In this Very Life: Dzogchen & Anarchism with Wei Kang

In my study of Buddhist Anarchism, I have met many interesting and thoughtful people who share my interest in an expanded praxis of liberation. Among the most interesting and most thoughtful is the Twitter user @WeiKangWhite. I started following them very early on in my research, and have always been astounded by the depth of their knowledge, both in Buddhist and European philosophy. In fact, meeting and learning from people like Wei Kang is what has sustained this research project for just over a year now. I would not be able to stay motivated without supportive friends and community, and my insights on the topic would be limited by the smallness of my own perspective and experience. Sangha, or intentional community, is of the utmost importance to both Buddhists and anarchists (and of course to humans in general). Without it, we could scarcely survive, let alone learn and grow. Spaces of relationship in which we can find unity of theory and action are rare, precious, and truly worthy of the name “refuge”. The Buddha once said to his cousin Ananda that cultivating wholesome and supportive friendships is not part of, but is in fact the whole of spiritual life, and will lead one directly and swiftly to freedom.

Recently, while revising an essay, I found myself struggling with difficult philosophical concepts, and was left feeling shaken and ungrounded, doubting myself and my ability to complete this project. What I realized then is that it doesn’t have to just be me. There are actually so many people out there like my friend Wei Kang, with great ideas and great practice, who I can learn from, and who have amazing ideas which ought to be shared widely. Additionally, though the current time lacks famous people, movements, or organizations, we have each other: we have Sangha, and we have the unique opportunity to build peer-to-peer relationships through the internet that the historical figures I have written about would never have had. So, rather than trying to figure out exactly what Buddhist Anarchism is all by myself, why not step aside and shine the spotlight on others and ask them to define it from their own perspectives? Unity-in-diversity is a foundational value of Anarchist ethics. Why not try to build unity through dialogue, and develop theory out of the diversity of thought present in the tendency as it exists today? Doing interviews gives us a chance to get a clearer “people’s history” of Buddhist Anarchism, develop an autonomous ethnography of ideas and practice, and establish new primary sources for future generations to build upon which don’t rely as heavily on elitist histories, celebrities, and institutions. This has led me to begin a new phase of this research project: letting contemporary Buddhist Anarchists define Buddhist Anarchism in their own words. I have several interesting interviews prepared, and more on the way. I think that this addition to the project will complement its historical and theoretical features and hopefully complete it as a blog or a book.

Now that the introduction has been taken care of, I am grateful to be able to share my conversation with Wei Kang with you all in all its deep, provocative, and mind-blowing glory.

Vajra Flaying Knife

R: First of all, could you introduce yourself?

W: I go by either Wei Kang or Jigme. I’m a samsaric subject of SE Asia. Sometimes I translate Dzogchen texts into English. 

R: What are your primary areas of interest and research?

W: I’m currently working on something on the centrality of autonomy in Dzogchen thought. My research is a project to translate and discuss Dzogchen in the context of its syncretic roots as a trans-cultural phenomenon that sprang up in the ungovernable spaces between empires along the silk road, how it further came to be received in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions among the stateless peoples between the Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian empires. and beyond that, the various attempts to appropriate it into the normative political-theology of the Tibetan theocratic states and its ways of evading appropriation. Also, I think the communistic period of the Dzogchen universalist movement among the stateless people in the 19th century points to what Agamben is looking for in “the coming community”.

R: Where can I learn more about “the communistic period of the Dzogchen universalist movement among the stateless periods in the 19th century”? That sounds really fascinating.

W: The movement itself is usually transliterated into English as “rimé,” and Geoffrey Samuel’s book “civilized shamans” has some good info on it. However, many of the narratives circulating about the rimé are official narratives of monastic institutions that have an incentive to center monastic centers and their gurus as protagonists of these narratives, leaving out the participation of the non-Buddhist Bön shamanic tradition and the spontaneous tent communities called gar (adzom-gar, larung-gar, yachen-gar, etc). These narratives will try to portray it as a liberal non-sectarian movement between sects, instead of the indefinable, ungovernable groundswell that it was. Except for some of the gar, it exists today only in appropriated forms.

Regarding the rimé & anti-elitist Dzogchen or ungovernable/anarchist Dzogchen, there isn’t much written. It’s something I’m still slowly piecing together through conversations with old lamas and references in the biographies of some of these figures. The longchen nyingthik & dudjom tersar lineages are two surviving & still popular Dzogchen lineages that come from this period. They produced a number of Dzogchen writings intended specifically for the uneducated or non-scholars and founded a large number of non-monastic communes that are unfortunately mostly gone. It seems that much of the literary output of these communes was also lost. Though, the rimé itself seems to have its roots nearly a thousand years earlier during the “period of fragmentation” in which the Tibetan empire collapsed along with its monasteries, leaving a large unruly area in which Dzogchen communes first started appearing.

Dzogchen manuscript fragment

Can you tell us a little about Dzogchen? What are its practices and beliefs? What distinguishes it from other Buddhist schools? What complementarities do you find between Dzogchen and anarchist thought?

There are many different Dzogchens. Buddhist Dzogchens, non-Buddhist Dzogchens, such as the Dzogchen traditions of the Bön religious tradition. Some of these traditions use Dzogchen as part of a system for the production of norms. So in that way, it’s no different from any other religious tradition.

To speak about Dzogchen as an emancipatory project, it calls itself a view (lta-ba). One could also say perspective or way of seeing. Particularly, it’s the view of primordial liberation. Everything is seen (rig) as the unfolding efflorescence (rol) of vital potential (rtsal), of life. By reifying, concretizing, incarcerating this dynamic unfolding into a prison of subjects & objects, we construct samsara from our primordial liberation. Or, to put it another way, the prison we’re in isn’t a prison with walls. It’s a prison of conventions, norms, carceral modes of relating. Political, social & economic metaphysics are included in this.

The dzog (rdzogs) of Dzogchen has two meanings here. Because one’s liberation has always already been complete (rdzogs), one’s incarceration has already ended (rdzogs). Dzogchen has no method beyond recognizing this at a non-conceptual, unconstructed level, and it has no normative ethics beyond remaining free. One can remain free while drinking coffee, laying on the floor, writing an essay. Maybe it can even look like sitting in the lotus posture! It doesn’t matter. Freedom doesn’t look like anything in particular. Of course, prison needn’t look like anything in particular either…

So, because Dzogchen doesn’t believe that liberation can be constructed, it doesn’t have any methods for cultivating or constructing some sort of enlightened subject. It does, however, have certain strategies or modalities for diffusing one’s constructed subjectivity, for rendering its mode of production inoperative, but again, they don’t necessarily look like anything in particular. Freedom is not a technique.

Translation by WK: “In the sovereign time, the beginning-less, unbounded time, the past and the beginning are completely fulfilled. that one who fulfills is the self-knowing child.”

What are your main motivations for studying Buddhism/Dzogchen from an anarchist perspective?

W: Beyond the simplistic answer that I’m a former monastic and also an anarchist… I think Buddhism is anarchic in the literal sense of the word an-archy that its entire premise is to undermine arché – the notion of fundamental authority or an eternal source of being.

With regards to my personal history with Buddhism, I joined a monastery because at some point, my life had become unlivable. I left the monastery for the same reason.

I’m not particularly invested or interested in Buddhism or Anarchism as traditions, methods or modes of  historical & cultural production. Insofar as Buddhism, Anarchism, philosophy, theology, mysticism or whatever are read as pursuing an emancipatory project, I’m interested in them, and I think it’s fairly easy to see how they can be read sympathetically. Insofar as they’re read as normatizing projects and institutions, they would appear to be in competition, and honestly, I would want nothing to do with them.

My interest is in liberation, putting an end to the assembly line of samsaric production.

Could you say a little more about what you mean by “Buddhism, Anarchism, philosophy, theology, mysticism or whatever” as normatizing or emancipatory projects?

I don’t think “Buddhism, Anarchism, philosophy, theology, mysticism, or whatever” are responsible for creating life. They only interpret it. But these interpretations produce & reproduce certain social relations.

By normatizing I’m referring to something that reinforces established conventions or recreates them (replaces them, even) by replicating their underlying social relations. The implication of such a soteriological model based on social pieties would seem to be that one could be released from samsara on good behavior. Dubious. This is pure governmentality, the logic of samsara itself, of the state. Observance of the law will be rewarded.

Returning to the question, a manner of reading that attempts to establish or conform to regimes of thought has very little soteriological value to me. To that end, how we are reading something seems much more important to me than the question of what we are reading. Perhaps this also applies to actions more generally.

I like how you compare samsara to incarceration. Is this something that you drew from traditional sources or have developed on your own? How do you see this similarity playing out in practice, both in regards to samsaric emancipation and real-world abolitionist politics?  

Incarceration & liberation are intimately linked concepts. A general definition of liberation from the Dzogchen corpus is “to be released from outer & inner bondage”. Further, the battlefield of this struggle is “this very life”, “this very body”.

I wouldn’t differentiate samsara and what we might call the real world. Whether we use the concept of samsara or the panopticon, Mara or Hobbes’ Leviathan, karma or the economics of power, is not ultimately significant to me. We can be flexible with our nomenclature. The level or direction of discourse might be different, but cosmological sovereignty & juridical/political sovereignty share the same form. The function of this form is the flattening of our world, the strangulation of life. I mean to say that this deadening flatness is an imposition on what is indeterminate & vital. This is death without even needing to die. So, if I were to reduce my thinking of our predicament to merely theological or political reasoning, I would be beginning with a flattened world in order to seek out a flattened result. Much of the culture war discourse is exactly this.

Where I place my optimism in this is that Mara, the lord of life, death & rebirth, the sovereign of this world, the law of this world, is not a natural law.

What does emancipation look like to you?

From its own side, emancipation is fullness, indeterminacy, the unbounded potential. From my own side, the side of captivity, emancipation is irruption.

This irruption, which is called “cutting through” in the terminology of Dzogchen, is the process in which in that very place where there had once been a limited, captive subject, the fullness of life rushes in. To quote Landauer, “where life begins, systems end.”

Attempts at grasping, seizing, or conserving this life as though it were an object, a thing to capture & preserve somewhere, immediately reconstitutes the carceral apparatus, governmentality, the mode of relating that flattens life & keeps us bound. To paraphrase Longchenpa, “systems are like the secretions of silk worms that fetter the otherwise limitless tapestry of life.”

Beyond this, I’m not really interested in determining what emancipation looks like with regards to events or praxis. I’m reminded of something a mentor told me when I asked him about his meditation practice, “If the mind is inseparable from the view [of liberation], then there is no practice. Everything is the practice.” This is important for contemplative traditions like Buddhism that we don’t separate our view from our conduct, our being from our acting. We risk confusing emancipation with a kind of quietistic self-absorption under the guise of transcendence. 

I’m not interested in emancipation as transcendence. Returning to “this very body”, I want liberation in this very place. The place of our liberation is not different from the place of our incarceration. The difference is only that now life becomes livable.

WK’s translation: “some become in order to reject, some to repress, some to engage, some to purify, to affirm or deny… some reify things to reject, to repress, to overcome, to purify, to affirm/deny, to subjugate. those indoctrinated into cause & effect reify in this way.”

Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhism is often described as more hierarchical than other traditions. Do you find this view accurate? What does an anarchist approach lend to students of Vajrayana?

All Buddhist traditions & institutions are socially embedded in such a way that their primary function is the reproduction of social pieties. Whether they use the family unit, the monastic form, or the tantric cult as the primary vehicle of social reproduction is due to relative cultural difference, differences in norms, the particular flavour of pieties that a given group prefers.

Buddhism in a traditional milieu will be pious in a traditional manner. In a Liberal or Anarchic milieu, we shouldn’t be surprised if these pieties take on a Liberal or Anarchic complexion. Maybe this will make our imprisonment smoother, more tolerable! The question we should be asking ourselves is whether liberation can be built on the back of such pieties. Is liberation something we can construct through the cultivation of norms?  If we accumulate enough merit in the karmic economy, will we reach the next stage of being (utopia/buddhahood/Übermensch)?

I don’t think it’s cynical to suggest that we can’t buy our way out of prison with cigarettes & toilet wine, commodities of the prison economy.

You often reference European philosophers in your analysis. Which thinkers and ideas do you find most helpful for interpreting Buddhist thought? What specifically does their thought help you to do? What about Buddhist philosophers? Who do find your greatest affinities with?

Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Agamben, Gustav Landauer and various others have been helpful to me in thinking through Dzogchen outside of the Tibetan language, thinking through some of the Aristotelian, Cartesian, Kantian etc baggage present in the philosophical discourse of many European languages. I could also name the usual set of names with regards to Buddhist thinkers, but I take even greater inspiration from the proletarianization of Dzogchen leading up to the Rimé movement in the ungovernable borderlands between Tibet & China that made it accessible to the layperson, the uneducated, the illiterate, etc.

The point of using post-structuralist thinkers in the translation of Dzogchen comes from my dissatisfaction when I began to look at how Dzogchen was being translated outside of Tibetan, that the jargon being used was the result of colonial philologists, Jesuit missionaries, pop psychology, new age mysticism, and the uncritical application of the tradition of western metaphysics. Post-structuralist thinkers like Foucault who have questioned the authority of the world views that produce such language and thinking are naturally quite useful here. The relationship between Dzogchen and normative Buddhism is also similar to the relationship between post-structuralism and the western metaphysical tradition. It is a critical deconstruction aiming at a radical reinterpretation away from the authority of institutions (monasteries), pedagogy (lamas/gurus), praxis divorced from philosophy (ritualism), etc.

What sorts of political and religious challenges do you see your community struggling with? What challenges do you think Buddhism itself will face as it spread globally?

Monastic technocrats have installed themselves as gatekeepers of liberation, which they reduce to spectacle and ritual. This is nothing new in the history of Buddhism. Spiritual experimentation & the social experimentation that often accompanies it has always been the work of the periphery, but with the increase of religious nationalism, the periphery is smaller than ever before.

Religious nationalism in Asia is not the exclusive domain of Hindutva.

One of my concerns with the spread of Buddhism is the way in which it seems to be spreading as Foucault terms a “technology of the self”, as a supplement to a liberal lifestyle that doesn’t challenge its worldview and not something that asks radical questions about our metaphysical and political being in the world. I think that’s one of my primary concerns in expressing Buddhism in the language of anarchy and vice versa.

You identify in your Twitter bio as a “generic Zomian”. For those not in the know, what is Zomia, and why do you identify with it? 

Generally, I’d recommend that those who are interested in radical politics outside of the paradigm of historical European leftism, read about the history and tactics of Zomia and marronage.

Zomia refers to the mountainous highland areas of Asia into which various peoples have historically escaped to avoid capture by & assimilation into the state apparatus of agrarian lowlands. While “Zomi” would be a more proper term to describe these historical peoples, I use the term “Zomian” to refer to a general ethos of autonomy based in the tactics of adaptability, ambiguity, inscrutability, illegibility, et cetera. This is an ethos that understands liberation not as something that aims to repair historical-political continuity and our place within it, but rather as the aim to remove ourselves from it. For example, within the prophetic cycles (gter skor) of the Tibetan borderlands, which amount to something like an indigenous “Zomian” literature, we find Dzogchen writings, guidebooks to “hidden lands” (for the sake of establishing Dzogchen communes) and “secret histories”. That is to say that we find intermixed, writings directly aimed at escaping samsara, writings intended for a more literal escape and writings aimed at escaping received historical subjectivity. A genuine desire for liberation should explore every avenue of escape.

My take on a common Dzochen symbol, which also uses the Tibetan letter A inside a circle

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