote, “The need to form social movements — so clear in the classical era of radical social thought — has been supplanted by the need to form encounter groups or ashrams for attaining Buddhist ‘enlightenment’.” This outlines the twofold task presented earlier: anarchist Buddhists must attempt to drag the wider Buddhist movement into contact with social movements, kicking and screaming if necessary, and to bring these social movements, with their critical insight and lived experiences of struggle against material injustices, into the very heart of sangha. Bookchin continues, “The need to address very real problems is replaced by an ambience of etherealization, ‘spiritualization’, and a new religiosity. New masks are added to a society that already thrives on its concealment from critical insight. The mask of exploitation that capital created, in Marx’s view, by ‘mysteriously’ appropriating the surplus labor of its working class and the fetishistic quality of the commodity has produced the commodification of humanity’s own ‘fetishes’ — its various belief systems, values, and symbols, which are now systematically marketed as cultural snake oil for remedying our grim social and personal pathologies.” Learning from Hakugen, we can further recognize the two axes of freedom human beings strive toward, the horizontal and the vertical. Thus our task is to bring them together in a dynamic, contradictory, creative unity, embodied in our very thoughts, words, and actions as we fight to remake ourselves and society. Buddhism survived and prospered in the past by billing itself as “Buddhism for the protection of the realm”. To revive and evolve its ethical life in the present it must become a “Buddhism for the fall of the regime”.