Bhante Sujato: Why I am an Anarchist

It’s so rare to find people who actually understand what anarchy is about. It’s good that you spread the word :wink:


I do respect that you recognise that an anarchist society just isn’t possible in our current time. Personally I don’t think it will ever be workable on a mass scale, but that’s ok. We can disagree. Differences in perception and all that.


But it makes you sound way more Sid Vicious this way :smiling_imp:

Seriously though, this topic links directly to a thread I have been meaning to start, but was waiting till the dust had settled around the recent US elections, namely: voting (in State elections) is wrong.

As Bhante Sujato noted, the State has monopolised violence and uses this threat to back up every single law. The State also engages in theft (i.e. taking what is not freely given); for instance, every month tax is taken from my pay packet without my permission. This is to say nothing of all the other nefarious deeds governments commit.

When we vote for a political party, we are giving them a mandate, that is to say, encouragement and a request to enact their manifesto in our name. How can we, in good conscience, do this?

The third pārājika offence (as I understand it), prohibits even incitement or encouragement to deprive a human being of life. Following this principle, it would seem to me wrong to vote for any political entity that does not renounce killing.

1 Like

We can simply vote for people who support civil-ity. Civility is required for open discussion and consensus. Civility is the basis of civil-ization. Civility requires skill and skill is not an attainment. Skillful is a direction.

AN2.177:1.3: To never be content with skillful qualities, and to never stop trying.


It’s often understood to mean living without any rules, that you can just do whatever you like. But according to what the Buddha laid down for the Sangha, anarchy requires great discipline and self-restraint and a high level of ethics.

1 Like

Hi Karl,

‘Civility to all, always’ would be lovely, but I’ve never heard any viable political candidate run on such a platform.

It’s great if world leaders can talk and act with at least formal politeness to each other and their electorate, but there’s nothing civilised about airstrikes or indeed much of what the State gets up to.


“Joy, I know you’re one of the ones who thinks it’s naïve to think we have to work together,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is, if we can’t get a consensus, nothing happens except the abuse of power by the executive. Zero.”

Civility is what we offer others and ourselves. There is no expectation or wish that all adopt it.


Well almost. I would say: living without any rules imposed on you from outside, by force. You can do whatever you like as long as you are not invading the freedom of other person - because they have the same freedoms as you.
That’s a basic axiom, and what follows is actually quite complicated and requires mature participants… which is why we will not get anywhere near the ideal anytime soon :frowning:


May I ask, bhante, do you like it because you believe it to be a fact that there is such a possibility, or is it merely out of hope that such a possibility might obtain?


Well I like to think that humans are capable of evolution, that we can aspire to something great. The state of being that’s required to make an anarchist community of whatever size actually work is not, at the end of the day, all that unusual. It simply requires a basic degree of moral integrity, emotional stability, and rationality. These things are not unusual, but they are far from universal. In my experience it’s almost impossible to assume that everyone will possess these qualities, even in a small community like a monastery. There are ways of working around and dealing with it, of course, but it becomes exponentially greater as a drain on everyone’s time and resources.

I’ll just give one example of what I’m talking about. At Santi, I always treated the volunteers and community as self-directed, and never got anyone to do anything they didn’t want to. When it came to organizing the kitchen, we found that when there was no leadership bad things happened (like a mouse left in a non-lethal trap for so long it died and dried out.) So with the agreement of all we decided to appoint a kitchen manager, and it was decided by the consensus of the laypeople who worked in the kitchen.

As it so often happens, there was a clash of personalities in the kitchen, and someone didn’t like the kitchen manager. They brought it to me, and I called a meeting with all the kitchen workers. We came together and discussed the issues, and I asked them to decide what to do, whether they wished to proceed with the same kitchen manager. There was no doubt that the kitchen manager was not the easiest person to get along with. But they decided in consensus that they were happy to continue, and that, apparently, was that.

Next thing, there were rumors swirling that I was in love with the kitchen manager. Turns out it was the same person who had tried to get rid of them. I asked them, is it true that you spread this rumor? Yes, they replied. I admonished them, and hopefully we’re good. Then there’s the rumor: No they didn’t spread the first rumor and I pressured them to confess. And so it goes. In the end I kicked both of them out of the monastery. (For this and other reasons).

Could we have kept going and resolved the issues and dealt with them like mature responsible adults? Maybe. But the fact was, I was dealing with people who had shown again and again that they were not going to behave like mature adults. I could devote more and more time to them, but to what end? Who was benefiting? Not me, and not the bulk of the community who were actually behaving well and wanting to just get on with their practice. And not, so far as I could see, the people causing the trouble: they were just indulging their worst instincts.


Bhante, as a student of political theory and a fellow Anarchist I am delighted to see your support for non-state forms of political organization.

I worry that the more utopian articulations of Anarchism (which I believe you reject in your talk) and other extant radical philosophies gloss over the constraints in the human condition which can preclude us from embodying the values you say are prerequisites for your vision of anarchist communities.

This part of DN 21 comes to mind in this regard (I will use your translation).

the fetters of jealousy and stinginess bind the gods, humans, demons, dragons, fairies—and any of the other diverse creatures—so that, though they wish to be free of enmity, violence, hostility, and hate, they still have enmity, violence, hostility, and hate.

The Buddha goes on to trace jealousy and stinginess to “Concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions are the source of thoughts.”

If my understanding is correct, only an enlightened being can be truly free of the concepts of identity that drive enmity, violence, hostility, and hate.

Following the Buddhist path and cultivating the brahmaviharas can reduce ones propensity to act on the four qualities mentioned above, but I fear that many in wider society will eschew the dhamma and not come to the realization that any action containing those qualities is inherently unskillful.

The anecdote concerning the kitchen at Santi is quite valuable. But it is key to note, and you have done so, that it is easier to remove a disruptive person from a voluntary collective than to banish them from a much larger community.

However, when it comes to envisioning anarchy on a large-scale, in contrast to monastic communities, I believe it is possible if we appreciate both the best and worst of human beings. It would be amazing if there were widespread cultivation of the brahmaviharas which changed the political conversation worldwide, but the existence of enmity, violence, hostility, and hate would persist and may undermine large-scale collectivist initiatives.

That is why I believe that in an Anarchist society, individual autonomy must precede collective organization. I will not bore the whole forum with too much detail, but I believe that working towards the abolition of the state through gradual decentralization will limit the consequences of humanity’s worst qualities (your comments on state violence in your dhamma talk were quite good). As such, if the consensus model that you advocate were to be widely adopted by many lay communities, an individual must retain the right to remove themselves from the community if they cannot abide by the consensus (even if it is highly unskillful to do so) which is the case in your example of the monastic community.

Anarchism is an extremely broad political term encompassing many different versions of “anarchy.” Some, like you mentioned, believe in amplifying humanity’s best characteristics in order to sustain an anarchist society while others are concerned with curtailing humanity’s worst instincts. Some anarchists advocate for communal ownership of property and an abolition of the market while other anarchists endorse the free market while critiquing capitalism and other “anarchists” support capitalism wholesale. Studying disagreements within Anarchist theory can be quite emotionally taxing :sweat_smile:.

A non-state society is possible if we play the hand we are given!


In my view, some of the most persuasive arguments for this possibility are made by Rutger Bregman. Here he is on Hardtalk, and here in conversation with Andrew Yang, the erstwhile presidential candidate.

I find Bregman’s views an extraordinary breath of fresh air in our present stale political landscape. We need new ideas to break the deadlock of political polarisation. Believing in our common humanity seems a good place to start. There is a lot of overlap with Buddhist ideas here.


The concept of anarchy in the study of international relations has a different meaning than in other political contexts. However, one of the most influential articles in the last thirty years in the field of international relations has the memorable title of “Anarchy is What States Make of It” (Alexander Wendt, International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring 1992). Wendt’s thesis is that anarchy—the absence of a world government—is not determinant of outcomes since states socially construct a set of meanings associated with anarchy which then constitute identities and shape behaviors according to the logic of appropriateness. As the meanings associated with the anarchic international system change over time, so do too identities and actions.

The article is a bit of a slog because of all the jargon and the need to be familiar with the existing scholarship on international relations, but it is required reading for anyone pursuing a degree with an emphasis on international politics or international relations.


One might suggest geo-political formations as skandha #6.


The writings of Ursula Le Guin, one of my most favourite authors, generally probably make the best case I’ve yet encountered for anarchism (usually in a very gentle and indirect way). It’s a theme running through many of her works, occasionally quite explicit, e.g. in The Dispossessed, but often lower key, e.g. in The Left Hand of Darkness (Always Coming Home also comes to mind where her anthropological interests are evident; her father was also a famous anthropologist). I think she was more a Taoist than a Buddhist (Taoist themes are also rather evident in many of her works). She spent many decades very gradually translating the Tao Te Ching, working with Paul Carus’ translation as a base (which included a transliteration of the Chinese characters). Hers IMO is a beautiful translation (though she rather humbly calls it a “rendition” rather than a “translation”; I guess she wasn’t a scholar in ancient Chinese). I think in a dense ambiguously-worded work like the Tao Te Ching, a writer/artist who has wrested with the text for decades brings a lot to any such rendition (a lyrical/poetic angle). Anyway, Taoism is something rather compatible with the idea of anarchism too (same as Buddhism can be in several ways).


I keep feeling the title should be, I Was a Teenage Anarchist

#unhelpful #offtopic #watchedtoomanyhorrorfilms


Ooh that’s much better, I should change it!


Interesting to hear of some of the similarities between anarchist self-management and the manner in which the Sangha is organised, and also the difficulties encountered when bad faith enters the picture.

My own view of social anarchism these days is that most people are not suited to living it. Some like to control others, many are happy to be led. Attempts at social reorganisation, whether anarchist or otherwise, often (always?) result in an elite minority rising to the top and exerting its power over the mass. It seems to be anthropologically unavoidable, built into our species’ software, as it were.

For me, a philosophically pessimistic individualist anarchism into which I’ve incorporated aspects of the dhamma that I find to be true, and meditation practices that I find are workable, is what pleases me. I tend to avoid groups – they often produce perturbation. My practice is a solitary one.


I happen to think this, too. Well, history books are full of examples. But, more philosophically, I think the West’s obsession with ideal systems and structures is all wrong. It’s not the system that’s the problem, it’s the culture and morality of the people in the system that’s the problem. It’s just too subtle of a point, though, to really make it a reality, I guess. Westerners just assume too many people will be evil, and therefore a perfect system of some sort must be the answer. It’s a case of cultural blinders keeping us blind, IMO.


Yes, many imagine that feverish efforts to make wholesale changes to the social system will fix all our problems when, usually, such antics result in major stuff-ups. An observation from Blaise Pascal that I find at once amusing and wise is that a lot of humanity’s troubles could be avoided if people just learned to sit quietly in their rooms.

1 Like