For many, the Dalai Lama is larger than life. As the primary icon for Buddhism, he represents kindness, peace, and mindfulness. His followers exist across the globe, but some of his ideologies do not.
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In 2011, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that he was a Marxist. While he based his argument on human equality, it sparked conversations and scholarship to evaluate the synergy between different versions of Buddhism and Marxism. While large amounts of research compare modern Buddhism as its practiced and Marxist ideals, little research compares Marxism with doctrinal Buddhism. Although Buddhism far predates Marxism, core values in early Buddhist text closely resemble Marxist ideas on religion and social structure. While Buddhism sought to fight the existing Hindu values and Marx sought to free people from a capitalist society, both movements were revolutionary in nature and provided a heavy critique on the status quo. Thus, the question must be proposed: Are ideas found in early forms of Buddhism, specifically in early canonical Buddhist texts, complimentary, congruent, or disjunct from Marxist ideals and to what extent? In this paper, I argue that despite some outlying differences in perception, early interpretations of Buddhism are congruent with Marxism through a multifaceted critique on the status quo by attacks on social structure and religion and complimentary to each other in their interpretations of the notion of the self.
The similarities are far more pronounced than their differences [change the topic sentence]. First, the values in early Buddhism and Marxism are both revolutionary ideals; both provide multi-faceted critiques on the current standing systems. While the critiques found in the early Buddhist texts like Life of the Buddha, the epic poem by Ashvagosa and the first primary Buddhist text, are for Hinduism and the long-standing caste system, the critiques found in the Marxist essays are for the capitalistic society and economic system.
In the Life of the Buddha, Ashvagosa describes the buddha’s journey as leaving the civilization and city in order to find a cure for human suffering and death. To analyze this critique, its necessary to understand the context behind the book. The translator of the Life of the Buddha, Patrick Olivelle, provides a helpful overview; during the estimated period of publication, two primary religions competed: Buddhism and Brahmanism (which evolved into Hinduism). Throughout the book, the Buddha is met with opposing arguments given by members of Brahmanism. In turn, he refutes each argument, claiming that Brahmanism is incapable of reaching enlightenment. The Buddha eventually leaves the city, abandoning his Brahman role in society and Brahmanism in general (Olivelle xxxi).By doing so, Ashvagosa provides a reason to distrust the main religion of Brahmanism and the regimented social structure that is packaged with it. When the caste society and Hinduism is status quo, the Life of the Buddha revolts against the current system. Life of the Buddha provides a revolutionary concept. By calling on readers to follow the journey that the Buddha had embarked upon to reach enlightenment, it led to a shift in power and following from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Similar critiques can be found in Marx’s works, although more explicit. The first critique is against religion in general:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Marx) Marx claims that religion is used by the rich to oppress the poor, simply by keeping them complacent. In his next sentence, he shifts his attention from his original critique on religion, and addresses readers to actively leave religion: The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. (Marx) He proposes that the abandonment of religion will lead directly to decreased control from the upper classes, which will decrease human suffering from the oppressors.
The second congruency is Marx’s rebellion against class structure. In Marxist theory, Marx claims that society should mimic the classless structure of nomadic hunting and gathering tribes. These tribes had solely functional roles in which everyone was a member of the tribe. He asserted that the transition to agriculture created a surplus product. The surplus would be used to help solely the upper classes, and in turn creates a rigid class structure. This creates an analogous relationship with the caste system that was currently in India. Because Marx claims that the rigid social structure of capitalist societies is evil, and the way to escape human suffering is to return to classless structures, it offers a shift in power from the oppressor to the oppressed.
These comparisons are incredibly important in analyzing to what extent congruencies exist between Buddhism and Marxism. Both movements provide critiques on their respective contextual situations. While Buddhism provided their critiques on religion towards the existing norms and their critiques on social structure towards the caste system, Marxism took a different path by critiquing religion and class structure in general. Both can be described as revolutionary movements in so far that they attacked the status quo, albeit for different reasons.
While Buddhism and Marxism have congruencies, they also have complimentary tenets that can work with each other. This complimentary tenet is their perspective on materialism. To understand the new object created by combining their definitions, we must first understand the Marxist and Buddhist perspectives separately.
For Marx, the act of being forced to barter and exchange objects that were made my human beings for growth for a labor market dehumanizes the human characters and separates the working class from the true nature of production. Marx claims that objectification underlies human suffering and allows oppression of workers by the producers: The worker does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself¦ labor is external to the worker.”” Marx continues by saying the act of work “”mortifies [the worker’s] body and ruins his mind”” (Marx 74). For Marx, the act of being forced to barter and exchange objects that were made my human beings for growth for a labor market dehumanizes the human characters and separates the working class from the true nature of production. Marx claims that objectification underlies human suffering and allows oppression of workers by the producers. By even giving the efforts of human work a name and classifying it as an object, it dehumanizes the human side of production. The labor market collectively ignores the human cost of these goods in the form of labor and work by forcing these goods to be viewed solely as commodities. Marx coined this process as ‘alienation’ and it is solely possible through the reification of human effort and it leads to class conflict and ultimately human suffering.
On the other hand, the Buddha does not provide a functional attack on class society and labor markets simply because these concepts did not exist at the time of the canonical Buddhist texts. However, the parallels still exist between the Marxist interpretation of the human situation of materialism and reification and early canonical interpretations through Buddhism. In early versions of Buddhism, the Buddha saw suffering as directly caused by human activity. The Life of the Buddha paints material desire as the root of all evil and suffering in the world. As the Buddha takes his journey towards ending suffering, he enters the ascetic grove: if dharma here consists of bodily pain, then bodily bliss should be adharma; so when by dharma one attains bliss hereafter, dharma here bears the fruits of adharma! (Life of the Buddha 197).
Life of the Buddha’s interpretation of the collections of good karma (dharma) is possible through sacrificing the pleasures of living in the city where the collection of bad karma (adharma) is easy. For Buddhism, these objects that exist in the material world will ultimately also lead to human suffering.
The analyses given by Marx and the Life of the Buddha are complementary as both Marx and the Buddha arrive at the same conclusion that the act of reification leads to suffering; however, while the Buddha focuses on the psychological roots of suffering, Marx focuses on the capitalist system and social relations as the roots of suffering. Both the Buddha and Marx claim that the objects in the material world lead to human suffering, but both of their philosophies are distinct and polarized. In fact, the terms of class, production, and labor markets were not applicable to the Life of the Buddha. Still, both movements allow room for the other to exist: Marx did not argue against the psychological effects of reification, nor did the Buddha argue against how opinions and material desires can be appropriated by the rich to oppress the poor. Both conclude that the process of reification leads to human suffering, and therefore, both definitions are complimentary with each other.
However, the disjunctions between the two movements do exist as well, although primarily in perception. Nathan Katz and Stephen Sowle are two scholars that analyzed the bridge between modern Theraveda Buddhism and Marxist ideals. The two scholars survey the current scholarship in relating Buddhism and Marxism. According to Katz and Sowle, much of the hesitation in scholarship comparing Buddhism and Marxism exists because of the western perception of what Buddhism is. To explain, let’s reference back to the anecdote at the start of this paper. The Dalai Lama represents a perfect example. As a spokesman for Buddhism that spreads peacefulness, mindfulness, and kindness, most superficially informed readers perceive Buddhism as solely a that promotes equality and world peace while denouncing violence. As a result, when western thinkers are asked to compare their perception of Buddhism, which to them is a peaceful religion, to Marxism, which promotes revolution, violence, and disloyalty to the government, few similarities can be seen immediately. While doctrinally, these similarities between Buddhism and Marxism may exist, perception dictates that these two movements could not be more polarized.
Thus, the question posed at the start of this essay has been answered. While disjunctions certainly do exist in perception, congruencies between doctrinal values of canonical Buddhist literature and Marxism not only exist but form new movements.
Analysis of this relationship can lead to new avenues of research. With the Dalai Lama’s words about Marxism, versions of Marxism and Buddhism have combined into one cohesive belief that encompasses economic, social, and religious aspects of both movements. For example, one of these new versions is Buddhist Socialism, which was born just years ago, combining Marxist ideals and Buddhist ideals to focus on the core aspects of fairness and equality.
Scholarship on these relationships is important to keep simply because relationships between economic philosophies and religion is a field that will likely exist in the future. Without in-depth research on these relationships, insights into the inner workings of movement could be lost. While the Dalai Lama may have sparked research on solely Marxism and Buddhism, it provides parallels to other religions and political movements that can be analyzed in further detail.
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