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Quote of the Week: Robert Aitken Roshi

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“Buddhism is anarchism, after all, for anarchism is love,
trust, selflessness and all those good Buddhist virtues
including a total lack of imposition on another.”

~Robert Aitken Roshi

I believe that Aitken Roshi would love what is happening in New York and across the world now…

15 responses »

  1. Ah, if only. While I agree with the sentiment, and the understanding of the suttas, I’m afraid I encounter Buddhist pea-patch-patrollers on a regular basis. Let us strive to put that down, brothers and sisters.

    Thanks for the great quote!


    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

  2. What a giant. What a heart. What a voice. Love that guy!

  3. I enjoyed this quote. It is heartening to hear of Engaged Buddhist activity around #OWS. This comment about anarchy particularly strikes a positive chord as here –, or here in general –

  4. Dear Maia,

    I think that we have to use this quote from Aitken Roshi very carefully.
    When a realized-master has reached perfect union with the universal law (dharma) of knowing, loving and serving then he or she is beyond man-made laws but not until.
    A lawless state without the Buddha’s dharma is called hell!

    For All Beings,
    Thomas Pearce

    • Dear Thomas,

      A question for you — what if the man-made law is unjust or harmful?

      palms together,

    • “A lawless state without the Buddha’s dharma is called hell!”

      Thomas, anarchist organization is stateless, not lawless. Here’s George Orwell’s description of anarchist Barcelona in 1936 from his vivid eyewitness account of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War: “The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal…There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gipsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes…”

  5. I like Aitken Roshi’s sentiment but I’m not sure that Buddhism as such can be equated with any particular ideology. Most of the Buddhists I’m personally aquatinted with are liberals, a few are moderate Republicans and one or two are sympathetic to socialism (and let’s not forget that anarchism is a particular school of socialism.)

    As far as I know only Aitken Roshi is a self-described anarchist, and though Gary Snyder wrote an essay called “Buddhism and Anarchism” in 1961 his latest revision of the essay brings it closer to liberalism.

    Apparently American Buddhists have never thought of examining the assumptions of the capitalist mode of production and consider the socialist critique of it. Socialism, whether Marxist or anarchist, has been consistently demonized in the popular American consciousness since the first Red Scare of 1917-1919. Although we are often admonished to think for ourselves, we might wonder if the American socialization process allows us to do so. Ideological orthodoxy so permeates the plutocratic culture, masquerading as “pluralism,” “democracy,” and the “open society,” that it is often not felt as indoctrination. The worst forms of tyranny are those so deeply ingrained, so thoroughly controlling as not even to be consciously experienced.

    It seems to me that engaged Buddhists in the West need to catch up with their Asian brothers and sisters who have no trouble declaring for socialism (even the Dalai Lama described himself as a “Marxist monk”!)

    • Hi Richard, I’d love to know the source of that quote from His Holiness where he described himself as a “Marxist monk.” That’s a particularly provocative quote and I’m sure if I ever use it again, people will want some reference for that one!

      • A reference to the Dalai Lama describing himself as a Marxist Monk is found in Raj Patel’s “The value of nothing: how to reshape market society and redefine democracy.”

        “I am a Marxist monk, a Buddhist Marxist. I belong to the Marxist camp, because unlike capitalism, Marxism is more ethical. Marxism, as an ideology, takes care of the welfare of its employees and believes in distribution of wealth among the people of the state.”

        Patel is in turn quoting from an article in Indian Express of Jan 19, 2008, ‘”I am a Marxist Monk,” says Dalai Lama.’

      • Here’s the Indian Express article, Maia.

        The Dalai Lama’s presentations are often recorded. Perhaps this one was as well.

    • Richard-

      Anarchism is not exclusively socialist. Certainly there is the social anarchist, but also individualist anarchism is prevalent.

      Personally I think Buddhism is more akin to the strains of individualist anarchism I’m familiar with, which tend to have a similar prohibition on violence.


      • Good to hear from you Eric.

        I’m familiar with individualist anarchism and it’s various manifestations, most recently life-style anarchism.

        I see the various strains of individualist anarchism (and not just anarcho-capitalism) as expressions of bourgeois ideology. and at odds with Buddhism in as much as Buddhism claims that phenomena have no independent existence, the familiar Indra’s Net metaphor. In human terms this means that humans are by necessity social beings since they rely on others for the necessities of life. My bias is for anarcho-syndicalism as you may have guessed from the Orwell quote, and the good society for anarcho-syndicalists is a cooperative commonwealth.

      • Dear Richard,

        Though I fell in love with the Catalonian barbers during freshman year of college in 1969, they show us how anarchy might have worked for a few years in a simple city-culture but I can show you how a central authority (state) has brought peace and prosperity to billions of people throughout history!
        One important thing about anarchy is that without a central authority to print money, people would be forced to barter! (and since we’re all paper pushers we don’t have anything to barter).
        Anyway, as I was telling Maia the other day, though some of the problems in the world are caused by unjust systems, the root of all problems is spiritual – the failure to love all beings selflessly! This is fortunate for us because we’re spiritual teachers and we meditate, chant or something in order to realize within ourselves the Buddha’s infinite compassion and wisdom.
        Then, we put our new-found compassion into practice by teaching the world how to improve their love in all of their relationships as they are son/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife (conjugal partner), father/mother, grandparent and extended family, friend, business owner/employee, citizen and leader of the community, nation and world, and steward of the natural world.
        This will create, through an anarchist spiritual/humanist movement called a “Path for All Beings”, truly lasting peace and prosperity; or at least it will prevent the suffering of one abortion, one hungry child or one alcohol-suicide!
        Today, more than 170,000 people will die from preventable causes – but no longer on my watch!

        For All Beings,
        Thomas Pearce

  6. Thanks for the reference, Bodhipaksa… much appreciated.

  7. As a matter of fact Thomas the anarchist collectives in Aragon used money (see Collectives in the Spanish Revolution by Gaston Leval and With the Peasants of Aragon by Agustin Souchy.) Of the political thought of the last two centuries, only anarchism or, better, anarcho-pacifism — the philosophy of institutions without the state and centrally organized violence — has consistently foreseen the gross dangers of present advanced societies, their police, bureaucracy, excessive centralization of decision making, social engineering, processing, schooling, and inevitable militarization — “War is the health of the State,” as Randolph Bourne put it. The bourgeois state of the early nineteenth century may well have been merely the instrument of the dominant economic class, as Marx said, but in its further development its gigantic statism has become more important than its exploitation for profit. It and the authoritarian socialist alternatives have not developed very differently. All have tended toward fascism — statism pure and simple. In the corporate liberal societies, the Bismarckian welfare state, immensely extended, does less and less well by its poor and outcast. In the old socialist societies, free communism did not come to be, labor was regimented, surplus value was mulcted and reinvested, and there was also a power elite. In both types, the alarming consequences of big-scale technology and massive urbanization, directed by the state or by baronial corporations working through the state, make it doubtful that central authority is a workable structure.


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