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Buddhism in Colonial Contexts

Summary and Keywords

Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.

Keywords: Buddhism, colonial modernity, Buddhist modernism, colonialism, Empire, Orientalism

Defining Colonialism in a Buddhist Context

Overviews of Buddhism and colonialism often begin in the early 16th century and end in the mid-20th century with the independence of polities with significant Buddhist populations such as Korea (1945), Vietnam (1945), Burma (1948), Ceylon (1948), Laos (1949), and Cambodia (1953). In most popular and national histories, these dates have often been seen as the beginning of the postcolonial period, but more nuanced studies show that no act of independence has ever been capable of eradicating the colonial period. Not only did most postcolonial nations maintain the governing technologies of the colonial state but colonial epistemologies had such a profound impact on the societies of both the colonized and colonizer that much of the way humanity conceives of the world today stems from colonial developments. We, are, in other words still living the colonial.1

In popular and scholarly consciousness, the term “colonialism” is often reserved for Western European domination in Asia (and Africa), but such a vision is deeply problematic for a number of reasons.2 First, it is overtly Eurocentric. For not only was the history of modern colonialism across Asia deeply shaped by the advances of Imperial Japan but across the continent as a whole, there were numerous instances of “inner colonialism.” From Qing expansion in the west and southwest of China to the Bangkok-based Chakri dynasty’s annexation of previously semi-autonomous polities in northern Siam or the Burman conquests, and subsequent Burmanization of minority areas, just prior to and after British colonial rule, Asian states were continually jostling for power within the region.3 Second, the notion that colonialism is a modern phenomenon is deeply myopic. Although the term has not been widely employed in studies of pre-modern Asia, colonialism can be more accurately seen as a central facet of human history, as much a part of the Roman conquest of Egypt as it was among the Ottoman Empire of the Turks.4 A more thorough and systematic overview of Buddhism in colonial contexts would undoubtedly consider a wider range of case studies, drawn from the ancient world and ongoing today.5 If periodizations of colonialism remain in flux, there is still good reason to focus primarily on the high tide of colonialism in 17th- to 20th-century Asia when European and (later) Japanese powers transformed significant elements of Buddhist history, thought, and practice.

Historians estimate that by the early 20th century, some 50 to 85 percent of the earth’s land surfaces were under the nominal control of just a handful of Western powers.6 While this remarkable statistic obscures much of colonialism’s complexities, it also speaks to the profoundly unbalanced nature of the global political economy in the modern world. The European colonization of the globe was already in process by the 16th century and by the mid-1600s, Asian economies were beginning to be restructured in accordance with the four most powerful European colonial powers, Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Over the course of the next three centuries, most parts of Asia with significant Buddhist populations came under direct political control of one (or more) European states. Even Thailand, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and the interiors of China, which maintained their independence (sometimes nominally), were still periodically forced into “unequal treaties” with colonial regimes. By the first quarter of the 20th century, there were three major colonial empires possessing “zones of influence” over regions with significant Buddhist populations: the British in South Asia with a significant maritime presence in Southeast and East Asia at places like Singapore and Hong Kong; the French in mainland Southeast Asia; and the newest imperial power, Japan, with a powerful presence across much of East Asia, including most notably Korea and Taiwan.

With histories of colonialism demonstrating almost innumerable variations in their actual practice and theorization, there is no singular, universally accepted definition that can be used to both describe and explain its various aspects across Buddhist Asia.7 There are, however, a number of common threads that are helpful in weaving together the wider analysis. The centerpiece of the colonial project is the physical conquest of another people’s spaces and territories with an intent to exert control over them via economic, political, intellectual, or military means. At its heart then, colonialism is a system of political domination in which one people’s economic, cultural, and intellectual resources are directed to the benefit of another “foreign” people. Many forms of colonialism are also closely tied to imperialism, which in the broadest sense of the term can be defined as the ability of a powerful center to impose its interests via a much grander territorial scale or even globally through the creation and maintenance of transcolonial empires. If imperialism is defined by domination, colonialism then is defined primarily by the acquisition of territories.8

While most of Europe’s colonies started as a means to access raw materials and secure their transport to the colonizer’s center, they typically adopted different models of political governance and economic structure over time, which in turn gave them varying roles.9 As colonial governance deepened, colonies also became cultural spaces aimed at representing an image or idea of what the colonizer and their “civilization” symbolized. Within the context of 19th-century European colonization and imperialism, this image was most emphatically marked by the “dual revolutions” of the late 18th century: the industrial transformation of liberal capitalism pioneered in Britain and the democratic nationalist revolution of liberté, égalité, fraternité largely confined to France.10 These dual transformations are seen by many scholars as giving birth to the modern world and to the foundation of “colonial modernity” or “modernity” more widely.11 Those who accept these terms see them as both a discourse and a condition which was thrust upon Asia as a result of exposure to Western forms of knowledge, growing commercial traffic, new forms of weaponry and technology, and territorially rigid concepts of nation states.12 In the colonial world of the late 19th and early 20th century, it was often assumed that only the “West” was modern and that as its civilizational program spread to Asia, the colonized would be reshaped according to the imagined attributes of the “modern West.”13

However, as is well-known, Asian societies, cultures, and religions did not fully adopt imagined Western models. Despite the failure of Western modernization theories as well as the absence of any singular definition of what modernity constitutes—there was no single modernity, only “multiple modernities,” as the sociologist Shmuel Eisendstadt put it—Buddhists from across the colonized (and non-colonized) world regularly invoked modernity as a descriptive and analytical tool to interpret Buddhism.14 While the literature on Buddhist modernity is growing quickly, scholars have identified a series of matrices that underlined the making of most Buddhist modernities.15 These include the privileging of the rational individual, secularism and laicization, psychologization, democracy and equality, science and empiricism, and social and political engagement.16 Undoubtedly, these sorts of attributes were central to the imaginings of numerous self-proclaimed Buddhist modernists and reformists, but it is also important to recognize that there were many Buddhists who pushed back against these models, offering “alternative modernities” in acts that can be simultaneously called both counter-modern and modern.17

As a system of ideas and practices, colonialism was marked by two major domains. On the one hand, a philosophy of liberalism guided its development. It envisioned a state whose rational rule of law governed the public sphere, enabling economic growth while encouraging individual autonomy and rational self-interest. On the other hand, colonialism moved to systematize and rationalize infrastructures including hygiene, industrial production, communication technologies (like printing presses), and commercial transport. This disciplinary rationalization extended to cultural domains like law, education, and the sciences, including new scientific fields such as ethnography and philology. Thus, the colonized became “beneficiaries” of these domains—the colonizing project was, it bears repeating, typically one of “civilizing subjects.” Indeed, as the work of many scholars has shown, there is a deeply paradoxical relationship between liberalism and empire, with the former often serving as the justification for the latter.18 Although never fixed in time, these ideas and practices were always to some degree serving as a backdrop in the colonial world.

British Empire in South and Southeast Asia

The first sustained colonial interventions in Buddhist lands occurred in the early 16th century when the Portuguese Empire attempted to gain access to Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) cinnamon supply. As Portuguese agents established a growing presence along the coast, the Padres of the Catholic Church worked to convince locals of the supremacy of their Savior. The strength of the colonial presence waxed and waned during this early period, but as the works of the elite Sinhala Buddhist poet and later Christian convert, Alagiyavanna Mukaveṭi (1552–c. 1625), demonstrate, religious worlds were being deeply challenged.19 When Portuguese territories in Lanka were lost to the Dutch East India Company with the help of Kandyan armies in 1658, the mountainous interior of the island was still largely independent. The Kandy Kings maintained this status until 1815 when the British East India Company—which had driven out the Dutch in 1796—forced them to sign the Kandyan Convention, formally ceding the entirety of the island to British control.

The British conquest of Ceylon marked just the beginning of the East India Company’s (after 1858, Britain’s) sustained encounters with Buddhist polities in South Asia. By 1824, Company troops had moved to annex southeast and southwestern Burma, the latter of which included the recently fallen Buddhist kingdom of Arakan—itself a victim of the Burmese Ava Court’s imperial expansion in the last decades of the 18th century. Following another military conflict in 1852, Lower Burma (Pegu) was added to the Company’s growing list of territories. The final coup d’état, however, occurred in 1885 when British troops entered the city of Mandalay and deposed Thibaw (r. 1878–1885), the last King of Burma’s Konbaung dynasty (1772–1885). This marked the high point of British colonial rule with multiple maritime ports across Southeast and East Asia under British control as well as nearly the entirety of mainland South Asia, stretching from what is today Afghanistan through Nepal and Bhutan to the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka under direct or indirect British rule.

India always remained the heart of Britain’s imperial enterprise, but apart from Chittagong, Burma (ruled as a province of India from 1885 to 1937), and the upper tracts of the Himalayas in places like Sikkim, Bhutan, Kinnaur, Zanskar, Ladakh, and Spiti, Buddhism had long ceased to be an active part of its religious landscape.20 While British surveyors and civil servants in India only encountered living Buddhists on the rarest of occasions, they did learn of them as they dug—often literally—into the deep recesses of the subcontinent’s history. The British discovery of Buddhism, was, like the wider European “invention” of Buddhism, a centuries-long process that involved scholarly networks linking Asia to Europe, remote monasteries to urban entrepôts, imperial centers to missionary outposts, and Buddhist literati with European savants. Colonialism was central to this process and Buddhology, like its sister disciplines Indology, Orientalism, and Anthropology, were directly tied to the colonial enterprise.21

By the mid-19th century, the deciphering of numerous Indic scripts chiseled into the sides of ancient Buddhist monuments and most importantly, of the Aśokan inscriptions—an act so significant that it has been rightly equated to the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics22—had led to a marked transformation in the way that India’s ancient history, and therefore Buddhist history, was understood.23 Archaeology and epigraphy, however, were not the only new tools in the Orientalist’s kit. Just as mounds of earth and half-broken images of bodhisattvas could alert archaeologists and art historians to critical junctures in Buddhist history, the ever-growing collection of manuscripts, gathered by antiquarians, merchants, colonial officers, and looters across the continent, also pointed to new horizons. With philology at their side, Orientalists took to the study of Buddhist literature, primarily in Sanskrit and Pāli, but also in numerous vernaculars, thereby recovering and often reinventing histories of Buddhist praxis and thought. For the disparate groups in South Asia—Europeans, Indians, Ceylonese, Burmese, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and so on—who associated themselves with organizations like the Asiatic Society (est. 1784), Archaeological Survey of India (est. 1861), and Pāli Text Society (est. 1881), Buddhism came to be seen as an object of knowledge within a wider European taxonomy and liberal secular discourse of “world religions.”24 By the mid- to late 19th century, the leading lights of these organizations had begun to define and imagine Buddhism as a discrete tradition in opposition to the Christianity of the West.

One a religion of the West, the other of the East; one theistic, the other atheistic; one with a reluctant savior, the other with a savior who proclaimed his superiority from the moment of his birth; one whose savior is depicted nailed to a cross, the other whose savior is depicted seated cross-legged in meditation.25

As a largely scriptural endeavor that supplanted ritual for text, the Orientalist understanding of Buddhism, personified by scholars like T. W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922), and his far too often neglected wife, C. A. F. Rhys Davids (1857–1942), came to define Buddhism, in its “original” formation at least, as a rational, scientific teaching based on compassion and kindness.26 It had, as Donald Lopez puts it, “a complete philosophical and psychological system, based on reason and restraint, opposed to ritual, superstition and sacerdotalism.”27 These were, of course, the very ideas at the root of Europe’s own modernity and Victorian Britain’s imagined self.28 Although it is not often acknowledged, Indian scholars—numismatists, epigraphists, archaeologists, and Orientalists of the highest caliber—also played a critical role in the refashioning of Buddhism at this time, mastering Orientalist disciplines and then using them to pursue their own interests and agendas.29 The scholarly works of the Bengali savant Rajendralal Mitra (1824–1891), the first “native” president of the Asiatic Society and his student, Haraprasad Shastri (1861–1930), inspired generations of scholars and Buddhists from England and Japan to India and Russia.

Buddhist leaders in colonial Burma and Ceylon were not immune to these ideas and the wider epistemic systems upon which they were founded. From its earliest days, British rule had relied extensively on the assistance of “native agents,” and a large body of scholarly monks, lay literati, and other professionals in the Empire had played critical roles in the study of ancient scriptures and inscriptions.30 Christian missionaries, whose schools, public forums, and vernacular printing presses often reached much further than the colonial state, were also responsible for spreading Western ideas about religious practice, thought, and identity. While the missionary enterprise was only minimally successful in converting the colonial populace, their most enduring impact was arguably in the way their model of religion rendered Buddhist traditions as a bounded entity. Just as in Japan and elsewhere in the colonial world, the dissemination of a liberal secularist discourse about “world religion” became naturalized by Buddhists with the teachings of Buddha increasingly imagined and defined as a discrete tradition in contrast to other religious traditions like Christianity, Shintoism, Islam, and Hinduism.31 As colonial rule deepened, the technologies of the colonial state recognized and enhanced these differences, treating what was essentially a discourse—Buddhism—as a concrete and tangible entity, marked by exclusive individual identities. While government enterprises like the Census required individuals to select singular identities, thereby encouraging Buddhists to sharpen and clarify their religious identities, the contested and ultimately ambiguous nature of the term “religion” itself often led to further questions about what constituted “Buddhist religion.” In places like Burma, the most dexterous of Buddhists exploited these ambiguities for their own benefit. This is most clearly visible in the early 20th-century legal case which Alicia Turner has termed the “shoe and the shikho.”32 Here, Burmese Buddhists used changing conceptions of religion to not only criticize the British practice of wearing shoes inside pagoda premises as a violation of the state’s policy of non-interference in religious affairs but also to resist the state’s demands that Burmese students prostrate (shikho) to their schoolteachers, an act which they argued was religious in nature and therefore not appropriate in secular classrooms.

Intellectual shifts in how one conceived of Buddhism was one thing, but the colonial state’s heavy hand was another. In both Ceylon in 1815 and Burma in 1885, the British dissolved the Buddhist monarchy, thereby stripping the sangha, or monastic body, of the state support upon which it historically relied. As in most Southeast Asian Buddhist polities, Burma’s king had possessed both “secular” and “religious” responsibilities, but the British refusal to maintain the king’s patronage of the sangha triggered a crisis of authority within the monastic system. When the Burmese sangha’s Supreme Patriarch (thathanabaing) died in 1895, for instance, the colonial administration refused to appoint a successor for nearly a decade. This not only triggered numerous institutional problems within the monastic education system but was seen by many Burmese as a failure of the British to behave like a righteous Buddhist ruler, since it was the king’s responsibility to appoint the new Patriarch.33 In Ceylon, the British dissolution of the monarchy had a somewhat different impact on monastic politics. Before 1815, the country’s political division into low-country maritime and high-country interior regions had placed those monastics in the low country in a rather ambiguous position. Although they took ordination and received their titles and positions from the highland kings of Kandy, they resided in territories administered by colonial authorities where the king’s formal authority was null and void. Yet for some, Britain’s presence represented something of an opportunity since some low-country monastics and their lay patrons were critical of Kandy’s roles in Buddhist affairs, especially in regard to Kandyan discrimination against low-country non-Goyigama men and the Kandyan maintenance of “administrative and ritual structures that favored Kandyan elites.”34 With the collapse of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, some low-country monks began to reject Kandy’s authority outright and in the decades thereafter, the position of the then dominant monastic group, the Siyam Nikāya (est. 1753) was weakened, leading to a power vacuum in which other monastic lineages and elites made efforts to assert or reclaim their influence.35

Such events had diverse repercussions across the Bay of Bengal. For scholar monks, like the influential Burmese meditation master Ledi Sayadaw (1846–1923), the perceived decline in monastic learning (pariyatti sāsana) wrought by British rule was an issue of grave concern.36 The only solution to this problem, he contended, was to uproot the whole system and begin making it more widely available among the laity. With the decline of Buddhism deep in Ledi’s mind, he embarked on a life of regular travel, founding ad hoc study groups and promoting a simplified Abhidhamma system once reserved only for the elite. Ledi put Buddhism “in the hands of all the people,” including new audiences, like the youth and women who “had not even the possibility of the same level of access as laymen under the old paradigm.”37 As a writer, he made use of advancements in print technology, by spreading his message through inexpensive and accessible formats while embracing the use of “simple language and an unadorned style.”38 At the center of his teachings was the provocative argument that in order to practice insight meditation (vipassanā), one did not have to first enter into the deep states of concentration known as the jhānas, but only had to develop the capacity to return again and again to momentary levels of concentration (khanika-samādhi). So influential were some of Ledi’s writings that they went through print runs of more than ten thousand and in the ensuing decades, Ledi’s interpretation of vipassanā on the basis of momentary concentration became part and parcel to the emerging global vipassanā movement.39

In Ceylon, religious prestige and power continued as it had prior to colonial rule, but the new power dynamics undoubtedly caused ruptures. Although British policy after 1857 mandated a strict rule of religious non-interference across the Empire, the state regularly sought out religious functionaries for advice on legal and educational issues.40 At times, this strengthened a new body of typically urban-based monastics, some of who had only minimal or localized influence in pre-colonial settings. Eminent monks, like Hikkaḍuvē Sumaṅgala (1827–1911) of Ceylon’s Siyam Nikāya, for instance, worked to reassert the Nikāya’s influence across the island at the same time that he corresponded with Buddhist leaders across Asia in the hopes of securing a new patron from the royal courts of Burma or Siam (Thailand). While these dreams never materialized, he was more successful in his institutional capacity as the principal of the state-sponsored Vidyodaya Buddhist College (est. 1873). Here, despite British pressures to introduce more “secular” subjects, monastic curriculums continued to focus on topics of classical Buddhist learning like Pāli and Sanskrit as well as Sinhala, astrology and ayurvedic medicine.41

While conversations about the nature of monastic education never faded from the public sphere, the state’s creation and expansion of a secular education system also gave rise to new sets of concerns. Although small schools for Buddhist laity had existed prior to colonial rule in both Ceylon and Burma, the British state’s desires for a near-universal system of primary education was a novel development. Secular school systems were initially established by Christian missionary societies but after the 1860s, a spectrum of state-supported educational institutions including government and missionary Anglo-vernacular schools began to mushroom across the colonies. Demands for these forms of education were particularly strong among affluent families and local elites who recognized that in an urban colonial economy, socio-economic mobility was closely tied to English-language skills and a Western education. In both Burma and Ceylon, the graduates of these new institutes never formed more than a small proportion of the colonial population, but their access to resources and coveted government jobs allowed them to exercise a disproportionate influence over social, economic and religious affairs. But whether students were educated in Christian missionary schools, which possessed a virtual monopoly in Ceylon, or in Anglo-vernacular government schools—often managed by Christian missionaries nonetheless—there were growing concerns in both Burma and Ceylon about the lack of Buddhist subjects in secular school curriculums.

In 1890s Burma, for instance, the government eventually agreed to support what were known as “Buddhist Anglo-vernacular schools.” These institutes included some Buddhist instruction but only as a compartmentalized subject of inquiry, which according to Alicia Turner further solidified the idea of Buddhism as a distinctive religious entity.42 In Ceylon, these kinds of hybrid institutes were also fast becoming part of the new educational fabric. By the time the American theosophist and famed “White Buddhist” Henry Olcott (1832–1907) arrived in Ceylon in 1880, of more than 1,200 government-sponsored schools, only four were Buddhist.43 By the time he died in 1907, there were more than 20,000 students attending some two hundred Buddhist schools he had founded.44 Through his Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS), Olcott was intent on not only countering Christian influence in the island but making secular education a central part of lay Buddhist life. Olcott’s Buddhism, in effect, “became the basic religious ideology of the educated Buddhist bourgeoisie.”45

Olcott’s schools provided instruction in a wide range of secular subjects, but their separate classes in Buddhism, guided by Olcott’s textbook, the Buddhist Catechism, is what made them unique. First published in Sinhala and English in 1881 and then churned out by the thousands in some twenty languages from Thai and German to Japanese and Tamil, the Buddhist Catechism is an excellent illustration of some of the new ways Buddhism was being imagined in the colonial world. According to the Catechism, Buddhism was a rationalized system of ethical and moral thought, fully compatible with modern science and free of the ritual and dogma that Olcott felt had corrupted “original” Buddhism. Despite the text’s messy blend of Protestant modernism, metropolitan gentility, academic Orientalism, and Western esotericism, several eminent Buddhist monks had “approved” the book’s content.46 Its publication, however, initiated a storm of protest among other monastics. Mohoṭṭivatte Guṇānanda (1823–1890), the polemicist monk and debater often credited with sparking Ceylon’s “Buddhist Revival,” published his own counter-catechism, the Bauddha Praśnaya (Buddhist Questions), presenting “true Buddhism” as a devotional activity based on ritual worship and not on Olcott’s “fraudulent” philosophy.47 The fact that both texts were as popular as they were despised speaks well not only to the diversity of Buddhist views in Ceylon but also to modernity and its discontents.

Olcott’s vision of Buddhism and his global travels propagating it had much to do with the wider globalization of Buddhism during the colonial era, but it was his protégé, Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933) who gave it a distinctive touch. Born as Don David Hewavitarane into an elite Sinhala Buddhist family, Dharmapāla was educated by Christian missionaries despite being closely acquainted with many of the island’s leading Buddhist clerics. After joining the Theosophical Society and being groomed in Olcott’s programs of socio-religious reform, Dharmapāla propagated another self-styled “modern Buddhism” whose grandiose vision of social outreach and this-worldly asceticism was matched only by its confidence in the soteriological path that the Buddha described. Through his Maha Bodhi Society (est. 1891) and influential English-language journal, the Maha-Bodhi, originally co-founded with Olcott but by the early 1900s managed to his own devices, Dharmapāla traveled most of Buddhist Asia and the Western world, promoting Buddhism as a solvent to contemporary afflictions and raising funds for his project to revive Buddhism in India and return the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya to Buddhist ownership.48

Although the Maha Bodhi Society was one of the most successful Buddhist organizations in the colonial world, it was not alone. By the late 19th century, Buddhist laity—often Western educated—founded and managed dozens of voluntary associations whose formal structures, charitable efforts, and emphasis on socio-educational transformation paralleled other organizations that had become increasingly common across urban South Asia. Most held weekly meetings, study sessions, and regularly scheduled events featuring experts on various Buddhist topics. In Burma, Ceylon, and even in more than a dozen cities in India, Buddhist associations became an important part of urban life, providing new definitions of what it meant to be Buddhist. For the thousands of Buddhists who joined modern associations in Burma, it “offered a democratized and homogenized Buddhist identity that leveled out some of the [existing social] hierarchies.”49 Religious authority was no longer just the providence of royal patrons, ritual specialists, and learned monastics. Some of the most powerful agents were now government clerks, editors, and schoolteachers who could draft an essay and have it printed in a newspaper, knowing that it might be seen by thousands in just a matter of days.

Although many of these organizations were shaped deeply by the cosmopolitan urban cultures in which they thrived, they also marked the growing visibility of an increasingly hard-edged ethno-nationalist religious politics across South Asia, which was itself a wider symptom of the nationalist fever sweeping the early 20th century world. While the relationship between Buddhism and politics is by no means novel, the ways in which Buddhists utilized Buddhist symbols, ideas, and institutions for political ends came to be one of the universal markers of colonial rule. Organizations like the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), founded in Ceylon in 1898 and then in Rangoon in 1906, became important vehicles of self-expression and organization for Western-educated Buddhists in the early 20th century. Although the organization saw itself as a loyal subject to the British Crown, its popular slogan “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist” was later taken up by political groups, some of whom had anti-colonial objectives. Although it was a Westernized elite who emerged as the primary leaders of the anti-colonial movement, monastics also played a critical role in constructing the nationalist narratives that mobilized the masses against colonial authorities, and as would become increasingly evident in the postcolonial state, against non-Buddhist and/or ethnic minorities.50

Some of the first major political protests in Burma, for instance, were led by the globetrotting Arakanese (Rakhine) polyglot and “agitator in yellow robes,” U Ottama (1879–1939).51 By using a combination of print and cross-country tours, Ottama helped convince the country’s patriotic youth that not only was the sangha a necessary part of the “nationalist solution” but that political activity was not a violation of the Vinaya but in fact a requirement of it. In Ceylon, Dharmapāla helped lay the foundation for the nationalist movement by popularizing the Orientalist argument that texts like the Mahāvaṃsa were “authentic” histories of the island nation.52 By the time of independence, historians, politicians, and monastics alike increasingly interpreted the ancient Pāli chronicle through an ethno-religious and racial lens in which the Sinhalese were seen as a chosen people safeguarding Buddhism against foreign invaders. Colonial archaeology further substantiated Sinhala claims of a once glorious Buddhist civilization that had collapsed due to the pernicious influences of non-Buddhist, non-Sinhala cultures.53 As the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in post-independence Sri Lanka escalated, Mahāvaṃsa histories and ancient ruins like Anuradhapura became firmly cemented in the spatial imagination of Sinhala nationalists who used them to rationalize monastic involvement in political affairs as part of the necessary defense of dhamma.54 As the walls of colonialism came crumbling down, Buddhism’s role in the political landscape had been firmly cemented, as is visible in Prime Minister U Nu’s “Buddhist socialism” in 1950s Burma and in Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s landslide victory in Sri Lanka in 1956 on a platform of “Sinhala-only” as the national language and Buddhism as the state religion.

French Colonialism and Mainland Southeast Asia

The French presence in Buddhist parts of mainland Southeast Asia dates to the 17th century when Roman Catholic priests were relatively successful in attracting Vietnamese near Saigon to the Christian mission. However, it was only in the mid-19th century when a resurgent French empire under Napoleon III (r. 1852–1870) established its own colony along the eastern coast of the mainland. Unlike Ceylon or Burma where the British deposed the Buddhist rulers, French Indochina was governed according to a model similar to what the British employed in India. In Cochin China (southern Vietnam), the populace was under direct French rule while in the remainder of Vietnam as well as in Cambodia and Laos, native monarchs were allowed nominal authority under French protectorates.

For Siam’s (Thailand) Bangkok-based Chakri dynasty—what was to be the only Buddhist kingdom in Southeast Asia that remained independent—the French creation of Indochina was of grave concern. In places like Chiang Mai (1899), Lanna (1920), and Nan (1931), all now in Northern Thailand, Siam engaged in a form of internal colonialism by replacing local rulers in what had been previously semi-autonomous Buddhist polities with officials loyal to the new Bangkok bureaucracy (which itself had been recently remodeled on that of the nearby colonial regimes).55 In one of its most ambitious plans, Bangkok implemented the Sangha Act of 1902, aimed at “unifying” and in effect, controlling, all of the various monastic sects throughout the kingdom’s borders. Of special target were those sanghas in the heavily populated regions in the north and northeast where Bangkok’s influence was weaker. Paralleling British incursions into northern Burma, Siam’s northern encroachments not only triggered a variety of millenarian movements, especially among the Lao of northeastern Siam, but also gave root to an oppositional ethno-nationalist movement led by the charismatic monk Khrūbā Wichai (1878–1939).56 These late 19th- and early 20th-century efforts by Siam’s leaders to expand the orbit of their authority and in turn, further repel European influence, were to have significant influences on the development of Buddhism in French Indochina, particularly in Laos and Cambodia.57

In the centuries following the collapse of the Khmer Empire (802–1431), political elites in both Siam and Vietnam gained significant influence over the Cambodian royal court. In 1863, when Cambodia officially became part of the French colonial empire, the recently enthroned Cambodian King Norodom (r. 1860–1904) was already well under the influence of the Bangkok court. Although Norodom was not a deeply religious man, he fulfilled the customary roles of a Buddhist king by supporting the sangha and building temples and resthouses. Prior to becoming King, Norodom had studied in Bangkok under the supervision of royal Thai authorities and even taken temporary ordination in the royal monastic order known as the Dhammayut (Thai, Thammayut), or “those adhering to the Dhamma.” Having been founded by Siam’s King Mongkut (r. 1851–1868) during his pre-enthronement years as a monastic, the Dhammayut not only laid the foundation for modern Thai Buddhism but inspired those in French Indochina interested in “modernizing” Buddhism. Mongkut’s Dhammayut sect had deep interests in matters of scriptural authenticity and drew on a Sinhalese Mahāvihārin recension of the Pāli canon alongside Mon monastic practices that emphasized disciplinary purity.58 Its stress on rationality and intellectualism over magic and miracles stemmed in part from Mongkut’s own conversations with Christian missionaries and Sinhalese monks, but it also had roots in wider reforms triggered by King Rama I (r. 1782–1809).59 With Norodom’s support, several of the highest-ranking monastics in the Dhammayut sect were brought to Cambodia, where they began propagating the idealized and rationalized image of Buddhism that was according to their view, more in adherence to the Dhamma (Dhammayut).

The penetration of Siam’s Dhammayut order into Cambodian affairs is a reminder that European colonial powers were never hegemonic in their influence, having to regularly contend with competing polities and the long-standing networks of monastic exchange that cut across both Empire and nation. For many monastics in both Laos and Cambodia, the Dhammayut’s model of modernity was attractive but for French administrators, its fusion of Buddhism, monarchy and the state was a dangerous cocktail.60 Although the French had maintained the Buddhist monarchies in Laos and Cambodia, they effectively “destroyed the legitimizing function of myth and religion . . . [and] threw into question the reciprocal relationship between the monarchy and the sangha by relegating Buddhism to a marginal position.”61 Like the British, they established secular education systems for local elites—although in Laos it remained dismal—and the Western-educated intelligentsia arose as the new socio-economic elite of the region. Only in rural areas where the state’s hand did not reach did the sangha maintain its customary roles.

By the early decades of the 20th century, French administrators had become more wary of the Dhammayut’s influences in the protectorate and launched a plan to not only mitigate its impact but direct Buddhist energies elsewhere. They began emphasizing the cultural and historical connections between Angkor (mostly in Cambodia) and Luang Phrabang (in Laos), drawing out the “unique” qualities of each kingdom’s literature and history. In places like Laos, monks were “guided” away from those monastic centers across the river in Siam and instead toward Cambodia and the Pāli schools the French established at Bassac and Phnom Penh. “This was part of a larger vision,” Justin McDaniel writes, “of binding together the peoples of Indochine culturally, educationally, and religiously. It was particularly important for the French to create a history in which Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were “naturally” “brothers,” to defend against Siam’s claims to Cambodia and Laos.”62

At the heart of this new effort were a set of projects aimed at creating distinctively “Lao” and “Khmer” “national religions” largely modeled after Siam’s Dhammayut sect but ingrained with all of the trappings of a “national identity.” While the project in Laos took longer to incubate due to the general apathy the French exercised in their governance there, it attained a higher pitch in Cambodia. The institutional center of these projects came from various institutes set up under the auspices of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO). Undoubtedly, it is thanks to the EFEO that the Angkorian past was the object of such rich scholarly focus and later became so central to the nationalist imaginings of figures like Sihanouk, no less than Pol Pot. Yet at the same time, the ways in which Siam and Siamese identity were purposely erased from Cambodian history in order to forge a state narrative is striking.63 Some of the most vivid expressions of this new sense of “Khmerness,” in fact came from the “reformed” or “new” Mahānikāy sect and its monastic luminaries like Chuon Nath (1883–1969) and Huot Tath (1891–c. 1975). Joining Indologists, Buddhologists, and Sanskritists working at the state-sponsored Buddhist Institute (est. 1930) in Phnom Penh, the new Mahānikāy monk-scholars “engineered and oversaw an institutional framework for the documentation and codification of a specifically “Khmer” Buddhist tradition.”64 And yet, as Anne Hansen’s important study demonstrates, the Mahānikāy did not simply replicate French Orientalist visions of what a modern Buddhism should look like.65 Instead, they drew on a wide variety of canonical Pāli sources alongside vernacular materials circulated freely among Buddhist networks across the Theravādin Buddhist world, allowing these sources to hold conversations with French philosophies and practices rather than be dominated by them. The end result was a modern Buddhism that spoke to contemporary Khmer audiences by refocusing attention away from metaphysics and toward more pragmatic issues like monastic discipline and ethical conduct in lay life.

In Cochin China, where Confucian ideals had long dominated elite political life, the French promotion of freedom of religion, which was paraded by the colonial state as a key marker of its progressive modernity and mission civilisatrice, resulted in a robust religious scene, one in which the public was confronted with almost any number of religious possibilities. Taking advantage of this “freedom” alongside the state’s support for a rationalized Buddhism, scholarly monks from southern and central Vietnam initiated a new modernist language around Buddhism, calling for educational and disciplinary reforms within the sangha.66 Like their co-patriots in Cambodia, they privileged a text-based Buddhism that stressed self-cultivation and ethics as critical antidotes to the problems facing modern society. Yet unlike Laos or Cambodia, the modernist movement in Vietnam, aided greatly by modern print technologies, was inspired more by contemporary reform movements in China led by the monk Taixu (1880–1947), whose own efforts were giving new shape to the formation of modern Chinese Buddhism.67 In the last three decades of colonial rule, monks in and around Saigon produced a voluminous and influential body of textual commentaries, periodicals, and devotional works concerning Mahāyāna Pure Land ideals and practices. The vast majority of these works appeared in the Romanized modern alphabet of the Vietnamese language, not in the Chinese script which French authorities had curtailed in an effort to sever Vietnam’s ties to its ancient tributary power. This in turn, as Benedict Anderson has argued more widely, gave rise to an imagined community of not Mahāyāna Buddhists with Sinitic roots but of Mahāyāna Buddhists with distinctive Vietnamese histories and cultures.68

As everywhere, anti-colonial movements also marked many Buddhist spaces in Indochina with monks playing critical roles throughout the colony. Perhaps the most notable example was the so-called Umbrella War in July 1942 when the French arrest of two Buddhist monks for “preaching nationalist sermons” triggered massive anti-colonial demonstrations across Phnom Penh with thousands of protestors, including some seven hundred monks, pouring into the streets.69 In Vietnam, the failure of the pre-colonial Confucian leadership to prevent the French takeover provided an opportunity for Buddhists to take on new leadership roles.70 In Cambodia (and to a lesser degree in Laos), it was the colonial state’s creation of the Buddhist Institute and sustained project to create a sense of “Khmerness” vis-à-vis the Siamese that in an ironic, but perhaps predictable outcome, ended up producing the most important architects of Khmer nationalism.71

Japanese Colonialism in East Asia

In 1940, less than a decade before Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia gained their independence (1945, 1949, and 1953, respectively), nearly ten thousand soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army entered Indochina. Although Indochina continued formally as a colony of Vichy France, the region was for all purposes under Japanese control. This in fact represented the last stages of Imperial Japan’s 20th-century colonial empire that had in the 1940s been justified by claims of universal benevolence in a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” Having been the target of European and American aggression from the mid-19th century onward, Japanese leaders responded by building their own imperial empire. On paper, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was a new international order in which Asian countries under the leadership of the Japanese emperor could be free from Western colonialism and domination. In practice, however, Japanese imperialism mirrored Western paradigms, deploying the language of civilizing missions and projecting an image of itself as distinct from its colonial subjects in China, Korea, and Taiwan, despite being “caught in the quandary of non-White, not-quite and yet-alike.”72 From a Buddhist studies perspective, Japanese colonialism is unique because not only were Buddhist populations colonized, particularly in Korea (1910–1945) and Taiwan (1895–1945), but because Japanese Buddhists themselves were active agents in the colonizing process.

The origins of Japanese colonialism can be usefully traced to 1868 when the Tokugawa shogun was overthrown in a bloodless coup, instituting what was known as the Meiji Restoration. At that time, Shinto became the new state religion and Japanese Buddhists, closely connected to the Tokugawa government, were condemned by the new regime for their “antiquated” and “foreign” ideologies. Desperate to gain approval under the new Meiji government, Japanese intellectuals and clerics formulated a “new Buddhism” (Shin Bukkyō), one that was seen as relevant to the modernization process that the Meiji government embraced with such force and incredible rapidity. New Buddhism was said to be “socially useful” and to demonstrate this in tangible form, Buddhists took up a variety of social service projects, supported the Meiji Emperor through nation-building activities, and argued that the dharma was not only universal but fully compatible with a modern, scientific world view. As worries about survival in the face of European expansion increasingly gave way to nationalistic calls for imperial maneuvers in the 1880s, Japanese Buddhists, whether “new” “or old” and representing the full spectrum of denominational allegiances, began to support this “mimetic imperialism” with vigor.73

When Japan formally colonized Korea in 1910, nearly five hundred years of Confucian rule via the Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910) came to an end. Many Japanese Buddhists saw Korea as a space where they could re-assert their strength and demonstrate their commitment to the Japanese state (kokutai) and glory of Great Imperial Japan (Dai Nihon Teikoku). Buddhist institutions had suffered immensely under Chosôn rule, and initially, many Korean Buddhists looked to Japanese Buddhists as allies who could help them overcome the discrimination they endured. Even prior to Japan’s formal annexation of Korea, multiple Japanese sects from Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji to Nichirenshū and Jōdoshū had begun establishing missionary orders across East Asia with Meiji support. From the Meiji perspective, the Buddhist missionaries were vital players in the wider effort to combat Christian influences and foster a pan-Asian Buddhist identity loyal to the emperor.74

In the early years of Japanese rule, government regulations were passed in order to “modernize,” “reform,” and “protect” Buddhist monasteries and properties, hopeful that the new ordinances would not only strengthen the Korean sangha but also curb Christian expansion. Far from being the passive victims who numerous postcolonial histories recall, many Korean Buddhists were strategic in their response to Japanese interventions, seeking alliances with the state and various Buddhists sects in order to protect and expand their own temple properties and social roles.75 With the passing of the 1911 Temple Ordinance, the Korean Government General became, in effect, the head of all institutionalized forms of Korean Buddhism. The Ordinance made the government directly responsible for the management of all temple life, an act that not only significantly reduced the ability of Buddhist sects (Korean or otherwise) to exercise any degree of autonomy but overhauled existing social hierarchies. The Ordinance and its bylaws also included further “reforms,” including the centralization of all monasteries through a single network, the introduction of secular subjects in monastic curriculums, the opening of hundreds of monastic branches aimed at proselytizing among the public, and the encouragement of clerical marriage and meat-eating among monastics.76

Although there were numerous Japanese Buddhist sects active in colonial Korea, a brief examination of the Sōtō Zen sect illustrates some of wider Buddhist dynamics involved in Japan’s colonization. The Sōtō sect was one of the last Buddhist groups to establish a presence in Korea, only arriving in 1905 but building more than one hundred temples across Korea in the next forty years. According to Nam-lin Hur, these temples carried out three primary tasks.77 First, they provided ritual services for the Japanese military and the several hundred thousand Japanese civilians who settled in the Korean peninsula between 1876 and 1945.78 Second, they worked to make Koreans into loyal subjects (kōminka) of the imperial state by running Japanese-language schools and teaching them “what Imperial Japan considered desirable with regard to morality, attitude, behavior and practical skills.”79 Third, they worked to pacify the anti-Japanese sentiments both explicit and latent in much of the colonial society. Unlike Korean Christianity, which remained firmly anti-Japanese and held a cherished place for much of the Korean public, Buddhism was seen as a cultural link between Japan and Korea that could be exploited for imperial benefit. Many Korean Buddhists who had been subjected to terrible suppression and humiliation in the Chosôn dynasty eagerly joined hands with Japanese clerics, who not only offered to improve Buddhism’s social lot but also provided ample opportunities to enhance their social status.80

After the March First Movement of 1919 demanded Korean independence, the response to Buddhist reforms took on more political dimensions. Young clerics—some of whom had studied in Japan—pressed the government to abolish the Ordinance and cease its interference in religious affairs. The famous monastic reformer, Han Yongun (1879–1944), for instance, criticized the close ties between the sangha and the colonial regime, describing it as “Bureaucratic Buddhism” (kwanje Pulgyo) and advocating instead a socialist-inspired “Buddhism for the masses” (minjung Pulgyo). Han argued that to spread Buddhism among the masses, Buddhists had to “neither abandon human society nor deny close, loving relationships with people. They instead attain enlightenment through defilement and achieve nirvana in the midst of the stream of life and death.”81

Despite the calls of Han and other clerics to abolish the Japanese reforms, government intervention in the sangha persisted until 1945 when the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the end of Japanese rule. The legacy of Japanese colonialism in Korea remains deeply politicized, but undoubtedly the most significant and contentious issue concerns the widespread adoption of clerical marriage by Korean Buddhists. This popular practice had already been embraced by the majority of Japanese clerics at the time, who during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) began eating meat, drinking alcohol, and marrying, all of which are typically interpreted as being in violation of the Vinaya or codes of monastic conduct.82 This behavior was encouraged on the basis that it was not only pragmatic but that it also lessened the sometimes rigid division between the monastic body and laity. Under Japanese rule, the promotion of marriage and meat-eating among Korean monastics had a profound impact on Korean society with an estimated 80 percent of Korean monasteries having “formally eliminated the restrictions on having wives in residence” by the 1920s.83

The Japanese Buddhist missionary presence in colonial Taiwan appears to have been less contested than it was in Korea. After Qing China ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Buddhist clerics attached to Japanese armies entered the colony. Paralleling developments in Korea, these chaplain-missionaries came from multiple schools (shū) and sects (ha) and were initially charged primarily with providing spiritual services to Japanese civilians and troops before attempting to use Buddhism as a bridge between themselves and the people they sought to rule.84 According to Charles Brewer Jones, missionary success among Buddhist populations in Taiwan was not only minimal but had fewer repercussions than in Korea.85 Despite the fact that Buddhists in Taiwan were forced into supporting colonial institutions, Jones suspects that because Taiwanese monastics were never pressured to accept clerical marriage or meat-eating, and were able to maintain ordination lineages and networks to the Chinese mainland, fewer ruptures occurred within Taiwanese Buddhist life.

Buddhist involvement in Japanese colonialism was not limited to Korea or Taiwan. As numerous scholars have shown, Zen Buddhists played a critical role in developing the spirit of imperial militarism that characterized much of Japanese national rhetoric during the Fifteen Year War (1930–1945) when Japanese soldiers conquered significant parts of East and Southeast Asia.86 Buddhist involvement in the war effort was shaped by a number of different forces, including “institutional self-interest, limited knowledge of the suffering the Japanese military was inflicting on other Asians, a traditional closeness to military leaders, indoctrination through the imperial education system, and by extension a good measure of patriotism as fully socialized Japanese citizens.”87 In places like China, where Japanese soldiers torched, pillaged, and raped their way through much of the eastern seaboard between 1937 to 1945, Japanese Buddhists provided ample justifications for state violence. Not all Japanese Buddhists were so supportive but their voices were largely lost in a sea of nationalist aggression.

Just as Korean and Taiwanese Buddhists experienced Japanese imperialism differently, so too did Buddhist communities in China. In the decades prior to the Japanese invasion, Chinese Buddhists were well aware of the transformations that colonial powers were triggering across the Asian world. As their own country suffered from immense political instability and strife, many young monastics began to question not only what was responsible for bringing about this state of affairs but also what could be done to resurrect China’s prestige and power. As Rongdao Lai writes, “at a time when the socio-political discourse was dominated by ideas such as democracy, freedom, liberty, equality and republicanism . . . young monks were eager to demonstrate that they, too, were capable of becoming “new monks” for the nation.”88 For figures like Taixu (1890–1947), who eventually emerged as one of the most influential Chinese monastics of the period, China’s future rest in “invigorating Buddhism through education” (jiaoyu xingjiao), a slogan he coined in response to the popular expression of the day: “saving the nation through education” (jiayu jiuguo).89 Taixu’s efforts to revitalize Buddhism were as much informed by global discourses as they were driven by myriad reasons, from long-standing concerns about the negative impact of customary Pure Land devotionalism on Chinese life to deep-seated fears concerning the threat of European and Japanese imperialism. After founding China’s first modern Buddhist Studies Academy (foxueyuan) in Wuchang in 1922, an institute that shifted learning from being a top-down hierarchical affair to a horizontal relationship that sustained collective identities, Taixu went onto produce a voluminous literature that influenced much of the Sinitic Buddhist world. As his ideas permeated Sinitic spaces across East Asia, the graduates of Wuchang and the other Buddhist Studies Academies that flourished in its wake, began to call themselves “new monks” in opposition to the “conservative” monks who they felt had failed to respond to the needs of the time and defend the nation.90

As fears of Japanese aggression grew, even those Buddhist communities in China who had been previously antagonistic to the Republican government and its regular efforts to appropriate Buddhist temple property also began arguing that the future of Buddhism depended on the integrity of the nation.91 Along with spreading the idea that the sangha’s central duty was to protect the nation, they began implementing military training programs for monastics on temple grounds across the country. Although some Chinese monastics like Juzan (1908–1984) organized anti-Japanese guerilla forces, most training programs were organized around ritual prayers and the formation of “sangha rescue teams” (sengqie jiuhudui) that would administer medical assistance to the wounded. As the military conflict escalated, Chinese Buddhist intellectuals recognized the conundrum Buddhists were in with the majority of the Buddhist canon clearly advocating a doctrine of non-violence. To resolve this issue, some Chinese Buddhist monastics temporarily renounced their vows, or more commonly, began espousing the idea of “compassionate killing”: the idea that the first precept of non-killing would not be broken if a life was taken for the purpose of saving a greater number of lives.92 In the aftermath of the war, the history of monastic participation in the conflict was strategically used by monastics like Taixu to enhance their reputation among a Chinese public that praised any anti-Japanese effort. As the historian Xue Yu concludes, although the Anti-Japanese War of 1937–1945 left a mass of ruined temples and monuments in its wake, wartime mobilization and the general politicization of the Buddhist community at this time helped spread Buddhism among the wider populace in ways that had not been previously possible.93

Comparisons and Connections

Viewed from a broad perspective, it becomes clear that changes to Buddhism during the colonial period were linked closely to one another. The most obvious transformation was the emergence of national Buddhisms that rose as colonial empires slowly crumbled in the early 20th century era of “hyperactive nationalism.”94 Although scholars of colonialism have often taken the nation at face value, writing histories of the region according to distinctive and compartmentalized, national “stories,” the expansion of imperial power did as much to divide Asia as it did to unite it.95 While scholars are only beginning to fully understand the extent to which Buddhists were connected to one another at this period, it is now clear that the changes wrought by international commercial interests and new advancements in communication and transportation technologies—namely, steamships, railways, telegraphs, and printing presses—laid the foundation for a new era of global Buddhist connections and networks.96

Buddhists from across Asia utilized state connections and new technologies to travel across the Empire, spread the dharma, establish new Buddhist centers, and raise funds for Buddhist projects both at home and abroad. The impetus for their activities often differed. Dharmapāla wished to recover Bodh Gaya for Buddhists while the monk Taixu (1890–1947) wished to make “humanistic Buddhism” (Chinese, renjian fojiao) the “meeting place for all races.”97 But they were in some sense drawn together by a shared devotion to the Buddha’s teachings, and confidence in the ability of those teachings to alleviate suffering in the modern world. The ever-shifting territorial landscape that accompanied several centuries of imperial aggression also carried Buddhism to new social settings through nearly unparalleled waves of voluntary and involuntary migration.98 For instance, British control over the Malaysian Peninsula, finalized with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, and establishment of Singapore in 1819 enabled Theravāda missionaries to penetrate religious marketplaces previously dominated by Malay Muslims and Chinese Mahāyānists. As major entrepôts in the commercial networks linking British India to the rest of Asia, Singapore, and Penang alongside Java and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies became key nodes in the modern interaction between Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions, giving rise to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and polyglot populations that form the distinctive cosmopolitan cultures of the Malay Archipelago.99

Scholars often invoke Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” and the role of the printing press in the making of the modern-day nation, but as Christopher Bayly has argued, “the imagined communities of the nineteenth century nation were nowhere near as large as the audiences subject to the huge outflow of printed books, pamphlets, Qurans, Bibles and Buddhist jatakas directed to the faithful. In the Empire of Books, religion trumped all.”100 Buddhism never possessed a monopoly, but in colonial Asia, Buddhist literature was often at the vanguard of the new print culture, even carving out new zones of influence in places like India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where in the centuries prior to the print revolution, Buddhist treatises had been collecting dust or been lost all together. Across the Sinospheres of East Asia, new publishing houses produced “affordable home editions of sutras, famous monks’ treatises, scholarly journals and popular Buddhist themed-magazines” speaking to “a large and translocal imagined community, a Buddhist public, which included both Buddhist clerics and lay people sympathetic to and interested in Buddhism beyond the traditional household rituals.”101

The introduction and near universal adoption of printing presses not only supplanted the manuscript cultures that had characterized much of Asia but also gave rise to new forms of writing and religiosity. Pamphlets, religious tracts, and newspapers were all novel ways to spread knowledge of the dharma. The rise of cheap print, enabled by the invention of lithographic printing in 1804, meant that sponsoring the composition of a Buddhist scripture—an age-old way to generate merit—was suddenly open to a much wider social class. But “printing did not only reflect the tastes of the market,” as the historian Nile Green puts it, “it also informed them.”102 In Ceylon, the mass printing of short, simplified liturgical texts on the ritual practice known as Buddha-vandanā or Buddha veneration transformed what had previously been a small-scale elite practice into a central devotional ritual of lay Buddhist life.103 Like the Buddha-vandanā texts, the use of commercial printing presses allowed publishers to seek wider audiences, which in turn meant writing for general consumption. Monthly periodicals, like the Buddhist Review of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain (est. 1909), Tamil-language Oru Paisa Tamilan (“One Penny Tamilan”) of the South Indian Buddhist Association (est. 1899), or bilingual Bengali—English Bauddha-Bandhu (“Buddhist Friend”) of the Chittagong Buddhist Association (est. 1885), reported on Vesak celebrations across the globe, the discovery of long-lost Buddhist monuments in India and new translations of Buddhist scriptures, creating the impression that all Buddhists were united under a single common denominator, part of a larger, broader body of global Buddhists.

Although the power of the colonial regimes always weighed in the background, throughout the colonial period, there was a current of communication, sharing, and borrowing both within and across Asian boundaries. While Mongolian Buddhists under Soviet occupation were brutally persecuted as the Stalinist state took a draconian turn, Buddhists from elsewhere in Asia continued to debate the merits of Marx, forging new Marxist-tinged Buddhist dialectics in places like Japan, China, Korea, and India.104 Yet it was not just the works of Euro-American thinkers that influenced Asian Buddhist intellectuals. The works of Buddhist notables like Dharmapāla, Shaku Sōen (1860–1919), and Rahul Sankrityayan (1893–1963) were read alongside those of Western Orientalists in cafes in Tokyo, monasteries in Colombo, and resthouses in Bodh Gaya. Tibetan intellectuals like Gendun Chopel (1903–1951) traveled to India, immersing themselves in transcolonial Buddhist networks and then publishing treatises critical of Tibetan Buddhist geography with the hope of alerting Tibetans to the brave new world that dwelled outside the plateau.105 In Japan, there was an incredible surge of interest in the Pāli scriptures that southern Buddhists regarded as the purest form of Buddhism but which for centuries had been contemptuously dismissed by Mahāyānists as a “Lesser Vehicle” (hināyāna). As the seminal work of Richard Jaffe has shown, Japanese clerics traveled to India and Ceylon to study the Pāli canon and Buddhist doctrines as understood by Indian Orientalists and esteemed Sinhala monks.106 Some Japanese responded by calling for a return to “original Buddhism” (genshi bukkyō) or “fundamental Buddhism” (kompon bukkyō) and by the early 1900s, several Japanese had taken ordination in Theravāda lineages. Figures like Shaku Kōzen (1849–1924) embraced Ceylon’s Pāli Buddhism as the “purest, truest form of Buddhism,” taking full ordination (upasaṃpadā) from Hikkaḍuvē in 1890 and returning to Japan to start the “Society for the True Lineage of Śākyamuni” (est. 1893).107

Nor was it just colonial powers that transformed the colonized. By blending Western psychology (especially that of William James) with Orientalist thought, the writings of the Japanese intellectual and nationalist D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) converted much of the Western world to his view that Zen is not a religion but a mystical experience, the “pure unmediated experience of reality and the spontaneous living in harmony with that reality.”108 When the World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago in 1893, Dharmapāla wowed audiences with his arguments of a scientific Buddhism, gaining the support of the Hawaiian philanthropist Mary Foster (1844–1930), who showed her support by showering the Maha Bodhi Society with tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

Perhaps the most notable reconfiguration of Buddhism that was linked to a much more extensive web of changes across the globe occurred in India. There, the revival of long-distance pilgrimage from across Asia and sustained Orientalist interest led thousands of Indians to the teachings of the Awakened One.109 At the same time Buddhists from other lands looked to an imagined Buddhist India for inspiration, Indians were seeing their own Buddhist past as a link to the rest of Asia. The Nobel laureate and artist, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), along with his nephew, Abandrinath (1871–1951), the “founder” of the Bengal School of Art, saw Buddhism as a vessel through which to revitalize and redefine contemporary Indian art forms. Through their friendship with the eminent Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzo (1862–1931), the Tagores began working toward a pan-Asian artistic tradition that blended the shared aspects of “Eastern” spiritual and artistic culture.110 While most Indian interests in the dharma remained largely academic and nationalistic, the romantic nostalgia for India’s Buddhist past and simultaneous “modernity” led some of its national elite to more forceful embraces. The most well-known example was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), the Dalit leader and chief architect of India’s constitution, whose conversion to Buddhism in 1956 along with half a million of his followers was inspired in part by earlier colonial-era conversions among oppressed Indian populaces seeking an escape from caste discrimination.111 For India’s first prime minister and fervent secularist, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), Buddhism was also an attractive means through which to shape the new nation. Throughout his long political career, Nehru utilized Buddhist symbols and rhetoric to advance the state’s foreign and domestic goals, sponsoring regular international celebrations of the Buddha’s “birthday” in the name of world peace and parading a new official state regalia flush with Buddhist symbolism.112 In effect, by Indian independence in 1947, ancient Buddhist sites like Sarnath and Kushinagar, which less than one hundred years prior had been dusty towns more likely to be visited by cattle than monks, were now hosting thousands of international Buddhist pilgrims annually. Bodh Gaya, the site where Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have attained Awakening, would become the center of the “global Buddhist bazaar,” and “a vital force in the building [of] a pan-Asian Buddhist identity” and “the global dissemination and exchange of Buddhist ideas, practices, teachers, and institutions.”113 What is no less remarkable than the sheer way in which these ancient sites were transformed into a living reflection of modern global Buddhism is the very fact that these same spaces and their pan-Asian networks gave rise to the very idea of global Buddhism.

Review of the Literature

In recent years, scholars have moved away from, or at the very least begun to interrogate, the utility and meaning of a number of commonly employed binaries used to discuss colonial-era Buddhism, such as traditional and modern, decline and revival, collaborator and patriot. Some of the most substantive debates are those concerning colonialism’s role in the making of Buddhist modernism.114 That discourse itself has often been consumed by the issue of “Protestant Buddhism,” or the idea that almost all modern forms of Buddhism are derivative of Protestant models of Christianity introduced to Asian Buddhists by missionaries during the colonial period.115 Although initially intended to frame new Buddhist movements in British Ceylon, Protestant Buddhism soon became a scholarly shorthand used to characterize (often erroneously) a wide variety of transitional phases and developments in Buddhist cultures across Asia. Despite growing criticism of the expression, Protestant Buddhism and other related expressions such as Buddhist modernism now signify a number of interrelated factors: the enhanced role of lay Buddhists, the decline of monastic power, the increased emphasis on Buddhism’s rational characteristics, the privileging of canonical scriptures, and efforts to counter Western influence while simultaneously appropriating Western technologies and epistemological structures.

Many scholars are now calling for a significant revision of the “sea change modernist” discourse. Anne Blackburn, for instance, has challenged the idea that modern Buddhism’s scripturalist tendencies are simply products of European or Protestant influences. Using Ceylon’s Siyam Nikāya (est. 1753) as a case study, she argues that its promotion of Pāli learning and creation of textual communities mediated via bilingual Pāli-Sinhala commentarial literature (sutra sannaya) is evidence of deeper, systemic changes occurring within the sangha on the eve of British colonialism.116 In a similar vein, several scholars have begun to re-evaluate the formation of the Dhammayut monastic order by King Mongkut (Rama IV), seen by earlier generations as a product of his encounters with Christian missionaries, but now argued by some to be a continuation of rationalizing tendencies triggered generations earlier by King Rama I (r. 1782–1809).117 These developments, and many others like them, may in fact be an example of what Charles Hallisey has called “intercultural mimesis,” or “occasions where it seems that aspects of a culture of a subjectified people influenced the investigator to represent that culture in a certain manner.”118

Some scholars have also challenged the wider narrative that sees discourses of reform and rationalism as a totalizing wave that washed over all of Buddhist thought and practice. Like the prominent secularization theorists of the 20th century who wrongly prophesized a 21st- century world where religion would be absent, the notion that Buddhism would emerge from colonialism ritual-free and mirroring secular visions has proved far from true.119 Anyone who travels extensively through Buddhist Asia today still encounters an enchanted world, where the veneration of relics is thriving and ritual practice remains at the center of not just village life but many urban households. As seen in places like Vietnam, the colonial-era reformist movements that privileged a text-based rational Buddhism had minimal influences on rural populaces who continued to gravitate toward apotropaic practices and the esoteric arts.120 In other words, the reformist transformation may well have been true for much of the urban bourgeois intelligentsia in the colonial world but it hardly speaks to the socio-religious worlds of the peasant cultivators, laborers, industrial workers, craftsmen, and mid- and low-level government servants at the other ends of the social pyramid. When, or if, scholars turn to the study of these enchanted Buddhist publics, the idea of what it means to be a “modern Buddhist” may become ever more complex and contested. It may be more accurate, then, to see colonialism not as upturning all forms of Buddhism but rather marking select aspects of it in distinctive ways.121

Further Reading

General Introductions to Colonialism

Cooper, Frederick, ed. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

    Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.Find this resource:

      Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Translated from the German by Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1997.Find this resource:

        General Introductions to Buddhism in Colonial Context

        Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat, und Gessellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, 3 vols. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrasowitz, 1966–1973.Find this resource:

          Borchert, Thomas, ed. Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts. London: Routledge, 2018.Find this resource:

            Lopez, Donald, ed. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.Find this resource:

              Studies of Colonial-Era Buddhism in Regional Context

              Aloysius, G. Religion as Emancipatory Identity: A Buddhist movement among the Tamils under colonialism. New Delhi: New Age International, 1997.Find this resource:

                Blackburn, Anne. Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth Century Lankan Monastic Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                  Blackburn, Anne. Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                    Braun, Erik. The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                      Edwards, Penny. Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860–1945. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                        Hansen, Anne. How to Behave: Buddhism and Modernity in Colonial Cambodia, 1860–1930. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                          Harris, Elizabeth. Theravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth-Century Sri Lanka. London: Routledge, 2006.Find this resource:

                            Jaffe, Richard M. Seeking Śākyamuni: South Asia in the Formation of Modern Japanese Buddhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.Find this resource:

                              Kemper, Steven. Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapāla and the Buddhist World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                Kim, Hwansoo Ilmee. Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013.Find this resource:

                                  Kim, Hwansoo Ilmee. The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History, 1910–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018.Find this resource:

                                    Malagoda, Kitsiri. Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900: A Study of Religious Revival and Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.Find this resource:

                                      McHale, Shawn Frederick. Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                                        Ober, Douglas. “Reinventing Buddhism: Conversations and Encounters in Modern India, 1839–1956.” PhD diss., University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2016.Find this resource:

                                          Park, Jin Y., ed. Makers of Modern Korean Budhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                            Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                                              Turner, Alicia. Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                Victoria, Brian. Zen at War. 2nd ed. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.Find this resource:

                                                  Yu, Xue. Buddhism, War and Nationalism: Chinese Monks in the Struggle against Japanese Aggressions, 1931–1945. New York: Routledge, 2005.Find this resource:


                                                    (1.) Stuart Hall, “When Was ‘the Postcolonial’? Thinking at the Limit,” in The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies—Divided Horizons, eds. Ian Chambers and Lidia Curti (London: Routledge, 1996), 242–260.

                                                    (2.) See Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Postcolonialism,’” Social Text 1, no. 31–32 (1992): 84–98.

                                                    (3.) For Qing China, see Nicola Di Cosmo, “Qing Colonial Administration in Inner Asia,” The International History Review 20, no. 2 (1998): 287–309; and the introductory essay by Peter C. Perdue, “Comparing Empires: Manchu Colonialism,” The International History Review 20, no. 2 (1998): 255–262. For an important study that touches on many of these themes within the context of the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia, see James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

                                                    (4.) For a discussion of colonialism’s application in a pre-modern Asian context, see Geoff Wade (ed.), Asian Expansions: The Historical Experiences of Polity Expansion in Asia (London: Routledge, 2015).

                                                    (5.) For instance, the relationship between contemporary Tibet and China (to provide just one example) is often said to signify a new reworking of colonial relationships. For discussions of Tibet as an example of “postcolonial colonialism.” See Stephen J. Hartnett, “Alternative Modernities, “Postcolonial Colonialism and Contested Imaginings in and of Tibet,” in Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, eds. Stephen J. Hartnett, Lisa B. Keränen, and Donovan Conley (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), 91–137.

                                                    (6.) The discrepancy between the 50 percent and 85 percent often stems from whether or not the United States and Canada are considered colonial powers. For many historians, the United States was the first postcolonial state, but such an idea must be seen as simply absurd from the perspective of the indigenous populations whose lands were occupied by white settlers. If the United States is removed from this equation, then it must still be recognized that one half of the mainland of earth was under the nominal control of just eight European powers.

                                                    (8.) Osterhammel, Colonialism, 21–22.

                                                    (9.) Colonies in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, for instance, were in many ways different from those in Asia. In the former regions, white settlers quickly formed a majority of the populace unlike in Asia where settlers never formed more than a small minority, thus providing very different colonial experiences (and possibilities for decolonization). For an excellent overview, see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 62–73, and ch. 3 more widely.

                                                    (10.) Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

                                                    (11.) See Hyungjung Lee and Younghan Cho, “Introduction: Colonial Modernity and Beyond in East Asian Contexts,” Cultural Studies 26, no. 5 (2012): 601–616.

                                                    (12.) Hobsbawm, Age of Empire, 65–67.

                                                    (13.) Shmuel Eisenstadt, “The Civilizational Dimension of Modernity: Modernity as a Distinct Civilization,” International Sociology 16, no. 3 (2001): 320–340.

                                                    (14.) Shmuel Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000): 1–29.

                                                    (15.) Despite its rapid growth, several works remain important primers on the subject. David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), provides a formative overview. Pioneering studies include Henri de Lubac’s more philosophically-minded exegesis in, Le rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident (Paris: Aubier, 1952); and Heinz Bechert’s historical-cultural analysis in, Buddhismus, Staat, und Gessellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, 3 vols. (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrasowitz, 1966–1973). Multiple works in the Buddhism and Modernity Series, edited by Donald Lopez and published by the University of Chicago Press have continued to drive the conversation forward (see “Further Readings” at the end of this article for select works). Finally, for an insightful and reflective article on the idea of modernity as a whole within the context of Buddhist studies, see Marilyn Ivy, “Modernity,” in Critical Terms in the Study of Buddhism, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 311–328.

                                                    (16.) Of course, while these attributes were increasingly linked to “Buddhist modernity,” it does not mean that they were necessarily absent in pre-modern Buddhist traditions. Rationalism and positivism, for instance, were by no means “modern” or “Western” inventions but the creation of formal organizations that measured Buddhism according to these standards were novel developments. For an insightful study of empiricism and rationality in the pre-modern Tibetan Buddhist context, see Janet Gyatso, Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

                                                    (17.) For discussions of the counter-modern in terms of Buddhism, see Matthew King, Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). For the argument that even “counter-reformists” are modern in the sense that they are influenced by new trends and adopt new technologies to combat the modern, see Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840–1915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

                                                    (18.) Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). See also the seminal essay, Thomas Metcalf, “Liberalism and Empire,” in Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 28–65.

                                                    (19.) Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism: Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 27. See also Alan Strathern, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

                                                    (20.) Our understanding of Buddhism in the Himalayas within the context of scholarly rubrics like “colonial modernity” and “transimperial networks” remains fragmented at best. Some pioneering work, however, includes the latter half of Toni Huber, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 125–376; Sarah Levine and David Gellner, Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in Twentieth-Century Nepal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Transcultural Studies (Special issue), 1 (2016), on global encounters and connected histories in the eastern Himalayas .

                                                    (21.) Undoubtedly, the study of Buddhism became at times inextricably tied to the pursuit of power—the more colonial administrations knew about the people and land they governed the more effective it could be in governing them—but not all research was political (no matter whether it was used for those purposes). For an important critique of the Said-ian thesis of Orientalism, see Thomas Trautmann, Aryans and British India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 18–27. For a more thorough discussion of the discovery of Buddhism, Donald S. Lopez Jr., From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

                                                    (22.) Trautmann, Aryans and British India, 137.

                                                    (23.) Upinder Singh, The Discovery of Ancient India: Early Archaeologists and the Beginnings of Archaeology (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004); Nayanjot Lahiri, Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and Its Modern Histories (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2012).

                                                    (24.) On world religions discourse, see Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). On the secular-religious discourse more widely, see Talal Asad’s seminal works, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

                                                    (25.) Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken, In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2014), 193–194.

                                                    (26.) Judith Snodgrass, “Defining Modern Buddhism: Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids and the Pāli Text Society,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27, no. 1 (2007): 186–202. See also Ananda Wickremeratne, The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Delhi: Motilal Banrasidass, 1984).

                                                    (27.) Donald S. Lopez Jr., “Introduction,” in Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 6.

                                                    (28.) Philip Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

                                                    (30.) The Buddhological enterprise, in other words, could not have advanced at the incredible rate it did, without the active aid and assistance of the Empire’s “native subjects.”

                                                    (31.) For discussions of these issues as applied to Burma, see Alexey Kirichenko, “From Thathanadaw to Theravāda Buddhism: Constructions of Religion and Religious Identity in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Myanmar,” in Casting Faiths: Imperialism and the Transformation of Religion in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Thomas David Dubois (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 23–39; and Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014). For Japan, see Jason Ananda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

                                                    (32.) Turner, Saving Buddhism, 110–135.

                                                    (33.) Alexey Kirichenko, “The Thathanabaing Project: Monastic Hierarchies and Colonialism in Burma,” in Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts, ed. Thomas Borchert, 138–161 (New York: Routledge, 2018).

                                                    (37.) Braun, Birth of Insight, 100, 105.

                                                    (38.) Braun, Birth of Insight, 91–92.

                                                    (39.) Braun, Birth of Insight. See also Brooke Schedneck, Thailand’s International Meditation Centers: Tourism and the Global Commodification of Religious Practices (London: Routledge, 2015).

                                                    (40.) For studies of Buddhism and law in Burma and Ceylon, see, respectively, Christian Lammerts, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2018); Benjamin Schonthal, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

                                                    (41.) Blackburn, Locations of Buddhism.

                                                    (42.) Turner, Saving Buddhism, 45–74.

                                                    (43.) Stephen Prothero, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 86.

                                                    (44.) Prothero, White Buddhist, 173 and 219fn3.

                                                    (45.) Gananath Obeysekere, quoted in Prothero, White Buddhist, 174.

                                                    (46.) On this heady mixture of influences, see Prothero, White Buddhist, 101–105. See also Stephen Prothero, “Henry Steel Olcott and ‘Protestant Buddhism,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63, no. 2 (1995): 281–302, for a wider discussion of the term “Protestant Buddhism” in the context of religious studies and Buddhist studies.

                                                    (47.) Richard Fox Young and Gintora Parana Vidanaga Somaratna, Vain Debates: The Christian—Buddhist Controversies of Nineteenth Century Ceylon (Vienna: The De Nobili Research Library, 1996), 206.

                                                    (49.) Turner, Saving Buddhism, 145.

                                                    (50.) For a critical discussion of the colonial-era Buddhist othering of minority groups in Burma via a gendered, racialized, and sexualizd nationalist discourse, see Chie Ikeya, Refiguring Women, Colonialism and Modernity in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011). Such exclusionary practices were hardly unique to Burma and were also endemic throughout the Malay peninsula (against non-Malays) and other parts of Southern Asia in places like Ceylon.

                                                    (51.) E. Michael Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership, ed. John P. Ferguson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975), 222.

                                                    (52.) Steven Kemper, The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics and Culture in Sinhala Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

                                                    (53.) Elizabeth Nissan, “History in the Making: Anuradhapura and the Sinhala Buddhist Nation,” Social Analysis 25 (1989): 64–77; Pradeep Jeganathan, “Authorizing History, Ordering Land: The Conquest of Anuradhapura,” in Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, eds. P. Jeganathan and Q. Ismail (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Social Scientists Association, 1995), 106–136; John Rogers, “Historical Images in the British Period,” in Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, ed. Jonathan Spencer (London: Routledge, 1990), 87–106.

                                                    (54.) H. L. Seneviratne, The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 56–188; Kemper, Presence of the Past.

                                                    (55.) Charles Keyes, “Buddhism and National Integration in Thailand,” Journal of Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (1971): 551–567. Similar attempts to exert control over the southern stretches of the peninsula, a predominantly Muslim region, were also made. See Tamara Loos, Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

                                                    (56.) Charles Keyes, “Millennialism, Theravāda Buddhism, and Thai Society,” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 2 (1977): 283–302; Katherine Bowie, “The Saint with Indra’s Sword: Khruubaa Srivichai and Buddhist Millenarianism in Northern Thailand,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56, no. 3 (2014): 681–713.

                                                    (57.) See also, Justin McDaniel, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

                                                    (59.) Hansen, How to Behave, 84.

                                                    (61.) Martin Stuart-Fox, Buddhist Kingdom, Marxist State: The Making of Modern Laos (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1996), 91.

                                                    (62.) McDaniel, Gathering Leaves, 45.

                                                    (63.) Edwards, Cambodge. For a short, but insightful study that demonstrates this is concrete fashion, see an examination of Cambodian court dancers who purposely downplayed Siamese influences in Sasagawa Hideo, “Post/colonial Discourses on the Cambodian Court Dance,” Southeast Asian Studies 42, no. 4 (2005): 418–441.

                                                    (64.) Edwards, Cambodge, 188.

                                                    (65.) Hansen, How to Behave, 120–142.

                                                    (67.) Thiên Dô, “The Quest for Enlightenment and Cultural Identity: Buddhism in Contemporary Vietnam,” in Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth Century Asia, ed. Ian Harris (London and New York: Continuum, 1999), 260. On Taixu, see Donald Pittman, Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu’s Reforms (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

                                                    (68.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

                                                    (69.) Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79, 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 12.

                                                    (70.) Thiên Dô, “Quest for Enlightenment,” 260.

                                                    (71.) This included the influential nationalist thinker, Son Ngoc Thanh, the Institute’s first secretary, as well as the scholar-monks, Son Ngoc Minh and Tou Samouth, both of whom were founders of the Communist party that gained power in 1979.

                                                    (72.) Lee and Cho, “Introduction: Colonial Modernity and Beyond in East Asian Contexts,” 603.

                                                    (73.) On Japanese Buddhist support for these ventures, see Christopher Ives, Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), 44–50. “Mimetic imperialism” comes from the historian Robert Eskildsen, “Of Civilization and Savages: The Mimetic Imperialism of Japan’s 1874 Expedition to Taiwan,” American Historical Review 107, no. 2 (2002): 388–418. The wider concept of Japanese mimesis of Western powers is explored by Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 424–438. A more focused study of Japanese intellectual mimesis in terms of Occidentalism, Orientalism, and Buddhism is found in Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Columbian Exposition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

                                                    (74.) Yet sectarian concerns often trumped state agendas and the Japanese government regularly found their efforts to expand sectarian identities (rather than simply “Japanese” ones) to be a nuisance. See Hwansoo Ilmee Kim, Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), ch. 2–4.

                                                    (76.) Pori Park, “Korean Buddhist Reforms and Problems in the Adoption of Modernity during the Colonial Period,” Korea Journal 45, no. 1 (2005): 87–113.

                                                    (77.) Nam-lin Hur, “The Sōtō Sect and Japanese Military Imperialism in Korea,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26, no. 1–2 (1999): 107–134.

                                                    (78.) By 1945, Korea was home to more than 700,000 Japanese civilians and 300,000 army personnel—nearly all of whom were repatriated to the home islands by the end of 1946. According to Jun Unchida, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2011), 3, this formed one of the largest single colonial communities in the 20th century. Even as early as 1910, more than 170,000 Japanese lived in the Korean peninsula, a product of mass Japanese settlement that began in the 1870s and 1880s.

                                                    (79.) Hur, “Sōtō Sect,” 119.

                                                    (80.) Kim, Empire of the Dharma.

                                                    (81.) Quoted in Pori Park, “Buddhism in Modern Korea,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to East and Inner Asian Buddhism, ed. Mario Poceski (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), 479.

                                                    (82.) Richard M. Jaffe, Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

                                                    (83.) Robert Buswell, The Zen Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 29. According to Jeongeun Park, there is ample evidence that many Korean monastics already had children and engaged in meat-eating prior to colonial rule and that it was not the Temple bylaws that increased the rate of meat-eating, married monks so much as it brought the issue to the public for the first time in the history of Korean Buddhism. See Jeongeun Park, “Clerical Marriage and Buddhist Modernity in Early Twentieth Century Korea” (PhD diss., University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2016).

                                                    (84.) Charles Brewer Jones, Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State, 1660–1990 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 80.

                                                    (85.) Jones, Buddhism in Taiwan, 93.

                                                    (87.) Ives, Imperial-Way Zen, 127

                                                    (88.) Rongdao Lai, “The Wuchang ideal: Buddhist education and identity production in Republican China,” Studies in Chinese Religions 3, no. 1 (2017): 63.

                                                    (89.) Lai, “Wuchang Ideal,” 55–70. On Taixu more widely, see Pittman, Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism.

                                                    (90.) Lai, “Wuchang Ideal,” 56, estimates that between the 1920s and 1940s, Taixu’s students had gone onto serve as administrators or teachers in at least fifty other Buddhist academies across China.

                                                    (92.) Yu, Buddhism, War and Nationalism, 45–51.

                                                    (93.) Yu, Buddhism, War and Nationalism, 177–196.

                                                    (94.) Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 462.

                                                    (95.) Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

                                                    (96.) This area of inquiry remains ripe for future research but since 2012, a number of important conferences have been held on the topic. These include the “Southeast Asia as a crossroads for Buddhist exchange: pioneer European Buddhists and Asian Buddhist networks, 1860–1960” conference at University College Cork, Ireland in 2012; “Bordering the borderless: faces of modern Buddhism in East Asia” at Duke University, in the United States in 2013; “Asian Buddhism: plural colonialisms and plural modernities,” at Kyoto University and Ryukoko University, Japan in 2014; “Buddhism in the Global Eye: Beyond East and West,” at the University of British Columbia, Canada in 2016. A selection of papers from the Ireland conference was published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism 14, no. 1 (2013), as well as in book form as A Buddhist Crossroads: Pioneer Western Buddhists and Asian Networks, 1860–1960, eds. Brian Bocking, Phibul Choompolpaisal, Laurence Cox, and Alicia M. Turner (New York: Routledge, 2015).

                                                    (97.) “A World Buddhist Movement,” Maha-Bodhi 37, no. 7 (1929): 357.

                                                    (98.) According to Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), Southeast Asia, and in particular, the Malaya and Straits Settlements (governed by the British), were home to the largest Indian and Chinese migrant populations in the world for much of the late 19th and early 20th century. Amrith, Crossing Bay of Bengal, 104, estimates that between 1840 and 1940 alone, some 28 million people emigrated—often forcibly—from the Indian subcontinent with nearly half of that population going to Burma, Malaya, and the Straits Settlements.

                                                    (99.) Wenxue Zhang, “Interactions between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Singapore,” in Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts, ed. Thomas Borchert (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 42–58; Jack Meng-Tat Chia, “Neither Mahāyāna Nor Theravāda: Ashin Jinarakkhita and the Indonesian Buddhayāna Movement,” History of Religions 58, no. 1 (2018): 24–63; Anne M. Blackburn, “Ceylonese Buddhism in Colonial Singapore: New Ritual Spaces and Specialists, 1895–1935,” ARI Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 184 (2012), 1–28.

                                                    (100.) Bayly, Birth of the Modern World, 333.

                                                    (101.) Adam Yuet Chau, “Transnational Buddhist Activists in the Age of Empires,” in Religious Internationals in the Modern World, eds. Abigail Green and Vincent Viaene (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 213.

                                                    (102.) Green, Bombay Islam, 91.

                                                    (103.) Soorakkulame Pemaratana, “Bringing the Buddha Closer: The Role of Venerating the Buddha in the Modernization of Buddhism in Ceylon” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 2017). Pemaratana, “Bringing the Buddha Closer,” 33, estimates that between the late 1880s and early 1900s, a minimum of 22,5000 copies of these booklets were printed for distribution among lay Buddhists.

                                                    (104.) On the early to mid-20th-century Buddhist encounter with Marxist thought, see James Mark Shields, Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Douglas Ober, “Socialism, Russia and India’s Revolutionary Dharma,” in Buddhism in the Global Eye: Beyond East and West, eds. John S. Harding, Victor Sōgen Hori, and Alexander Soucy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020); Xue Yu, “Buddhist Efforts for the Reconciliation of Buddhism and Marxism in the Early Years of the People’s Republic of China,” in Recovering Buddhism in Modern China, eds. Jan Kiely and J. Brooks Jessup (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 177–215. On Soviet violence against Buddhists in Mongolia, see Christopher Kaplonski, The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014).

                                                    (105.) Donald S. Lopez Jr., Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Visionary (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2018). See also Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, translated by Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

                                                    (107.) Richard M. Jaffe, “Seeking Śākyamuni: Travel and the Reconstruction of Japanese Buddhism,” Journal of Japanese Studies 30 (2004): 87.

                                                    (108.) McMahan, Making of Buddhist Modernism, 72.

                                                    (109.) Ober, “Reinventing Buddhism.”

                                                    (110.) Rustom Bharucha, Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

                                                    (111.) Ober, “Reinventing Buddhism,” 237–278.

                                                    (113.) David Geary, The Rebirth of Bodh Gaya: Buddhism and the Making of a World Heritage Site (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 44, and 114–146, more widely.

                                                    (114.) McMahan, Making of Buddhist Modernism.

                                                    (115.) The argument for Protestant Buddhism was developed in Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeysekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). See also a critical review by John Holt, Religious Studies Review 17, no. 4 (1991): 307–312.

                                                    (117.) Hansen, How to Behave, 204fn39.

                                                    (119.) For an excellent introduction to the secularization thesis and related debates, see Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3–32; Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

                                                    (120.) Thiên Dô, “Quest for Enlightenment.”

                                                    (121.) For a more elaborate discussion of this, see Blackburn, Locations of Buddhism, 197–217.