A friend of mine who teaches foreign language reminded me today of a curious problem in English. We don’t often take the time to understand what our compound words and prefixes do to the meaning of a term. For example, anarcho-communism is often used synonymously with anarchism, libertarian socialism and so on. However, the order of the words and hyphenation indicate that communism is the subject, and anarchism is the modifier. What kind of communism? Anarchist communism.
I run into similar problems when discussing buddhism and socialism/anarchism. Some people prefer “anarcho-buddhism”. I typically use buddhist anarchism. These concepts are similar but not identical. Like anarcho-communism, anarcho-buddhism implies a modification of buddhism by anarchism, a buddhism made more anarchic. As a project or an ideology I think this makes plenty of sense. What I am focusing on, however, is buddhist anarchism. Here, the modification runs the other way. It is an anarchist praxis inflected with buddhist ideology. For the purposes of historical research, this works better.
As far as I know, at least until the mid 20th century, there have been few to no anarcho-buddhists. What there have been in relative abundance are buddhists who have participated in the anarchist movement. Necessarily this has colored both realms of ideological commitment, but the directionality is clear. I think that as a model for religious socialism in the present this also works more coherently. Anarchism is an ideology of action and buddhism one of contemplation. There are of course countless exceptions to this rule. But I think that when anarchism’s energy is directed inward, towards spiritual practice, it tends to lose its edge, just as a buddhism which is overly engaged with the world loses its. Engagement and contemplation form a dialectic, as can buddhism and anarchism, but in terms of strategy and specialization they are radically different. That said, when it comes to political action buddhism is better served by taking its cues from organized anarchism and socialism. From there it can lend its own unique flavor, bringing particular forms of contemplation, ethics, and insight into the class struggle.
To do the reverse, to “anarchize” buddhism, also has its merits, but can be at best a minor reformist movement within an already marginal religion. Better to let the insights of anarchism flow back into the dharma through a direct engagement with revolutionary theory and action.
To illustrate my point, we can study past buddhist anarchists like Uchiyama Gudo, Taixu, and Ichikawa Hakugen. All demonstrated a mix of Buddhist anarchism and anarcho-buddhism, to different degrees and measures of success.
Gudo, a low-ranking village priest, made little attempt at Japanese dharma reform, choosing instead to educate, agitate, and organize directly with rural workers, youth, and other socialists. The impact of his social work is difficult to measure, as was the aftermath of his trial and execution in 1911. In his writings Gudo saw harmony between an anarchist and a buddhist worldview, but did not try to force this synthesis further or create a new doctrine.
Taixu spent many years active as a writer in the socialist movement before burning out and returning to his dharma reform efforts. Some lingering anarchist influence can be felt in his reforms, which eventually inspired new popular movements within buddhism, but it can’t be properly called anarcho-buddhism.
Ichikawa spent most of his career critiquing Zen on one front and as an anti-war activist on the other. In between he engaged with the post-war anarchist movement, though the extent of his involvement is difficult to discern. Of the three he came closest to suggesting an anarcho-buddhism through his critique of japanese buddhist socialism, but his praxis retained an outward focus. He was more a critic than a reformer, but he was not above fighting for reforms on multiple fronts, from militarism to education.
Buddhist anarchism and anarcho- buddhism will probably continue to be used interchangeably, but I would like to advocate for buddhist anarchism, because it retains an appropriate separation of very distinct ideological traditions and kinds of praxis. This leaves enough room for diverse interpretations of both doctrines to flourish while allowing equally diverse mutual influence to occur naturally. We don’t need a new anarcho-buddhist dogma to argue over. Unlike anarcho-communism, anarcho-buddhism is not a coherent political and economic program with an established strategy for attaining its goal. It is at best an affinity or an intertwining of streams leading towards distinct but complementary forms of freedom.