Buddhism and Marxism

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Given the recent comments by the Dalai Lama that he is a “Marxist”, it is worth comparing Buddhism and Marxism.

Both Buddhist and Marxist philosophy have parts of an ancient ancestry from the Greek and ancient Indian civilisations, especially the branch of philosophy from that era which emphasises “the natural state of change”.

Conservative ideologies and philosophies tend to emphasise “the natural order of things” and the “lack of change” or “the impossibility of change”. Thus it is the natural order of things for there to be rich and poor, rulers and the ruled and those in power are appointed from heaven.

An idea that change is natural can be interpreted in a revolutionary manner.

Marxism places much importance on “the dialectic”, an ancient Greek philosophy. According to the dialectic “the truth can only be understood as a whole” and “within this whole change is constant and natural”. What is more, “change takes place because in any whole picture we can see contradictions which are the engine of change”. Change also takes place in steps, from quantity to quality. When a qualitative change takes place, society changes fundamentally. But such changes are never ending with new contradictions arising all the time.

If we look at capitalist society there are many contradiction which help bring about change. Capitalism has an internal contradiction which constantly causes economic crises. Capitalist ruling classes are in contradiction with each other, causing wars and imperialism. Finally, and most importantly for the liberation of humanity, there is a fundamental contradiction between workers and capitalists in capitalist society and this is class struggle. Class struggle determines the degree of freedom and equality in society.

For Marxism, class struggle is what leads to changes in human society through the ages. But there is nothing automatic about this. Change takes place because humans struggle collectively for such a change. However, they do not have the luxury of choosing the circumstances in which they fight. That is determined by the history that came before and the level of material development of production or the practical way in which humans are able to survive and support themselves. This is “historical materialism” and it is the inseparable twin of the “dialectic”.

Therefore Marxists believe that change is a synthesis of human agency, human ideas, collective struggle and the real material circumstances of the world. Marxism is the practice of human liberation.

Buddhism also emphasises the fact that “change is natural”. The Buddhist three marks of existence or the “trilaksana” are made up of “anicca” or  impermanence,  “dukkha” or the natural force which leads to change and impermanence and  “anatta” or the idea that things have no fixed nature, essence, or self, and cannot be commanded by us.

Buddhism may talk about constant and natural change, but this is not aimed at challenging the social order. It is aimed at training us to accept constant change and to “let go”. After all, according to the idea of “anatta” we cannot influence or command change. We can only learn to accept it and reduce the suffering that we experience from the real world. Buddhism elevates “thought” above the material reality of the world because the correct thought can save us from suffering caused by the material world. It is “idealism”, not “materialism”.

This is an inward-looking and individual philosophy. It might be useful in reducing our personal suffering if we are locked up in prison for years under the draconian lèse majesté law, but it will not abolish lèse majesté or prevent others from being imprisoned in the future. It is not a philosophy of collective struggle to change the world. It is a philosophy of how an individual might try to cope with the horrors of the world. The practice of making merit, the belief in Karma and the practice of entering into monkhood are also individual acts which are inward-looking.

Some utopians might say that if we all changed ourselves for the better and stopped oppressing others and causing their suffering, according to Buddhist teachings, the world would be a better place. But this is the kind of wishful thinking common to all religions. It ignores power inequality within class society and has never been known to bring about social change.

There are many instances where progressive Buddhist monks have been known to join the struggle for democracy and social equality. Burma, the Thai red shirt monks and the left-wing monks in Lao during the American war are good examples. But it is hard to see how these progressive struggles rely on the philosophy of Buddhism. What it does show, however, is that people often hold many ideas and philosophies in their heads and that Buddhism does not have to be an obstacle to progressive struggle. Yet reactionary and racist movements of Buddhist monks also exist. The best examples are in Burma and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism offers no solutions to changing society. That is probably why the Dalai Lama, while claiming to be a Marxist, also denies that he is a Leninist. In this denial he is turning his back on the need for collective political organisation in order to overthrow the status quo.