Communism and Buddhism

views updated


Buddhism faced one of its greatest challenges during the twentieth century when the majority of Asian nations, which were traditionally Buddhist, became involved with communism. Mongolia was the first Asian country to become communist (1924), followed by North Korea (1948), China (1949), Tibet (1951), Vietnam (1975), Cambodia (1975), and Laos (1975).

Initial encounter

At the early stages of the Buddhist–communist encounter, coexistence did not seem impossible. Those who hoped for peaceful coexistence speculated on the similarities between communism and Buddhism: Neither Buddhists nor communists believe in a creator deity, and both Buddhism and communism are based on a vision of universal egalitarianism. In fact, the Buddhist community (saṄgha) was even compared with a communist society.

The seeming compatibility, however, was over-shadowed by a number of conflicting ideologies. Communism is based on materialism, whereas in Buddhism primacy of the material world is rejected in favor of nirvĀṆa. To communists, environments determine a human being's consciousness, whereas Buddhism emphasizes the individual practitioner's capacity to over-come human limitations through spiritual cultivation. In addition, Buddhism holds nonviolence and compassion as the core of its teaching, whereas communism foregrounds conflict between different social classes and endorses the use of violence in support of the proletarian revolution and the communist agenda.

Despite these differences, communism and Buddhism managed a coexistence for a brief period. In its early stages, communism gained support because it was recognized as the antithesis of foreign dominance in Asian nations at the final stage of imperialist history. People in Mongolia supported communists in their efforts to free the nation from Chinese dominance. North Korean communism gained power as a buffer against Japanese colonialists and American capitalist imperialism. Chinese communism set itself up as a defense against the threat created by the invasion of the Western powers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Vietnamese communists claimed to be nationalists fighting for the independence of Vietnam from the imperialist French and capitalist Americans. Because the Buddhist tradition had existed in Asia for more than fifteen hundred years, it could be seen by communists as a confirmation of national identity, while communism was seen as a means of defending a nation against foreign invasion. Thus, a coalition between Buddhism and communism seemed possible.


Buddhists soon faced reality. Once communist groups won the wars and communist nation-states began to take shape, Buddhists were forced to realize that the basic antagonism of Marxism toward all religion could not be challenged. Religion in Marxist philosophy is "the opium of the people." Communists view religion as a fantasy and superstition that deludes people about their social condition. According to communism, religion is a tool used by the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat and thus delay the proletarian revolution.

Only a few years after Asian nations fell to communism, the initial tolerance toward Buddhism was replaced by extreme antagonism. Communist parties launched severe persecutions of Buddhists and instigated an irreparable dismantling of Buddhist traditions. By the late 1930s more than fifteen thousand monks in the Mongolian People's Republic were declared enemies of the state and deported to Siberian

labor camps, where they soon perished from starvation and overwork. During the late 1940s communists in North Korea conducted a systematic removal of religion from society, followed by the complete eradication of all religious practice during the 1960s and 1970s. Immediately after the establishment of the communist government in China, opportunities for religious practice were reduced and ordination was restricted. At the outset of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, Buddhist practice all but disappeared from China. In Vietnam, repression of religion began with the victory of the communists in April 1975, after which communists destroyed or confiscated Buddhist pagodas and Buddhist office buildings. By 1982 there were only about twenty-three hundred monks left in Cambodia, a drastic decrease from the sixty thousand monks in Cambodia in 1975 when the nation first became communist. The situation in Tibet is unique in that the communists were not Tibetans but Chinese who claimed Tibet as their territory. Before the Chinese invasion, there were more than six thousand monasteries in Tibet; fewer than twenty monasteries survived persecution by Chinese communists. The spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, was exiled to India in 1959.

Since the communist persecutions began, Buddhists have generally held fast to the Buddhist teaching against injuring others. Vietnamese monks performed self-immolation as a protest against communist persecution, and for half a century the Dalai Lama has appealed to the world to stop the suffering of the Tibetan people and the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism, but Buddhists have refused to resort to violence to settle the tragedy brought upon Buddhism and Buddhist followers. The Buddhist message of nonviolent protest has brought awareness to the world of the importance of the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the urgency of human rights issues. Through their faithfulness to Buddhist teachings and their belief in human values in

a time of suffering, Buddhist monks and nuns in persecuted nations were able to demonstrate the value of religion in human societies.

In the 1990s communist governments began to show relative tolerance toward Buddhism, and religious practices began to resurface as Buddhist monasteries were renovated and Buddhist objects were recognized as national treasures. In Tibet, despite increasing tolerance toward Buddhism, the Chinese continue to refuse to allow the Dalai Lama to be repatriated. In countries where Buddhism faces a revival it still has obstacles to overcome. After decades of persecution and restrictions on ordination, a new generation of Buddhist young people has not emerged to succeed aging monks and nuns. How the Buddhist revival will fill the gap and make up for the lost decades remains unclear.

See also:Modernity and Buddhism; Nationalism and Buddhism


Benz, Ernst. Buddhism or Communism: Which Holds the Future of Asia?, tr. Richard Winston and Clara Winston. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Dalai Lama XIV). Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York and San Francisco: Harper, 1990.

Harris, Ian. "Buddhism in Extremis: The Case of Cambodia." In Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia, ed. Ian Harris. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

Ling, Trevor. Buddha, Marx, and God: Some Aspects of Religion in the Modern World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

Queen, Christopher S., and King, Sallie B., eds. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Schecter, Jerrold L. The New Face of Buddhism: Buddhism and Political Power in Southeast Asia. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967.

Schwartz, Ronald D. "Renewal and Resistance: Tibetan Buddhism in the Modern Era." In Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia, ed. Ian Harris. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

Sin Pŏpt'a. Pukhan Pulgyŏyon'gu. A Study of Buddhism in North Korea in the Late Twentieth Century. Seoul: Minjoksa, 2000.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. "Lao: From Buddhist Kingdom to Marxist State." In Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia, ed. Ian Harris. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

Welch, Holmes. Buddhism under Mao. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Jin Y. Park

About this article

Communism and Buddhism

Updated About content Print Article