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Marx and Walking Zen

Photograph Source: Raki_Man – CC BY 3.0

In March 1866 (the year before Volume One of Das Kapital was published), the 48-year-old Marx was vacationing on the Dutch coast, at Margate. He wrote a letter to his cousin Antoinette Philips, daughter of Lion Philips, a tobacco merchant in nearby Zaltbommel. (Lion was the husband of a woman who had married Heinrich Marx, Karl’s father. She is perhaps best known as the woman who persuaded Marx to fill out a questionnaire, popular as a Victorian pastime, in 1865. That’s the one in which he identifies Spartacus as his hero and Shakespeare and Aeschylus as his favorite writers.) He addresses Antoinette playfully (at age 29) as “My dear child.”

He begins by complaining facetiously that he had been “banished, by my medical adviser, to this seaside place, which, at this time of the year, is quite solitary.” He noted that, while at other times of year, he’d have been “exposed to the danger of falling in with a stray traveler,” he was now pleasantly left to himself.

“As it is,” he wrote, “I care for nobody, and nobody cares for me. But the air is wonderfully pure and reinvigorating, and you have here at the same time sea air and mountain air. I have become myself a sort of walking stick, running up and down the whole day, and keeping my mind in that state of nothingness which Buddhism considers the climax of human bliss.”

It’s tempting to say that Marx didn’t know much about Buddhism. But he was a keen scholar of world affairs, and would have known more on the topic than 99 out of 100 Europeans at the time. We sometimes forget that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were among the most amazing minds of the nineteenth century, whose contemporary detractors are mental midgets in comparison.

The word “Buddhism,” or some variant thereof, had only become current from the 1820s; the first English-language book to deal in any detail with the subject was Edward Upham’s The History and Doctrine of Budhism, published in 1844. Marx was probably aware of it. In the 1830s the great philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel had published lectures depicting Buddhism as a thoroughly negative belief system, which made “nothingness the principle, goal and end of everything.” Marx was probably aware of this too.

But Marx was all about turning Hegel on his head. He might—had he ever composed that “two or three printer’s sheets on dialectical methodology” he once mentioned to Engels—have addressed Nagarjuna’s dialectics. (As it is, we have Mao’s, which arguably drawn upon Buddhist and yin-yang thought.)

In 1844 the French philologist Eugene Burnouf had established that the idolatrous religions of most Asian countries were all related, initiating the modern western academic study of Buddhism. Buddhism soon came to be recognized as a powerful historical missionary religion comparable to Christianity or Islam in its global impact. It was even suggested that it might have impacted that other great missionary world-religion, Christianity. Hegel’s colleague at the University of Heidelberg, Arthur Schopenhauer, had opined in 1851 that “[t]he New Testament…must in some way be traceable to an Indian source: its ethical system, its ascetic view of morality, its pessimism, and its Avatar, are all thoroughly Indian.”

In the 1854 Marx had speculated in some journalistic writings about the prospects of the Taiping Rebellion in China becoming a general religious war involving Tibetan-backed Manchu Buddhists (maybe aided by Russia) and British-backed Chinese anti-Buddhists. Claiming the Taiping rebels had “undertaken a regular crusade against Buddhism, destroying its temples and slaying its bonzes,” he predicted Tibetan intervention on behalf of the beleaguered Manchu (Qing) court (which was indeed closely connected to Tibetan-based Lamaist Buddhism).

“The great religious war between the Chinese and the [Buddhist] Tartars, which will spread over the Indian frontiers, may consequently be regarded as near at hand.” wrote Marx in the New York Daily Tribune, March 18, 1854. But this did not happen. The Taipings were defeated with British assistance, and there was no general religious war. Had Marx better understood Buddhist history he might have avoided predicting such.

Of course, he had precious little to go by. “Buddhology” was in its infancy. (As late as 1856 a Sanskrit scholar, Horace H. Wilson, was still pronouncing it “very problematical whether any such person as Sakya Sinha or Sakya Muni, or Sramana Gautama, ever actually existed.”) But as it happened, Marx had a friend named Karl Kopper who, when they met in 1861 in Berlin, presented him with his pioneering book on Buddhism, Die Religion des Buddha. It probably informed his letter to his cousin. 

By 1879 Victorian readers were savoring the epic poem by Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia, celebrating the Buddha, based upon ancient hagiographic accounts, riling Anglican clerics who argued that it weakened faith in Christ. Marx may have read it before he himself entered parinirvana, and was enshrined in Highgate Cemetery in 1883.)

We do know that due to health reasons Marx became more reclusive and meditative in his last years. He spent part of 1882 in Algiers, taking long walks through the Botanical Gardens. His letters from his retreat (to Engels and to his daughter Laura) pertain to flora, fauna, people, weather and his heath. They make it clear he has had conversations with colonial officials, Arabs, and a range of Europeans in Algeria, always asking questions, always expanding his awareness of history and the present. He sometimes waxes poetic in describing the wind and the moon. He also observes (to his daughter Laura) that “Mahomet’s children” practice “absolute equality in their social intercourse” but “they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement.”

I don’t know that Marx practiced anything like “mindfulness,” or if it even matters. It’s just comforting to know that Marx once walked, walked pensively, walked imagining that “nothingness which Buddhism considers the climax of human bliss.” That’s a lot of nothingness from a sentient being with a brain full of brilliance that (his death 136 years ago notwithstanding) continues to radiate in this world.

***

Kinhin (“walking Zen”) is a Buddhist meditative practice to which I was introduced by the Rev. Matsunami Taiun, abbot of the Ryosen-An, temple of the Daitokuji in Kyoto. Taiun-sensei passed away late last year. May something of his scattered skandhas somehow persist to produce some good, unlikely though that seems, in this cosmos.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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