by Adrian Kreutz
receive alms in Luang Prabang, Laos.
by Chris Stowers/Panos
whether you sit under a Bodhi Tree
or stand with the workers.
But do the two schools
agree on the remedy?
The former is a materialist socioeconomic theory conceived by a 19th-century bearded guy from Trier in Germany, while the latter is a religion originating from orations delivered under a fig tree by a gaunt, peaceful, intimidating character in what is India today.
Historically and geographically, they are as far apart as it gets, but the core of their philosophical analysis of the human condition is astoundingly close.
It is so close, in fact, that,
As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in 1955:
At least since Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, commented on his Marxist inclination in 1993, it is evident that Buddhism and Marxism have something in common:
And Karl Marx himself knew something of Buddhism.
In a letter to a friend, written in 1866, he described his own meditation practice:
So do Marxism and
Buddhism really complement each other? How?
They share a diagnosis:
For Marx, the chief catalyst of suffering is capitalism.
Capitalism creates more suffering for the working class, whereas the bourgeoisie and the capitalists are comparatively well-off - but that doesn't mean that capitalism does not create suffering on the side of the winners too, as I shall soon point out. For the Buddha, the transient and fleeting nature of life makes suffering inescapable.
In modern Japanese, the gentle sadness associated with nature's state of flux is called mono no aware. The Indo-Tibetan Buddhist term for the effects of the impermanence of nature is duḥkha, which might be translated as suffering, but sometimes pain, frustration, sorrow, misery or dissatisfaction is more applicable.
Duḥkha is the first of
Four Noble Truths that the original
Buddha propounded right after his experience of enlightenment under
the Bodhi Tree.
All this is inevitable since the world is a world of impermanence and transience - anitya is the Buddhist term.
We are plagued by anxiety caused by the fear of,
The reality of suffering
is an incontestable, ubiquitous truth.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as it strengthens human relations and self-care, but it also causes suffering when paired with the impermanence of everything that we are attached to.
So the cause of our suffering is not the nature of reality itself, but our attitude towards it.
We cling to the erroneous
idea that good things will go on forever and bad things will
either never happen or, if they do, we will soon return to the good
Through this process the majority of people are,
Marx saw that capitalism generates an extra amount of unnecessary duḥkha:
Social inequality and horrendous living conditions lead to crime, violence and hatred - this is no surprise. Crime, poverty, alienation and exploitation cause suffering, but not exclusively on the side of the exploited workers.
Capitalists live in
constant fear of losing their status and their money, so they have
to work hard to protect it - what you own, in the end, owns you.
has become the newest balm
To get rid of suffering, then, is to apprehend reality as it really is:
According to Marx, there is an extra source of suffering in the mode of production. So, for him, the point is to change this awful mode of production to something better.
But as with
enlightenment, it is hard to see the problem in the first place, and
the capitalist system does everything to hide its malevolence behind
the welcoming curtains of consumer culture.
Marx understood that the whole economic system is based on consumption, and marketing agencies know how to push trṣṇa to the realms of utter perversion, thereby warranting a continuum of consumption and labour.
The worker is the hamster, consumer culture is the hamster wheel. People are tricked into believing that Furbies, iPads and all those other pointless goods and services are necessary for a happy and fulfilled existence.
A sense of 'meaning' has
been replaced with instant, short-term, on-demand happiness.
Life for the worker
becomes meaningful, Marx says, in that it helps the worker to, more
or less directly, reduce the suffering in someone else, since
capitalism drives the worker to specialization, and not everybody
will become a nurse, doctor, social worker, teacher etc.
Why, then, are we still thirsty for pointless consumer goods? Because we are made to believe that the possession of those goods defines us.
The psychologist Philip Cushman in 1990 accurately described the ping-pong game between conspicuous consumption and the source of suffering, which is the trṣṇa for a true self:
Consumer culture is supposed to fill a lacuna - a sense of self, of identity, of essence - gouged into the human psyche by the alienating working conditions found under capitalism.
This ping-pong game is a psychological perpetuum mobile that oscillates between taking away an experience of self-identity (by division of labour, poverty and unemployment), and substitutes it with consumption.
This liminal state contributes to the continuous generation of capital. The consumerist mentality is not the remedy.
Unfortunately, Buddhism in the form of watered-down app-based mindfulness practice and yoga in Lululemon Athletica spandex has become the newest balm for the stressed-out capitalist.
The most famous Marxist academic of our time, Slavoj Žižek, once said that,
We are, of course, more than empty vessels.
But what are we? Marx's concept of the self is a matter of considerable debate among Marx scholars.
The social psychologist Erich Fromm in 1961 wrote that,
Yet, there must be a
self, otherwise we could not be alienated from it, but is it an
empty vessel that asks for refueling?
There is no central property of the self, only relations.
According to Marx's
historical materialism, the social relations that determine the self
are, as we know, determined by the 'mode of production'.
Consequently, when the 'mode of production' changes, so does human
In the circles of later Buddhism, one technical term has been of major significance:
It is frequently translated as self-being, but for our purposes can be thought of as substance.
What is a substance? This is hard to define, and philosophy has said a great deal about it. Let us just think of a substance as a uniform, self-sufficient, necessary, unchangeable, fundamental thing-in-itself.
Prominent examples of a substance are,
For the Buddhists, there is nothing with svabhava, nothing with substance. So, the self has no svabhava either. We can unfurl the idea svabhava-less-ness, or sunyata (emptiness), with a metaphor.
But first, consider an immediate rejoinder:
But denying that there is a substance to the self, in a deep metaphysical sense, does not imply that there is no such thing that functions as a self.
In fact, Buddhists did not want to eliminate the self once and for all, and neither did Marx. Without anything that functions as the self, there would be nothing that suffers under capitalism or from being thrown into the transient world.
Hence, Marx's complicated sociopolitical analysis would be pointless, and Buddhism somehow unmotivated. There has to be something that functions as the locus of suffering.
For that, let us turn to
the Buddhist notion of
Everything stands in a unique set of relations to other things, which thereby individuates it without its having to assume a unique and individual substance.
This, in short, is the Buddhist notion of emptiness.
The notion of emptiness includes the notion of self. The self, too, is empty in that it is exclusively defined by its relations, not some underlying substance.
This is the idea of no-self.
There is nothing - so to speak -
to stick consumer goods to,
like sticky notes on a refrigerator...
This relationalism is beautifully invoked in the metaphor of Indra's net.
Here is how the religion scholar Francis H Cook described it in 1977:
This idea of interdependence emphasizes the communitarian aspect of human life - and should serve as the metaphysical fundament of Marxist philosophy.
The Marxist idea of the self is defined by its biological, psychological and economic relations to others, indeed all others inside the animate and inanimate world. Just like the net metaphor suggests, this creates a universal interdependence, or 'interbeing' as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called it in the 1960s.
For Buddhists, this
picture of the self and reality is available through
This really is the point of the idea of no-self:
Once one realizes the true nature of emptiness, there is nothing - so to speak - to stick consumer goods to, like sticky notes on a refrigerator; the ping-pong game between consumption and alienation should stop with this insight.
Why? Because there is,
from a Buddhist metaphysical perspective, no refrigerator.
Capitalism obfuscates this interdependence by fostering a reckless, and mythical, individuality, but in Marxist thought interdependence is omnipresent.
So, the Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness and its concept of the empty self can, and should, serve as a foundation for the Marxist picture.
A society based on the Buddhist ideal of compassion is one where Marxism could finally be implemented.
In fact, there have already been several attempts to politicize Buddhism.
Let's call the Marxist socioeconomic system that is grounded in Buddhist metaphysics Compassionate Marxism.
The focus of Compassionate Marxism has to be on ahimsā - nonviolence. Only then can Marxism be immune to totalitarian and authoritarian abuse, and hence no longer prone to repeat its history.
Whether Marx himself taught that revolution is necessarily violent, or if there is a possibility of a peaceful transformation, is a vexed question. During the 1844-49 period, Marx held that violent revolution is indeed necessary, given the stringent structure of the bourgeois system.
But if it is the economic
circumstances that necessitate a turn towards something communist,
and not totalitarian, then nonviolent revolution might
be possible given the right political interventions.
because the economic system is;
the economic system is evil
Some might argue that the idea that once humanity realizes its interconnectedness it would turn away from cruelty and towards compassion is wishful thinking - a justified objection.
The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant understood cruelty and hatred to be each individual's fault and deeply ingrained in the nature of human existence. This thought is widespread today, and studies in clinical psychology support it.
But for Marx, it is the socioeconomic conditions that are to blame for cruelty, hatred and crime. The human, he would hold, is inherently benevolent and compassionate.
Who has got it right?
Accordingly, humanity is not evil because the economic system is; the economic system is evil because humanity is.
In the end, we are the atoms of economics, the agents of trade.
Economics is dependent on us, not vice versa. History indicates that communal projects - such as the North American Phalanx, a secular utopian socialist commune in New Jersey in the 1840s - are susceptible to hatred, mistrust, bribery and fraud.
In the 1960s and '70s, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment both suggested that we live under the tyranny of capitalism because we are either inherently tyrannical beings or because we simply obey.
The capitalist system just suits our nature. All signs indicate that we don't have the capacities for universal benevolent compassion, uncontaminated by a proclivity to evil, hatred and competition.
We cannot all live like
monks, even if this would ensure that one's basic material needs
would be looked after by the community.
Buddhist practice could help us overcome the evil aspects of our nature and promote the compassionate side within us. The socioeconomic system of Compassionate Marxism could be the breeding ground for compassion, and compassion the motor of a socioeconomic system with low duḥkha.
Working on the inner Tyrannosaurus would benefit those suffering from Capitalism, which, according to Marx and Buddha, is everyone.
The problem with Left-activists is that they see the evil as being exclusively caused by the socioeconomic system (this was Marx's problem too), without understanding how these factors operate within us.
The question is not who we are - we are malevolent creatures, as far as I can tell.
The question is who we
want to be...