Hakugen Ichikawa (市川白弦) and Buddhist Anarchist Communism

Made a (potentially) big discovery for english language buddhist anarchists! So far it’s been dreadfully difficult to find scholarship on any people who developed a coherent buddhist anarchist philosophy. Uchiyama Gudo or Gary Snyder are typically the go-to people associated with the idea, but neither did much political theorizing. Snyder wrote his short essay in 1969 and kind of wove similar themes throughout his work but rarely made it very explicit. 

Uchiyama Gudo wrote a few pamphlets and articles for Heimin Shinbun (平民新聞, The Commoner’s News, Japan’s leading socialist-anarchist paper in the heyday of anarchism) some of which briefly compare buddhist and anarchist theories, but mostly for rhetorical effect, connecting with themes his audience (presumably his poor, uneducated tenant farmer parishoners he served from his temple and the literate but probably not very religious readers of Heimin) might be familiar with.

Other buddhist anarchists like Har Dayal had very eclectic or undocumented theories ,which make them hard to work with now. Taixu was active in revolutionary movements for a few years around 1911, but the majority of his life appears to have been dedicated to reviving/modernizing buddhism in China and establishing a culture of social service in pure land buddhism to rival the influence of christian “good works”. I haven’t read Ritzinger’s book about Taixu and the millenarian cult of Maitreiya, “Anarchy in the Pure Land” yet, so I can’t say for sure what his buddhist anarchist theories may have been. If anyone feels like kicking me $80 to get a copy I will write about it here. I’ll probably write about all of these people more once I’ve got my notes together and have read a few of their books.

Anyways, back to my brilliant(ly obvious) idea. Earlier today I had the idea to run some search keywords through google translate and paste them in the search bar to bring up results which wouldn’t be found by an english search. Super obvious in hindsight. Most buddhists have not been english speakers, and the few people obscure and weird enough to be buddhist anarchist theorists are not likely to have been translated. So I started with Thai, but didn’t see much that looked relevant. Mostly a bunch of articles discussing periods of interregnum in the Thai monarchy described as periods of “anarchy”. But when I searched for buddhist anarchism (仏教アナキズム) in Japanese I got loads of hits, and luckily google isn’t as terrible at translating Japanese as it used to be. But still pretty garbled. Some were about Uchiyama Gudo (including an interesting trip report to his grave at Ohiradai Rinsenji Temple in Hakone (https://blog.goo.ne.jp/munekuni1973/e/64ccdc5c8c715018e101bf06b3c67e64).

The best find so far was an academic biography (written by Morimura Osamu) of Hakugen Ichikawa (市川白弦), author of Imperial Way Zen. He makes similar arguments, and is cited by Brian Victoria in Zen at War. Turns out that he is also a priest in the zen sect and has written a lot about his theories of buddhist anarchist communism, also called Shunya/sora (emptiness/sky) buddhist anarchist communism (S-BAC). Jackpot! …Almost.

My progress reading the article is painfully slow, mostly feeding paragraph by paragraph into google translate. My Japanese was already very poor and I never learned to read kanji well at all. And it seems like most of his work on S-BAC is still untranslated. Still I’m feeling very excited about this, both because he seems to have throughly theorized SBAC from position of a priest and academic, and because he is at least a little bit known in english buddhist studies departments, which means someone out there might have a good translation of his ideas or know how to make one. If that is any of you reading this, please help us all out.

Running into language barriers is frustrating, but I think searching untranslated sources has a lot of promise for learning of other people who may have theorized buddhist anarchism. There are obviously way more buddhists out of the anglo-sphere, and there is no way so few people have had this idea.

Here is what I have been able to summarize of his life and thought so far:

  • After the war he became an outspoken critic of buddhist support for imperialism, fascism and war crimes. This and many other opinions made him unpopular with the Rinzai higher-ups. 
  • It looks like he was born very poor (maybe literally in a temple? or is that just an idiom?) He worked as a priest and as a university professor. During the war he was afraid of speaking out for fear of punishment, torture, punishment by the government. This “cowardice” (his words, as a “collaborator”) became a major theme for him and motivation to ruthlessly criticize supporters of Japanese fascism and imperial expansion.
  • Some interesting titles of works he authored (probably garbled through google): towards the zen studies of liberation, zen’s loneliness, sex-doubt about zen, and more
  • He was radicalized towards anarchism by learning of the high treason incident (where Gudo and Kotoku Shusui were executed.)
  • Starts theorizing buddhist anarchist communism around 1930. Inspirations include Kropotkin and the Kegon Avatamsaka Sutra (also cited by Snyder).
  • He was influenced deeply by his teacher at university Ogasawara Hidemi 小笠原, himself a student of Kyoto school philosopher Kitaro Nishida. Osagawara wrote on aesthetic philosophy, dialectics, morality, proletarian culture. Osagawara also wrote on Tolstoy inspired utopian social ideas, which he passed on to Hakugen. Particularly early influence from Ogasawara’s writing on the Hanya Shingyo (Heart sutra), familiar to any Mahayana buddhist. He uses a conception of fearless, practical “nothing”, based on prajnaparamita/shunyata, using it to criticize Hegel’s dialectic of nothingness and being. 
    • 秀実によれば、仏教の主眼は、転迷開悟、廃悪修善、離苦得楽にまとめられる.
    • “According to Hidemi, the main points of Buddhism can be summarized as enlightenment, abolition, and relaxation” Probably inaccurate, but an amazing slogan. “Workers of the world, wake up, abolish evil, relax”.
  • A major theme of BAC is the point of intersection between “horizontal” social freedom (as theorized by Marxism and Anarchism) and the “vertical” freedom of Zen, brought about by insight into emptiness via meditation practice and study. He imagines these freedoms intersecting like X and Y axes on a graph. The “origin” (0,0 coordinate) is where the individual finds themselves. What they do from there I’m not yet sure. Perhaps the idea is to actualize and balance the two axes of freedom in oneself. Is there an outward social dimension something like vertical spiritual freedom manifests in? This appears to me similar to (though less culturally essentialist than) Snyder’s “basic mercies” of East and West: insight into “basic self”, or emptiness, and insight into “rebellion”, as well as the possibility of social revolution. Further, there may be a parallel between Hakugen’s “origin” and a line in Snyder: “The point of being a “Buddhist”—or a poet, or anything else for that matter—is to follow some way of life that will bring about personal realisation of this from the-beginning state, which cannot be had alone and for one “self”—because it cannot be fully realised unless one has given it up, and away, to all others” (emphasis mine). I guess even between the two of them the question still remains: how does this translate to broadly applicable Buddhist anarchist praxis?

  • Some more quotations and notes pulled from Christopher Ives’ “Imperial Way Zen” and my hack-job translation of Morimura:
    • “For individual Buddhists, there is vertical freedom in emptiness and horizontal freedom in anarchy, and at the intersection of the two, each individual” (Ives 28)
    • Hakugen criticized Zen’s lack of historical analysis, which makes abominations like “imperial way” possible and suggested a marxist history of Zen as an antidote.
    • Via negativa of buddhist anarchism: Hakugen’s criticisms of zen ideology which made it amenable to fascism and tyranny; self-sacrifice, subsuming the self to the totalitarian collective, non-discrimination, anti-rationalism, aloofness, etc. Is B.A.C. what is left when you subtract or address these criticisms? In what ways does this challenge or confirm core doctrines and help us narrow in on liberatory ideology within the larger umbrella of zen or buddhism?
    • Hakugen stresses the importance of emphasizing multiplicity/diversity/anarchy as the nature of non-duality rather than one or wholeness, which is easily coopted or even supportive of totalitarianism. This actually resembles some of Murray Bookchin’s more cantankerous criticisms of new-age spirituality and Buddhism.
    • “Naturally, it is extremely difficult for us to bring the freedom of both parties to unity and to fully realize it. In the real world, for each freedom, “somewhat professional differentiation is inevitable.” For example, a Zen master like Daisetsu can “become the master everywhere”, and some of the people living in society can be “the master of the self,” as Marx calls it. However, it is extremely difficult to bring the two together while having their own freedoms and recognizing and practicing the differences between the two. Nevertheless, for Hakugen, “While recognizing the relative autonomy of the other’s position, logic, and method, we position this properly in our own system, and by the other’s perspective and achievement, we recognize ourselves and practice. Needs training or deepening learning. ” Then, at the intersection of the two, a “dynamic place of unification” is born, and “where the problems of freedom of conscience and social justice in Zen are established”. The basic idea of ​​B / A / C (S / A / C) is how social justice can be practiced while ensuring freedom of conscience. (Morimura 101)
    • “According to Shirogane, “Overcoming human vertical self-estrangement [existential religious self-estrangement] is the same logic and psychology that begins with pessimism in the case of Buddhism.” By receiving both existential religious vertical alienation and horizontal alienation based on social class differences. (Morimura)
    • For overcoming alienation: In this way, Hakugen’s “Buddhist anarchist-communism (B, A, C)” or “sky-anarchist-community theory (S, A, C)” …is aiming for a “self-anarchist alliance” by voluntary free individuals who would be free from capitalist private ownership” (Morimura 174)

I’m looking forward to diving deeper into Hakugen’s theory, but since I can’t find an existing translation of BAC it’s going to be a slog. Feels good to have discovered this link. Hope it helps everyone interested in these ideas.

Download Prof. Morimura Osamu’s article here

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