From the September 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard
In quite a number of homes a little statue smiles down at us from his place on the mantelpiece. There he sits cross-legged, displaying a broad belly with a prominent navel. His ageless face wears an enigmatic smile as he placidly contemplates the best room in the home. Carved in ivory, jade or soapstone, the charming statue of Buddha never palls on us or to judge from his expression, we on him.
In some Asiatic countries Buddhism is the national religion. It may come as a shock to think that but for an accident of geography, whereby we were born in Europe instead of in Asia that this statuette might not have been an ornament in an English sitting-room but an idol of worship.
Buddha, born in 563 0.C., the son of a reigning Prince in North India, was so surfeited with the idle luxury of palace life that at the age of 30 he set forth alone to seek deliverance for all mankind from the unhappiness and suffering which he found to permeate existence in whatever form. He taught that existence is impermanent and filled with suffering and that there is no immortal soul which separates one man from another but that all men are part of the universe and that in nature the Brotherhood of man is an accomplished fact and so therefore war is foolishness.
Buddha pointed out “Four Noble Truths.” Firstly, that the world is filled with suffering, discontent, disease and unhappiness. The second deduces its cause to be wrong desire or craving. The third “Truth” is that by annihilating wrong desire we remove the cause of suffering. As we think, so we become, or in the words of a Buddhist Scripture "all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” The fourth. “Truth” points out what he thinks to be the nature of the cure; by treading the Path of the Middle Way between extremes. But the Buddhist then goes on to make a point: Nature has taken millions of years to evolve the humble flower, shall man be perfected in 70? He then enunciates the theory of rebirth: man is reincarnated in another life perhaps in the body of an insect or animal or any living creature. Promotion to Nirvana partly depends upon the extent to which the aspirant annihilates desires.
Buddhism is not only a religion, it is also a way of life. For over 2,000 years it has held sway over nearly one-third of mankind. In some countries, such as in Thailand, it is customary for all men to become Buddhist monks at some time in their lives, though with an eye to realism this is confined to three months in a man's life for this is about the maximum time that it is considered practical to abstain from sex and the other pleasures of life.
As a corollary to civilization it is necessary to renounce many individual liberties of action and personal desires, and man co-operates with society instead of acting anarchically. For instance, industry, for obvious reasons, demands that workers keep to pre-arranged hours irrespective of personal convenience. In most walks of life civilization demands repression of personal desires for the general benefit of those living together in society.
The emphasis on the equality of the spiritual potentiality of mankind is a form of democracy not essentially political but in the humanistic man-to-man sense that all men are merely part of a one universal whole. In Confucianist China, where in the past women have held an inferior position the advent of Buddhism which does not differentiate between the sexes (unlike Confucianism) gave them hope and drew strength from their support Kuan Yin, the good-looking Chinese goddess of mercy, is the patron saint of Chinese women and has held an unassailable position of honour in the women's quarters in many Chinese homes. This Buddisatva (a Buddhist saint) previously a male has conveniently changed sex as a sop to the modesty of Chinese women. It can be observed that in Buddhist countries there is not the same sort of snobbishness that frequently pervades society in the West because of this feeling that all men are one with the universe.
Again the emphasis that man is merely part of nature together with speculation on the infinite which is part of Buddhist philosophy enhances the imagination, and this in turn leads to a development of the artistic faculties. The importance of Buddhism in the development of art in the East is universally recognised.
But Buddhism has other effects on its adherents. The belief in the transitoriness of an existence that passes from one form of animal life to another gives a sense of essential impermanence and unimportance of human life to the Buddhist. This has the effect of diminishing the importance of the material conditions of environment and of the events of daily life. This makes the Buddhist fatalistic, for example to the effects which arise from the capitalist-worker antagonism in society. Wages, hours of working, living conditions—what does it matter when one believes one has a constant succession of lives to live. He who is too poor to be able to afford to keep a wife or to sample sexual pleasure does not bother to think out the cause of his poverty—perhaps in the next reincarnation he may be a ram and can then make up for lost time. Besides to receive more money means that more desires can be indulged in and this is against the tenets of Buddhism.
What a useful religion this is to a ruling-class. When they are surfeited with luxury or debauchery how pleasant to lead a frugal life for a change and work the toxic matter out of the system. And for the underprivileged it enables them to bear the hardships that arise from their class position and thus they can carry the master-class on their backs with barely a groan.
Even the pacific side of Buddhism, which one might think could be a drawback in an acquisitive society where wealth, markets and trade routes have to be defended by the workers for their masters with force of arms, can be overcome. Japanese Capitalism has obviously found the answer to this.
By posing the belief in the reincarnation of the soul Buddhism has put a brake upon rational thinking and obscures the economic motives in society. This helps to prevent man from logically considering the reasons why riches and poverty exist side by side and such other contradictions in society which should be self evident. This in turn discourages the Buddhist from organizing in Trade Unions and in the political field to end the system of exploitation.
Belief in Buddhism robs the material events of life of their reality and of the interdependence of their cause and effect. Only the tenets of Buddhism count, and the believer has to try to build up as large a stock as possible of individual good deeds letting the stream of life flow by. It is of no use bothering to change society because it is thought that a lifetime is but an inconsiderable part of the long journey to the goal of Nirvana. The Buddhist is not concerned with organising the working-class to end exploitation but with his mind clogged with religious claptrap has acted as a brake on the development of ideas leading to a materialist conception of history. Thus Buddhism by its opposition to the Socialist movement is playing its part in preventing the establishment of Socialism and is in effect helping to hold back the clock of social change.