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The Dalai Lama and Marxism

Joined: Apr 16 2003

Occupy Buddhism

When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again astir with this nonrevelation, which came by way of an Indian-born Tibetan journalist, Tsering Namgyal, who had tagged along when the Dalai Lama held a nearly three-hour meeting with 150 Chinese students. Namgyal, a Mandarin-speaking reporter living and studying in Minneapolis, had posted online that the Dalai Lama  surprised his young audience when he volunteered that “as far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.”

 Namgyal’s post explained that a student had asked about the apparent contradiction between the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than the responses of most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound bites. The year before the Dalai Lama had given a series of talks in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Following a press conference in the basement at Rockefeller Center, the Dalai Lama’s news office included this report in its summary: 

His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the Hundred Flowers Campaign [1957] in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.

You might think he had his thoughts on the 99 percent, but the Dalai Lama has stayed on message for years, saying the same thing many times in many places—including a Time magazine interview in 1999, and in the following passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, in 1996:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with 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 failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

So what’s all the fuss? Marx might still be an inspirational hero for the odd revolutionary in Peru or Nepal, but communism these days is generally summarized as a failed system that crashed and burned. So why this repeated hysteria about Marx? And why now?


Joined: Dec 11 2005
I can't find the link, but apparently Marx claimed to be a Buddhist... Anyone?

Joined: Jun 10 2010

Yes, I think he said that to his cleaning lady, no?

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