August 29, 2013

The (Justifiably) Angry Marxist

An interview with the Dalai Lama

In April 2006, the Japanese cultural anthropologist Noriyuki Ueda met the Dalai Lama for two days of conversation in Dharmasala, India. The discussion, recently translated from the Japanese text, covers such topics as the usefulness of anger, the role of compassion in society, and social and economic justice. "I believe that Buddhism has a big role to play in the world today," Ueda tells His Holiness, "and I am impatient because Buddhists don't seem to realize that." In this interview, Ueda offers us a rare peek into the the political and economic mind of one of the world's most famous spiritual leaders.

Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

I would like to discuss whether it is possible to construct an altruistic society, in which people take care of and help each other. Our modern educational system fails to provide sufficient education about compassion. The time has come to transform this whole system. Society is formed through its educational system, but the educational system does not transmit the deeper human values of compassion and kindness. Then all of society lives with this false view that leads to a superficial life, in which we live like machines that don’t need affection. We become part of that. We become like machines. That is because today’s society is based on money. A society that is based on money is aggressive, and those with power can bully and behave cruelly to others. This situation produces growing social unrest. A society that depends on money has problems that reflect its beliefs.

In reality, affection and compassion have no direct link with money. They cannot create money. Therefore, in a society in which money is the priority, people don’t take these values seriously anymore. People in positions of leadership, like politicians, have emerged from within a society that depends on money, so naturally they think like that and lead society further in that direction. In this kind of society, people who value affection and compassion are treated like fools, while those whose priority is making money become more and more arrogant.

I spent last year at Stanford University in California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where many wealthy people live. Yet in spite of their apparent wealth, people there don’t seem to be truly happy. Many suffer from stress and anxiety. This reality raises complicated questions for me. Material wealth does not necessarily bring true happiness. On the other hand, while it is good to be happy in the midst of poverty, poor countries have big problems.

On a macro scale, we must bridge the gap between rich and poor. Buddhists with deep faith seem happy within their communities, yet in the wider world that gap keeps getting bigger. People who are filled with affection and kindness and are not swept away by material desires are getting poorer, while those who are frustrated and recklessly pursue selfish benefits instead are getting richer. What do you think about this point? That is a different factor. Europeans had to think about industrialization and technology in order to survive. Countries like Portugal, Spain, England, France, and Belgium became colonial powers. These small countries became industrialized, obtained raw materials from other lands, used them to make products, and then began to sell those products back to other countries.

Eventually part of the population in Asia received a Western-style education, adopted a Western way of thinking, and imported Western technologies, which led to trade with Western countries. European colonization allowed business to expand to an international level. In Asian countries, one part of the population adopted Western ways of doing things and became rich, while those who still followed an ancient way of life remained poor. At a global level, the standard of living in industrialized nations rose to a much higher level than that of the exploited nations, and these nations became much more economically powerful. In those exploited nations, the few individuals who had the opportunity to adopt a Western way of life became wealthy, while peasants and villagers who preserved the same lifestyle they had for thousands of years remained poor.

One thing that particularly interests me is your use of the word “exploitation.” This is the second time you’ve used that word, and I am surprised since it is a left-wing, Marxist term. It’s true. I am also an exploiter. I hold the position of a high monk, a big lama. Unless I exercise self-restraint, there is every possibility for me to exploit others.

On my first visit to Mongolia, they arranged a tour to various institutions and a museum. At the museum, I saw a drawing of a lama with a huge mouth, eating up the people. This was in 1979, when Mongolia was still a Communist country. The Communists said that religion was a drug, and every religious institution was an exploiter. Even monks were exploiters. Even donations distributed to the monastic community were considered to be a form of exploitation.

When I came to the spot with that picture, the officials were a little bit nervous. I deliberately looked at it and I said, “It’s true.” Of course, I agree. I am not only a socialist but also a bit leftist, a communist. In terms of social economy theory, I am a Marxist. I think I am farther to the left than the Chinese leaders. [Bursts out laughing.] They are capitalists. [Laughs again.]

That’s true. [Bursts out laughing.] In the real world exploitation exists, and there is a great and unjust gap between rich and poor. My question is, from a Buddhist perspective, how should we deal with inequality and social injustice? Is it un-Buddhist to feel anger and indignation? When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent. Religious people must struggle to solve these problems.

Here the issue is how to deal with anger. There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

Japanese temples often enshrine the fierce manifestation of [the Buddhist deity] Acala. [Opens his mouth to make a face like an angry deity.] But Acala has that fierce expression not out of hatred or a desire to harm sentient beings, but out of concern for them, to correct their mistakes, like a parent’s desire to correct a child’s mistakes. As you rightly mentioned, anger brings more energy, more determination, more forceful action to correct injustice.

Of course, it should be accompanied by compassion. Yes. The deep motivation is compassion, but it takes anger as the means to accomplish its ends.

To use anger as a motivating force, should we transform it into another state, into something positive? Or should we maintain it as it is? The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.

In this way, the parent acts out of concern for the children. If a child is playing with poison, for example, there is a danger that he may put it in his mouth. That is an emergency situation, and the parent may shout or strike the child’s hands, but only out of genuine concern for him, to stop him from doing something dangerous. As soon as the child drops the poison, the parent’s anger stops. That is because the anger was directed toward the child’s actions that could harm him, not toward the child himself. In such a case, it is right to take the necessary measures to stop the action, such as anger, shouting, or striking. If the anger is directed toward the person, if there is ill feeling toward the person, then that feeling will persist for a long time. When someone tries to harm you, or you feel that you have been harmed, then you have a negative feeling toward that person, and even if he is no longer acting in that way, you still feel uncomfortable toward him. In the previous case, as soon as the child’s wrong action stops, the parent’s anger goes away. These two types of anger are very different.

What about anger toward social injustice? Does it last for a very long time, until the social injustice goes away? Anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved. It has to remain.

I see. Should one truly continue to harbor a feeling of anger? Of course. That anger is directed toward the social injustice itself, along with the struggle to correct it, so the anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions.

—Noriyuki Ueda

Adapted from The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most: Conversations on Anger, Compassion, and Action by Noriyuki Ueda. Reprinted with Permission from Hampton Roads Publishing.

Individuell Människohjälp/Flickr

Further Reading

Occupy Buddhism (Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist)
by Stuart Smithers

Aren't We Right to be Angry?
How to Respond to Social Injustice: An interview with Buddhist scholar John Makransky

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wsking's picture

Wonderful discussion! I have often wondered about these things and am interested to hear what everyone thinks. I can contribute this story: Once someone told Trungpa Rimpoche the story about Jesus in the temple overturning the money changers' tables with an explanation of the religious beliefs and cultural implications. They then asked Trungpa Rimpoche how Jesus could have become so angry if he was a true teacher of compassion? Trungpa Rimpoche said "We need a lot more of that kind of anger."

S.Leonard Scheff's picture

As the Dalai Lama said, "Anger is a destructive emotion" and thus never helpful. However indignation or moral indignation is an important motivator. The difference being is that anger is about what happens to us that we didn't like. Whereas moral indignation is about what happens to other. In both cases we can respond to make the situation more acceptable. But in both cases if our response is directed by anger we are likely to make the matter worse.

sunmoonlight's picture

We get to our feelings honestly. Anger always is justified at the moment to the person who is angry, and needs empathy and validation. His Holiness is right to empathize with those who are angry with social injustice. However, as Seneca wrote 2000 years ago, "Anger is not just". Martin Luther King and Gandhi showed us there are alternative ways to hold our frustration and anger at injustice. Not to consider the "oppressor" separate from us, and with the power of nonviolence and love, change the oppressor and the system that they operate under. In some sense, the oppressor-victim dynamic almost requires each to play a certain role. But as human beings, we can step out of those roles and relate as partners. If we think non-dualistically, there is a fundamental sameness or equality to all. Certainly we want to correct inequity, but isn't it also true that we don't want to let our dissatisfaction turn into hostility, which only mars our humanity? If you're interested in more writings on Anger, see (Kindle) or (iBooks) for essays on anger in the Asian American community. All proceeds to domestic violence nonprofits.

Psiguy's picture

I am concerned that this dual meaning of anger is misleading. Anger itself is never desired, even relating to social injustices. Never lower yourself to the level of your opposition lest you become like them.

One should never discipline a child with anger, only with love. Sometimes that love is a tough love that may be perceived as anger by the recipient, but tough love should never be administered with anger. In fact, it is not possible. Anger is anger and love is love. The two are totally different frequencies of consciousness that cannot exist in the same space.

It appears that the author is confusing motivation to action with anger. Recently I felt a stab in the middle of my back during meditation. By owning and following the feeling I discovered that a fellow Board Member of a non-profit organization was about to betray me. The physical feeling in my body was very painful.

So I meditated upon the feeling and asked to gain understanding of why I attracted this situation to myself as a learning experience. I was given a vision. It was an aircraft carrier turning into the wind in order that the planes could launch from the deck. The planes needed the resistance of the wind in order to go higher very fast on such a short deck. My lesson in being betrayed was an opportunity to go higher much faster and achieve the desired goal of helping others. The obstacle in my path was actually a blessing, teaching me to be more motivated and to focus on a higher path. I could feel no anger toward my betrayer, only love for the opportunity they provided me to learn. The end result, their betrayal did not work the way they intended, but actually had the reverse effect by motivating toward success. For that I am very grateful to her and hold no anger at all.

It is good to love thy friends, but even better to love thy enemies. (Besides, a prayerful blessing directed toward an evil person is like placing them in a hot fire! While true, harm to anyone should never be the motivation for prayer.)

Tenpel's picture

Very interesting interview though I find the term "anger" and the double use of it as "good anger" / "bad anger" a bit confusing in this context, "being determined" or "forceful" might be a better term in that context. Usually anger is equated with hate and to remove injustice one doesn’t need an angry mind but a forceful mind. Also anger as I understand it is an upset mind but to change things one doesn’t need an upset mind but clarity, compassion and determination and at times "forceful actions".

It’s always surprising to see how open the Dalai Lama is (e.g. with the topic of exploitation applied to himself or monks) and how he makes up his own mind.

What an inspiring being!
May he live for a very very long time!

Halflotus's picture

How does one reconcile one's Buddhist understanding of compassion with a Marxist ideology which has resulted in governments that have, and continue to, brutalize and kill tens of millions of human beings?

Psiguy's picture

It is easy to confuse Communism with Communalism. While both are groups of people living together, placing the group well being above individual desires, they are very different.

The difference is the individual motivation.

Communism motivates by fear.

Communalism motivates by Love!

celticpassage's picture

Marxist ideology and the governments resulting from it are two different things.

zumacraig's picture

This is a good question. I would turn it around and ask how any compassionate buddhist could not be a socialist?

Unfortunately, what has been called socialism through history has not been such. It has actually been totalitarian, state-run capitalism in the thin guise and rhetoric of socialism. Marxism/socialism has as it's main goal the liberation of humanity from the shackles of exploitation, alienation, suffering caused by the capitalist system. Violent revolutions, geneocide, murder are not part of any real socialist movement.

Government coercion will not bring about real change. Real change will only come when people see how they are collectively deluded by capitalist ideology and consciously work together toward basic human values of non-violence, abundance, shelter, care.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Can there be such thing as compassionate capitalism? Competition for the goal of profit of all rather than a few.

zumacraig's picture

Competition is part of the problem with capitalism. Competition is not necessary and has needlessly pervaded every aspect of society. Also, there is no such thing as profit for all. Capitalism is about profit for few at the expense of all.

Psiguy's picture

Your biased perspective of "capitalism" is very evident.

Capitalism: an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.

The key word here is "controlled."

When an individual is controlled, the soul cannot grow, whether capitalism, socialism or communism. Freedom to choose one's own path is the important factor. For if one does not have control of themselves, they cannot surrender to a higher level within.

Possibly the word "competition" should be replaced by the word "motivation." If any individual seeks to raise themselves by climbing upon others, they will eventually fall. If competition or motivation is within self, it can be a good thing. But use competition with self because you love yourself, not as a precondition to loving self.

buddhaddy's picture

And, finally: As buddhists, are not taught that the reality we perceive is a self-perpetuated illusion? if that is so, then is not all suffering we see, an illusion?

Psiguy's picture

We must deal with the reality of our manifested thoughts. Yes, our thoughts and the thoughts of others create our reality. These thoughts are only an illusion if you have awakened to the point where you realize that you have an individual choice of how you perceive the reality. Or, if through your thoughts you can change that reality.

The illusion is that reality does not change, but our perception of that reality changes. Reality appears to change as we perceive from a different channel, but the reality did not change. Perceived reality is a function of the level of consciousness from which we perceive it.

mahakala's picture

You must be enlightened

Jennifer L Myers's picture

At the beginning he states: " Our modern educational system fails to provide sufficient education about compassion. The time has come to transform this whole system." This is absolutely true, especially in the U.S. Our problem seems to be more one of political will and separating the government & the politicians from the big business and money supporting (buying) them. We need humanistic education, not formal or ritualistic education, available only to the wealthy.

Psiguy's picture

Compassion is gained through suffering.

Compassion is a desire for beings to be free from suffering.

It is said, "To generate genuine compassion, one needs to realize that oneself is suffering, that an end to suffering is possible, and that other beings similarly want to be free from suffering."

In human consciousness, one does not have the ability to change consciousness until one owns it. If you do not own your suffering, it owns you. Thus, by experiencing suffering and owning it, one realizes that they can change it.

Compassion is often the desire to remove suffering from others, but realizing that the suffering is necessary in order for the individual to grow through it. Often, removing the motivation to change by removing the experience of suffering is causing the individual to be locked into the cycle of continuing to draw suffering toward themselves to create the learning experience.

Boogiewheel's picture

What a wonderful interview. Socialist/leftist/communist/Marxist, the positive power of anger: man, if you needed any more reason to love the nuanced and loving Dalai Lama.

Danny's picture

He likes to say he is a Marxist, but what do his actions say?

buddhaddy's picture

Well Said

Boogiewheel's picture

That he's a hotrod enthusiast?

michaelwahenderson's picture


mahakala's picture

For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.

And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.

But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

celticpassage's picture

I think it's more along the lines of: the love of money is a root of evil

mahakala's picture

It may depend on how deeply you are looking at it. It all ties together at the roots.

buddhaddy's picture

Very well said. we cannot suffer for lack of something we do not grasp for.

buddhaddy's picture

The Buddha urged moderation of all. money is not the root of all evil. our craving it is. show me a society that is not based upon some form of money, trading, etc. and I'll see a pile of the dead, from lack of food and shelter. the food, the shelter must come from somewhere. and those who would take the excess from the rich are just as greedy as the rich. they just have different standards of wealth.

mahakala's picture


"For the love of money is the root of all evil.."

Danny's picture

Of course the food and shelter must come from somewhere! Do you actually think that under a more fair and equitable system (that provided for all people), we would stop working? This is nonsense! we would however, stop working for Warren Buffett and others who do no work, produce nothing--they only provide capital, which turns out to be profits stolen from the folks that DO the work.

buddhaddy's picture

Look around you. Many who under the "more fair and equitable system" have already stopped working. and i see want ads all around me. Why have they stopped? because the new "fair and equitable system" has taught them a new level of poverty, which they are willing to live with, rather than go out and get two jobs, find others to live with, etc. We are not "feeding the starving', we are providing a lifestyle. When I made less than minimum wage as a nurses aide years ago, I just got a second job. at some points, i had a third. I lived in less than optimal places, until I had increased my skills, education, etc. (and the government didn't give me the money to go to college). I simply went to cheaper schools, and worked my way through. I never thought about the rich taking it from me, or preventing me from having it. That kind of thinking, that it's the other guy's fault, is what holds people back. when you start blaming yourself for ALL of your life's conditions, then you will progress.

melcher's picture

To "...start blaming yourself for ALL of your life's conditions..." is not only a delusional statement but one that borders on psychosis. At best it's the superstitious belief that my own desires and/or neurosis are the determining factor that transcends all cause and effect. We are in no way separate from the situations and conditioning that shape us or from the influence of those around us. this is the truth of interdependence at the center of a sane philosophy.

zumacraig's picture

This is complete nonsense. Now the poor are greedy? It's not your craving you should be concerned about, it's your absolute delusion that capitalism is some natural way of things. Think past this reactionary BS.

buddhaddy's picture

Reactionary? define that for me. (not out of the dictionary). what does it mean to you?

Tharpa Pema's picture

I notice in particular, reading this article today, how readily we humans get trapped in our own ideas. Marxism, socialism, communism, capitalism, Buddhism, freedom, they are all mental constructs, products of our imagination. They do not actually exist in the super-simplified ways we use them in discussion. Or rather, they and all their constituent features coexist in every society, in varying degrees. Each model represents one unidimensional slice through our multidimensional reality.

We each have to live our lives in the places we find ourselves. Regardless of which label I choose today to affix to my government, socialist or capitalist—I still get to make a few small choices about how to live my life. Some people get more choices than others. I can choose selflessness, or too little for myself, and still wish to reduce the suffering others experience because of various inequalities--both the suffering of those who have too little and the suffering of those who have too much.

Life is an infinite combination of opportunities and choices to extend a helping hand to another or allow another to be free of my interference for a time in order to learn how to stand on their own. I don’t have to choose one way or the other as a fixed government model.

buddhaddy's picture

A refreshing beam of light in the world. Thank you for your mindful analysis. We do appear to like to affix labels, and place the cause of our suffering anywhere but on our own plate.

zumacraig's picture

There in lies the downfall of postmodernism. Of course all of these are constructs. We need to realize that we do not live in a post-ideological society and work on choosing ideologies that result in less suffering. Marxism is one. There is no freedom moment to moment. We in American have negative freedom. Liberation is a collective work, not individual. So none are liberated until all are.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I appreciate your comment very much. I use ideas, or little ideologies, all the time. It's the gigantic, seemingly monolithic and inflexible ideologies that scare me--e.g., CAPITALISM or MARXISM. For me the measure of an idea's usefulness is its ability to promote the reduction of suffering. Neither CAPITALISM nor MARXISM can lay exclusive claim to the promotion of the reduction of suffering. Nor can BUDDHISM or CHRISTIANITY.

I prefer to leave my mind and my government open to pick and choose specific strategies associated with any of these ideologies to see if they might work in a given time and place.

I want to be helped by my mental formations but not limited by them.

wilnerj's picture

Well stated.

When I toss out ideas as solutions they will be torn apart like fish attacking bread thrown at them from the pier. But they are only suggestions welcoming critiques but also alternate proposals. Some of my notions are backward looking since the past is complete and encased in the tomb of time. I too wish that my "mental formations" not limit me and present them to others for comment. But alas, they become pieces of strewn bread that float upon the water waiting to be torn apart by hungry fish.

zumacraig's picture

What you don't see is that it's all mental formations. Our mind is a collective and everything we say and do is ideological, whether you know it or not. There's no big or little ideologies. Your statement about mental formations and being limited by them is ideological. In fact, it's an ideology that assumes an atman...a soul that some how is trapped by all these mental constructs. This is not buddhist, if that's what you're going for. Taking seriously anatman and dependent origination opens the possibility that we can construct better ideologies intentionally.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I agree: " we can construct better ideologies intentionally."

Perhaps what I am saying is this: for the present moment, I think a mental formation/ideology that challenges the reality of an ultimate polarization between Capitalist and Marxist thinkers MAY WELL BE A MORE EFFECTIVE, BETTER IDEOLOGY in reducing suffering among of billions of people.

zumacraig's picture

It's unfortunate that Marxism has been yoked to totalitarianism through out history. There are many tools and insights in that ideology that could be quit helpful in changing the collective mind. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Part of this hard work is that people are going to have to deal with their anger, ignorance and lack of critical thought in order for change to occur. We can expect this from Capitalists, but the majority who toil in this hell hole should know better and could if they'd THINK. That's the problem with Tricycle. It perpetuates a kind of sanitized western, late capitalist buddhism focused on mindfulness and feeling rather than really taking anatman at full strength, using meditation to refresh for thinking, critical thought, changing the system.

wilnerj's picture

Well, you can always flip through copies of NLR or go to the website of Monthly Review Press. Tricycle's appears to have a different focus.

buddhaddy's picture

Marxism has not been yoked to anything. it fails because it depends upon all people to work for the common good. if that were the case, would Karma not be superfluous and unnecessary? It fails because ultimately, whoever is in charge of whatever marxist society you can form, will oppress the rest. it's in a percentage of humanity's nature, and it will never disappear. Read simple books such as "Animal Farm". it is fiction. but it is very insightful. Study human nature. it will tell you more than highly theoretical papers on how society should all work together and be of one mind. And if you want to change human nature, you have to do it one human at a time.

wilnerj's picture

Well said.
Even this desire to change another human a bit problematic. It smacks of social engineering.

buddhaddy's picture

well said. Freedom to make your on choices, moment to moment

buddhaddy's picture

I don't believe that the Dalai Lama meant that he improves of Marxism. The results of Marxism is what destroyed his country, and is devastating his people.

zumacraig's picture

Nope, state-run capitalism, not Marxism.

buddhaddy's picture

So, define Marxism for me? what exactly is it?

Rob_'s picture

You don't have to believe anything. Just read what he said.

"In terms of social economy theory, I am a Marxist. I think I am farther to the left than the Chinese leaders. [Bursts out laughing.] They are capitalists. [Laughs again.]"

buddhaddy's picture

saying it doesn't make it one or the other, unless you explain how he's correct that they are not marxists. they claim to be marxists. so what makes their claims inherently less valid than their opponents? explain how they are capitalists. of course, in order to do that, you'll validate my saying that marxism is no better than captialism, or any other ism. they are simply words. the individual actions of each human in any system collectively create the result. So the result will always be flawed. that is why you can only change yourself, not others.