Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.
The movement of the real abolishes error and simultaneously manifests as the self-liberation of society.
I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.
Some of the Dalai Lama’s friends have asked him not to mention that he is a Marxist. Why?
Regardless of the answer, there is something threatening and potentially discomforting about mixing Buddhism with discussions of money and politics. For some Buddhists the conversation is too profane, while others think it is impolite: they would prefer not to (to borrow a phrase from Melville’s Bartleby). They would prefer not to talk about property, income inequality, structural poverty, permanent unemployment, and the structural weaknesses of capital.
For a long time now, Wall Street, politicians and the media have preferred not to talk about these issues. However, that wall seems to be breaking down. Republican presidential candidates were especially anxious during the last primary cycle to label any discussion of wealth inequality as “class warfare,” insisting people drop the issue. But it didn’t work. Even Warren Buffett famously declared, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
The Dalai Lama’s friends would prefer he didn’t, yet year after year he reminds us of his Marxist leanings and his apprehensions about capitalism. Many Buddhists seem to have preferred not to hear him.
Like the Dalai Lama, the Occupy movement represents the true spirit of Melville’s Wall Street scribe: inexplicably, its members refuse to do what they are told, refuse to go away, but appear and again to the frustration of Wall Street and the mayors and police who represent the non-rocking boat of the status quo.
Americans and Buddhists might want to think about capitalism and how it can possibly be reconciled with the Buddha’s teachings. It’s difficult, to be sure, and gets very emotional for some. It might seem scary to think about its future, but that’s probably a good reason we should look at it: why is it scary to think about capitalism? It is as if Occupy has taken on the role of society’s collective therapist: patiently waiting and witnessing the tortured machinations of a society that tries to finally come to grips with its own state of denial.
Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real.