Neo-Liberal Buddhism?

Hmm, “neo-liberal Buddhism”?—the phrase is a little clunky but it might work.

Some readers apparently judge my concerns about inadvertently contributing to white racist identity politics as a cowardly retreat from a bold and incisive stance. While the immediate trigger was the sudden emergence of white racist identity politics over the course of the last 18 months, there are 1) longer historical considerations, 2) theoretical reasons, and 3) personal reasons (beyond cowardice) that informed my decision.

First, researching the history of Traditionalism in the twentieth century revealed several connections between rising interests in Buddhism late 19th & early 20th century and rising fascism. While it is a loose connection, there is a link between Romanticism in its exaltation of authenticity in the form of blood-and-soil ethnicity, and the racist ideologies that led to the Holocaust. One strain of neo-Romanticism that influenced many of us interested in Buddhism in the 60s and 70s led to back-to-the-land communalism (a continuing model of simplicity and authenticity appealing for some Buddhists), and a belief in the authenticity of the primitive (and the continuing rhetorical strategy of conflating original, pure, authoritative, ancient, and authentic).

Today, these neo-Romantic values are reflected in the valorization of small-town, agrarian America as the “true America,” which has been prominent in both of the last two Presidential elections. This representation of “true America” marginalizes not only the urban, educated, cosmopolitan majority, but Buddhists of all kinds—convert, immigrant, and natal.  Also, it is especially evident in the nostalgic idealism that becomes prominent in the next month: images of the mythic rural America common during the Christmas season, such as, snow-clad cottages with white picket fences, and candles in the window, and white people skating on an ice-pond in the background—the deadly nostalgia of Currier and Ives, and Norman Rockwell.

The care that some of us feel is necessary in explaining that in Sanskrit “arya” does not have the same meaning as Aryan in white racist identity politics is also evidence of the lingering potential not simply for intellectual misunderstanding, but for active mis-appropriation. While the present association of Buddhism with peace-loving liberalism may seem to preclude mis-appropriation on doctrinal grounds, doctrinal grounds are slippery. Consider the emergence in Hinduism—the religion we used to think of in terms of Mahatma Gandhi and nonviolence—of a kind of virulent Hindu identity politics (Hindutva). Similarly, the use of degraded concepts of “religious liberty” as an increasingly accepted legal defense for theologically based discrimination by fundamentalist Christians—the religion we used to think of in terms of Martin Luther King and the dove of peace. These are themselves immediately present evidence of the slippery character of doctrine.

As for Buddhism, consider Julius Evola, an Italian writer in the first half of the 20th century, who although apparently not a member of the Italian Fascist party was actively sympathetic and promoted his religious Traditionalism to high-ranking officials in the German Nazi party. He wrote on Buddhism and a large number of his writings, including the work on Buddhism, have been translated into English and remain available today. It is a disturbing indication of the indefinite malleability of doctrine that his work on Buddhism was being used as a textbook for a class at the Graduate Theological Union only a few years ago. See: Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism.

D.T. Suzuki was one of the conduits between Buddhism and Traditionalism. It has long seemed odd to me that peace-loving American Buddhists did not see a contradiction when reading Suzuki’s writings that promote the cult of the samurai (bushido), especially given its connection with Japan’s 20th century imperialism. Closer to home in the sense of the sources of modern mindfulness, and more immediately, consider the rise of ethnic violence in Thailand and its effect on monastic communities, including the rise of “monks with guns.” Similarly, Sri Lanka.

In this regard, we should ask What resources does Buddhism have to counteract the appeal of authoritarianism?—the soothing belief in the Great Man [sic] who has all the answers to all the questions and is not afraid to act decisively, even violently. And, likewise for the appeal of totalitarianism, especially here now in its fascist form of the state empowering corporations in their systems of control.

Second, the theoretical issue. For quite some time after the “White Buddhism” posts, I felt that it over-emphasized race, and consequently ignored the equally important role of class (economics, education, etc.). Systematically ignoring class would distort any social analysis. If you’re a single mother working three half-time jobs to try to feed, clothe and house your children, you don’t have the leisure time or the expendable income to go for a weekend retreat, no matter whether black, white, Asian, Pacific-Islander, latino/a, whatever. While there are many other issues involved (such as those treated by Candy Brown), I have deep respect for those who work to bring meditation/mindfulness to prisons and inner city schools, thereby helping to redress some of the class issues.

Third, the personal issue. It is all-too-easy for me to fall into a stance of self-righteous indignation, and that is a version of myself that I no longer want to feed.

1 thought on “Neo-Liberal Buddhism?

  1. Interestingly enough, spokesmen/participants in the alt-right movement have cited Julius Evola as part of their heritage (see: There is an element of elitism with these people that involves transgression paradoxically. They espouse tradition and morals, but they claim to be themselves above all rules and laws. Such people’s views dovetail very much with the esoterica of Indic religions.

    However, the foot soldiers of fascism, I think too, eventually get sold a lower brow version of transgressive putative superiority when they are seduced and enticed by the possibility of orgiastic violence directed at despised others.

    I’ve been thinking about connections between fascism and Buddhism for many years (I am a Ph.D. in history who has studied the modern incarnation of Japanese Buddhism, Nichirenism). One essay that got me thinking was Gustavo Benavides’ “Giuseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Fascism” in the Donald Lopez edited, Curators of the Buddha. We need more research on these matters, I think, especially with the rise of the so-called alt-right.

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