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Politics and Religion: Politics and Buddhism


In those parts of the Asian world where Buddhism is the religion of the majority, it continues to play a prominent role in many nations, not infrequently with consequences for national politics and destinies. Because Buddhism is so closely associated with cultural norms and worldviews, it cannot be isolated from politics, whether viewed historically or with regard to current events. Buddhism is a living organism, feeding off the political circumstances of a particular culture, time, or place. Its history reflects the strains of adolescence, maturity, and old age, and it has metamorphosed on occasion to accommodate changes in its environment. Buddhism's history of synthesis and adaptation led it to divide into three great branches (Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna) and a myriad of schools and movements. This entry reviews the relationship between politics and Buddhism from four perspectives. It first asks how the Buddhist tradition understands and defines political life and faith and examines to what extent Buddhists see the two as separate spheres. Second, it isolates historical developments in religious and political power in the Buddhist tradition, showing the sometimes complementary, sometimes competitive interaction of the two forces. Third, the article considers how this interaction still resonates in the Buddhist world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The article ends with a brief review of the impact of modernization and socioeconomic change on Buddhism's intersection with politics. Adapting to changing circumstances throughout history, Buddhism has sought to both protect and develop its place in the world to which it ministersincluding the often polarizing and spiteful realm of politics.

Defining Religion and Politics in a Buddhist Context

This article will define politics as the science or art of government and the management of state affairs, with the state in turn defined as an organized political community. In many cases nationalism has played a significant role in politics; this slippery concept may be defined as a sometimes chauvinistic devotion to an ethnic, religious, or political community, with a concomitant impetus to advance its interests and traditions, often at the expense of other communities. Turning to religion, we may venture that Buddhism, in all its various forms, includes at least two features: in Pali, one of its traditional classical languages (the other being Sanskrit), these are the "church" (sāsana ) and doctrine (dhamma; Sanskrit: dharma ). A third, more contemporary characteristic is Buddhist "culture" (e.g., Sinhala: bauddha sanskrutiya ). The aim of Buddhism is to help people find meaning in life. The religion has an institutional structurefor instance, the monastic sagha (Sanskrit: sagha ) for monks and nuns, as well as various sects or Nikāyas)but in essence it is a religion that teaches a state of mind, a way of being. Its doctrine is not primarily concerned with political systems or even social reform, which are considered to be irrelevant to salvation (Gombrich, p. 30). But history shows us that Buddhism has nonetheless been used to further political or sectarian goals, and some politicians have employed it as a vehicle to promote exclusivist, ethnically based nationalisms.

The relationship between Buddhism and politics, then, has been and continues to be a complex one, and it varies considerably among Asia's very diverse Buddhist communities. Politics in majority-Buddhist countries ranges from the relative freedom of expression enjoyed in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Japan to the repressions imposed on the citizens of Myanmar, the People's Republic of China, and North Korea. Notwithstanding the apolitical nature of the teachings of Gautama ākyamuni, the fifth-century-bce Buddha, and despite the stereotype of a passivist, non-aggressive dharma, it can be argued that the seeds of a political worldview exist in the Pali Canon, a scripture composed of three "baskets" or collections, which all Buddhists acknowledge as a primary source. Later Mahāyāna texts also have political significance; the Saddharmapundarīka Sūtra, for example, served as the key text for the modern Japanese Sōka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), while the Suvarnabhasottama Sūtra expounded on the duties of a righteous king. Additionally, quasi-historical "chronicles" such as Sri Lanka's Mahavamsa or Myanmar's Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, which purport to give further insight into the Buddha's missionary travels, express an often deep religious conviction linking the dharma to a state.

Although Buddhism's primary scriptures do not set down a precise political philosophy, a polysemous reading of the Pali Sutta Pitaka reveals a political ideal that complements the soteriological teachings of the Buddha. This soteriology rests on the central problem of painfulness (dukkha; Sanskrit duka ), to which Buddhism offers a practical solution, focused on life in the here and now. No eschatological dilemma or otherworldly goals preoccupy the Buddha; rather, his teachings rely primarily on seeing the facts of life as they are (yathabhuta-dassana ) and eradicating superstition and useless social practices through reason (takka ) and analysis (vibhajja ). Beyond this epistemological basis, however, there is a definite social dimension to Buddhist teachings: The Buddha not only asks how and what we know, but also what we should do, not only for ourselves but for the common good.

The Buddha's message against coarse craving (tanhā ) and the emotional cankers (āsava ) of greed, hatred, and delusion applies not only to the individual, but also carries implications for the collective well-being of the community. Aggression (patighanusaya ), indulgence (kamasukhalikanuyoga ), and other spiritual hazards regularly upset the equilibrium of peoples, states, and the world at large. Several texts (e.g., the Sigalovada Sutta and Dīgha-nikāya 3.180) set down a layperson's code of conduct (gihivinaya ) with regard to the society in which he or she lives. Two of the most significant sūtras dealing with what might loosely be described as political responsibility are the Cakkavattisihanada-sutta and the Aggañña Suttas (Dīgha-nikāya 3.58, 80). These texts treat the origin and development of the state and the rights and duties of both monarch and citizen. The model society and polity they present fosters ethical conduct and embodies a strong social ideal, which then guides the principal objectives of the state. Dīgha-nikāya 3.62 describes the ideal world-ruler, the "Celestial Wheelturning king," who uses his civil authority to promote righteousness and security. In this and other canonical passages, the recommendations go beyond the caste-based worldview behind Hindu statecraft and law codes (Arthaśāstra ). The Aggañña Sutta in particular urges equal rights and opportunities for all people simply as fellow members of humanity, irrespective of caste or race (see also Majjihima Nikāya 2. 85, 151, Dīgha-nikāya 1.99).

Based on these texts, one could argue that Buddhism charges the state and its citizens with the responsibility to maintain economic and social equality. Whether these texts can be seen as constituting a fully fledged political philosophy, however, is doubtful; nonetheless they do suggest that the state must not impede human freedom, and that both individual citizens and the polity as a whole should be allowed to evolve and mature. This is consistent with the Buddha's teaching that nothing is permanent, nor should anything rest on the basis of authority alone (Aguttara-nikāya 1. 189); both principles certainly apply to the state. More controversially, some scholars have tried to extrapolate from the Buddha's rule (vinaya ) for his monastic order (sagha )citing such practices as the pooling of resourcesto arrive at a proto-socialistic interpretation of Buddhist political doctrine in general, in which similarly communal principles would guide the state as a whole. Others emphasize the sagha's democratic character and argue that its traditions spilled over into various forms of assembly and village administration (see Joshi, p. 33). Yet although the Vinaya Piaka undoubtedly gives us a picture of an early Indian community of mendicants organized along "socialist" and even "democratic" lines, this cannot be taken as a political model for lay society. In sum, whereas the traditional Buddhist sagha was not concerned with politics, the Pali Canon arguably contains a political philosophy of a sort, derived from the Buddha's advice to rulers and citizens. The ideal of harmonious coexistence between the two and among the latter lies at the core of this philosophy, which also emphasizes the individual's right to pursue his or her fortune, but not at the expense of others (Anguttara Nikāya 2.95).

Politics and Buddhism are acknowledged as distinct entities in the canonical scripture, but with the rise of the Mauryan empire under Aśoka (c. 250 bce), the association between religion and state shifted subtly toward state leadership in religious affairs. A. L. Basham indicates this when he writes: "In place of the traditional policy of territorial expansion [Aśoka] substituted conquest by Righteousness (as we here inadequately translate by the very pregnant word dharma )" (1954, p. 54). The monarch's conversion to Buddhism and the subsequent widespread propagation of its values, including respectful veneration and oversight of the sagha, produced an important model of a Buddhist state and its relationship with Buddhist monastic orders. In due course, the sagha sought to assume a position to grant legitimacy to the state. And much later, a new three-fold "refuge" arose in parts of the Buddhist world to complement the traditional refuges (śāraa ) of the Buddha, dhamma and sagha. This new, inescapably political "refuge" consisted of country, national identity, and religionor as expressed in the state motto adopted by Cambodia's 1993 Constitution, "nation, religion, king."

Historical Development

Historically, Buddhism is considered to have developed more in concert than in conflict with political power. In fact, Trevor Ling has coined the term "royal Buddhism"to describe the increasingly symbiotic relationship between sagha and monarchy in the medieval period (though it was of course not wholly devoid of antagonism; see p. 133). By extension, the relationship between sagha and laity has been described as leading to a "mass politicization" of the Buddhist population (see Bechert, 1978, p. 16). The Theravāda polities of South and Southeast Asia provide good examples of this symbiosis of Buddhism and political authority. In addition to the well-developed Mon kingdoms of southern Burma and the central plain of the Chao Phraya (e.g., Dvaravati), Sri Lanka serves as an excellent example, with its celebrated story of the early Buddhist ideal "warrior-king" Dutthagamini (c. 150 bce). According to the story, he requested five hundred monks to accompany him as a "blessing and protection" or "merit-field" in his efforts to repel Tamil invaders; he is also said to have carried a relic of the Buddha on his own spear as an amulet (see Alice Greenwald in Bardwell Smith, 1978, p. 13). The Khmer court in ninth-through thirteenth-century Cambodia extravagantly endorsed a cult of Hindu-Buddhist divine kingship, which reached its apogee during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181c. 1215), who modeled his image of the Buddha in the Angkor temple of Bayon after himself. At his death in 1218 he received the title Mahaparamasaugata, or "the great and supreme Buddhist" (see Coedès, p. 172). Burma's Pagan period (c. 8001200 ce) was a golden age of the Buddhist monarchical ideal, represented by the Ananda temple (zedi ) built by King Kyanzittha (r. 10841113). Writing about this kingdom, which was centered around the upper Irrawaddy, Michael Aung Thwin observes

[T]he protective capacity of the state in twelfth and thirteenth-century Burma was a strong one; it was not a violent or chaotic society but an ordered and hierarchical one, concerned not with individual political freedom as a measure of happiness, but with social and political order, ruled not by independent lords and armies, but by a sovereign and his officials, and pacified by a [Buddhist] primate and his monks. (p. 96)

In the fourteenth-through eighteenth-century Lao kingdom (Lan Xang), the sagha legitimized what was perceived as a karmically justified kingly rule; in return they expected the king to meet their standards of just rule (dhammaraja ). In Sukhothai (middle Thailand, 12301378 ce), the respected king Rama Kamheng was a precursor of the royal Buddhism associated with the great Ratnakosin dynasty (1782present), in which the monarchs are not only the foremost sponsors of the Buddhist faith, but also symbols of national unity.

The function of the monarch

One feature common to most of these examples is the function of the monarch (clearly a "political" figure) as purifier and unifier of the Buddhist monastic order, as exemplified by the amalgamation of the Sinhalese sagha under Parakamabahu I (11531186 ce). In Mahāyāna Buddhist Asia, by contrast, Japan experienced the rise of powerful Buddhist temples and even armies of "priest-warriors" (sohei) from the time of Prince Regent Taishi Shōtoku (c. 600 ce). The Buddhist monk Nichiren's reforms (c. 1270 ce) and his promotion of the Saddharma-puarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra ) as an intrinsic aspect of national identityand of himself as something of a messiahresulted in a unique situation where "much religio-political capital was made of his inheritance in subsequent centuries" (see Harris, p. 15). In Tibet, the concept of the Buddhist monk (lama) as a political ruler originated with Sa skya Paita, who was made vice-regent to the Mongol khan Godan (1246 ce). This concept was reinforced when the head of the Dge lugs pa sect, the lama Sodnams Gyamtsho, received the honorific Dalai Lama from the Altan khan in 1578.

The Himalayan region

The traditional Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan are further interesting examples of the merging of religion with political order over a period of many centuries. In this regard, Nepal's polity has been dominated by a strong connection between the royal house and Hinduism for centuries. As recently as 1962, the Constitution referred to "the Hindu kingdom of Nepal," and although the 1990 Constitution no longer uses this language, the king (traditionally revered as an incarnation of Viu) is still identified as the "symbol of the nation." The majority of Nepal's diverse population being Hindu notwithstanding, Buddhism has also had a prominent place in Nepal's unique culture and sociology for over a millennium. Rose and Fisher (1970, p. 9) reflect on the many migrations that have affected Nepal over the centuries, their combined impact "encrusted with mythological lore." For example, the great Buddhist saint Milarepa (c. 1050 ce) is associated with several holy sites in Nepal. Tibetan Buddhism has clearly dominated entire communities, notably the high mountain peoples, Sherpas and Tamangs, and the Newar in the Valley of Nepal. What is remarkable is the close theological connection (including yogic practices and iconography) between Buddhism and Hinduism, something remarked on as far back as the seventh century ce by Hsüan Tsang. A sense of the contribution of Buddhism to Nepal's cultural and spiritual identity is everywhere apparent either in great historic structures (e.g., the Swayambhunath Stupa outside of Kathmandu), or in some of its contemporary leading personalities, such as the role of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the Nyingmapa terton, "discoverer of holy treasure" and founder of the Shechen temple.

Nonetheless, despite self-evident respect for Buddhism, the government of Nepal is careful not to permit politicization of the faith. Given the dominance of Tibetan forms of Buddhism in Nepal (other sects are present but of modest significance), and the always-sensitive proximity to China, no promotion of Tibetan political rights, or public veneration of the Dalai Lama for that matter, is permitted. Any suggestion of a pan-Himalayan Buddhist renaissance is alarming to the dominant Hindu communities and the regional super powers. Apart from the occasional anomaly (e.g., a Tibetan Buddhist exile guerrilla presence in Mustang), Buddhism has no political role to play in contemporary Nepal.

Neighboring Sikkim is the smallest of the traditional Himalayan Buddhist polities, ruled in recent centuries by an absolute Buddhist monarchy associated with the Namgyal family, which in turn traced its roots to the ninth-century Minvang dynasty of eastern Tibet's Chumbi Valley. Nyingmapa Buddhism was the faith of the early Tibetan migrants to Sikkim, the Bhutia people, and became the state religion. In the seventeenth century, a Minvang prince, Phuntsok Namgyal, became Sikkim's king (chogyal). The last of his lineage was the twelfth chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, who died in 1982. In time, other indigenous communities (e.g., Lepcha, Gurung, Rai) accepted both Namgyal dynastic rule and Buddhism. After years of interfering with its affairs, and alarmed by continuing border problems with China, in 1975 India annexed Sikkim. Even before Sikkim became India's twenty-second state, the era of Buddhist cultural dominance was already compromised by a longstanding migration of Hindu Nepalis, which began in the British period and has continued unabated. But Indian sovereignty has not crushed Sikkim's Buddhist spirit or cultural identity, and New Delhi conscientiously supports the maintenance of chortens (stupas) and sites of Sikkimese historical and spiritual importance. Sikkim's monarchial collapse has left Bhutan as the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom and, in a sense, curator of a once widespread religio-political world view and civilization.

Tradition claims that Bhutan (Druk Yul) was converted to Buddhism by the storied Indian saint Padmasambhava in the eighth century ce. The faith was reinforced by the arrival of the great Nyingmapa teacher, Guru Rinpoche, from Tibet. A specific Buddhist polity emerged only in the seventeenth century when a Tibetan Kagyupa monk, Ngawang Namgyal, took on the title Shadrung ("at whose feet one submits"). Apart from centralizing authority, he set down a legal system and promoted the building of religious structures. Thus began a Buddhist state that functioned for 270 years based on a shared rule between a religious leader thought to be the Shandung's reincarnation (je khenpo ) and a secular authority (the Deb Raja). A British presence from 1864 was unobtrusive and the country essentially escaped an interfering colonial experience. In 1907, in response to the perceived political needs of the time by both religious and civil leaders, a monarchial system was introduced. Hereditary kings from the Wangchuck family formed the basis of an erastian Buddhist polity which is still in place. The kings have been capable rulers, and although an advisory national assembly (tshoghu ) was introduced in 1951, when the prime minister was assassinated in 1964, his office was never replaced. The present king, the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was consecrated monarch by the je khenpo in 1972. As his predecessors, the king wears as part of his regal garments a saffron scarf (kabne ), the mark of a Buddhist ruler, and an item shared only with the je khenpo.

Unlike the destabilized Nepal monarchy (ruinously cut down in 2001 by a deranged crown prince), the Bhutan royal house appears educated, and realistic about the pressures of modernity. Bhutan isolated itself in the mid-twentieth century from the backpackers, counter-culture visitors, and other effects of globalization. It kept India at arm's length through prudent foreign policy, and has independently and forcefully attacked various Indian secessionist organizations that periodically seek refuge in Bhutan's borders. Many challenges remain, notably widespread illegal immigration and imported political notions contrary to a traditional Buddhist monarchy, no matter how progressive. Bhutan has shown the benefits of this kind of rule. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has, as one commentator notes, "enlightened but constrained attitudes towards progress and development" (Crossette, 1995, p. 182). This, along with a sagha active in welfare and development activities, suggests an ultimately successful and enduring Buddhist state.

Colonial experience

Another essential feature of this formative historical period is Buddhist nationalism in the context of the colonial experience. Although nationalism is often associated with political events in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, Buddhist nationalism in Asia arose very early. "In this way," writes Heinz Bechert, "a form of nationalism originated in ancient Ceylon which was rather close to modern nationalism with its conceptions of a united nation with common linguistic, cultural and religious traditions" (1978, p. 8). Steven Kemper (p. 17) shows that a "full-fledged set of identities" was in place in Sri Lanka a thousand years before the colonial era, and that some of the same conditions applied as well to the "theater states" and "galactic polities" of premodern South and Southeast Asia. In virtually all of these instances, Buddhism played a prominent role in nurturing national identity and was thus implicated in the political repercussions of the rise of nationalism.

With the advent of colonialism the autonomous Buddhist world faced increasing confusion and doubt. The eighteenth century brought British incursions into the subcontinent, while the next century saw the establishment of French hegemony in Indochina. Japanese colonial expansion into Korea, Manchuria, and Formosa (18951945) brought different forms of Buddhism into these countries. A takeover by Buddhist Japan created much less of a culture shock, though, than did Victorian Christian imperialism, which attacked the emerging sense of national uniqueness and purpose in British-occupied Asian countries, and thereby also disrupted the intimate and still developing connection between Buddhism and political identity. In many cases religious identity fuelled political reactions to imperialism (see Pye, p. 91). In general, the faith retained its hold over the majority of believers, contributing to a religious revival that nurtured struggles for independence. Siam (Thailand) alone escaped foreign subjugation, largely through the capable statecraft of three perceptive monarchs who ruled the country between 1851 and 1925: Mongkut (later Rama IV), Chulalongkorn, and Vajiravudh. These monarchs were realists who acknowledged the need to modernize their country, to that end accepting those foreign values and technologies they deemed useful. At the same time, however, they centralized both the polity and the sagha, bringing the religion directly under the control of what was quickly becoming a modern nation state (see Ishii, p. 47).

By contrast, the government of Burma, long isolationist and introverted, was completely unprepared to meet the ideological and intellectual challenges of colonialism and modernization. Burma-centrism, supported by a mythological cosmology, had given the Burmese "a disproportionate overestimation of their own power" (Sarkisyanz, p. 99). Buddhism emerged as the only foundation upon which to build a Burmese national consciousness, as various nationalist groups, including "heritage protection" (wuthanu athin ), and monks such as U Wissera and U Ottama assumed quasi-political leadership roles. Buddhist millenarian expectationscentered around the set kya min or Restorer of the Golden Age, the future Buddha who would reestablish the perfect societyaccompanied Burmese nationalism, as did elements of magic and sorcery such as the notion of yadaya chay, or "outwitting fate by prompt action." (In fact, these ideas have persisted into the twenty-first century, and they still resound in the corridors of political power in Myanmar). In Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), the British initially found it politically expedient to grant state protection to Buddhism, but Christian missionary agitation led the crown to withdraw this protection in 1853. This created an immediate vacuum, with which the sagha was unable to cope. Only in the latter part of the nineteenth century did Sinhalese Buddhism assume a proactive posture, under such individuals as Anagārika Dharmapāla (18641933) and the American convert Col. Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), who inspired a Buddhist political renaissance.

Buddhism and Politics in the Postcolonial Era

The political position of Buddhism at the end of the colonial era created institutional arrangements and led to events that still resonated decades later. After Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948, its sagha directly entered into political life, issuing a declaration of intent via Vidyālankara, a leading Buddhist seminary. The declaration broadly defined the expectations for the sagha 's activity beyond the monastery, and the Ven. Walpola Rahula's still much-cited work Bhiksuvage Urumaya (Heritage of the Bhikkhu, 1946) offered further guidance. Both maintained that the modern monk, alert to the decline of Buddhist influence in national affairs, should see political engagement as a responsibility. The initiative also promoted a doctrine of Sinhalese distinctiveness, leading to what Tessa Bartholomeusz has called a "marriage of religion and ethnicity" (p. 78). This marriage spurred the creation of a number of politicized Sinhala Buddhist societies and nationalist (deshapremi ) groups, which at times have had significant influence over state affairs. No Sri Lankan head of state could afford to marginalize Buddhism without jeopardizing his or her power. Some couched their political aims in grandiose religio-political language, as did President J. R. Jayawardene in his 1978 dharmishta, or righteous policy objectives. Others, such as Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989), used Sri Lanka's royal past to legitimate their authority, symbolically standing on the once-royal dais at Kandy's Temple of the Tooth.

Religio-cultural issues also run deep in Myanmar, where in 1962 a rogue military junta seized power from the pro-Buddhist government of Prime Minister U Nu, who had styled himself as the Mahathammada or true leader of Buddhism. The new dictatorship forced the long-autonomous sagha to conform to strict government control. As elsewhere in Buddhist Asia, Burmese political rulers rewarded cooperative monks, and the ruling junta frequently "makes merit" through major public demonstrations of institutional support for the faith, seeking to justify its rule to a skeptical and downtrodden society. Widespread but usually unvoiced sympathy among the sagha for the dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi periodically erupts into public demonstrations. For a month in 1990, for instance, monks "turned over the begging bowl" (patta ni kauz za na kan ) to military personnel in political protest, an extraordinary manifestation of Buddhism's quiet influence, even under military tyranny. In Vietnam, where French colonialism led to a society divided between Buddhists and Roman Catholics, the 1930s saw a Buddhist renaissance that accelerated with the struggle for independence, particularly after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. President Ngo Dinh Diem's overt partiality to Catholicism at a time of intense nationalist fervor alienated Buddhists, who were refused a public voice. Vietnam's sagha never demanded a "Buddhist" government, but through their actions they sought to awaken a humanitarian and nationalist consciousness in their country. Most famously, in June 1963 Ven. Thich Quang-Du'c burned himself to death in Saigon to call attention to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people. Other monks followed with similar ritual deaths, which devotees characterize as acts of heroism.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has noted, "in every Buddhist the ideas of Buddhism and nationalism are intertwined and cannot be easily separated" (p. 45, 107). In Vietnam, however, Ho Chi Minh's victorious Communist Party sought to harness Vietnamese nationalism to support its own ideology. Their claim to a monopoly on both politics and Vietnamese consciousness robbed Buddhism of any critical social or political voice. Indeed, the government sought to bring Buddhism under its control by establishing a single, state-sponsored Vietnamese national Buddhist sagha (Giao Hoi Phat Giao Viet Nam). Although communist governments in Vietnam, China, and North Korea continue to tolerate Buddhism, they never invite it to play a role either in political power or in defining official national ideology. Non-communist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka have often enshrined Buddhism in their constitutions, but only to patronize or protect it or to secure its place in what Bartholomeusz calls "Buddhist secularism" (p. 5). Here, as in the communist countries, the state does not envision an active political role for Buddhism or its clergy.

Effects of Modernization and Globalization

As R. N. Bellah points out, modernization is not simply a matter of adopting new technologies; it also involves a "modernization of the soul" (1965, p. 196). In early-twentieth-century Asia, Buddhists often adopted concepts imported from the West, such as social welfare or socialism, and adapted them to their own countries' circumstances, endowing them with a distinctive, indigenous vigor. In Japan, the Sōka Gakkai lay sect of Nichiren Buddhism exemplifies this process; through its influential leftist Clean Government Party (Kōmeitō, founded 1964), it pushes for the establishment of a welfare state to secure the health and material well-being of lower social classes. What is now referred to as "engaged Buddhism" has its roots in the late nineteenth century; in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, "engaged" Buddhist thinkers and activists such as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, Tibet's Dalai Lama, Thailand's Sulak Sivaraksa, and Sri Lanka's A. T. Ariyaratna have used the faith to respond to a host of issues brought on by modernization and globalization. In a unique response to the devastation of their country's environment, some Thai monks have "ordained" trees otherwise doomed to be cut down. Among the other issues Buddhism must grapple with are rampant consumerism, the deluge of Western popular culture, and political tyranny, often supported or simply ignored by the international community. It is no exaggeration to claim that "Buddhism in contemporary Asia means energetic engagement with social and political issues and crises at least as much as it means monastic or meditative withdrawal" (Queen, p. ix).

Referring to Buddhism's long association with a wide array of cultures, regimes, and governments, Thich Nhat Hanh is surely correct when he writes that "the forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence of Buddhism remains unchanged" (p. 94). In principle, the religion remains ready to offer political guidance and criticism, without seeking theocratic power or adherence to any type of dogmatic fundamentalism.

See Also

Colonialism and Postcolonialism.


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Smith, Bardwell L. Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka. Chambersburg, Pa., 1978.

Smith, Bardwell L. Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Chambersburg, Pa., 1978. A reliable series of essays on various aspects of Buddhism and politics in Southeast Asia.

Smith, Donald Eugene. Religion and Politics in Burma. Princeton, N.J., 1965. A good historical account of the turbulent premilitary government era in Burma (Myanmar).

Snellgrove, David. Himalayan Pilgrimage. Boston, 1989.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.

Suksamran, Somboon. Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The Role of the Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand. London, 1977.

Swearer, Donald K. Buddhism in Transition. 2d, exp. ed. Philadelphia, 1970. An overview of Buddhism's adaptation to change in South and Southeast Asia.

Tambiah, Stanley. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1976.

Bruce Matthews (2005)

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