“[Religious] criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true sun”
— Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
I at times find myself reading Marx’s early writings, which give more of a contemplative thinking through of his theoretical approach and the contradictions between the philosophy of the time and reality as it was unfolding.
I had a training in my youth in socialist theory and practice, and a continued interest in its applicability in today’s day and age. But in more recent years have found myself drawn to Buddhist practices in mindfulness and awareness, and these practices have been a central part of achieving a state of well-being.
These practices have been of enormous benefit to get my out of my mental projections and back into my body, to work through embodied trauma and patterns of escape which have served to protect me from pain I have experienced in the past. From the direction of discipline, focus, clarity of intention, I have worked through these challenges to attain a level of ease, relaxation, and health, which has in turn supported more focus and intentional development.
But from the outside it seems hard to reconcile the approach of Marxism and that of Buddhism. To do so, in some ways is probably just a very short-sighted foolish act. Yet it’s hard to deny the incredibly powerful impact Marx had on the course of history in general and economic analysis in particular. It’s worth noting too that his life predated Freud and the psychotherapy revolution, and one can only wonder at what the tool of analysis of the unconscious mind would bring to his work at the time.
But as a simple summary, my experience with awareness of the unconscious heralds the conclusion that I only project outside, what I am unwilling/unable to feel internally. And to expand further, my thoughts and state of mind is a reflection of my own emotional and physical well-being. When I can’t breathe due to asthma, my mind is all over the place. When I feel unsafe due to a basic human need being unmet, my mind races and abstracts into memories, mentally blaming others and imagines worst case scenarios.
And this corresponds to the view of Marx, that humanity, or particular class of society, only projects onto religion, fantasy, or abstract theory what it cannot comprehend/resolve in its collective existence. So the peasantry who work the king’s land in order to feed themselves, alleviates their suffering by the assurance that a benevolent God will grant them freedom in the afterlife if they live a “good” life.
My own inquiry into my interior and contemplation on Marx’s writings leads to the conclusion that what we think is only a reflection of what we are. And what we are is only a reflection of our conditions of existence. And our conditions of existence is only a reflection of our place in society, which is in itself a reflection of the state of society in general.
Relative safety, accumulated wealth, financial stability, secure possessions, home ownership, space for physical activity and rest, healthy eating, etc etc. All these are preconditions for higher levels consciousness, bodily awareness, contemplation, and conscious intentional doing. And thus these enable us to recreate our position of relative stability.
The ability to operate above the level of survival, in our fight or flight response, is predicated on the material conditions we exist in. These material conditions are physical like housing, food, and proximity to toxins; cultural-psychological in the sense of familial, societal, norms of behaviour and conditioning; socioeconomic like peace, general economic level of a nation, and multi-cultural, etc etc.
Once our survival is assured, once our nervous system has settled and our parasympathetic nervous system has been given the opportunity to fully engage, a deeper level of contemplation, learning, curiosity, is enabled. Until then we are buffeted by the shifting unpredictable nature of our reality.
Intention and will can allow us to reach greater levels of stability and deeper consciousness, but even then this is only made possible by the material pre-conditions coming partially or fully into place.
From the position of relative safety, achieving greater levels of well-being, contentment, wealth, connection with others, seems easy and achievable. From the position of trauma (past or present), poverty, insecurity, it is a dream, fantasy, or even religious projection.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is unavoidable in conditioned existence, only because suffering is real and unavoidable in this existence in general.
In affluent countries like Australia it is more achievable for people brought up in lower socioeconomic families to attain these material conditions of safety and security, and relative material wealth. Thus some individuals can move beyond their conditioning and establish a foundation which facilitates increasing levels of consciousness and development. However there will be those born into families of wealth for which such pastimes are trivial, and there will be those born into families of entrenched poverty and discrimination that will likely never comprehend the possibility of such depths of contemplation and insight.
Thus the distinctions in stages of “spiritual” development from the mystical/ethereal to the contemplative and scientific.
Whilst relative material wealth can enable relative freedom, the real inequality and suffering in our society, limits the level of conscious awareness and intentional development attainable by any individual. The capacity which is created by this conscious awareness and intentional development is limited by the need to address this inequality and varied states of existence. Consider for example the level of fear and guilt exhibited by today’s super rich.
This is what it means to be a true Bodhisattva. Having experienced the truth of our own suffering, we commit to address this suffering in general — both maintaining our own psychological/mental stability, and contributing to the well-being of others. The fullest expression of this is the alleviation of suffering in general, the universal emancipation of humanity.
I am not arguing for the organised socialist revolution, rather illustrating the implication of our own incompleteness as fully conscious beings that is limited by the material reality of humanity in general.
As only incomplete Bodhisattvas, our full state is realised through the alleviation of all real material suffering, poverty, and inequality. Thus freedom from suffering can descend from heaven and experience itself in the earthly existence of an integrated, un-exploited humanity.
The feeling and ultimate emptiness of separateness, embodied in the Buddhist notion of Anatta, perhaps is just an inverted experience of real division, separation, and oppression between people. The yearning to connect with others, which expresses itself through our self examination, is a deep desire to be our free selves in the company of other free selves, to function in a community of equals dedicated to their growth and enlightenment. Such a community of dedicated practitioners is embodied in the notion of the Sangha in Buddhism.
So whilst the French revolution of the 18th Century rested upon the yearning to establish freedom and equality within the “fraternity of man”, the future emancipation of humanity from its own suffering may rest within the experience of one Sangha. The liberation of humanity from real suffering, through the collectivisation of the existing wealth in society and the utilisation of this wealth to secure our well-being and safety, will form the foundation, the precondition, of the universal conscious evolution of humanity. And thus as Marx describes, “marks the end of the pre-history of man”.
This perhaps illuminates the comments of Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh who said:
I think it must be true that the future Buddha is somewhere, very ready to manifest to us. We have to prepare the ground for his or her appearance. I have the impression that maybe this time the Buddha will appear not as a person but as sangha, as community. We have to be very open in order to be able to recognize the new Buddha and, whose name is love.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Need for Love, 1998