An introduction to the Spiritual Right
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Today’s story is about one of the weirdest subcultures we’ve stumbled on to date — far-right Buddhism.
The rise of Alt-Buddhism
The video opens with a middle-aged man hanging out in central Vancouver on a sunny September afternoon. Wearing a crumpled white jacket with a swastika pin, Brian Ruhe is setting up his camera and tripod for a livestream. On his broadcast, Ruhe stops passersby to tell them about how Adolf Hitler was a great man unfairly maligned by history.
The most surprising part of the video, for me, isn’t when Ruhe praises Nazism or claims Jews control the media.
It’s when he talks about what he does for a living.
“I’m a Buddhist teacher,” he says.
For many years, Ruhe taught meditation and Buddhist philosophy at a Canadian university, until he was fired for posting antisemitic videos on YouTube. He continues to upload interviews speaking to Holocaust deniers and the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, who he calls “a personal friend”.
Ruhe seems like a giant oxymoron. How could anyone in the Western far-right also be a practitioner of Buddhism? It doesn’t fit with our understanding of what the far-right is: racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic, chauvinist. While Buddhism has been an intractable part of conflicts in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the same could not be said of Buddhism practiced in the West. “Nazi Buddhist” might be the name of a dire improv comedy troupe.
After stumbling onto Ruhe’s video channel (aside from meditation, he says his chief interest is “abusive Jewish power in the world”) I became curious about how many other far-right Buddhists were out there. How on earth had they come to their paradoxical beliefs?
I started browsing obscure Telegram groups and watching bizarre videos on Bitchute, discovering a handful of influencers with thousands of followers. I even saw the small overlap of Buddhism and the far-right in the UK.
Chris Mitchell, a former regional organiser for the white nationalist organisation Patriotic Alternative, calls himself a “Nazi Buddhist” and invites mindfulness experts onto his channel.
Nancy Richardson, a member of Patriotic Alternative, spoke on a livestream about Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha.
Leo Robinson, one of Yorkshire’s candidates representing For Britain, an anti-immigrant party, frequently posts on Facebook about his meditation practice (he would not call himself a Nazi but a civic nationalist).
Far-right Buddhists are by no means a large group, nor are they growing to the point where you could expect your local skinhead gang to chant the Buddhabhivadana before going out to hassle immigrants. Still, there are enough people involved in the Spiritual Right, as some of them call it, that it’s worth exploring what their deal is. I found a world of clumsy mental gymnastics that aim to justify hate, violence, and in some cases, genocide. Here goes.
Owning the shitlibs
Far-right practitioners of Buddhism represent a minor but busy subculture within the online far-right. They appear to be more common in the US than in the UK and Canada. On blogs, livestreams and niche internet forums, they share what it means to be a far-right Buddhist. Some of them draw inspiration from Julius Evola, an Italian fascist philosopher who saw Buddhism as anti-democratic. Others like to quote Miguel Serrano, a Chilean neo-Nazi who worshipped Hitler as a divine Buddhist figure.
But in trawling through the social media pages of the Spiritual Right, I repeatedly saw opposition to “shitlibs”, or dumb liberals, as a key source of motivation. The podcast Right Wing Dharma Squads (take a wild guess where that name comes from), frequently uses this term. The show is hosted by four pseudonymous American men — Dharmakirti, Aura, Kagyu and Storm King — who each practice a different type of Buddhism of Tibetan and Thai origin.
The RWDS quartet bemoan shitlibs pushing “globohomo” on society, referring to a pernicious globalist and homosexual agenda. “I always thought universal suffrage was fake and gay,” says Aura, explaining why he was drawn to far-right politics. “And I was entirely in favour of educational or IQ test requirements for people to be able to vote.”
They also perceive Jews and Black people as “enemies”, and claim that global elites hold “weird Satanic parties where they drink cum and cut themselves and shit”, a conspiracy theory popular among the anti-vaxxers we wrote about last month.
Furthermore, RWDS opposes the radical leftwing politics (such as the right to vote, apparently) that they say trickled into Western Buddhism and diluted their faith from its Eastern purity. A far-right influencer on a separate podcast blames the “new latte drinking Buddhists of Los Angeles” for this political shift. Nowhere, it seems, is safe from the culture wars, and now a front has opened up in Western Buddhism.
This is how it kicked off. Ann Gleig and Brenna Grace Artinger, two religious scholars, describe how after the election of Donald Trump, Buddhist centres, like many organisations, started to grapple with a frightening new presidency. How should Western Buddhists, who are predominantly white and well-educated, respond to the Muslim ban? The “very fine people” at Charlottesville? The baseless accusations of voter fraud?
Some American centres, not wanting to ignore alarming political developments, started hosting events that addressed issues like privilege and the #MeToo movement. Gleig and Artinger say these seminars did not go down well among some right-wing Buddhists, who complained that their faith had fallen to a “Marxist takeover”.
These kinds of reactionary views began to spread to podcasts like RWDS and forums on Reddit. AltBuddhism, a private subreddit of more than 620 members, set itself up as a community opposed to “progressive faggot westernized Buddhism”. Dismissing progressivism (and its message of tolerance) while calling someone a “faggot” in the same breath evidently didn’t strike this group’s creator as an own goal.
Viewing even conservative forms of Western Buddhism as “castrated, weak, corrupted by progressivism”, AltBuddhism praises the Buddha as a “thoroughly masculine… warrior aristocrat”. This feels like a half-arsed reading of the Buddha’s life. Readers will recall from their primary school RE lessons that he famously rejected his aristocratic heritage to live as an ascetic.
There’s a lot about far-right Buddhism that I find incoherent (I’m not the only one. “They're like vegetarians who eat a meat-only diet,” says one Redditor). By far the biggest confusion is their stance on how politics should be involved in their practice.
On the one hand, they say that Californian lefties are rambling about privilege instead of seeking Nirvana. Buddhism should be apolitical, they say.
But on the other hand, they clearly want Buddhism to advance far-right goals.
Here’s an example from a YouTube channel called The Spiritual Right, which is made up of prominent far-right American Buddhists (one of which is friends with Brian Ruhe). In one video, a participant called Mark Vetanen complains about his progressive co-religionists. “They’re talking about climate change, they’re talking about gender issues and racial issues and all I want to do is learn the Dharma,” he says. “They’re virtue signalling.”
Except Vetanen and his colleagues don’t want to just “learn the Dharma”, they want to bring far-right politics into Buddhism. In another video by The Spiritual Right, a pseudonymous woman called Truth Matters says: “The right is now the defender of Western civilisation and the freedom of inquiry that only Western civilisation guarantees.” Apolitical, this ain’t.
You can see why the Spiritual Right have taken this stance. “These cringe lefties are ruining our practice” is a more palatable stance for many people than “voting is gay”. The focus on irksome liberals presumably appeals more to new audiences before hitting them with diatribes about Jews and shadowy elites.
I could list a lot more contradictions, but one that stuck with me was the concept of compassion.
Compassion is an important part of Buddhism, insofar as there can be a generic form of any faith. Damien Keown, a Goldsmiths academic who wrote an introduction to Buddhism, says compassion is a key virtue. He describes it as a concern to alleviate suffering, which has seen Buddhists found hospitals, schools and charities. At the heart of compassion is a principle of non-harming and a respect for all living creatures.
Keown (who interestingly predicted a split between conservative and progressive Buddhism back in the 90s) writes:
“The earliest scriptures strongly condemn violence, and the use of force to further the aims of religion… seems incomprehensible to most Buddhists.”
Keown also outlines a rule against malicious speech and the virtue of patience, because a lack of tolerance is often the cause of violence.
However, the Spiritual Right have a very different take on compassion. I listened to a pod by the RWDS crew in which they agreed that compassion was important, but not as you might think.
They cite the story told by Buddha about the compassionate boat captain who, after agonising deliberation, killed a robber threatening to murder his 500 passengers. This was a merciful act because it prevented not only a much greater loss of life but also stopped the robber from generating negative karma for himself.
This, the RWDS quartet say, is justification for racism. “Being compassionate to Africans and Jews doesn’t mean letting them destroy society,” says Dharmakirti. “It doesn’t mean letting them rape your women.” The gist is: if, as a white nationalist, you see other races as a threat to you, then it is compassionate to act in self-defence against them. But first you have to be believe in the conspiracy theory that Jews are sociopathic fifth-columnists and Africans are perverts.
The same applies to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country, which they both justify as legitimate and dismiss as “population transport, at worst”. One of the RWDS gang elaborates: “As Muslims, they are violent. The natural response for a Muslim doing jihad on you is to push back… It’s a violent, disgusting religion.”
I had a similar conversation with Leo Robinson, who represents For Britain, an anti-immigration party, in Yorkshire. He views Islam as “a threat to liberty and justice and democracy” and claims “Islamist supremacists are coming over the border from Bangladesh, committing atrocities”. Which, as we know, is not the case.
Robinson adds: “Introducing Muslims [into society] is like having African carp in a pond. It will eat the other fish until all of the fish are like the African carp.” If you believe Islam is an evil force, then in Robinson’s logic it becomes not just justifiable but compassionate to oppose it.
This view depends on seeing two billion Muslims as a menace, which smacks of hate and fear rather than compassion. Compassion, it seems to me, is a fig leaf for prejudice.
The compassionate boat captain aside, there are also stories in Buddhist scripture of people — the Buddha’s ethnic kinsmen included — who refused to take up arms when threatened because they didn’t want to break the precept of non-violence.
And as Buddha said: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal truth.”