Colonialism and Buddhism

views updated


If colonialism is defined specifically as the enforced occupation of a region or control of a population, subsequently maintained through either direct coercion or cultural and ideological hegemony, then Buddhist societies and cultures have been both subject to, and agents of, colonialism throughout the centuries. A good example of the association of Buddhism with colonial expansionism can be found, for instance, in the development of certain forms of Buddhist nationalism in Japan in the modern era. During the period of the Meiji Restoration in Japan (1868–1912), Japan became an increasingly powerful presence in East Asia as a result of its victories in the Sino-Japanese (1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904–1905) wars and its emergence on the world stage as a modern nation-state. As an imperial power Japan also annexed Korea (1910) and invaded Manchuria (1931), eventually losing control of these regions after its defeat in World War II.

Buddhism as a justification for colonialism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Buddhist figures, such as Kimura Shigeyuki and Mitsui Koshi, upheld the Japanese nation not only as the culmination of Buddhist cultural development, but also as a legitimating factor in Japanese imperial policies. In this context Buddhist nationalist movements and key figures such as the Zen teacher Sōen Shaku (1859–1919) often justified Japanese military expansionism in terms of the missionary spread of Buddhist teachings and the "upholding of humanity and civilization" (Soen; see Sharf). According to Tanaka Chigaku (1861–1939), a lay Buddhist follower inspired by Nichiren, the Buddhist teaching reached its fulfillment in the particular form of the Japanese nation. This, he argued, created a duty on the part of Japan to spread its own (MahĀyĀna) form of the Buddha's teachings to the rest of the world, with the explicit aim of transforming the world into a "vast Buddhist country." In 1914 Chigaku founded the "National Pillar Society," a nationalist movement concerned with a spiritual and moral regeneration of Japan, and attracted a number of followers, including Ishihara Kanji (1893–1981), the military mastermind behind the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

Modern Japanese examples of the commingling of Buddhist tradition and culture with ultranationalist and colonialist motivations are striking but not unique in Buddhist history, especially when the line between national or ethnic allegiance and Buddhist affiliation becomes blurred. In the Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle), a Sinhalese Buddhist chronicle emerging from the Mahāvihāra Buddhist sect of Anurādhapura, the story of King Duṭṭhagāmaṇī's conquests in Sri Lanka, the slaughter of his opponents, and the colonization of the entire island are all justified on the grounds that the non-Buddhists are in fact "not human." This justification and account of the island's history is, of course, all but impossible to reconcile with the Buddha's own emphasis upon compassion and nonviolence. The Mahāvaṃsa, however, has played a significant role in underpinning the modern historical consciousness of the Sinhalese people and the rise of some of the more aggressive forms of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism (Sinhalatva) in the twentieth century.

The colonization of Buddhist societies

On a broader historical scale, however, Buddhist societies have generally been subject to, rather than an explicit motivating force behind, colonial expansionism. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, for instance, has resulted in an aggressively pursued policy designed to suppress Tibetan Buddhist culture and institutions in line with the antireligious stance of the Chinese Communist regime. One consequence of this, of course, has been the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora to India and the West in the late twentieth century, most notably that of the Dalai Lama, often referred to as "the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people," and currently living in exile in Dharamsala in northern India. From the point of view of the ruling Communist Party of China the colonization of Tibet is little more than a reoccupation of Chinese lands that has afforded the liberation of the Tibetan people "from serfdom." It is clear, however, that the history of Tibet, partly for reasons of geographical isolation, but also because of its long Buddhist history, represents a highly distinctive culture and polity and has many affinities with South Asian culture and traditions.

The sixteenth to twentieth centuries witnessed the colonization of large parts of the globe by Europeans on a scale that was historically unprecedented. European colonialism has left an indelible mark upon the ways in which Asian Buddhists experience "modernity" and their own sense of cultural, national, and religious identity.

On May 27, 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the southwest coast of India. This was a turning point in the history of Asia and Europe. There had, of course, been interaction between Asia and Europe since long before the common era (e.g., along the Silk Road), but not to the extent that was precipitated by da Gama's arrival. Portugal, sanctioned by the Vatican to expand the Christian empire to the East, established an early monopoly in the exploration of Asian territories and the plundering of Asian resources. Gradually, however, there was wider European involvement in the exploration and colonization of the Asian world. The spread of the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe allowed for a challenge to the Portuguese monopoly, based as it was upon papal sanction. In the 1590s, for instance, the Dutch took control of much of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Indonesia. The British were excluded from Indonesia and so concentrated on consolidating their interests on the Indian mainland and in Ceylon and Burma. The French established a few bases on the subcontinent (such as in Pondicherry on the southeast coast of India) but turned the main focus of their attention to Indochina (mainly Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

In broad terms, there were two main waves of Western influence upon Asian Buddhism during the colonial period. First, the effect of widespread Christian missionary activity by Europeans, and then later the impact of Western secular models of nationalism and scientific rationalist philosophies. Both waves precipitated a complex series of responses, leading to the rise of Buddhist nationalism and what some scholars have called "Protestant Buddhism" (Gombrich and Obeyesekere) or "Buddhist modernism" (Bechert) and the development of a variety of syntheses between traditional Buddhist values and contemporary ideologies such as Marxism, free-market capitalism, and scientific empiricism.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the independence gained by many former colonies in South and Southeast Asia left a political vacuum into which stepped a variety of indigenous interest groups and political movements. Some of these movements involve implicit (and sometimes explicit) appeal to Buddhist traditions and values in the formulation of their stances. One feature of this has been the rise of Buddhist forms of nationalist politics of varying ideological shades. "Buddhist socialism," for instance, developed as a political force in states such as Cambodia and Burma. Despite some misgivings by the sizable ethnic minority groups, Burma, under the leadership of U Nu, recognized Buddhism as the country's official state religion in 1961. A military coup under General Ne Win quickly ensued in 1962, however, leading to the establishment of a more radical left-wing military regime and the disestablishment of Buddhism. Burma (renamed Myanmar) remains under military rule, although this has not prevented the development of pro-democracy movements, focused mainly upon the inspirational figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for peace and herself inspired by Buddhist principles in her campaign for democratic elections. Similarly, in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Buddhist nationalist movements have played a significant role in postindependence politics. The Sri Lankan example serves as an illustration of the impact of European colonialism upon indigenous Buddhist traditions and institutions.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Dutch controlled much of Ceylon and Indonesia. Economic inducements were offered to local "heathens" to convert to Christianity, and this effort was combined with vigorous missionary polemics against the "idolatrous" and superstitious practices of the Buddhists. In 1711 the Dutch issued a proclamation in Ceylon that explicitly forbade Christian involvement in "the ceremonies of heathenism," with the penalty of a public flogging and a year's imprisonment for those found engaging in such practices. In 1795 the British first appeared on the coast and by 1815 they had annexed the whole island.

Three factors have been crucial in the colonial transformation of indigenous Asian subjectivities: the reconfiguration of politics and civil society under colonial rule, the transformation of modes of educating the population, and the role of the printing press in the dissemination of ideas among the indigenous population. In the case of Ceylon, the key factor was the introduction of the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of the 1830s, which sought to unify the political economy of the island, promote laissez-faire capitalism, and establish a national educational framework to be delivered through the medium of the English language. These changes led to the development of a new middle class within Sinhalese society that was educated in English and empowered by the new social, economic, and political reforms. This was to have a profound effect upon the Sinhalese population's appreciation of its Buddhist heritage (Scott; Gombrich and Obeyesekere). Similar processes were underway throughout the colonized regions of southeast Asia at this time.

The first printing press was introduced to Ceylon by the Dutch in 1736 and was immediately put to use in the printing of local vernacular translations of Christian texts and, later, classical European literature. In a speech to the Methodist Missionary Society Committee, on October 3, 1831, D. J. Gogerly outlined the importance of the printing press as a vehicle for undermining the authority of indigenous Buddhist traditions. Gogerly stated that "at present, it is by means of the Press [that] our principal attacks must be made upon this wretched system…. Wemust direct our efforts to pull down the stronghold of Satan." Gogerly was a missionary in Ceylon for forty-four years and also worked as a translator of the Pali Buddhist scriptures into English. It was not until 1862, however, that, as a result of a gift from the king of Siam (now Thailand), Sinhalese Buddhists themselves gained access to a printing press and were thus able to disseminate their own materials and literature to the native population.

The establishment of a uniform educational system by the European colonizers tended to promote European Christian forms of education and literacy, either through the direct medium of European languages or by the study of European and Christian literature in vernacular translations. The curriculum and agenda in this context usually involved the teaching of Euro-Christian values alongside mathematics, science, and a Eurocentric version of history. The overall effect of taking the burden of educating the population away from the Buddhist monastic communities, where it constituted one of the traditional roles of the bhikkhus, was to undermine the status of the saṄgha within society. Later the number of Christian missionary schools declined and secular government schools increased in number. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, a reformist spirit developed within Buddhist circles, partly in response to the criticisms of Christian missionary groups, which sought to reform the sanṅgha. In Ceylon, with the help of the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and his Buddhist Theosophical Society (founded in 1880), three higher education institutes and some two hundred Buddhist high schools were set up to protect and preserve the study of the Buddhist tradition.

Orientalism and the rise of "Protestant Buddhism"

Many of the westernized middle-class groups that emerged in Southeast Asia as a result of European colonial reforms first encountered their own Buddhist traditions through the mediating lenses of European textbooks, literature, and translations of Buddhist sacred texts. This reflects an important factor in under-standing the way in which Buddhism develops and is presented in the modern era, namely the role of "Buddhist studies" as a Western academic enterprise and the enormous authority accorded to Western scholars and texts in representing Buddhism during the colonial era (King; Lopez). Western interest in under-standing Asian civilizations precipitated a "discovery" and translation of Buddhist sacred texts into modern European languages. Western scholars, however, generally replicated a series of basic Christian assumptions in their approach to Buddhism (Almond; King). There was a strong tendency to emphasize Buddhist sacred texts as the key feature in determining the nature of Buddhism as a religious tradition. This approach tended to ignore Buddhist traditions as changing historical phenomena and also underplayed the role of ritual practices and local networks and beliefs in the preservation and renewal of Buddhist forms of life. Buddhist sacred literature has traditionally been revered in Asian societies, but this reverence rarely led to a depreciation of local practices and beliefs that were not found in the ancient canonical literature. Buddhism as a living tradition tended to be either ignored or denigrated by Orientalist scholars as a corruption of the original teachings.

This attitude had a profound effect upon the emerging middle-class elites of Asian societies in the nineteenth century. This was the case even for nations that were not subject to European colonization such as Japan (Sharf) and Thailand, illustrating perhaps that modernist reformism is not simply a by-product of European colonialism. In a Southeast Asian context, "Protestant" influence can be seen most clearly in the views of reformist leaders such as AnagĀrika DharmapĀla (born David Hewavitarane, 1864–1933) in Sri Lanka and Sayadaw U Ottama (d. 1921) in Burma. Both emphasized the need for a "Buddhist Reformation" in order to overcome what they saw as the decadence of the "superstitious ritualism" of folk or "village" Buddhism. This also involved a call for the saṅgha to become more socially reformist and service-oriented with regard to the needs of lay society. The trends can be seen to involve a number of "Protestant" elements. First, there is the desire to return to the purity of the Buddha's original teachings, bereft of popular superstitions. Second, there is an emphasis on bringing an understanding of Buddhist sacred literature directly to the people as the basis for understanding the Buddha's message. Finally, there is also an emphasis upon "this-worldly asceticism" to be manifested through acts of social service and in some cases political activism by the monks.

Although Western influence is evident in all of these trends one should be careful not to read such reformist projects merely as mirrored responses to a European Christian agenda. This would be to erase the indigenous aspects of such responses. "Protestant Buddhism," if one can call it that, not only reflected the impact of European ideas upon Asian Buddhists, but also represented indigenous protestations against European colonialism and the claim that Western civilization was morally and spiritually superior to Buddhism. The promotion of a socially oriented ethic, while clearly a response to centuries of Christian missionary criticism of Buddhism as a world-denying tradition, was firmly grounded in Buddhist notions of compassionate service to all. A key shift that began during this period (and which provided the intellectual foundation for what has since become known as "engaged Buddhism") was the rearticulation of traditional Buddhist goals, such as nirvĀṆa, in sociopolitical and often explicitly anticolonial terms. In Burma, for instance, the monk and political activist U Ottama explicitly linked the attainment of liberation to freedom from social, economic, and colonial oppression. In the 1940s this link was rearticulated by Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) in the notion of a "mundane liberation" (lokanibbāṇa) of the Burmese people from British colonial rule (Houtman). The latter half of the twentieth century saw the end of European imperialism and the establishment of independent states in the former Asian colonies. In this context the process of understanding the effects that centuries of European colonial influence had upon Buddhist civilization and its significance has only just begun.

See also:Christianity and Buddhism; Communism and Buddhism; Modernity and Buddhism; Nationalism and Buddhism


Almond, Philip. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Bechert, Heinz. "The Buddhist Revival in East and West." In The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, ed. Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Gombrich, Richard, and Obeyesekere, Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1999.

King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and "the Mystic East." London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Ling, Trevor. Buddhism, Imperialism, and War: Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.

Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Sharf, Robert. "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism." In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995.

Sōen (Soyen), Shaku. Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot: Addresses on Religious Subjects, tr. D. T. Suzuki. New York: Weiser, 1971 (originally published 1906).

Tambiah, Stanley. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Richard King