Beliefnet
Excerpted with permission from "The New Buddhism" by David Brazier by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

White or Western Buddhism is a contradiction in terms. If Buddhism means the life of enlightenment, then there cannot be a specifically English or American Buddhism and we should not be looking to create one any more than our spiritual ancestors should have wanted to create a Chinese or Thai Buddhism, specifically. Buddhism does not belong to countries and should not become caught up in national pride.

We need to understand that when you look through Buddha eyes, England and America do not exist. They are just conventional designations that have been blown up into a justification for some of the worst barbarities in history and currently stand as ramparts in defence of the world racist system. Do not be proud to be British, or American, or French, or any other nationality. As soon as you begin to feel any such sentiment coming over you, you should smell the blood of all those who have died for such folly-and hear the cries of the excluded. Buddhism, therefore, should be profoundly non-nationalist.

People are conditioned to think that nationhood is inevitable and even noble-something to die for even-and certainly something from which to exclude nonnationals. That, however, is definitely not Buddhism. There have, in consequence, been repeated crises in history over whether or not the Buddhist sangha would recognize or acknowledge the supremacy of the state. One different occasions, this issue has gone different ways in specific cases, but the Buddhist position in principle is that the sangha does not recognise the state.

This principle has been compromised in many real-life situations. The subordination of Buddhist principles to nationalist ones, however, is generally extremely deleterious to the former. The revolutionary nature of the Buddhist renunciation becomes sharply apparent in such controversies. Of course, much of the time this is an issue that never comes to a head. The sangha is no military threat to the state and its presence is often welcomed by the civil power because it brings peace, stability and social service of all kinds to an area. Buddhism does not seek to overthrow the civil power. It aims to make it redundant.

In Japan, it was not possible for the sangha to maintain its independence and a series of military governments regulated and subordinated the practice of religion to national requirements. In Japan, religion and state have always been closely connected. The word a religious organization is matsuri. The word for government administration is matsuri-goto. The state was a form of religious expression and religious expression was state regulated. Some of the schools of Buddhism that arose in Japan more than accommodated to this environment by advancing teachings with a strongly nationalistic flamour. It is these forms of Buddhism that have, in large measure, found their way to North America. Buddhism that places religion in a subordinate position to the state is actually being practiced in a number of places, but this is not the original variety and should not be part of the New Buddhism either.

The original spirit of Buddhism is, on the one hand, positive compassionate action and, on the other hand, noncoopration with coercion and oppression. This spirit needs to be dug out from under the accretions of history. To ask what a Western Buddhism would be like, therefore, is already to have surrendered.

All this is symptomatic of the fact that people do not see the extent to which Buddhism is radical. It is common for people to think that a little bit of tinkering with the status quo will accommodate Buddhism quite nicely. This is, in turn, rooted in the assumption that most of what the status quo consists of is inevitable. Once you can persuade people to believe that something is inevitable, they will generally accept it, no matter how immoral or inappropriate it may be.

Karl marx, for instance, argued in favour of economic determinism. This idea made his followers believe that history was on their side. Although Marx himself is now widely thought to have been discredited, his idea of economic determinism, in one form or another, still holds sway, particularly among his staunchest opponents. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, will be remembered, among other things for her strident insistence that "There is no alternative". There is, in fact, a widespread sense nowadays that capitalist rather than communist economics have an historic inevitability.

History is full of such paradoxes. It is a further paradox that Marx was a living demonstration of the falsity of this central idea. Had he really believed it, then there would have been no reason to write the books that he did. In fact, his books gave hope to many of the world's oppressed and changed the course of history in ways that were not simply down to the relentless march of economic forces. Marx, like Buddha, went against the current. Each did so by establishing a new mythology.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus