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date: 26 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Buddhists constitute a majority of the population in peninsular Southeast Asia, but the largest concentration of Buddhists lives in East Asia. The delay between the times the Buddha gave his teachings and they were transcribed in written form and the adoption of the latter through centuries in countries with vastly different cultures hampered the development of a unified Buddhist political thought. Two major trends within Buddhism aspire to influence contemporary politics: “Buddhism for the human realm,” a reform movement originating in Republican China, and “engaged Buddhism,” which is a contemporary international network of activists rather than a systematic body of thought. The three major schools of Buddhism do not differ fundamentally on matters of doctrine, so the variety of Buddhist political orientations has more to do with the historical and national circumstances of the religion’s diffusion. Buddhism has expanded out of its country of origin, India, where it has almost disappeared but remains an important source of soft power. The Mahayana school has spread to China, where it has developed an eschatology that has inspired rebellions through history. The Theravada school has spread to Southeast Asia and has provided a source of legitimation for many rulers. The colonial era brought a key change, as lay Buddhists and monastics inspired many nationalist movements. Only six governments give a “special place” to Buddhism in their constitutions, but other countries with large Buddhist populations feel its influence on politics through the sangha. In countries of the Theravada tradition, monastics play an important role in politics, whereas in countries where the Mahayana school prevails lay associations mobilize Buddhists. Very few Buddhist political parties have emerged and only in Japan has one endured in a coalition government. In Southeast Asia, the politics of Buddhism is often associated with nationalist intransigence, in contrast to the peaceful and tolerant image of the religion’s politics promoted by many of its exiled leaders in the “engaged Buddhist” network.

Keywords: Asoka, Buddhism for the human realm, Chakravartin, engaged Buddhism, politics and religion

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