Image courtesy of Just2shutter /

Image courtesy of Just2shutter /

There are Buddhists in the world. Some are politically engaged, and some of them are Marxists. Regardless of whether a Buddhist is politically engaged or not, they remain committed to the dhamma. That dhamma offers a comprehensive and coherent ontological, epistemological and ethical philosophy that is to be embodied in the daily lives of its practitioners. That practice demands intellectual integrity and a critical attitude that decries ideological dogma. It also requires an empirical basis for an enlightened human consciousness that is gained through a “mindfulness” that objectively investigates physical and social phenomena. Buddhism also prescribes a logical attitude in argumentation, including when justifying behaviors with reference to the sila of the Eightfold Noble Path.

Reasonableness is reflected in Marxian Engaged Buddhist’s (MEBs) ability to explain the structure and content of their commitments to doctrinally sanctioned Buddhist political behavior based upon empirical facts. This essay investigates how MEBs might explain and justify political behavior based upon doctrinal, empirical, and logical considerations. It responds to David Hume’s critique of the “Naturalistic Fallacy” by reflecting upon those sila that supply reasons that connect facts (what “is”) to preferred actions (how one “ought” to behave). It views Marxian analysis as a scientific endeavor, not a political dogma. Finally, it suggests that functional explanation that supplies an explanatory schema that is consistent with the epistemological and moral reasoning characteristic of dhamma.

Engaged Buddhism manifests a compassionate social consciousness[1] and remains a rich topic of deliberation and debate. It employs objective observations of personal and social dukkha to determine actions for positive social change. Thich Naht Hanh, who minted the term,[2] describes the genesis of the practice.


When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves. That was the birth of Engaged Buddhism.


Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.

Nhat Hanh’s description involves two of the “Three Pillars of the Dhamma.” The pillar of generosity (dana) is etymologically traced to an ethic of “benevolence.” The pillar of meditation (bhavana) in part involves the development of a critical faculty through “awareness,” the active consciousness of objective experience. In addition, the admonition against becoming “lost in action” suggests that political behavior should be guided by bhavana. Thus, Nhat Hanh inveighs against activism that is “idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.”

Nhat Hanh’s vision offers three challenges for MEBs. The Buddha warns Vacchagotta, appropriately depicted as a “wanderer,” of the dangers of maintaining attachments to viewpoints that engender dukkha.


Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, and fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.


Hence, MEBs must identify their Marxian orientation as objective rather than a “feverish” revolutionary dogma.

A second problem involves how MEBs formulate sound deductive arguments from Marxian facts to Buddhist “Right Action.” Hume’s complaint concerning the naturalistic fallacy is that facts do not in themselves entail normative behaviors. Although Hume’s claim remains controversial, failing to stipulate minimally sufficient reasons to support intended behavioral conclusions at least obscures moral justification.[3]

Finally, beyond objectivity and logical entailment, MEBs must seek an explanatory language that appropriately identifies empirical phenomena, their taxonomies and causal interactions. For example, the media and political progressives routinely explain the fragility of the American economy with reference to a “wealth gap” caused by “greedy” individuals and financial institutions. However, psychological and moralistic explanations do not address the facts of and causal relations among capitalist forces of production, social relations of production and an enabling governmental superstructure that interest MEBs. The world could be empty of greedy people, yet the mechanisms of capitalism, as Marxists identify them, will continue unabated. Many Marxists disapprove of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren just because they refuse to completely oppose capitalism, however compassionately reengineered.

How might MEBs confront these three challenges?

One way to insure anti-dogmatism is to take Marxian analysis as a methodology for an empirical research program that utilizes teleological explanation common to the social sciences. Joseph Dietzgen’s describes such a scientific socialism.


Modern socialism, on the other hand, is scientific, just as scientists arrive at their generalizations not by mere speculation, but by observing the phenomena of the material world, so are the socialistic and communistic theories not idle schemes [my italics], but generalizations drawn from economic facts.


While the scientific status of Marxian analysis has significant critics[4], the work of Henryk Grossman[5], Andrew Kliman[6], Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy[7] continues to be advanced as empirically robust.

Consider Marx’s fundamental “Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall.” The Law explains that capitalism produces increasing accumulation and economic growth by expanding productivity. Growth can be achieved by introducing labor saving technology that increases the efficiency of the productive forces. While productivity grows, an economic dysfunction is introduced. Marx claimed that all profit within capitalism arises from the surplus labor of workers. This is because, although productivity increases, profits “in the long run” will tend to fall as a function of the reduced amount of expended labor.

MEBs can avoid the naturalistic fallacy by providing additional premises in the form of reasons that link facts to conclusions regarding Right Action. The determination of Right Action would result from a deduction from premises including both scientific socialist facts and the sila of the Noble Path. His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains.


Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair.


The reader has likely noticed an appeal to “dysfunctions,” which Marx dubs “contradictions.” Functional explanation provides a familiar mode of thinking for Buddhists. It offers a teleology that specifies ends states that are or are not “in adequate, or effective, or proper, working order.”[8] It describes how systems can manifest functional and dysfunctional states that satisfy or do not satisfy needs, based upon the proper operation of causally potent functional items.

The “Four Noble Truths” represent an objective functionalism on stilts. They refer to states of a system of human consciousness that are either in good working order (the enlightened consciousness – bodhicitta) or not so (the suffering consciousness – dukkha), as specified in the Abhidhamma. They claim that such end states have causes ascertainable through the functionality of mindfulness. They claim that the need to achieve bodhicitta can be satisfied by removing the causes of dukkha. This state of a consciousness in good working order is manifested by loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha); the Brahma-viharas. For MEBs, the functionality represented by metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha motivate compassionate social action. Thus, the Four Noble Truths thus represent a schema for an objective functional explanation of dukkha and its elimination.

Combining the Buddhist functional account of dukkha with a functional scientific socialism provides a “second-order” method for objectively and reasonably understanding the dukkha of capitalism. Reasons offered by the Noble Path become part of deductive justifications for specific political behaviors, supplying premises needed to avoid the naturalistic fallacy.

Marx’s Law is consistent with a functional model of Marxian Enlightened Buddhism. For MEBs, the functionality of the brahma-viharas motivate not only a concern ameliorating the effects of unemployment on people, but the dysfunctions of the capitalist mode of production that affect society. MEBs might not only wish to propose policies that ameliorate unemployment, but also wish to advocate for remedial changes in how technological innovation is applied to production and how economic growth might be managed in order to mitigate the systemic forces caused by capitalism.

The central claim of this essay, surely controversial at best and sketchy at most, is that Marxian Buddhism can provide a basis for objective functional explanations from facts to Right Action. The capitalist condition of private ownership of the means of production disempowers workers by “alienating” them from control over their economic lives. Private property is a functional condition of capitalist production that engenders the dysfunction of unemployment. Thus, private property becomes dukkha. This is the quintessence of the Marx’s objective analysis of class struggle under capitalism. Worker disempowerment is a good functional working order for capital but not for workers. That un-Buddhist inequality is explained through explicit reference to functional systems. MEBs provide explanations involving competing systems (capitalism versus human biology), functional and dysfunctional states (growing accumulation versus personal and social impoverishment), needs (increased productive capacity versus personal economic security), goals (maximal accumulation versus enlightened human freedom) and functional items (technology and labor). For MEB’s, the dharma encapsulates a functionalist scientific research program. Functional explanation, along with corroborating objective evidence, provides MEBs with increasing confidence in their ability to identify causal connections that provide a basis for enlightened political action.


[1] This article draws primarily from the insights of His Holiness Dalai Lama, Joseph Dietzgen, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraska.

[2] Nhat Hanh, Thich. ‘Interbeing’: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Revised edition. (Berkeley, California, Parallax Press, 1993).

[3] Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. (London: John Noon, 1739).

[4] Karl Popper complains about claims for scientific socialism. One concern is that Marxian “laws” are unfalsifiable. We cannot discuss this claim in any detail here. I will only mention that the success of the theory of biological evolution, which routinely employs functional explanation, represents a significant counterexample to Popper’s objection.

[5] Grossman, Henryk. Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown. (Leipzig: Hirschfeld, 1929).

[6] Kliman, Andrew. The Failure of Capitalist Production (London: PlutoPress, 2012).

[7] Baran, Paul A. & Sweezy, Paul M. Monopoly Capital: An essay on the American economic and social order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).

[8] Hempel, Carl. Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Free Press, 1965), 306.

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on July 28, 2016 at 9:01 am

    I think you’ve done a good job of making the case that the Four Noble Truths and a valuing of the brahmaviharas provide the foundation for changing the social order in a way that reduces dukkha and promotes happiness. The challenge, in my view, is in deciding which of the many flavors of Marxist thought would become the basis of a scientific approach, and indeed whether a scientific project can have a political ideology as its foundation.

    • JRichardMarra on August 1, 2016 at 11:13 am

      Marxism does indeed come in many flavors. The article argues that MEBs would be interested in doctrines that can claim scientific status. It provides examples of such perspectives such as Grossman’s. Rather than pursuing arguments for scientific socialism, a task at which cannot be adequately treated in this forum, I recommend “Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History,” by Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliott Sober (London: Verso, 1992). One can turn the comment on its head and ask which flavors of Buddhism invite the functional and scientific perspective offered. I am reminded in the kind of renunciation that is advocated in some Buddhist doctrines that suggests leaving families and living as a hermit. Clearly, such a doctrine would not appear compatible with the kind of Right Action that MEBs might exercise. We should also recognize one of the three Archimedean claims made in the article is that Marx’s work represents a sociological research program that intends to explain how repressive and unhealthy social relations emerge under capitalism. Marxian analysis is a science of human relations, Marxism is the operational manifestation of that science; one which is based upon those shared moral principles that some of the respondents herein have mentioned.

  2. AndreasWinsnes on July 28, 2016 at 11:35 am

    Buddhism should not be politicized, but it can contribute to increasing the mindfulness of each individual who is interested in politics, no matter which ideology he or she supports.

    Have already discussed this with Mark elsewhere, so no point discussing it further here. Just mention it so that capitalists and other political opponents of Marxism don’t get the impression that secular Buddhism has to be connected to left-wing values.

    • Mark Knickelbine on July 28, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      I think that’s already a done deal. Rightists promote individualism, self-reliance, and the preeminence of property rights. From any Buddhist point of view I can conceive of, these are all illusions. Leftists believe in collective action for the common good, and our responsibility to care for one another and for the planet. They believe that government has the right to limit individual prerogative if it transgresses social good. A properly run bhikkhu sangha is perfectly consistent with liberal values. The reason that, as has often been observed, most Western Buddhists are liberals is because conservatives are not interested in the values that Gotama taught.

      • Freida on July 29, 2016 at 3:06 pm

        Mark, I agree – it’s a done deal. Buddhism is inherently leftist. Goutama promoted self-reliance, but in a different context from the rightists. The Buddhist idea of self-reliance is critical, independent thought which may lead to an unconventional but nevertheless ethical/moral action. The rightist idea of self-reliance is based on the Malthusian-Spencer ethos of scarcity and narcissism.

        • Mark Knickelbine on August 1, 2016 at 9:30 am

          Frieda, I agree, at least insofar as you can’t be introspective about anyone’s consciousness but your own. But his institution of the bhikkhu sangha, his admonition that monks were supposed to care for one another like family, his saying that good friends are the whole of the sacred life, and the fact that three of the four brahmaviharas are interpersonal in nature, make me think that Gotama would favor social collectivism over individualism.

    • JRichardMarra on August 1, 2016 at 10:21 am

      The article acknowledges the ongoing debate about the putative value of engaging social dukkha in the achievement of an enlightened mind. It cites Right Action specifically because the example provided seemed appropriate regarding Marx’s Law. However, Right Speech and Right Livelihood also have a place in the debate. However, we should make a distinction between the focus of the article, which involves the logic of justifications for and explanations of socially engaged behavior, and how Buddhists might insure that such behavior does not violate Right Speech and Right Action. In these regards, the thesis is careful to acknowledge a significant hazard of becoming attached to dogma. The article does not advocate for any form of a “Marxist” Buddhism. Indeed, the term “Marxist” is largely avoided, and is used only when there is a reference to the political manifestations of Marx’s theory. The phrase “Marxian analysis” is preferred because the focus is upon scientific explanation as input into the explanatory schema represented by the Noble Truths. References to “politicizing” Buddhism are at least vague and more seriously may potentially introduce a Straw Man fallacy or a tautology. The challenge regarding the first involves making clear what politicizing is, without misrepresenting an argument about a logic and empirical perspective as an argument about political preference. The challenge regarding the second involves how one might falsify claims about politicizing Buddhism. This latter issue is related to the fact that we live in a world in which people have different viewpoints, and those viewpoints, as we Buddhists know, color their perception of that world. Given the history of how Marxist politics and Marxian explanation, it is not surprising that even mentioning Marx will likely rub some folks quite the wrong way. I am reminded of racial Microaggression Theory in this regard. In today’s racially charged atmosphere, if a White person calls another White person a “thug,” matters regarding racial repression will likely not be raised. If a White person claims that Black kids who wear hoodies are “thugs,” protests concerning racism will ensue. The problem at does not reside in claims about how MEBs explain themselves, but how they avoid doing harm by speech or action.

  3. AndreasWinsnes on July 28, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Hehe, I’m not going to discuss politics here. Metta 🙂

  4. Michael Finley on July 28, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    I’ve long thought that some basic concepts of Buddhism and Marxism are congruent. For example, Marx’s idea that “man [sic] makes himself” suggests that collectively (as well as individually we have no essential nature0. His theory of alienation can be read as a description of the way in which our attitudes toward the world, perhaps even our self-identity, are constructed within the constraints of the prevailing social system. I doubt that Marx was much troubled about the ontological status of the self, but he does seem to suggest what amounts to the social dimension of anatta. We are the products of our experience, and our experience is largely social, largely collective and shared. Which is why everything we do has political & social content.

    • JRichardMarra on August 1, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Ontology matters, and that is why the article is careful to distinguish between justifications of Right Action centering on how that action helps others, and Action that helps MEBs on the path to liberation. Of course, Buddhism tightly wraps both “effects” together, and that wrapping is the Brahmaviharas. Marx argued that human existence and social relations are “determined” by the material aspects of the dialectical interactions between forces of production, social relations of production and the governmental superstructure that enables capitalism. I think that metaphysical challenges to MEB that suggest a logical inconsistency between the concept of the Buddhist self and Marx’s explanation of what he counts as human existence at some point need to be addressed.

  5. orwellflash on July 28, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    While I am sympathetic to the idea of basing one’s political beliefs on scientific principles and methods of inquiry, it strikes me as unwise to attach an ideology that clearly is not scientific in origin to the scientific method, and, moreover, to do so without addressing the difficulties of applying the scientific method to these questions. The term scientific socialism implies that either socialism and Marxism are inherently scientific or that they have been proved by science–neither of which has been established. As a democratic socialist member of Democratic Socialists of America in the 1970’s and 80’s, and an historian of left politics in the United States, I confronted the dogmatism and intolerance of “scientific socialism” that was aggressively promoted by various flavors of communists and socialists. It was certainly not scientific, in fact it was hostile to science and any kind of free thinking and investigation. I am not suggesting that Mr. Marra is in that camp, he warns against dogmatism, but I do believe that it is counterproductive, at the very least, to adopt a term that has been so thoroughly discredited by the history of left-wing zealotry and the crimes against humanity that it was associated with. E.O. Wilson et. al would have been very unwise to choose “social darwinism” to denote their school of thought instead of sociobiology. As it was, a body of work which eventually came to be widely accepted was viciously attacked by its detractors in very unscientific terms, and many leading those attacks thought of themselves as scientific socialists. Joining Buddhism and Marxism or Buddhism and liberalism similarly runs against many historical countercurrents. Most, if not all, religions have been, at one time or another, associated with political, social, and military cultures that have interpreted them in ways that distorted their best principles beyond recognition. I think we should avoid adopting religions, ideologies, and professions of truth. Science is a process not a conclusion. We are very early in the process of understanding ourselves and the world. We are best served by humility, working hypothesis, and theories rather than notions of truth and certainty. Ossifications of “scientific” schools of thought have held back science as much as those who fail to use the scientific method at all.

    • Michael Finley on July 29, 2016 at 9:21 pm

      I think Marxist social/economic analysis can legitimately be called social science — which is not, of course, to say it is “proved by science” any more than any other school of social science. I believe it was Engels who coined the term “scientific socialism,” and he did so for the lauable enough purpose of suggesting that Marx differed from the so-called utopian socialists by offering a theoery of social evoulution that identified the conditions under which it would be possible to establish socialism.

      But “scientific socialism” seems to me to be an unfortuate term now, though it probably wasn’t in the 19th C. The Soviets made it official dogma; Comrade Stalin reduced it to pure propaganda. “Marxist social science” may still usefully label a distinctive approach to the analysis of society. “Scientific socialism,” is, I fear, still suggestive of a rigid ideology too certain of its own superiority to be scientific.

      I’m happy enough to use “Marxist” to describe certain ideas that were first developed by Marx, just as I’m happy enough to acknowlege some of Gotama’s insights by calling them “Buddhist,” or to sometimes speak of evolution of species as “Darwinist.” But I also agree with a friend who once said that a “science” that cannot forget its founder is doomed. He regarded himself as a Marxist, but was frustrated by the tendancy of Marxists to argue by reference back to Marx himself (at least as interpreted by them) rather than by reference to fact and critical analysis.

      • JRichardMarra on August 1, 2016 at 11:48 am

        I gratified to see that folks seem to appreciate the article’s concern about a dogmatic “scientific socialism.” The term of course carries much historical baggage, and some of that is indeed unhelpful. But we should not conclude that because the term has an unfortunate history of dogmatism and humbug, that it cannot be reconstructed in helpful ways. Also the term does not necessarily imply “that either socialism and Marxism are inherently scientific or that they have been proved by science–neither of which has been established.” Even a cursory review of the history of science and the philosophy of science (including the work of Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn and Gonzalo Munevar) suggests that no science is inherently “scientific.” The article makes no claim concerning any epistemological necessity of Marx’s research program.

  6. Nick on July 30, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Marx was the son of Rabbinical parents &, similar to the political Zionists & Jewish Internationalists of his generation, was an atheist that appeared to not be psychologically free his Biblical conditioning & simply created atheist versions of Biblical ideas.

    For example, just as the Old Testament instructs the Israelites to genocide certain neighboring cultures & tribes, so did Marx state certain cultural groups were not sufficiently evolved for Communism & would have to be dealt with.

    Thus, the unimaginable horrors of Communism were played out in Russia, China & Cambodia. Communism & its Jewish roots (including the attempted Jewish lead German Communist Revolution of 1918-1919) was a direct influence for the rise of Nazism, which lead to the catastrophe of WW2.

    Buddhism already contains ideals about good government. I find it incredulous that Buddhists would align themselves with the term ‘Marxism’, particularly given the murders of millions of people committed by Marxists.

    It is quite obvious that Capitalism (as distinct from Free Enterprise) was the Feudalistic taking possession (by military force) of the means of production (land) in the Middle-Ages in Europe; the same Feudalism that also existed in the Dalai Lama’s Tibet.

    While Oligarchical Capitalism is a bad economic system for all people, Marxism is certainly not the solution & completely incompatible with Buddhism.

    In short, both Capitalism & Marxism are not the ‘middle-way’.

  7. mufi on July 30, 2016 at 8:04 am

    Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz once said:

    The real debate today is about finding the right balance between the market and government. Both are needed. They can each complement each other. This balance will differ from time to time and place to place.

    Of course, there is a moral dimension to this debate and our criteria for “finding the right balance” likely vary, depending upon prior commitments.

    That said, Buddhism appeals to me as a type of virtue ethics – one that’s distinct from Greco-Roman types (and is arguably better), but (like Greco-Roman counterparts) speaks first and foremost to the question of character and which is amenable to a variety of political-economic theories. That’s not to suggest that Buddhism sits equally well with all such theories (e.g. fascism), but it’s by no means difficult to imagine a committed Buddhist who lacks strong policy preferences and who instead emphasizes Buddhism as a personal practice that manifests in one’s daily actions and interactions as a member of civil society.

    Indeed, one could very well argue that government, as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (to quote sociologist Max Weber), is an inherently un-Buddhist institution…one that Gotama (in his pragmatic mode) accepted as a fixture of samsaric reality, but from which he nonetheless sought to distance himself and his students as much as possible (pending nibbanic release).

    While Buddhism has evolved and branched out since Gotama’s time, its nonviolent and quietistic lineages are still with us today, casting an ironic light on political-economic topics like these.

  8. orwellflash on July 30, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Reading again through Mr. Marra’s commentary and the comments addressing it, I see a reassuringly common ground of belief. We all seem to respect the scientific method as the best arbiter of what we regard as reality. We seem to agree that we must resort to other routes to decision-making in addressing many important issues, such as morality/ethics/values, social and political policy in the absence of adequate data or the inability to gather data for various reasons, etc. We share a healthy mistrust of a priori reasoning, dogmatism, jumping to conclusions, and sacred “truth”. Likewise, we share a respect for provisional judgements regarding any definition of reality, in whole or in part. I think this is a firm foundation for communicating with each other, and working together for common aims—including more satisfying lives as individuals, better social and political structures, more caring and supportive approaches to all species and each other, and greater knowledge of our universe (s) and our role in it.

  9. Michael Finley on July 30, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    I don’t want to tell anyone that secular Buddhists must be “engaged,” much less that Buddhism requires any particular political stance.

    But I do believe that Buddhist virtue ethics rather naturally suggests alignment with progressive (for lack of a better blanket term) political and social ideas. For me (and many others), compassion and avoidance of greed seems to create a moral imperative to be engaged. But that comes from an application of my understanding of contemporary society to my ethical principles. While I might fault a more quietist Buddhist’s understanding of economic realities, I can’t fault their understanding of the dharma for that reason alone.

    Marra’s argument, if I understand it, is that Marxism (as he interprets it) offers the most satisfactory analysis of the oligarchical capitalism of our times, so that secular Buddhist ethics demands acceptance of a Marxist political program. Those who disagree may or may not be wrong, but they aren’t necessarily bad Buddhists.

    I agree with Mufi that Buddhist ethics is “amenable to a variety of political-economic theories,” but “that’s not to suggest that Buddhism sits equally well with all such theories (e.g. fascism).” However, while I’m pretty sure Mufi would exclude more than just fascism, I think I’d find a few more direct political implications in Buddhist ethics than he seems to. Racism, agressive nationalism, great disparities of wealth, failure to provide decent living conditions to all members of society, sexism & genderism, and anti-environmentalism all seem to be to be, within the context of our times, very difficult, probably impossible, stances for anyone who appreciates the dharma to take, differences in social and economic analysis notwithstanding.

    What to do about these things is more difficult, and ethics doesn’t provide direct answers. Richard Reich allows that Hilary Clinton is genuinely concerned with these problems, and has been as skillful and effective as anyone from within the system, by working the system. Her achievements are surely compatible with my ethical position. However,Reich supported Bernie Saunders in the primaries because he believes the political system is broken in the sense that there are now built-in road blocks that make it increasingly difficult to deal with the United States’problems. So, if I was an American, I’d probably have supported Bernie, too.

    I can understand, without agreeing with, both those like Marra who think even Bernie’s “political revolution” wouldn’t make much difference, and with those who think all political action is futile. We share common ethical ground. On the other hand, I can’t make ethical room for Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or even Mit Romney.

    • Nick on July 30, 2016 at 2:25 pm

      Is this a place to promote one’s long held unexamined political allegiances? Hillary does not appear to be genuinely concerned about much ethical. Hillary is a chief hawk in the brutal US foreign policy. Did you not see her celebrate the death of Muammar Gaddafi & the result destruction as the closest thing to a socially benevolent African nation that was Libya? Hillary is an extreme Pro-Zionist supporting terrorism in Syria (the culture of my parents) for the sake of Israel. Hillary historically has supported the oligarchical economic policies, such as free trade agreements, repeal of Glass-Steagall, etc, that has contributed to growing inequity. Hillary appears to be a paid servant of the banks. Hillary appears to be simply dishonest & Richard Reich a mere mouth piece. How can Americans be so misinformed?

    • Gregory Clement on July 30, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      Michael, I have a lot of sympathy with the points you make but I have doubts about assuming that our modern ideas of ethics have any universal validity. It is tempting to think that ethics is like science in that we gradually develop a greater understanding and can look back with amusement or dismay at the benighted thinking of former generations.

      People in the past saw many things differently and it stretches credulity to imagine that their hearts were not as compassionate and loving as ours. You refer to sexism so let’s take this as an example. Modern progressive thinking is that there should be no distinction made between the roles and duties of men and women and then any alternative view is a sign of misogyny. In times past the common view (amongst both sexes) was that homemaking and child care were the natural roles for women. A loving parent would therefore want to raise girls with the necessary skills to fit them for this. To fail to do so would be seen as lacking in compassion.

      To forestall any misunderstanding I am not advocating this view and in fact I think the exact opposite. I just want to point out that good people can have very different ideas about how society should be run to promote human flourishing.

      When I was a boy, ethical ideas were very different from how they are today. I’ve no doubt that in forty years time people will look back in horror at what is seen as enlightened thinking now. Does that mean that we are not loving and compassionate now, or does it mean that moral thinking has a bigger element of fashion in it than we would like to admit?

  10. Michael Finley on July 30, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Nick, I will just say that the political views I hold are not unexamined. It was not my purpose to promote Hilary Clinton or anyone else. In fact I was trying to say something useful about examining political views in the light of Buddhist ethics.

  11. Michael Finley on July 30, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Gregory, I too “have doubts about assuming that our modern ideas of ethics have any universal validitiy.” I certainly doubt that most particular ethical rules have universal validity. An easier example than sexism from my list of “impossible, stances for anyone who appreciates the dharma to take” would be anti-environmentalism. It is our current condition that makes environmental issues matters of obvious ethical concern. But this precisely why I wrote that it’s difficult to take the stances I listed “within the context of our times.”

    I do,however, hold out some hope that there are general ideas with ethical implications that are perhaps more nearly universal. One such may be the idea that the goal, individually and collectively, is “flourishing” (as the Greeks put it) by living a life as free as possible of grasping, greed, rancour and hate, living with compassion and seeking harmony with others: “What do you think, Kalamas? Does absence of greed … hate …delusion …appear in a man for his benefit or harm? . . . “Undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness.” (Kalama Sutta). Ethical rules worth having should apply this view to contemporary circumstances.

    Finally, and really as an aside, if I was going to argue that ethics is cumulative, like science, I would suggest that ethics (when it’s not just a mechanism of social control) is rooted in empathy for, identification with, others. We seem to have a natural empathy for those cliosest to us, our family. Sometime in the mists of prehistory, our hominid ancestors took concern for others no further than that — then it expanded to the extended family, to the band, the tribe, the local community, to an ever-broader community until it becomes possible to set up as an ideal the proposition that all humans are our brothers and sisters. This is, I fear, far to simplistic, but perhaps worth a thought.

  12. mufi on July 30, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Just to complete the spectrum, I do actually promote Hillary Clinton (not usually here, but elsewhere)…and not only as the “less evil” nominee with a fighting chance of keeping Donald Trump far away from the nuclear codes, but even as the best candidate during the Democratic primary cycle (water under the bridge, now that her challenger Bernie Sanders endorses her, as well).

    Now who would the Buddha endorse, were he alive today? Is that even a reasonable question to ask, given his remote distance from us in spacetime?

    As much as I like to imagine him as a moderate, center-left pragmatist like myself, I tend to think that he would have abstained from endorsement altogether. He might very well agree to meet with both presidential nominees privately, as an opportunity to advise them in the ways of the Buddha-Dhamma (and, yes, I imagine that he would address Trump more severely, as the nominee whose Gordon Gekko-like character comes close to exemplifying the “three unwholesome roots” of greed, ignorance, and ill will), but that’s still a far cry from joining the political fray in which I find myself embroiled.

    Btw, this piece by Doug Smith from a few months back has some relevant things to say.

  13. orwellflash on July 30, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Michael, I agree wholeheartedly that a widening circle of empathy can be discerned in history, and that it is the basis of our moral progress. Probably most, if not all, of the participants in this forum have already read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, but I want to recommend it to anyone who has missed it. It provides a fascinating look at the changes in moral sentiments and practice of violence over recorded history.

    Mufi, thanks for the link to Doug Smith’s wonderful article. I had missed that, and found it very informative and compelling. The pragmatic, gradual, incremental approach to mindfulness and human progress that the Buddha apparently endorsed is attractive to me. I too will vote for Hillary, though her hawkish tendencies and often lock-step support for AIPAC and Israel regardless of its leadership and policies, as Nick pointed out, repels me. Elections should not, however, be seen as litmus tests for moral and political purity, but rather sober choices involving very real alternatives with very real consequences for us and others. Those who see no difference between Hillary and Trump are wrong and misguided, just as those who saw no difference between Al Gore or John Kerry and George W. Bush were obviously wrong. The consequences of those mistakes have been disastrous and long-lasting. I hope people don’t make those mistakes again this year in the United States. Please do not let conceptions of political perfection keep us from making incremental progress, or forestall disaster.

    • mufi on July 31, 2016 at 5:07 am

      orwellflash: Glad you enjoyed Doug’s article. The sections “The Buddha Was Not Opposed to Profit” and “The Buddha Was Not an Ethical Perfectionist” seem particularly relevant to this discussion.

      I have another recommendation for you re: Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record. Simply put: it’s complicated by a mixed approach (e.g. diplomacy “in dealing with hostile or adversarial regimes” and military intervention in dealing with “failed states or ongoing civil wars where she wants the US to help reimpose order or push that conflict toward her desired outcome”). We needn’t agree with her approach, but we should judge it in the context of her peers…not just rival candidates (on which this article focuses), but also those with actual experience in high-power positions in the federal government.

      That much brings me back to a point that I alluded to earlier (re: the definition of government as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”), which I’ll reframe: Statecraft is a problem-solving domain that Gotama for the most part avoided (unlike ancient counterparts, like Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Confucius). With that precedent in mind, it would come as no surprise to me if today the same folks who are drawn to the more pacifist overtones of the Buddha-Dhamma are also drawn towards exceptionally dovish politicians…an instructive example of which is Barack Obama the presidential candidate in ’08 vs. Barack Obama the two-term POTUS, who doesn’t look so dovish anymore (and whose positions on Israeli security and the Mideast peace process, btw, are virtually indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s…a shared view that’s also recorded in the Democratic Party platform).

      • orwellflash on July 31, 2016 at 6:20 am

        Mufi, thanks for the article—thought provoking and informative. I agree that we are largely left with guesswork in trying to predict how a politician is going to act in office—extraordinarily difficult. The choice between Trump and Clinton, however, takes the pressure off, in my view, because he is clearly dangerous and she might turn out to be a great president, and will probably be no worse than Obama, which I can accept when confronted with republicans or Trump as the alternatives.

  14. Michael Finley on July 31, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Just to complete my admissions about US politics: I’m a Canadian democratic socialist but I too would be voting for Hilary this fall if I was down there, and not just as the lesser of evils, and despite reservations about her foreign policy record. I agree with Orwellflash that voting is always a matter of compromise, and take Mufi’s point about the effect of the pressures of office on forgien policy making.

  15. Michael Slott on July 31, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Many important points have been raised about the connection between Buddhism and Marxism, the role and value of science, the basis of a compassionate ethics, etc. In the comments which follow, I want to focus on clarifying the relationship between Buddhism and Marxism, which I don’t think that the blog post by J. Richard Marra did very well.

    I appreciate that the topic Marra took on is very complex; and it is difficult in the context of a blog post to present a nuanced, but substantive account. Still, it would have been helpful if the author had been more clear about the terms that he was using, provided some context for discussing the topic, and acknowledged others who have explored this area, including Christopher Titmuss, David Loy and Ken Jones (see references below).

    The author describes himself as a “Marxian Engaged Buddhist”? What aspects of Marxism and Buddhism are being brought together in this perspective? How is this different than the socially engaged Buddhism which Thich Nhat Hanh has advocated? What insights and theories of Marxism are particularly crucial? These questions are not adequately addressed.

    Buddhism and Marxism do share some important commonalties. Both perspectives stress the primacy of change and process in reality. Most importantly, they also share the goal of alleviating suffering and promoting the flourishing of all human beings through the development of our “better nature”: the capacities for critical intelligence/wisdom, compassion, and solidarity.

    But they are fundamentally different in the dimensions of human life and reality for which they each provide valuable insights. Buddhism provides us with a rich understanding of the phenomenological aspect of our experience – in particular, the ways in which we create “surplus suffering” through our default reactions of grasping and pushing away phenomena. Marxism – in its non-deterministic, humanist variant – allow us to connect human suffering to the structures and processes of societies and collectives.

    Each have important insights which can help human beings to flourish, but each have limitations or blind spots. Buddhism emphasizes interconnection and process in the complex of “causes and conditions” which constitute reality, but a general understanding of the centrality of causes and conditions doesn’t help us to figure out whether we should support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Presidential primary. Similarly, Marxism illuminates the causes and potential for socio-economic transformation, but doesn’t recognize how such transformation is limited not just by oppressive and exploitative institutions, but by our tendency to create suffering through clinging.

    It’s essential to recognize the strengths and limitations of both Buddhism and Marxism. In my view, neither provides some “master perspective” which offers a “comprehensive and coherent ontological, epistemological and ethical philosophy”, as Marra claims for the Buddhist dhamma. What each can do, however, is contribute in important ways to developing a social movement and daily practice which contributes to universal, human flourishing.

    Ken Jones, 2003. The new social face of Buddhism: An alternative sociopolitical perspective.

    David Loy, 2008. Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.

    Christopher Titmuss, 1993. Marxism, Buddhism, and the question of human suffering. In Marxism and spirituality: An international anthology, ed. Benjamin Page, 197–205.

    • JRichardMarra on August 2, 2016 at 10:48 am

      This account remains incomplete and superficial in some regards. In order to trace the logic from scientific results to MEB action globally in the context of an Internet blog, the article covers detail tactically. It purposefully leaves untreated issues that are not central to the argument. Where its scope is limited, it points the reader to primary sources. Certainly some of the matters you raise are significant and should be covered in an extended account.

      There are differences in the “dimensions of human life and reality” between Buddhism and Marxian analysis. A fundamental problem that Marx addresses is a dysfunctional material “metabolism” that humanity engages in with the natural world due to the destructive and oppressive operations of capital. Buddhism identifies dysfunction in psychological terms, as explained in the Abhidhamma.

      The challenge for the account is to reconcile these two disparate explanatory models so as to avoid logical inconsistency and what is sometimes referred to as “explanandum shift.” We wish to insure that in explanation, we remain consistent in references to the objects being explained. The claims regarding functional explanation provide a consistency of model. The account provides a schema for avoiding explanandum shift, by isolating the two explanatory domains, one materialistic and the other psychological. Its agrues for a “scientific socialism” that MEBs appreciate with respect to the Buddhist “Charter of Critical Inquiry” which is offered in the Kalama Sutta. The account does not wrongly suggest that Marxian analysis be accepted by fiat as a way to explain away the “fetter” of dogmatism. It takes seriously the Buddhist goal of avoiding dogmatism by challenging MEBs to remain respectful of both the material and psychological facts of dukkha. The avoidance of the naturalistic fallacy is accomplished by the introduction of “reasons” into the logical argument from those fact to Right Action. This approach is reminiscent of the 5-part syllogism that was advocated by the Naiyayiks, a logical structure that was required to introduce reasons as premises. The account does not commingle different explananda, but isolates them not only to avoid the naturalistic fallacy and explanandum shift, but to explain how MEBs might justify their political activity based upon the dhamma. It is important to understand that the account aims at a “comprehensive and coherent ontological, epistemological and ethical philosophy,” but not of either Buddhism or Marxian analysis, or both together; but of the explanation and justification for MEB Right Action.

  16. Michael Finley on July 31, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Michael Slott,

    “Surplus suffering” — I love it. (apologies to Marx’s surplus value I presume).

    You make some cogent points.

  17. orwellflash on August 1, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Mr. Marra, my statement that you quote above was off-the-cuff and does not capture my objection. What bugs me, beyond the alarming historical baggage, about the term scientific socialism is that it is trying to give Marxism a cachet that it has not earned. The successes of the scientific method provide hard science with a special status as a source of reliable descriptions of reality. By calling Marxist theory “scientific socialism”, Marx and Engels were promoting their product as scientific when it was never more than historical description and interpretation–an interpretation that may or may not be valid, but certainly does not, cannot, employ the scientific method. You are suggesting, or implying, that your new Marxist theory will be, or has been, developed by conducting scientific studies of the psychological, social, political, and economic attributes of Capitalism and Socialism. Please give us some idea of how that can be done, or how it has already been done.

  18. JRichardMarra on September 29, 2016 at 8:19 am

    orwellflash. Please read “Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History,” by Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine and Elliott Sober (London: Verso, 1992. I suggested that text in a previous comment. That source will address your concerns. Your will find that you misunderstand my argument because you are portraying it as a claim about Marx and Engels, when in fact is an argument centering on the logic of explanation. I can’t further respond to your comments until I know you are fully informed on the topic.

  19. JRichardMarra on September 30, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Perhaps it might be helpful for me to share some observations of others who have considered intersections between Buddhism and contemporary Marxian (dare I say, Neo-Marxian) thought. I am motivated to do this because three central fallacies that recur within this discussion center upon concerns about Marxism and the claims of orthodox Marxism. But I also wonder if reader’s concerns spring from a perspective that is uncomfortable with the manner of my exposition. There is an aphorism, however correct or insightful, that social scientists don’t think like philosophers, and philosophers don’t think like social scientists. Being new to this sanga, so to speak, and my reading of the various critiques of my thesis, I get the impression that this association draws many from the human and social sciences. In this regard, I find it curious that objections that center upon whether Marxism is scientific in some sense, rather than whether functional explanation can be scientific in some sense, or that Hume was wrong about the Naturalistic Fallacy. I don’t know why that is, but it may be that functional talk is ubiquitous in the social sciences as it is within Buddhist epistemology (I claim this with respect to the Noble truths.) Who knows. Nevertheless, familiarity can breed acceptance.

    In a sea of conceptual confusion and misunderstanding, a term can be a raft. The charge that my claims regarding a “scientific socialism” represent a claim about Marxian analysis qua orthodox Marxism is incorrect and represents a straw man. Although, orwellflash’s characterization of orthodox Marxian claims of scientific integrity is largely accepted, is does not follow that some re-constuction of Marxist explanation can not satisfy current standards of scientific endeavor. Indeed, this issue is far from settled (as I have indicated), and examples of putatively scientific research programs have been cited. This fallacy lives inside an ignoratio elenchi, because the issue at hand involves the logic of explanations that justify Marxian engaged Buddhist behavior, and not an advocacy for the scientific status of Marxian analysis per se; or as Michael Scott wishes to redirect the central issue at hand to what constitutes the Buddhist mechanism for transformation. We are left with irrelevant and erroneous claims, inside invitations to change the subject, wrapped in straw man challenges.

    My essay can be interpreted as a question that one might ask His Holiness The Dalai Lama. His Holiness is a self-described Marxist. He writes:

    “Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (The Fourteenth Dalai Lama (n.d). Tibet and China, Marxism, Nonviolence.
    His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from

    While HH shares concerns about the moral dimensions of capitalist domination, he also acknowledges the centrality of “equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production.” This is significant because the explanatory structure of Marxian analysis centers on a unequal distribution of surplus value, based upon the institutionalization of private property, which is the basis for class exploitation and class struggle.

    HH also suggests that:

    “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (The Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2006). The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. New York: Broadway Books.)

    From the perspective of my thesis concerning engaged Buddhism, one might take this admonition as a reflection of my, and what I think should be the Buddhist, concern about attachment to dogmas, which I agree is today the general critique of orthodox scientific marxism.

    From the vantage point of my thesis, HH’s advise can be interpreted as a reflection upon just that Buddhist concern about attachment to dogmas that my essay explains.

    In summary, my essay represents what I think I think HH and other Buddhists of like orientations should be able to address and explain, if they are to justify the logic of their engaged Buddhist behavior. Contemporary Marxism as science may be of significance to some Buddhist’s political activities, but that putative status represents neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for engaged Buddhism. But I think it important that engaged Buddhists, Marxist or not, remain thoughtful about the logic commitments they make when justifying their political behavior.

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