Even though the Dalai Lama was just in the news recently on his retirement from the political position he held in Tibet, he’s now in the news again, for markedly different reasons: he identified himself as a Marxist (oh no!). This is technically not really new information, since he has expressed deep appreciation for Marxism in relation to his Buddhism in the past. But many people might initially think, “Wait, he just got out of politics in Tibet, why is he still going on about political positions?” His bringing up Marxism was in response to a question about his sociopolitical position in a talk with Chinese students at the University of Minnesota. He qualified, however, that he was not a Leninist. This was an important qualification, since it distinguishes him from more stereotypical Marxists/Marxist-Leninists who advocate a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie to create a classless society in the future. Of course, I don’t know much about Marxism or Communism beyond one political science class I took my last year in college, so my readers can correct me if I’m wrong about that little detail.
Ironically, Tenzin Gyatso got interested in Marxism when he visited China, probably also using his meetings with Mao Tsetong in the past as counterexamples of what he feels went wrong with attempts to implement Marxism and Communism alike in China decades ago, though it still remains in some form, many would claim. Similarly in Russia, a prototypical example many use even today to represent Communism as a “threat” to America, Marxism, as manifest in the form of the Soviet Union, was still focused, in the Dalai Lama’s opinion, on selfish pursuits of profit and empowering the state over the governed. It’s not as if the Dalai Lama hates capitalism, though, he just thinks it doesn’t give any moral basis. I don’t think anyone ever said it did, but Marxism doesn’t necessarily give those moral foundations either, except in Marx’s original theory. If anything, there might be a better title for what the Dalai Lama is, though there’re so many variations of Marxism itself that he might still be able to fit it in somewhere.
Another thought people will bring up is the supposed opposition to religion inherent within the system of Marxism. The quote thrown around from Karl Marx himself, that religion is the “opiate of the masses” is somewhat ripped out of context. The full setting for Marx’s critique of religion reveals a more precise criticism of organized religion, one might say. He says prior to the opium reference that religion is the “sigh of the oppressed creature” so in a sense, he sees it as something of a necessary evil. He claims overall that religion shouldn’t be used as a way to manipulate people, but should be replaced with more solid truths of economics, etc. There is also a more potent metaphor to consider; if religion is like opium, then it is symptomatic of a pain that religion, similar to opium, cannot actually resolve, except temporarily. People use religion to soften the blow of losing a loved one, but one could say they don’t really face up to the basic reality of life: people die, and the sooner we accept that as natural and ethically benign, excluding non-accidental or natural deaths, the sooner we can progress as humans to soothe our pain more conclusively, though not completely. That kind of solution would be just as bad as becoming addicted to religion as a drug that you have to get more and more of to keep forgetting suffering.
In this sense, the Dalai Lama’s attraction to Marxism is also something I could agree with in the nominal critique of religion as a painkiller instead of a salve. Religion can function in some sense as an actual healer, though certainly not a panacea. At best, it can reduce people’s confusion about things, if even temporarily, in seeing patterns in existence to make them feel like they’re somewhat in control. But one could hope that this could be overcome, almost in a Freudian critique of religion as a childhood neurosis (anxiety) that we carry into adulthood because we refuse to confront our frailty as humans. Religion in terms of ethics might be a start as well with the charity that is inspired by devotion to a faith and its teachings. But if we consider Buddhism as more a philosophy than a religion, then there is a claim that the Dalai Lama could be advocating a removal of religion. But he clearly understands religion as something innate in the world. Even if more people begin to become non-religious in time, there will always be people that cannot really get out of that thought pattern, possibly because of a psychological disposition. But that’s not the end of the world or something to try to change by scientific means as if religion is truly a disease in that sense.
To go back to the opium analogy, religion is more a response to the disease we all suffer as human beings: unsatisfactoriness, called dukkha in Buddhism. It’s usually translated as suffering, but that makes it sound too focused on all the bad things as the problems in life. Even good things in life can be dukkha in a Buddhist perspective. We can become attached to them, we can think of them as the end all to our lives, acquisition of them as a way to feel fulfilled, etc. The fact that life needs to be given meaning through a person’s experience attests to this disease we all suffer. And the cures to it vary: religion, philosophy, even politics. Are all of these inferior? Perhaps they can all work together in some sense, but I can’t really speculate further than the inkling I have that the Dalai Lama may be more of a socialist than a Marxist, unless there are indeed more things involved with Marxist philosophy than I realize.
But people would wonder this on a practical level: shouldn’t the Dalai Lama focus on peace activism in his own general studies in Buddhism instead of branching out into politics and socio-economic theories? He says he’s different from Chinese and Russian Communists, but wouldn’t it be better for him to call himself a socialist in the sense of equitable distribution if that’s what he’s really after in terms of his activism? Perhaps so, but to be realistic, the Dalai Lama is not strictly the inheritor of the new generation, since he will no doubt fade into the past as one from the early 20th century. People like myself will have to take up the mantle of the new age upon us and work towards peace, justice and humanity. But we can’t deny that we are strongly influenced in one way or another by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.