By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #918, Aug. 10, 1997
So far, in discussing religion, in its expression ideologically and as political movements, I have mainly focused on Islam and Christianity. Here I want to briefly discuss Buddhism, particularly in terms of its role in the world today. It should be noted that, at least according to some of its "leading lights" such as the Dalai Lama, Buddhism does not share with other religions a belief in a supreme being; but in an overall sense it can and should be included under the general heading of religion, because it does promote belief in mythical and mystical existence and forces that are "beyond" material reality, when in fact there are no such forces and there is no such existence.
While not as major an influence as Christianity, or Islam, in the U.S. (or even in the world) Buddhism is nonetheless an important influence, even in the U.S., as can be seen from the "Free Tibet" concerts--or, more accurately, the "Uphold Serfdom and Imperialism" concerts, since that is what is really represented by and what has actually been enforced through the rule of the Dalai Lamas, as our newspaper has very concretely and graphically shown in its series on Tibet.* But, beyond that, in parts of Asia in particular, Buddhism exerts a significant influence; and there is some work to be done in exposing it, through the application of dialectical and historical materialism, as part of our revolutionary and proletarian internationalist responsibilities, even while we seek to learn more about it, especially from MLM forces in those parts of the world where Buddhism is a significant phenomenon.
This brings me to another point that was stressed in the Morality essays** (in particular the essay, "Putting an End to Sin"), about why it is that different religions dominate in different parts of the world and among different peoples. In "Putting an End to Sin," this point was brought up in response to Jim Wallis's argument--in fact a rather worn-out argument but one that has experienced some revival these days in the context of the "death of communism" and the whole ruling class offensive around this--that the reason communism "failed," as Wallis frames the argument, is because of its own inherent and unavoidable or fundamental flaws. Communism "unraveled," according to this argument, not because it was defeated by a rival system, or by class forces opposed to it, but because it was fundamentally flawed. In responding to this, the sphere of religion itself was invoked to help illustrate the inherent flaws in Wallis's idealist logic. If you say the reason communism "failed" is not because of actual class struggle and actual material forces in the world, but because of some inherent and fundamental flaw that caused it to unravel, then answer the following questions.
Why in Turkey is Islam and not Christianity the dominant religion? Is that because Islam is an inherently superior religion to Christianity, and therefore was bound to win out in the spiritual contest between one religion and another? Or did it have to do with the conflict between very earthly material forces, taking a concentrated form in the military sphere, fighting it out through the Crusades and so on?
Why is it that among Black people in the U.S., from slavery to today, Christianity has been the dominant religion rather than various religions that African people who were captured and enslaved previously believed in? Are you going to say that the reason for this is because Christianity is an inherently superior religion, that its spirituality is greater, than those various African religions? Or does it have to do with very real material forces, including the actual military force applied to kidnap people and to transport them in chains to the American continent and then (for those who survived) inculcating this religion, forcing this religion on them, replacing previous religions with this Christian religion? Does it have to do with some spiritual superiority of one religion over another, or with very earthly and material forces, including material force expressed in concentrated form as military power?
Or let's take Christianity, particularly Catholicism, in Mexico. Why is that the dominant religion now and not the Aztec religion? Is it because Christianity and Catholicism is somehow a superior religion, superior spiritually to the Aztec religion? Or does it have to do with what was done by Cortes and the Conquistadores when they went to Mexico and conquered it, and imposed this Christian religion, along with imposing European and particularly Spanish colonial rule? Was the essential and decisive thing ideas and spirituality in some sort of contest to see which was most pure and heavenly? Or was it very earthly and material forces, including military force, that decided this contest between one religion and another?
Something extremely interesting in relation to this is that recently there has been a very real scandal that erupted in Mexico because the Abbot in charge of the Shrine of the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico has actually come out and said something to this effect: "Well, really, this whole thing about the Virgen de Guadalupe is just some kind of a peasant myth." Wham! You can't say that! Of course, this is much more in line with reality than the whole mythology around the Virgen de Guadalupe, but you can't come out and say that, especially if you're an official of the Catholic Church responsible for the care of this shrine--you can't say this without causing the eruption of a major scandal. The mythology of the Virgen de Guadalupe is completely bound up with, is at the heart of, the way the Christian religion was put over in Mexico, Certain religious traditions and elements that were there among the various Indian peoples in Mexico were "incorporated," while they were made subordinate to and in the service of Roman Catholic Christianity--this was the way and the form in which, with the Spanish conquest and the move to impose Christianity, this religion was fashioned to serve as a national religion in Mexico and particularly to attract and hold the peasant masses. You can't lift the lid on that without creating a tremendous upheaval.
Now, through this Abbot's comments, the lid has been lifted, and the Church authorities have moved decisively to slam the lid on this, including by silencing and transferring this Abbot and putting authority over this shrine higher up in the Church hierarchy. All this is something that is not only fascinating but sheds further light on the basic points being made here. Did Catholicism become the dominant religion in Mexico because it is inherently superior spiritually; or is it because, as the example of the Virgen de Guadalupe shows, Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) was, through the conscious action of very earthly forces, made an important part of the superstructure in Mexican society, an important part of the way in which political rule was exercised over the masses of people?
We could also examine the connection between Buddhism and the advent of a new earthly kingdom--the Magadha kingdom, a slave-owning state--in ancient India at the time of Buddha (Siddharta Gautama). Was the rise of Buddhism--and indeed the very content of Buddhism--the expression of some "pure" spiritual force, or of very real, material forces?
Or we could look at how Confucianism has historically been imposed on the masses of Chinese people. Very revealingly, with the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, et. al.--representing the restoration of capitalism--while a certain very hollow, thin and largely transparent shell of communism has been maintained, Confucianism has once more had a certain revival under the rule of these revisionists (or capitalist-roaders, as Mao so insightfully described them). Is this because Confucianism is superior to other forms of idealism, including religious idealism, on the one hand, or to communist materialism, on the other hand? Or is it because in certain important aspects Confucianism is particularly suited now to the needs of the revisionist ruling class which has seized power, and has maintained itself in power, through the use of very earthly, military power, and which has restored capitalism in China while maintaining that outward shell of socialism and communism?
The essential point that runs through, and underlies, all these examples is that what's required here, as everywhere, is a dialectical and historical materialist understanding of the actual forces involved in the changes in society and of the ways this finds concentrated expression as political, and military, struggle. This, and not the "inherent flaws" or the "inherent superiority" of one set of ideas or another (including religious dogma), explains why different systems--different production and social relations and their corresponding superstructures of politics and ideology--prevail under various conditions. And this also shows how, as a result of contradictions and struggles rooted in the material-economic base, human society is advancing, through a tortuous process, from the bourgeois epoch to the epoch of world communism. In this world-historical transformation, the battle in the ideological sphere will play a very important role, but it will play this role in relation to, and not in isolation from, or standing above, the material conditions in society and the struggle of material force against material force--the struggle of revolutionary masses to defeat and dismantle the armed forces and political power of the reactionary system and to go on to revolutionize society, worldwide.
* The series on Tibet appeared in RW Nos. 748-49, 752, 764-65, and 767.
** "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's 'Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting an End to 'Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What Is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.
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