Nirvana holds no promise of ‘life after capitalism’

When confronting religion, anti-capitalist often let Buddhism off the hook. Originally published in January 2011.

There is a blind spot where the subject of Buddhism is concerned in certain ‘activist’ and lefty circles. Where religion as a whole is condemned as dogmatic and regressive, Buddhism often escapes the critic’s disdain unscathed. This is not necessarily a bad thing; such criticisms are often formulaic and react to the concept of religion without a semblance of informed engagement with the teachings themselves.

Three points are often cited for the argument that Buddhism should not be understood on the same terms as other religions, namely that Buddhism denies the existence of a god, that Buddhism denies the existence of the soul and that Buddhism is an empirical, experience-based teaching; followers being expected to test teachings for themselves through personal experience rather than accept them with ‘blind faith’. Whether or not Buddhism can be regarded as a religion according to the same criteria as other world religions is a question that has occupied commentators on the subject for centuries. I will not attempt to resolve it here, but I will, for the sake of the article, consider it as such; it seems to me that denying Buddhism’s position alongside other world religions is the result of a reductive reading of the material available to us. Or else it is an ill considered excuse for the spiritually inclined ‘atheist’. It is not my intention to cast aspersions on the spiritually inclined, simply to get things straight – if religion is what you’re after, Buddhism’s not a bad one to go for. But if you seek in Buddhism a vehicle for historical change and social emancipation, you will come up against fundamental limitations.

I intend to do two things in this article, firstly to explore, in brief, the social and political history of Tibet and Lamaism in Tibet in order to examine some of the complexities around the West’s idealisation of the country. I see no purpose in re-visiting the dialectical dispute between the traditional Left and the Human Rights position. On no level do I defend the occupation, neither am I comfortable with the idealising of any culture, as though it were some essential quality of a ‘people’ (a very un-Buddhist position, incidentally). Secondly, I will explore some of the core teachings of the Buddhist scriptures and consider their compatibility with certain core assumptions held within activist circles.

Like all world religions Buddhism can be found in many different avatars across the globe. This article is concerned with a particular image of the ‘undogmatic’ Buddhism that is enshrined within leftist circles in the West. This interpretation of Buddhism is based, most explicitly, on Tibetan Buddhism and so Tibetan Buddhism is the focus of this discussion.

A religion is not synonymous with the culture it exists within and to discuss Buddhism is not to discuss Tibet. However, an idea enshrined in the minds of many progressives is that of the Tibetan people’s staunch position on non-violence and their regard for all sentient beings. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Free Tibet movement dominates much of the West’s awareness of global human rights concerns – after all, Tibet is understood to be a peaceful, egalitarian society in which all human and animal life is respected and cherished, ruled over by a tyrannical regime. I don’t want to undermine this position absolutely. Certainly the Chinese rule of Tibet is deeply problematic, to say the least, but the particular idealising of Tibet common in the West is no less so and, furthermore, serves primarily to dehumanise Tibetans and reduce their emancipatory process to a non-political struggle.


If we look at historical accounts of Lamaism in Tibet, the picture that emerges is rather different from the idealised, romantic visions perpetrated by Western supporters of the religion. There is nothing particularly nasty or exploitative about the history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, relative to the history of the world, but neither is it an idealised utopia that is separated from the bloody history of the world. The narratives of exploitation, class and inequality persist everywhere.

Until the late 1950s, Tibet looked like many other feudal societies we are familiar with. The land was largely owned by wealthy monasteries and secular landlords, divided up into manorial estates and worked by serfs. The land owners accumulated enormous levels of wealth at the expense of peasants’ labour. Serfs were tied in lifelong bonds to work the land of the masters and were subjected to heavy taxation. Monasteries acted like banks, lending money to pay the taxes and charging such high levels of interest that many were held in debt to them for years.

Physical violence and religious conflict were certainly not absent in pre-1959 Tibet, either. Punishment for petty crimes was often brutal and monasteries fought between themselves over land possession and local power. In short then, the power structures in ‘old’ Tibet were no better, and no worse, than those in feudal Europe. And just as in Europe, industrialisation did not deliver on the promises of peace and prosperity.

There is no justification for the Chinese oppression in Tibet, try as many contemporary Maoists might to find one, but neither can we say that the Chinese destroyed an ancient culture of non-violence and harmony. ‘Culture’, indeed, seems to be the buzzword for many Free Tibet campaigners, omitting that there is nothing natural, unchanging or authentic in the patterns of social life. If anything, the Chinese occupation has taken a feudal society into the transition towards (state-)capitalism; not communism.

And with the large patterns of migration brought about by industrialisation, mainly of Han Chinese into Tibet, the post-feudal society has had to deal with a significant amount of ethnic tension. Chinese ownership of factories and shops, and their political power, has not made redundant an analysis of exploitation based on class, but it has added nationalist sentiments to the mix. Man has the ruthless capacity to rule over other Men, and over his natural environment. Religion can at times provide justifications for this rule and at other times can do the opposite.

The road to Nirvana

The real area of contention when considering Buddhism from a progressive, emancipatory perspective is to be found in its core teachings. All too frequently reduced to non-violence and meditation, a cornerstone of Buddhist thought is the principle of ‘Dukkha’, or suffering. According to Buddhist philosophy, all life is suffering, suffering is caused by grasping, or desire, and the only escape from suffering is to break the cycle of life, death and rebirth – ‘Sams?ra’ - and achieve ‘Nirvana’.

In Buddhist literature, ‘Dukkha’ is illustrated using the image of a potter’s wheel. A person experiencing suffering is like a rusty, old wheel. As the wheel turns, it squeaks and creaks and sticks at certain points in its cycle. A person who is free of suffering is like a perfectly oiled wheel, turning smoothly and quietly on its axis.

The sticking point here is that these key Buddhist teachings present an ahistorical and therefore inward looking account of suffering. Buddhist philosophy holds that suffering is implicit in the realm of human existence, so emancipation is achieved not by changing society but by escaping from it. The nature of the universe is constant fluctuation, the nature of Man is grasping for permanence, therefore, constantly disappointed by reality, Man’s only reasonable response is to remove himself from it entirely.

The nature of the universe and the nature of unenlightened Man combine to make suffering unavoidable. The constantly changing universe is the problem, not the particular society that Man has created, and so there is no struggle that he can embark on to change it, other than an internal one. Capitalism, exploitation and inequality become ‘manifestations’ of suffering, rather than reasons for it.

Even the language of activism appears out of place here – to struggle is to grasp, to grasp is to bring about disappointment, disappointment is suffering. Activism is necessarily action-based and Buddhism is necessarily based on the philosophy of stillness as a means of removal from suffering.

One way of looking at this distinction is that Buddhism advises inner change for the sake of personal emancipation and progressive politics demands outer change for the sake of human emancipation. In defence of Buddhism, though, the perfect response to the attainment of enlightenment is the choice to remain within the cycle of ‘Sams?ra’ as a ‘Bodhisattva’ and to work to bring about the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

Compassion is the ultimate articulation of Buddhist practice, but it is a spiritual, rather than a political, articulation. A Buddhist story tells of Siddhattha Gotama’s journey to enlightenment, which is said to equal the period of time it would take to wear away a mountain by stroking it with a sheet of silk once every hundred years. The striving for emancipation on a global scale, then, becomes meaningless without subscribing to the entire Buddhist metaphysical position. Without the patience of the enlightened mind suffering the world over is inevitable for a very, very long time.

Of course, to take the philosophy of self-responsibility, combined with the metaphysical assumptions of multiple life-times and realms of existence, to its logical conclusion brings us to the rather uncomfortable position that social inequality, wealth, physical handicap and all other distinguishing factors are merely the result of worthy or sinful actions committed in past lives. Conversely then, this philosophy of self-reliance arcs back on itself (a never ending Möbius strip) and becomes the ultimate irresponsibility – unconscious of the lifetime which gestated the fruits of my fortune, I am free to take no responsibility for them in this one. Karma becomes the irrefutable, all embracing alibi.

This metaphysical justification for our social positions renders emancipatory struggle futile. Rather, we are advised to cultivate Right Action and Right Mindfulness and trust that the fruits of our labour will be revealed to us in future lifetimes. Sickness and poverty, then, become the result of an unenlightened mind (the sicker, the more unenlightened) whilst wealth and health are the just rewards of deserving actions in the past. A social critique based on the politics of power and inequality is uncalled for here. That Buddhism encourages compassion and the goal of ‘enlightenment for all’ seems (to the unenlighened mind, perhaps) a poor substitute for equal access to food and health care in this lifetime.

In 1996, the Dalai Lama apparently issued a statement that read, in part, “Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. [Marxism fosters] the equitable utilisation of the means of production [and cares about] the fate of the working classes… For those reasons the system appeals to me, and . . . I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.”

It is a nice sentiment and, in a sense, might transcend a certain ‘narcissism of minor difference’, except that the difference between Buddhism and Marxism isn’t really very minor, and the core difference is situated precisely in the Dalai Lama’s definition of Marxism – that is based on moral principles. But understanding the struggle against capitalism as a ‘historical materialism’, this surely stands at odds with the ahistorical and non-social view of ‘change’ in the Buddha’s teachings.

Polly has studied Comparative Literature and Comparative Religions at The University of Kent and now works as a freelance oral historian in London.