Going Forth From Nationalism


The FWBO is international, and lately this fact has been receiving some keen attention. Subhuti, in his talk at Sangharakshita's birthday celebrations in August, encouraged us all to realise more fully the international character of the Movement. Some of our magazines have dedicated their most recent issues to pieces related to the international theme. Order weekends have explored it and talks have been given about it. We are being urged to understand more deeply that our Movement, by its very nature, addresses itself to all beings, transcending all distinctions of nationality, culture or language.

Though the FWBO is already international, there are at least three important reasons for us to make a determined effort to be even more international in our outlook and functioning. First and foremost, there is the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge. Having benefited so much from the Dharma ourselves, we want as many other people as possible to benefit from it, without regard to barriers or boundaries of any sort, including geographical ones. Secondly, the world today is more interconnected and interdependent than ever, and this ‘globalisation’ seems likely to continue, whether we like it or not. Neither as individuals nor as a spiritual community can we really exist in isolation from what is going on around us. We might even say that, in order to survive at all, we have to spread the Dharma and make the FWBO more international. Finally, the effort to become ever more international is important because it is in itself a spiritual practice: the creation of a spiritual community of people from different nations, cultures and backgrounds is a powerful means to the transcendence of our own narrow conditioning.

All three reasons are important and deserve to be enlarged upon. In this article, however, I am going to look only at the third — the idea of internationalism as a spiritual practice by which we can overcome our own limitations.

Buddhism teaches us that we construct our unenlightened existence upon the idea of a separate, metaphysically independent self. Each of us perceives a state of consciousness ‘within’ and a world ‘without’ — the two poles of our experience. Generally, we have a deluded desire to ‘fix’ both poles. We identify with a way of being ‘us’ and also with ‘our world’. But the Dharma says that all this is an illusion: there is no separate self. We attribute all sorts of characteristics to ourselves, yet our ‘selves’ are no more than characteristics that we have attributed to what is really sunyata or ‘emptiness’ — a vibrant, fluid reality that we might usefully (though still only provisionally) think of as pure energy. As Sangharakshita once put it, we ‘superimpose upon a superimposition’. And that is why we experience dukkha or ‘suffering’.

This tendency to generate a sense of being a separate, self-sustaining ‘me’ is very deep in us. From the Buddhist perspective (which includes the idea of rebirth), it is the result of a process that has been going on for an immeasurably long time. Our present self-identity — the particular form that we give this illusion at any moment (or in the course of any one lifetime) — is just the current manifestation of the primary, underlying, delusive tendency. Even so, it has to be said that it is still deep-rooted and tenacious. The characteristics that make up what each of us calls ‘me’ are very ingrained, so much so that the basic illusion and the form that it gives to itself are virtually inseparable.

Buddhist texts talk in terms of klesas — ‘defiling, tormenting passions’ — things like ignorance, self-infatuation and pride. The klesas are the inevitable consequences of our belief in an independent self, and they are also the means through which we maintain that belief. Because of the obscuring nature of the passions, we fail to experience the pure, luminous and inexpressibly joyful consciousness that we call Enlightenment.

The klesas spring from the deepest levels of the mind. Far down, at the roots of consciousness, are the sahati klesas. These correspond to the most primary aspects of the basic illusion of selfhood. Around these primal klesas cluster what are known as the mula klesas and upa klesas. These are the basic negative emotions and their various offshoots. So, for example, the delusion of self involves the identification of self as separately existent and enduring. This gives rise to craving — the desire to fortify that sense of an enduring self against the onslaught of Reality — which in turn leads to such things as avarice, hypocrisy and slyness. It is these negative emotions that we can see at work every day in our lives and the lives of those around us. They are the most immediate source of suffering in the world.

Using more ‘psychological’ language, we could say that these mula klesas are the negative side of our conditioning in our present life. It is our conditioning that blinds us — binds us to this living reality that we can only call sunyata, our true nature. The spiritual life is a struggle to overcome this conditioning, to free ourselves from this identification of self with fixed characteristics. The basic method is the cultivation of awareness — awareness of the very fact that we are conditioned. In Aspects of the Higher Evolution of the Individual, Sangharakshita loosely defines conditioning as ‘the tendency of our actions to be determined, without our realising it, by previous patterns of experience’. Our life — our very being — is stuck in the groove cut by previous patterns of experience, and to a large extent we do not even know it.

So what forms does this conditioning take? In what ways are we most deeply conditioned?

Firstly we are conditioned by the fact that we are human — we are born in the human world, with a particular kind of physical body, equipped with five senses, and so on. Then, we are conditioned by being male or female. After that, we are conditioned by our nationality, class, religion, occupation, and by our relationships. The list could be extended much further, no doubt. Interestingly, Sangharakshita himself obviously considers nationality to be a particularly strong form of conditioning — something to be transcended. Those who have read his memoirs will know that he spent many years in India without a passport, and at times refused to tell people where he was from. He really did not want to identify himself as belonging to any particular nationality. In 1980 — long after leaving India — he commented that he was still not happy with having to do so. On another occasion, he roundly declared, ‘Nationalism is a curse’.

As individuals practising the Dharma, we need to think seriously about going forth from nationalism. But what exactly is nationalism? The word ‘nation’ means any body of people that has lived more or less united under one independent government long enough to have acquired a distinct identity. ‘Nationalism’ refers to the habit of identifying oneself with one’s own nation and with the particular national ‘character’ that is supposed to go with it.

At this point, it is worth making a distinction between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’. Though ‘patriotism’ has some negative connotations, it is in many ways a healthy emotion. Patriotism, in the sense I am using it, is a healthy appreciation of one’s roots, a natural love of the country and the culture that one comes from, springing from a sense of gratitude to them. Nationalism, on the other hand, means an over-identification of oneself with one’s nation and national characteristics. This over-identification tends to produce a range of unskilful mental states, such as conceit, aggression, contempt for (or resentment towards) other nationalities, and so on. It is nationalism — not patriotism — that followers of the Dharma must go forth from.

Outright nationalism is, I hope, unknown in the FWBO, but traces of it probably lurk, perhaps unconsciously, beneath the most genial, tolerant of exteriors. Most likely we all need to purify ourselves of it to some degree.

One way to begin doing so is to leave our country and live in another one for a period of time. In his talk Reflections on Going Forth, at the 1997 Order Convention, Sangharakshita said:

...going abroad can be an aspect of going forth in respect of one’s body, an expression of one’s going for Refuge. This happens when one goes to live permanently in another country, or at least for an indefinite period. When one does not take one’s family with one, when one does not take one’s girlfriend or boyfriend with one, but when one goes forth to that country solely in order to communicate the Dharma, this is an aspect of going forth and it represents a very important step in one’s spiritual life and development...

Going to live abroad is a potentially powerful, but indirect method of overcoming nationalism. Nationalism, however, is essentially an attitude and, whether we live in another country or our own, we will need to work directly on our tendency to identify ourselves with our national conditioning. Fortunately, living abroad is not the only context in which we can do this. In the FWBO, we are very lucky to be members of an increasingly international sangha, in which we can find opportunities to transform our conditioning virtually wherever we are. In most FWBO Centres, we can scarcely avoid coming into contact with Order members or Mitras from other nations. Such contact will inevitably bring us up against our own national conditioning. This is a good opportunity for spiritual growth, and we need to make the most of it.

One interesting and effective way to do so is to examine our mental states in terms of the klesas. We can become aware of our conditioning, and work on it, by seeing how the klesas manifest themselves, and then purifying our minds by eliminating or transforming that manifestation. If we really tackle the klesas in this way, we will come close to seeing through the deeper illusion of self, which underpins them and causes all the strife and grief of existence. By changing our conditioning in such a deeply ingrained area as nationality, we can have a very real experience of greater freedom.

So let us look at the klesas and at some of the things that happen when we are under the sway of nationalism. There are six mula klesas or ‘basic negative emotions’. These are avidya or ignorance, raga or greed and craving, pratigha or anger and hatred, mana or pride and conceit, drsti or wrong views, and vicikitsa or doubt.

The first, ignorance or avidya, is really a lack of awareness, an absence of perspective. It is not innocent. We maintain our ignorance actively, like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. Avidya is a way of defending our fragile self-identity by simply refusing to see anything that does not fit in with our idea of ourselves and of our world.

Ignorance manifests in relation to nationality through the assumption that everyone is like us — or at least ought to be. It is the unconscious assumption that people of other nationalities function in the same way as us — that they live the same lifestyle, have the same psychology and hold the same ethical, social, political and aesthetic values as we do. So how can we transform nationalist ignorance? Of course we can’t simply stop being a certain nationality, but we can begin to see our nationality in a broader perspective. We can open our eyes to the fact that people from other nations have a different way of interpreting the world.

The best way to do this is in direct communication with someone of another nationality and especially through the effort to make friends with such a person. In this way, we begin to realise that there are other types of national conditioning, and to experience our own conditioning in a less absolute and more provisional way. We thus become more receptive to different ways of being and of experiencing the world.

Our whole experience is dictated by our conditioning. Things may be experienced very differently by people of different nations. There is a story that a friend of mine loves to tell. For many years he lived in Merida in Venezuela, where we have a Centre. Merida is up in the hills, where people from Caracas, the capital, like to go for a break, especially young married couples on their honeymoon. My friend knows a hotel used by such people. The hotel has a suitably romantic and appealing name — a name to attract these young Venezuelans away from their everyday lives to something refreshingly different, with a touch of honeymoon magic. It is called ‘Drizzle Hotel’.

For English people, ‘drizzle’ is something routine and depressing that they just have to put up with for most days of the year. For a Venezuelan, by contrast, ‘drizzle’ is something special, even magical, and very attractive. In England they shelter from the rain, in Venezuela they dance in it. A single word can have completely different associations for people of different nationalities.

Getting to know Order members, Mitras and Friends from other nations when they come to visit or live in our country (or when we are staying in theirs) helps us to gain a clearer perspective on our own conditioning. We can make it a practice to get to know them, to find out about their background and how they live at home. We shouldn’t be thrown off the scent by apparent similarities. Today, many of us live outwardly in very similar ways, yet beneath that superficial likeness there is still a world of difference. For example, we probably all know what it is to live in a modern city, but it is only our Mexican friends who know what it is to live in a city of 20 million people. Many of us know the effort that sometimes needs to be made to get along to our FWBO centre for a class, yet few know the extent of the effort made by some of those who live in a city of such proportions. It is not uncommon for some of our Mexican Friends to travel for up to two hours on buses and metro to reach their local FWBO centre — and then, of course, to travel another two hours to return home.

What else can we do to work on ignorance as an aspect of nationalism? In practical terms, we could start by looking at a map. Do we realise what a small part of the world our own nation constitutes (whatever our nation is)? Do we know where in the world fellow Order members, Mitras and Friends are living and working? Is Merida north or south of the equator? (Where is the equator anyway?) After looking at a map, we can perhaps read some foreign books and see foreign films. To see films produced, directed and acted by people of other nations is an excellent way to wake up to the fact that others look, live, think and feel differently from the ways that we do. To read books by foreign authors is to do so perhaps even more deeply. I remember well, for example, my own discovery, made many years ago now, of the world described by the Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude .

We could also take more interest in the FWBO in other parts of the world, and particularly in how Order members, Mitras and Friends of other nationalities live the Dharma in other countries. What are the conditions that they have to deal with? What are the particular difficulties and benefits of life in those societies? Subhuti made this point in his recent talk, when he encouraged us to read and find out more about Doctor Ambedkar, whose legacy is so vital to our Movement in India. Probably, many of us in the West have not even read Sangharakshita’s Ambedkar and Buddhism. That would be a good starting point.

So much for avidya, ignorance. The second klesa is pratigha or anger and ill will. This is the passion that, in observing an object, sees only its bad qualities (even where there may in fact be none), and therefore sees the object as unpleasant — something to be avoided or even destroyed. ‘Objects’, in this sense, include living beings, of course. Ill will or hatred is the response of the ego to whatever it considers to be threatening.

The name given to hatred of another nationality, in its most extreme form, is xenophobia. It is a very ugly emotion, based on a strong sense of being ‘us’ and not them’, and on seeing ‘them’ as a threat to ‘us’. Like the other klesas, hatred has, in the context of nationalism, a strong collective aspect. It is a herd emotion. Within the FWBO there is no place for xenophobia. However, we should not assume that we are wholly free from nationalistic ill will, even within the Order. We do, sometimes, experience Order members, Mitras and Friends from other nations as a threat to us.

They are a threat to our personal (or collective) way of being, or of doing things, to the extent that those ways are based primarily on cultural and national conditioning, rather than on the Three Jewels. Foreigners do things differently. We are bound to feel threatened and undermined by this, especially where we wrongly identify our ways with the Dharma. We need to develop our capacity for understanding and trust, and a willingness to see beyond our attachment to our habits and prejudices. We may at times get quite upset, even angry, when Order members and Mitras from other countries do not do things ‘according to our book’, or when they don’t understand our unspoken rules. I have seen this happen on retreats when the British and Spanish senses of punctuality clash. For the British, a 2.30 meeting normally means exactly that, and they may get quite upset when someone arrives ten minutes late. For a Spaniard, the very concept ‘ten minutes late’ is meaningless. Then again, in Britain there is a ‘tradition’ for people on retreats to go for walks in pairs, as a way of deepening communication. I remember well how odd it seemed to me, on my first retreat in Mexico, to see groups of three, four or even five retreatants (on one occasion, twenty!) setting off together. Nevertheless, they seemed to be getting to know each other very well!

As it gradually spreads throughout the world, the FWBO is taking new forms — different ways of ‘living out’ its fundamental principles. The seeds of the Dharma, while remaining the same basic stock, grow into different flowers when planted in the soils of different countries. This is no bad thing: the increasingly international character of the Movement enriches it and enriches our lives within it. Those who live in Britain are especially fortunate in having the opportunity to learn so much from the Order members and Mitras who come to live amongst them to learn from the relatively developed state of our sangha and institutions there. But it is not always easy for either hosts or guests. Increasingly, we are going to come up against our national conditioning. We are going to each have to be active in working with resultant irritations and even ill will.

But it is not just the British who have to take up the challenge to be more sympathetic and open-minded. It is important that Order members and Mitras of other nations do not allow negative stereotypes (for example the idea that the British are imperialists) to influence, however subtly, their view of British members of the sangha. I might also say the same with regard to the Americans. In many countries, amongst the population as a whole, there is ill will towards Americans, sometimes forthright, sometimes muted. This is especially apparent to me in Latin America. We should not let worldly political views, or historical resentment, stand between us, any more than notions of racial or cultural superiority.

I myself have experienced something of this on occasions when, as an Englishman, I have been implicitly accused of (for example) raping the lowlands of Scotland. However much I protest my innocence and insist that I had absolutely nothing to do with it — that I was not even alive at the time and that actually I went to Scotland for the first time in the 1990s — I know that I am still judged guilty. Such feelings arise because people, having over-identified themselves with their own nationality, start seeing nationality as the substance of every individual, as if an Englishman was England, personally accountable for England’s misdeeds, past and present.

For the FWBO to be a true spiritual community we shall need, ultimately, to stop relating to each other on the basis of nationality altogether, which means going beyond even the concept of internationalism. As Sangharakshita puts it, it is very important that, in the long run, within the Order and the FWBO, we become not just international but supranational, that is, absolutely beyond any concern for nationality. We are an international movement and we need to strengthen this international character. However, being fully international is not the final goal, but simply a means of achieving something beyond even that, something of a purely spiritual nature.

The constant companion of ill will is of course greed or craving, and this is the third klesa, raga. Raga is the urge to draw into our self-identity all that reinforces it and helps us to maintain it. Within the context of nationalism, raga manifests as attachment to the characteristics and things of our own nation. Often, we don’t even know we are attached to such things until we find ourselves surrounded by what is foreign. On a holiday, of course, foreign things seem pleasingly exotic to us, secure as we are in the knowledge that we will soon be home again. Variety is the spice of life. But too much spice upsets the digestion. To live in another country is to discover our dependence on what we know, on what we’re used to, on the things and the ways of our homeland. For example, it is only through living in Mediterranean Spain that I have discovered the strength of my longing for walks in damp woods full of ancient oak trees, boots squelching on sodden leaves, or for snow and icicles and going home to tea and crumpets. It was only through finding myself in a foreign culture that I realised how important it was to my sense of security to be able to understand the adverts that surrounded me in the city, to be able to fathom the play of words and the little in-jokes that made me feel a part of it all.

Here again, as a means of recognising and confronting such attachments, living abroad is very effective. However, we can also do a great deal, even without such a move, by entering more fully into the international character of our Movement. All that I have said in relation to ignorance and ill-will holds good for craving, too.

We can experience ill will not so much towards other nationalities as towards our own national conditioning, and in the same way, we can experience craving not for the things and ways of our own nation but for those of another. This is a very interesting phenomenon and to some extent it can be positive. At least it means that we have woken up to different ways and to the limits of our own national conditioning. However, we need to be careful not to fall into a romantic and unrealistic view of other nationalities. We can rather easily fall in love with other nationalities — and of course with foreign men or women of the flesh, who seem to embody all those qualities that so excite us! I have seen this tendency in some of my British friends who have visited me in Spain. They often have an excessively romantic idea of Spanish culture and the Spanish people, imaging them to be the very incarnation of a whole-heartedness that they feel to be lacking in their own lives. It is good to meet people from other nations and to realise the limits of our own conditioning, but it is not very healthy to relate to them in an idealising or romantic way. It certainly does not help them to treat them like that. I have noticed that, when English people communicate with Spaniards from this romantic viewpoint, they thereby endorse the Spaniards’ preconceived view that the English are unfriendly and emotionally blocked, while they themselves are paragons of friendliness and authenticity — which of course is often far from the truth. It does not help people when foreigners fall into the trap of flattering their egos by having an idealised view of them.

Lets move on from raga to mana. Mana is conceit or pride. Pride is really in its element when it comes to nationalism. In many ways it’s the klesa that most characterises nationalism. Mana is the belief that one has a separate self that is unique. It is imagining oneself to be ‘better’ than others (although the beliefs that one is worse than or even equal to others are also forms of conceit, and perhaps equally pernicious). Mana usually involves imagining oneself to have qualities that don’t exist, or seeing what are actually bad qualities as good or endearing. The great British beer drinker, famous the world over, may be a sad example of the latter.

All nationalities like to compare themselves with other nationalities, on the whole favourably. However, some nationalities, such as the British, are perhaps particularly prone to conceit, because economically and politically their countries either have been, or are, amongst the foremost world powers. Such countries have shaped the world of today. This leaves them with a residual feeling of being somehow superior to other nations, especially those that are less developed. In the FWBO, of course, we are bound to be aware that Britain was also the place where our Movement began. For all these reasons, British Order members and Mitras may be especially disposed to see themselves as more ‘enlightened’ in a variety of ways! We are probably too diplomatic to say so out loud, or even to think it too loudly, but nevertheless the thought may often be there, sitting complacently somewhere at the back of our minds. We need to look out for it. Similarly, those from ‘less developed’ countries need to look out for any equally unreasonable feelings of being inferior members of the sangha.

National conceit has been recognised as a hindrance to spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition. An early Chan text , for example, refers to the obstacle of ‘attention to nationality’ and the comparing of one country with another. The text encourages us, as a means of overcoming national conceit, to reflect that, from the perspective of the Dharma, all countries and nationalities are the abode of the klesas, all are the home of misery and pain. As Dharma practitioners, therefore, we should feel no conceit about our nation. We can reflect that when it comes down to it, there is nothing especially good or bad, from a Dharmic point of view, about any country or nationality.

Another aspect of national conceit attaches to the whole question of language. English is the common language of the FWBO. But we need to understand clearly that this is not because there is anything inherently special about English, nor because the Movement is essentially ‘English’ in any cultural sense. It is simply because English has become the main international language and that is mainly the result of the current economic and technological dominance of the USA. All of us need to be careful not to feel that, just because it uses English in this way, the FWBO therefore ‘belongs’ to native English speakers in some sense.

As a part of going forth from nationalism, it is very helpful to go forth from our linguistic group by learning another language. Language conditions our view of the world and even how we think, feel and interpret our experience. Sangharakshita talked about the spiritual benefits of learning another language in his talk Reflections on Going Forth.

Perhaps it is again the British who need to be particularly careful to avoid identifying the FWBO as somehow ‘theirs’. The temptations to do so arise not only because so much of the communication within the Movement goes on in English, but for other reasons, too. For example, the main Order Conventions are held in Britain; it is the country where Shabda and many of our magazines are produced, where Sangharakshita lives, where Madhyamaloka is, and so on. None of these things need be the case, however. They all could change and no doubt some or all will change, at some future time. Generally in the FWBO, we probably think too much in terms of the centre of the movement and the periphery, interpreting these concepts in geographical terms. We need to understand that the heart of the Movement is not something spatial. The heart of the FWBO exists wherever there are Order members, Mitras and Friends who go for Refuge to the Three Jewels. We would all do well to examine our assumptions about Order members and Mitras who are not located at the geographical ‘heart’ of the Movement (wherever we may imagine that to be).

The forth klesa is drsti. Drsti are views or beliefs, whether worked-out and articulate or muddled and half-conscious. Except to the extent that they reflect the Dharma, views obstruct our vision of how things really are. A dangerous feature of views is that we often act upon them. Of course, most of us have all sorts of views about other nationalities, and we tend to apply our general view of a nationality indiscriminately to the unfortunate representatives of that nationality we encounter. Examples are legion: ‘the English are emotionally blocked, so I suppose this Englishman is like a lump of wood’; ‘the Brazilians love carnivals, so she must love dancing the samba’; ‘he’s Spanish, so he’ll be pleased if I slap him vigorously on the back and bellow “!Hombre¡”’

Drsti are at work when our expectations or interpretations of someone’s behaviour are narrowly or falsely prescribed on the basis of that person’s nationality. Drsti also cause the error of confusing genuinely Buddhist qualities with national characteristics and vice versa — as, for example, when someone from a Latin country comes to England and mistakes someone’s reserved manner for equanimity or mindfulness, or conversely mistakes what really is equanimity and mindfulness for English reserve. Likewise, the English may fool themselves into believing that they are being mindful and equanimous, when they are only being inhibited and stiff.

This is an important point. It is very tempting to rationalise our national conditioning in spiritual terms — a danger that we will have to bear in mind as the FWBO spreads to more and more countries. Order members who go to run FWBO activities abroad should ask themselves from time to time, ‘Are we really communicating the true Dharma in ways appropriate to the local context, or are we just disseminating our own habits, tastes and assumptions?’ And indeed, we should all ask ourselves occasionally whether we can really tell the essence of the Dharma from the expression we give it. How much of the way we practise the Dharma is culturally specific? For example, can the FWBO critique of the nuclear family, so necessary and useful for those in Britain, be applied in the same way to the extended family as found in India or in Latin countries?

Finally we come to vicikitsa, or doubt and indecision. How does this manifest as nationalism and how do we go forth from it? Well, I think it manifests as doubt about whether going forth from nationalism is important and relevant to the spiritual life, and as indecision about whether or not to make a real effort to do so.

I hope I have managed to show that it is important and relevant, and I hope that we do all make the effort to go forth. We can start by really understanding the importance of internationalism. This means understanding, firstly, that internationalism is inherent in the FWBO, because altruism and the Bodhisattva Ideal are inherent in going for Refuge. Next, it means understanding that making the Movement more international is the pragmatic expression of our desire to live the Buddhist life as fully as possible in the era of globalisation. Finally, it means understanding that strengthening the international character of the FWBO is in fact a spiritual practice for each and every one of us.

Once we have fully understood why this is important and relevant to us, we can start to do something about it. That means taking on the spiritual practice of going forth from nationalism. We should try to bear in mind our aim to be not just an international movement but a supranational movement — one whose members have gone beyond nationality altogether and who relate wholly on the basis of being human. Indeed, we should aim to relate to each other from the awareness that all things have the nature of sunyata.

One way of doing this is to be aware, individually and collectively, of how the six klesas manifest in terms of nationalism, and to strive to free ourselves from them. To be rid of nationalism is to be rid of the klesas in one serious form — a victory that can only strengthen our hand against them in all their forms. As members of a spiritual community, made up of people from many different nations, we have to be on our guard against ignorance and ill will, against craving and attachment, and against views and doubt, as they manifest either generally or in their nationalistic guise. Let us by all means be patriotic, but let us strive to go forth from the curse of nationalism.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Issue 4 Spring 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).