Buddhism and revolution
By R. Puligandla and K. Puhakka

Philosophy East & West
Vol. 20, No. 4 (October 1970)
pp. 345-354

Copyright 1970 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

p. 345

The most significant difference between the revolutionary scenes of Africa, Latin America, and the United States on the one hand and of Asia on the other has been the far greater and more dramatic role which the indigenous Weltanschauung has played in the latter. Throughout history an invisible wall which has been characterized by Westerners as the inscrutable "Oriental mind" and the "Oriental mask" has stood between the peoples of Asia and the foreign conquerors, leaving the former spiritually and morally more or less intact despite their political subjugation. It is also worth noting that Western efforts to alter and destroy the fundamental life-styles of Asia were far from being successful. If anything, such efforts resulted in increased frustration and puzzlement for the West.

    The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the central concepts of Buddhism, one of the major spiritual forces of Asia, which are relevant to social and political issues and revolutionary movements. What is the Buddhist view of man and his relationship to society? What is the answer of Buddhism to the ideologies of capitalism and communism and to the challenge of the "one-dimensional society"? [1] These are the questions upon which the following discussion will center and which will serve as a basis for evaluating the contributions of Buddhist thought to revolutionary movements.

    As a preliminary remark, it will be emphasized that the contribution of Buddhism to social and political movements is of an entirely different nature than that of the Catholic church or of any other organized religion. The Catholic church is a powerful organization which confronts political force as another, opposing political force. "Buddhism is much less a matter of organized and institutionalized orthodoxy than a state of mind and it aims not at a unified theological or political dogma but at a total clarification of consciousness." [2] Therefore, although the contributions of Buddhism to revolutionary movements extend to the field of direct social-political confrontation, the roots and main force of its revolutionary commitment are outside the mere socio-political realm.

    The number and variety of Buddhist sects are enormous. However it is not our intention to dwell on their differences, nor is that necessary for the purposes of this paper; for the various Buddhist groups differ from one another chiefly on questions concerning methods of attaining enlightenment and liberation from karman, but not on questions concerning the nature of man and the world. There are thus certain fundamental views concerning man and the world which are shared by all Buddhists, namely, the doctrine of nonself and the


1. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

2. Thomas Merton, Foreword to Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, by Thich Nhat Hanh (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967), p. viii.

 

 

p. 346

doctrine of karman. All other views which a Buddhist may have on social and political issues are based on these two doctrines. We shall now examine these in turn.

    The doctrine of nonself (anattaa) states that the idea of a "self" or "soul" as a permanent, substantial entity is an illusion. However intimate one's feelings and sensations about "oneself" are, one never becomes aware of a self which experiences these feelings and sensations. Thus "there is not a person who is in possession of character, thoughts and deeds; but characters, thoughts and deeds themselves are the person. There is no ego in you ... that thinks your thoughts and shapes your character, but your thoughts are thinking, and your character itself is the nature of your very self." [3] Analyses similar to this were made in the West by Hume. But without seeking refuge in common belief from the disastrous consequences of such an analysis, as Hume did, the Buddhist simply accepts the conclusion which the analysis yields; there is no such thing as an enduring, abiding, temporally identical self, and to think otherwise is to labor under an illusion which only breeds compulsive behavior and therewith sorrow and suffering.

    The most important consequence of the doctrine of nonself to man and society is that the notion of "possession" is rendered meaningless. "Possessing" and "having" presuppose something or someone who possesses and has, but in reality since there is no self which does the possessing, there simply cannot be any possession, either. Just as there are no thoughts which someone "has" but only thinking, so also there are no objects which someone "possesses" but only objects which are. Therefore, the common, uncritical belief that there is a possessor doing the possessing could only be due to a fond and gigantic illusion, grown hard and fast throughout aeons of ignorance and stupidity. When a man claims he possesses an object, for instance a house, what actions of his denote that he possesses the house? Someone might suggest: "Well, look, he paid so much money to the seller, obtained the deed from the registrar of real estate, moved his belongings into the house, eats, works, and sleeps in the house." Does this, however, mean that he is doing, in addition to these actions, something called possessing the house? Clearly, there is no particular action which may be called possessing. Possessing is all the above actions plus an attitude. The actions in themselves have nothing to indicate that the man performing them is doing something called possessing. For it is perfectly conceivable that a man pays the money to the seller, obtains the deed papers, etc., and gives the house away to someone whose house was just washed away by a flood. Not only that; one may buy the house for the man struck by the misfortune of the flood. The point, here is that all the actions mentioned above do


3. Paul Carus, Nirvana, A Story of Buddhist Psychology (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Co., 1902). p. 38.

 

 

p. 347

not in themselves amount to possessing. Only when a certain attitude is taken by a man toward an object, in particular the attitude which binds him to the object, can he be said to possess the object. If so, one could equally well say that the object possesses the man. Thus from the Buddhist point of view, "possessing" is a symmetrical relation. This becomes clear when one remembers that 'possession' means "being in bondage"; thus 'x possesses y' 'x is bound to y' 'y is bound to x' 'y possesses x.' Mere actions are not a sufficient condition for possession. Notice too that attitude is both a necessary and sufficient condition for possession of some kind or other. We may also remark here that possession as an attitude covers not only objects but persons and states of mind. For the Buddhist all possession is bondage, which is unfreedom.

    Clearly, then, Buddhism has little use for any form of capitalist ideology or ethic, for which the notions of property, possession, and ownership are central. The notion of property rights has no positive meaning in the Buddhist way of thinking. On the contrary, an individual who concerns himself with accumulating property, however honest and rightful the means he employs for doing so, is a victim of the worst form of ignorance, for he falls to see that by collecting things and attaching himself to them he becomes enchained and loses his freedom. Insofar as the high value which capitalism places on property and the desire to possess reinforces and perpetuates the ignorance which Buddhism tries to eliminate root and branch, Buddhism takes its stand in opposition to capitalism. A case in point is Southeast Asia, where children are taught at home and school not to value possessions and not to engage in the accumulation of property. Needless to say, Buddhism opposes accumulating goods and property, whether it be in the form of state capitalism or enlightened self-interest or laissez-faire, all in the name of the welfare of all. A view which regards the pursuit of goods and material well-being, whether by an individual, a group, or a nation, as an end in itself is unqualifiedly rejected by Buddhism as least conducive to the realization of freedom.

    The notion of karman further elucidates the Buddhist view on society and man's state of unfreedom. Karman is the principle of reciprocal causation or an "action-reaction" law. It simply states that every event, be it thought, word, or action, produces an effect and the effect in turn becomes a cause for another event. Put differently, according to the law of karman, nothing goes in vain, everything has its causes and effects. Thus the sequence of causes and effects, which is the karmic chain, goes on indefinitely. Man is caught up in the karmic chain because of his physical, psychological, and social needs and cravings. This can be illustrated by the example of a man in a capitalistic society. Thus, besides his basic needs which initially compel him to engage in the acquisition of goods for survival, the fact that he lives in a competitive economic system necessitates his continuing the acquisition of goods beyond the satisfaction of his basic needs. Paradoxically enough, the reason is still his

 

 

p. 348

survival and security, for he can no longer ensure his survival and security by merely satisfying his basic needs. In addition to hunger, cold, and illness, the fact of competition itself now becomes one of the forces which man must struggle against. Thus man's karmic bondage perpetuates itself in a competitive economic system. It is common knowledge that the capitalist ethic elevates competition to the status of a virtue and regards the free market as at least a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for man's freedom. But Buddhism sees competition as a karmic bondage and the free market as both a necessary and sufficient condition for total unfreedom. "For by giving "freedom to the economic system," while himself not yet free from his original economic bondage, man becomes a voluntary slave to the economic system and all that goes with it.

    Refutation of the above conclusion depends on the rejection of one of its premises, namely, the view that man is in economic bondage. Indeed, this is the important difference between the Buddhist concept of freedom, which is shared by Hinduism, and the capitalist and in general Western concept of freedom. In the West it is assumed, first of all, that man is born free; and second, that this original freedom is preserved by guaranteeing certain social and political rights to man. In sharp contest stands the Buddhist view that man, born into a world in which he is threatened not only by the fact of economic scarcity but by fears and anxieties arising out of his psychological and social needs and dependencies, is not free. Contrary to the Western conception in which man's freedom is assumed from the beginning, Buddhism holds that the recognition of man's initial lack of freedom is a necessary condition for his ever attaining true freedom. No wonder, then, Marx's pronouncement that man as we know him does not determine his social and economic conditions, but rather they determine him, is received by most Westerners with shock, horror, and disbelief, while it is nothing new to the Buddhists.

    Despite popular misconceptions, Marx did not intend the concept of economic determinism to be understood as the inevitable, final predicament of man, but rather as a bondage which man must seek to overcome in order to realize true freedom:

The realm of freedom only begins, in fact, where that labor which is determined by need and external purposes, ceases; it is therefore, by its very nature, outside the sphere of material production proper... Beyond it begins that development of human potentiality for its own sake, the true realm of freedom which however can only flourish upon that realm of necessity as its basis. [4]

Thus Marx's concept of economic determinism corresponds to one aspect of the Buddhist concept of karman and bondage. There are, then, two central


4. Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, trans. T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). pp. 254-255.

 

 

p. 349

points on which Marx and the Buddhists are in agreement but on which the Western and capitalist view differs. These are, first, that man is neither born free nor can he attain freedom through the present social and political institutions; and second, that the realm or genuine freedom begins where the realm of economic, social, and political institutions ends. But the differences between Marx and the Buddhists are as important as the similarities. The concept of economic determinism is narrower than that of karman. Karman is generated out of dependency relations of all kinds at all levels of human existence, not just those based on economic needs. Thus "the Buddhist ethic includes the Marxist ethic," and insofar as Marx did not give explicit consideration to other forms of bondage besides the economic, "the parallels pertain only to purely economic and political matters, not to philosophical foundations." [5] Secondly, Buddhism boldly rejects belief in any power, spiritual or material, which is external to man and superior to him. This means that no external conditions in which man happens to live can ultimately prevent him from attaining freedom, not even his being deprived of his basic economic needs. However, Buddhism too recognizes that not every man is a Buddha or even an enlightened man, but that severe economic hardships do in fact destroy the potential of most men for realizing their freedom, and recommends the removal of the initial obstacles created by economic needs in order to make possible the pursuit of freedom. Thus Buddhism is led to advocate socialism, not because a socialist doctrine follows inevitably from some basic Buddhist presuppositions, but because, as a matter of expediency, socialism provides the best means for overcoming economic bondage and attaining the higher goal of freedom.

    Nevertheless, the Buddhist analysis of society goes deeper than that of Marx or of any other Western theorist of man and society. Thus, although the Buddhist and Marx are in agreement as to the economic bondage of man and therewith the need to emancipate him from such bondage in order that he may enter the realm of true freedom, the Buddhist, unlike Marx, traces economic as well as other forms of bondage and unfreedom to a more fundamental source, namely, the drivenness and compulsive behavior of man. Hence, the real problem for the Buddhist analyst is to explain why and how man clings so tenaciously to the world socially ordered and controlled. An explanation of this clinging, argues the Buddhist, at once sheds light on all forms of bondage and unfreedom. For the Buddhist the crucial concept of such an explanation is karman or karmic energy. Every man, irrespective of his time, place, and order of development, is conditioned by the causal matrix made up of the social and biological continuities of life. Man's behavior in society is that of a driven creature and "men driven on by craving run about like a hunted hare. Fast


5. Ernst Benz, Buddhism or Communism: Which Holds the Future of Asia? (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), p. 179.

 

 

p. 350

bound in its fetters, they undergo suffering for a long time, again and again." [6] The driving forces constitute the structure of unconscious motivations and tendencies, and they cannot be mastered by what is ordinarily and avidly pursued as knowledge. According to the Buddhist, meditation and deep and excruciating introspective analyses provide the only means by which man can free himself from the prison of the causal matrix. Meditation is the process of removing the various impediments, all arising out of craving and grasping, to the attainment of higher knowledge and wisdom. "The elimination of the impediments makes the mind concentrated in meditation and this in turn makes it possible for it to have knowledge and insight of things as they are." [7]

    Thus karmic energy is the potency toward form, and the society into which man is born is the medium through which karmic energy actualizes itself. How and in what form the actualization takes place depends upon the karmic energy and the particular society of which a given man is a member. In this way,

Man is an ambivalent creature because he lives, on the one hand, under the demand of the backlog of his karmic energy, and, on the other hand, under the necessities of the social situation which is always structured before he arrives and with which he must come to terms. A continuous flow of karma expresses itself as the paraphernalia of wants, fears, habits, temperament and thought with which each person's behavior is informed. [8]

    In the light of the above Buddhist analysis of man it becomes clear that man's economic bondage is only one form of bondage whose roots lie deep in the karmic energy. Also, such questions as why men resist social change and why rapid social change demoralizes them are easily understood -- because the person or group attempting to change the prevailing social order is itself the living embodiment of that order and all that goes with it. He will never cut himself off from it. The most he does is to implement some hitherto unperceived implications of the fundamental concepts and premises and patterns of his culture. It is for this reason that all societies whose primary concern is to secure better adjustment of individuals to their serial roles and situation and smooth adaptation of social groups with one another end up by becoming one-dimensional societies. The members of such a society are so thoroughly absorbed and fitted in their society, much like the cogs in a machine, that they do not resist any social change. This does not, however, mean that they welcome change. What it means is that these men do not even have the awareness of alternatives and hence cannot consciously support or resist any change.


6. The Dhammapada," in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed. S. Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 318.

7. Sa.myutta Nikaaya, II, 30.

8. Nolan P. Jacobson, Buddhism: The Religion of Analysis (New York: Humanities Press, 1966), p. 131.

 

 

p. 351

For them all is well, because the society offers them ready-made justifications for everything it does, or does not do in order to preserve the prevailing order. Such justifications, needless to say, are internal justifications -- see for instance how a racist society points to its oppressed racial minorities as proof of the latter's inferiority, laziness, lack of intelligence, initiative, and morality, pushing aside the fact that it is the racist majority, through oppression and cruelty, which in the first place has created the conditions which led to the prevailing state of the minorities.

    The modes of thinking and living of one-dimensional men are thus fully conditioned by a system of self-validating categories, which signalize stupor, stagnation, and the peak of blindness. Paradoxically enough, one-dimensional men constantly babble about progress, social justice, human welfare, and freedom. It goes without saying that these words and phrases are slogans provided them by society as tools for self-perpetuation and self-justification. They are like dead men loudly proclaiming to be witnessing the glory of life. It is also important to note in this context that the Buddhist analysis of man and culture, unlike non-Buddhist analyses, does not beg the question. Thus Freud tells us that man's behavior is determined by libidinal factors, Marx tells us that it is determined by economic factors; others tell us that it is determined by social, political, or religions factors. The point here is that all these analyses beg the question by offering some single factor as the explanation for why man behaves the way he does, because they forget that the proposed explanatory factor itself is part of the problem for which a solution is being sought. Thus when someone asks why man behaves the way he does, he is asking at one and the same time why man's sexual, economic, social, political, and religious behavior is the way it is. If so, does it make sense to answer him in terms of the very categories which are part of the puzzle? The Buddhist analysis of man and society does not fall victim to such question-begging.

    On the basis of the foregoing analysis we shall now attempt to equate the potential and resources for revolution which the Buddhist world view provides. First, let us state a few general observations concerning revolutions. The notion of "freedom," irrespective of how it has been interpreted or put to practice by the revolutionaries, has always been central to revolutions. The proclaimed goal of all revolutions, without exception, has been to bring about a greater freedom to men than the existing social and political order allows. (This characterization applies even to fascism and Stalinism.) This, of course, presupposes the recognition of the; present state of relative unfreedom on the part of the revolutionary. Thus Marxism is a revolutionary philosophy insofar as it recognizes man's unfreedom due to the existing socio-economic order and seeks to create conditions for greater freedom by overthrowing the present economic and political institutions. Application of these criteria to Buddhism as a revolutionary philosophy results in startling conclusions. As was pointed out earlier,

 

 

p. 352

according to Buddhism, the cause for man's unfreedom is not just his economic bondage and the dependency relationships resulting from it, but every other kind of dependency relationship as well to which man commits himself through his social interactions, including all psychological concerns and attachments which he develops to objects and other human beings. For all these things constitute man's "self," which is thus nothing but the karmic product of social interactions. Until the nature of the "self" is recognized to be just that and nothing more, complete freedom is impossible. An individual is free when he no longer clings to his "self," or to the psychological and social identities, attachments, and loyalties which produced the idea of self. It follows that one who is completely immersed in society and social interactions is everything but free, and that freedom cannot be ultimately realized through social or political institutions of any kind. One who becomes absorbed in society and completely identified with it cannot but regard society as an end. But when society and its values and institutions become ends in themselves, the individual becomes a means to society, the perpetuation of which is the ultimate end. According to Buddhism such a state of affairs is the height of man's unfreedom; according to Herbert Marcuse, it is the full realization of the one-dimensional society. The other dimension consists in the openness of the existing system of truths and values to that which is beyond it and is not yet. Change and progress, which are possible only in a society which is open to the other dimension, consist in the transformation of the society from what it is now to what it is not yet. What happens in the one-dimensional society is that, having lost sight of society as means only, man has lost sight of the other dimension to which society is a means.

    Buddhism does not see man's attainment of freedom as a progression from one form of society with a relatively low degree of freedom to another with a greater degree of freedom. Rather, Buddhism considers man to be in a state of absolute unfreedom when attached to any form of society whatever and finds the realization of freedom in the ultimate renunciation of social and political institutions of every kind. A free man lives in society but is not of it. He may perform any kind of function in society, he may work for the benefit of his fellow man within the social framework, but he does not attach himself to any of the institutions of society nor identify with any group of people or ideology. Buddhism acknowledges no presuppositions from which any "true" social or political ideology can be derived, it is in this sense that Buddhism is radically asocial but not antisocial, for it does not contain presuppositions from which the destruction of all societies can be derived.

    As a consequence Buddhism can never be caught up in the paradox of the revolutionary. By "paradox of the revolutionary" is meant the following: A revolutionary is not interested in merely destroying the existing social and political order; rather his goal is to substitute a new order, in which he envi-

 

 

p. 353

sions the potential for realizing freedom to be maximized, for the old order in which men lacked freedom. But after a successful revolution he himself becomes the defender of the status quo; the revolutionary movement loses its revolutionary character and degenerates into a conservative regime, insofar as the followers of Marx attempt to deduce inevitable truths concerning societies, as they have done by means of the notion of historical dialectic, a certain form of society comes to be regarded as the "true" form of society and therefore an end in itself, even if only a temporary end in the progress of historical dialectic.

    Buddhism recognizes no such truths concerning societies. According to Buddhism, progress toward freedom takes place within the human consciousness. Thus whereas

Western man places all his hopes upon interaction with man and the rest of nature, Buddhism cultivates the inner man. Buddhism directs us to the point in human experience where each individual stands alone, where there is not room for even the dearest friend. It is here in the unsharable, incommunicable privacy of a single life that Buddhism has something unique to say. In a way that no companionship can ever mitigate, man is a solitary creature, an individual stream of existence... According to the Buddhist point of view, those who do not accept this essential solitariness at the core of their being resort to one strategy or another, always with grave social consequences, for keeping this solitude from reaching conscious awareness and thereby hiding from life's fundamental realities. [9]

Therefore, progress toward freedom is not a temporal process determined by historical conditions. Indeed, man is free only when he is no longer determined by historical, social, or any such so-called objective conditions. Hence, the creation of even the best possible historical conditions for man can never be regarded as an end in itself, not even temporarily. We have seen that the most unrevolutionary society, which Marcuse calls the "one-dimensional society," finds the justification for its existence in the very conditions which produce it. Marxism, too, insofar as it appeals to social and historical conditions for the justification of a social order which it hopes to realize through revolution contains the seeds of the one-dimensional society. For whenever the reason for and ultimate justification of a revolution is sought in socio-historical events and processes, whether these be the dialectic of matter or spirit, the revolution will sooner or later find itself defending some social and political status quo as its own end and justification.

    According to Buddhism, as has been pointed out earlier, history and society are the modes of actualization and perpetuation of man's karmic energies; therefore, all attempts to realize freedom through socio-historical processes are doomed to failure. Such attempts, instead of leading to the mastery of karmic determinations and therewith to freedom, simply yield to them, thereby


9. Ibid., p. 138.

 

 

p. 354

furthering the state of ignorance, bondage, and unfreedom. This is not to say, however, that Buddhism is totally unconcerned with the social, political and historical conditions of man. On the contrary, in his infinite compassion, the Buddhist would work toward the realization of such a society as would be most conducive to the attainment of true freedom. But he never falls victim to the fond delusion that social and political revolutions are in themselves adequate for the attainment of freedom and enlightenment. Thus it is correct to say that, in sharp contrast to the ends and goals of socio-political revolutions, the ends which Buddhism seeks to realize are outside of any social or historical contexts; hence the ultimate source of the Buddhist revolutionary spirit lies beyond all social and historical contexts: it neither begins nor ends in the realization of any form of social order. Paradoxically, then, it is precisely this fundamentally asocial, negative view of Buddhism on society that renders it a philosophy of perpetual revolution.