Buddhist Futures: Beyond Class, Capital and State

It’s important to understand Buddhism’s relationship with the State throughout its 2600 year history.

Early Buddhism may have been a populist revolt of the tribal Sramana against monarchist city-states aligned with the Brahmins. (I say “may” because such a premise requires much more historical evidence than I can present in this brief outline). One website on Hindu history shows that at the time of the Buddha, the developing Hindu caste system was destroying the democratic tribal system culturally and politically.   http://www.hindunet.org/hindu_history/sudheer_history/casteprotectors.html

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[illustration: Vanessa Teodoro http://www.thesupervan.com]

Mahayana Buddhism was aligned with the Indo-Chinese bureaucratic state, the educated ministers, and the ministerial state in Japan, etc. (same caveat as above)

Tantric Buddhism was aligned with fully developed feudal monarchies in India and Tibet (see Ronald Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a social history of the tantric movement)

Buddhism was extracted (rather than “introduced”) by the West during the Victorian era through western colonialism, the Imperialist State, the British Empire.

Mid-20th century Buddhism was imported into the West, not primarily by state relationships, but on the currents of expanding global trade: Westerners who went east in search of spirituality; and monks, lamas and gurus who came West in search of new devotees and teaching opportunities. This began the period of global Buddho-capitalism.

In the West, Buddho-capitalism is governed by the market more than the State as Proprietary Buddhism. It is controlled by the New Brahmins who create scarcity by controlling the teaching, rituals and ordinations and extract “rents” for access to the intellectual property of Buddhism.

In parts of Buddhist Asia, contemporary Buddhism is still aligned with the State, in the form of Buddhist Nationalism. Consequently, it is also aligned with State Militarism.

In some Asian countries that have become fully capitalist, it is more aligned with the market than the State, like the Western model (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea).

Buddhism as Biopolitics

Buddhism in the West is aligned with the Capitalist State as a form of Foucault’s biopolitics, the biopolitics of mental health and well-being of the upper class and those engaged in global capitalism, as the self-governance of the neoliberal subject. The State does not have to silence you or your demand for justice, because you are already doing that to yourself, voluntarily, as a form of self-therapy. Neither is there any need to police western Buddhism as it poses no threat to the governing order, not even a fascist regime such as the Trump Administration. That is Buddhism’s implicit alliance with the neoliberal State.

Buddhist Biopolitics is governed by the helping disciplines, by professional therapists and other service providers. Occasionally this takes State forms, as chaplains in hospitals, prisons and other service institutions.

The Birth of the Buddhist Precariat and the Information economy 

The Precariat are excluded from Proprietary Buddhism because they can’t afford to pay for the teachings and retreats. They have neither the disposable income nor the leisure time to access it.

In some cases, the Precariat choose to reject Proprietary Buddhism and prefer to go their own route. They are self-taught using an abundance of free and low-cost dharma teaching available on the Internet and through mass printing of cheap paperback books.

The Buddhist Precariat are not just an economic class of the underemployed. It’s not just a precarity of income or work; it’s also a cultural precarity. It is exclusion from dominant cultures and mainstream organizations. The Precariat are those living on the cultural margins of society: artist, queers, errant philosophers, anarchists and communitarians. And it’s not always a forced exclusion; often it’s marginalization by choice. Among Buddhists, its a choice to stay out of mainstream or traditional Buddhist institutions. It’s a spiritual precarity, a choice to remain spiritually homeless, to take refuge as a refugee, as Chogyam Trungpa put it. It’s a rejection of official hierarchy and orthodox teachings. The Buddhist Precariat rejects “answers” and lives in the questions. It deconstructs, questions and challenges everything, most of all, Buddhism itself.

The Buddhist Precariat connect primarily in virtual sanghas on the web, but occasionally instantiate face-to-face forms in small local groups. As such it is already outside the limits of the traditions and institutions of Proprietary Buddhism.

The Buddhist Precariat is swarming in cyberspace. This “virutalization” is not limited to Buddhism, but is happening to many religions, notably Islam and Christianity. The radical freedom of information and intellectual production swarming through social networks is about to disrupt the hierarchy and authority of Proprietary Buddhism and its alignment with the Corporate State.

Virtual and Precariat forms of religion are highly disruptive and revolutionary; they reject traditional religious authority. They can take both extreme left and right-wing political forms, including anarchism and fascism. As Guy Standing correctly analysed, the Precariat is indeed the dangerous class.

The Buddhist Precariat is frustrated with traditional Buddhism (see Post-Traditional Buddhism), with the neoliberal politics of institutional Buddhism (see infra engagedbuddhism.net) and with the dogmatism of Proprietary Buddhism (see Speculative Non-Buddhism).

However, the Buddhist Precariat is still practicing a form of Buddhist biopolitics, as the self-governance of the neoliberal subject, because it has not yet aligned itself with an alternative collective politics.

I don’t see the Buddhist Precariat developing a Buddho-fascism; the shorter route to that is Buddhist Nationalism (see above). I see rather an opening toward anarchism and autonomism (see John Holloway), rejecting alignment with either the State or Capitalism, preferring the Commons, p2p economics, platform cooperativism, localism, green socialism, and similar forms of post-capitalist political economy that are now developing.

But the Buddhist Precariat must first unhitch it’s latent alignment with the Capitalist State by rejecting Buddhism as biopolitics, as the self-governance of the neoliberal subject.

Speculative Non-Buddhism has gone the furthest in this regard. Collectivist and engaged Buddhisms by Ambedkar, Thanissara, David Loy, Sulak Sivaraksa, Joanna Macy, Ken Jones and others also offer paths away from strictly individualist practice towards collective political economies that also break with capitalism.

Some engaged Buddhism is “corrective”, another form of biopolitics that is intended to ameliorate the most inhumane and destructive forms of Capitalism. This form is carried out by professionalized NGOs like Buddhist Climate Action Network, and One earth Sangha, and Buddho-capitalist economists like Julie Nelson. These forms don’t present a challenge to either Capitalism or the State, but try to soften the worst effects of both.

Anti-racist Buddhist action groups like Buddhist Peace Fellowship present a serious challenge to white supremacy, which undermines both capitalist and State institutions, especially within Buddhism itself. They tend to be collectivist, autonomist and self-organizing.

My experience with Trans Buddhists and other gender identity groups is that they are largely seeking inclusion within Proprietary Buddhism. Queer Buddhism, however, poses a radical challenge to the cultural status quo of Proprietary Buddhism. Where queer Buddhism becomes just another form of Buddhist biopolitics, Buddhism-as-identity-therapy, it loses its revolutionary potential.

Buddhism that explores the arts outside of religious contexts, that creates audio, visual, and theatrical noise, is also an opening that has the potential to go beyond Proprietary Buddhism. Where Buddhism is deployed to generate utopian worlds, collectivist and autonomist cultures of awakening, it creates a path beyond capital and State. Buddhism that creates new cultural visions and forms of collective life can assist the formation of a post-capitalist world.

Where the Buddhist Precariat intersects with green autonomist politics, with anarchism and self-organized communities, with social justice, with performance art and DIY dharma projects, it is asserting a new dharma, a new form of Buddhist practice that goes beyond the current configuration of class, capital and State.

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3 thoughts on “Buddhist Futures: Beyond Class, Capital and State

  1. I really enjoy your perspective. I’ve been reading up on Speculative non Buddhism and X Buddhism recently and your words always ring true with me. My Sangha is very suburban and white and while we offer teachings and retreats free I feel that there is much more we could do to engage the community. I am already known in my group as the disruptor of the status quo because I question much of the consensus teaching but it seems to me this should be the norm not the exception and encouraged. I respect your focus on creating a new vision of possibility for the practice.

    1. thank you so much, Devin. I’m in the process of creating a face-to-face community that is much more alive and creative than most sanghas I have been to. Most of the sanghas I have been to are boring and deadening. At our community, we start with a pot luck dinner, then meditation, then open sharing, i.e. ‘talking to each other.’ Our plan for the future is to incorporate music and dance, arts and crafts into our practice.

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