Revisiting Buddhist Anarchism
I’ve been revisiting Buddhist anarchism lately, the strain of socially engaged Buddhism that some foundational Buddhist Peace Fellowship movers and shakers were associated with in some form. Like any religion, Buddhism’s tenets and teachings can be interpreted in many ways, including in the anti-state and anti-capitalist direction. In other posts I have indicated that some interpretations of Buddhism have leaned in the direction of strengthening the state, whether explicitly or implicitly.
In his 1969 essay “Buddhist Anarchism,” Gary Snyder details various key aspects of Buddhism as having “nation-shaking implications.” In particular, the practice of meditation “wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities.” The emphasis on non-harming is implicitly antithetical to ideologies that justify violence and oppression, of which the state and capitalism partake and rely on. The practice of ethical conduct (sila) encourages responsible action towards all beings, which for Snyder implies an internationalist, classless world in which, to borrow a phrase from Animal Farm, nobody is more equal than another.
Snyder advocates “civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence” to support moving towards such a world, “affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior.” I think of Occupy Wall Street—whose culture, language, tactics, and direct democracy, however imperfect, has left an indelible mark in protest consciousness even as individuals have dispersed into local efforts. There is perhaps a growing tendency that understands capitalism and state power as major roadblocks to human freedom—a freedom that affirms individuality, differences, and responsibility to community, where power circulates between us rather than from above.
I’m currently re-experiencing Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed (1974), an excellent semi-utopian science fiction novel that won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards. It’s set in on two planets, Urras and its moon Anarres. Urras is dominated by a capitalist, patriarchal country and its rival is an authoritarian, communistic country, who fight proxy wars in a less developed country. The desert moon Anarres has been settled by anarcho-syndicalists for over a century, who left Urras as revolutionaries.
LeGuin turns a critical eye not only to the repressive nation-state structures of both capitalism and communism, but also to the long-term weaknesses of a non-statist, revolutionary anarchist society. In Anarresti society, which functions without a centralized government, laws, property, jails, police, or armies, power is beginning to coagulate in a web of passive aggressive influence, established custom, and the peer pressure of mass opinion. These all have violent effects on those who step outside of accepted boundaries.
Buddhist institutions can and have worked in similar ways at times, whether leashed to militaristic nationalism, patriarchal hierarchy, or racialized, middle-class cultural customs. But the Buddha rejected much of his contemporary social structure. Personally, I lean towards Snyder’s interpretation, that Buddhism has nation-shaking implications. For me it is a decolonization and radical compassion practice. The phrase “all beings” really does mean all, without exception, weak or strong, omitting none. And this means we are all irretrievably, frighteningly, beautifully responsible to and for each other. We can build a community, a society, a world on this, and anything that gets in the way is, frankly, unnecessary.