Is Buddhism compatible with Marxism?

June 4, 2010

This must be a momentous occasion. According to the May 22 Sydney Morning Herald, the Dalai Lama — a major leader of a major religion — has declared himself “half Marxist half Buddhist”.

First we must ask questions about Buddhism itself. Is Buddhism a single religion, or even a religion? Would the two main streams constitute a schism? The Dalai Lama is the largely undisputed global figurehead of Mahayana Buddhism. There is no equivalent figurehead in the other dominant stream, Theravada, which stretches from South Asia to South-East Asia.

Both are practiced widely as a “religion”, with the Buddha treated more as a deity than a guru (teacher).

Theravada has also many local customs and practices in countries where it is practised, and both streams have rituals, incense burning, prayer and chanting.

In both traditions, most leading monks would agree that such practices are mumbo jumbo, and of little or no value other than to bring money into the temples and monastic order.

Many lay Buddhists also shun such irrelevant practices so that meditation, a sophisticated approach to human psychology, and intellectual understanding remain the main instruments of the widespread Buddhist cognoscenti.

After 2500 years, one would expect there to be some mystical, exaggerated and fantastic additions to the original belief, and perhaps even deliberate distortions. It is still very clear that what Buddha established is a rich philosophical tradition and an outstanding philosophical contribution.

From a Marxist viewpoint, Buddha was an early materialist who touched on dialectics. Buddha would have been aware of the debate about the relationship of “absolute” to “relative” but not any dialectical resolution of that debate.

Whereas Hinduism embraced the absolute, the rebellious Buddha taught about the relative world, the real world. His teachings are anchored in everyday life and all living things. However, many of the accepted ideas of the time find currency in Buddha’s expression and Buddhist traditions: sexism, caste-ism, polytheism and migration of souls, for example.

His primary polemic or treatise was: 1. There is suffering, 2. Suffering has a cause, 3. That cause can be eliminated, and 4. This is the path to defeat it (the eightfold path).

The most fundamental laws he identified were that of “cause and effect”, and “everything changes”. This puts him squarely in the modern dialectical materialist camp. Another 2400 years of philosophical debate would have been of assistance to him then.

However, “karma” is implicitly elevated to mystical status and nirvana/nibbana is described as an absolute state (Marxists might say “qualitatively different state”).

Pleasingly, caste-ism, (poly)theism, and the soul are trashed along the way, implicitly if not explicitly.

Buddha eventually did admit women into the monkhood, but they faced additional requirements, so we are yet to see a satisfactory outcome.

The Dalai Lama acknowledges Marxism’s moral character and condemns capitalism, but fails (at least publicly) to acknowledge Marxism’s philosophical validity.

But many on the left don’t really have much of an idea of what dialectical materialism is exactly about either. In my 40 years on the left, having attended numerous political classes delivered by Marxist parties, I have never attended, or been aware of, a single class explaining dialectical materialism — the philosophical foundation of Marxist theory.

Historical materialism classes, by comparison, are a dime a dozen. Buddhism and other philosophical systems scarcely touch the horizon of the organised left.

Ok, Dalai Lama, out with it: is there a natural affinity between Buddhism and dialectical materialism or not? I welcome your reply.

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I think they are very distinct from each other, sure there are some similarities but I find it difficult to assimilate the idea of compatibility between Buddhism and Marxism. It would be interesting to learn the opinion of some members of the Buddha Maitreya church, I am sure they have some specific visions on this matter.

I dont think they both are alike....buddhism is more about peace and enlightment and marxism reflects the love towards own culture......

Buddhist Temples

Thank you for your article. Being a Buddhist woman born and raised in Thailand, where there was a communist movement during the 70s, I think I can add a little bit of perspective to the article, since this is something I saw first hand.

While Thailand is a very Buddhist country (I believe it is somewhere between 85% to 90% Buddhist) and the Marxists in Thailand were most likely born and raised Buddhists, they did not have much love for organized Buddhism in the country. Many of them advocating abolishing the monarchy (which is also deeply beloved in Thailand), while others also openly displayed disdain for the Buddhist Sangha (brotherhood of monks). This later part was probably one of the biggest reasons that Marxism never had more than a tiny foothold in Thailand, even though the neighboring countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia all fell to Marxists.

I must disagree with a few generalizations about Buddhism (and Buddhists) that are made in this article, specifically:

In both traditions, most leading monks would agree that such practices are mumbo jumbo, and of little or no value other than to bring money into the temples and monastic order.

I am not sure what you would define as a "leading monk." If you are talking about monks who are well known in the Western media and sell lots of books and whose followers are overwhelmingly Western, not Asian, then they may have that attitude.

But who might be POPULAR in the US and Europe, and might have well-funded causes, might not make them a LEADING MONK, if you know what I mean.

The Dalai Lama, for example, is NOT well known at all in Southeast Asia. I've been a Buddhist my entire life, and I had no idea who he was until after I had been living here in the US for some 12 years, and most of my Thai friends have absolutely no idea who he is either. But they know many, many venerated monks in Thailand and Laos. They are very familiar with the monks and nuns at their local temples.

In Bhutan and Nepal, neighbors of Tibet where the Buddhist practices are most similar, they don't recognize the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Buddhism. They have their own spiritual leaders. I believe that in even in Tibet there were different groups of Buddhists who did not recognize the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Buddhism.

I bring this up not to be argumentative. I only want to point out that the Dalia Lama only speaks for a rather small percentage of Buddhists (however well-known they may be).

Further, I am sure that many of his own followers would disagree with your implication that the Dalai Lama believes ritual practices are "mumbo jumbo" (which is what I think you are implying).

Also, It is not the attitude of the monks I know of in Asia that rituals are mumbo jumbo. Every year in my home country, hundreds, if not thousands of books are printed with ancient prayers, as well as interpretations of prayers, plus practical advice on making merit (tham boon - a method of countering bad karma). Books about understanding the meaning of the dharma are much, much more popular in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos than any book by any of the "leading monks" you could name.

On the other hand, you would be hard-pressed to find any books on meditation.

While I can't speak for the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, I can say with some confidence that in the Theravada tradition, Buddhism is considered a religion and NOT a philosophy. In fact, we use the Thai word for religion (satsana) when speaking of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, etc. No Thai person ever uses the word for philosophy (prachaya) when talking about Buddhism.

Another statement I find hard to understand is this one:

Many lay Buddhists also shun such irrelevant practices so that meditation, a sophisticated approach to human psychology, and intellectual understanding remain the main instruments of the widespread Buddhist cognoscenti.

Are you speaking about American and other people who were born into the Judeo Christian religions and "became" Buddhists because of Richard Gere and The Beastie Boys? The same types of Buddhists who have never actually been inside a Buddhist temple? Don't know how to say any of the Buddhist prayers in Pali language? Never made offerings to monks? The same Buddhists who don't wear Amulets?

If you are talking about that SMALL MINORITY of Buddhists, then yes, you are right. They probably tend to shun rituals and think that meditation is the most important aspect of Buddhism.

But the overwhelming majority of Buddhists don't. Again, in Thailand, there are some recognized meditation masters, but they are not nearly as well known as those that teach Dharma. Many Buddhists in many Asian countries make pilgrimages of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to holy Buddhist relics, or the temples where venerated monks were said to have performed amazing feats. Many Thai (and other Asian) people will pay obscene amounts of money for amulets that have been blessed by venerated monks.

Does that sound like they shun ritual to you?

Also, another common practice is to release animals that have been caught so as to make merit and erase bad karma. So at temples, you will see cages of birds that have been caught for the specific purpose that people can release them.

Does that sound like karma is a mystical status? Or does it sound like it is something that is practical and important in their daily lives?

Again, please understand that I am not trying to lecture anyone about what "is or isn't" Buddhism. I am, however, just trying to point out that if we base our understanding of Buddhists and their beliefs on a few well known examples in the Western media, then we might not get an accurate idea of what the overwhelming majority of Buddhists believe around the world.

Thank you so much for letting me share my thoughts. This is a subject that I am very much devoted to. I hope that my post will spur your readers to learn more about the wide diversity of Buddhist practices and beliefs.

I am very much appreciative of the comment contributed so far particularly - A Buddhist Perspective (let me call - ABP).

I think that the author of ABP and I share many views. Though it would be far better if we could sit and talk at length someday, a few written comments on my part may do for now.

Quite likely my term "mumbo-jumbo" wouldn't be used by any of the Buddhists I have held discussions with. That is a rarely used expression these days, suggesting magic or superstition. Inheriting the critical traditions of Marxism-Leninism (and others) I am tempted to use harsher, more scornful terms but you might think I didn't respect you as a person as your writing suggests a rather different etiquette. It is clear you accept the rituals and distortions that I consider have infiltrated into Buddhism.

My limited knowledge of Buddhism began with a retired Buddhism professor at Nakorn Pathom. I lived with him for almost a month but then left for India with some of his books and references. My immense gratitude to that gentleman who combined a scholarly and meditative approach and influenced me profoundly. My gratitude also to the many Thai monks in Varanasi (BHU) who paid me for the privilege of teaching them spoken English and shared with me their discussions and passions in Buddhism over a number of years. Several decades later I am very familiar and comfortable with Thai perspectives on Buddhism though I have also been somewhat influenced by Burmese, Tibetan and other traditions.

In recent years I attended a Chinese Buddhist monk Kung Fu theatre program in Sydney. The two themes of their performance were (1) use your intelligence and (2) meditate. I concur. The performance was most impressive and the message delightfully put. That is not the message you generally find in Thai temples.

I asked a Tibetan Lama visiting Australia why did he tell people he would pray for them and suggest they pray ? Who is hearing those private prayers? How will the prayer do anything? He said it makes people feel better. That is not my kind of Buddhism. Leaders of Buddhism I have in mind are those I have met who make it to a significant podium, teach or who have published, and are recommended by other Buddhists. Strangely I have been minimally exposed to American Buddhist literature which I understand to have been largely drawn from Mayahana and would no doubt have merit. Clearly I lean strongly to Therevada and the Tipitika. Having been in so many temples including Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian it saddens me that Buddha’s teaching is similarly debased. For me prayer is nothing, incense and ritual is entertainment not Buddhism, bowing down to an idol is pathetic. Nothing I have read of Buddha supports such practices that are common in so many other religions. You said it accurately that for you Buddhism is a religion whereas for me it is certainly not. For me it is a philosophy, an intellectual tradition and a fabulous treatise on "suffering". Buddha was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.

I don’t believe that Marxism is about love for one’s culture, it is about the application of science and philosophy to human socio-economic development and social justice. As is Buddhism, Marxism is imbued with compassion. If their compatibility is to be considered the appropriate focus should be on their fundamental understandings of life and reality, i.e. philosophy.

Many thanks, ABP, I would be delighted to discuss by email or Skype if that would be of interest to you.