Vesak is the day which celebrates the historical Buddha’s life and its four great milestones, and this mandate is shared by all Buddhists regardless of regional practices and local customs. It was celebrated just last month in May, even though exact dates can vary due to the different lunisolar calendars used to calculate the date of Buddha Purnima. The festival is an extraordinary thread linking Buddhist communities across Asia and lends a rare sense of common heritage and shared purpose. This reminder is welcome in 2023, a year in which Asia’s geopolitics are fractured and have enveloped its many countries in unprecedented tension. While there are broader contours feeding into these tensions, Asia has never been more divided.
Buddhism, arguably, can contribute something to a sense of common good – not only within a single country or political configuration, as it was imagined in Machiavelli’s bene commune and other European thinkers like Rosseau or Rawls—but specific to the broader community of Asia’s family of nations. Speaking of nationhood, the present configuration of Asian nation-states is a very recent phenomenon that emerged in the wake of World War Two and the retreat of formal colonialism. Furthermore, with the demise of the multi-ethnic Asian empires—imperial configurations—that once dominated the continent like the Mughals or the Qing Dynasty, the expressions of nationalism that allowed Asian countries to negotiate independence, overthrow governments, or implement revolution are much too diverse to act as any kind of “glue” that speaks to a collective future.
Throughout its 2500-year history in Asia, Buddhism facilitated and continues to smooth the ties that matter. These are the soft ties, which far from being less important than “hard” diplomacy like trade or military alliances, truly endure beyond economic trends, revolutions or wars, or even political extinctions or state dissolutions. Buddhism was present in Asia long before the systems of nation-states emerged. Nation-states are in themselves divisive, and nationalists argue that division is the whole point. Nations are defined by borders and political allegiances, loyalties that can be felt as intensely as religion itself. Furthermore, the reconciliation of internal dynamics—such as diverse and complicated ethno-linguistic affiliations—has not always gelled well with a nation-state system that has dominated Europe and the world since the 17th Century.
Buddhism, in contrast, is like the soft “membrane” that lies beneath the “skin and flesh” of the everyday workings and national politics of Asian countries. Buddhism is not immediately visible in most of modern Asia, and there are in fact very concerning trends surrounding demographic decline in Buddhist adherents, from young people’s disinterest in formal religion to a shrinking of monastic populations. Yet, almost every country has its own claim to being a custodian in one way or another to the three treasures, which features prominently in Buddhist diplomacy: seen in this way, this is a cause of commonality—or at least friendly soft competition—rather than further division.
Three of the four holiest sites of the Buddha’s life lie within India’s borders—a point that prompted Narendra Modi’s government to launch its own ongoing Buddhist diplomacy in 2014. Meanwhile, it is probably fair to say that there would be no East Asian Buddhism without China’s stewardship of the three treasures from the Han Dynasty onwards (202 BC–9 AD; 25–220 AD). Sri Lanka champions itself as the repository of the longest-lasting institutions of Theravada Buddhism, while the modern countries of Southeast Asia were among the first to receive the earliest Pali and Sanskrit transmissions, resulting in Buddhism being baked into the very languages and cultures of early Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and so on. The Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan, as well as the East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, can take pride in innovating and giving rise to some of the most unique expressions of the Buddhadharma in the world.
A recent inclusion of a set of texts – detailing cultural exchanges between China and Japan as recorded by Buddhist monk Enchin (814–91)—into UNESCO’s Memory of the World register is demonstrative of the fact that no matter how divisive and angry contemporary Sino-Japanese geopolitics can get, there is no escaping the common membrane of Buddhism. On May 24, UNESCO’s executive board approved Enchin’s archives (shōgyō), already a national treasure in Japan, to enter UNESCO’s collection of the textual equivalents to its World Heritage Sites. (The Asahi Shimbun)
Shōgyō are defined by Dr. George A. Keyworth as:
. . . religious, though not always, documents that were cataloged locally and preserved in the libraries of temples, shrines, and shrine-temple complexes in medieval Japan. These are extremely rich, relatively early collections, which consist primarily of commentaries to esoteric Buddhist sūtras translated from Sanskrit into Chinese during the 8th century in China, ritual manuals composed by Chinese and Japanese monastics, instructional notes and diagrams, hagiographical, biographical and historiographical texts and letters, charts, seals, music, and copies of secular and religious documents not always tied to the institutional affiliation of the libraries.(Tianzhu Buddhist Network)
Enchin (who was given the posthumous title of Chisho Daishi) was the founder of the Tendai Jimon school, and was himself a “soft diplomat.” This role was common for Chinese and Japanese monks alike in medieval Eurasia, who would travel between the empires and kingdoms in non-political capacities with expressly cultural or spiritual goals, but nevertheless carry and communicate the needs of their political leaders. Enchin, for example, travelled to Tang China and helped to bring back esoteric Buddhism, which still flourishes as a living sect in Japan. His collection of documents includes the imperially approved pass that he used to be allowed to travel around China – one of the earliest equivalents of a passport, at least between Japan and China. The documents are primarily held in the temple of Onjo-ji in Otsu, and their value lies in understanding the history of Sino-Japanese cultural exchange. They also help us to understand legal matters and transportation systems during the Tang era. (The Asahi Shimbun)
It is an unfortunate irony that Japan objected to the 2015 registration of the records of the Nanking Massacre, leading to the suspension of recommendations in 2017 until just recently, when in April 2021 UNESCO approved revisions to the program under which no candidate recommendation will be registered if a member nation objects (The Asahi Shimbun). This is a classic case of nationalism and divisive views inserting themselves into even vehicles of shared good. The changes now will be subject to the contingencies of domestic and international politics: now, only national governments can submit recommendations, when individuals and citizen groups used to be permitted to directly submit recommendations. (The Asahi Shimbun)
This most recent registration is, despite being the first under this flawed new system, still a welcome reminder of Buddhism’s past—and present potential—as unifying membrane. The interconnectedness of all beings is embedded deep in Buddhism’s social philosophy. “Interbeing” and the relationship with other people, countries, and the planet itself should be based on universal responsibility. Buddhism has this vision for Asia’s countries as well—even those that share deep-rooted and historical enmity.
Ancient Buddhist documents to be in Memory of the World register (The Asahi Shimbun)
Memory of the World Register (UNESCO)
Guest Lecture: Cataloging the Medieval Japanese Sacred Transmitted Documents (shōgyō 聖教) from Shinpukuji 真福寺 and Amanosan Kongōji 天野山金剛寺 (Tianzhu Buddhist Network)