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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Danny's picture

Thanks for making this point, my hat is off to many of these folks and the work they do. But I think that the main problem, the issue this article addresses, is that in our capitalist social structure there is no need at all for explicit inequity or social domination: Greed, exploitation and social domination is already and everywhere implicit in the very nature of capitalism, in the structure of the production process. Good luck with that.

buddhaddy's picture

"Greed, exploitation and social domination is already and everywhere implicit in the very nature of" you name it: capitalism, communism, socialism, dictatorships, facism, imperialism; not to make too fine a point, Humanism. all of those human failings are what Karma is made of. those are individual failings, not failings of a society. no system can prevent those evils from happening. the larger a system becomes, the more of those evils it creates. As buddhists, are we not supposed to examine life, and every moment, closely. look at reality, not at your favorite writers or commentators.

buddhaddy's picture

I think as Buddhists, we are becoming too political. the main pillar of capitalism is not money, but freedom. some capitalists think of nothing but money, but not even the majority are that way. the world will always be filled with a mixture of greed, altruism, kindness, hate, violence, you name it. but the Buddha said to change ourselves if we want to change the world. without the struggle for food, shelter, helping others (of your own will, not through government mandate), Helping others when we are poor ourselves, loving those that would hate us, those are the ways to pierce the illusion and help others and our own karma. The world at large must work through their own Karma, Have we forgotten as Buddhists that we are laboring under our own illusion? Marxism is no answer. capitalism is no answer. democracy is no answer. those are tools of the illusion. out of all of those political structures, i value which ever one has the most freedom, no matter how you express it. that is the best venue for working out your own karma with the least harm to others. keep politics and government out of my life.

zumacraig's picture

buddhaddy,

none of these things are illusions. they have real causal power. people aren't naturally greedy. the pillar of capitalism is profit, at all costs. the results of this are right in front of our eyes. all of this comes from an array of causes...remember, buddhism, dependent generation? if you take that seriously, then everything can change. your right wing libertarian buddhism is delusional, but not an illusion. it points to your inability or unwillingness to think and seek truth.

buddhaddy's picture

wrong again. some people are inherently greedy. some are not. simply look around you. you don't need to read what some theorist writes. just observe. you tend to speak about my delusion, my inability, my unwillingness. how about actually making a point? how about observing the humans all around you. that is how you will find the truth. criticizing those who disagree with you won't accomplish anything.

Rob_'s picture

You want government out of your life? So, no roads, no education, no health regulations for the production of your food, no environmental oversight, etc ...

You can't separate yourself from government, and I'm always perplexed about people as yourself who feel it's so intrusive. I've yet to hear exactly how this intrusiveness manifests.

buddhaddy's picture

so it's absolutes is it? what a sheltered life some lead. well then if i'm forced to agree to either zero government, or what we have today, when those children who want to sell lemonade are breaking the law, then i would have to vote for the semi-chaos of zero government.

Rob_'s picture

You're the one that said, "keep politics and government out of my life". That's fairly absolute. And you still haven't mentioned how the government has intruded upon your freedoms. Except some silly notion that children can't sell lemonade. Sorry, I've never seen a kid's lemonade stand busted up myself. Surely you have something bigger on your mind. But like I said, I never hear specific reasons from people like yourself, just meaningless platitudes.

jackelope65's picture

Compassionate anger may be transmitted through the internet by signing and contributing thought to reasonable petitions, even when that person lives in poverty. More internet capable phones are now available to more people than sanitary living conditions.( "Abundance" Steven Kotler and Peter H. Diamandis)

Danny's picture

Anger toward social injustice, indeed...
"Given a group photograph, each member of the party looks first to how his face comes through before turning to the effectiveness of the picture as a whole--it is a little point yet a telling symptom of the devouring cancer that lies at the root of all our sorrow. Where is the man who is as concerned that no one go hungry as that he and his own children not go hungry? Rare indeed is the man who is more concerned that the standard of life AS A WHOLE be raised than that his own salary be increased. And this, says the Buddha, is why we suffer." Huston Smith

zumacraig's picture

The whole, not the individual! Y'all are missing the point!

buddhaddy's picture

Exactly! we suffer because of our own desires, greed, and lack of concern for our fellow humans. not because of some rich man not giving us his money, or not providing happy working conditions. when we face the struggle to overcome a physical handicap, mental handicap, through our own effort or to be ethical in our own work day; then we are working toward enlightenment. telling someone else to give up their money because they have too much, or forcing a person to be more "compassionate" helps no one's Karma.

juanitapat's picture

There are literally millions of such people, not always men. Those who work for subsistence wages at non-profit organizations, those who are arrested and sometimes severely punished for protesting harm to others and harm to the environment--think of those protesting at the School of the Americas, Greenpeace activists trying to protect whales, supporters of Occupy, supporters of 350 protesting tar sands oil extraction. Many, many. Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange. The Dalai Lama himself, so many of our Buddhist teachers and dharma brothers and sisters. True, ego is powerful, and as Buddha said, that is why we suffer. But Buddha also pointed out that there is a path away from suffering. Appreciating all those who travel that path, whatever their 'ideas' are, is important to keep each of us on that path. For one thing it helps keep us from the despair which teaches us that altruism is counter to human nature and makes all feel hopeless. There may be that instant of seeking one's own face, but true joy comes from loving the other faces also.

buddhaddy's picture

When you say "whatever their 'ideas' are, do you truly mean "whatever"? or only the ideas that make you feel good? should we appreciate all of those who became enormously wealthy, and then gave millions to the poor? should we appreciate the ideas that promote freedom and personal responsibility over those who would force the rich to give up there "excessive" wealth"? should we appreciate the highly respected meteorologist who says that current global warming is a cycle, and we are headed for an ice age? Or should we only appreciate those who say things that our own ego is comfortable with, (for whatever reason)? As a buddhist, i choose to work out my own karma. My struggle to help others daily when I have no retirement to look forward to; my struggle to put food on the table, to provide myself and my family; the struggle to do those things and help others with my own resources; those are how i will improve my karma. Ask all buddhists: is not our world an illusion of our own making? have we forgotten this? are we a political animal looking for something to say that will make us feel good, , or a soul looking for enlightenment?

wtompepper's picture

All the subsistence-wage charity workers will never make any real difference, as long as they work to make the system bearable instead of to change it. It is unfortunate, but true, that they are wasting their lives in delusion trying to make a kinder-gentler capitalism, and only prolonging the system that makes them necessary. As the Dalai Lama correctly points out, it is the capitalist economic system that is the problem--as long as our entire economic system is organized around profit and exchange value, there will be more and more suffering and delusion. We need to get angry enough at this system to change it, and charity workers human rights protesters always just ignore the fundamental delusion of our society: exchange value. If we get rid of that, we wouldn't need charities.

buddhaddy's picture

If not profit, what should it be based upon? And define "profit". If you eat in a day, have you not profited?

Danny's picture

This would make a good research project for you, Buddhaddy; look up the difference between "wages" and "profit".
Now get busy!

zumacraig's picture

One thing I'm furious about today is this recent development in the UK where people on government benefits will be classified as 'not working enough' if they work only 35 hours a week on min. wage. If this is the case, these people will be required to have their work habits examined and required to get more work in order to maintain benefits.

Absolutely sickening and astounding. The poor working their ass off for nothing being asked to do more and assumed to be lazy. All of this while the rich make money by doing nothing but investing.

This system is the problem. All this talk of more or less government, taxes, unidimensional visions of reality, greedy rich, greedy poor, gentle capitalism...it's all a ruse, man! A smoke screen while profit, alienation and exploitation continue. It's almost too much to bear.

buddhaddy's picture

if you actually read and research, you will find that the majority of the rich in America became that way through hard work, not through inheritance. however, it's not quite as skewed in the UK. If you bother to look into why, you'll find out that the UK has been socialist for decades, and the rich are buddied up with, Who? Why the government of course. and how, exactly would you fix this? And try not to get too furious. the world is what it is. work to change it. being furious serves no purpose, unless it drives you to actually do something positive about whatever you're furioius about.

leebrown5's picture

I thank you for the opportunity to refine my thoughts. Perhaps I can provide you some things to consider. Firstly, your statement about how Americans gain wealth is incorrect. While Horatio Alger would applaud your stance, if you research the term 'economic mobility' you will find that the US is sorely lacking among first world countries.
As for UK rich being buddied up with the government, assuming you are American, I can't imagine why you point this out, as we are as afflicted, if not more-so....
In reference to your other posts, my understanding of capitalism is that it has little to do with 'freedom', although there is 'free-market capitalism'. Capitalism is based on the law of value, focused on the process of capital accumulation, based on wage labor and competitive markets. That's pretty much it. That's capitalism, many of the other concepts you mention aren't actually intrinsic to capitalism, so perhaps I would be better able to understand your points if you label them differently.
Back to your rich+government connection, I would like to point out that 'crony capitalism', which is what we in the US have, is, according to the Marxist theory, actually the natural state of mature capitalism.
The nature of capitalism demands the conceptual abstraction of 'money', and my concern is how that abstraction creates the ease of, and tendency toward, removing the 'money/capital/power' from both it's origin (effort of humans) and it's outcome (inequity)
I know nothing about Buddhism, but I was under the understanding that while any of us are not free, none of us are free. So focusing on, and applauding, mechanisms that incubate intentional inequity seems counter productive. Especially when the justification is, by the sense I get from your posts, that 'as long as I am free to get mine, y'all can keep on struggling--it's your karma' (or laziness, or immorality, or stupidity, etc etc) perhaps this was not your intentions, but thats what your message says to me.
peace be with you _/\_

zumacraig's picture

Right, the whole point of capitalism is to 'get more' than someone else. There's enough for everyone, but capitalism is about the few having the most at all costs. Late capitalism was predicted by Marx. It is a complete cluster fuck in which we all struggle. All of us. As said above, every thing is abstracted, made complicated, obfuscated etc. It's a nightmare and does not have to be this way. There will be no freedom until we all work together to solve our problems.

buddhaddy's picture

You make many strong intellectual points. I could bandy the meaning of individual words forever with no good outcome. To Define any word, you must use other words. And I can bring you back to the word you started with. So I try to convey that freedom is what I believe in. Free will is attenuated without it. I don't believe capitalism or any "ism" is even real. Simply observe human behavior around you with mindfulness. No "system" can prevent suffering. Personal striving for enlightenment can to some degree. If i am not intellectually "trained" In the art of academic discussion, and statistical analysis, I humbly beg forgiveness for my shortcomings

zumacraig's picture

No forgiveness needed. You do need to listen and stop talking about things you have no understanding of. This is heavy intellectual stuff that requires thinking. Unfortunately, the mindfulness cult of today is all but anti-intellectual. Free yourself now and start thinking and reading and really conversing. A system focused on ending suffering can do so. Mindfulness will not.

Rob_'s picture

You really like to beat a dead horse. With this circular "reasoning" no word really has any meaning. No "ism" is real.

One thing you seem to be forgetting about all this nonsense you spit out. You actually try to promote your ideas. Ideas that if measured by your nonsensical criticism of others would be just as useless as theirs. You paint yourself into a corner where you can't even say anything. But of course you do, and neglect that by your own measure you have killed your own thinking.

However imperfect each of our understandings is of any "ism", at least it's a body of ideals in which people can discuss something. Buddhism of course is one of those "isms" that we can use as a guide and vehicle in our life.

And further, I will point out that your notion of "freedom", a notion you have never put into any context to give it meaning is far more useless as a term in this discussion than any "ism".

It's not about perfection, it's not about human flaws, it's not about a system preventing suffering. It's about more constructive ways for humans to get along, perhaps prevent some things in a better way (AND promote some things), and communicate those possibilities, those strategies. But according to you, none of us can have that communication because of how you deconstruct everything to mere nothingness. Oh ... except for yourself ... you are allowed to promote "freedom" as the best strategy Or should we call it freedom-ism? Who knows, who cares, who even has a clue as to what you're communicating. I suppose the tea party does, they all just bob their heads in agreement at such sloganeering.

buddhaddy's picture

why must the system change? is not everything a cycle? why must we make a "kinder, Gentler" capitalism? why not just leave it the way it originally was, where the law is simple. freedom as long as you overtly hurt no one else? Freedom to gather as much money as you want? freedom to build what you want? freedom to be ethical or to be selfish and mean? how else can we improve our karma? the struggle to do right is how we approach enlightenment, not asking a "system" to just make everything right? how will that have meaning? what is right? is what is right for me, right for you? Do you think those imperfect souls running the "system" will do what is right? considering the state of things right now, how can you believe that? No, the best venue is freedom to rise or fall, to work or starve to have the freedom to improve your own karma by helping others whenever and however you can. asking the "system" to bring about social justice is spiritually lazy.

zumacraig's picture

Think about the opposite of every point you make here and you might be practicing a bit of faithful buddhism.

buddhaddy's picture

that last statement was lazy. you said nothing but that i was wrong. how am i wrong? explain, if you have the answer. if not, leave your statement as is.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The problem is the karma created when capitalism was the way "it originally was". Lots of folks were overtly hurt on our way to the freedoms we have now.

buddhaddy's picture

and those that did the hurting will not feel it in their Karma? if those that were hurt did Right actions, then will their Karma not reward them? Are we buddhist, or are we politicians? humans have harmed humans all over the world, all over time. Is Karma not what provides the balance?
what makes capitalism stand out? what is the obsession with hating capitalism? have people been hurt by communism (the expression of Marxism)?, Fascism, imperialism? Socialism? by simple daily violent acts one upon another? what is this obsession with capitalism?

buddhaddy's picture

and with a thousand times the government now than we had then, lots are still overtly hurt. and is Karma created? Do we not create Karma with our own responses to those hurts?

Dominic Gomez's picture

And that's the key to changing/re-creating karma: our response to those hurts.

buddhaddy's picture

Absolutely that is what I believe. My version of Karma is that you begin this incarnation with a set of pre-wired tendencies, developed in your previous life. things happen to you throughout your current life, many with no cause of your own. How you respond creates a new person every instant, and when you are re-born, you start the new life as that better, (or worse) person. What the rich man does to you or does not do for you, has no effect on your karma. How you respond to it does.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Which is why facing and changing karma requires the wisdom, energy and courage of your buddhahood. Life IS tough. Our karma even tougher.