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Despite communism as practiced (as opposed to what Marx might have had in mind) being the source of some of the largest slaughter of lay and monastic Buddhists ever (except maybe the Imperial Chinese)... are the principles of Buddhism and communism (or socialism) compatible?

Did the historical Buddha or the later sutra writers hit on any of the same concepts that Marx did in any substantive way?

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6 Answers 6

Marxism is strictly materialistic. It builds on the idea that if you distribute all goods evenly, people will stop suffering. That was a reasonable assumption to make when the vast majority of the population suffered from uneven distribution of goods.

Buddhism on the other hand does not regard changing the outer conditions as being important in overcoming suffering. More precisely, it suggests that transcending the outer conditions is the key to overcoming suffering, so in essence it denies the core question that Marxism seeks to give an answer to.

So I would say that they are pretty much orthogonal. Buddhism could probably act as a formidable complement to the Marxist theories when trying to build a society. But to individual Buddhists, Marxism is not necessarily useful.

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Marxism is strictly materialistic, but communism isn't. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God-Building –  catpnosis Jun 28 at 20:33
@catpnosis: Interesting point, although I find it hard to speak about "communism" as the term is very vaguely defined and has been interpreted and even misused in a multitude of ways. I would not say that communism is somehow inherently tied to God-Building, particularly since Lenin rejected the notion. Just like it is not inherently tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, even though Stalin embraced it. But yes, there's evidence of "communist" societies being incompatible with Buddhism. The People's Republic of China is arguably a prominent case. –  back2dos Jun 30 at 15:03
I agree about the term vagueness, look my answer below for example definition. Modern Chinese CP actually quite supportive to Buddhism. And in early USSR Buddhism was supported too (there was even pioneering Institute of Buddhist Culture.) –  catpnosis Jun 30 at 19:16

I would say not at all, but in all honestly I bet any of us can take our own perspective and pick the Buddhas words to make our argument. Seems to be from my perspective that the Buddha mostly stayed out of politics with the rare exception of counseling kings who came to him and even then the advice was mostly about the ruler themselves performing skillful actions just like the rest of us, not about grand political maneuvers.

I actually wonder if the scope of this question is even appropriate for this website, considering it is a basic Q&A about Buddhism and this could turn into a political debate.

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I got the idea for the question from reading about non-buddhism. One of the main proponents is keenly interested in mixing Buddhism and Communism, but I kept thinking-- are these even compatible? Communism seems like such a modern concern, it just seems anachronistic to mix it with Buddhism. –  MatthewMartin Jun 27 at 14:29

First of all, the Buddha did not envision an ideal human society, but the end of human society or rather: the end of everything human, which means suffering in the first place. Therefore, except for the rules that govern the life and community of monks and nuns for the time being, i.e. until enlightenment, there is no social teaching in the original word of the Buddha. So here, in the social sphere, my answer would be a straight no.

In later Mahayana Buddhism, though, the focal point shifts away from individual enlightenment, the new ideal being no more the Arhat, who achieves enlightenment for himself, but the Bodhisattva, who postpones his own enlightenment and strives to help and enlighten all other beings first. So in this stage, there is a social teaching, which does not contradict communism, I guess.

But maybe it would be useful, if you could specify exactly which tenets of communism/marxism you are having in mind, since for example quite obviously, there is no arguing on an economic basis in Buddhism. I guess, you did expect that.

There are two more things which come to my mind. First of all, again for early Buddhism, it denied the reality of class boundaries, which were in this specific context, the caste boundaries. The hierarchy within the order was based on age of service, i.e. time elapsed since ordination and there are stories from early Buddhism where hierarchies were turned upside down, the former low-caste dark-skin servant of some high-class person being all of a sudden his preceptor.

The other is a point where Buddhism is maybe much better compatible with marxism than any other religion could ever be: Buddhism denies the existence of the soul, of an all-powerful creator-god, rather it emphasizes cause and effect and a scientific approach to reality. This is not totally clear to me, but maybe even the mind can be seen as material.

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Atheism in Buddhism is often very narrow and technical, denying a creator of the universe, but not foreclosing the possibility of Vairocana, Adibuddha, devas and god-like beings in immaterial realms and heaven-like Pure Lands and so on. Seeing all of those and the whole cosmology as a metaphor and instructive fictional stories, is something of a modern innovation. –  MatthewMartin Jun 27 at 14:33
What I was trying to say did not go in the direction of atheism, but in the direction of gods or God not playing a major role for human life. Or even: no role at all. But this again is "old Buddhism". In Mahayana, things are different. –  zwiebel Jun 27 at 15:18

Buddha did preach on tenfold virtue of the ruler but this cannot be taken as endorsement of any particular system of politics though people may try to argue as so which they have freedom to do. So references by later authors should be examined in the context of the scriptures to see if they are accurate.

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Did the historical Buddha or the later sutra writers hit on any of the same concepts that Marx did in any substantive way?

To me, yes he did. Principles of Buddhism and Communism are definitely compatible.

On what basis do I say this? - I have not gone through material originally written in Pali or Sanskrit or Tibetian etc. I have not studied "tripitak". I have tried to study "Dhammapad" but that too in Marathi (one of the local Indian languages) - a translated work. But I have read work on Buddhism and its philosophy, message by others like P. Lakshumi Narsu, Dharmanand Kosambi, Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar, Sangharakshit etc.

Book by Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar is major source of my answer - Buddha and His Dhamma.Dr. Ambedkar was student of Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar has written a separate book on the issue - Buddha and Karl Marx . If you are interested I can post the links here.

Note : I liked the question very much but I can not vote it as I have no enough reputation! :(

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"Buddha or Karl Marx"-- I found the essay here: ambedkar.org/ambcd/20.Buddha%20or%20Karl%20Marx.htm A very good reference. –  MatthewMartin Jun 27 at 14:26
I started reading this until I got to the part where he talks about the creed of the Buddha... The Buddha never said any such thing about any of this. Infact I'd say this is pretty dangerous. 1. Religion is necessary for a free Society. 2. Not every Religion is worth having. 3. Religion must relate to facts of life and not to theories and speculations about God, or Soul or Heaven or Earth. 4. It is wrong to make God the centre of Religion. 5. It is wrong to make salvation of the soul as the centre of Religion. 6. It is wrong to make animal sacrifices to be the centre of religion. –  Jayantha Jun 27 at 14:36
Jayantha - I concur, Ambedkar Buddhism is a very specific version of Buddhism. Many of it's tenants are very modern and culturally specific to the Dalit situation in India: ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalit_Buddhist_movement –  MatthewMartin Jun 27 at 14:39
@ Jayantha : it is hermeneutics. If you want I can give you few references if you are interested. but this interpretation is not absolutely baseless. In fact if applied to particular context where it was preached, one may find it exact and 'right' interpretation. –  sangharsh Jul 2 at 17:08

Answer is greatly depend on what communism is. There is many opinions on communism, and in the course of history it have appropriated many unfortunate misconceptions (like vulgar atheism and dialectical materialism). I would define communism as idea of scientifically improving humanity (society as a whole and each person in particular). This most general idea does not contradict with Buddhism. Improving society is barely touched in Buddhism, but improving persons is. Alas, actual communist traditions have accepted ideas that really contradict Buddhism. For example, Leninism state that 'everything that is good for working class is moral'. That is directly contradictory to Buddhist discipline.

Also, curious quote from Dalai Lama:

"Still I am a Marxist," the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader said in New York, where he arrived today with an entourage of robed monks and a heavy security detail to give a series of paid public lectures.

"(Marxism has) moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits," the Dalai Lama, 74, said.

And another:

Midway through the conversation, His Holiness, much to their surprise, told them "as far as socio-political beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist ... But not a Leninist," he clarified. [...]

When one student asked if this didn't contradict the Dalai Lama's philosophy, he replied: "Marx was not against religion or religious philosophy per se but against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx's time, with the European ruling class."

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