Master of None

Terry Gibbs, Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist: Buddhism and the Compassionate Society

Zed Books, 272pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781783606443

reviewed by Hawa Allan

‘I’m not going to argue in this book that we all need to be Buddhist Marxists,’ writes Terry Gibbs in the introduction to Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist. Her intention, rather, is to illustrate how certain tenets of Buddhism and Marxism are complementary, and translatable into action that can end the suffering prevalent on our planet. A professor of political science at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Gibbs proceeds to lay out her argument in the defensive tone of an academic shadowboxing with an ever-sceptical reader. While Gibbs is emphatic about the urgent need to respond to our various global crises – and the utility of Buddhist and Marxist principles in guiding this response – I found myself somewhat frustrated by her impulse to continually justify rather than simply explore this proposition, even if to an uncertain end.

The proposition’s origin is a 2014 speech made by the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, in India. ‘As far as socioeconomic theory,’ he declared, ‘I am Marxist.’ While the Dalai Lama can make such pronouncements, gather his robe and step off-stage smiling, for Gibbs, ‘identifying . . . as a Buddhist Marxist requires some explanation.’ While not necessarily mutually exclusive, Buddhism and socialism offer prescriptions for change from opposite directions. Buddhists offer transformation from the inside-out, advising introspective contemplation on the nature of the mind in order to free oneself from false views for the ultimate benefit of society; socialists call for change from the outside-in, a reformation of (if no longer overt revolution against) the capitalist order to usher in system that would ordain more equitable distributions of wealth and resources.

Nonetheless, Gibbs makes cogent comparisons between Buddhist and Marxist tenets, discussing their overlap and potential for transformative social change at individual and structural levels. Take, for example, Marx’s concept of alienation – whereby workers, effectively reduced to cogs in industrial and corporate machines, are estranged from the product of their labour, and, by extension, from each other and themselves. Gibbs frames this alienation in a Buddhist lens, writing that it is akin to the isolation of individuals in egocentric shells, unable because of their deluded attachments to realize the true nature of their interdependence with all living beings and the earth.

Gibbs, moreover, relates the Buddhist concept of delusion to Marx’s false consciousness: alienated from our true nature, we import and confuse the motives of capital for our own. False consciousness is a distorted filter or screen that, say, causes someone who is anorexic see an overweight figure in her reflection, an advertisement-fuelled dysmorphia reinforced by the similar delusions of her peers. The capitalist system itself, for Gibbs, is a form of samsara – the endless cycle of suffering Buddhists wish to escape through a renunciation of delusion and the cultivation of ‘right’ views, among other virtues (e.g. compassion, equanimity). If we could all just gain the requisite clarity, hopefully with the aid of Buddhist principles and practices, argues Gibbs, then we would certainly take a more equitable approach to collectively organising our socioeconomic affairs.

The failure to recognise our interdependence, according to Gibbs, is at the root of suffering under capitalism. If each of us truly understood our fundamental connectedness, she says, we could not condone the reduction of people into mere objects of labor. ‘Indeed, those with power and privilege often depend upon the working-class and the poor to do their “dirty work” for them,’ Gibbs writes. ‘Slaughterhouse workers, pesticide sprayers, mine security personnel, and women who literally carry other peoples’ shit on their heads are just a few forms of employment that come to mind.’

Gibbs applies this aspect of her argument to the failure of people in the Global North to realise how their relative affluence is inseparable from widespread poverty in the Global South. She discusses, for example, how the ethics of the wealth generated by multinational corporations often headquartered in the Global North is rarely considered when some fraction of it is diverted to philanthropic purposes in the Global South. Gibbs notes the contradiction inherent in the fact that ‘we can comfortably benefit from pension plans invested in stocks that increase in value due to labour rights violations and environmental destruction in another country while at the same time attending a fundraising event for local charities that work on reforestation or child poverty.’ Says Gibbs: ‘It is akin to breaking a person’s legs and then generously donating crutches for them.’

The most interesting part of the book considers how individual contemplation might translate into structural change. This will only come about if we as a society account for, as Gibbs puts it, the bodies in the basement – in other words, if we arrive at a full understanding of the consequences of our actions, and continually take action in the present to create a new reality:

For example, we would immediately at point-of-purchase see the entanglement of our cell phone purchase with the fate of children in coltan mining in the Congo who are facing violence, the rape of their mothers, and not being able to attend school; or as we stood in line to order a Big Mac we would reflect on the fact that due to our heavily meat-based diet we are dependent upon raising livestock upon a system of raising livestock that is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions globally; or we would witness the working conditions of the Bangladeshi sweatshop worker as we’re about to purchase a new shirt; or as we turned our heating system on we had a vision of the skin problems and respiratory diseases afflicting communities living on or near land owned by multinational coal mining companies; or as we pulled out or credit card to buy new cotton pants we realized that over 200,000 unsubsidized Indian farmers had committed suicide because they couldn’t compete with the heavily-subsidized cotton growers in wealthy nations; or looking at the menu in a restaurant we would witness the mental health problems of slaughterhouse workers, and so on.

While I am convinced of the need to take individual responsibility for structural violence, especially by interrogating even one’s most mundane, everyday activities, I’m not sure you have to be a Buddhist practitioner to do so. Full disclosure: I’m a (on-again and off-again) Buddhist practitioner and have been for some years now. That said, one of the core delusions that a practitioner of Buddhism must renounce, as I understand it, is the belief that there is any external source of peace – the delusion that you must rearrange external circumstances in order to be happy. If that is the case, what is a capitalist system – or any system for that matter – other than an external circumstance?

Buddhism’s end game, through meditative contemplation, is to uncover joy and peace within, then extend it to others for the benefit of ‘all’. This is likely the reason why so many articles discussing Buddhism or ‘mindfulness’ typically have a saintly, detached tone, rarely extending beyond the bounds of an already almost-enlightened consciousness unmoved by worldly tragedies and trauma. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term 'engaged Buddhism' to refer to a practice that contemplates social change; however, the precepts he enumerates in that vein are inward-facing, focusing on one's own mind and actions – not the kind of line items one would find in a political manifesto, which typically sets forth the changes everyone else must make toward a just society. The gist is that if every single person adopted a zen-like approach to life, then structural reforms would be unnecessary, as we humans would carefully tend to each other and the environment without recourse to the force of law.

Full disclosure: I am also not entirely convinced that structural reform would not make me ‘happy.’ In fact, I have spent most of my adult life convinced that it absolutely would. It is this particular inside-out/outside-in conundrum that I’d hoped the book would directly address. The disconnection that I see between Buddhist practice and desiring structural change could explain Gibbs’ rather defensive stance throughout the book. For the most part, she alternates between defending Buddhist principles to godless socialists and explaining structural inequality to Buddhist practitioners supposedly untethered from material concerns.

In positioning herself as a mediator between supposedly feuding factions, Gibbs presents a primer on Buddhism and socialism without delving too deeply into either, missing an opportunity to more fully explore the limitations of integrating – and thereby hopefully working to close the gap between – the two lines of thought in service of a more just world. I’m hard-pressed to imagine why someone would read Why the Dalai Lama Is a Socialist if she were not already engaged in, or at least predisposed to, both Buddhist and socialist praxis. Gibbs did not have to frame this subject matter as a sermon in search of a choir.