Archive for March 2012
While browsing the stacks of a university library In the autumn of 1968, I stumbled upon an English translation of Ernst Benz’s 1963 book Buddhas Wiederkehr und die Zukunft Asiens (Buddha’s return and Asia’s future). The title given to the English translation, published in 1965, was the somewhat more dramatic and unmistakably Cold War oriented Buddhism or communism: which holds the future of Asia? I checked out the book and eagerly read it, not because I was especially interested in whether Buddhism or Marxism held the future of Asia, but because I was interested in gaining some insight into which held my own future.
At the age of twenty-three, I was being pulled in three directions all at once. I had come into contact with Canadian Quakers and admired their ways of arriving at decisions and organizing themselves into an egalitarian and leaderless community. At almost exactly the same time I had come into contact with Canadian Marxist-Leninists and had been impressed by the clarity of vision in The Communist Manifesto. As if that weren’t enough confusion, I was also reading everything I could find on Buddhism and was especially attracted to the Theravāda and Zen traditions of contemplative practice. While each of those three traditions attracted me, each of them also had features that repelled me. I simultaneously regarded myself as a Quaker Buddhist Marxist and as none of the above.
Marx seemed to me to have offered an excellent account of the ways that those who sell their labor (proletarians) tend to be disadvantaged by those who pay for labor (capitalists or the bourgeoisie) to produce goods and services that are then sold at a profit as commodities. He saw clearly that people themselves become commodities, often of lesser commercial value than the products they manufacture. He also made a good case for the claim that the economic injustices inherent in capitalism are unlikely to be rectified by those in power voluntarily relinquishing their power and sharing it with the disadvantaged. He made a good case, in other words, for the inevitability of violent confrontation as the far-more-numerous proletarians angrily tore the tools of oppression out of the hands of the far-less-numerous capitalist bourgeoisie.
It was, however, precisely the idea of violent revolution that ran up against the pacifist ideals I was drawn to in both the Quakers and the Buddhists. Marx himself scoffed at those who, like the Christians, held out hope of achieving a classless society through peaceful means. After all, two millennia of Christianity in Europe has not transformed European society into a classless culture of economic justice; instead, Christianity has been transformed beyond anything that the earliest Christians would recognize as institutions that embody their values. Similar observations could be made of Buddhism in Asia; rather than reforming any culture it has gone to, it has been corrupted by every culture to which it has spread. Rather than liberating the oppressed in India, China, Japan, Tibet and Southeast Asia, the Buddhists themselves became the oppressors. Christianity and Buddhism were both conquered by their converts. On the one hand, it seemed obvious Marx was right about the necessity of violent revolution. On the other hand, I was unwilling to partake in violent revolution. This put me in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that I was unwilling to do the very thing I was convinced had to be done to achieve economic justice and an egalitarian society.
Eventually I became disillusioned with Marxism, because it seemed obvious that it had failed as miserably as Buddhism and Christianity had failed. The Marxist institutions that had been motivated to bring out social and economic justice were undermined by the very forms of corruption they sought to eradicate. There was as little inspiration to be found in the Soviet Union or in the People’s Republic of China or in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as there was in the United States of America. Every political reality seemed a caricature of the ideals on which it was founded. Everything was a disappointment. But wasn’t that exactly what the Buddha taught? And was it not the teaching of the pre-millennialist Christians that Christ will initiate the rule of saints and that human effort is therefore of limited efficacy? The other-worldly teachings of those who saw no hope for humanity in this world proved to be an almost irresistible temptation. For better or for worse, the temptation for me never got beyond the almost irresistible stage.
Forty-four years have gone by since I discovered Benz’s Buddhism or Communism, and it is still not obvious which holds the future of Asia, and no more clear which one holds my own future. I cannot seem to swallow either one, nor can I spit either one of them out. I am still almost but not quite a Marxist, nearly but not quite a Buddhist, and nearly but still short of being a Quaker.
It doesn’t worry me that I can’t quite seem to find the right tail to pin on the donkey or the right label to paste on my forehead. That just means that I never quite know which box to tick on questionnaires that ask what my religious and political preferences are. What troubles me more is that the human race as a whole can’t decide to work together to find ways to provide food, shelter, uncontaminated drinking water and basic health care to the world’s human population and viable habitat to the world’s non-human population. It troubles me that the human race can’t seem to find a way to keep its population at sustainable numbers. It bothers me that a significant number of human beings expend so much of their time, energy and money to deceive others and that they are so often more successful at what they do than are those who dedicate their lives to disseminating accurate information and practical solutions to difficult problems. It saddens me that whether one looks at the world as a Marxist, a Quaker or a Buddhist, the goal lies beyond reach, seemingly obstructed forever by hard-hearted men (and a few such women) of narrow vision, limited imagination, selfish motivation, and vicious temperament.
The evils of the world are just as the Buddhists, the Quakers and the Marxists have described them. What Fox, Marx and Gautama had in common was a clear vision of the human condition. What they also had in common was the absence of any workable solution to that evil.