How dramatic, arbitrary, and often repetitive the tides of history are. We get a lot right—the 2,500-year-long Buddhist dispensation being at the top of my list of human accomplishments, along with the invention of paper, the development of modern medicine, and the continuous, wonderful exploration of outer space. But we also look back at some events that could have ended up as relatively innocuous hiccups but ended up as milestones that reshaped continents and reconfigured entire countries or empires.
The historian’s job is to look at the past, whether recent or distant, and separate events that are significant from those that are innocent and clarify the broader “situational uncertainty” of something that has happened (my apologies for appropriating Clausewitz). Preferably, since there is no absolute history, the historian can also dignify the past with an interpretation that warns us of repeating mistakes, and offers a wise and compassionate way forward for as many people as possible, indeed for all beings.
Many historical instances tell us that conflict arose from a mixture of selfishness, aggression, and misunderstanding or ignorance. We cannot guarantee that selfishness or aggression can ever be mitigated, but we should at least try to neutralize ignorance and cultivate reciprocal understanding as much as possible.
I recently wrote a blog post on a major difference between the United States and China a day or so after the Trump administration officially slapped tariffs on a slew of Chinese products, starting the first trade war between the world’s two largest economies. On the surface level these are manifestations of tensions that have been building since the era of all-out globalization in the 1980s. Perhaps it could speak to the different political worldviews of these two countries, or issues in their strategic relationship.
Initially, I was not sure whether religion had anything to do with what is currently, ostensibly, an economic and geo-strategic competition. However, I am increasingly convinced that if religious preoccupations and perspectives could influence the actions of certain American and Chinese policymakers and influencers, then it is more important than ever to understand and grapple with those preoccupations.
My feeling is that the religious sphere has become more relevant to the governments of both countries. In certain contexts, this has always had significant implications for domestic and foreign policy. In the US, it is apparent that a conservative interpretation of evangelical Christianity, with fundamentalist streaks, is finding favor among powerbrokers and politicians such as Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, and Mike Pompeo. Should the nomination of the next justice of the Supreme Court be a conservative one, American life could well be shaped in a right-wing Christian direction for a generation.
Meanwhile, there are expressions of Buddhism particularly favored by China, and which are increasingly prominent at events like Belt and Road Initiative conferences. Whatever school they belong to, they reflect the Mahayana values of multiplicity and decisive governance (in the form of the Mahayana management model of the caravan leader that leads his camels and cargo, and all beings as a bodhisattva, across the desert). They are traditionalist expressions that feel at home with Chinese artistic and literary thought and engaging with Confucian and Daoist thinking—the other two pillars of Chinese philosophy. They also feel distinctly modern, supporting contemporary projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and the general goal of the “Chinese Dream.”
I am convinced that these two radically different religions with divergent visions of how the cosmos works will, in good time, ascend to the forefront of political awareness in the same way as Islam has been present in Western public discourse for several decades now. My suggestion is a simple one: that religion, while not usually a cause of direct conflict or hot war, is an undercurrent, a static background noise, that shapes, advises, and influences policymakers in subtle but important ways. It shapes their worldview: it could be in a Manichean direction, a teleological worldview that points to a confrontation between good versus evil, or in a way that prefers plurality, a cyclical view of history, and non-intervention.
If diplomacy consists of dialogue between governments, then we cannot ignore the potential benefits of a search for mutual understanding between the increasingly public religious voices influencing (and being influenced by) those governments. My most outlandish proposal would be a sustained, top-level intellectual dialogue between America’s most prominent Christian theologians and Buddhist leaders able and willing to represent the Chinese Buddhist community as it is reflected in the government-sanctioned Buddhist Association of China. There could be a conference devoted specifically to the meeting between the spiritual East and West, with a broad cross-section representing the various denominations of American evangelicalism, from the Pentecostals to the Presbyterians.
There is one wild card. Contrary to the predictions of the “new atheists” in the mid-2000s, the voice of the Roman Catholic Church has only grown more influential around the world. Ever since conservative Christians allied themselves with Trump, Pope Francis has found himself entangled in a fierce conversation about the direction of liturgy and doctrinal clarity among Catholic circles in the US. Significantly, he is also in the middle of a landmark conversation with the Chinese government about the future of Roman Catholic priests in China, which could shape the landscape of Sino-Vatican relations for generations to come.
What role could be envisaged for this venerable Catholic body if we speak of dialogue between evangelical Christians and Mahayana Buddhists? Is such a three-way dialogue even possible? I do not know and do not wish to make such an early judgment. I will simply leave it at this: the Vatican has, in modern times, proved to be an excellent facilitator of interfaith dialogue between the world’s traditions.
As a force for leadership, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the attainment of insight and wisdom (prajna or bodhi), upright ethical conduct, association with good friends, and self-discipline. It wants certain things from China in the 21st century, which is in itself worth a separate analysis. However, what does evangelical Christianity want from America, and how will other denominations, especially those that disagree with broadly right-wing expressions of Christianity, counter the dominance of the latter in the White House? This is a question that Buddhists in China and elsewhere need to ask for the sake of greater understanding and wisdom in dealing with the troubled times ahead.