Nationalism and Buddhism

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Buddhists traditionally maintained close ties with established political authority, which typically meant kingship. When the global system of nation-states began to develop in earnest during the nineteenth century, Buddhists too began to engage in nationalist imaginings. The linear, progressive, and essentialist concept of nation is a modern construct. Researchers have attributed the following characteristics to nationalism: global industrialization, the development of print capitalism and of modern science and technology, and the pursuit of status and respect.

There is an affinity between modernity and nationalism and between Buddhism and nationalism. For example, "Zen nationalism" was born through the process of interaction between Japanese Buddhism and Western modernity. As a way of defending Buddhism during the Meiji Buddhist reform, the Japanese created what they termed New Buddhism, a "modern, cosmopolitan, humanistic, and socially responsible" form of the tradition (Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism,"p. 247). Robert Sharf notes that the contemporary version of Zen Buddhism is an offspring of this New Buddhism. Japanese Zen Buddhists employed Western discourse to create the new tradition and eventually presented it as being superior to Western modernity. This universalizing discourse of Zen implied the cultural superiority of Japanese Buddhism.

Similarly, the universalism of religion and the particularism of nationalism go hand in hand, despite their apparent differences. Religion remains a strong force, if not an active accomplice, in the formation of nationalism. Kenneth Wells points out that Korean Protestants, for example, had no difficulty in retaining their identities as both Koreans and Protestants. Korean Protestants fused their religion and nationalism by trying to incorporate their Christian beliefs into the process of nation building. The same may also be said for Buddhist nationalism.

Buddhist responses

During the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, most Buddhists in Sri Lanka, China, Korea, and Japan faced similar political and social changes due to the colonial expansion of the West. To these Asian Buddhists, who had theretofore enjoyed stability, Western invasions initiated crises that threatened the survival of the religion. The rapid influx of Western civilization brought about chaotic disturbances to the traditional social and political equilibrium; Asian Buddhists could no longer enjoy their privileged status in the traditional order. Some Asian intellectuals began to believe that their traditional religions, including Buddhism, were superstitious and backward, and thus obstacles to the modernization process. Under these circumstances, Buddhist institutions throughout Asia soon became the target of attack and they found themselves surrounded by rapidly secularizing societies.

The survival of Buddhism depended largely on the capability and willingness of Buddhists to adapt their religion not only to Western modernity but also to the new political structure of nation-states that emerged as a result of interaction with the West. In particular, the rapid dissemination of Christianity awakened Buddhists to the imminent nature of the challenges they were facing. Whether Buddhism could demonstrate its viability in this new context became a pivotal point for the continuance of the religion.

Buddhists participated in nationalist movements, often embracing nationalism in the name of modernization. Buddhism was reappropriated in terms of issues central to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, namely, anticlericism, this-worldly engagement, rational and pragmatic inclination, and individualism. In this process of reappropriation, religious identity was formed and intensified. The emergence of religious identity instilled national pride in many Buddhists. Buddhism was regarded as their indigenous heritage vis-à-vis the imported Western religion of Christianity.

In Sri Lanka, the challenge of Christian missionaries sharpened the Buddhist sense of self-identity. It took much time and prolonged attack from Christian missionaries before the Sinhala Buddhists entered into polemical debates with them. Before the 1860s Buddhists did not react in any organized way to the hostile attacks of Christianity. With the developing self-awareness prompted by the need to respond to Christian inroads, however, Buddhists began to refute the coexistence of variant religious practices that characterized their traditional religion. Buddhists tried to purge such popular elements as spirit cults, magic, and astrology from their practices. They took a fundamentalist approach, attempting to return to what they considered to be canonical Buddhism.

Furthermore, the history of organized Buddhism in Sri Lanka was identified with the history of the nation, and Buddhism was promoted as a way to defend the

nation from the colonial West. AnagĀrika DharmapĀla (1864–1933), a lay celibate, urged the Sinhalese to restore their true identity as Buddhists by discarding foreign influences. Buddhist intellectuals adopted nationalism in order to confer cultural identity and ethnic consciousness on the Sinhalese.

In China, under the name of modernization, the state campaigned to eradicate "superstitious" practices and to convert religious properties for public purposes. The late Qing dynasty (1644–1911) targeted Buddhist properties as financial resources to rebuild the country and to defend against the threat imposed by Western imperial powers. The Chinese Buddhist establishment, which already had suffered severe devastation during the Taiping rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, faced the persistent recurrence of violence. The state withdrew its official protection of Buddhism in 1900 and issued a general order to convert temple property to schools.

Under these circumstances, Chinese Buddhists also presented Buddhism as their traditional religion and attempted to use their religion to counterbalance the challenges of Christianity and Western cultural encroachment. Liang Qichao (1873–1929) contended that the Chinese made Buddhism their own by creating their own indigenous schools of Buddhist philosophy and practice. In his presentation of the tradition, Chinese Buddhism encompassed both philosophical and religious attributes, while Christianity rested on the delusive beliefs of a shallow philosophy.

In Japan, the Meiji state (1868–1912) supported the active importation of Western civilization. Under the guise of modernization, the state inflicted severe blows to the Buddhist establishment. Starting in the mid-seventeenth century, anti-Buddhist measures had begun in individual domains. The Meiji government carried out these anti-Buddhist policies nationwide, equating Buddhism with the previous Tokugawa regime and forging a distinctive Shintō national ideology by separating Shintō from Buddhism. The Office of Proselytization was set up by Shintō propagandists in 1869 to promote Shintō as the national creed. The separation of Buddhism and Shintō led to a massive anti-Buddhist movement that resulted in the destruction of great numbers of Buddhist institutions. The government further developed its policy of disestablishing Buddhism in 1871 and 1872.

Japanese Buddhists offered their services to the government in order to soften the ongoing persecution. They tried to prove Buddhism's value by supporting national policies. Japanese Buddhists claimed that Buddhism was the indigenous religious practice of Japan and that the Japanese version of the religion was the consummation of all previous developments within Asian Buddhism. They also promoted Buddhism as a way to defend their nation against the incursions of Christianity. Along with growing nationalist sentiments, they identified themselves as protectors of Japanese tradition against the encroachments of Western culture, including Christianity.

Korean Buddhists developed their sense of national identity around the turn of the twentieth century, beginning with the opening of the nation to the Western world in 1876 and the subsequent colonization by Japan in 1910. Awakened by the influx of Western modernity, and threatened by the rapid growth of Christianity and Japanese Buddhism on the peninsula, Korean Buddhists developed a sense of their own independent identity. They attempted to present Buddhism as a source of national identity by identifying it as the backbone of Korean history and culture. They began to consolidate their own identity as distinct from that of Japanese Buddhists, in particular, and to write their own history.

Overall, Buddhist nationalism arose in response to the influx of Western civilization. Buddhists presented the religion as being useful to the nation and reclaimed its status as a traditional religion, in opposition to the imported Christian traditions of the West.

The problematic nature of Buddhist nationalism

For an understanding of Buddhist nationalism, however, a more nuanced approach is needed. When the ethnicity of the rulers was the same as that of the governed, Buddhist nationalism posed no difficulties. Japanese Buddhists, for instance, became faithful followers of state policies, identifying themselves with the nation-state. By the mid-Meiji period, Buddhism managed to present itself as the essence of Japanese culture. Buddhist leaders actively joined the state's military policies. They endorsed and rationalized imperial policies during the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904). They sent war missionaries to the battlefields to comfort soldiers. They also organized the Buddhist Society for the Defense of the Nation during World War I and became involved in the state's war effort during the Pacific War.

In contrast, Buddhists under colonial governments displayed confusing behaviors in their development of nationalism. The Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, for example, pursued formal recognition from, and the patronage of, the colonial government. They asked persistently for state intervention in the maintenance and supervision of Buddhist temporalities. Kitsiri Malalgoda suggests that these ties with foreign rulers account for the fact that the Sinhala Buddhist revival movements did not develop into a concerted movement for national independence. The Chinese saṄgha also showed ambivalence when their religious interests and national interests diverged. Chinese monasteries voluntarily subjected themselves to Japanese Buddhist schools to protect their property. They rushed to register their monasteries with major Japanese Buddhist denominations to solicit protection from the Japanese consulate. The Chinese saṅgha was accused of collaborating with the Japanese after the Japanese commenced a campaign of military conquest in 1937.

During the colonial period, the Korean Buddhist saṅgha also maintained close ties with the Japanese regime, seeking favors from it. The majority of Korean Buddhist leaders tacitly or overtly acquiesced to the Japanese policy of "Japan and Korea Are One Entity," which aimed to eradicate Korean identity. Some Korean monks gave lectures in support of the Japanese war effort during the 1940s and even made consolatory visits to the Japanese imperial army, submitting to the demands of the Japanese regime.

The political ambivalence and impotence of Buddhists resulted in liaisons with those in power, no matter who they were. Japanese Buddhists followed imperialist policies out of their collective interest in protecting their establishments and in consonance with their traditional subservience to political authority. The saṅgha's traditional dependence on the ruling court produced further confusion among Sinhala, Chinese, and Korean Buddhists. This ambivalence toward the state attests to the complexity of Buddhist nationalism.

This complexity derives partly from the fact that the concept of nation is unstable and a source of contention. There are many different versions of nation and nationalism, such as the nation-state and the "ethnic nation." Japanese Buddhists identified the state with nation, faithfully supporting its policies. In comparison, Sri Lanka developed its own version of nation, while recognizing the confinement of the colonial state. Likewise, Korean Buddhists also separated nation from state. At the same time, the Japanese colonial state did not entirely deny the development of ethnic nationalism, as long as the nation-state was not threatened. After 1930 the Japanese regime even participated in the creation of national identity for Koreans. For the efficient operation of the nation-state, the Japanese colonial government felt that it needed to create homogeneous national subjects, even as it treated Koreans as second-class citizens.

Asian Buddhists forged their religious identity and redefined the role of Buddhism in response to Western modernity and the concept of the nation-state. Buddhists adopted social tactics and nationalist stances in order to prove the utility of the religion, so that the status of Buddhism in society would be improved. The accommodations they reached with colonial powers, however, account for the Buddhists' insensitivity to, and occasional collaborations with, imperial war, social injustice, and military occupation.

See also:Christianity and Buddhism; Colonialism and Buddhism; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism


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Pori Park

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Nationalism and Buddhism