Buddhism and the Anarchist

Some have also found a deeply anarchistic dimension in both ancient Buddhism and also in various schools in later Buddhist history. Original Buddhism as established by the founder Shakyamuni Buddha (ca. 563–463 B.C.E.) came out of a questioning of both the social order (the caste system) and the ideological basis (the authority of the Vedic scriptures) of ancient India. It also rejected the idea that any authority, whether a person or written document, could lead one to truth, and that it must instead be reached through direct personal experience. The central Buddhist idea of non-attachment can be given an anarchistic interpretation. Although historical Buddhism has been to varying degrees influenced by inegalitarian social institutions, its goal of non-attachment can be seen as an attack on the foundation of political, economic and patriarchal domination in the desire to aggrandize an illusory ego-self. According to such an interpretation, the ideal of the sangha or spiritual community is seen as an anarchistic concept of association based on compassion and recognition of true need, rather than on economic and political power and coercive force. Similarly, Buddhist mindfulness, an awakened awareness of present experience, is seen as implying a sensitivity to the realities of nature and human experience, as opposed to appropriating and objectifying forms of consciousness. The Buddhist tradition is vast, and has been developed in many directions, but it is not difficult to discover in the Buddhist concepts of awakened mind, non-attachment, and compassion an implicit critique of material consumption and accumulation, coercive laws, and bureaucratic and technocratic forms of social organization.

Nagarjuna (ca. second century) is often considered the most important Buddhist philosopher since Shakyamuni Buddha. Indeed, he can plausibly be interpreted as the most theoretically anarchistic thinker in the history of philosophy. His radically destructive or deconstructive dialectic reveals the contradictions in any formulation of truth or attribution of substantiality to any being. The only “truth” for Nagarjuna consists not in ideas or propositions, all of which lead to contradiction, but rather in the practice of universal compassion and non-attachment. His rejection of the imposition of dualistic and objectifying categories on an internally related and “dependently arising” reality can be seen as an affirmation of the non-objectifiable wholeness and self-creativity of being and nature.

 

Source: John Clark, “Anarchism,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, edited by Bron Taylor (London & New York: Continuum, 2005).

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