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Buddhistdoor View: Reconciling the Fractured Self of Nationhood


In his 100th anniversary tribute to the millions lost in World War One, French president Emmanuel Macron made a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. He was mindful of the Western experience of nationalism in the 20th century, as well as resurgent bigotries and nativist populism in nation states around the world. Today, nationalism remains part and parcel of the discussion about nationhood and the citizenry.

Nationalism, framed as a negative view of other peoples and countries rather than mere patriotism (a positive view of one’s own country), could also be seen as laying the groundwork for dehumanization of the “other,” be it the “other” behind borders or oceans, or the “other” within.  

For most of human history, political entities have been organized as multi-ethnic empires or kingdoms. In many of these diverse polities, what mattered for the commoner on the street was paying taxes (and ideological fealty) to the royal or imperial project. The Roman Empire was a classic case of this overlordship, with citizenship granted to Gauls, Britons, and Syrians alike as long as they proclaimed their loyalty not to a national identity, but to the “First Citizen”—the Roman imperator.

The abdication of the last Qing emperor in 1911 and China’s first experiment with a republic in 1912 was followed by Russia’s revolution in 1917. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 heralded the end of the Eurasian continental empires. The ideology of nationalism overtook formal imperialism as the main model for statehood and government. This led to nationalism playing a key role in the anti-colonial projects of Asian, African, and Latin American societies, but also had a darker side in aggravating the trends that led to two World Wars.

In the 21st century, few define themselves as subject of a sovereign, even if in nations such as the United Kingdom they might legally be such. However, everyone is a citizen of a sovereign state (while refugees and the stateless desperately want to be citizens). This new understanding of legal belonging and protections raises a new question: what happens when the very idea of citizenship itself, of who makes a nation, is in dispute?

These days, rulers claim to be worthy to rule not from divine right, but because they best represent the interests of “the country,” “the nation.” Abstracted, “the people” become not a collective of individuals but physical embodiments of the nation as well. Nationhood and belonging have always been a tricky fiction—not just for Buddhism, but also for governments, which, rather than dispensing the king or emperor’s laws, must now defend the nation’s political existence. The question of which peoples constitutes a nation has traditionally been met with the answer that it is the numerically dominant group of people, or those invested with the most political power. That answer opens another can of worms in regard to ethnicity, which is tied to not just nation building but the construct of race in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even today.

Yet such simple answers for a nation’s constituents did not help regions where people were defined much more by tribal loyalties or religious denominations. Furthermore, from “melting pots” of immigration to relatively homogenous societies, we can still observe significant tensions between the majority population and ethnic minorities who feel their way of life is being marginalized, discriminated against, or outright oppressed or eradicated. Meanwhile, the majoritarian view posits that minorities owe it to the mainstream population to integrate, although divergent opinions on what constitutes “integration” inflame passion among the majority population as well. 

It is also demonstrable that throughout history, where external and internal pressures threaten to tear apart a polity, narratives about the “true citizen” and the “internal enemy” or “outsiders” (often seen as one and the same) grow shriller, with heightened suspicion aimed at those who have minority status. This has led to tragedy and could well do so again, should things spiral out of hand.  

Today we continue to see this construction of a majority-minorities dichotomy in many different countries, which is frequently weaponized in media and political discourse. We have discussed in a previous commentary about the symbolism of “the wall,” from Trump’s border wall with Mexico (a clear statement of who is in and who is out). This archetypal symbolic language goes back to as early as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall—imagined boundaries delineating the uncivilized barbarians from the good citizens who needed protection.

Perhaps there is no Holy Grail of an answer to majoritarian rule. Indeed, the majority-minority dichotomy may well be two shadows of the same face, in which the nation-state cannot exist with dignity without treating its minorities humanely and sensibly.

Within the rich tradition of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Avatamsaka philosophy (Huayan; Hwaeom; Kegon), Jin Y. Park has highlighted the tension inherent within egalitarianism and equality: it is impossible to make everyone “the same,” or to make everyone’s circumstances “the same.” Yet as the Huayan monk Changxing (1896–1939) wrote, if we see each individual as an essential component for the universe to exist as it exists now, one must be compelled to care for all others impartially. Articulated persuasively, this will hopefully help neutralize the idea of the minority being “less” of a priority while not ignoring the majority’s political preoccupations.

Even as we strive to recognize differences and influence public opinion in a positive direction, we must ensure that racism and demagoguery, including xenophobia and discrimination masked as populism, remain unacceptable foundations for government policy. Rather, we should be courageous in pointing how much we (majority and minority groups) depend on each other for national dignity. The nation-state, in other words, has always faced a never-ending task to reconcile these two forces into one political self.

Individuals have the biggest chance of building a healthy sense of self and agency by having role models and guidance, getting educated, finding work, and engaging in leisure and social activities. The individual self is inherently unreal yet it must be pragmatically imagined and constructed in order to live healthily in society. So how can we construct notions of nationhood that allow for the integration of all ethnic groups into the abstract “self” of the country?

We must stay true to the Avatamsaka spirit of seeing the cosmos as one interconnected organism, even as we acknowledge that we cannot completely fathom the mind-warping extent of this connectedness. The difficulty of doing this reminds the wise politician or policymaker that nationhood is invented. If it is invented, it does not mean it is fake or false. It means that it can be refined. If it can evolve, it can include minorities living inside the nation. Should countries ignore this philosophical and ethical obligation to their minorities, their political “selves” will be the poorer for it.  

See more

Macron’s Slam of Nationalism Got It Right, But Didn’t Note Dehumanization (Common Dreams)
How colonial violence came home: the ugly truth of the first world war (The Guardian)

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