Occupy Buddhism – Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
SOCIALISM / MARXISM, 16 July 2012
by Stuart Smithers, Tricycle – TRANSCEND Media Service
When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again astir with this nonrevelation, which came by way of an Indian-born Tibetan journalist, Tsering Namgyal, who had tagged along when the Dalai Lama held a nearly three-hour meeting with 150 Chinese students. Namgyal, a Mandarin-speaking reporter living and studying in Minneapolis, had posted online that the Dalai Lama surprised his young audience when he volunteered that “as far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.”
Namgyal’s post explained that a student had asked about the apparent contradiction between the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than the responses of most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound bites. The year before the Dalai Lama had given a series of talks in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Following a press conference in the basement at Rockefeller Center, the Dalai Lama’s news office included this report in its summary:
His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the Hundred Flowers Campaign  in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.
You might think he had his thoughts on the 99 percent, but the Dalai Lama has stayed on message for years, saying the same thing many times in many places—including a Time magazine interview in 1999, and in the following passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, in 1996:
Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production
It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes—that is the majority—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair…
The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.
So what’s all the fuss? Marx might still be an inspirational hero for the odd revolutionary in Peru or Nepal, but communism these days is generally summarized as a failed system that crashed and burned. So why this repeated hysteria about Marx? And why now?
While Joseph McCarthy was holding Senate hearings in 1954 and fueling fear of a threatening and subversive communist underground that never really materialized, the Dalai Lama was studying Marx with Mao’s China. Before actually studying Marx, he had also been taught to fear “communists” and representations of communism, with little knowledge of Marx or how China’s communist movement related to Marx’s theories. In the Time interview in 1999, the Dalai Lama reflected on these nuanced differences and possibilities of a “genuine communist movement” in Tibet:
I was very young when I first heard the word communist. The 13th Dalai Lama had left a testament that I read. Also, some of the monks who were helping my studies had been in monasteries with Mongolians. They talked about the destruction that had taken place since the communists came to Mongolia. We did not know anything about Marxist ideology. But we all feared destruction and thought of communists with terror. It was only when I went to China in 1954–55 that I actually studied Marxist ideology and learned the history of the Chinese revolution. Once I understood Marxism, my attitude changed completely. I was so attracted to Marxism, I even expressed my wish to become a Communist Party member.
Tibet at that time was very, very backward. The ruling class did not seem to care, and there was much inequality. Marxism talked about an equal and just distribution of wealth. I was very much in favor of this. Then there was the concept of self-creation. Marxism talked about self-reliance, without depending on a creator or a God. That was very attractive. I had tried to do some things for my people, but I did not have enough time. I still think that if a genuine communist movement had come to Tibet, there would have been much benefit to the people.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Marx, communism, or capitalism (and usually a strong one), but whenever I have been able to have a sustained conversation about Marxism with friends or students they usually admit how little they know about Marx’s thought, falling back on the view that Marx was an advocate of communism (true), and the Marxism understood as “communism” represents a discredited and disgraced economic and political mode for states (sort of not quite true). In the unlikely event that they had actually read Marx, it was usually Marx and Engels’ very slim 30-page treatise The Communist Manifesto. Buddhists in this late stage of global capital might want to get up to speed on Marx.
Marx’s most important contribution was not a revolutionary labor movement, but his monumental 18-year study of the capitalist economic system, eventually published in three volumes between 1867 and 1894 as Capital (Das Kapital). Anyone interested in working through the text should start young—the three volumes weigh in at about 2,500 pages. Most people know the ending anyway: Marx was less than optimistic about capitalism’s long-term prospects, although how he gets there is why scholars and writers of all stripes have returned to his dense, difficult, logical, detached analysis of the world’s dominant economic system. What is perhaps most surprising in the text is the discovery that Marx’s cool and methodical deconstruction of capitalism is almost entirely free of moral argumentation or appeals to conscience. And readers hoping to understand or critique the communist mode that will finally appear when capitalism reaches its conclusion will also find a remarkable absence of detailed discussion about our future world beyond capitalism.
There have been few silver linings to the Great Recession and America’s own “jobless” recovery, but Marx’s return is certainly one of them. Marxists are stepping out of the academic closet in greater numbers, and new life is being breathed into Marx’s ideas. Capital, it turns out, is a dish best served cold.
Getting to Know TINA
It was either Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson or Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (nobody seems totally clear on the point) who first suggested that it’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. But it was Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of Britain who insisted that the world needed to realize that there is no alternative (TINA, a slogan that become associated with her name, although she was not its author) to capitalism.
The current version of Marxist amnesia stems partly from the sudden demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the remarkable transformation of the economic culture in China. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Margaret Thatcher repeatedly declared that liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over communism and the historical struggle between the two political systems was over—history had ended, and capitalism as the last-man-standing was the only viable ideology.
But rumors of the death of Marxism and communism—and the eternal triumph of capital—were perhaps premature. Those who passively assented to Tina’s declarations (Thatcher was actually referred to as “Tina” by members of her staff and cabinet—but never to her face!) were not unlike the young Dalai Lama before his Marxist tutorials in Beijing. Today the Dalai Lama distinguishes Marx from forms of communism. There are many ways to critique the failed regimes of the USSR and China, but the main Marxist critique simply observes that neither of those historical situations actually fulfilled the conditions of a capitalist phase in which a bourgeois class establishes its power and control. Some identify the USSR as a brutal form of socialism, while both states seem to be what Marx described as forms of “crude communism” in his writings. About the time of Thatcher’s ascendency, the Tibetan-born teacher Chöygam Trungpa (1939–1987) wrote a poem, “International Affairs of 1979—Uneventful But Energy Consuming,” that suggests an understanding of communism that echoes the Dalai Lama’s lament that a genuine communism had not come to Tibet:
Where is the spirit of communism?
Marx, Engels, Lenin – If they returned and saw what a mess they made in the universe they would be horrified. We find nobody is practicing true communism.
Tina was ahead of herself. The world didn’t need the Great Recession to see that structural problems in the economy were becoming more evident, but it didn’t hurt: countries like Spain are currently at about 25 percent unemployment, with youth unemployment just over a terrifying 50 percent. Still, the misery generated by the collapse is impressive and continues to unfold. For those who have read Marx, the conditions of collapse are a predictable precondition for the cyclical crises that capitalism creates and depends on. But that matters little to those who are left behind. As Marx wrote in Capital (vol. 1):
In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.
Waking Up to Capital: Buddhist Insurrection
What do Marx and the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring and the indignados in Spain and the suffering surplus poor and the unemployed and the debt-ridden college graduates living at home and the consolidation of wealth and the destruction of middle-class wealth and the subprime collapse and bailout of banks “too big to fail” and the working conditions at the Fox Con Apple factory in China have to do with BUDDHISM?
In my classes, at conferences, and in conversation with friends, we have tried to imagine a world without capitalism. We are all swimming in the world of capital. Buddhism lives in the culture of capital, too. Capitalism is not just an economic system, it is the dominant world culture. History has provided numerous examples of political, economic and cultural collapse, including many societies that were in denial about what was happening during the shift. In 1932, the 13th Dalai Lama made a political prediction that proved fairly accurate:
In the present age the five great degenerations seem to totally dominate life on earth, to the extent that fighting and conflict have become part of the very fabric of human society. If we do not make preparations to defend ourselves from the overflow of violence, we will have very little chance of survival.
In particular, we must guard ourselves against the barbaric red communists who carry terror and destruction with them wherever they go. They are the worst of the worst. Already they have consumed much of Mongolia, where they have outlawed the search for the reincarnation of Jetsun Dampa, the incarnate head of the country. They have robbed and destroyed monasteries, forcing the monks to join their armies or else killing them outright. They have destroyed religion wherever they’ve encountered it ….
Therefore, when strength of peace and happiness is with us, while the power to do something about the situation is still in our hands, we should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful methods where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means. Work diligently now, while there is still time. Then there will be no regrets.
Marxists often joke among themselves that they have successfully predicted ten of the last two crises. It truly is an unimaginable transition—a world without capitalism. And yet that is where many scholars, economists, and academics think we are headed. Marxian oracles like Eric Hobsbawm and Immanuel Wallerstein provide predictions for the end of a worn-out capitalism ranging from 15 years to “a very unpleasant” 40 or 50 years. Last fall at Occupy Wall Street, Zizek pointed out the systemic nature of capital’s precipitous decline:
We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, “Hey, look down!”
We are beginning to live between two worlds, in a cultural bardo. And the point should be made that we need to start imagining a new world, thinking of alternatives to this world, or we will very likely end up with something “very unpleasant”: an alliance of police, military and security interests with a very few in possession of consolidated wealth.
Income inequality and the consolidation of wealth are also the consolidation of power, and the threat of violence against the people when the people don’t obey. The consolidation of economic power displayed in capitalism is not necessarily a benign event. The “invisible hand” of the market hasn’t benefitted all peoples. Capital, according to Marx, has replaced organic and traditional relations between people with “naked self-interest,” with “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” And the people doing the exploiting don’t seem much better off than the exploited. In the 1970s, the Tibetan scholar and translator Lobsang Lhalungpa (1924–2008) stopped midconversation while walking with people in San Francisco’s financial district. He surveyed the busy lunchtime scene, looking up, then down California Street, and finally observed: “I don’t see any humans here.” Roaming the streets of the financial districts, it is sometimes hard to escape the feeling that we live in a land of well-dressed hungry ghosts.
The materialism and affluence of the West was certainly a new and unknown condition for the Buddhist pioneers who scouted the West and studied our culture. Now 50 or 60 years into Western Buddhism, there has been a shift in emphasis from a critique of rank materialism to the need for a Buddhism free of, say, the old Tibetan or Japanese cultural forms, one suited for Western sensibilities, one without “Asian cultural baggage.”
But the truth is that the entire world is much more “Western” now that capitalism is globalized. The world is merging with capitalism’s materialist zeitgeist: globalization isn’t just about commodity, production, and consumption—it is about culture, too. Some Buddhist teachers who have set up schools in the “West” pretend to critique aspects of American culture, but they are mostly superficial attempts that leave the root culture of late capitalism’s pervasive materialism firmly intact while adopting the technological fascinations of the moment. As Buddhist teachers and practitioners sort out the essential teachings from their own “cultural baggage”—the “blinding influence of culture,” as one teacher recently put it—are they aware of the forces of speed, chaos, alienation, and technological magic of late capitalism? Are we aware of the forces of capitalism?
My favorite image of Buddhism’s modern challenge appears in Chögyam Trungpa’s autobiography where he recounts an important lesson about the subtle seduction of the force of materialism that he received from his guru, Khenpo Gangshar. Escaping Tibet following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, Trungpa was about to climb into the back of a truck—his first experience with a motorized vehicle—when Khenpo Gangshar grabbed him and warned, “You know how strong material forces are: now you are having one of your first direct encounters with them. Study what you are; don’t lose yourself. If you simply get excited about the journey, you will never find out what we are really up against.”
What are we really up against? Car and trucks are nothing now; faxing is an antique technology. What is the speed and seductive force of a Chinese truck bouncing along a dirt road at 15 miles an hour compared with smart phones, the internet, tweets, and the consumer’s life of instant gratification? Many teachers and adepts have exposed some of the cultural overlays of imported Buddhism and simultaneously unearthed aspects of the essential teachings. But we need to ask the same questions about Western culture if we wish to “see beyond cultures.” In many respects it is easier for us to see the Tibetan or Japanese cultural components of Buddhism than it is to see the American capitalist realities at work.
The Movement of the Real
Is Buddhism irrelevant in a world of brutality and permanent crisis? Does it have the legs of an emancipatory religion, a religion of liberation with the power to transform societies and cultures?
In several essays around 2000, when Buddhism in America was enjoying seemingly universal “success”—celebrity status for many of its authority figures, increasing institutionalization as it galloped into the mainstream—Zizek wrote, and said in interviews, that Buddhism in the West was functioning as a fetish. Buddhism in the globalized capitalist world, he argued, functions as a “fetish” in the sense that “fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are thoroughly ‘realists’ able to accept the ways things effectively are—since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality.” In other words, the world we are faced with is full of injustice, suffering, pain, confusion, hopelessness, and stress, all in different orders of magnitude, and the Western Buddhist’s orientation, primarily through meditation practices, allows him or her to blunt or avoid the full impact of this reality.
For Zizek, Western Buddhism coincides to some degree, with the “comtemplative view.” This general critique is not original (think of Nietzsche on Asiatic nihilism, for example), but Zizek’s frequent remarks on the subject seem to hit a nerve with some Buddhists who have blogged their regret that Zizek clearly wasn’t familiar enough with Buddhist sources (and what are his sources, anyway?), or have complained about his general characterization of Western Buddhists as indulgent, pleasure-seeking, distancing, and largely apathetic to worldwide suffering and misery.
These criticisms are certainly valid to some degree, but they also express a defensiveness that fails to engage the bigger point: Western Buddhism, with its introspective emphasis on personal liberation, fundamentally aligns itself with the societal status quo. In many respects Buddhism does seem to function as a fetish. And for those who would point to various modes of “engaged” Buddhism, we might step back and ask the same question: Are these projects transformative, or do they too functioning primarily as a fetish to maintain an image of the self as a good Buddhist, while leaving the ground conditions of suffering and injustice unaddressed? In Zizek’s view, Buddhism in the West is the perfect ideological supplement to global capitalism
To be clear, Zizek criticizes the Western Buddhist attitude not because he has a theological axe to grind, but because he is adamantly in favor of a realistic engagement with the world and its forces. Following his Marxist bent, he argues that if one possessed such a realistic view, then one would naturally feel compelled to act and not withdraw. Zizek sees the meditative and contemplative position as withdrawal. Meditation as fetish allows us to withdraw—to distance ourselves from the world—and thereby maintain our sanity. Further, the structure of the fetish relationship enables us to pretend to accept reality as it is. It enables us to fully participate in the stressful, greedy, pressured, alienated, painful working world of contemporary culture while maintaining the conceit that we are separate from the spectacle, able to play the game as we like, and supposing that what really matters is this contemplative self detached and uninvolved. What riles Zizek about this scenario is that this fetish logic leaves the world intact as it is, and even strengthens hegemonic threats.
If the fetish were removed, the structure of false consciousness would collapse, often with devastating effects for the subject. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
I think it is important to say that Zizek and cultural critics increasingly see differences between East and West dramatically diminished as Asia has been absorbed by global capitalism. Asia might be the geographic origin of Buddhism, but the distinction is of little importance as the world becomes modern, Westernized, and the hegemony of global capitalism has become total, worldwide. So it is not surprising that Zizek would maintain that Buddhism globally is becoming Western Buddhism—and increasingly functions as a fetish that ultimately enables the status quo to maintain its continuing control, dominance, and expansion.
If Buddhism is finally about liberation from ignorance and errant views, both individually and collectively, then we might consider studying not only what we are but also the culture that invisibly influences and dominates us. Quite apart from advocating any alternative to the current system, we may discover sources of suffering and new patterns of desire and ignorance that are embedded in our actions. The study of capital would quickly become the study of suffering and false consciousness. The study of capital and the revelation of the conditions for what we might call an “emergent communism” could supplement our contemplative approaches as the movement of the real. Marx approached something similar in German Ideology, a work he wrote with Engels in 1846 (first published in 1932).
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.
The movement of the real abolishes error and simultaneously manifests as the self-liberation of society.
I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.
Some of the Dalai Lama’s friends have asked him not to mention that he is a Marxist. Why?
Regardless of the answer, there is something threatening and potentially discomforting about mixing Buddhism with discussions of money and politics. For some Buddhists the conversation is too profane, while others think it is impolite: they would prefer not to (to borrow a phrase from Melville’s Bartleby). They would prefer not to talk about property, income inequality, structural poverty, permanent unemployment, and the structural weaknesses of capital.
For a long time now, Wall Street, politicians and the media have preferred not to talk about these issues. However, that wall seems to be breaking down. Republican presidential candidates were especially anxious during the last primary cycle to label any discussion of wealth inequality as “class warfare,” insisting people drop the issue. But it didn’t work. Even Warren Buffett famously declared, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
The Dalai Lama’s friends would prefer he didn’t, yet year after year he reminds us of his Marxist leanings and his apprehensions about capitalism. Many Buddhists seem to have preferred not to hear him.
Like the Dalai Lama, the Occupy movement represents the true spirit of Melville’s Wall Street scribe: inexplicably, its members refuse to do what they are told, refuse to go away, but appear and again to the frustration of Wall Street and the mayors and police who represent the non-rocking boat of the status quo.
Americans and Buddhists might want to think about capitalism and how it can possibly be reconciled with the Buddha’s teachings. It’s difficult, to be sure, and gets very emotional for some. It might seem scary to think about its future, but that’s probably a good reason we should look at it: why is it scary to think about capitalism? It is as if Occupy has taken on the role of society’s collective therapist: patiently waiting and witnessing the tortured machinations of a society that tries to finally come to grips with its own state of denial.
Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real.
The mode and manner of the collective movement of the real, of the new sangha, won’t live in the same forms that we expect and have grown comfortable with. If the movement of the real lives, it must constantly escape the known, the easily reproduced form:
A general uprising, as we see it, should be nebulous and elusive; its resistance should never materialize as a concrete body, otherwise the enemy can direct sufficient force at its core, crush it, and take many prisoners. When that happens, the people will lose heart and, believing that the issue has been decided and further efforts would be useless…. On the other hand, there must be some concentration at certain points: the fog must thicken and form a dark and menacing cloud out of which a bolt of lightning will may strike at any time. (Carl von Clausewitz, On War)
This is an image of Buddhist insurgency, of the future sangha. The bolt of enlightening energy, the sincerity of search for the real, could appear at any moment and in anyone, not just a sanctioned or authorized leader. The dark and menacing cloud is only menacing to the old order, to ignorance and forces of manipulation. The awakening energy of the lightning bolt is nearly invisible in its descent, but it becomes visible in the ascent of the “return stroke”: lightning strikes from the ground up. The thickening collective of the group is the ground for the movement of the real and the abolition of error. The new sangha will be nebulous and elusive, yet it will appear in moments when the movement of the real is especially concentrated in individuals. In that moment the group will know the presence of the real.
The Dalai Lama lamented that there had not been enough time for a transition to genuine communism. Maybe the time has come to ask him what he thinks genuine communism looks like. Events are happening now that signal, for some, the end of capitalism as we know it. Several critics have suggested that we need to start thinking now about what alternatives we might work toward. We need to remember Khenpo Gangshar’s warning: study what you are, don’t lose yourself. The challenge is probably greater than we think. We are facing the same challenge today, even more intensely: we need to study ourselves, and not lose ourselves in the rebellious excitement of capitalism’s undoing. As Zizek told the Occupy Wall Street crowd: “There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves…. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives.”
Wall Street wasn’t built in a day, and its undoing won’t happen in a day either. But as the 13th Dalai Lama recommended in his own period of radical transition, we should make every effort we can “while the power to do something about the situation is still in our hands… Work diligently now, while there is still time. Then there will be no regrets.”
Stuart Smithers is chair of the religion department at the University of Puget Sound, director of the Smoke Farm Institute, and a contributing editor to Tricycle.
An edited version of this article appears in the July 2012 issue of Adbusters.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.