What is Buddhism?
First of all, what is Buddhism? What do Buddhists believe, and what do they do? We all have our pop cultural references to rely on, but little garden statues, slogans, and self help books can’t possibly substitute for an understanding of the real thing, especially something as complex and diverse as a 2,600 year old syncretic religious tradition. Scholars of religion can barely agree upon what the word religion even means, let alone Buddhism. What we can agree on are a few items of common historical, theoretical, and practical similarity. All Buddhists share a common religious ancestor in the historical Buddha, a man named Siddhartha Gautama , who wandered the cities and countryside of the Gangetic plain (the North-east of modern day India and southern Nepal). Siddhartha discovered a praxis for overcoming the suffering once thought to be inherent to the human condition, with its birth, death, rebirth, and everything that comes in between. He then learned that he could teach this praxis to others, and that they could use it to free themselves. For the rest of his days Siddhartha the Buddha, or enlightened one, as he came to be known, wandered between the major cities of the region, preaching to various audiences in parks, palaces, stables, forests, and mountaintops, slowly gathering a community of students and supporters. This community would someday come to be called Buddhists, and the teachings they followed, Buddhism.
Following his death, the discourses of the Buddha became codified and memorized by a council of his students, and a religion began to form around them, embedding itself in the cultural life of many peoples as oral tradition, ritual, and myth. It evolved into corporate monastic bodies, universities, and innumerable localized splits, sects, and cults. It spread through the great trade routes of the Silk Road to South, Central, and East Asia, where it interacted with new cultures and ideas, transforming and being transformed by them, incorporating such diverse influences as Greco-Roman sculpture, Himalayan shamanism, Hindu cosmology, Taoist metaphysics and Confucian ethics. Cosmologically, Buddhists on the whole believe in the mechanics of karma, the relationship of causality to mentality, and rebirth, the popular idea that we do not live one, but infinitely many lives in innumerable kinds of bodies and circumstances. In modern times these beliefs have adapted themselves to modern cosmologies, but in many respects they remain unchanged since aron age India. Interestingly, because for Buddhists causality is beginningless and naturalized, the universe has no true creator or sovereign — it is a collective creation. Various gods, demons, and supernatural beings may play a part in this creation, but it is on the whole rather insignificant when compared to the potential of human beings. Hence Buddhism has a certain appeal to those disillusioned with both theism and atheism. Deities for the most part leave us to our own devices if we leave them to theirs.
There is a bias in the study of religions, of which I am often guilty, to privilege the authenticity of scriptural knowledge and clerical authority over the embodied, contextualized, and everyday experiences of believers in history. There is no Buddhism without a core doctrinal tradition, true, but even more so there is no Buddhism without the particular cultures, communities and persons that reproduce it. When I study Buddhism, I try to keep this dialectic in mind. Religion is what people who identify with that religion do, from the good to the bad, the ugly, and the downright contradictory. It is the movement, connection, and conflict between ideas and material reality which creates the “real” Buddhism.
With that being said, Buddhists generally agree on a few core ideas and practices, though probably not the ones most people think of. Not all Buddhists meditate, are vegetarians, peaceniks, sages, or even particularly nice people. We remain a resolutely human bunch. We do, though, share a reliance upon what are called in Buddhism the “three jewels” or three refuges (you will find Buddhists are rather fond of lists, usually in multiples of three or four): Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or teacher, teachings, and community.
Buddhists, then, following the teachings, find that our experience of the world inevitably includes stress and suffering. We all, no matter how blessed, will be faced with the pain of old age, sickness, death, and loss. Most of us find our reality suffused with a whole host of other misfortunes, from chronic depression, conflict, and poverty to war, racism, and discrimination. Buddhists believe that this suffering has causes located in our own minds, affective habits of greed, anger, and ignorance which keep us trapped in a prison of our own making, which intensifies and reifies the various pains we may experience in life into a seemingly inescapable existential condition. We want what gives us pleasure, we hate what gives us pain, but neither behavior can actually satisfy us, nevertheless we keep on grasping, thirsting, and craving for something to please put out the fire that burns us from within. Our ignorance of this fact, of our burning, is what keeps us running blindly through moment after moment, or life after life, reacting to this and that without finding an instant of lasting, true happiness. What the Buddha discovered in his meditations was a praxis of self-cultivation which steered people towards self-emancipation from their restlessness.
This prescriptive praxis is often formulated in Buddhist doctrine as the four noble or holy truths: suffering, the causes of suffering, the end of suffering, and the eightfold path to freedom from suffering. This path is composed of eight “right” factors, broadly categorized as ethics, wisdom, and contemplation, which when cultivated sufficiently lead one to realize enlightenment, and thus complete mental freedom from suffering.
Additionally, falling under the category of wisdom, are three characteristics of phenomenal reality taught by the Buddha which through contemplation directly challenge our conventional ideas about how we experience the world. The first is anitya or absolute impermanence; nothing at all stays the same, from atoms to thoughts and galaxies, all is in flux and flow, linked together by an infinite series of tangled causes and conditions. The second, even more challenging, follows from the first: anatman, or no-self; experience is impersonal. Anatta makes the claim that in the impermanent flow of experience nothing permanent and autonomous can be found, much less a governing entity we might call a soul or a self. What we call the self is in fact a process, a mental and social construct, which, while provisionally useful for survival, is without an ultimate self-essence, and which we have mistakenly taken to be something meaningfully real to be identified with. Finally (or perhaps first), there is dukkha, translated variously as suffering, stress, pain, anxiety, or in the negative formula of the three characteristics, imperfection, largely due to our wish to possess that which is impermanent and impersonal. All three of these characteristics define our phenomenal experience of existence, but all three can equally be contemplated as a door, or a dharma gate, to liberation.
Importantly for this essay, the three characteristics, when viewed as a whole, are roughly equivalent to the concept of śūnyatā, or emptiness. Accurately defining emptiness, already a difficult task, is made even more arduous by the fact that it has different meanings in different contexts, and is itself a dialectic, and thus an idea always in motion and relation to to other ideas, always willing to negate everything, even itself, and in doing so, generate countless interpretations and elaborations. In general, it can be said to be the application of impermanence, impersonality, and imperfection to reality itself. Emptiness itself has many facets which come into view depending on the angle of approach. One could say that being composed of and dependent upon everything that they are not, all things are interdependent: they inter-are. Further, although (or because) all things are conditional, changing, empty, and interdependent, they are exactly as they are, neither absolutely real nor absolutely annihilated, from which we get the concept or tathata, suchness, the just-being of emptiness-as-everything. Think about trying to distinguish waves from the water, or better yet sit for a while and watch some actual waves on the water and let your mind wander with them.
It is important here to stress that emptiness is not just nihility, though it bears a family resemblance , and that the goal of Buddhist philosophy is ultimately soteriology, or a theory of emancipation, rather than absolute truth itself. So in light of that, the impossibility of pinning down emptiness can also be explained by the suggestion that it is basically a reflection of experience, rather than an idea, and is thus interpreted and elaborated on variously according to the particular person’s experience of it; an idea which points one’s mind towards freedom, or what could be, rather than what merely is. This will be important later on, so don’t forget. Please also remember that being neither a scholar nor a Zen teacher, I am not here to have the final word on the topic of emptiness, so I will for the purposes of writing focus on its meaning to the story of Ichikawa Hakugen, myself, and the ways it has obstructed, advanced, and may yet illuminate anarchist thought. If you don’t get it yet, you’re in good company. Hopefully by returning to it we will begin to understand and to see.
My initial interest in Zen, and Buddhism more generally, came from two places in my life: therapy and literature. As a teenager, I saw a therapist for depression and anxiety who introduced me to clinical mindfulness meditation. I liked this so much that I began reading about it and practicing meditation in my free time. Around this time, I also began to read Beat writers. Through Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums, I learned about Gary Snyder, an American poet, essayist, environmental activist and unofficial missionary of Zen Buddhism to the American counterculture. Snyder, like me, grew up in Seattle, and lived for most of his life as a denizen of the Pacific Northwest of Turtle Island. In his writing I found a guide to a right relationship with nature and myself, with art, activism, and meditation as the medium.
However, Snyder did not limit himself to an aloof, aesthetic appreciation for life, divorced from questions of class struggle, social justice and ecology. His parents were woodworkers and members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union with roots in anarchist and Marxist theory. Snyder himself suffered discrimination during the Red Scare due to his membership in the Communist-lead Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. Unlike many classical Buddhist poets, who typically came from the elite strata of their societies, Snyder’s writing always addressed the material concerns of life as a working class writer and activist . Accordingly, he challenges the reader to contemplate the murkier sides of biology; to consider our materiality, both as organisms, concerned with death, decay, birth, food, shelter and sex, and as humans, with freedom, conflict, community, work, family, power, art, and play, and as a poet, to “let the shit fly”. With his own life as an experiment, Snyder sought to cut a trail towards spiritual, political and ecological revolution. I was captivated by this vision, and eager to practice it. Modeling myself after him, I took a summer trip to visit Japan, where I hiked the mountains, hitched rides across the country, slept rough or on borrowed couches, and immersed myself in a practice of open-hearted inquiry and generosity, without, as the Diamond Sutra says, regard for gift, giver, or recipient. I believe that it was this empty, open, and free attitude which eventually led me to adopt an explicitly anarchist ideology upon my return to the US, where I was once again immersed in the world of work, spending much of the next year as a day laborer and warehouse worker.
It was amidst this day to day drudgery that I finally came across two important political works, Gary Snyder’s short essay titled “Buddhist Anarchism” , written in 1961, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1974 anarchist science fiction novel The Dispossessed. Interestingly, both works make a kind of synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophy, with LeGuin drawing upon Daoism and Snyder upon Buddhism to mediate, and in both cases critique the blindspots of classical European anarchism. I may be an unusual case, but I have to conclude that ultimately it was Buddhism which led me to anarchism. For this reason it might be worth analyzing Snyder’s essay before getting to the star of our show, Ichikawa Hakugen. I also think that Snyder provides a useful foil and point of reference from which we can explore Hakugen’s more critical ideas.
In Buddhist Anarchism, Snyder sets up a basic dialectical relationship between social revolution and individual insight into emptiness, claiming that to fully emancipate ourselves and the world we need both. On this basis Snyder calls for a countercultural revolution of “committed disaffiliation”, or rejection of social hierarchy and conservative cultural norms, paired with meditative introspection, culminating in a practice which he calls “Buddhist Anarchism.”
Snyder’s basic premise is that, through Buddhist practice, we develop both “faith and insight”. From this certainty, compassion for all other beings arises naturally in the practitioner, and thus, they “must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change. While preferring non-violent tactics, Snyder admits that force may be necessary “if it comes to a matter of clobbering some rampaging redneck or shoving a scab off the pier.” He also includes certain progressive lifestyle choices, or positive freedoms of expression as part of Buddhist anarchist praxis, such as “Defending the right to smoke pot, eat peyote, be polygamous, polyandrous, or queer.”
Snyder calls for Buddhists to participate in acts of resistance, but resistance is itself something Buddhist doctrines and leaders have historically discouraged, instead advocating harmony, compromise, and moderation, if not support for outright class-warfare against the poor and the oppressed (unless Buddhists are the ones being oppressed). Snyder points this out himself, writing that “Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or support the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under.” To Snyder, this amounts to the spiritual “death” of Buddhism, because it lacks compassion. I am inclined to agree, but this fails to answer the contradictory “successes” of Buddhists who make such compromises with power. Buddhism, despite being popularly seen as more egalitarian than most faiths, is not exempt from the corrupting influence of concentrated political power.
For much of its history, Buddhism has aligned itself with the status quo rather than freedom, and continues to do so today, particularly where Buddhists constitute a majority of the population, and can thus exercise political power against minorities. It has been used throughout history to justify war, wealth, misogyny, and interpersonal abuse. But you wouldn’t think this from what most Buddhist leaders or writers say today. If anything, like Snyder’s Zen, Buddhism in America is often associated with the peripheries of society; counterculture, youth, students, immigrants, avant-garde artists, and the political left, broadly speaking . For many people on the margins of Asian history, Buddhism was an oppressive institutional force, much like the Christian Church in other parts of the world. However, much like Christianity, its history contains within itself seeds of an alternative approach to power . As a force for social change it cannot be discounted, even today. Buddhism, as with religion generally, can be assumed to be either radical or conservative to the degree with which its institutions are assimilated into the state and other hierarchical institutions of political and social authority.
It is undeniable that along with Christian, Daoist, Jewish, and Islamic anarchism, Buddhism has had an underground influence, moving between minds as a current which surfaces only occasionally, and has on the whole not organized itself enough to enter on the world stage in any materially significant way. Nevertheless, it persists, waiting, like a fruit on the vine, for the right conditions to ripen it. Since Snyder’s 1961 essay, certain writers and spiritual leaders continue to associate Buddhism with anarchism. For example, Robert Aitken, an American Zen master and co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, himself a studied anarchist, said in a 2006 speech that, “Buddhism is anarchism, after all, for anarchism is love, trust, selflessness and all those good Buddhist virtues including a total lack of imposition on another.” Others have taken the question in a more philosophical direction, including writer Zach Dorfman, who wrote for the Montreal Review that “If anything, a Buddhist politics of freedom may best be conceived of as a libertarian socialism of the mind, or an anarcho-syndicalism of the spirit.” For many people I talk to, Buddhism and Anarchism are a natural fit, and things are left at that. For others, like anarchist John Clark, it is even more anarchic than anarchy itself (!) More recently, a number of scholars have taken up the issue, from biographies of radical Buddhists in Asian history to critical examinations of Western Buddhist left politics against the Buddhist historical record of conservatism . All of this has been immensely helpful for understanding the context and history of Buddhist anarchism better, but as far as I have seen, the tendency still lacks theory, or the connection between beliefs and actions from which revolutionary moves can be made. Its persistence is driven more by the naive zeal of the convert than a sober assessment of its contradictions and the willingness to work through them. This theoretical gap is what made my discovery of Ichikawa Hakugen so personally significant. To theorize in this way requires more than enthusiasm or mere synthesis . Critique, especially, self-critique, is essential.
Nothing can come into being without history, and so you could say that this is a sort of history of ideas. But these ideas most definitely took material form throughout history, often much earlier than I had suspected. Confronted with the incoherence of western Buddhist Anarchism, I began searching for examples of Buddhist Anarchists in Asian history. To my great surprise, I discovered several, two of which had extensive work done on them in English. The first, Uchiyama Gudo, was a young priest in the Soto Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism who managed a rural temple, where he saw to the needs of a parish of impoverished and exploited tenant farmers. Rural poverty radicalized him, and he soon became friends with a circle of early Japanese anarchists in Tokyo, led by Kotoku Shusui and the staff of the Commoner’s News, a radical libertarian socialist paper which Gudo read avidly. In an article for Commoner’s News Gudo gave a brief sketch of his Buddhist-Anarchist socialism: “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.” Gudo began writing and printing pamphlets using a secret press hidden in the basement of his temple, one of which, “Anarchist-Communist Revolution”, was so inflammatory that he was arrested and imprisoned for merely daring to publish it. While in prison, a plot to assassinate the emperor was discovered (or concocted) among the anarchists in Kotoku’s circle. This was seen as a convenient excuse for the government to be rid of the lot of them, including Gudo and fellow Buddhist priests Takagi Kenmyo, Sasaki Dogen, and Mineo Setsudo. They were all convicted of high treason and hanged in 1911. This was not the death of Japanese (Buddhist) Anarchism, but it dealt a major blow.
Around the same time in China a young monk named Taixu had ventured to the city of Guangzhou in the hopes of establishing an organization for Buddhist educational reform. What he found instead was a city simmering with political tensions, agitated to near boiling by nationalism and an anarchist-led revolutionary worker’s movement. Taixu fell in with these organizations and began reading anarchist literature, particularly translations of the Russian Anarchist-Communist Peter Kropotkin. Taixu too saw an affinity between his religious and revolutionary faith, writing that “I came to see Anarchism and Buddhism as close companions, and as a possible advancement from Democratic Socialism.” In April of 1911, only three months after the High Treason Incident in Japan, revolution broke out in Guangzhou. Workers briefly took control of the city until Qing military forces could field reinforcements to crush the uprising and massacre the rebels. Taixu escaped the repression of Guangzhou and worked as an editor for the newspaper of the Chinese Socialist Party, active until 1913, where he wrote as a leading voice of the party’s libertarian socialist faction. The party was banned, split, and driven underground, eventually dwindling in membership until Taixu could no longer continue publishing. Following this defeat, Taixu turned away from revolutionary politics and returned to his original interest in Buddhist educational and organizational reform, where he would go on to have an enormous impact on the development of modern Buddhism in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, particularly the school of Engaged Buddhism championed by the Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
Following this thread of Buddhist anarchism through pirated academic papers and google-translated search terms eventually led me to discover the work of a relatively unknown Japanese Zen priest, writer, and activist named Ichikawa Hakugen. We will deal with his biography and philosophy in short order. What we need to know now is that Hakugen adds something unique to this story precisely because he was not a revolutionary martyr or high profile Buddhist leader. He always worked on the margins of movements, and from the relative safety of the margins was able to develop a sophisticated and critical theory of Buddhist Anarchism. His thinking lacks the reassuring confidence or simplicity of Gudo, Taixu, Snyder, or Aitken — it is much more ambiguous — but because he dared to deny simple synthesis, he provided me with the necessary push to dig deeper for answers to my questions (or questions to my answers)/
In Hakugen I also found a sense of comradeship. Unlike his predecessor Uchiyama Gudo, Hakugen was no martyr. In fact, he often described himself as a coward, as someone who knew the stakes and wished to do more, but found in the end that he couldn’t summon the strength to throw his life away for the sake of grand ideas. I think that fear, more than courage, and guilt, more than righteousness, is much more relatable to us who lack even a fighting station or a worthy cause to throw away our lives defending. Denied even the martyr’s death, we are left to make something of the life we have been condemned to. Much like Hakugen, in a time of difficulty, I too found my faith lacking, preferring to turn away and lick my wounds under the cold eye of the state. What does it mean for us to live on, witness to the horrors, complicit, yet powerless? Could we have done more to resist, or was our fate always to sit quietly and catalog the ashes?
- Siddhartha was born a citizen of a small tribal republic, the son of a nobleman who led the council, portrayed as a king in some stories, more of a president in others. None of the particular details of Siddhartha’s life are likely to be entirely true, but in religion a good story is even better than the truth. As the story goes, he became disillusioned with his life as a young man, because he was sheltered or because he was a political dissident, depending on who you believe, and left behind his property, status, and family to go seek enlightenment in the wilderness. He was by no means the only person doing this at the time. For decades a social movement of religious seekers dissatisfied with Brahmanical religious orthodoxy and animistic ritual had taken to the forests to find answers to the big questions, namely, “what is this?” and “what should I do about it?”. No two of them agreed, and they all loved to argue, so this led to a very lively and robust philosophical culture pervading the region, not unlike the fabled intellectual climate of ancient Greece. As a youth Siddhartha had learned from these half-naked philosophers, and now, in his moment of existential crisis, he had decided to become one of them. During his long stay in the wilderness Siddhartha studied with many teachers, learning techniques for meditative concentration and philosophical introspection, trying desperately to understand the problem of human suffering and our emancipation from it. Unsatisfied with the answers he found, he decided to give up other practices, and resolved to just sit under a tree until he either figured it out or died. Luckily for us, he seemed to have figured it out.
- Sunya, the root of sunyata, meaning empty, is the root of the English word zero, and has a long history of meaning voidness or nihility. However, we should not conceive of it as an absolute ontological nothingness, but rather a relationship between nothing and everything, as we will see as we go on. (Wikipedia: “The word zero came into the English language via French zéro from the Italian zero, a contraction of the Venetian zevero form of Italian zefiro via ṣafira or ṣifr. In pre-Islamic time the word ṣifr (Arabic صفر) had the meaning “empty”. Sifr evolved to mean zero when it was used to translate śūnya (Sanskrit: शून्य) from India. The first known English use of zero was in 1598.”)
- And unlike many of the Beats, his understanding of Eastern religion and philosophy was not superficial: he spent man years training at Myoshinji, an important Zen training temple in Kyoto, Japan
- Later revised and retitled “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”, and “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture” in subsequent publications.
- Subsequent writers in the tradition of Engaged Buddhism, particularly members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an American activist organization co-founded by Snyder, made gestures towards a Buddhist Anarchism#, but no practical theories or organized tendency emerged from this milieu. Despite their anarchism, being inclined towards passive resistance and reformism, these thinkers typically presented a version of Buddhism and social justice which was dominated by a liberal worldview, and thus liberal goals, strategy, and tactics. Conversely, in radical social spaces over the past twenty or thirty years, “spirituality” (but NOT religion), from neo-paganism to yoga, tarot, horoscopes and the new age, has become increasingly popular. This indicates an unmet need in the lives of these movement participants, but itself as a tendency often lacks a self-critical practice with which it can integrate a kaleidoscope of beliefs with a worldview seriously committed to social revolution, much less philosophical coherence. It accomplishes little, presenting a half-hearted approach to both spiritual and social liberation. Moreover, such eclectic views can often serve as an opening for conspiracy theory and right wing views into the left, including anti-semitism and other irrational beliefs — skepticism of vaccines and scientific medicine, to take but one example. It very rarely examines the ideology of spiritual worldviews which base themselves on cosmologies of domination and sovereignty. Is the continuing appeal of a “leftist spirituality” just a hip stance to take against the stodgy old bearded atheists of the leftist canon? Or does it point to a deeper need in people which the left has failed to understand and organize itself around, instead ceding vital ground to authoritarian religions and spiritual charlatans? Is this inward desire merely a return to the spiritual, subjective, individual, as our faith in the possibility of collective solutions to our problems fall apart?
- Ironically, this same anti-institutional role was at times played by Christianity in Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in Japan and Korea, where Chrisitian converts, who often experienced persecution for their faith, became instrumental to the birth of the socialist movement. Several prominent Japanese anarchists, including Hatta Shuzo and Ishikawa Sanshiro, were socialist Christians before becoming anarchists. Kotoku Shusui once complained that in early 1900’s Japan “People even go to the extreme of believing that “socialist” is synonymous with “Christian” (Crump). Like Socialism and radical Buddhist ministries, as with Uchiyama Gudo’s and Takagi Kenmyo’s temples, Christianity was for a time intimately connected with the struggles of workers and peasants in the countryside.
- Medieval Buddhism, much like Medieval Christainity and Islam, had a knack for spawning heretical proto-communist millenarian cults, many of which instigated riots and uprisings among the peasantry, leading in some cases to the overthrow of major dynasties and the establishment of de-facto autonomous regions run by assemblies of peasants.
- See the work of Enrique Galvan-Alvarez, Brian Victoria, Fabio Rambelli, James Mark Shields, Christopher Ives, Justin R. Ritzinger, Whalen Lai, Graham Priest, and James Brown.
- I have seen a few attempts at such synthesis, and they are clunky as hell. See “Zen Anarchy” by John Clarke for an entertaining but ultimately frustrating example.