Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.
Sharon A. Suh
During the socialist period in Mongolia (1921–1990), the public practice of Buddhism, along with other religious practices, was restricted. Since the Democratic Revolution of 1989–1990, the practice of Buddhism has been permitted in public. Today Buddhism is the main religion of Mongolia, following the Vajrayāna tradition of Buddhism. As well as having strong ties to international Buddhist lineages and organizations, Buddhism in Mongolia has unique characteristics. In the early 1990s old lamas from the presocialist period reinhabited old temples, built new temples, and took on students. They reinvigorated old practices and rituals that they had practiced in secret during the socialist period, or those they had remembered from the presocialist era as young lamas. In addition to this local reinvigoration of Buddhist practice, in the 1990s translocal Buddhist organizations came to Mongolia with the hope of helping to rebuild Buddhism. They brought with them their own expectations about education, religious practice, and monastic discipline. Along with these transnational Buddhist ideas and practices, other local religious practices, such as shamanism, and translocal religious practices, such as Christianity and new religious movements, established themselves in the country. These local and translocal forms of religion generated the proliferation of a wide range of unique ideas and practices that have characterized Mongolian Buddhism since 1990. As Buddhism in the democratic period is the main religion in Mongolia, it has become a source of geopolitical significance. The strong ties between Mongolian Buddhist institutions and Tibetan Buddhist organizations in diaspora have been a cause of diplomatic friction between Mongolia and China. These ties with Tibetans in diaspora have also affected power dynamics internally within Mongolian Buddhist organizations. Mongolian Buddhism in the democratic era is an important local religious practice, a source of translocal connections and transformations, and has geopolitical significance.
Stephen C. Berkwitz
Relics and images of the Buddha and of other awakened beings occupy important places in ritual practice throughout the Buddhist world. Their significance and sacrality are evidenced by the numerous written and oral narratives that have been composed by Buddhist authors and storytellers to describe how they were obtained and what makes them special. Buddhist narratives on relics and images are mainly found outside of the tradition’s canonical literature, either as discrete texts or as sections in larger works. These narratives often supply explanations as to why certain relics shrines and images are worthy of veneration and can be sites for authorizing power and political status. The written and oral narratives about these allegedly extraordinary objects typically include material concerning the origins of revered relics and images linked to the Buddha or other awakened saints, as well as narratives that prophesy and recount how such special objects were found in their present locations and came to be worshipped by devotees. Such textual sources also often associate particular relics and images with the authority of a ruler or a monastic community that possessed them. It seems clear that the more important a given relic or image is for a Buddhist community, the more likely that it will have a narrative that is used to help locate this object in time and space for devotees to understand and worship it properly. In sum, these narratives play a critical role in endowing relics and images with their extraordinary natures and important roles in the devotional and political spheres of Buddhist communities across Asia.
Richard K. Payne and Casey Alexandra Kemp
Secular Buddhism (also sometimes known as Secular Dharma) is a quasi-religious movement that began in the last decade of the 20th century. It is diffuse and, despite the important role of some leading figures, lacks hierarchical authority capable of defining and enforcing orthodoxy. The background of the movement is the development of modernizing trends in Asia in the 19th century. Other formative influences include liberal Protestant thought emphasizing religious experience and social action, Victorian apologetics distinguishing religion and non-religion, Perennialist teachings that all religions have the same mystical core, and neoliberalism’s focus on the isolated individual as the locus of agency, existing in competition with others. Secular Buddhist discourse depends on the semiotic opposition of religious and secular. That discourse itself has two dimensions, a creative one and a critical one. The creative dimension reinterprets Buddhist teachings, institutions, and practices to meet the needs of people in the present. The critical dimension is the reverse of the creative, attempting to identify and reject aspects of the tradition that are identified as inhibiting its utility in the present. A variety of institutions, some online only, have been created to promote Secular Buddhist ideas and practices. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021 has motivated more online activity, including groups meeting for meditation and discussion, and also instructional and training programs. The rejection of prior kinds of Buddhism has included the rejection of traditional Buddhist institutions, which in turn creates the need for alternative forms of authority. In general, claims to authority are made on the basis of personal experience, of a return to the original, pure, authentic teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, of particular texts as authoritative, and of being in accord with modern science.
Sree Padma and John Holt
Satara varan devi, in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka, refers to the four guardian deities of the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka. It is a phrase that first appears in inscriptions at Buddhist temples in the 15th-century Sri Lankan upcountry region of Gampola to denote the protective gods of the divine hierarchy who have been warranted with powers by the Buddha to not only protect the kingdom as a whole, but to provide for this-worldly well-being of individual Buddhist devotees as well. In ensuing centuries, the identities of deities constituting the satara varan devi varied from era to era and from place to place. Moreover, the identities of these deities were often composite conflations of a number of collateral deity traditions. The singular popularity of each of these deities for many devotees continues to form a significant presence in contemporary iterations of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Each are regarded as Buddhist deities, even though the origins of most can be traced to Brahmanical beginnings in India. Even so, most Sinhala Buddhists would be surprised to learn that worship of Vishnu, for instance, originated in India, since he is so well known in Sri Lanka as the guardian of the Buddhasasana (Buddhist tradition). Antecedent constructions of four guardian deities appear in earlier Vedic, Buddhist, and Puranic schemes that were articulated in the earlier history of Indian religions. These various constructions not only served the function of protecting temples, cities, regions, and, in the case of early Buddhism, the Buddha himself in cosmically configured contexts, but they also reflect the way in which deities from non-Vedic, non-Puranic, and non-Buddhist origins were also assimilated and subordinated, perhaps mirroring social and political processes that were historically in play. Comparatively, analogous but not identical processes of incorporation or assimilation can also be seen within the contexts of other Theravada Buddhist-dominated religious cultures: how the Burmese have enfolded nats (mostly euhemeristic, but some Hindu deities), how the Thai and Lao have enveloped phi (various spirits or powers of place and space), and how the Khmer have embraced the worship of neak ta (again, spirits or powers of place and space). In each of these other Theravada Buddhist cultural contexts, important Brahmanic deities have also been absorbed and their significance reframed. In Mahayana contexts, other Buddhists have similarly accommodated the worship of non-Buddhist indigenous deities in Japan (kami), in Tibet (bon), and in China (Taoist and Confucian supernaturals, in addition to deities of the Chinese folk traditions).