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.
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.
It was not Marx the economic scientist who achieved this. It was Marx the writer and speaker who created a mythology around the ideas of liberation and revolution. Liberation and revolution are key concepts in Buddhism too. The meaning attaching to them is different, and the suggested means are totally opposite-but the hope of a better world is not really so fundamentally different. The Buddhist revolution-the turning of the dharma wheel-is nonviolent. It is still, however, intended to cut through the hyposcrisy of our world and establish a new order. The Buddhist liberation is inner as well as outer. Marx took away religion as the opiate of the people, but he left them hollow. A true revolution requires both inner and outer work-and it never ends.
Marx and his successors thought to impose the new order with weapons, but could only achieve and justify this by making it seem an historic inevitability. Corrupt myths are needed to support corrupt practice. Buddha saw that the only way to a better world was to renounced weapons. He was the first great proponent of nonviolence as the route to social change. He was a demonstrator in the strict sense of the word-he demonstrated what he meant. If you are going to overcome caste, then you must give up your own cast. If you are going to abolish oppression and violence, then it is no good employing those methods yourself. People who are willing to be so consistent are rare. When they are consistent in the cause of good they are precious indeed.
Most people place subordination to the state as the highest inevitability, and subordination to economic factors-even relatively trivial ones-as the next highest, and then try to fit their spirituality into whatever space is left-if that has not already been used up by the energy consumed in the dynamics of personal life. In consequence, spirituality means little to them and their lives are built on other principles.
The modern world maintains its caste system (delusion) by relying upon national rivalry played out through force (politics, hate) and money or debt (economics, greed). We think that our white countries are democratic and feel proud, for instance, but where there ever to be a worldwide election-for the United Nations Security Council, say-where would the white caste be then?
As long as Buddhism's primary goal is subsumed within nationalism and national cultures, it will never be met. Unless Buddhism can help us to rise out of our local culture, caste and so on, no real enlightenment will occur. An enlightened person is a citizen of the world, not a citizen of Japan or Germany or Britain or any other local power structure. We have, therefore, to start seeing countries simply as organizations and not as part of our identity.
Ideas of historic or economic determinism are myths that seek to excuse what should not be perpetrated, and to lull people into thinking that the things that they knowingly do that are bad, or not the best they can do, are necessary and inevitable. Determinism of either kind is, simply put, a lie. There are better myths and a cleaner conscience is possible. If we cannot find better ways to live, then we will continue to make new nightmares.