Meditative Revolutions? A Preliminary Approach to US Buddhist Anarchist Literature

  • Enrique Galvan-Alvarez Universidad Internacional de la Rioja/Oxford Brookes University


This article discusses the various shapes, inner structures and roles given to transformative and liberative practices in the work of US Buddhist anarchist authors (1960-2010). Unlike their Chinese and Japanese predecessors, who focused more on discursive parallelisms between Buddhism and anarchism or on historical instances of antiauthoritarianism within the Buddhist tradition(s), US Buddhist anarchists seem to favour practice and experience. This emphasis, characteristic of the way Buddhism has been introduced to the West,sometimes masks the way meditative techniques were used in traditional Buddhist contexts as oppressive technologies of the self. Whereas the emphasis on the inherently revolutionary nature of Buddhist practice represents a radical departure from the way those practices have been conceptualised throughout Buddhist history, it also involves the danger of considering Buddhist practice as an ahistorical sine qua non for social transformation. This is due to the fact that most early Buddhist anarchist writers based their ideas on a highly idealised, Orientalist imagination of Zen Buddhism(s). However, recent contributions based on other traditions have offered a more nuanced, albeit still developing picture. By assessing a number of instances from different US Buddhist anarchist writers, the article traces the brief history of the idea that meditation is revolutionary praxis, while also deconstructing and complicating it through historical and textual analysis.

Author Biography

Enrique Galvan-Alvarez, Universidad Internacional de la Rioja/Oxford Brookes University
Enrique Galvan-Alvarez is a lecturer at the Universidad Internacional de La Rioja (UNIR) and a research fellow at Oxford Brookes University. His doctoral research focused on the English-language poetry written by diaspora and exiled Tibetans. His postdoctoral research has been largely concerned with Buddhist anarchism, both as an explicit product of Buddhist modernity and as a theoretical and retrospective exploration of libertarian themes in the history of Buddhist traditions.


Aitken, Robert. 2006. “Taking Responsibility: An Address to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Membership Gathering on June 23.” The Zen Site. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Bloom, Alfred, ed. 2004. Living in Amida’s Universal Vow: Essays on Shin Buddhism. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom.

Brown, James. 2009. “The Zen of Anarchy: Japanese Exceptionalism and the Anarchist Roots of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 19 (2): 207-42.

Chari, Anita. 2016. “The Political Potential of Mindful Embodiment.” New Political Science 38 (2): 226-40.

Clark, John [Max Cafard]. 2006. “Zen Anarchy.” The Anarchist Library, August 14. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Curley, Melissa Anne-Marie. 2017. Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists and the Utopian Imagination. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P.

Davis, Jimmy. 2009. Western Pure Land Buddhism. Springfield, MO: Eko.

“Dhammic Mutualism.” 2011. Anarcho-Buddhist Collective (blog), September 19. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Foulk, Griffith. 2008. “Ritual in Japanese Zen Buddhism.” In Heine and Wright 2008, 21-82.

Godrej, Farah. 2016. “Orthodoxy and Dissent in Hinduism’s Meditative Traditions: A Critical Tantric Politics?” New Political Science 38 (2): 256-71.

Haar, B. J. ter. 1992. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Leiden: Brill.

Hallisey, Charles. 1995. “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism.” In López 1995, 31-61.

Harris, Elizabeth. 2006. Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka. London and New York: Routledge.

Heine, Steven and Dale Wright, eds. 2008. Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Lachs, Stuart. 2002. “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi.” Terebess Online, October. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Liu, Kenji. 2013. “Towards a Fifth Foundation of Mindfulness: Dhamma and Decolonization.” Buddhist Peace Fellowship, April 15. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

López, Donald S., Jr., ed. 1995. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P.

—, ed. 2002. A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Marshall, Peter. 2008. Demanding the Impossible. London: Harper Perennial.

Mathiowetz, Dean. 2016. “‘Meditation is Good for Nothing’: Leisure as a Democratic Practice.” New Political Science 38 (2): 241-55.

Mayes, Ian. 2011a. “Reflections on a Buddhist Anarchism.” The Implicit & Experiential Rantings of a Person (blog), March 25. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

—. 2011b. “Envisioning a Buddhist Anarchism.” The Implicit & Experiential Rantings of a Person (blog), November 15. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

McMahan, David. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Mishra, Pankaj. 2004. An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. New York: Penguin.

Park, Jin Y. 2008. Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Payne, Richard K. and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. 2003. Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitabha. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P.

Rambelli, Fabio. 2003. “‘Just Behave as You Like; Prohibitions and Impurities Are Not a Problem’: Radical Amida Cults and Popular Religiosity in Premodern Japan.” In Payne and Tanaka 2003, 169-201.

—. 2013. Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō. Berkeley, CA: Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Ritzinger, Justin R. 2017. Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Rowe, James. 2016. “Micropolitics and Collective Liberation: Mind/Body Practice and Left Social Movements.” New Political Science 38 (2): 206-25.

Schireson, Grace. 2014. “Chanting Names Once Forgotten: The Zen Women Ancestors Document.” Lion’s Roar, February 18. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Snodgrass, Judith. 2003. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Columbian Exhibition. Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P.

Snyder, Gary. [1961] 1969. “Buddhist Anarchism.” Bureau of Public Secrets. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Takagi, Kenmyō. 2004. “My Socialism.” In Bloom 2004, 189-96.

Tanabe, George. 2008. “Shaka Buddha.” Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines 11 (2). [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Thornley, Kerry. 1991. “Zenarchy.” The Anarchist Library. [Accessed online on September 4, 2020].

Tsang, Carol Richmond. 2007. War and Faith: Ikko Ikki in Late Muromachi Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Victoria, Brian Daizen. 2003. Zen War Stories. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

—. 2006. Zen at War. 2nd ed. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

—. 1980. “Japanese Corporate Zen.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 12 (1): 61-68.

Yampolsky, Philip. 2003. “Chan: A Historical Sketch.” In Yoshinori 2003, 3-24.

Yoshinori, Takeuchi, ed. 2003. Buddhist Spirituality. Vol 2, Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.