I suppose that all of this basically comes down to a deep dissatisfaction with life and the world that we live in. After years of grappling with this, trying on different approaches, lifestyles, ideologies, drugs, traveling, I now have come to see this world and my life in it in a particular way. My well-being, and the well-being of everyone in the world, basically comes down to our own choices that we make. Our choices have consequences. We can be happier, healthier, and live more fulfilling lives if we learn how to make wiser more skillful choices. This is what I call Buddhist anarchism.
Writing all of this I have a concern that I am merely contributing another label, another –ism, another ideology to a world that is already saturated with these. I do not want to add another set of words and ideas to fight over, but rather I want to tie together some historical streams of thought and practice that I believe can be quite beneficial and mutually reinforcing.
When I say “anarchism” what I’m referring to is a social philosophy based on an understanding that leads away from domination, top-down hierarchy and coercion, as exemplified by institutions such as capitalism and the state, and towards greater social freedom, voluntary cooperation and sharing of resources. Two slogans best summarize this worldview: "No gods, no masters" and "liberty, equality, fraternity".
Buddhism to me is a philosophy of the mind based on an understanding that leads away from delusional thinking, attachment or trying to hide, and instead leads towards greater ethical conduct, control over one's mind, and experiential insight. The phrase that best summarizes this worldview is: "Discern what helps; refrain from harm; purify your mind."
Both of these philosophies emphasize a profound sense of freedom, community with others and with life in general, and a sincere goodwill being the motivating force behind people supporting each-other. I believe that both of these approaches are necessary in order for us to have real, meaningful and lasting change in this world.
The Buddha once said “even ignorant people look for a pathway to reality. But, searching for it, they often misunderstand what they encounter. They pursue names and categories instead of going beyond the name to that which is real.” My goal in writing all of this is to hopefully provide a few more useful guide-posts in the ongoing search for that which is really real in our world.
Anarchists have long said that the "personal is political", that dynamics of authority and domination manifest themselves within interpersonal relationships and mindsets as well as in the larger institutions of our society. As a result, the choices and actions carried out within one’s life in relationship with others has been viewed by anarchists as being just as important an area to focus one's attention on as capitalism and the state at large. As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer put it, "the state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another. One destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently”.
Buddhist belief holds that there is no real separation between an individual person and other people, and the rest of life, around them. The idea is that our very nature is so inextricably tied together, so bound by various processes of cause and effect occurring between us, that there is no meaningful way to draw a boundary from where a person begins and ends. To quote the famous anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, “Man becomes conscious of himself and his humanity only in society and only by the collective action of the whole society".
This is one of the core ideas behind Buddhism, the concept of "no self", or “anatta”. One is to have compassion and kindness towards all sentient beings because, to use an anarcho-syndicalist phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all".
Coming out of this understanding of "no self", there is the Mahāyāna Buddhist ideal of the "Boddhisattva". This ideal is such that the individual who chooses to go down this path does not achieve Enlightenment until all sentient beings achieve it first. A similar sentiment was expressed by Mikhail Bakunin when he said "I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free."
The end goal for all of this is Enlightenment and a utopian society. Enlightenment would be when one is fully aware, at peace and free from all suffering. The utopian society in question would be where the world has no more relationships of hierarchy and domination, and all human activity is carried out freely, as equals, and all collective decisions and resources are shared together in common. Both ideals can seem distant and unattainable, but the path towards attaining these goals is in itself fulfilling, in both regards.
The Buddhist path is comprised of three aspects: ethical behavior, control of one's mind, and experiential insight. Ethical behavior includes things like refraining from telling lies, stealing, killing, taking intoxicants, sexual misconduct, or in any other way harming people. This is not to be viewed as a kind of moralistic list of "do's and don'ts" to use to judge people, but rather as a kind of guiding framework that one can choose to adopt for one's life to aid in creating more personal stability and grounding from which to work from.
Controlling one's mind comes about as a result of a regular ongoing practice of meditation. Ordinarily our own mind is scattershot, fragmented, jumping around from topic to topic, and in many cases it is actively working against us. Very often we do not even know our own mind, let alone control what it does and where it goes. Various forms of meditation practice exist in the world, and simply by choosing one or a few of them and sticking with them as a regular ongoing personal practice, eventually one's mind will find greater clarity, coherence and sensibility.
Experiential insight comes about when one knows something not merely in an intellectual or abstract way, but because one has had direct personal experience with it. Through your experience, insight occurs. This is not merely a mental occurrence of conjuring up a memory of something, but a kind of bodily-felt experience where that which you know is felt and understood directly. This kind of thing can never be told from one person to another, each person has to come to it themself. Words that are spoken about this can at best be a guide towards personally coming to this kind of experiential insight. Unfortunately words can often be a distraction away from this as well.
The anarchist path towards social revolution could also be characterized as having three aspects: direct action, self-organization, and prefigurative politics. Direct action means doing something without asking for permission or waiting for an official stamp of approval. This is related to the goal of coming out of authority-based ruler/subject relationships, and instead finding one's own personal power to take action directly one's self without being told what to do.
Self-organization means that groups of people who do something together also have the role of organizing that activity together as well. Instead of having one group of people doing an activity, and another group of people doing the organizing work and decision-making for that activity, everything is all carried out by the same group of people. Where direct action can be viewed as people finding their own personal power, self-organization can be viewed as groups of people finding their own power together as a group.
Prefigurative politics means that the activities carried out and the ways of organizing and relating within them all reflect the kind of society that one wants to live in. This is in effect eliminating the separation of "means" and "ends", or as Gandhi put it, to "be the change which you want to see in the world". In practice this would mean establishing and spreading various social systems and structures to meet people's needs within our current society. Whether these needs are for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, sanitation, medical care, child care, education or skill-building, all of people’s needs can be met through social means that are cooperative, voluntary, egalitarian and free.
The point with all of this is to not get tripped up by focusing too much on the end goals – personal Enlightenment and a utopian society. The goals are wonderful, but we are living our lives in the here-and-now. Therefore more focus should be placed on walking the path to these goals, because that is where we are now, taking one step at a time. When done right, each step on the path towards these goals are fulfilling in and of themselves, regardless of when and if we get there. This is all about improving our lives, personally and socially, and the process in itself is worth the effort.
In common with both Buddhism and anarchism is the whole notion that one ought to take responsibility for one's own life. With anarchism, there is a change of social structures and relationships towards recognizing and respecting each person's ability to make their own choices for their own life. With Buddhism there is a kind of investigative search towards locating one's core sense of choice, and from there consciously deciding upon one's own actions, words spoken, and even the thoughts that are held in mind. The psychologist Victor Frankl expressed the later sentiment well when he said: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
In a way, these two approaches towards looking at individuals taking responsibility for their own lives are two sides of the same coin. The anarchist approach is "from the outside-in", meaning that it focuses on how the community, the social structures and the relationships that a person is surrounded with can best acknowledge and support the individual in taking responsibility. The Buddhist approach is "from the inside-out" in that it focuses on the sense of choice coming from within an individual and extending outwards towards one's thoughts, onto one's words, and finally expressing itself in one's actions.
To have a Buddhist anarchist approach would be to acknowledge and support each-other in making our own choices and decisions, to make decisions collectively and cooperatively when they pertain to group or community matters, and to always keep in mind that we can and should continue to develop greater wisdom, maturity and skill in the choices that we make.
“Abstain from all unwholesome deeds,
perform wholesome ones,
purify your mind -
this is the teaching of the Buddhas.” - from the Dhammapada
At various points over the years that I have considered myself to be an “anarchist” I have felt discouraged, disillusioned and disappointed with the words and actions coming from different people who also consider themselves to be “anarchists”. These behaviors have ranged from very hurtful things that are written or spoken to one-another, to petty theft, lifestyles emphasizing intoxication, sexual assault, and other forms of violence. I have been astounded by this behavior, and at times have wondered if I really belong to the “anarchist community”, given that these kinds of behavior are not what I associate with anarchist values or the kind of utopian society that I want to live in. In other words, this is not what I signed up for.
Then I think about my own life, and how I myself have done various things that I regret and am not proud of. I remember how within my own mind when I was carrying out those actions, I felt quite agitated, confused, and in turmoil. My mind was not clear, composed and at peace with itself when I did those things. I recall the Buddha’s exhortations to “purify your mind”, and I think – what a remarkable difference that would have made in terms of providing the foundation for different, more beneficial actions to take place.
What strikes me about Buddhism is how seamlessly integrated the whole process is. The ethical framework that is provided is directly related to the mastery of one’s own mind, which is also related to developing one’s ability for concentration. Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that such behaviors are found in the anarchist community, or other communities of people, because the perspective of the whole person is missing, as is the explicit commitment to positively developing one’s capacities.
I believe that the more one is genuinely committed to improving one’s self, developing inner strength and mastering one’s own mind, the more one is in a better position to contribute towards meaningful social change. The Sufi writer Idries Shah put it well when he said:
"The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is with him."
In other words, we often produce and reproduce relationships of domination, authority and submission without even realizing that that is what we are doing. We are so accustomed and conditioned to these ways of being that we often are not even aware that they are happening. Cultivating greater self-awareness in the present moment can aid us in noticing this taking place. Buddhism provides various tools to assist in this. A real personal commitment to doing the ongoing necessary inner work of developing in these areas has to be present; otherwise “anarchy” would end up being the kind of nightmare situation that people usually associate with that term.
Within countless anarchist circles I have come across there are problems that exist with drugs and alcohol. A lot of the time the using of drugs or alcohol is one of the factors contributing to instances of sexual assault and other forms of violence, as well as unnecessary run-ins with law enforcement. Overall the time, energy and money spent on the procurement, consumption and dealing with the after-effects of intoxication within the anarchist scene seems to me to be something that could be more productively put in other places.
From the Buddhist perspective of developing greater self-control, mastery of one’s mind and concentration, the act of getting intoxicated pretty much defeats the purpose. One of the goals with Buddhism is to see reality as it is, without delusions and confusion. The adding of the element of intoxication is contributing one more unnecessary barrier to achieving this desired clarity.
Part of seeing reality clearly also involves facing directly the reality that exists inside of you. This means not hiding from that which is unpleasant, and not craving that which is pleasant. Intoxication is a way to induce pleasant experiences, and to escape unpleasant ones. The more time that one spends with one’s self, directly and unobstructed, the more one eventually finds personal acceptance and comfort with one’s true nature.
Related to the anarchist punk rock scene there is “straight edge” (or “sXe” for short), a movement of people who abstain from drugs and alcohol. These folks have already elaborated on the draw-backs to intoxication, particularly as it relates to the effective carrying out of social change work. Many straight edge people tie their abstinence to their religious or spiritual beliefs, the most notable of which being Christianity and Hare Krishna. I would say that Buddhist anarchism would also have ties to straight edge (as well as “posi-core”, given the focus on positive values).
Turning the focus now from one’s self towards others (to the extent that there is a distinction between the two), I will say that one of the important aspects within Buddhism that has most struck a chord with me is what has been referred to as “dhamma service”, or “dharma service”. This is the voluntary giving of service for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return. This is to be done out of a spirit of love, compassion and generosity, with a sincere wish for the peace and happiness of those you’re serving. I have found this to be a very personally rewarding experience, which is ironic given that this activity is done out of a spirit of focusing on serving others, not yourself. That this kind of experience would be personally fulfilling makes the “giving” in fact be a kind of “receiving”. (To me this is an example that high-lights the principle of “anatta” or “no self”)
In the world of activism, the profession of those who want to change the world, I have been struck by the amount of anger that exists towards other people. I believe that this stems from a mindset of wanting to change other people. I do not see that perspective as going anywhere. Because when it comes down to it, each person is responsible for changing themselves, for determining their own future through their own actions. The mindset that I instead would like to use when approaching matters of social change is not the “activist” mentality, but rather that of selflessly serving others – dharma service.
Another aspect of Buddhism, related to dharma service, is something called dāna. This is generosity and giving without any strings attached. It is giving simply to give, for the benefit of others. In societies that have an old history of institutionalized Buddhism, this virtue has enabled the profession of Buddhist monks and nuns to exist and be sustained over centuries. Because of people regularly giving to monks and nuns, they end up living more simple and austere lives themselves, in addition to the monks and nuns who live with very little material things to begin with. This results in a more simple life all around.
Within the anarchist sub-culture I have noticed a similar dynamic taking place. Anarchists regularly give and offer what little resources they do have to others, to comrades in need, projects worthy of support, and people who are in legal trouble. A culture of selfless giving is often the case within anarchist circles, and this often goes unacknowledged. I find this to be a very beautiful thing and something worthy of praise.
Related to this notion of giving, I would like to propose another idea – that nobody really owns anything to begin with. In contrast to this, I would say that things exist, they move around and change, and eventually they go away. That’s the extent of it. The moment that the identification with a material object takes place, that the concept of “mine” enters the picture; the stage is then set for suffering to occur (and for systems of institutionalized domination, such as capitalism, to eventually come about).
From the Buddhist perspective, suffering comes about from craving things, from trying to avoid things, and from delusional thinking. To me, the concept of ownership has the seeds for all three within it. The craving part seems obvious – “I want what belongs to me”. The avoidance is evident in that there are certain thoughts and feelings that one is trying to escape confronting. In other words, what exactly will be there when you have “nothing” to hide behind? What are you left with when you do not have your stuff?
The delusion of ownership is evident in that the material objects that one considers to be their “property” inevitably breaks, get lost, or stolen. These material things are usually not physically attached to one’s body, so in a way they have a life of their own and wind up wherever. To consider material objects “yours” does not match reality, because they will go wherever they go, irrespective of your wishes. To think otherwise is to invite suffering.
Similar and related to the idea of controlling material objects is the idea of controlling other people. People will do whatever it is that they do, and to think otherwise is to invite suffering. Offering of suggestions, advice and support can be made to people, that is different from attempting to control. However it must always be kept in mind that in the end it is up to each individual to take it upon themselves to change in a more positive direction, if that is what they want.
To try to control people is to set one’s self up for disappointment - by the other people not following through, not fulfilling the vision that was anticipated,by resisting or rebelling, or by holding a resentment that will show itself as retaliation in some future time. Real peace of mind is neither present in the person in the position of being the controller nor in the person being controlled. To find peace of mind one needs to create social harmony, which means establishing cooperation between people as equals; always with an understanding that everything is impermanent, that change is a constant.
As I see it, a common goal that both anarchism and Buddhism have is fostering social harmony. To foster social harmony there has to be nonviolence. This means actively making the choice to not harm others, even in the face of injustice and aggression. Instead of retaliation and harm, one seeks to support understanding, empathy and love. In order to maintain an active nonviolence, it is important that one remain clear about one’s values, authenticity, and to openly expresses these.
There are traditions within both Buddhism and anarchism of nonviolence; although nonviolence is not exclusively practiced within either one. To have a Buddhist anarchism, I believe that nonviolence needs to be a unifying principle - given that nonviolence emphasizes that a goal in common to all of this is real peace. Both personally and socially speaking, peace is what we seek. It is important that we remain as consistently in integrity with these values as possible, every step of the way.
Common to both anarchism and Buddhism is vegetarianism (although this is not always the case). This is usually done for the same reason for both – an ethical conviction that it is wrong to kill animals for our own consumption. When striving to extend our compassion and care to others, no line is drawn between humans and animals. Animals can feel both joy and pain, hence they are seen as worthy of our concern and consideration when deciding on the kind of lifestyle we want to live and the kind of world that we seek to create. For this reason, Buddhist anarchism would include having a vegan, plant-based diet.
Nonviolence within Buddhism, and dharma service and dāna/generosity in general, all come out of a particular state of mind (or rather, a quality of heart). This is called “metta”, which means “loving-kindness”. This is a real opening of the heart, a loving no matter what, a sincere wishing of the best of everyone. The ideal is to have this quality be the motivating force behind all of the actions that one does in the world. Various meditative practices exist within Buddhism to help with developing metta. Having the ability to bring about sincere loving-kindness throughout one’s activities of daily life is tied together with cultivating personal happiness in life.
Coming out of a sense of both nonviolence and loving-kindness is a related practice that does not necessarily originate from either anarchism or Buddhism per se, but which I believe is essential for a real living Buddhist anarchism nonetheless. I am referring here to compassionate communication, also known as “Nonviolent Communication” or “NVC”. Briefly put, this is a system of tools to help people to communicate with more empathy, personal authenticity and caring, as well as translating judgements of people into a deep understanding of what is actually taking place. Compassionate communication is practicing in listening, with expressing, and also in terms of one’s own thinking. It is a tool to be used when addressing conflict situations, as well as a kind of “talking meditation” that can be used in the interactions of daily life.
I see compassionate communication as being a great tool to help one in practicing what in Buddhism is called “Right Speech”, which is a part of the “Noble Eightfold Path” towards the liberation from suffering. Within anarchist circles, I have seen countless projects, relationships and gatherings of people break down because of communication difficulties and how conflict is dealt with. This is an area where I believe some real skill-building is needed. Learning compassionate communication is one way to pursue building these skills.
Within Buddhism the goal is for one to live a life characterized by the renunciation of material things, making a living through ethical means, being moderate in one’s eating, and having patience, hard work and equanimity. Within the anarchist ideal of a utopian society, production and consumption would take place in a decentralized way through local small-scale face-to-face communities of people. The goal is to have everybody being nourished by local organically-grown food where everyone knows the people who grew it and the land that it was grown on.
These two goals to me seem to fit together like hand-in-glove. Taken altogether, one would live a simple small-scale life, hard-working and modest, living together with others whom you know, make decisions and share with. This is a goal which one does not need to wait for a distant future to achieve; this is attainable in our lives right now.
Within the community of Buddhist practitioners, particularly the monks and nuns, the Buddha gave specific suggestions for how the organization of this community could best be carried out. The term for the community of practitioners is “sangha”, and here are two quotes that are particularly relevant when considering a Buddhist anarchism. These come from the book “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World” by Pankaj Mishra:
“The Buddha was confident that ‘as long as the monks hold frequent and full assemblies the sangha will prosper, and not decline’. He did not think of himself as leading the sangha. Nor did he encourage any of his disciples to assume the burden after his death. He saw consensus as of the utmost importance to the life of the sangha. The Buddha also stressed the need for each local sangha to remain united. He allowed for differences of opinion, but he did not wish them to undermine the structural unity of a sangha and vitiate the experience of everyday life. Controversy, whenever it arose, could be settled by the method of the dissenting individuals removing themselves and forming a new group.”
This reflects a number of anarchist values, namely, that of including everyone’s voice and allowing for each person to have their own opinion, prioritizing a group consensus process, and ultimately making room for group self-determination and free association.
Mishra then goes on:
“The Buddha encouraged individual monks to become exemplars for the society of laymen; he may even have wished the organization of the sangha to become a model of a higher politics and morality. With its rules and its respect for consensus and tradition, the sangha does seem a prototype for the close-knit political organization – something that could conceivably serve as an alternative to the unmanageably large states in which two new human categories were coming into being; the rulers and the ruled.”
This then brings up an intriguing question – what could a Buddhist anarchist sangha look like? In our current era of digital technologies, globalization, and ecological crises, where the social categories of rulers and ruled have existed for quite some time now, how can we create an anarchist sangha that realistically addresses the needs of people where they are at? I feel that both the traditions of anarchism and Buddhism have a lot to offer in terms of beginning to answer these questions. However, in the end it is up to us and our own ingenuity and effort to come up with some answers.
Both anarchism and Buddhism offer unique ways to look at the world to dispel all of the illusions that are cast around it - to see life as it really is. The reality is that we are all deeply enmeshed in different kinds of power relationships. This results in some people being placed on top of a social pyramid as a privileged ruling class, while most people are simply following the orders and expectations that are handed down to them from above. These relationships are created and reproduced by the choices and actions that we take, both internally and externally. We are ultimately responsible for our own suffering, both personally and socially. This suffering is ultimately unnecessary. We can find liberation from all of this.
To find true liberation, we need to face the reality that is before us without any illusions. We need to take full responsibility for our own lives. If we see and acknowledge that we are inextricably connected with one-another, and determine that we want to work together to create different kinds of relationships for a radically different kind of world, then we must learn how to communicate, share, and love without any reservations. Doing all of this takes practice. This is an ongoing process of development, and luckily the various tools that can aid us on our way are already before us. As a famous monk once said:
“Liberation is the inevitable fruit of the path and is bound to blossom forth when there is steady and persistent practice. The only requirements for reaching the final goal are two: to start and to continue.”
There are various websites, people and organizations who are out in the world doing things of a Buddhist anarchist nature. Here are few:
Against the Stream Meditation Society: http://www.againstthestream.org/
Hardcore Zen: http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com/
Dharma Punx: http://www.dharmapunx.com/
Buddhist social change stuff
Buddhist Peace Fellowship: http://www.bpf.org/
International Network of Engaged Buddhists: http://www.inebnetwork.org/
Zen Peacemakers: http://www.zenpeacemakers.org/
D.I.Y. Dharma: http://diydharma.org/
Vipassana Meditation: http://www.dhamma.org/
The Secular Buddhist: http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist: http://www.stephenbatchelor.org/book-confession.html
The Center for Nonviolent Communication: http://www.cnvc.org/
Consciousness Transformation Community: http://ctc.learnnvc.org/