In this soulless century of destruction and despair, it is heartening to see a growing interest in the connections between anarchist philosophy and the universal ancient spiritual wisdom of humankind.
On May 2 I had the pleasure of attending a talk by young scholar Dr Enrique Galvan-Alvarez that explored one aspect of this important area of research and analysis.
The talk was called “Skill-in-Means and Ends: Formulating a Buddhist Anarchism” and it was hosted by Goldsmiths, University of London.
Dr Galvan-Alvarez started off by countering the common misconception that Buddhism is completely incompatible with anarchism, since one is seen as peaceful and the other as violent.
Explaining the Buddhist concept of upaya kaushalya, or skilful means, he said that this must always have the aim of enlightenment, whether individual or collective. Sometimes, as in Tibet at the moment, the aim of peace is seen as best pursued by means of peace, prefiguring the future society that is desired.
But upaya kaushalya must also be in harmony with its context and at other times resisting tyranny in a non-pacifist way can be regarded as skilful means – for instance, in the 9th century, faced with a king who was persecuting Buddhism, a monk stepped forward and volunteered to kill him.
Of course, this idea can be used by governments – such as in the Japanese state’s concept of a “compassionate war” in which “war is able to exterminate itself”.
But it was also a belief held by the anarchist Buddhists who emerged at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, explained Dr Galvan-Alvarez.
They formulated an alignment of the two traditions, whose similarity is perhaps most evident through their shared vision of a future Utopia.
He spoke of the Buddhist insistence on impermanence – with its implication that the social order as it is now is not a concrete reality that will stand for all time – and discussed the concept of karma.
With time running out, partly because of the discussion prompted by the talk, Dr Galvan-Alvarez spoke briefly about a couple of historic anarcho-Buddhists.
The first of these was Taixu (1890-1947), a Chinese monk who was part of the revolutionary movement and supported propaganda by deed.
His concept of “fraternal love” was derived from a blend of Kropotkin’s theory of Mutual Aid and the Buddhist concepts of compassion (mahakaruna) and Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha). Taixu was also renowned for his opposition to state socialism, declaring: “Only those who embrace anarchism really see government as hell; state socialists see it as the land of bliss.”
Dr Galvan-Alvarez also mentioned Uchiyama Gudo (1874-1911), a Zen monk in Japan who taught that the essence of dhamma (natural law) was equality. He wrote that there were three leeches sucking the people’s blood – the emperor, the rich and the big landowners. The emperor was not descended from gods, he declared, but from thieves. This truth was too much for the Japanese state and Gudo was executed.
An important lesson to be drawn from the talk was that while Buddhism is not identical to anarchism, and does sometimes manifest in very conservative forms, it is eminently compatible with it.
In my view, the same is true of other religious traditions – which all form part of the same universal human spirituality. The outer or exoteric forms, which are most familiar to us, have often been adapted to justify and defend social hierarchies and are nothing more than empty shells.
But, I would argue, the inner – or esoteric – content remains on a different level to the worldly uses to which the religion is harnessed and thus remains a potential source of inspiration for movements that challenge the very social system the exoteric religion is used to prop up.
Ultimately the message of inner religion is oneness – the unity of everything. The individual’s task is to understand this, to shed the illusion of separateness and ego, and then to do their best to act in such a way as benefits the Whole to which they belong.
And, as Dr Galvan-Alvarez pointed out, the skilful means we use depends entirely on context.