I don’t know if it is valid of the criticism of Buddhism as lack of discourse on social consciousness, social ideal or things like that. But if such kind of view is a popular view in the Buddhists communities in the west, I feel it troubling. If Buddhism is going to take root in the west, I think this view has to be clarified, otherwise the west cannot really understand Buddhism.
To my very limited knowledge, the historical Buddha is not just a regular practitioner. He actually was in command of a lot of true knowledge. He understood the world very well. In the precepts for Buddhists, one precept is No Politics. (I am confident this is true in Zen tradition. And I also got confirmation from Buddhist monks from Burma. I think they are Hinayana tradition.) Politics, to me, means anything dealing with the government. So No Politics means no state power. Another precept of Buddhism is no possession of money, which to me might mean no wage system and no private property. So from these two precepts, my understanding is something close to anarcho-syndicalism (Not in any sense to endorse anarcho-syndicalism here. Just give you some more concrete example to sort of have an idea of Buddha’s understanding. I am not quite sure of no wage system and no private property, although Noam Chomsky is quite clear about that. What I am sure is that workers should be involved in major decision-making of the organization and that the organizations shouldn’t have maximizing profits as its sole goal). So the historical Buddha 2600 years ago already can see clearly that state is not necessary and there is no way to get the state right no matter what kind of state. The concept of state is just essentially wrong. So Buddha 2600 years ago already had a quite clear view of how society, as various organizations of free individuals, should function. From my understanding of the profoundness of Buddha’s teaching, it makes sense to me that the historical Buddha should have such a clear insight of social struture. It doesn’t make sense to me that a person like the historical Buddha didn’t have a clear view on social consciousness.
From my limited knowledge, the ways the historical Buddha constructed the sangha, and the rules he set up clearly reflected that he was making his best efforts to realize his compassion of saving all the people in term of changing the social structure, by starting with setting (or maybe experimenting with) an example with his own sangha. I guess he also knew that in his time it was too difficult to expand such experiments or models to the scale of the whole society. I also feel such social changes should be experimented at the particular time and the particular place. It is kind of dangerous to mold it into a theory, which is often too stiff. My feeling is that people can really commit serious crimes with those social ideologies no matter how right those ideologies are. I guess this is the reason why Buddha didn’t talk much about the social consciousness and social structure. But I do see that he was making every effort to put it into practice and experiment with it.
It is probably true the oriental culture (I mean east Asia and part of south east Asia) lacked social consciousness. It wasn’t always so. The time before Confucius’ ideology got adopted by the ruling class (2000 years ago) might be very different from the time after. But Buddhism, as it always adapted to the local culture, in my opinion has always stood up to its fundamental principles and not compromised. So we can say Buddhism adapts to the culture, but at the same time not bound by the culture at all. In this, the essence of Buddhism is able to pass from one culture to another culture without loosing its real teaching.
Above is just my understanding. I have very few facts to back myself up. But to me, it is quite convincing and the opposite view hasn’t been able to offer me more convincing evidences. How Buddhism will take root in the west is a very interesting topic, and is a popular topic among Buddhist communities in the west. I hope the west will not misunderstand Buddhism. Especially they shouldn’t mix Buddhism with a lot of other eastern ideologies.