Engaged Buddhists need radical social theory

This article was originally published in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) website at http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/engaged-buddhists-need-radical-social-theory/. Since its founding in 1978, BPF has played a crucial role in fostering a socially engaged approach to Buddhism in the United States.


As socially engaged Buddhists, we understand that urgent social problems like poverty, climate change and racism will not be resolved unless we challenge and transform the oppressive and exploitative social structures which are key contributors to these problems. We also believe that social transformation is impossible in the absence of profound changes in the ways that individuals think, feel, and act in the world. The key question then is: What perspectives and practices promote both profound individual changes and social transformation in a mutually reinforcing way?

For many younger, socially engaged Buddhists, including those active with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, this question has always been relevant. That was not the case, however, for myself and many in the generation that became politically active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of tremendous social unrest and radical protest movements. At that time, there was a sharp separation between those of us who became politically active in various causes and those who were seeking a spiritual path, sometimes by journeying to India and other Asian countries. For example, I knew virtually nothing about Buddhism then and considered those who were involved in meditation and spirituality as ‘New Age’ hippies who were overly self-involved and unconcerned about the political and economic crises we were facing. I was dismissive of them.

My path to secular Buddhism

That was a long time ago. I am no longer dismissive and in fact I think that we need to find a way to bridge the gap between a focus on individual happiness and liberation found in Buddhism and the project of social transformation.  How did I come to build such a bridge?

Through my life-long involvement as an activist in the labor movement and various political campaigns, as well as my own personal struggles, I gradually realized two things. First, social transformation cannot be achieved and sustained without fundamental changes in the ways people understand themselves and relate to each other. I saw so many examples of activist groups hampered by or even broken up by individuals who, while professing idealistic goals, were unable to work well with others because of their need to dominate or control the group’s agenda. I also saw that attachment to the goals of various campaigns or movements often left people ‘burnt out’ if those goals were not achieved, which was often the case. Second, as I gained more experience as a human being and experienced the “ten thousand joys and sorrows” of life which we all must encounter, I came to understand that even a more radically just society cannot eliminate what we Buddhists know as dukkha, the inescapably tragic dimension of life. Even under the best of social, economic, and political conditions, we, as human beings, will experience at an existential level various levels of stress, dis-ease, and suffering, along with all the joyful moments in life.

Ten years ago, when dealing with a very stressful situation at my workplace, my wife suggested that I meditate. She had experience with Insight meditation so I began to meditate, mostly to de-stress and gain more calm, but I then began to experience some of the ways in which meditation can provide greater insight and wisdom. We started going to programs at the New York Insight Meditation Center (NYI) and something in the practice of silent meditation and the sense of bonding with others also committed to a path leading to kindness and mindfulness deeply resonated with me.

While not everyone at the center was an activist, many people I encountered saw their meditative practice as deeply connected to their efforts to contribute to social justice movements. As a result, I had the experience at NYI of feeling like I was coming ‘home.’

From one of the teachers at NYI, I learned about Stephen Batchelor’s effort to develop a secular approach to Buddhism, which, as an agnostic and as someone not attracted to the ritualistic elements of religion, I found tremendously valuable. Stephen provided a theory and perspective for the path that I seemed to be groping toward. At this point, while continuing my labor and political activism, I dove into a study of Buddhist traditions, perspectives, and practices, with a particular emphasis on secular and socially engaged Buddhism.

For me, the challenge was how these new, important insights about human experience could be connected to and complement the radical perspectives on society and politics that I had believed in for many years. How did the Buddha’s insights about the cause of and remedy for suffering fit into the non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism which had always guided my labor and political activism? How did meditation practice and a focus on internal experience relate to my deep involvement with workers’ collective struggles against exploitation and mistreatment?  In what ways was the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering consistent with Marx’s objective of creating a socialist society in which working people had democratic control over the economy and the political system? Here is how I have come to understand the connection.

The relationship of Marxism and Buddhism

Buddhism and Marxism do share some important features. This is a topic that has been thoroughly explored by a number of writers, but I’ll highlight the key commonalities:

  • Both are universalistic perspectives which have the goal of alleviating human suffering and facilitating the development of our ‘true’ or better aspects of our human nature so that all human beings can flourish.
  • They each offer an explanation of why human beings suffer and how we can end that suffering.
  • Finally, Buddhism and Marxism emphasize the interdependence and interconnection of human beings; they both are premised on the notion that the flourishing of individuals cannot occur in isolation from a broader social transformation involving all human beings.

At the same time, they diverge in important respects, the most crucial of which is the emphasis in Buddhism on how individuals need to change fundamentally their relationship (cognitively, affectively, etc.) to their experiences versus Marxism’s focus on the centrality of economic conditions and social conflict in facilitating individual and social transformation.

Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Buddhism provides us with profound insights about the human condition at an existential level.  Based on these understandings, Buddhism identifies those practices which lead to greater happiness and less suffering in response to the challenges that we all must face as mortal human beings, irrespective of the social context or historical era that we live in. But while Buddhism captures certain basic, universal aspects of human experience, it does not sufficiently take account of the specific ways in which social structures and economic conditions shape and affect how we act think, feel, and act as human beings. From a Marxist perspective, the impact of our social environment is crucial in explaining human actions and the course of history, yet those social forces are themselves shaped by human activity. There is, in short, always a process of mutual interaction between the individual and society.

At the same time, while Marxism recognizes the mutual interaction or dialectic between the individual and society, and can thus provide us with a social theory that offers us guidance on how to transform social institutions, Marxism does not address the ways in which, at an experiential level, life involves suffering and anguish irrespective of the social context due, in part, to our own tendency to harm ourselves and others as a result of greed, hatred, and delusion. By not recognizing that source of individual and social harm, Marxism offers, to some extent, an overly simplistic and optimistic account of the process of social change. This lacuna in Marxism is not just theoretically problematic but has contributed to the tragic defeats of many radical movements seeking to transform social institutions.

Buddhism and Marxism thus have crucial insights about how we can foster individual and social liberation, but they each have important weaknesses. So, how do we proceed? Do we try to combine elements of each to form a new, universal world view, Buddhism-Marxism? I am skeptical of such an approach given the fundamental differences between them. Rather, I think it is more fruitful to look at how each perspective can inform or enrich the other in ways that make both Buddhist practice and radical political activism more efficacious and more consistent with their respective goals. In short, we need to find a way to bring these perspectives together in a complementary way.

Let me spell out this point in more detail.

We need an emancipatory social theory

As Bhikkhu Bodhi and others have pointed out, the Buddha’s teachings are not just about the liberation of individuals but have a strong ethical and social component. The Buddha emphasized the interconnection of all beings and the need to create a society in which we strive to limit harm. One of the core insights of the Buddha is that we are part of a web of constantly changing causes and conditions. Human beings are not isolated, self-sufficient entities, but, like everything else that exists, are interconnected with and interdependent on all other parts of reality. Consistent with this holistic notion, most Buddhists recognize the crucial role that biological conditioning and the social environment has on human beings. From human beings’ biological preference for pleasure and aversion to pain to the impact of social and cultural conditioning (education, parenting, economic conditions, etc.), we are profoundly shaped by our biology and social environment.

Yet, despite the recognition that these forces have an impact on us, Buddhists argue that the root cause of the suffering that we experience above and beyond the inevitable physical and emotional “pains” of life resides in the problematic nature of our minds – namely, our natural proclivity toward greed, hatred, and delusion. These three ‘defilements’ create the basic problems that we face as human beings. Buddhists see exploitative and oppressive social structures as the product of the mind’s defilements and then, as part of a vicious cycle, they reinforce the very defilements which produced them.

On the other hand, a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism emphasizes the structural and systemic roots of human suffering while also recognizing the crucial role of human activity. In contrast to a deterministic Marxism which assumes that the course of history is a function of the ‘laws of motion’ of economic and social forces and human beings are just passive role players in this process, a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism conceives of human beings as active agents who both create social structures but are also profoundly shaped by them. Human beings are active, creative beings who transform themselves and their environment through social labor and thus create and transform social and economic structures. At any point in time, the material conditions of social life are, in part, produced by human activity. But those material conditions constitute the specific conditions, beyond our immediate control, that create limits and constraints on human activity. Thus, human activity and social conditions mutually presuppose and reciprocally interact with each other.

Implications for Buddhist practice

For socially engaged Buddhists, the shift from a focus on the defilements of the individual mind to seeing individual and social harm as being the product of the combined interaction of individuals and social structures has several important implications.

First, while all types of socially engaged practice have value, from community service to hospice care, the importance of connecting with social and political movements that are challenging systemic and structural problems needs to be in the forefront of our work. This, of course, can take many forms: campaigns around climate change, support for racial justice through a fight against systemic racism, participation in the labor movement, and many others.

Second, we need to develop and sustain sanghas which, in their activities and internal processes, reflect our aspiration to promote human flourishing through both individual transformation and collective liberation.  We need to see the sangha as an essential part of the path to individual liberation and social change, not just a support for individual, meditative practice. For those Buddhists committed to acting and engaging in the world for social change, the sangha can be a context in which compassion, mindfulness, and equanimity is developed in and through the collective efforts of the sangha members to contribute to social transformation.

Just as important as the types of collective activity that sangha members are engaged in, we need to move away from the traditional model of sanghas in which there is a hierarchical relationship between teachers and students. We must create and sustain democratic sanghas based on the equal participation of members, each sharing their knowledge, life experiences and meditative practices. As Stephen Batchelor has emphasized, in such democratic sanghas, a diverse community of self-reliant individuals mutually support one another on the path. If we, as engaged Buddhists want to contribute toward the creation of a democratic, socially just society, then it’s essential that how we relate to each other within our sanghas reflects the contemporary, progressive values of equality, democracy, participation, and inclusiveness which are the foundation for such a just society.

Among western Buddhists, whether socially-engaged or not, there is an increasing recognition of the need to move away from teacher-centric sanghas. Some experiments in creating more democratic sanghas and meditation groups are discussed in Moving away from hierarchy and toward democratic sanghas on this website. The local sangha that I’m part of in northern New Jersey is one of those experiments. Our sangha has evolved in a more democratic and participatory direction since we established the group over three years ago. A group of us rotate leading the meditations and facilitating discussions among the group’s members (both dyads and whole groups), but we are not seen as teachers who have a special status based on an advanced level of wisdom and meditative attainments. More important, while the format for the group is partially based on NYI’s model for its local sanghas, the members of our group have modified that format in significant ways, based on discussions and decisions that were democratically arrived at.

What Marxists can learn from the Buddha

While a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism recognizes the important role of human activity in history, it has too limited a notion of human experience, and of our tendencies and proclivities. Marxism rightly highlights a key characteristic of human beings: our capacity for intelligent, creative, and social labor (praxis) which enables us to generate new technologies, scientific discoveries, and artistic products, as well as transform our social environment. This distinctively human quality is what makes radical, social change possible and the maximization of this quality – only possible in an egalitarian, socialist society – is thus, from a Marxist perspective, the essential precondition for human flourishing. Through human creativity and praxis, we can gain an understanding of the structures of exploitation and oppression which cause us to suffer and develop the perspectives and strategies to transform these structures. Based on this understanding, we come to recognize the need for a broad, inclusive solidarity among all who suffer from exploitation and oppression, allowing us to overcome the parochial identities which divide us by nationality, race, gender, etc.

Marxists do, of course, recognize that our capacity for intelligent action and unity is often overwhelmed by the ways in which exploitative social institutions promote greed, violence, and ignorance, thwarting efforts to develop a broader consciousness and solidarity among all human beings. But what even a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism fails to recognize is that our tendency to be dominated by greed, hatred, and delusion and the subsequent ‘surplus suffering’ that we experience are not just the product of social conditions, but are ‘built in’ at an existential level, regardless of the social context. In this respect, the Buddha’s teachings and injunctions for how to live well reflect a more sophisticated understanding of our human nature and condition in the world.  Lacking such a nuanced perspective on human nature, Marxism fails to see the myriad ways in which our tendencies toward greed, hatred, and delusion complicate the process of social change.

Given our complex human nature, the Buddha recognized the need to develop and cultivate a comprehensive set of insights, virtues, and emotional qualities to achieve individual transformation and to create a society in which all human beings can flourish. Based on his core teachings regarding impermanence, suffering, and not-self, as well as the principle of conditionality, the Buddha emphasized the importance of radically changing our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with other beings as we become more mindfully present. He also highlighted the need to cultivate certain emotional qualities consistent with his core teachings: the four Brahmaviharas, which are loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  While Marxists have argued that critical consciousness and broader solidarities are developed in the course of struggles against exploitation and oppression, the Buddha prescribed, in the Eightfold Path, a multi-dimensional approach involving ethics, meditation, and wisdom to cultivate the insights, virtues, and emotional qualities needed for individual and social transformation.

Implications for radical, political practice

In the first place, the Buddha’s insights into our complex human nature can help us to recognize the limits of what we can accomplish through social and political change. Once we recognize that we are complex and contradictory beings, we are more likely to develop a greater sense of humility and a greater understanding of the obstacles to social transformation. For, to whatever extent a decent, just society can be established and sustained, human beings will still suffer. We cannot create a perfect society and we should not claim that we can. Consequently, the hubris and dogmatism that sometimes pervades radical political activism is less likely to dominate our movements.

Second, the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion, core aspects of the dharmic path, can help activists be more effective and sustain a long-term commitment to social change. One might argue that these emotional qualities weaken or dilute an activist’s passion to fight against injustice and lead to a passive attitude of accepting what is. In fact, the opposite is true. When activism is less fueled by rage and aggression, we can better confront exploitative social structures and those in power.  Our ability to develop viable social change strategies will be enhanced insofar as we ‘keep our eyes on the prize’ rather than have our vision clouded by aversion and anger linked to the needs of our egos. Further, a Buddhist perspective helps us to go through the hard times and difficult defeats that we must inevitably encounter. The Buddhist emphasis on impermanence, non-attachment, and the conditioned nature of all human actions provides us with a more long-term perspective on the day-to-day struggles. We can lose a battle that we care deeply about, and feel badly, but we are less likely to abandon our core commitment to a just society.

Finally, in the history of radical political movements, there is a pervasive tendency for idealism, democracy, and solidarity to be increasingly replaced by authoritarian and unethical behavior by powerful leaders. Certainly, it’s essential to have in any organization democratic structures and processes that ensure the accountability of leaders and promote inclusion and participation. Just as important, however, the Buddhist emphasis on loving kindness and non-attachment can provide additional support for limiting the tendency toward oppressive relationships within organizations. If our actions are less determined by ego-based greed, anger, and delusion, we are more likely to make a productive contribution within a group and to treat others with greater respect and dignity.

As I gained a greater appreciation of mindfulness, compassion, and kindness through my practice, I found that I was able, at times, to bring Buddhist insights and valued emotional qualities into my work as a staff member for a progressive labor union. Particularly when our union was facing great challenges or tensions grew between individuals and groups due to disputes over policies and strategies, I was able to contribute a sense of balance and a broader, long-term perspective which took into account the complexity of situations and our limited ability to foresee or control the results of our actions. I also tried to highlight our common needs and aspirations as part of an effort to develop a consensus over goals and objectives.

Mutually enriching perspectives

Marx’s radical social theory can help move Buddhist practitioners away from a self-absorbed focus on individual liberation and toward engaged activity which contributes to the transformation of exploitative and oppressive social structures, so that all human beings can flourish. The Buddha’s perspective on human experience can facilitate the cultivation of insights, virtues, and emotional qualities which enable activists to not only transform themselves but sustain their involvement in social change projects in a way that promotes mindfulness and compassion, an indispensable condition of human flourishing.

In short, we need both perspectives if we want to limit suffering —of all types— and create the optimum conditions for human lives marked by happiness and fulfillment.

Some of the material in this article was taken or adapted from two previous articles I wrote on this topic:

“Can You Be a Buddhist and a Marxist?” Contemporary Buddhism, v.12#2, 2011.  https://www.academia.edu/8423778/Can_You_Be_a_Buddhist_and_a_Marxist

“Secular, Radically-Engaged Buddhism,” Contemporary Buddhism, v.16#2, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/9907118/Secular_Radically-Engaged_Buddhism



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