In a recent lecture on the war in the Ukraine, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, noted that nationalism is the strongest ideology in the world today. I was somewhat surprised by his comment because, having lived through the Cold War era, anything having to do with Russia was framed in the ideological context of “the struggle of the Free World or democracies against Communist dictatorship,” and so on. Yet, on reflection, I realized that with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia had reverted to a capitalist state, even if now authoritarian or autocratic. Thus, Mearsheimer’s identification of nationalism as a key factor behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not as surprising as it initially seemed.
Mearsheimer’s insight led to a new line of enquiry on my part. As a Buddhist, I had long asked myself, without finding a satisfactory answer, what is the relationship, if any, of the Buddhadharma with nationalism?
This article is an invitation to the reader to join me in an exploration of this topic, although let me make it clear from the outset that, as the title suggests, this is not an attempt to establish “the” (one and only) Buddhist view of nationalism but “one” (among many) Buddhist views of nationalism. More precisely, it is an invitation to reflect on the material presented in order that the reader may formulate their own view of this question and, hopefully, find a willingness to explore it further, recognizing just how difficult it is to find a resolution of the relationship between Buddhism and nationalism.
As a first step in investigating this issue, let us make sure that we all have a common definition for the term “nationalism.” According to Merriam-Webster, nationalism is:
Loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one’s nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.(Merriam-Webster)
Building on this definition, the Encyclopedia Britannica adds that “nationalism is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpasses other individual or group interests.” Furthermore:
Nationalism is a modern movement. Throughout history people have been attached to their native soil, to the traditions of their parents, and to established territorial authorities, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that nationalism began to be a generally recognized sentiment molding public and private life and one of the great, if not the greatest, single determining factors of modern history.(Encyclopedia Britannica)
It would certainly be possible for Buddhists to claim that Buddhism does not have, and should not have, any view of nationalism whatsoever. Nations as we know them today did not exist at the time of the historical Buddha. It is therefore not surprising that Shakyamuni Buddha taught nothing about nationalism one way or the other. Thus, if nationalism played no role in the Buddha’s teaching, why should it be a concern of his followers thousands of years later? Is it not as irrelevant as the Buddhist view of an airplane or spaceship?
However, the Encyclopedia Britannica goes on to point out that nationalism was not an entirely new creation, like said airplane or spaceship. Rather:
Formerly states, or territories under one administration, were not delineated by nationality. People did not give their loyalty to the nation-state but to other, different forms of political organization: the city-state, the feudal fief and its lord, the dynastic state, the religious group, or the sect. The nation-state was nonexistent during the greater part of history.(Encyclopedia Britannica)
In these words, we recognize a connection with Shakyamuni Buddha, for Buddhist tradition states that his homeland, Kapilavastu, was a city-state, and thus a forerunner of today’s nation-state.
Was Shakyamuni Buddha patriotic?
Shakyamuni Buddha could not have been a formal nationalist. Nevertheless, is it possible to claim that Shakyamuni Buddha, even after his awakening, remained, at least to a degree, “attached to his native soil,” the city-state of Kapilavastu? If so, is it possible that the historical Buddha might have been a proto-nationalist, or at least a patriot in a general sense?
Although modern scholarly inquiry continues to give us new insights into the Buddha’s life and times, the following four incidents in the Buddha’s life suggest that Kapilavastu, its inhabitants, and even the well-being of adjacent countries remained important to him. First, following his awakening, the Buddha is said to have returned to his homeland, where he met his father King Suddhodana, his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, and his wife Yasodhara and son Rahula. While the Buddha’s return appears to have been at his father’s invitation, he did not ignore his father, foster-mother, wife, or son. Instead, in time, he would welcome them all into the fellowship of his disciples. While this does not prove that the Buddha was attached to his family, neither was he indifferent to their well-being.
The Buddha prevents a war
A second incident demonstrates that the Buddha was willing to personally intervene to stop a war that would have devastated his homeland. According to the Dhammapada, the incident occurred when the Buddha was residing in the Kutagara Hall of the Great Forest near to Vesali. A dispute arose between the Shakyas and the neighboring Koliyas regarding division of the Rohini River that served as the border between the two domains. Due to a great drought, there was insufficient water to irrigate the fields on both banks of the river. For his part, Shakyamuni Buddha was not only the son of a Shakyan king but also a Koliyan princess and thus, according to H. Saddhatissa, the Buddha “saw it as his duty to intervene.” (Saddhatissa 1987, 80)
As the likelihood of war grew closer, the Buddha proceeded to the river and sat on the river bank. He asked the princes of the Shakyas and Koliyas why they had gathered together and was told they were preparing for battle. The Buddha enquired as to the cause of the dispute, and the princes said that they didn’t know for sure. In turn, they asked the commander-in-chief, but he, too, was unsure and sought information from the regent who, once again, couldn’t give a definite answer.
The enquiry went on until it finally reached the husbandmen who related the whole affair. “What then is the value of water?” asked the Buddha.
“It is but little,” said the princes.
“And what of earth?”
“That also is little,” they said.
“And what of princes?”
“It cannot be measured,” they replied.
“Then would you,” said the Buddha, “destroy that which is of the highest value for the sake of that which is of little worth?” The princes reflected on the Buddha’s words and realized the truth of what he said. War was avoided and the princes expressed their gratitude to the Buddha for his sage advice.(Coomaraswamy 1976, 52-53)
The Buddha fails to prevent a war
This was not the only time that the Buddha is said to have engaged in what we might today describe as a peacekeeping role. However, there were self-imposed limits to his intervention. This was most clearly demonstrated by a second incident recorded in the Dhammapada commentary regarding a later attack on his homeland by King Vidudabha of Kosala, the most powerful of kingdom of his time. Vidudabha was the son of King Pasenadi of Kosala and a Shakya princess.
While still crown prince, Vidudabha had visited his mother’s family only to discover by accident that his mother was not a Shakya princess but actually a Shakya slave who had been passed off to King Pasenadi as a princess. Enraged by this deception, Vidudabha vowed to take revenge for this insult and, following his father’s death, Vidudabha marched on Kapilavastu. On three occasions, the Buddha intercepted the approaching army and, through indirect means, was able to induce them to turn back. However, on the army’s fourth attempt, the Buddha realized that his intervention would no longer be effective. He recognized that the invasion was the karmic fruit of the Shakyas’ own past actions, and so stood aside in the face of the attacking army. (Anālayo 2009, 736) According to Joshua Mark: “Buddha is said to have wept upon hearing the news that his clan had been nearly annihilated and his city destroyed.” (World History Encyclopedia) However, Mark attributes the Buddha’s tears to “Buddhist tradition,” without providing further references.
Although there are conflicting accounts in early Buddhist writings concerning the destruction of the Shakyas, it has nevertheless been widely believed in Buddhist communities. Given this, what is the message this story transmits? Does it indicate that, even following his awakening, the Buddha remained “attached to his native soil?” If, as Buddhists maintain, “attachment” is the cause of suffering and of tears, was the awakened Buddha still ensnared, at least to a degree, in this realm? Had he not yet fully let go of what might be called one of the most basic, or deep-seated of attachments for his native soil and its inhabitants? In short, if this incident actually happened, what should he have done?
In light of the fact that Shakyamuni Buddha realized that the Shakyas had brought this calamity on themselves through their own actions, should we expect the Buddha to have been completely indifferent to the fate of his fellow clan members?
As contemporary followers of the Buddha, should we be expected to, or strive to let go of our own attachments or concerns for the welfare of our fellow countrymen and women? In the event of an invasion, should we stand by as they are slaughtered?
Needless to say, these are extremely difficult, if not controversial questions that are seldom, if ever, asked, let alone answered. Nevertheless, there is one lesson this story contains that is crystal clear: although trained as a warrior himself, the Buddha refused to employ violence even when the very existence of his homeland was at stake.
The Buddha consults on war and peace
The final example of the Buddha’s intervention in the political field is said to have occurred in his 79th year, shortly before his death. King Ajatasattu of Magadha contemplated waging war on the tribal confederation of Vajji. The king sent an emissary to enquire of the Buddha about his chances of victory. The Buddha declared that he himself had taught the Vajjians the conditions of true welfare, and as he was informed that the Vajjians were continuing to observe these conditions, he foretold they would not be defeated. Upon hearing this, Ajatasattu abandoned his plan to attack.
Significantly, the first of the seven conditions that Shakyamuni taught the Vajjians was that they must “hold frequent public assemblies.” Secondly, they must “meet in concord, rise in concord, and act as they are supposed to do in concord.” (Victoria 2006, 194) As the noted Buddhist scholar of early Buddhism Mizuno Kōgen pointed out, these conditions represent “a truly democratic approach.” And as Mizuno further stated, “Any society following these rules is likely to prosper and remain peaceful.” (Victoria 2006, 194)
For his part, A. L. Basham suggests that incidents such as the above demonstrate the Buddha’s clear support for a republican form of government, with the caveat that we are speaking of a form of governance in which there was an executive—sometimes elected, sometimes hereditary—supported by an assembly of heads of families that gathered periodically to make decisions relating to the common welfare. (Basham 1959, 96)
Expressed in more contemporary terminology, Shakyamuni Buddha advocated a political model approaching a small-scale, direct democracy, although it is also true that he is recorded as having counseled kings and did not speak out against monarchy as a form of political organization.
Lessons from the Buddha’s life
First, it is clear that the Buddha, following his awakening, took an active role in the affairs of the world around him. Although not always successful, this included efforts to prevent war from breaking out. In the first instance introduced above, he didn’t do this by invoking the precept against harming others, but by what might be called a “common sense” appeal to the warring parties—an early example of “skillful means” (Skt: upaya). Although the historicity of the above incidents remains in doubt, they at least reveal what large numbers of Buddhists have believed about the Buddha’s social engagement if not his social consciousness over the centuries. In this respect, they offer a strong endorsement for what modern Buddhists now refer to as “engaged Buddhism.”
There are, however, two important caveats to the Buddha’s social engagement. First, he became actively involved only after having had his awakening experience, not prior to nor during his spiritual practice. Second, there were self-imposed limits to his actions, such as his refusal to use violence to prevent the destruction of even his own homeland.
How many Buddhists, despite their pledge to do no harm, would be willing to allow their homeland to be destroyed by an invading army if they were in a position to prevent it? As subsequent Buddhist history reveals, there have been many Buddhists, both monastic and lay, who have engaged in violence to defend their homelands, often invoking the Buddhist teachings to justify their actions. However, if the alleged actions of Shakyamuni Buddha are taken as the standard by today’s Buddhists, then the Buddha’s refusal to employ violence to defend his homeland must stand as a clear indication of what he expected of his followers. Is this standard too much to ask?
Emperor Ashoka, the “ideal” Buddhist ruler?
Buddhists have long viewed, if not revered, King Ashoka (c. 304–232 BCE) as the archetypal ideal of a Buddhist ruler, a so-called “Universal Monarch.” On the one hand, there can be no doubt that Ashoka contributed much to the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia as he was, at least following his conversion, deeply dedicated to the Buddhadharma. Yet, as with nearly all great figures in history, there is a less attractive side to Ashoka that is seldom discussed. Moreover, this less attractive side brings into question what “negative baggage” he, and others like him, may have bequeathed to the Buddhist tradition.
A. L. Basham is one scholar who has highlighted Ashoka’s less attractive side. For example, Basham notes that Ashoka is recorded as having continued to maintain an army and used force against tribal groups who attacked his empire. (Victoria 2006, 197) In addition, one Buddhist description of Ashoka’s life in the Sanskrit Ashokavandana notes that he once had 18,000 non-Buddhist adherents, probably Jains, executed because of a minor insult to Buddhism. On another occasion, Ashoka is said to have forced a Jain follower and his entire family into their home, after which he had it burned to the ground. Ashoka also maintained the death penalty for criminals, including for his own wife, Tisyaraksita, whom he had executed. In light of these and similar acts, it is also possible to say that Ashoka was an archetypal “defender of the faith” for whom, under certain circumstances, violence remained a viable option.
Equally important, Ashoka’s remorse at having killed more than 100,000 inhabitants of Kalinga prior to his conversion to Buddhism did not lead him to restore freedom to the inhabitants of the lands he had conquered. Instead, Ashoka continued to govern them all as an integral part of his empire, for “he by no means gave up his imperial ambitions.” (Basham 1959, 54) In fact, since many of Ashoka’s edicts mention only support for “Dharma,” (a pan-Indian politico-religious term) and not the Buddhadharma, it is possible to argue that he invoked “Dharma” not so much out of his allegiance to Buddhism and its ideals, but as a trans-national and trans-ethnic universal ideology necessary to centralize power, maintain unity among disparate peoples, and promote law and order in his empire.
Even if one does not take the argument this far, at the very least it can be said that in promoting Buddhism, in establishing Shakyamuni Buddha throughout most of the Indian subcontinent, Ashoka was clearly also promoting his own kingship and establishing himself. (Strong 1983, 131) That is to say, an alliance of politics and religion had been born. This is important to note because, while Ashoka may have been the first to use Buddhism for what we would identify as political purposes, he was certainly not the last to do so, as we shall see when we examine the development of Buddhism in other Asian countries.
Returning to the ongoing development of the sangha, the Indian political philosopher Vishwanath Prasad Varma pointed out that due to Ashoka’s royal patronage, “the Sangha became contaminated with regal and aristocratic affiliations.” (Varma 1973, 432) In a similar vein, the pioneer Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids stated that it was the Sangha’s close affiliation with Ashoka that was “the first step on the downward path of Buddhism, the first step on its expulsion from India.” (Rhys Davids 1925, 222)
While some may find these statements extreme, it is clear that Ashoka enjoyed a great deal of power over the sangha. For example, in a second Buddhist record of Ashoka’s life contained in the Pali Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), Ashoka was, with the aid of the great elder Moggaliputta Tissa, responsible for defrocking no less than 60,000 sangha members who were found to harbor “false views.” (Strong 1983, 23) Not only that, Ashoka had the power and authority to prescribe passages from the sutras, which sangha members were required to study. Those who failed to do so could be defrocked by his appointed officers. (Basham 1959, 56) Moreover, during Ashoka’s reign it became necessary to receive his permission to even enter the priesthood. (Strong 1983, 87)
In short, during Ashoka’s reign, if not before, the Raja Dharma (Law of the Sovereign) became deeply involved in, if not yet in full control of the Buddhadharma. This is a truly momentous change if one considers that the sangha as formulated by Shakyamuni Buddha was a completely self-governing entity, with internal mechanisms to expel those who failed to abide by its precepts. Yet, what ambitious monarch would not wish to control as much as possible of the entity that provided the spiritual justification for his rule?
In this connection, it should be noted that both Basham and Rhys Davids identified the concept of a so-called universal monarch, or chakravarti (wheel-turning king), as coming into prominence within Buddhist circles only after the reign of Indian King Candragupta, who ascended the throne sometime at the end of the fourth century BCE and was Ashoka’s father. (Basham 1959, 83; Rhys Davids 1925, 18–19)
Thus, the idea of a universal monarch who served on the one hand as a protector of the Buddhadharma and on the other hand as the recipient of the Buddhadharma’s protection, should not be seen as a teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Instead, it is best understood as a later accretion from non-Buddhist sources that “was an inspiration to ambitious monarchs . . . some [of whom] claimed to be Universal Monarchs themselves.” (Basham 1959, 83) It is also significant that as a universal monarch and Dharma protector, Ashoka was accorded the personal title of Dharma Raja (Dharma King), a title he shared with Shakyamuni Buddha himself. (Strong 1983, 61) This sharing of titles, in what was essentially a unity of Buddhism and the state, was destined to play an important role throughout subsequent Buddhist history. The unity of Buddhism and the state allowed the political rulers of the state to use the Buddhadharma to validate their rule and edicts.
At the same time, it is also true that if the sangha was willing to provide the ruler with a moral endorsement, it was, at least initially, given only on the basis that the ruler fulfill certain prerequisites or preconditions. These conditions were contained in the Jataka stories, a series of 500 ancient Indian folk tales that were given a Buddhist didactic purpose and incorporated into the Pali Buddhist canon sometime before the beginning of the Common Era.
Among the Jataka stories, we find a description of the Ten Duties of a King, which include the requirement that the ruler abstain from anything which involves violence and destruction of life. The ruler is further exhorted to be free from selfishness, hatred, and falsehood, and be ready to give up all personal comfort, reputation, and fame, even his very life if need be, to promote the welfare of the people. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the king to provide grain and other facilities for agriculture to farmers and cultivators, capital for traders and those engaged in business, and adequate wages for those who are employed. When people were provided with sufficient income, it was noted, they would be contented and have no fear or anxiety. Consequently, the country would be peaceful and free from crime. (Walpola 1974, 81–89)
Yet, it is one thing to present kingly duties in the abstract and another to find a king who actually practices them. And what were Buddhists to do if the king or ruler failed to fulfill the ten duties of a king? Should they admonish him, and if that failed, seek to overthrow him, even resorting to violence? There have certainly been Buddhists over the centuries who have attempted to do exactly that.
Buddhism in East Asia
One of the clearest and earliest examples of the political use of the Buddhadharma in China is Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty in the late sixth century. Wen first enlisted the spiritual aid of Buddhist monks in his military campaigns, extending a precedent that had already existed for more than 200 years, at least in northern China. Specifically, he constructed temples at sites where he and his father had won important battles, ordering temple priests to hold commemoration services for the souls of his fallen soldiers. In the midst of planning future military campaigns, Wen wanted to assure his followers that should they fall on some future battlefield themselves, their souls, too, would be looked after. (Victoria 2006, 201)
Wen’s so-called innovation was his determination to use Buddhism as a method of unifying all of China. He referred to himself as a universal monarch and, soon after establishing the Sui dynasty in 581 CE, declared:
With the armed might of a Cakravartin King, We spread the ideals of the ultimately benevolent one [that is, the Buddha]. With a hundred victories and a hundred battles, We promote the practice of the ten Buddhist virtues. Therefore We regard weapons of war as having become like incense and flowers [presented as offerings to the Buddha] and the fields of this visible world as becoming forever identical with the Buddha land.(Victoria 2006, 201)
To further secure his position, Wen gave himself the title “Bodhisattva Son of Heaven” and proceeded to have hundreds of stupas built throughout China to enshrine Buddhist relics. This was done in order to convey the idea that both he and his entire empire were united in their faith in Buddhism. In doing this, Wen was once again emulating similar pious acts by that other great empire builder, Ashoka. Ashoka allegedly had no less than 84,000 stupas constructed throughout his empire (all of which are said to have been dedicated at precisely the same moment thanks to a timely eclipse of the Sun). (Victoria 2006, 201)
A second example is the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, a Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in revolt against China’s Mongol rulers in 1352. After becoming the head of a rebel army, Zhu won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers from pillaging in observance of White Lotus, Pure Land-inspired, religious beliefs. In 1356, Zhu’s rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, which he subsequently established as the capital of the Ming dynasty. Significantly, the early Ming emperors justified their rule by claiming they too were universal monarchs—a status that entitled them to rule over the various peoples in their empire, including not only Han Chinese but Central Asian Muslims, Tibetans, and Mongols, among others.
While Zhu Yuanzhang had given up his clerical status in the process of establishing the Ming dynasty, in Japan, the sohei or “warrior monks” of the late Heian period (794–1185) exercised their political power while still in robes. Unlike Zhu, they did not attempt to establish a new dynasty, but instead sought to gain imperial favors for the schools with which they were affiliated, especially the Tendai school on Mount Hiei outside of Kyoto. While some scholars think that these monks were little more than hired ruffians, they nevertheless justified their violent acts, especially against other schools, in the name of “protecting the Buddhadharma” from those who would defile it. The “cleansing of the sangha” from without, which Ashoka had begun in India, became a universal phenomenon throughout Asia, justifying the use of violence when deemed necessary.
While it might be argued that, relatively speaking, the sangha was only infrequently directly involved in political rebellion and intrigue, it played a much more important role in support of the rulers of Asian Buddhist countries. This role is particularly clear in China, Korea, and Japan. Each of these countries embraced Buddhism as a religion capable of “protecting the state” (Ch: baoguo fojiao; Kor: holguk bulgyo; Jap: gokoku bukkyo or chingo kokka).
Needless to say, it is never more important to protect the state than when it comes under attack from outside. Japanese Buddhism played a prominent role, through rituals and esoteric spells, in protecting Japan from repeated Mongol invasions in the 13th century. In addition, Zen, then newly introduced to Japan, is recorded as having instilled a fearless martial spirit in Japan’s military ruler Hojo Tokimune, thanks to the training he received from Mugaku Sogen (Ch: Wuxue Zuyuan), a Chinese Zen master and himself a refugee from the earlier Mongol subjugation of his nation.
In Korea, at the time of the Japanese invasion of that country at the end of the 16th century, King Seonjo called on all monks to take up arms. In response, a Buddhist leader by the name of Hyujeong wrote: “Alas, the way of heaven is no more. The destiny of the land is on the decline. In defiance of heaven and reason, the cruel foe had the temerity to cross the sea aboard a thousand ships.” Hyujeong claimed the brutality of the Japanese samurai justified abandoning the Buddhist precept forbidding killing in order to protect the weak and innocent. Hyujeong concluded his appeal with a call for all able-bodied monks to “put on the armor of mercy of bodhisattvas, hold in hand the treasured sword to fell the devil, wield the lightning bolt of the Eight Deities and come forward!” (Turnbull 2008, 46) In the first instance, 8,000 monks are said to have taken up arms, and the patriotism they, and the warrior monks who followed, remains celebrated in Korea to this day.
As for the Japanese, the invading samurai armies were accompanied by their own Buddhist chaplains. In addition, one of the Japanese commanders, Kato Kiyomasa, was a devout follower of the Nichiren school, a highly militant and Japan-centric type of Buddhism. Kato’s battle standard was a white pennant that carried a message alleged to have been written by Nichiren, the founder of the school. It read Namu Myōhō Renge Kyo: “I take refuge in the Lotus Sutra.” (Turnbull 2008, 16) Thus we find military forces on both sides of the war relying on their faith in Buddhism to bring them victory. This would not be the last time such occurrences would take place among ostensibly Buddhist countries.
The sangha as handmaiden of the state
Even this cursory examination of the post-Ashoka political development of Buddhism should make it clear, first of all, that Buddhism has had a long and intimate relationship with the state, overwhelmingly in the role of its servant and protector. In this sense, Buddhism has always been “engaged” with society, albeit as a support mechanism for the state’s rulers.
The ultimate example of that support can be seen in the creation of the Dalai Lama lineage and system in Tibet at the direction of the Mongolian warlord Altan Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan.
Altan made the Yellow Hat school (Tib: Dge-lugs-pa or Gelug-pa) of Buddhism the official religion of Tibet and conferred the Mongolian title of “Dalai” Lama on the head of the school, Sonam Gyatso, in 1580. Altan arranged for his great-grandson, Yonten Gyatso, to become the new Dalai Lama when the Gelug head died.
With Mongol military aid, later Dalai Lamas proceeded to crush the rival and more established Karma-pa (Red or Black Hat) school in Tibet, finally becoming the spiritual and temporal rulers of the country. How ironic, then, that centuries before Mao’s persecution of Tibetan Buddhists began in the 1950s, adherents of one school of Tibetan Buddhism were persecuted by their fellow Buddhists. Moreover, this persecution took place in conjunction with the creation of a theocracy in which Buddhism and the state became one.
Despite the creation of a Tibetan Buddhist theocracy, there were minor incidents, albeit infrequent, which demonstrated that Buddhism did have an alternative vision to that of a hierarchically rigid feudal state headed by rulers wielding absolute power. In the case of Japan, for example, one such minor and ultimately fruitless incident consisted of a series of peasant uprisings, collectively known as ikko-ikki, affiliated with the True Pure Land school (Jodo-shinshu). These uprisings were undertaken by rebellious or autonomous groups of people in several regions of Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries, backed by the power of the True Pure Land school. Consisting mainly of school-affiliated priests, peasants, merchants, and lower ranking samurai, the participants opposed the central government’s governors and feudal lords, seeking to build a Pure Land on Earth. Their more common battlefield rallying cries included the nenbutsu chant: “I take refuge in Amida Buddha!” (Jap: Namu Amida Butsu) and “He who advances is sure of salvation, but he who retreats will go to hell!” (Turnbull 2003, 32–41)
However, the paucity and ineffectiveness of incidents such as the above only serves to underscore Buddhism’s longstanding subservience to the state. This subservience does, however, help us to understand why Buddhism, even to the present, became still more subservient to the state with the advent of modern nationalism. It became still more subservient in the sense that Buddhism was well positioned to serve as a method of uniting all the people of a state into a powerful whole. This was never more important than when, with the advent of total war in the 20th century, the promotion of absolute and unquestioning loyalty unto death became one of the highest goals the state sought to impress on its citizenry.
Lt. Col. Sugimoto Goro was a Zen-trained officer in World War II and disciple of Rinzai Zen Master Yamazaki Ekiju. According to Yamazaki, Sugimoto, “practice was complete.” In other words, his disciple was completely enlightened. As for Sugimoto, he explained:
Japanese Buddhism must be centered on the emperor; for if it were not, it would have no place in Japan, it would not be living Buddhism. Buddhism, including Shakyamuni’s teaching must conform to the national polity of Japan. . . . All of Japanese Buddhism should have His Majesty, the emperor, as their central object of worship.(Victoria 2006, 122)
According to Sugimoto, it was “egolessness” that made it possible for imperial subjects to become one with the emperor. Sugimoto wrote:
The essence of the unity of the sovereign and the people is egolessness. Egolessness and self-extinction are most definitely not separate states. On the contrary, one comes to realize that they are identical.(Victoria 2006, 123)
In seeking to achieve a state of egolessness through his Buddhist practice, it is difficult to argue that Sugimoto was at odds with Shakyamuni Buddha’s fundamental teaching on the importance of overcoming attachment to the individual ego. In fact, it can be said that Sugimoto’s thoroughgoing dedication to Japan’s war effort, leading to his death on the battlefield in 1937, demonstrated that he had done exactly this. He was indeed “selfless” and completely at one with something much larger than himself, through the state in the person of the emperor. Does this mean that Sugimoto should be seen, even revered, as having embodied non-attachment to self?
Before attempting to answer this question, it is important to note that every Buddhist tradition and school has attempted to come up with its own interpretation or response. For example, in wartime Japan the True Pure Land school stated:
“There can be no teaching in the True Pure Land sect that does not advocate submission to the imperial national polity. That is to say, it is because one is anchored in Amida’s salvation that it is possible to be a good imperial subject.”(Victoria 2006, 85)
In other words, it is thanks to having been saved by Amida Buddha’s original vow that it is possible to transcend attachment to the individual ego and submit to the state and its dictates.
For its part, the Theravada tradition generally employed a different Buddhist doctrine in fostering or justifying support for the state. That is to say, the duty to protect the Buddhadharma became, and remains, the foundational ethic for identification with the state including, if necessary, the use of violence in its defense. The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (PAB, abbreviated MaBaTha in Burmese) is a nationalist Buddhist organisation in Myanmar. The PAB was formally established on 15 January 2014 with the mission of defending Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar. The monk Ashin Wirathu is the best known, albeit most controversial, of the PAB leaders.
Like other leading figures in the PAB, Wirathu describes himself as a nationalist. He gives sermons claiming that Muslims, who make up an estimated 4–8 per cent of Myanmar’s population, are threatening to outnumber the 90 per cent of Buddhists in Myanmar. Wirathu explained:
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog. I call them [Muslims] troublemakers, because they are troublemakers. . . . I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”(Fuller 2013)
Concretely, Wirathu has called for legislative restrictions on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims, as well as boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. In January 2015, Wirathu publicly called United Nations envoy Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” after she publicly criticized the PAB’s legislative lobbying campaign. Addressing Lee in a sermon to his applauding followers, Wirathu said, “You may offer your arse to the kalars [derogatory term for Muslims] but you will never sell off our Rakhine state!” (Dilip, 2015)
Myanmar’s current military leaders are known to have made major contributions to he PAB, inasmuch as its calls for the protection of Buddhism and the nation’s identity mirror the oft-cited justification for the military’s ongoing political dictatorship. While the PAB’s title doesn’t call for the protection of the “state,” it does call for the protection of “race”; in other words, the 68 per cent of Myanmar’s population who belong to the Bamar ethnic group and who are overwhelmingly Buddhist. Thus, the call to protect the “race” is effectively calling for the protection of the state from non-Buddhist groups in Myanmar, chiefly Muslims but also Christians.
In Sri Lanka, a political party whose representatives consist of monks only was established in February 2004. Called the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or National Heritage Party, its monk leaders assert that Sri Lanka is the “land of the Buddha” and believe that they must protect Buddhism and Sinhalese culture, which are “one entity.” While the party seeks to improve the socio-economic situation of the majority Sinhalese people, it also opposes self-autonomy for the Tamil non-Buddhist minority, and demands that, inasmuch as Kandy is a sacred city to Buddhists, all mosques, churches and non-Buddhist establishments present there must be abolished.
Note that the Bodu Bala Sena, (BBS, translated as Buddhist Power Force) is a breakaway organisation that is even more extreme than the JHU. On 17 February 2013, the BBS organized a meeting in Colombo attended by around 16,000 people, including 1,300 monks. At the rally, BBS secretary general Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara stated: “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.” Gnanasara added: “From today onwards, each of you must become an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim mannerism. These so-called democrats are destroying the Sinhala race.” (Al Maeena 2013)
Thus, Sri Lankan Buddhists, like their Myanmar counterparts, are not only defending the Buddhadharma identified with the state but their “race” as well. Once again, the question must be asked, is this the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha?
Toward a deeper understanding of “non-attachment” to self
Based on the above, I suggest that throughout the Buddhist world there has long been, and remains, a fundamental misunderstanding of “selflessness” or nonattachment to the self or ego, especially in relationship to the state. The individual adherent of Buddhism, monastic or lay, all too easily identifies the selflessness of the individual with the state as understood in modern nationalism. All too many, if not the majority of Buddhists believe that they have transcended attachment to self (or realized egolessness) when they identify their faith with the state, having failed to understand that in reality the state represents the collective ego of its citizenry. In other words, is identifying with the state without significant qualification not representative of the collective self-centeredness or selfishness of its citizens?
In other words, they have failed to understand that the Buddha mārga (path) requires not only transcendence of attachment to the individual ego but, further, nonattachment to the collective ego of one’s state/ethnic group, or for that matter of any limited group whatsoever.
To be sure, those who have taken the vows of a bodhisattva have committed themselves in words to the welfare of all sentient beings, numberless though they be. Yet, as seen so very clearly in wartime Japan and other Buddhist countries, such as today’s Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the great majority of the Buddhist sangha, both lay and monastic, have limited their concern to their own ethnic group or nation even at the expense of the well-being of the other. In other words, they align the Buddhadharma with the dictates of modern nationalism and its call for “patriotic self-sacrifice” for the sake of their nation.
In Japanese Buddhism, the Chinese characters for becoming a Buddhist cleric literally mean to “leave home” (Jap: shukke). It can be said that this is exactly what Shakyamuni Buddha did when he began his spiritual practice. However, in reflecting on Buddhist history over the centuries, especially in the era of modern nationalism, it is clear that very few Buddhist practitioners realized that, in the first instance, there was something called “collective ego” and second, that they would also have to “leave their nations/ethnic groups” if they were truly to transcend attachment to both individual ego and collective ego in order to benefit all sentient beings, without respect to nationality, race, gender, age, and so on.
Were those who have genuinely “left home” to be asked, “What is your nationality?” their answer would be, “I have none.” Or, on the contrary, they might answer, “All nationalities.” Or even further, they might answer, “I am a citizen of Buddhaland.”
Were they then to be asked, “Where is this Buddhaland, I’ve never heard of it?”, they might respond, “Buddhaland extends to the far reaches of the universe we inhabit. And should it be discovered that we live in a multiverse, or cyclic universe, it would be found in all of them as well.”
To be sure, Buddhism is far from the only religion to have failed to transcend attachment to the collective ego of one’s nation or group. It is no exaggeration to say that all religions remain unable, despite their words of universal concern for humanity, to transcend in actual practice their attachment to the well-being of their nation or group. One need only look at the growing political influence of conservative Christian nationalism in the US to realize just how dangerous the unity of religion and state can be. Thus, were Buddhists in large numbers able to transcend attachment to the collective ego of their nation—not only in words but far more importantly, in deeds—they would be the first! In fact, thanks to peace activists like the late Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa, together with organizations like the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, we can see initial attempts by Buddhists to promote trans-national “nonviolence” detached from nationalism.
I do not labor under the naïve belief that transcending the collective ego of the state or of one’s group is an easy task. Yet, I believe, at least doctrinally speaking, that Buddhism is well-positioned to do so, for nationalism can readily be seen as attachment to an ideology that has no intrinsic substance beyond the allegiances it fosters in the minds of its adherents. Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Gaia Vince quotes political scientist Benedict Anderson: nation states are no more than “imagined communities.” (The Guardian)
Thus, Buddhists can readily recognize that lurking beneath the surface of such attractive words as “patriotism” and “service to the nation,” especially in times of war, is, in fact, a deep attachment to collective ego. Moreover, this attachment inevitably leads to attachment to one’s nation at the expense of similar concern for the well-being of those who are not part of one’s state or group.
Once the state is recognized for what it is, a repository of collective ego, some amazing insights soon follow. For example, although it is important, at least in the interim, to reorganize and strengthen international organizations such as the United Nations, we should recognize that we cannot look to them for the ultimate solutions to the many problems humanity faces today. Nations by their very nature are inevitably and irrevocably stuck in the realm of collective selfishness, in the realm of “my country first.”
This is not to deny that “enlightened self-interest” is possible, nor that the pursuit of win-win scenarios isn’t far better than naked self-interest. Nevertheless, to be true to the highest ideals of their practice, Buddhists must work for the creation of organizations like “United Humanity” or even more inclusively, “United Sentient Beings,” always seeking to promote and protect the well-being of all without limitation, favor, or distinction.
While this may seem no more than a utopian dream, it is also becoming clearer by the day that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so presciently realized, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” More recently, on 18 July, UN secretary general António Guterres told the ministers of 40 countries meeting to discuss the climate crisis: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide.” Thus, even at the level of individual self-interest, it is clear that collaboration by all, for the benefit of all, is the only way humanity has a chance of surviving on this rapidly warming planet of limited resources, still living under the ever-present danger of nuclear war and the possible extinction of the human species.
That said, were I to be asked if I honestly think it is possible for Buddhists to take the lead in rejecting attachment to collective ego, with all that entails, I will have to answer, “I don’t know.” Anyone, Buddhist or not, attempting to work for the benefit of all sentient beings will inevitably be called and treated as “unpatriotic” at best and “traitor” at worse, especially in wartime. Advocates of non-attachment to the state may very well face incarceration or even death at the hands of those who cling to the benefits and privileges they receive from the state.
Bodhisattvas, at least in the Mahayana tradition, recognize from the outset that their vows are impossible to achieve. They further recognize, or at least ought to recognize, that if self-sacrifice becomes necessary, it must, to the greatest extent possible, be for the benefit of all sentient beings, not the collective ego of one’s nation or group. Nevertheless, bodhisattvas vow to accomplish their vows. May there be many, many more who do so, not least because humanity’s very future may depend on it.
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Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. 1976. Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism. London: Unwin Paperbacks.
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Hammalawa, Saddhatissa. ??? 1987. Buddhist Ethics. London: Wisdom Publications.
Strong, John S. 1983. The Legend of King Asoka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Turnbull, Stephen. 2003. Japanese Warrior Monk AD 949-1603. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.
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Varma, Vishwanath Prasad. 1973. Early Buddhism and Its Origins. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
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Walpola, Rahula. 1974. What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed. New York: Grove Press.
Neo-fascism on the rise in Sri Lanka (Gulf News)
Anti-Muslim Myanmar Buddhist Monk Wirathu Calls UN Envoy ‘Bitch and Whore’ (International Business Times)
Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists (The New York Times)
Kapilavastu (World History Encyclopedia)
The century of climate migration: why we need to plan for the great upheaval (The Guardian)
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I’m curious as to how the definition of the word “nationalism” changed over time in the English language. The 1941 5th edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has the following definitions for “nationalism”: 1. National character; nationality. 2. An idiom, trait, or character peculiar to any nation. 3. Devotion to, or advocacy of, national interests or national unity and independence. 4. Socialism advocating the nationalizing of industries.