Why we should expect Buddhists and communists to be drawn together

On this website, we’ve noted when Buddhist monks have burned themselves alive for communist propaganda, and that the Dali Lama identifies himself as a Marxist.  The anti-Christian commies in Hollywood are known to have a soft spot for Buddhism, to such an extent that they are actually willing to criticize an officially communist country (the PRC) over Tibet.  What gives?

People imagine that there’s an absolute distinction between “religion” and “politics”, so that what you believe about God and man has nothing to do with how you want your country organized.  This is not true.  It’s commonplace to observe that peoples often conceptualize the social body on the model of a human person–a human being writ large, as it were.  An organization of society is a statement about the nature of man.  As Eric Voegelin has argued, the Western “truth of the soul” is captured in our civilization’s most primary organization, the Catholic Church.  The Church represents “soteriological truth”:  man as called by and responding to God.  The Church has a profoundly personal self-understanding:  it is the “mystical body of Christ”, a corporate person united in the worship of a tri-personal God.  This social expression of Christianity comes from Jesus Himself, who didn’t bother writing down His teachings, but rather established the Church:  appointing the Apostles as its rulers and instituting its supreme sacrament of unity.  The states of Christendom were then modeled on the Church, each a sort of mystical body with the king at its head and God for its ultimate reference point.

Buddhism is anti-personal and atheistic, so the Christian social order will not express the Buddhist’s conception of man and his place in the universe.  Buddhists deny that a person is a substantial unity that endures through time.  Organic unity is an illusion, and behind it is nothing but meaningless cause and effect.  Deliverance comes only from the cessation of desire and the extinction of illusory self-consciousness.  The appropriate Buddhist social organization, one that reflects its the Buddhist ideal of man, would be egalitarian, without distinctions to organize people into an organic whole–an undifferentiated mass of humanity.  Sure enough, the earliest characteristic Buddhist organization is the monastery, and monks are precisely those who have left organized society.  Not everyone can be a monk, though, and so Buddhists have often had to accept Hindu or Confucian structures for society at large.

Then Karl Marx invented a way that everyone can be a monk.  Marxist socialism smashes the organic structure of society, eliminating roles and stations.  The state loses its personal character, “withering away”, because it loses anything to define itself against.  Like Buddhism, Marxism regards the conscious, personal world as a realm of illusion, the superstructure that keeps men from seeing clearly true reality:  the impersonal cause and effect of the economic base.  There is, thus, a deep congruity between communism and Buddhism.  The Dali Lama is right to think of himself as a communist.

3 Responses

  1. This shows the great distinction between traditional Buddhism and the Hollywood variety. Love for the emperor or shogun was a characteristic of Traditional Japan, and Tibet was filled with aristocrats before the communist takeover. It is a great heresy to conflate Marxist Materialism with Buddhist spirituality, although I have some respect for both.

  2. Since you mention Voegelin, it may be worth mentioning that Buddhism and Marxism share the Gnostic belief that reality stands behind a world of appearances, and that one breaks through to this reality only when consciousness has been rectified by gnosis. One of the appearances that is overcome in this enlightenment is, as you say, personal identity, and most especially personal will or desire. In Buddhism this is extinguished; in Marxism this is subsumed into the dialectic of history as expressed in the will of the party.

    This is why it seem at first odd that Marxism and Buddhism should appeal to self-absorbed Western individualists who worship their desires. Since they find themselves so wonderfully interesting, why are they attracted to doctrines that say their personality is an illusion or an ideological construct?

    I’m tempted to think that a Christian soul is insupportable without Christian faith. That soul must either be regenerated through conversion, or it must annihilate itself by returning to the cosmos or to history.

  3. Hi JMsmith,

    That’s an excellent point. I would like to think about this other commonality, the suspicion of the world of appearances, further.

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