One way of understanding Buddhism is as an attempt to create an alternative society. Groups of Buddhists are cells in what is intended in the long run to be a quiet revolution, gradually transforming society partly from within and partly from without.
What sort of alternative are we talking about. Evidently one based upon a rather different scale of values from those of materialism and nationalism that prevail at present. The really difficult problem is, 'How are people to live in peace together?' This is a much more difficult problem than most people realise. The common idea is that war is some kind of aberration and for world peace to occur it is just necessary for countries to stop fighting each other, and, in particular, for the other people to stop opposing 'us'. This is naive. There has rarely if ever been a time in history when there was peace all over the planet and the periods when the largest countries have not been engaged in war somewhere or other have been short. We have to conclude that war serves a function or a number of functions and until we can either do without those functions or find means other than warfare of getting them done we shall go on having wars. The problem, therefore, is not really that of how to end war. The problem is how to manage peace. Buddhism is an attempt.
What function does war perform. The first obvious one is coercion. It is fairly well established by social psychology that as soon as a large number of people are involved in anything most of the individuals concerned lose their sense of responsibility for it. This means that even moderately sized communities have to rely upon various forms of coercion and war is simply the ultimate case. Society is disciplined by the fear of war. Can it be done any other way? In our Buddhist communities we are experimenting with alternative ways. We are not always successful, but our attempt is our practice. We are always trying to understand what we are doing more deeply.
One of the problems in understanding what a Dharmic society could be lies in the fact that those in the West who think that they reject materialism and nationalism tend to do so by adopting a range of supposedly ‘progressive’ values that, although superficially more attractive, are not really Dharmic either. Buddhism is not an aggressive crusade for ‘freedom, justice and democracy’. Nor is it aligned with socialism. If it has any parallel in Western political thinking at all, then it is somewhat closer to the ideas of the more positive anarchists, such as Kropotkin, then to most, but in fact all Western political thought comes out of a different mould from that which spawned Buddhism.
In practice, the most Buddhist communities have been rather in the nature of villages or small towns centred on a monastic establishment of some kind. This is not totally unlike Plato’s idea of philosopher kings, except that the ‘kings’ actually have little real power or authority, more a moral influence. Yet even in these small societies there has to be authority of some kind or the crops do not get grown and harvested. The fact is that if people are left to their own devices, they only rarely co-operate in an economically effective way, certainly not sufficiently to get the population fed, let alone provide all the commodities that modern people seek. One element can be a simpler life that needs less commodities, but even this does not solve the authority problem entirely.
Can a society be built entirely on goodwill? A Buddhist group is a selected one. Only people who fit in are recruited and those who don't yet still come are a burden. Up to a point it is a burden that the other members may carry happily, but beyond a certain tipping point it can break the back of the community. In every Buddhist community that I have had experience of there were some people seeking a refuge from life and others providing it. So long as there is a fair majority of the latter it can work, but that is not a random selection of the population at large. It is, in effect, a special group.
Of course, the Buddha's mission can be seen as having been basically to recruit and train such people who could then act as a leaven in society and make the possibility of genuinely peaceful communities more widespread. This, however, is a very long term strategy.
In fact, building Buddhist community is a bit like building sandcastles on the beach. They hold together pretty well until the tide comes in. When strong forces of materialism or militarism arrive in the form of a greed or ideology based invasion, the Buddhists are not of a mind to take up arms and fight back, so the pernicious wave rolls over them like a tsunami and when the extent of the damage is apparent they then either move elsewhere or start again where they are. We believe in karma. We believe that the good done is not lost, despite the disasters. We believe that in time there will be fruit from the seeds planted. One way or another it works out. To operate in this way takes faith. This means that Buddhism has great staying power in the long term but we are talking about the very long term.