This is republished in it’s entirety. I have edited the formatting a bit (it was just a large block of text) but other than that it is intact. You can find the original here http://blog.beliefnet.com/onecity/2009/02/can-a-buddhist-be-an-anarchist.html Hope you enjoy!☸
To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.~ Gotama Buddha
I’ve had many wonderful conversations over the past few years about the role of anarchism in western society (not the Anarchist Cookbook blow stuff up and call it anarchism juvenile version, I’m talking real deal anarchy that involves re-thinking the way the society is structured.) The more I sit, and take my practice into daily life, the more I’m finding that the way I approach my art, money job, friends, and family (and self) is starting to resemble an approach that I would have called anarchy in the past but now I tend to think of as increased mindfulness. Which led me to thinking about the compatibility of anarchism and Buddhism, and in particular wondering if the eight-fold path makes it impossible to simultaneously be a Buddhist and an anarchist. I guess, at this particularly moment, the question I am exploring is – is social revolution (anarchy) compatible with insight into emptiness (buddhism).
At the crux of the issue are what appear to be two opposing viewpoints:
1) Anarchy requires the destruction/reformation of the state in a way that allows each individual to maximize his or her potential as they see fit, without the imposition of external rule or authority. Theoretically, in a perfect anarchist state common sense and basic human morals would act as a deterrent to crime and violence.
2) Buddhism suggest that we do no harm and that we do what we can to reduce violence and suffering in our own lives and the lives of others. Buddhism, like anarchism, suggests that we question authority and arrive at our own conclusions about whether a particular teaching or perspective is true.
So here’s the problem. Modern society – that is, the one we live in – perpetuates a great deal of suffering on a great many people.
As Buddhists, we can shape our lives as examples (or not) of how to live a “free-er” life within the system by working on understanding the nature of our desires and what constitutes a truly free, productive life, with a foundation of reducing suffering. But the deeper I go into this question, and the more I opt for the de rigeur “less suffering” options in a consumer society (canvas bags, cruelty free products, less meat) the more I see that I am trading one consumer category for another. I’m not becoming more free; I’m merely becoming “MoreFree, Inc.”. As long as we are monkeying around within the system, we’re just monkeying around within the system. This is not a bad thing per se, but it’s just a realization I’ve had and one which has kept me slightly ambivalent about becoming as deeply involved as I had initially thought I would with the IDP activism, at least until I have a better sense of what this question means to me. I know this is a big part of what is being explored in the activism programs at the IDP (how to do compassionate activism), but I haven’t quite settled the question enough for myself yet to be ready to explore this question in a group setting.
Then there’s anarchy. True anarchy (again, not the black coat wearing perversion of anarchy that involves blowing things up and killing people) demands a stateless society, one in which ever-increasing self and community knowledge make it less and less desirable for a state to control, tax, and legislate personal behavior. Not only are there as many definitions of anarchy as there are anarchists, anarchy is such a free-form political philosophy that eventually it bends back around onto itself – left-wing anarchists and right-wing libertarians start to look awfully similar after even a two-drink-maximum. In truly anarchist society could/would they co-exist? At the very least, anarchy’s insistence on no-dogma/no-rules with basic human morality prevailing looks quite appealing from a Buddhist perspective.
If modern American capitalism and the state are, by definition, designed to consolidate power and to encourage increased production at the inherent cost of oppression and re-allocation of wealth, it seems that there is suffering built into the system. Anarchy is not necessarily an answer, but it is an interesting question to ponder with its emphasis on a formless state and re-interpretation of free-market economies, and freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm your neighbor. The state/society we work in and on cannot ever be considered as abiding by Buddhist precepts – there is too much taking of human life and suffering baked into the system in the forms of war, malnutrition, degradation of women, minorities, and children, and exploitation at the hands of capitalism.
But changing the system also necessitates creating suffering for those who do not want the change. It necessitates deciding that our vision is right, and that our actions to manifest that vision are right. It necessitates a great leap of faith for ourselves and those we want to follow us, which means that we are saying “trust me, I got this”, which seems to lead directly to ego. And I have found it nearly impossible to avoid hatred/derision when considering those who oppose what I think is right, which is something I’m working on – it’s so much easier to be compassionate when contemplating than when confronting, for sure. I’m wondering if this conundrum is what has led to Buddhists historically being known for not taking a whole lot of “action”.
I’ve met many people at the IDP who would never remotely identify as anarchists. Some not even activists. But I have had some conversations with certain folks that have left me with the impression that there might be an anarchist lurking somewhere inside that Buddhist. And so I’m wondering, for real, can you be a Buddhist and an anarchist?