I wanted to tell you first, considering we have been communicating (in one way or another) for around 30 years!
After ten years of research, and hundreds of essays, articles and lectures, I have finally discovered the ‘exact’ point where the ideology of Marx coincides (and overlaps) with the philosophy of the Buddha. Trevor Ling of Manchester University (the former Head of the Comparative Religion Department), continuously states in his work of a profound similarity between ancient Buddhism and modern Marxism – although he never identifies the exact point of convergence. Prof. Zhao Yuezhi of Simon Fraser University in Canada also thinks there is some kind of identification between the two systems (but does not know what it is). There are plenty of coincidences but not much specific targeting.
When I first thought there was a connection, I was told that Marx had no knowledge or experience of Buddhism. After a few years I proved this wrong (through my work for the Buddhism-Marxism Alliance UK). Marx encountered Buddhism through the work of his close friend Karl Koppen – an early European expert upon Early Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Marx met Koppen at Berlin University which he attended from 1836-1840 – as they were both Young Hegelians and eventually members of the Doctors’ Club. Koppen is recorded as meeting with Marx every so many years, and in giving Marx copies of his books containing very good research on the origins of Buddhism (in 1861). On the 1.9.1857, Marx wrote an article for the New York Daily Tribune within which he described Buddhism as a kind of ‘rational Brahmanism’. In 1866 Marx wrote to a friend (Antoinette Philips) stating that he had tried emptying his mind using Buddhist meditative techniques. Engels (probably with the knowledge of Marx) stated in his 1883 book entitled the ‘Dialectics of Nature’ that Buddhist dialectics is advanced like that developed by the philosophers of ancient Greece. Marx favoured Epicurus whilst at University (believing him to be an enlightened European), whilst Karl Koppen was first to write a book about Frederick the Great. Koppen would build-up his knowledge about Buddhism slowly but surely, and pass this knowledge on to Marx and Engels. Indeed, some commentators in Asia are of the opinion that the criticism of religion formulated by Marx and Engels only applies to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and not specifically Buddhism (although must religions do share similar characteristics).
The above timeline, however, is only part of the puzzle, as it only proves that Marx and Engels possessed a surprising knowledge of Buddhism at a time when such knowledge was unusual amongst Europeans, and nothing else. At his grave on March 17th, 1883, Engels said that the genius of Marx had bequeathed the world two theories; namely ‘historical materialism’, and ‘surplus value’. Surplus value is found in Das Kapital Vols. 1-IV and is the core critique of capitalism as solely developed by Marx. I shall place surplus value aside, as this is the single most ingenius insight of Karl Marx, and so will say no more about it for the time being. It is the area of ‘historical materialism’ where Classical Marxism interfaces with the philosophy of Early Buddhism through the ‘Chain of Dependent Origination’ (paticca-samuppada). Marx actually uses the term ‘practical history’ and ‘historical necessity’ whilst referring to the concept of ‘historical materialism’. Practical history is the measure of humanity’s activity over-time. Marx defines this process as a simultaneous interaction between the thinking mind, the bodily senses and the sense-objects in the environment.
Strictly speaking, for Marx the emphasis should be sense-object, bodily sense and thinking-mind. If any link in this chain is missing, reality has been fatally disrupted either through death, or the occurrence of a very strange se of circumstances. The body and brain are part of the physical world both existentially and historically (through the process of evolution), whereby the ‘thinking mind’ emerges from the physical brain. This is why the ‘thinking mind’ has evolved as a mechanism for the individual body to ‘reflect’, ‘record’ and ‘interpret’ the external world as if the mind existed ‘separate’ from the bodily-senses that are doing the ‘sensing’. This ‘illusion’ of mind-body dualism generates the cognitive space through which the inner body and outer environment can be ‘sensed’ through the five senses and the mind. Within the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha states that physical existence begins with ‘matter’ (including the human-body and brain, etc), which generates bodily sensation, psychological perception, volitional thought (in the mind) and consciousness (as the base awareness of undifferentiated presence pertaining to ALL sense-objects). Within the Buddha’s teachings, there are a number of ‘Chains of Dependent Origination’, all with vary numbers of links, and sometimes in slightly different sequences, but the Buddha states continuously that a living-being must have a functioning body, the sense-organs of which must be in contact with the corresponding sense-objects. Only then, does the mind ‘simultaneously’ emerge (from the brain, although the Buddha only states that the mind ‘arises’), and generates ‘perception’, ‘volitional thought’ and ‘consciousness’.
The question now is to work-out whether Marx was directly influenced by Buddhist philosophy in the formulation of his theory of practical materialism, or is it the case that he arrived at a similar interpretation of reality on his own, and only by coincidence? As of yet, I cannot workout when Karl Koppen started showing an interest in Buddhism and began telling Marx about it. Marx met Koppen in 1847 and there is no mention of Buddhism (as least in the records we have), but when they meet in 1861, Koppen gives Marx two of his books, so I suspect this might be the first books on the subject of Buddhism written by Koppen, but I cannot be sure. Marx was writing about materialism from slightly different angles of vision since at least 1844, but Das Kapital Vol. I was not published until 1867. I have seen one of Koppen’s books in its original German, (it is odd that it has never been translated into English), and I can tell it is logical and spot-on. These books are still used in Germany today to educate young people about Buddhism. My research continues!