A Socialist Critique of Buddhism

Let me start by saying what I mean by socialist: I do NOT mean Soviet or Maoist Communism. Those were totalitarian dictatorships masked as socialism, much as dictatorships mask themselves as Democracies with phantom 99% approval ratings. By socialism I mean that people, not the politburo or the banks, are in charge of their own economic destiny. That are not at the mercy of dictators or corporations.

Lately, I’ve seen several socialist critiques of Western Buddhism that I think make some very good points. But for the most part they emphasize for me the wisdom of the Buddha and the easy traps we fall into when we try to translate the dhamma for a new era.

FIRST, Buddhism isn’t really about spiritual transcendence, it is rather a tool of the capitalist system. Western Buddhism has come about by and for upper-class white elites. It takes stressed out modern workers and makes them healthier and less stressed. And it does so more cheaply than therapy or drugs. But the goal is merely to make the proles work better and more efficiently to feed the machine.

SECOND, Buddhism itself contributes to the problems of the proletariat by preaching superstition. In particular, the teachings of kamma and rebirth teach us to look only to ourselves for the source of our problems. This discourages people from remaking society through revolutionary change.

THIRD, Buddhism doesn’t present or even support a program of radical political activity. Instead, it passively accepts the political status quo and even supports corrupt hierarchies either tacitly or actively. The weak “Engaged Buddhism” basically strengthens the capitalist status quo by merely begging the existing power structure for things (like progress on climate change) without demanding deep, radical, structural change. Indeed, Buddhist institutions themselves are hierarchical structures that feed a culture of oppression.

Let’s look at each critique in turn.


A Tool of Capitalism

Let me say right off the bat that every one of these critiques (and I’m sure there are many more) have the ring of truth. Google doesn’t have a Chief Mindfulness Officer because they want to lose money. The UK health system doesn’t pay for mindfulness classes because they want their citizens to be more spiritually engaged. It is about money. Even individuals coming to meditation on their own are usually there to de-stress and generally fit better into existing systems.

While this may be what has evolved in the West, it certainly isn’t what was intended by the Buddha. Here’s the key mistake (the mistake especially made by Vipassana and any other form that doesn’t emphasize jhana): it completely misses the implications of Right Effort (or as I’ve come to translate it: Right Mental Qualities). It misses what is really required to deeply practice mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t about getting stressed out and then try to recover by paying attention to the present moment. No. In deep practice, the de-stressing comes first, as a part of Right Mental Qualities. Deep mindfulness can only arise when you APPROACH it with ease, with peace. As the Metta Sutta says: “unburdened by duties and frugal in their ways.” Does that sound like a capitalist approach? Not at all. But it is one of the reasons why Western Buddhism has focused so much on mindfulness. It is completely empty of political content. Or at least economic content. Right Mental Qualities on the other hand, has a powerful political content. Namely, that peace, that calm, that time spent in practice is an important part of the path itself.



As my article on Chinese Buddhism made clear, it is often the case that Actually Existing Buddhism can sometimes be just a mass of superstitions. It is ugly but true. It’s clear to me that the Buddhism of the Buddha turned away from superstition. Indeed, one of the realizations of a Stream Winner (the first stage of enlightenment) is that Rituals will not lead to enlightenment. While there may be nothing wrong with small-r rituals that help build community and establish skillful mindstates, the reliance on these forms is ultimately an impediment. And when “Buddhism” becomes the selling of amulets, charms, and chanting ceremonies, it has become part of the problem.

There’s no doubt in my mind that these forms of Buddhism are a disgrace, but what are we to do about them? The answer for someone of a liberal mindset might be troubling: nothing. We do our practice. Teach the dhamma as we know it. And we don’t spend our time trying to arm wrestle with others. As frustrating as it can be to hear people teach an corrupted dhamma, it does no good to try to force them to do otherwise. Any moral authority we might have comes from the strength of our practice. And that alone.


Servant to the Existing Political Power

Again, there is something to this. I’ve heard complaints from several quarters that the Buddha doesn’t really have a political agenda. There are even some texts that seem to support monarchy (although these strike me as mostly late Asokan-era interpolations). For the most part, though, they are right that the Buddha doesn’t put forward a lay political system. There are hints here and there (see my articles on the Buddha’s thoughts on the Welfare State), but no coherent message.

But this is only half true. It’s true that he didn’t prescribe any particular political system for the laity. I think this was entirely appropriate. It meant that Buddhism could spread far without being outright suppressed by political and military powers that be.

On the other hand, the Buddha did have an intensely radical political agenda for the sangha (the communities of monks and nuns). There is a lot of ignorance about how the sangha was constructed by the Buddha. Many monasteries today (and for most of the past 2000 years) are run as little kingdoms with an abbott as king. I made my feelings on this clear in the article Dhamma Heir. The Buddha refused to appoint a ruler for the sangha. Instead, he created an anarchical institution. He left a constitution in the form of the Patimokkha. But the sangha rules itself, almost always by consensus. On those occasions when they must, they vote, but only as a last resort. The sangha is run as a direct democracy, as an anarchical institution, the most radical political system in existence.

Despite having an elaborate set of rules, there were no police. For almost all infractions, a monk or nun reports himself to the sangha. The rules are seen as part of the path of practice rather than a system to enforce a hierarchy. Any monk or nun can leave at any time to go it alone as a hermit or join another collective. This is truly more Occupy Wall Street than Dhamma King stuff. Original Buddhism had no hierarchy at all. This is a mistake made in Buddhist school after Buddhist school: accidentally recreating a hierarchy that the Buddha so carefully destroyed. You can usually tell how far away a Buddhist school has drifted from the original teaching by observing how hierarchical it has become in its power structures.

So where does this leave the laity? Why is it fair that the sangha gets a revolutionary anarchical political structure, while we have to fend for ourselves? It has actually proven to be very wise. If the Buddha had demanded anarchy for the laity, it wouldn’t have happened, and Buddhism would have been suppressed. But nevertheless, as with all things, the sangha is there to function as a model for the laity to emulate, if only they have the strength of will to follow through with the true dhamma.


3 thoughts on “A Socialist Critique of Buddhism

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for this article. Obviously, one have to gain some personal experience to appreciate the value of a democratic society, so it can’t be imposed like a dictatorship. In this sense I agree that realizing this, the Buddha proposed his sangha as an example for a lay society, since people need to grow up mentally and spiritually before they are ready for democracy with its personal responsibility, freedom and self-sufficiency.

    1. Victoria, Thanks very much for the comment. I would only add: the only way for a free people to “grow up mentally and spiritually” is to make their own mistakes. It starts, not ends, with freedom.

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