Anarchism and Enlightenment

Buddhist Anarchism

Illustration: H0utw (CC)

A reproduction of Gary Snyder’s 1969 seminal text “Buddhist Anarchism” found on The Anarchist Library:

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

19 Comments on "Anarchism and Enlightenment"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Mar 14, 2012 at 2:55 pm |

    Sort of a “none of us are free until ALL of us are free” sort of approach to Buddhism.

    I guess we are all Bodhisattva’s now.

    • Jin The Ninja | Mar 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm |

       call me ‘Fudo,’ and call it a day.

    • mannyfurious | Mar 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm |

      Well, in many forms of Mahayana, we all ARE Bodhisattva’s, we just don’t realize it.

      All  in all a thought-provoking blast from the past. As someone who, for lack of a better term, is a “non-traditional” zen/taoist practitioner (meaning I don’t have a “master” and I don’t study under any kind of authority), this kind of dichotomy has been on my mind often. It’s difficult to reconcile an idea of social responsibility with Buddhism when so many Buddhist saints were ascetics. And, in many ways, one of the deep insights of Buddhist practice is that the world “is what it is” and probably will always be that way. 

      On the other hand, it’s difficult to reconcile the ascetic aspects of Buddhism with such things as the Bodhisattva’s vow to help all living things (possibly all entities, period–but that’s another discussion) achieve release from suffering. 

      Intellectually, I believe more in ascetic, leave it all alone approach. However, ever since I graduated from college, I’ve worked in “helping” professions, so instinctively, it seems I believe more in the “none of us are free until all of us are free” approach.

      • Jin The Ninja | Mar 14, 2012 at 6:40 pm |

        i also catagorise myself as a non-trad Buddhist with daoist features. heavily interested in zen, but belong to a tibetan sangha. i think you are exactly right about internality vs externality in buddhism, intellectually it makes a lot of sense to focus on the self, bodhi-mind, conquering of desires. but there is that bodhisattva aspect of compassion and aide, that feels right ’emotionally.’ i think in a way, it is indicative of the tension and polarisation of theravada and mahayana

      • Liam_McGonagle | Mar 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |

        Well, speaking from an outsider’s perspective, with only the crudest notion of Buddhism’s various approaches and doctrines, I always thought the emphasis on asceticism was intended primarily to broaden the field of consciousness–not necessarily disavow interaction with others.

        My impression (again the novice’s), is that Buddhism was an avowedly non-theistic thought system rather than a religious tradition per se.  I’ve heard it described as prefiguring important aspects of western psychology.

        If that’s so, I had always thought that the inevitable consequence of pursuing Buddhist thought was arriving at the notion that the most essential core of a human being is his/her CONSCIOUSNESS, which may necessarily be filtered through ego structures due to our carnate existence, but is ultimately part of a much larger whole being.  To that extent, asceticism is just a preliminary realization, allowing the individual to more actively engage with the wider, collective consciousness.

        In that sense, I regarded Buddhism as an intensely social endeavor.

        • mannyfurious | Mar 15, 2012 at 11:51 pm |

          Well, to properly respond to your post would take more than I could possibly fit into one post, in that some of you “novice” or “outsider” perspective is not really correct. 

          I will say this, even after a primary or possibly even ultimate “realization” most of the ascetics remained ascetics. At best they took over a temple somewhere, or, in some cases, accepted menial labor jobs in either temples or lay settlements (N.B. that being a cook was a particularly popular profession amongst those who chose to work after their so-called enlightenment.). The point here–if I do indeed have one– is that after a major realization, these kinds of trends seem to suggest a quiet acceptance of the world which manifested itself in a subtle “inner-peace.” There aren’t a whole lot of records that I’ve seen that show “enlightened” practitioners going out of their way to contribute something to their society (although it is worthwhile to note that the temples were known to house temporarily a wide array of suffering souls, including those suffering from any kind of disease, criminals and the impoverished. These so-called dregs of society were never rejected by the Buddhist community. However, this was a more passive approach to helping than the Western ideal of active social engagement.)

          • Liam_McGonagle | Mar 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm |

            ” . . .  in that some of you “novice” or “outsider” perspective is not really correct. ”

            Hence the proverb, “If you meet the Buddha on the side of the road, kill him.”

            It’s all an illusion, despite the fixed categories hierarchies and orthodoxies from the various traditions try to impose upon them.  Not all “popes” are Catholic.

            But to each their own chosen path.  I just think you overlook one major alternative which should be fairly obvious–that there is such a thing as purposeful illusion, a specific reason why humanity is inclined to misinterpret phenomena in a certain way.

          • mannyfurious | Mar 16, 2012 at 4:11 pm |

            I like your comment, However…. 

            I don’t see how you believe I “overlook” such an “alternative.” I don’t think anything I wrote suggested my views on such a thing one way or the other. My own personal feeling is that the illusion is in place because the underlying principle of the universe needs a way to divert itself. When you have the power to create (or are the power) to create (or that creates) the universe, you’d probably have a tendency to get kind of bored. The illusion is to keep yourself occupied and to have an infinite number of adventures that, while seeming to be dangerous and to mean something for the time being, ultimately don’t. This line of thought superficially has more in common with some forms of Hinduism, but it is reflected by various forms of Buddhism with a different kind of language. 

            Nevertheless, all of these are just words and they all sort of miss the point. I get the impression (and correct me if I’m wrong [and forgive me if I come off as pedantic, as that is not my goal]) that you are beginning to dabble in some Buddhist thought. If you continue to study and practice, you’ll have some different kinds of insights, and many of them will not make sense when you try to put them to words. This is where I, myself, always seem to get myself into trouble. 

          • The tenant ‘Energy flows where attention goes’ had a major impact on me, while we’re talking about that desire not to interfere with the world. I’ve had a few experiences in that ‘circuit 5+ state’ to use leary’s grid on things, and from my view the wisdom in doing nothing seems to stem from the realisation that your attention affects the things around you and it seems arrogant and beyond my current understanding to try to interfere with the incredibly complex web of life unless I feel properly moved to do so. In fact, when in that circuit 5+ state, I feel most relaxed and comfortable when as little is going on as possible. Maybe that has something to do with it?

          • mannyfurious | May 31, 2012 at 11:25 am |

            From my experience (and it is only my experience), I would say your post is a pretty accurate portrayal of that particular insight. What we neglect to recognize is that every action we take changes the world. And this is not an abstract or vague or exaggerated viewpoint. The simple fact that you commented and I’m responding has changed who I am and who you are. I am now someone who talks to you on an internet message board and you are now someone who talks to me through the same medium. This might seem to have a very minimal impact on the world, but it doesn’t. You and I are now different people and those people we now are will go out into the world and perform acts that will be somewhat influenced by our talking on a message board. In short, like you wrote, we have focused our attention on something and as such, we have interfered. However, we are ignorant as to how that interference will affect the world. Is it positive or negative? We don’t know. And this is why asceticism and passivity are often espoused and promoted within Buddhism/Taoism.

          • Thanks for that, that was a much more refined and beautiful way of putting it. 

  2. Mr Willow | Mar 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm |

    Each individual is his own authority, with a collective responsibility to their surrounding environment. 

    Sadly, it’s that second portion that people tend to have difficulty with. Tell somebody they have absolute authority over themselves, and they smile gleefully. Tell them they are also responsible for every action they make—because freedom functions the same as power, to reference Spiderman—they try to pass it off to some higher authority (business owner, clergy, government), forfeiting said authority in the process. 

    “Oh, it isn’t my fault, I was just following orders.” 

    Perhaps if more people meditated, they would discover themselves. As it is, they are much too involved with, and enraptured by, the wills of others. 

  3. So why are Buddhist countries so Hierarchical? Like Pre-1960 Tibest was basically a feudal monarchy with actual slaves and peasants? 

    • Jin The Ninja | Mar 14, 2012 at 8:32 pm |

      i’ve read the same micheal parenti article you are referencing, and of course it is historically accurate, but tibetan buddhism is only one kind of buddhism, and certainly in context to east and south east asia there are dozens of different sects and groups, some of which were highly anti authoritarian and others who were supported by the state. it’s like christianity: quakers and diggers and some mennonites not to mention various ‘gnostic’ groups were very anti authoritarian, but you wouldn’t call the catholic church anti authoritarian by any means. it is only one variation. the rise of tibetan buddhism was very much tied into the rise of the tibetan civilization, and was highly influenced by indigenous bon religion. it is a cultural AND religious buddhism. meaning that it is inherently tied to the state, and of course it’s interpretation within that context is going to reflect state support. but gary snyder was deeply influenced by zen, cha’an, and engaged vietnamese buddhism not tibetan, so the micheal parenti article is not really valid in this context.

      • mannyfurious | Mar 15, 2012 at 11:31 am |

        Right. The fact that there are several Buddhist nations that are highly hierarchical is more of an anomaly than a symptom of the philosophy/religion/practice of Buddhism itself. The fact is, the majority of Buddhist movements throughout history have been more apolitical than anything else (although they also very often played certain political games to keep themselves in favor of whatever party was ruling at the time), hence the trend toward being a reclusive and/or ascetic practice. 

        • Liam_McGonagle | Mar 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm |

          Or it could simply reflect the universal and almost inevitable tendency of hierarchies to systematically misinterpret and pervert any thought system.

          At a certain point, even the notion of “selflessness” becomes a fetish.

          • mannyfurious | Mar 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm |

            Exactly! I would say this is where  traveling “the middle road” becomes so important–because it helps us to avoid fetishizing certain ideas (which are only that–ideas of the human brain). However, one can also fetishize the idea  of “the middle road” itself. So then I would go on about abandoning language and not taking ideas too seriously–but then that idea itself can become a fetish… and on and on and on and…

  4. There is a difference between enlightenment and awakening. I’d say Buddha was enlightened, Christ was awake. Materialistic spirituality is what most have going on. Joining with this universe is one thing, joining with the universe of universes is another.  There is no such thing as the human spirit, the spirit is not human at all. It’s not about being a better human, it’s about not being human at all. Indivisible or individual?

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