Reflections on the First Buddhist-Marxist Retreat

As we explored the historic Hopewell Furnace at the public park where we had our first Buddhist-Marxist “retreat,” I was struck by the way in which the site—and the brochures and plaques upon which were printed particularly glamorous historical narratives about the development of Colonial industrialization—elicited a certain kind of Romantic capture with the self-congratulatory historical narrative known as “American history.” The powerful image of unconstrained innovation, the Protestant work ethic, bourgeoisie “revolution,” and the wonders of capitalism, are among the ideologies most powerfully reproduced on such a tour. This capture, however, would soon be exposed for what it was, as we moved from the site where the iron-workers would have spent their days, to the mansion in which the “iron-masters,” who owned the plantation’s means of production, lived. This powerful transition brought to light the enormous cultural confusions which allow us to oust from our consciousness the reality of class struggle in the development of our society.

I would fairly confidently wager that most Buddhists would gasp at the thought of a Buddhist-Marxist “retreat” of the kind Tom Pepper (The Faithful Buddhist) and I participated in this summer. There is something about actually addressing the problem of suffering in this world, which Buddhism ostensibly takes as its object, that apparently terrifies most Buddhists. Though we independently chose the texts under discussion—Tom choosing a Shin Buddhist text and myself a Marxist text—the understanding was there from the outset, I think, that the goal of Buddhism and the goal of Marxism are one and the same, namely, the critical study of the reality of suffering, the causes and conditions of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the revolutionary acts required to lead to the cessation of suffering.

I wanted to write an essay focusing specifically on the texts that we read and discussed, but I also want to focus on the experience of the retreat itself, and to stress the difference between the kind of gathering we had and, say, the kind of thing that virtually all other Buddhist retreats are. In fact, this issue is intimately concerned with the problems that the texts themselves raised for me.

I think that this point can be made fairly clearly by looking more closely at this word “retreat,” and to ask why it cries out to be surrounded by scare quotes. The function of the “meditation retreats” in which I have participated in the past have been to retreat from the world temporarily, for the purpose of the long-term reproduction of the delusion that the world can be retreated from at all. The kinds of meditation ideologies in which I have participated—Pragmatic Dharma being the one in which I made the most “progress”—were constituted by an abandonment of the social in favor of reproducing the Romantic ideology of the subject. Nothing illuminates this reality as does the fact that meditation retreats are usually completely or mostly silent. On a “silent retreat,” what is excluded is precisely the only possible source of true liberation: rigorous communication within language, and the historicization of what we take to be our own self. These two things, on the contrary, were precisely the focus of the Buddhist-Marxist retreat. (While there were certainly instances of silence, those were times of reading and thinking, as opposed to “mindfulness” or some such nonsense.)

The fundamental difference here lies in two different conceptions of agency. Under the naive Western Buddhist view, agency arises from within the subject as already given. That is, the reality of suffering, the causes and conditions of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and hence the path leading to the cessation of suffering are fundamentally internal to the subject, in this case the Romantic subject of capitalism. When the Buddha teaches, for instance, that desire is the source of suffering, what the bourgeois Western Buddhist hears is “the innermost desires of my eternal atman are the sources of suffering.” It stands to reason, based on what he (mis)hears, that suffering is a problem best tackled by the Western Buddhist in solitude, that liberation from the suffering produced by capitalist subjectivity lies within capitalist subjectivity itself, if only it were to be “clearly seen” through the act of solitary meditation. How does our understanding of Buddhism—the problem of suffering—change, if we do not begin from the assumption of an atomistic and Romantic atman, which is in fact none other than the historically contingent capitalist subject?

I was surprised to learn, upon reading Kaneko’s Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies, that there actually are some Buddhists out there who are not taken in by the naive view of most Buddhists today. I believe that Kaneko is advocating for a view of liberation which places freedom outside of the subject, rather than within her. According to Kaneko, our desires, rather than telling us something about our innermost selves, precisely tell us about the world in which we live, and the social formation that we share with other human beings. Our desire for liberation, moreover, is reflective not of our innermost self, but of the contradictions within our subjectivity which is constructed by the social formation of which we are subjects. According to Kaneko, “faith is . . . transferred from other-power.” What is this “other-power”? As I understand him, Kaneko is here arguing that liberation, rather than being constituted by an exhaustion of our deepest subjective desires, is instead the formation of an entirely new subjectivity altogether:

When we speak of the Buddha who saves and myself who is saved, it is common sense to think both that the one who has faith in the Buddha is myself and the person who is saved as myself. But Shin Buddhism says that this is not so. Faith and salvation are entirely other-power (207).

When the Shin Buddhist recites the nembutsu, for instance, it is not the subject reciting the nembutsu through the ideology of Shin Buddhism, but rather the ideology speaking through the subject in the Althusserian sense. I would argue that it is only through the Marxist understanding of subject formation that a new, liberating, subjectivity can arise.

Henri Lefenvre, in The Sociology of Marx, is in part interested in the way that human material practices are productive of social consciousness, as he works through the problem of what a Marxist sociology might look like as an academic field. As Tom Pepper pointed out in his article on the retreat, Lefebvre’s conception of language can be problematic and, I would argue, at times contradictory. According to Lefebvre, ideology exists “over and above” the material productive praxis of society, the former being a product of the latter, and the latter of which, in a liberated society, would exist without ideology. Lefebvre contends that ideologies necessarily make “opaque” what would otherwise be “transparent” material and social relations, though he admits that ideology can be more or less obscuring in different instances: “the social consciousness generated by a given praxis faithfully reflects it only in specific situations: namely, when the praxis is not shrouded in mystical veils” (62). Of course, this picture assumes that the function of ideology is to accurately mirror the world, rather than to provide individuals with a means for participation in the reproduction of society, regardless of whether the stories and beliefs within the ideology faithfully describe the material practices being carried out. We should rather assume that the goal of ideology is not to obscure praxis—to whatever degree—but to ensure the reproduction of society. This may or may not require obscuring reality, though capitalist ideology does require this obscurantism.

Despite this limitation of Lefebvre’s, his insights into the problem of needs—and the subjects that are socially produced in order to collectively meet them—can be useful. When speaking of praxis in The Sociology of Marx—as well as in other works of his—Lefebvre is very interested in the problem of human needs. Crucial to the Marxian understanding of human beings is the fact that human needs can be fulfilled only socially:

Man, the human being, is first of all a creature of need. He “is” this to a greater extent than animals are, for nearly all of them from birth onward possess means of survival in their own bodies and their immediate environment. Failing this, they simply die, species and individuals alike (39).

The fact that human beings are first and foremost creatures of need should be far more obvious than it appears to be to most people—or rather, it is the conclusion from this that seems to be where the resistance lies. What this fact forces us to conclude is that ideology—which is to say the material practices of reproducing society, of meeting individual human needs—always precedes the subject. Let’s formulate what we have said so far as a three-fold proposition:

  1. Humans are first creatures of needs. What distinguishes this human reality from the rest of the animal kingdom is that human needs can only be met socially, for individual humans are pathetically helpless creatures for many years after their birth.
  2. Prior to an individual’s birth, there exists the productive ideologies—family, economic, political—that already function in the service of reproducing society.
  3. The moment an individual is born (in fact even before that, according to Althusser), they are necessarily already subjects of the given ideologies. They must be, or else their needs will not be met and they will “simply die.” The subject is thus formed in the process of having their needs met through the social processes of ideology.

Based on my experience in Buddhist circles, it seems clear to me that the driving desire behind many of these “retreats” is to escape subjectivity. That is, what we have here is a fantasy of the individual meeting her own needs—usually framed as “spiritual” rather than material needs—without the necessity of the social. This desire manifests out of a childish denial that the subject cannot be separated form the social ideology which provides for the individual’s needs, for it is entirely within such ideologies that the subject is formed. The contradiction generated within the subject of capitalism, which produces the desire to retreat out of human subjectivity into a transcendent realm, is between the material needs present in all individuals, and the practical, everyday knowledge that our ideologies are ill-equipped and outdated with respect to meeting the needs that are present in individuals in our particular historical circumstance. Hence, on Kaneko’s view, the desire for transcendence—however it is manifested—merely provides us with a means for clarifying the limitations in our ideologies, and the subjective contradictions which they produce.

This all leaves us with quite an uncomfortable conclusion. Since the desire for liberation from the social necessity in meeting our needs is produced within the subject, rather than being the deep desire of a transcendent atman, it follows that liberation requires the formation of a new kind of subjectivity. And since the subject is produced only within an ideology, it is only through the creation of new ideologies that liberation is possible. It is therefore not in “silent contemplation,” that the transformation of the subject can occur, but only through a revolutionary ideology that takes as its aim the transformation of the reproductive means of society in which subjects can be produced. That is what I would like the goal of a retreat like this to be, and I hope to see such a gathering attract more people in the future.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on the First Buddhist-Marxist Retreat

  1. Your connection between the site of the retreat, near Hopewell Furnace, and the subject of the retreat is fascinating. It seems clear to me that one of the most troubling aspects of capitalist ideology is what I refer to as “fear of sociality”: the attempt to deny that we depend on a social network, and so must inevitably be willing to negotiate and compromise to arrive at acceptable collective intentions. At Hopewell, the furnace master has intentions, and the workers are not recognized as human beings. This attempt to deny sociality is a powerful part of the x-buddhist ideology as well. We are asked to pretend we are abandoning all desire, when in fact we are really supposed to abandon only the social negotiation of intentions, and allow only the few in power to have desires—which the rest of us must simply accept. Easy enough if you make six figures sitting forty hours a week in an air-conditioned office; harder to accept if you work 80 hours a week pushing wheelbarrows full of ore, charcoal, and lime to the top of the blast furnace. Although, I can just hear the popular Zen teacher now, telling us that if they could only be mindful of the moment as they pushed that three-hundred-pound barrow in ninety degree heat for the thirtieth time that day, they would realize the joyful bliss of enlightenment.


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