Buddhism, Marxism, and Negating Self-centeredness — Preliminary Remarks on the Philosophy of Neville Wijeyekoon

summary — In 1943, S.N.B. (Neville) Wijeyekoon published a book under the pseudonym Leuke aiming to compare Buddhism and Marxism. It starts out doing so indeed, but the second half of the book presents his own philosophy focused on achieving mental harmony by negating self-centeredness through “merging one’s self in social welfare”. Wijeyekoon’s wrote two more books, and in one of those he further developed aspects of this idea, while eliminating the overt Buddhist and Marxist influence.

This long blog post summarizes and comments on two of Wijeyekoon’s books (namely, his first and third). I do not have access to his second book, and neither do I know much about his life. I was considering writing a more academic paper about Wijeyekoon, but partially due to these problems – but also because I haven’t decided yet how to frame such a paper – this research project has stalled. Because it might be stalled indefinitely, I decided to clean up, edit, and publish some of my research notes in the form of this blog post.


preface

In the first half of the twentieth century, a significant numbers of thinkers in south and east Asia attempted to combine aspects of socialist and Buddhist thought. Some of these – like Uchiyama Gudō, Seno’o Girō, and Lin Qiuwu – are relatively well known, while many others are (almost) completely forgotten. The third chapter of my book A Buddha Land in This World (hereafter abbreviated “BLiTW”) reviews relevant ideas by a number of such “radical Buddhist” (as well as by selected engaged Buddhists and a few related Buddhist thinkers),1 and I remain very much interested in this topic. It is particularly exciting – to me, at least – to encounter a thinker that I haven’t heard of before, one of these almost completely forgotten ones, mentioned a few sentence back. Most recently, this happened when reading a book by V. Geetha about B.R. Ambedkar.2 On page 286, Geetha mentions a book about Buddhism and Marxism by S.N.B. Wijeyekoon, published under the pseudonym Leuke. Apparently, Ambedkar owned a copy of this book, but I don’t know whether he actually read it. At least, I don’t think there is any influence on Ambedkar’s own “Buddha or Karl Marx”.3

Anyway, this reference started an attempt to find this book, which was initially unsuccessful, until some helpful Sri Lankan on the internet managed to find a scan somewhere. (Since then, it has become more widely available, which appears largely due to the fact that my attempts to find this book alerted several others to its existence.) This wasn’t the end of my quest, however, as it turned out that Wijeyekoon had written two other books. After some further digging, I found one of his daughters, who later introduced me to another daughter and a grandson of Wijeyekoon. The latter was able to scan one of the two missing books (as well as a pamphlet of tributes published after Wijeyekoon’s death), for which I am very grateful, but unfortunately, they don’t have the remaining book (which is actually the middle one in order of publication). The only copy of that book that I could find is in the British Library,4 and I can’t afford ordering a scan thereof.

When I started my quest to find out more about Neville Wijeyekoon and his ideas, I was considering to write a paper about him and submit that to some academic journal. I might still eventually do so, but at the moment, this research project has stalled. The missing book appears to be the bridge between his earlier and later thought,5 so I need that to be able to write an adequate assessment of his ideas and the development thereof. (There is also some more biographical information I need, but that is less important, and I suppose that Wijeyekoon’s descendants might be able to provide that.) Since it is quite possible that I will never be able to access the missing book, it is not at all unlikely that the project remains stalled. That would be unfortunate, however – not so much because of the work I have put in this project thus far, but because I think that Wijeyekoon’s ideas are an interesting product of his time that deserve their place in the history of Buddhist modernism and engaged Buddhism.

So, instead of burying this “stalled” project, I decided to write this blog post. It’s a bit different from most other articles in this blog, mainly because there is no clear thread or argument linking everything together, and because some of my comments are mere opinion and insufficiently backed up by references and/or argument. These, as the title of this blog post indicates, are mere “preliminary remarks”.

Neville Wijeyekoon

Stephen Neville Bede Wijeyekoon was the second son of Gerard Wijeyekoon (1878–1952), a Ceylonese lawyer and politician and the first president of the Senate of Ceylon. His older brother Winston (H.W.G.) was born on 25 June 1911. The two brothers were educated at St Joseph’s College in Colombo, and went to Oxford together to study law. Harold de Soysa, the later bishop of Colombo, was a law undergraduate at the same time as them,6 and was ordained in 1934 after he graduated from Oxford. Neville and Winston probably graduated around the same time (i.e., in 1933 or 1934), which means that they must have started their studies in Oxford in 1930 or 1931 at the latest. This, together with Winston’s birth date, suggests that Neville was born in the second half of 1912 at the earliest, and in 1913 at the latest.

After obtaining their law degrees from Hertford College, University of Oxford, the two brothers returned to Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Winston started a military career and became the Commander of the Ceylon Army in 1960. In 1963, after a military coup attempt in which he wasn’t involved, he stepped down and switched to a diplomatic career. In April 1969, while he was Ceylon’s ambassador to Italy, he died in a motorcycle accident.

It is unclear to me what kind of career Neville had between his return to Ceylon and the founding of the state-owned Ceylon Ceramics Corporation in 1957 of which he was chairman until his death. Like his older brother, Neville’s death was traffic-accident related. He died in 1968 (probably on June 26th) due to complications during surgery after a motor accident in which he was a victim.7 Considering that the booklet of tributes published after his death includes letters by the prime minister and other high-ranking politicians, he must have been well-connected and must have had a career related to Ceylon’s government. In addition to his position as founding chairman from the Ceylon Ceramics Corporation, he also was a director of several other (state-owned?) companies, but I do not know when he had those positions (i.e., before or simultaneous with his CCC chairmanship).8

Neville was also a prominent member of the Executive Committee of the Arts Council of Ceylon from its establishment in 1952, and a Founder Member and General Secretary of the Congress of Religions, founded in 1965. In addition to all of this, he wrote three (small) books. I’ll turn to to his major writings soon, but if you’re anything like me, you probably want to know how to pronounce the name Wijeyekoon.

In a Sinhala list of Commanders of the Ceylon Army, Winston is listed as H.W.G. විජේකෝන් (vijēkōn), and I’m assuming that this is the correct spelling of the family name. විජේකෝන් and several spelling variants are combinations of Sanskrit विजय vijaya (victory, conquest, superiority) and (probably) the rather obscure Tamil word கோ (ruler, king, father). There appear to be two common pronunciations of these names. The first is /ʋid͡ʒejəkoːn/, which sounds approximately like “we jay a cone” with the last syllable lengthened. This is very close to the origin of the name (i.e., vijaya-kō+n). The second, and more common pronunciation is /ʋid͡ʒeːkoːn/, which sounds approximately like “we jay cone” with the second and third (i.e., final) syllable lengthened. In this pronunciation, ja/je and ya/ye in vijaya or what is derived from it are slurred together into one single long syllable ජේ . Significantly, this pronunciation corresponds to the විජේකෝන් spelling (probably) used by the Wijeyekoon family. Hence, I’m assuming that this is how Neville pronounced his surname.9

Major writings

As mentioned, Wijeyekoon published three books. The first in 1943 under the pseudonym Leuke; the second and third in 1949 and 1957 under his own name.

Leuke (1943), Gautama the Buddha and Karl Marx: A Critique and Comparative Study of Their Systems of Philosophy (Colombo: Vijaya), 100 pages. [Below, I will refer to this book as “GB&KM”.]

S.N.B. Wijeyekoon (1949), The Message of Democratic Socialism (Colombo: Lanka), 74 pages. [Hereafter, “MDS”.]

S.N.B. Wijeyekoon (1957), The Achievement of Mental Harmony, or A philosophy of Living for Modern Man (Colombo: Lanka), 63 pages. [Hereafter, “AMH”.]

GB&KM is now available on the internet in various places. A scan of AMH was sent to me by one of Wijeyekoon’s grandsons (for which I owe him my gratitude). Wijeyekoon’s descendants don’t own a copy of MDS, unfortunately (and didn’t even seem to be aware of its existence), and neither does this book seem to be available in any Sri Lankan library. The British Library owns a copy, and that copy may very well be the only publicly accessible copy worldwide. Unfortunately, it isn’t accessible to me as I live in Japan and ordering scans costs much more than I can afford (and would also require a letter of permission from Wijeyekoon’s daughters, who are the current copyright holders). The British Library did send me pictures of MDS’s front page, title page, and table of content, however, which confirm the book’s existence and authorship.

These three books (or booklets) are Wijeyekoon’s “major” writings, but there are some shorter “minor” writings. A scan of a lecture was sent to me by the aforementioned grandson:

S.N.B. Wijeyekoon (undated), A Guide to Personal and Social Harmony, Lecture delivered at the Rotherfield Psychological Society of Ceylon, 8 pages.

This text is quite similar to part of AMH. It is quite likely that there were other “minor” writings (such as lectures, articles, and so forth), but I haven’t been able to find any, and it is possible that none have survived (or at least not in an accessible form).

The remainder of this blog post consists of three main sections (with many subsections) and some closing comments. The three main sections are dedicated to Wijeyekoon’s three books, with the second being very short for obvious reasons.

Gautama the Buddha and Karl Marx (1943)

As its subtitle indicates, this books is intended to be “A Critique and Comparative Study of Their Systems of Philosophy” wherein “their” refers to the Buddha and Marx, or in other words, to Buddhism and Marxism. This immediately raises two questions, however. Which Buddhism? And which Marxism?

Ceylon/Sri Lanka was, more or less, the birthplace of Theravāda modernism and “Protestant Buddhism”.10 But given Wijeyekoon’s background and education (which partially took place in Oxford, England), one would expect a significant influence of Western Buddhist modernists as well.11 The Buddhism in GB&KM is indeed of the modernist variety, which can be illustrated in a number of ways. Firstly, the Buddhist author that receives the most quotations is Anagarika Govinda, who was born as Ernst Lothar Hoffmann in Germany.12 The only other Buddhist author who is quoted more than once – namely, twice – is Caroline Rhys Davids.13 Her more famous husband, Thomas William Rhys Davids is quoted once,14 and the same is true for Narada Mahathera and Nyanatiloka Mahathera.15 The last of these is another German. The only non-Western Buddhist author quoted in GB&KM (aside from the Buddha himself)16 is Narada, but while Narada was Ceylonese, he also received a Western education.

Secondly, it takes only a little familiarity with Theravāda modernism and Protestant Buddhism to recognize some of its key themes in Wijeyekoon’s interpretation of Buddhism.17 In the first paragraph of the introduction, he writes, for example, that “Buddhism must direct its attention to the special problems of our age” (9 – emphasis in original18). Another key theme is the modernist/Protestant focus on (reconstructed) authenticity. Wijeyekoon focuses his attention to Hinayana Buddhism (his term) “to deal with the Buddha Dhamma in its pristine purity” (10) and asserts that the Buddha’s original teaching “continues to flourish [in Ceylon] in much of its pristine purity” (21). Furthermore, in chapter 7, he more or less rejects rebirth-related goals of Buddhist practice and argues that the goal of Buddhist practice is “the realisation in this life of perfect mental harmony” (58). And finally – although this theme becomes much more apparent in AMH – he strongly emphasizes lay practice (and in fact, completely ignores monastic Buddhism).

The dominant variety of Marxism around the time Wijeyekoon wrote and published GB&KM was the Marxism-Leninism promoted by the Soviet Union and associated parties and organizations elsewhere. That this was Wijeyekoon’s starting point indeed is revealed by his sources. He quotes Friedrich Engels’s Anti-Dühring six times and Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism four times. The only other Marxism-related quotation is from a chapter titled “Dialectical Materialism” by the scientist J.D. Bernal.19 Notice that there is not a single quotation by Marx, even though the book purports to compare the Buddha and Marx. While this may seem strange, it is actually fairly common in Marxist-Leninist texts.

However, while the Marxism-Leninism that was mainstream Marxism at the time provided Wijeyekoon’s starting point, he deviates from this starting point significantly in the second half of GB&KM. Throughout the book, Wijeyekoon uses the term “dialectical materialism”, which normally refers to the metaphysics of Marxism (although Marxists often use the term “metaphysics” differently). But in the last chapters, the term refers to Wijeyekoon’s own philosophy instead. That philosophy was partially based on his interpretation and extension of dialectical materialism (as he found it in Engels’s Anti-Dühring and Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism), but moves quite far away from its source.20 Wijeyekoon’s “dialectical materialism” includes a theory of ethics, for example, while the Marxist-Leninist “original” doesn’t. And one of the most important claims of the book is that “dialectical Materialism … enjoins the merging of one’s self in social welfare, spending one’s whole life in doing social good, and contributing to social development” (66), but that is certainly not an idea that can be found in any orthodox text on dialectical materialism (even if it might be possible to creatively mine other Marxist sources to make an argument for a somewhat similar claim).

While the foregoing could be interpreted as a critique of Wijeyekoon, that would be a misunderstanding. The fact that he did not just compare Marx and the Buddha, as the title of the book suggests, but built his own original philosophy on interpretations of the mainstream “Buddhism” and “Marxism” of his time is exactly what makes the book interesting. Nevertheless, the book is very much a product of its time – I find GB&KM very interesting from a historical point of view, but the philosophy outlined in the book (and further developed in AMH), I find less compelling, on the other hand, for reasons I will explain below.

Chapters 2 to 6 — a sketch of dialectical materialism

GB&KM can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part consists of chapter 1, which explains the general aims and structure of the book. The second part consists of chapters 2 to 6, which summarize core ideas of dialectical materialism and compare those to similar metaphysical ideas in Buddhism.21 The third part consists of chapters 7 to 9, in which Wijeyekoon develops his own philosophy.

“Both Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism consider nature to be constituted of processes. Everything in nature is in a state of flux” (12), writes Wijeyekoon in chapter 2. This is essentially correct, but Buddhism and dialectical materialism tend to phrase this basic idea in different terms. A key term in the dialectical perspective is “change”, while Buddhism focuses on “impermanence”. Of course, one implies the other, but such terminological differences lead to subtle differences in point of view. Neither commonly uses the term “process”, by the way. “Reality, says Dialectical Materialism, is composed of interdependent, interconnected processes” (12), writes Wijeyekoon, which actually is a better description of the Buddhist point of view.

According to materialism, everything is ultimately material.22 Thus, mental processes and events are ultimately material (or physical) processes or events, but different versions of materialism (or physicalism) disagree about what exactly this means. Dialectical materialism is materialist in this sense, but Buddhism is not. Buddhism (typically!) accepts a version of (Cartesian) substance dualism in which the mental and the material/physical are separate, more or less independent kinds of things.23 Wijeyekoon writes that “in classifying processes into mental processes (nama) and processes external to mind (rupa), Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism adopt a similar viewpoint” (26), but this is slightly misleading. Indeed, both make the terminological distinction, but in the materialist view, the former ontologically depends on the latter or is even identical with the latter, while in the Buddhist, dualist view, these two kinds of processes are fundamentally distinct and independent. Wijeyekoon obscures this difference by writing that while Buddhism “denies the possibility of existence of mind without matter” (26–7) in this world, but simultaneously holds that the are realms where mind exists without matter (which he only mentions in a footnote), on the other hand, “Dialectical Materialism emphatically denies the possibility of existence of mind without matter” (27).

The fourth chapter starts with a fairly conventional summary of the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of dialectics, focusing on the role of “contradictions”. A typical example of such “contradictions” in early Marxist writings concerns change. In this view change inherently implies contradictions, because a changing thing in one moment is both A and not-A. This idea, however, depends on an understanding of moments as short time spans rather than points in time. (The notion of the infinitely small – like a point in time – was pretty much absent in 19th century thought.) If moments have duration, than at the beginning of a moment a changing thing has different properties than at the end of that moment. Thus it can be both A and not-A in the same moment indeed. But if a moment has no duration, as the notion of moment is understood nowadays, this makes no sense. Change, then, does not involve or imply contradiction. Furthermore, the term “contradiction” is often used in Marxism in a much wider sense than in logic, for example (and consequently, when Marxist-Leninist oppose dialectics to logic, much of what they write tends to be absurd nonsense based on fundamental misunderstandings). “Contradictions” in dialectical materialism are typically conflicts, tensions, opposing tendencies, and so forth, rather than contradictions in a logical sense.

In the last pages of chapter 4, Wijeyekoon switches from the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of dialectics to Buddhism. He writes that “though Buddhism remains silent on the question of the potentiality of contradictions in producing development, it nevertheless seems to admit the existence of contradictions in processes, and in doing so gets much further than most systems of thought in its approximation to Dialectical Materialism” (37). He supports this claim with an example: a being after rebirth has no identity with the previous being (i.e. before rebirth), but is not an entirely different being either. So, in this example, two things x and y are neither identical, nor entirely different. Is that a contradiction or does it merely (misleadingly) sound like one? If I rip a page out of a book, the book before and after the page-ripping are neither identical, nor entirely different. There is nothing contradictory about that, and it’s not all that hard to come up with other examples. Identity is relative to a predicate (i.e., to a description).

Both Buddhism and dialectical materialism are non-theist (or atheist), claims Wijeyekoon in chapter 5, which is correct if theism is understood as positing something like the almighty creator god of the Abrahamic religions. However, he also claims that “in postulating a non-theistic position, both Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism consider man to be the sole architect of his own destiny” (43), and this I find a very dubious claim. From a Marxist perspective, our beliefs and desires are strongly influenced by a society’s dominant ideology as well as by the ideology of the class to which we belong.24 Furthermore, many aspects of society (limiting what we can and cannot do) are shaped by a society’s economic and technological “base”, particularly, by the organization and distribution of the ownership of the means of production. Hence, in Marxism, men most certainly are not the sole architects of their destiny. And neither are they in Buddhism, albeit for very different reasons – most importantly, the notion of being the sole architect of one’s own destiny conflicts with the Buddhist core idea of no-self or non-self (which, by the way, plays no importantly role in GB&KM).

Wijeyekoon does somewhat temper the idea of men being the sole architect of their destiny, but on somewhat different grounds. He argues there that both dialectical materialism and Buddhism reject determinism and assert that there are limitations on (the operation of) free will. Neither Buddhism, nor dialectical materialism accepts a rigid or mechanistic theory of cause and effect “to the extent of maintaining that the behaviour of anything is determined by that which preceded it” (45). And “both Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism maintain that the behaviour of an effect is not necessarily the passive result of its first cause. Buddhism, for instance, believes in will.” (45)

Chapter 7 — mental harmony in this life

In the last three chapters of GB&KM, “dialectical materialism” no longer refers to the more or less orthodox Marxist-Leninist metaphysics outlined (and compared to Buddhism) in chapters 2 to 6 (regardless of whether this outlining is entirely correct), but to Wijeyekoon’s extension thereof, that is, to what in his view, dialectical materialism should say about a number of topics in ethics and social philosophy about which the Marxist-Leninist “original” tends to be relatively silent. Or in other words, in the final three chapters, “dialectical materialism” stands for Wijeyekoon’s view that is (loosely?) based on his interpretation of dialectical materialism, further influenced by his interpretation of (modernist/Protestant) Buddhism. Chapter 7 introduces one of the most important ideas in Wijeyekoon’s philosophy, and the following quotation simultaneously presents that idea and illustrates his use of the term “dialectical materialism” (or “dialectical materialist”):

“Buddhism maintains that … conduct in one existence causes and conditions, on the termination of that existence, a subsequent existence.
The question, however, which a Dialectical Materialist would want to ascertain is, whether this theory of rebirth provides a vitally necessary motive for treading the Eightfold Path. For if the Eigthfold Path, the path of non-attachment, is the means whereby we could experience mental serenity here and now, isn’t this a sufficient justification for treading this path? Isn’t then a consideration of future existence, of what happens after death, a superfluous motive for treading the path?
In this connection, the question arises as to why I should be sufficiently interested in a future existence as to want to influence it in a particular way.
For, according to Buddhism, there is nothing enduring in me like a soul, which is passed on to a future existence which makes it unequivocally my future existence. (53–4)

And therefore,

the attainment of the Buddhist goal or Nirvana can motivate human conduct dynamically, only in so far as Nirvana means the highest state of non-attachment and mental harmony attainable in this life. As a matter of fact, reference in Buddhist texts to Nirvana as an ultimate state, which a person reaching the highest condition of non-attachment and mental harmony attains after death, is so negative and ambiguous that one is justified in assuming that it isn’t a vital aspect of Buddhist thought. (56–7)

The acceptance of the Eightfold Path, therefore, should be considered primarily as a means of producing mental harmony in this life of ours i.e. here and now. Nirvana in this sense, as we have already pointed out, is the realisation in this life of perfect mental harmony. (58)

The key claim here is a rejection of the traditional goal of Buddhism of transcending saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth, and replacement thereof with a new goal: mental harmony in this life. Variants of this idea are common in Buddhist modernism and Western Buddhism, but it is quite debatable whether mental harmony is a Buddhist goal at all. For example, Paul Williams wrote that “the [Buddhist] spiritual path is not one of comfortable feelings and acceptance. It is deeply uncomfortable”.25

The reduction of Buddhism to a means for achieving mental harmony, peace of mind, or happiness in this life changes it into what Slavoj Žižek calls a “fetish”, that is, as a tool “to cope with harsh reality”. A fetish allows people “to accept the way things are – because they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to defuse the full impact of reality.”26 And thus,

when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: “OK, but where is the fetish that enables you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it really is’?” “Western Buddhism” is such a fetish: it enables you fully to participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle really is – what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw …27

By making mental harmony, peace of mind, or happiness in this life the central (or even only) goal, Western Buddhism and much of Buddhist modernism in general have become the “perfect ideological supplement” to capitalism.28 But it doesn’t have to be. About a decade before GB&KM, Seno’o Girō also combined an interest in Buddhism and Marxism, among others. A proclamation written by him that was read in the first meeting of the New Buddhist Youth League (Japan, 1931) opens with the following words:

This is an era of suffering. Fellow men desire love and trust, but are forced to engage in conflict, while the general public wishes for bread, but is only fed oppression. Either if one [tries to] escape or [engages in] conflict, the present world is fluctuating between chaos and distress.
In such an age, what are Buddhists aware of, and what are they contributing to society? Intoxicated by [their own] cheap peace of mind, most Buddhists do not see a problem.

The desire for (one’s own) mental harmony (or peace of mind, or happiness) is at best a distraction and at worst a fetish or an intoxication. A Buddhist doesn’t aim for mental harmony, but for a fundamental change in one’s perception of the world,29 or in one word, for awakening. Perhaps, Wijeyekoon realized this at some point after GB&KM – the philosophy of mental harmony advocated in AMH does not claim to be Buddhist or even to be based on Buddhist roots.

Chapter 8 — merging of one’s self in social welfare

Chapter 8 starts with an exploration of Buddhist ideas about the nature and causes of suffering or dukkha as an obstacle to achieving mental harmony. Wijeyekoon briefly explains the Eightfold Path and jhana meditation, and remarks that “the ethics or morality of the Eightfold Path is one fundamentally based on ‘Maitriya’ [Sinhala for mettā] or compassion towards other living beings” (62–3).

The source of suffering or mental disharmony is craving or attachment, and in Buddhism, (jhana) meditation and concentration constitute “the highest aspect of the practice of non-attachment” (66). Subsequently, the attention shifts from Buddhism to “dialectical materialism”. “Now what is the position of Dialectical Materialism regarding this fundamental Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment?” (66) Wijeyekoon asks. His answer is that:

The one criterion of right conduct, according to Dialectical Materialism, is whether such conduct is conducive to social good and social development. If a particular cause of action is good for society, and is conducive to social development it is according to Dialectical Materialism ethically justifiable. Dialectical Materialism, therefore, enjoins the merging of one’s self in social welfare, spending one’s whole life in doing social good, and contributing to social development. (66)

Here Wijeyekoon quite obviously is no longer using the term “dialectical materialism” to refer to Marxist-Leninist metaphysics, but to his own ideas built upon an interpretation thereof. He argues that “Dialectical Materialism is as much at pains to negate a self-centred outlook as Buddhism is, though its modus operandi for achieving this purpose is to merge one’s interests in social good and to contribute to social development” (67). It is debatable (but not indefensible!) that Marxism aims to negate a self-centered outlook, and it can certainly be argued that in the Soviet Union it was attempted to make people selflessly serve the social good.30 Many socialists even believed that in a socialist society, people would automatically do so, but the Soviet Union quickly found out that carrots and sticks were necessary. Hence, what Wijeyekoon is saying here is not necessarily un-Marxist, but it isn’t clearly Marxist either, and it certainly is not a part, aspect, or implication of dialectical materialism. This doesn’t mean that the idea is a bad idea, of course – that’s an entirely different issue.

Whether the idea that the path to mental harmony requires “the merging of one’s self in social welfare, spending one’s whole life in doing social good, and contributing to social development” is a good idea depends at least in part on the empirical question of whether this actually works (or could work). The few things that can be learned about Wijeyekoon’s life from available sources – the booklet of tributes, especially – strongly suggests that he followed this advice himself. That is, he quite clearly committed himself to contributing to social development and doing good. But to what extent does this involve, or lead to a “merging of one’s self in social welfare”? It seems quite likely that it is actually the other way around: he or she who successfully merges their self in social welfare will be compelled to spend their life in doing social good and contributing to social development. If this is right, then it may be the case that Buddhist practice to develop the right attitude – namely, one of commitment to social good and social development, or something like mettā/maitriya – is a requirement for the kind of practical “merging of one’s self in social welfare” that Wijeyekoon advocates.

A further question is whether or to what extent this “merging of one’s self in social welfare” contributes to mental harmony. Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow” suggests that people are happiest in a state of complete absorption in some activity, and it seems likely that experiencing happiness is an important contributor to mental harmony, so this is one possible mechanism, provided that the “merging of one’s self in social welfare” does indeed involve such a state of complete absorption or “flow”. However, that state could just as well be associated with a completely antisocial activity, so this mechanism would not explain why it is the “merging of one’s self in social welfare” (rather than a mere merging of one’s self in some activity) that is necessary. What could explain this is, again, a pre-existing commitment to social good and social development (or something like mettā/maitriya). If one already has such a commitment, then merging one’s self in accordance with that commitment is indeed likely to produce some kind of mental harmony.

In the following pages, Wijeyekoon argues for the superiority of his “dialectical materialist” method for realizing non-attachment and overcoming disharmony (i.e., “merging of one’s self in social welfare”). He writes that,

as is quite evident, there is a difference in the modus operandi of Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism in regard to the realisation of non-attachment. Buddhism considers meditation and concentration, essentially a subjective disposition, as the highest expression of non-attachment. Although the merging of our interests in social good would, generally speaking, be extolled by Buddhism on the ground of Maitriya (compassion), nevertheless the higher stages of the Eightfold Path exclude a consideration of social problems, as the mind is largely absorbed in the consideration of the immaterial and the unlimited, and in an intuitive experience of impermanence and ego-lessness. (67)
Now, if we should venture to suggest why an essentially subjective process of mental discipline is thus considered by Buddhism to be a higher manifestation of non-attachment than completely merging one’s interests in social problems it is this. Social environment, as we know it historically and as we know it today in capitalist society, contains features which are highly conducive to a self-centered disposition. (68)

According to Wijeyekoon, there are “two conflicting motives in social existence”: [1] “a social sense produced by an appreciation of the fact that combination by human beings is the best way of combating malefic forces”; and [2] “the necessity for man to struggle against man for his basic existence” (68).

Consequently, a self-centered disposition, particularly in the form of aggrandisement, must have a definite place in the social conscience, and the majority of human beings living an active social life must necessarily be influenced by this environment. This is what lends support to the point of view that the safest way of attaining the highest degree of non-attachment is not by merging one’s interest in social problems, but by absorbing one’s attention in a subjective process of mental discipline.
But, a Dialectical Materialist would stress the fact the the necessity for a struggle for existence withing society, which stimulates aggrandisement, is only an indication of the fact that basic human requirements have yet to be produced on a scale which would keep not merely a few, but every one, above want. Today, however, in this machine age, the productive capacity of society can satisfy the basic human wants of each and every one in society, if it is not frustrated, as it is, by the economic system in which we live. (69)

That economic system (i.e., capitalism), thus, needs to be replaced. Many Buddhist socialists believed that a socialist economy would create better conditions for Buddhist practice and the achievement of Buddhist goals, and similarly, Wijeyekoon argued that a socialist economy could “eliminate the necessity for man to struggle against man” (69).

Socialist society has a special significance to the Buddhist intellectual world, which needs to be specially recognised. If a self centred disposition, particularly in the form of aggrandisement, is primarily necessitated by the struggle for existence within society, which in turn is stimulated by a shortage of human requirements or a frustration of productive capacity, then, so long as we have an economic system which frustrated productive capacity, the necessity for man to struggle against man for existence will continue with its psychological reaction of egotism. A socialist society, …, with its negation of the self centred motive of private profit, … . A socialist society will consequently reduce, and ultimately negate the necessity for man to struggle against man for his existence. … A socialist society, therefore, by removing the prime necessity for man to struggle against man for his basic economics existence, will create environmental conditions in which not merely the few, who in their ethical life rise above environmental influences, but the vast majority of the human race could eschew a self centred disposition in life. As such, a socialist economy will greatly facilitate the practice of non-attachment which is so fundamental to the Buddhist mode of life. (78–9)

While Wijeyekoon argues that the Buddhist idea “that meditation is the best method of non-attachment” appertains “to particular conditions of social existence which we are now in a position to go beyond” (70), he does not reject meditation. In the contrary, meditation has a place, and he probably meditated frequently himself. (He advocates meditating at least twice a day in AMH.)

Meditation, undoubtedly, has psychic features of very considerable value and as such, Dialectical Materialism, appreciating the potentialities of mind once it comes into existence, must take cognisance of and should, in fact, welcome this form of non-attachment, and as stated before, comes to the irresistible conclusion that the form of non-attachment which merits our keenest attention is that of completely merging our interests in social good. (75)

After arguing for the “dialectical materialist” method for realizing non-attachment (and thereby overcoming disharmony), Wijeyekoon shifts attention to the question “why does Dialectical Materialism place such great emphasis on non-attachment through merging our interests in social good?” and answers that “it is because of its appreciation of the vital necessity of society to the human race” (70). He gives several reasons why this is the case. Firstly, “social existence ensures the handing down to subsequent generations of the accumulated experience of the past” (70). Secondly, language itself is a social product” and “language is a prerequisite of advanced thought” (71). Thirdly, “social existence enables us to utilise the advantages of collective effort” (72), and in this context he emphasizes the importance of machine production and thus economies of scale (although he doesn’t use that term) that can be achieved in that way. Later in the same chapter, he suggests that “the basic motive of socialist economics is providing the material requirements of life in abundance” (77) and this indeed requires machine production.

Social existence is, thus, “a matter of vital importance to the human race”, and this implies that “the problem of the correct social environment cannot be overlooked” (73). Wijeyekoon argues that,

although religion has produced individuals of the highest ethical loftiness, it has never been able to create a durable impression on mass character. The reason is obvious. For most human beings are in regard to their ethical life influenced by their environment, and so long as pernicious environmental influences prevail, these frustrate the realisation of a desired ethical attitude on a mass scale.
If, therefore, a particular type of environment and social organisation is as we have indicated, a condition precedent for a mass abandonment of a self-centred disposition in human beings, then it is a matter of importance, in order to facilitate an expression of non-attachment, not only by particular individuals but by the great mass of humanity that that particular environment and social organisation should be brought into existence. Our conduct must necessarily be motivated by a desire to create that new environment and social organisation, and to work for it whole-heartedly, which is to merge our entire interests in social good.
The theoretical position of Dialectical Materialism, therefore, leads us to the conclusion that we should merge our interests in the social problem of creating the right type of social organisation and environment. (73–4)

This passage is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it seems at odds with the claim in chapter 5 that “man is the sole architect of his own destiny”. Here Wijeyekoon acknowledges that key aspects of our personality – like a self-centered disposition – are strongly influenced (or even produced) by our social environments. Consequently, to overcome our self-centeredness (and to help others overcome theirs) we need to change that social environment. This consequence is the second reason why I find this passage interesting. Thirdly, he seems to have forgotten this point later; in AMH particularly, and I will return to the issue there. Fourthly, this emphasis on social conditions and circumstances and how they shape our attitudes, desires, and so forth is also a key Marxist insight (as already noted above in my brief discussion of chapter 5).

Chapter 9 — ethics

The topic of the final chapter is ethics (and, to a lesser extent, epistemology). The chapter opens with a distinction between two kinds of “ethical systems” (i.e., moral theories): (1) “dependent systems” “in which ethical values depend on results”, and (2) “independent systems” that evaluate “conduct independent of results” (80). Nowadays, “dependent systems” tend to be called “consequentialism”, but that term only started to be used in the 1980s. The best known consequentialist moral theory is utilitarianism, often summarized as holding that the right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism uphold a dependent system of ethics. For, both systems evaluate results as being beneficial or not beneficial, and consider such an evaluation as the most important factor in determining the ethical value of acts. Of course … a discrepancy can arise as to what constitutes a beneficial result. (80)

This is an interesting – and controversial – claim. Marxist ethics is often considered to be anti-consequentialist, because it emphatically rejects utilitarianism. And while consequentialist interpretations of Buddhist ethics have been around since the end of the 19th century, there are many philosophers that disagree with this interpretation and that claim that Buddhist ethics is a kind of virtue ethics, or particularism, or moral phenomenology, or something else entirely. (My own point of view is that Buddhist ethics is “expectivist”, meaning that it defines the good in terms of expected consequences (which are a kind of expectations and not a kind of consequences), but that consequentialism and most other moral theories (as well as common sense morality) are also really expectivist. See part III of BLiTW.)

Variants of consequentialism (or expectivism) differ with regards to the kind of consequences (or expectations) that matter. While “both Buddhism and Dialectical Materialism uphold a dependent system of ethics” (80–1), they differ in this respect.

According to Buddhism, our relationship with others should be based on Maitriya which is kindness, not merely to each and every human being but to all sentient creatures. On the other hand the criterion of ethical conduct applied by Dialectical Materialism is social good. (95–6)

While this fundamental difference might make the two ethical systems incompatible,

it may be possible by some … process of reasoning to bridge [this] seeming incompatibility between the ethical viewpoint of Buddhism with its mainfestation [sic] of Maitriya to each and every sentient being and that of Dialectical Materialism which bases its whole ethical position on the one criterion of social good and social development. (98–9)

What could help in building such a bridge, in Wijeyekoon’s view, is a kind of moral relativism he finds in “dialectical materialism”. A “very important problem in ethics” is

whether ethical values are absolute values, eternal in their applicability or whether they are relative values, liable to reinterpretation and even change, owing to their dependence on changing circumstances. Dialectical Materialism adopts the definite attitude that whatever be the ethical values which influence human life are not absolute values, are not eternal in their applicability. (83)

An obvious problem in Wijeyekoon’s argument here is that he conflates descriptive and prescriptive approaches to morality. That moral values that people actually adhere to do in fact change (from time to time and place, depending on circumstances, among others) does by no means imply that the moral values that people should adhere to are relative as well. There is a difference between actual moral beliefs (or people), and moral principles upheld by moral theories. And in fact, Wijeyekoon implicitly makes that difference. On the one hand, he rightly asserts that “ideas of right and wrong in society have varied from time to time, from epoch to epoch, and even from nation to nation” (88). But on the other hand, when he claims that “dialectical materialism” holds that the criterion of moral rightness is “social good and social development” he is arguing for a non-relative, and thus absolute moral truth (at least, in the perspective of that theory). Hence, his claim that “Dialectical Materialism denies the existence of final and ultimate truths in ethics, which is only an aspect of its wider assertion that our knowledge of anything is rarely final and ultimate” (84) is not entirely correct. Some things in (Wijeyekoon’s understanding of) “dialectical materialism” are final and ultimate, and the criterion that social good and social development determine what is morally right is one of them.

This isn’t a very important point, however. Wijeyekoon’s point is that whatever produces social good and social development changes depending on circumstances, and thus that more concrete moral rules and guidelines are relative (to those circumstances, but also to the non-relative criterion).

Dialectical Materialism denies the existence of absolute values in ethics and morality. Its criterion of ethics is social good, and if a particular social form has outlived its social purpose and is detrimental to social existence and development, the morality which exclusively belongs to that social form has no justification to survive.
As regards Buddhism, … it is open to doubt whether the Buddhist ethical viewpoint is based on a foundation of absolute values. But … even if Buddhism does postulate the existence of absolute values in ethics, nevertheless the incompatibility of its position with that of Dialectical Materialism may be resolved by a consideration of the fact that the Akusala [i.e., unwholesome] Kamma, which results from the infringement of an ethical absolute, may in certain circumstances be more than counterbalanced by the Kusala [i.e., wholesome] Kamma of social good; for social good, by benefiting not only any one particular individual in society but almost every one, deserves a high degree of merit resulting from Maitriya. (99)

Key points

The most important points of GB&KM can be found in the last three chapters. They are: [1] mental harmony as the supreme goal, [2] the idea that mental harmony can be achieved by merging the self in social welfare, and [3] a moral theory that defines the good in terms of consequences with regards to social good and social development. These ideas would remain cornerstones of Wijeyekoon’s thought. This is most obvious in case of [1], given the title of his last book, The Achievement of Mental Harmony, but in that book he continues to argue for [2], and [3] seems to be an implicit assumption in his more sociopolitical statements in the same book.

As explained above, there are some potential problems for these ideas. A problem for [1] is that mental harmony is not a Buddhist goal, but to what extent this really is a problem for Wijeyekoon’s view can be debated.31 At least, he avoids this problem in AMH by not claiming Buddhist roots. A second, and possibly more fundamental problem, is that it is not immediately clear why mental harmony should be the supreme goal at all. In AMH, he just assumes that we all strive for mental harmony, and so that the question is how to best achieve that, but I’m by no means convinced that mental harmony (or something like it) is indeed a universal, ultimate goal. (See BLiTW, chapter 13.)

The problem for [2] is that it is unclear whether and how this could work. A possible answer suggested above is that we need to develop a mettā/maitriya-based attitude first, which then will compel us to merge our selves in social welfare leading to (something like) mental harmony, but developing that attitude seems to require something like Buddhist practice, giving the latter a much more prominent role than in Wijeyekoon’s theory. (Albeit possibly not a more prominent role than in his own practice. It may be the case that Wijeyekoon himself developed the necessary attitude in his meditation practice, and that this lead him to merge his self in social welfare and to advocate this as the means and path to mental harmony.)

While I think that Wijeyekoon’s moral theory (i.e., [3]) is quite defensible, a weakness is the selection of the criterion. Wijeyekoon posits and subsequently accepts the “dialectical materialist” criterion of contributing to social good and social development, but does not sufficiently support that criterion.32 Given the time and place where the book was written, the goal/criterion selected is understandable, but it still needs a good argument. Why is social good and social development the final and ultimate criterion? Why not the prevention and reduction of suffering, for example?33

The Message of Democratic Socialism (1949)

All I know about this book is what it says on the front cover, and its table of contents. The front cover describes the book as follows:

This book serves to indicate, that the future of our civilisation is based on the prevalence of a way of life which combines the freedom of mind inherent in political democracy, with that ordered progress and rising standard of life for the common man inherent in a planned economic democracy.

The table of content lists nine chapters: (1) “Our machine age” (a term that features prominently in GB&KM as well), (2) “Poverty amidst plenty”, (3) “Finance and industry”, (4) “Agriculture”, (5) “Consumer’s co-operatives”, (6) “The planning of production”, (7) “Ways and means”, (8) “The political institutions of the state”, and (9) “Liberty”.

The Achievement of Mental Harmony (1957)

While GB&KM has a number of references to Marxist and Buddhist sources (specifically, Engels, Lenin, a number of Buddhist modernists, and the Pāli canon), there is not a single reference in AMH. There is no explicit mention of either Buddhist or Marxist influence either.34 This doesn’t mean that those influences are gone, but they have become much more subtle. It doesn’t mean that the ideas in AMH are fundamentally different from the core ideas of GB&KM either. To a large extent AMH is an extension and practical elaboration of part of Wijeyekoon’s first book, although there are important differences as well.

“The problem of mental harmony is of universal and vital interest,” writes Wijeyekoon in the first paragraph of chapter 1. “In this distracted world, full of frustrations and anxieties, we strive to secure a measure of harmony for ourselves. We realise its importance in the creation of happiness” (1). Here mental harmony appears not to be the ultimate goal, but an instrumental goal required for achieving happiness (which then, presumably, is the ultimate goal). More interesting, perhaps, is how closely this passage resonates with Žižek’s remarks about Buddhism as “fetish”. (See the section on chapter 7 of GB&KM above.) Recall that a “fetish” in Žižek’s terminology is something that allows us to cope with the world as it is. Wijeyekoon here seems to suggest (even if he does not literally says so!) that mental harmony is what allows us to cope with “this distracted world, full of frustrations and anxieties”. Thus, mental harmony, as such, would be a fetish in Žižek’s sense of the term.

“Egocentricity is the basic cause of mental disharmony”, according to Wijeyekoon, for five reasons. [1] “Egocentricity through craving makes us oblivious of a fundamental law of nature the law of impermanence, the fundamental truth that everything in nature is impermanent and subject to change” (2). This is similar to what he argues in GB&KM and is obviously based on Buddhist thought. There is, however, no mention of Buddhism here. [2] “Egocentricity through craving … [also] results in our forgetting another fundamental law of nature, the law of the happy mean” (3). What he means here is that moderation is more likely to lead to happiness than excess. [3] “Our egocentricity manifests itself in anger and hatred, and thereby produces mental disharmony” (3). [4] “Egocentricity produces a wrong motivation for human conduct” (3). Particularly, it makes us aim for praise and adulation, which are rather fickle. And [5], “egocentricity creates a gulf between us and other human beings” (4). With regards to this fifth reason, Wijeyekoon explains that:

Appropriation at the expense of others produces as a cumulative effect social acrimony, social unrest and social disintegration, which will ultimately consume those who exploit and are exploited. It is this spirit of egocentricity, which threatens to replace civilisation and orderly human progress with social chaos and international strife. Here is the basic cause of class struggle and world conflict. (4)

Importantly, this problem cannot be solved or remedied by “liquidating” (or abolishing) the class of exploiters, because “the liquidation of those who exploit is no guaranteed of a liquidation of exploiters; for there is no guarantee that a new class of exploiters will not take their place” (4).35 Instead,

The remedy lies firstly in oneself. Eliminating egocentricity in oneself is the first contribution one must make to the solution of the problem. We must then combine with others, who … have accepted a similar point of view. Such groups of changed persons … could profoundly influence their social environment. … It is the presence in the community of an elite of such changed human beings who have eliminated egocentricity in themselves and who have combined for dynamic social action, which is the only guarantee of social harmony and ordered progress. (4–5)

This is the main underlying aim and purpose of AMH: the establishment of such an elite of “changed men”. This is the most important difference between AMH and GB&KM. AMH assumes a individualist or idealist framework in which social change depends entirely on the effort of individuals that have “eliminated egocentricity in themselves” by themselves, that is, through their own effort. In contrast, GB&KM acknowledged that social circumstances play a key role in the elimination of egocentricity (or self-centeredness) itself. In chapter 8 of his earlier book, Wijeyekoom wrote that:

if … a particular type of environment and social organisation is … a condition precedent for a mass abandonment of a self-centred disposition in human beings, then it is a matter of importance, … that that particular environment and social organisation should be brought into existence. Our conduct must necessarily be motivated by a desire to create that new environment and social organisation, and to work for it whole-heartedly, …36

Here, Wijeyekoon’s earlier view seems a more balanced and realistic view, while his later view seems almost naive. Decades of research in social psychology have made it very clear that social circumstances play essential roles in our behavior, personality, attitudes, desires, and so forth. The idea that a few “changed men” would be sufficient to inspire whole communities to change themselves and the social circumstances around them seems to get things the wrong way around. But to be clear, this is very much the idea advocated by AMH:

Let us create, in every village, in every section of every town and city, in every nerve centre of the community, such an elite as would by its dynamism in service inspire the community with its ideals, win mass sympathy by its sense of service, and suffuce the social atmosphere with its concept of mental harmony. (63)

Of course, Wijeyekoon is hardly unique in taking this individualistic/idealistic approach. Ideas like these are not uncommon, especially in Buddhist circles. Buddhist political thought is typically centered on the ideal king (with Aśoka being the favorite example) who through his exemplary character assures the right social circumstances in his kingdom. In AMH, that king is replaced by an organization of multiple individuals that have “eliminated egocentricity in themselves”, but the basic idea is just as individualistic, just as naive, and just as much in tension with social psychology.

AMH consists of 16 chapters. Chapters 2 to 11 discuss aspects of individual mental harmony and how to achieve it. Chapter 12 concerns politics. Chapters 13, 14, and 16 are about the individual and collective activities of “changed men” (i.e., individuals that have “eliminated egocentricity in themselves”) and about their organization. Chapter 15 is divided into 15A and 15B, which are synopses of earlier chapters. So, rather than having to summarize much of the book myself, I can (and will) just copy Wijeyekoon’s own summaries here.

Chapter XV—(A)
A SYNOPSIS OF MENTAL HARMONY

Egocentricity and craving are the basis case of disharmony
1. Egocentricity through craving ignores the law of impermanence — Disharmony arising from ignoring transientness.
2. Egocentricity through craving ignores the law of the happy mean — Disharmony arising from doing things to excess.
3. Egocentricity makes one a slave to one’s anger and hatred — Disharmony produced by mental storms.
4. Egocentricity makes human praise the motivation of human conduct — Disharmony arising from forgetting human fickleness.
5. Egocentricity places self above others — Disharmony of social maladjustment.

Practice of the virtues which are the anti-thesis of egocentricity and craving, to promote mental harmony.
1. Honesty   2. Compassion   3. Kindly service to individuals   4. Service to the community.

Efficiency maximises mental harmony
1. Minimises one’s struggle for existence, and therefore provides more scope to pursue the path of mental harmony.   2. Increases social wealth, and therefore provides more and more of the material requisites of social service.   3. The “know how” of social service maximises mental harmony. (52)

Requisites of personal and environmental efficiency.
1. Personal Efficiency — Promotion of one’s physical and mental health to the best of one’s ability. Development of one’s knowledge, originality, concentration and will power for coping with a problem which faces one.
2. Environmental Efficiency — Application of knowledge, originality, concentration and will power to any environmental situation which confronts us.
3. Social environment and efficiency — Same prerequisites as environmental efficiency, plus and adherence to the basic principles of community co-operation.
(a) Allowing every opportunity for diverse view points to express themselves i.e. listening to diverse view points with compassion, though not necessarily with approbation.
(b) Co-operation to the fullest extent compatible with our moral conscience in social experiments based on the will of the majority.
(c) Permitting the minority to endeavour to persuade the majority to change its point of view. (53)

Chapter XV—(B)
A SYNOPSIS OF ACTIVITY OF CHANGED MEN

Individual activity of changed men —
(a) Morning prayer or meditation according to one’s religious beliefs.
(b) Meditation on the five adverse effects of egocentricity.
(c) Incantation on mental harmony.
(d) Meditation on an ideal personality.
(e) Meditation on our conduct the last twenty-four hours.
(f) (1) Planning of activity for the day — On the basis of honesty compassion, personal and social service.   (2) In terms of personal and environmental efficiency.
(g) Disciplining ourselves in awareness to the extent of being conscious of the motivation of the motivation of our conduct when we act, and pursuing the plan of action we have formulated for the day resolutely and dynamically.

Group activity of changed men — Basis of group activity
1. Community of vocational interests —
(a) Fostering a knowledge of and development of that interest.
(b) Voluntary service through that interest.

2. Community of interest of group as Citizens —
(a) Study and translating into reality, in group activity of the principles of community co-operation which (54)
we have detailed. Propagating whenever possible these principles in the community.
(b) Group activity protecting public morality.
(c) Group activity for the protection of minorities and other social groups requiring social protection.

3. Weekly devotional Assembly
(a) Prayer or incantation by each member of group according to his religious persuasion.
(b) Joint recital of incantation on mental harmony.
(c) Exhortation on one or other of the basic principles of mental harmony, or reading from the life of a great personality in the sphere of mental harmony.
(d) Dedication.
(e) Appropriate stanzas or hymns. (55)

The “incantation on mental harmony” mentioned is the following:

Let me realise that egocentricity is the main cause of mental disharmony.
Let me, therefore, undermine my egocentricity in order to undermine mental disharmony?
Let me practice those virtues which undermine egocentricity — Honesty, Compassion and Kindness for Personal Harmony, Social Service for Social Harmony.
May my personal and environmental efficiency maximise my personal and environmental harmony.
May the maximum degree of tolerance of social viewpoints which my moral conscience permits promote social cooperation and social harmony. (43)

At this point it should be very clear that Wijeyekoon aimed to create a new religion or something very much like it, complete with a religious organization – chapter 16 presents some rather detailed ideas about how this religion should be organized and how its organization should work.

Some comments on selected passages

From a philosophical point of view, there is not all that much of interest in AMH, but there are a few passages worth quoting and/or commenting on.

Of the three or four virtues Wijeyekoon mentions,37 two also play prominent roles in Buddhism and it is likely that that is their source.

Compassion is an attitude of mind whereby we genuinely and sincerely wish everyone mental harmony, whether friend or foe, rich or poor, happy or unhappy. It is an attitude of mind which we entertain to all humanity irrespective of whether they require our assistance or not. (8)

This is the Buddhist virtue of mettā (or maitriya in Sinhala) which also plays a prominent role in chapter 9 of GB&KM. Mettā is often translated as “lovingkindness” or “benevolence”,38 but Jay Garfield suggests “friendliness” as a better translation.39 The other virtue with likely Buddhist roots is “kindness”.

Kindness differs from compassion in as much as kindness is an attitude of mind, whereby, we respond in some positive manner to those who are in need of out assistance. Unlike compassion which is an attitude of mind to humanity as a whole, kindness is essentially a relationship which we establish with those who are in need of our service. Everyone of us should include in our daily routine as many acts of kindness as we could perform. (9)

This is the Buddhist virtue of karuṇā, often translated as “compassion”, but Garfield suggests “care”.40 Mettā and karuṇā are the first two of the four brahmavihāras. The other two are muditā (empathetic joy), and upekkhā (equanimity), but typically the first two get the most attention.

The other virtue that Wijeyekoon emphasizes is honesty. He argues that “honesty is a prerequisite of selflessness. It consists in its essence in a refusal to appropriate to oneself some benefit, advantage or material interest which belongs to someone else” (6), and that “honesty is the foundation on which we have to build our personality, if our egocentricity is to be curbed. Without honesty the other two virtues of compassion and kindness … are rendered futile” (Ibid.). “Right living”, according to Wijeyekoon, “basically consists in the undermining of egocentricity, and the suffusing of personality with the virtues of honesty, compassion and kindness” (10). The term “right living”, of course, reminds of the eight “right …” items of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

While two of Wijeyekoon’s core virtues as well as his idea that “egocentricity through craving makes us oblivious of a fundamental law of nature the law of impermanence” (2) are clearly of Buddhist origin, Marxist influences on his later thought are less obvious. Nevertheless, in chapter 8 of AMH he writes that

we should always endeavour to test the truth and validity of knowledge by action based on such knowledge through experiment and experience. … … Let knowledge, therefore, be constantly tested in actual practice, establishing what has philosophically been described as ‘an unity of theory and practice.’(21)

Much of this reminds of Marx’s Feuerbach theses (and Wijeyekoon made a similar point in GB&KM, identifying the point as “dialectical materialist”, and thus Marxist, there), and the phrase “unity of theory and practice” is an explicitly Marxist phrase.

Chapter 12 is a bit of an odd chapter, given the overall aim and purpose of AMH. That aim and purpose, as mentioned above, is the establishment of something very much like a new religious (or quasi-religious) practice and order/organization. Chapter 12, however, presents Wijeyekoon’s political theory, and thus, has a very different scope. While much of the book is concerned with mental harmony, the key term in Wijeyekoon’s political theory is “social harmony”. He writes that “one has … to formulate a system of social action which provides for the maximum degree of consent that could be achieved on the part of the community and the minimum degree of coercion, despite diverse social viewpoints” (33). He puts great emphasis on the importance of tolerance and listening to diverse viewpoints for achieving social harmony. “Ideological hostility weakens a community by rending such a community into warring sections, but ideological tolerance on the other hand makes diversity of viewpoint a source of strength to the community” (34).

The most interesting idea in Wijeyekoon’s political theory is related to the epistemological point mentioned two paragraphs back – that is, the pragmatic point that reminds of Marx’s Feuerbach theses. He argues that,

the only way in which a social viewpoint could be tested is the scientific method of social experiment. But as efficiency is a relevant factor, only one point of view … could at any time be experimented with, as otherwise the community would naturally be frustrating its social experiment. It is, moreover, expedient that the viewpoint to be subjected to the test of practical application should be the viewpoint of the majority of the community. (34)

Much of chapter 12 discusses various conditions that are necessary to make this work – openness, rationality, exchange of information,41 and so forth. Furthermore, “the minority should … possess the right of persuading the majority to change its point of view” (36), but should also co-operate “in a spirit of service with a majority decision”.

Closing comments

At a glance, Wijeyekoon’s first book, Gautama the Buddha and Karl Marx (GB&KM), seems to be a comparison of the currents of Marxism and Buddhism around the time of writing, that is, Marxism-Leninism and Buddhist modernism. That, however, is not what it is. Under the guise of such a comparison it presents his own philosophical thought, and much of that thought remained quite consistent throughout his life – there are many more similarities between The Achievement of Mental Harmony (AMH), which was published 14 years later, and GB&KM than that there are differences.

Furthermore, while Wijeyekoon’s philosophy may seem heavily indebted to Buddhist modernism, it deviates from the most influential variants thereof – and especially from Western Buddhism – in at least one very important way. Buddhist modernisms aim – as the term suggests – to modernize Buddhism, to make it more appropriate or suitable to the modern age. “Buddhism must direct its attention to the special problems of our age” (GB&KM, 9) wrote Wijeyekoon. Of course, this is nothing new − Buddhism has always adapted to its socio-cultural circumstances. But modernity is largely of Western origin, and thus, an adaptation to modernity has always – to a very large extent – been an adaptation to, or uncritical acceptance of, Western cultural values and ideas. This means, among others, that Buddhist modernisms tend to accept Western individualism, and it is exactly this feature that Wijeyekoon pushed back against. His idea of “merging of one’s self in social welfare”, and his rejection of egocentricity (or self-centeredness) in general, requires individuals to relinquish themselves (or their selves) in service of “social good and social development”.

In contrast, more mainstream Buddhist modernisms have, either explicitly or implicitly, accepted the rising and evolving individualism of (post-) modern culture. Aspects of that culture have been characterized as an epidemic of narcissism by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell,42 and as a hegemony of (cultural) psychopathy by me.43 What these terms refer to is the normalization of extreme forms of self-centeredness in modern (Western) culture. Indeed, mainstream modern Western Buddhism seems to have pretty much embraced those, undermining or overturning many of the central ideas and values of Buddhist thought in the process.

Of course, Wijeyekoon lived decades before narcissism or cultural psychopathy became epidemic or hegemonic (and in a non-Western country moreover, although his education was Western and partly took place in England). But I think it would both be cheap and mistaken to attribute his staunch and consistent rejection of self-centeredness to something like his cultural background or surroundings. Personality may have played a significant role, but I can only speculate about that. Nevertheless, his apparent selfless commitment to social welfare seems to be a key part of the implicit background of his ideas more than an outcome thereof.

While there are some weaknesses in Wijeyekoon’s philosophy (some of which I pointed out above), and while it was very much a product of its time, I think it is important to realize that it is not just another variant of (standard) Buddhist modernism (or some kind of new religion or quasi-religion based thereon, as in case of AMH). The overarching aim of “mental harmony” may be almost indistinguishable from any other variant of that family of “Buddhisms”, but Wijeyekoon’s analysis of the causes of disharmony and path towards the achievement of harmony is very different. Especially his idea of “merging of one’s self in social welfare” as the key to that path is very much unlike any other Buddhist modernism I am aware of. Of course, he credits Marxism (or “dialectical materialism”) for that idea, but he should have really credited himself, as this is not really a Marxist (and certainly not a “dialectical materialist”) idea. It is his idea, and based on the few things that can be gleaned about his life from the available sources, he seemed to have lived his own life in accordance with this idea. Whether he reached “mental harmony” in this way, I don’t know, but I certainly hope he did.


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Notes

  1. Lajos Brons (2022), A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy, Utopia, and Radical Buddhism (Earth: punctum).
  2. V. Geetha (2021), Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of Socialism in India (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan).
  3. B.R. Ambedkar (1956), “Buddha or Karl Marx”, in (1987), Writings and Speeches, Vol. 3 (New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation): 441–62.
  4. Not a single large library in Sri Lanka seems to own a copy!
  5. But it also seems to develop a line of thought from his first book that receives no attention in his third.
  6. He says so in his contribution to a booklet of tributes published after Wijeyekoon’s death.
  7. Source: Ryan J. Rockwood (2016), “Tribute to Neville Wijeyekoon on his death anniversary”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) 26 June 2016.
  8. Rockwood, “Tribute”.
  9. This raises a question, however. Why did they transliterate විජේකෝන් as Wijeyekoon and not as Wijekoon, which is closer to the standard/scientific transliteration as vijēkōn, and which seems to be more common, moreover? Perhaps, the reason was to emphasize the name’s origin and earlier pronunciation, but this is mere speculation, of course.
  10. The term “Protestant Buddhism” was coined in: Gananath Obeyesekere (1970), “Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon”, Modern Ceylon Studies 1: 43–63. See also: Richard Gombrich & Gananath Obeyesekere (1988), Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  11. A third “pole” of Buddhist modernism was Meiji era Japan, but the Buddhist modernism that arose there was of the Mahāyāna variety and its most prominent offshoot was Zen modernism, which gave birth to Western Zen in turn.
  12. Specifically, the following book is quotes six times: Anagarika Govinda (1937), The Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy, New Delhi: Allahabad.
  13. Caroline Rhys Davids (1912), Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm (London: Williams and Norgate).
  14. Thomas William Rhys Davids (1911), “Buddhism”, in: Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Volume 4, pp. 742–9.
  15. Narada Mahathera (1937), The Buddhist Doctrine of Kamma and Rebirth (Colombo: A. Wimalagoonesekere). Nyanatiloka Mahathera (1933), The Essence of Buddhism (Colombo).
  16. There are ten quotations from the Pāli canon and one from the Milindapañha.
  17. Buddhist modernism (in general) emphasizes the rational elements in Buddhist thought, increases attention to this-worldly affairs, and increases the role of the laity. Protestant Buddhism (including Western Buddhism) adds another key feature: a strong orientation towards a kind of text-based, “authentic” Buddhism. (See also BLiTW pp. 62 ff.)
  18. As in this quotation, I do not change emphasis in any quotation here.
  19. J.D. Bernal (1935), “Dialectical Materialism”, in: H. Levy et al., Aspects of Dialectical Materialism (London: Watts & Co.): 89–122.
  20. V. Geetha called Wijeyekoon “a young Trotskyite”, which is almost certainly a misunderstanding. I see little reason to believe that he was ever a Trotskyite (or Trorskyist) or a communist of any other variety. I would even hesitate to call Wijeyekoon a “Marxist”. Nevertheless, he was a democratic socialist (at least around the publication of MDS in 1949, but GB&KM and AMH suggest very similar political views). — Geetha, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, p. 286.
  21. In Marxism, the term “metaphysics” is sometimes used as an opposite to dialectics. So while dialectics focuses on change, metaphysics in this view assumes a more or less static reality. I’m using the term “metaphysics” in its standard philosophical usage here, however, that is, as denoting the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality and with what exists.
  22. Nowadays, physicalism has more or less replaced materialism. According to physicalism everything is ultimately physical.
  23. Yogācāra and some other schools of Buddhism tend to be interpreted as “idealist”, meaning that they hold that everything is ultimately mental (rather than material), but at least in case of Yogācāra, I think that this interpretation is incorrect. See BLiTW, chapter 8. Wijeyekoon also interprets Yogācāra as subjective idealism, by the way, and Madhyamaka as nihilism. (See p. 24.)
  24. In Marxism, “ideology” refers to the collection of values, beliefs, and so forth that serve the interests of a certain class. Without any further specification, “ideology” typically refers to the dominant ideology, that is, the ideas (etc.) that serve the interests of the ruling class.
  25. Paul Williams (1995), “General Introduction: Śāntideva and His World,” in Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vii-xxvi, at xxv.
  26. Slavoj Žižek (2006), The Universal Exception (New York: Continuum), pp. 253–4.
  27. Ibid., p. 254.
  28. Ibid., p. 252. In The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003), Žižek suggested that the same is true for Asian Buddhism, and for largely the same reasons (p. 26).
  29. e.g., Jay Garfield (2021), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford University Press).
  30. By the Stakhanovite movement, especially.
  31. It is similarly doubtful that much of what he calls “dialectical materialist” actually deserves that label.
  32. On a side note, Wijeyekoon’s moral theory reminds of Mozi’s 墨子 consequentialism, which appears to have a somewhat similar criterion: right is what leads to social harmony.
  33. In BLiTW, I argue for the latter, but aside from that difference in criterion, there is no fundamental difference between Wijeyekoon’s moral views and mine. I fully agree with his argument that more specific rules, guidelines, and so forth are dependent on circumstances and should always be assessed by the standard of the criterion in the actual circumstances that apply.
  34. Above I suggested that Wijeyekoon might have done so because he realized that his view wasn’t actually “Buddhist”, but there is actually a much more plausible reason. With AMH he wanted to reach a wider audience, including adherents of other religions, and mention of Buddhist roots could have hindered that.
  35. AMH was published in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and the destalinization (1953). Presumably, this assertion by Wijeyekoon is – at least partly – based on having learned more about the realities of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
  36. More fully quoted above.
  37. The third, “kindness” is sometimes split up into two variants.
  38. Wijeyekoon also uses the term “benevolence” in his discussion of this virtue on page 8.
  39. Garfield, Buddhist Ethics, 132.
  40. Ibid., 137.
  41. Elsewhere, he argued that “the pursuit of knowledge … should be far removed from an atmosphere of mass propaganda” (23), which is obviously also relevant here.
  42. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria).
  43. Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).

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