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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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Do you think they have anything in common? Will you post an answer of your own? – ChrisW Dec 4 '14 at 1:57
No I don't think they do. I'm currently reading Tom Pepper, who is either communist or at least a sympathizer and (as far as I can tell) a secular Buddhist who started from Shin Buddhism. In his writings he likes to mix ideas from Communism and Buddhism. I keep feeling like it's trying to mix, dunno, Elvis and Buddhism. There isn't any obvious correlation, but who knows, there are many books I haven't read. I won't post an answer of my own unless sometime in the future I happen to come across the answer. I didn't post this rhetorically as a set up for a blog post. – MatthewMartin Dec 4 '14 at 3:18
Having just read one or two paragraphs of Tom's, I suppose I politely try to summarize his view as a) Capitalism is a bad idea b) Buddhism is good at keeping you from getting fixed ideas ("reification") so (f I understood correctly) use that to avoid being re-infected with the "Capitalism is necessary" idea. – ChrisW Dec 4 '14 at 3:54
Elsewhere he says, "I would argue (and have argued) that anything that breaks through our delusions is a Buddhist practice", so, if you accept that then maybe that could be another link/argument: Capitalism is a delusion, Communism breaks through that delusion, therefore Communism is Buddhist .... – ChrisW Dec 4 '14 at 4:04
Interesting. The two fields of thought do have similar interests in reification-- treating abstractions are more real than they really are. Its probably an open question if the rest of communism isn't just a new set of reifications (labor creates value-- there's two reifications, workers have rights, two more reifications, and so on. – MatthewMartin Dec 4 '14 at 17:53

10 Answers 10

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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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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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. – catpnosis Jun 28 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 15:18

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.

I came across THIS article. Though is not written to address the issue mentioned in the question, while talking on something else, it also speaks about relationship between Marxism (Communism) and Buddhism. I am not expressing my personal opinion about the article. Just posting it for adding more information to carry on this useful discussion.

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"Buddha or Karl Marx"-- I found the essay here: A very good reference. – MatthewMartin Jun 27 '14 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. – Sāmaṇera Jayantha Jun 27 '14 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: – MatthewMartin Jun 27 '14 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 '14 at 17:08

Since Buddhism is a personal path of liberation, the litmus test of anything being Buddhist is the state of mind in which that thing is done. As such, any claims that would pertain to a fixed conclusion about something (whether or not they came from a Buddhist) would not be Buddhism per se.

For instance, when encountering any question such as "Should I support System X?", the real question here is what is your mind-set when evaluating that decision? Are you attached, reacting, trying to satisfy the needs of your self-image, or are you non-attached?

In a way, this side-steps such evaluations because it returns the focus not on the goodness of any given thing, but rather on how it affects the mind making it.

I highly recommend you look at Skillful Means. While applied in the context of liberation, I have also seen many Buddhists use it as a way of making more "objective" decisions.

But if you are looking for a more open-and-shut answer, then I'm not aware of any credible Buddhist doctrine about this, and would suspect anyone making such a pronouncement to be reflecting their personal opinion.

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So you don't like Q & A websites because they are incompatible with Buddhism? They why are you here? – MatthewMartin Dec 3 '14 at 18:30
@MatthewMartin I never said Q&A was incompatible with Buddhism, I said that treating Buddhism as a source of doctrinal pronouncements on things like politics is incompatible with Buddhism. – R. Barzell Dec 3 '14 at 18:34
What can we ask about Buddhism if not doctrinal pronouncements? Anyhow, your answer doesn't have anything to do with my question. The more appropriate place for this is on meta, where you can post on what sort of questions are suitable. – MatthewMartin Dec 3 '14 at 18:43
@MatthewMartin tons of things. Questions about practice, challenges, chains of inference that connect the teachings. There's much more to Buddhism than doctrine (see the Kalama Sutra). Your question made an assumption, and I provided a valid answer, given that. If you really believe my response was not appropriate, then I recommend you rephrase your question to make what you want clear. – R. Barzell Dec 3 '14 at 19:02
@MatthewMartin I re-read my answer; it seemed a bit critical, so I softened the wording. My use of phrases like "beside the point" can definitely give a dismissive impression which was not my intent. Hopefully the new wording better reflects the relevance to your question (which I wasn't dismissing). – R. Barzell Dec 3 '14 at 19:22

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

No, not that I can think of.

  • The Buddha said some things about caste, but they weren't IMO like what Marx said about classes.
  • The Buddha IMO talk about individual salvation, whereas Marx writes about societies.
  • The Buddha defined some social rules (e.g. the Vinaya) but Marx defines nothing similar to that.
  • Communism restricts private wealth for the whole society, Buddhism only does so for monastics.

I expect it's possible to be a Marxist and a Buddhist, but they're different/distinct categories.

Similarly it's probably possible to be a Physicist and a Buddhist, but (IMO) Physics doesn't say much about Buddhism and Buddhism doesn't say much about Physics.

A "Marxist" might or might not have views about "social justice" that a Buddhist might agree with.

If "communism" means something like "tribal ownership instead of private ownership of land" or "worker's cooperatives instead of exploitative capitalist owners", then maybe (theoretically) "communism" could be a form of right livelihood (but I don't know because I'm not much of a political scientist/historian).

I suppose "not wanting to accumulate private wealth" could possibly be seen as similar in both, but I find it a reach/stretch to see anything in common (although that's partly because it's been so long since I read any Marx, and when I did I think it was only Das Capital and maybe the Communist Party Manifesto).

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?

I'm not sure that they need to be incompatible, although they have been.

Is it true that monastics are accused (by communists) of being parasitic landlords/oppressors of the peasants? I think you know that monastics in Japan work (in the fields). And the Chinese government now allows (state-sanctioned) Buddhism (in China). The persecutions you reference aren't (IMO) especially the fault of Buddhism. For example I guess that the Khmer Rouge were anti-intellectual (not just anti-Buddhist); and the Chinese Cultural Revolution was anti-culture and anti-history (not just anti-Buddhist). Note that communism has sometimes been anti-religion-in-general, for example also persecuting Christians.

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I would say that the "business model" (for lack of a better word) makes Buddhism a target of Communists (or conquering Muslims, or conquering what-evers) in a way that say Christianity doesn't. Christians work, pay taxes, join the army and monks, if they are following the vinaya, don't. Even Chinese monks that worked in the field were exempt from taxation & military service. I haven't read enough about the old Japanese system, the current one is a mortuary business model. – MatthewMartin Dec 4 '14 at 3:25

Communism is taken to mean a lot of different things, but at its essential core is simply the notion that the means of production -- i.e. land, factories, and so on -- should be collectively, not privately, owned.

So yes, Buddhism is compatible with Communism, but only in the same way that Cheesecake is compatible with woolen socks, or Windows 8 is compatible with a pony.

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Practically, Buddhists should treat Communism as they do anything = as in ask whether what is said goes against the Buddha's teaching.

On a more positive note, I believe Communists can be Buddhists because solidarity is an idea which can be found in scripture.

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