Buddhism's political utility

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Buddhism's political utility

Postby Indrajala » Fri Feb 01, 2013 6:06 pm

I recently read the following bit in Routledge's History of Tibet:

    Thus, while we may acknowledge genuine piety among the community of believers and the attraction of the coherent world view offered by the Buddhist message, we must conclude that Buddhism provided a unifying socio-cultural model that was promoted by Yarlung dynasty kings for political purposes.


Curiously, the same thing occurred in Japan around the same time period when Buddhism was actively promoted by both the royal family and struggling central state in order to consolidate and unify the country. There were indeed devotees, but Buddhism served an important political function in both early Japan and Tibet.

Now there are a few points worth considering in respect to what both countries were dealing with:

    - A lack of a cohesive centralized state in a disorderly multi-tribal society.

    - A landed aristocracy with their own interests often at odds with the royal family.

    - Unorganized native polytheist traditions often connected with political interests at odds with the struggling central state.

    - A fear of China, which in the Sui-Tang period (589-907) was visibly expansionist, well organized and extremely wealthy.

It begs the questions how did Buddhism address and remedy these concerns? Why was it Buddhism and not, say, Daoism, Confucianism or in the case of Tibet some sect of Hinduism? Why has Buddhism, not just in Tibet and Japan, provided so much political utility to pre-modern states?

If we consider that alongside Buddhism there is always monasticism, then it makes sense that a monarch could gain the favour of a devout Buddhist populace by becoming the sole or primary sponsor of the sangha. I suspect the early leaders of Japan and Tibet had this in mind.

There is also the matter of morality and ethics proposed by the religion which presumably in a fledgling country with much tribal violence would have been appealing by leaders to promote so to placate the populace.

One other perhaps unfortunate point to admit is that Buddhism as a religion of non-violence lends itself to being easily controlled from above. Lacking the means to forcefully resist, and dependent on certain parties for its existence institutional Buddhism is readily contained and directed by the powers that be.

If anyone else has some ideas to share, please do so.
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Re: Buddhism's political utility

Postby Greg » Fri Feb 01, 2013 11:25 pm

I think the quote is true as far as it goes, but there is not a major religious tradition that hasn't been politically useful to monarchs at one time or another. Christianity was the state religion of Europe from Constantine forward. Judaism was inextricably tied up with the Biblical kings originally. Islam was spread by the sword. Confucianism was essentially a religion of statism. Shinto was used to legitimize the emperor. The religions that have succeeded and endured are the ones that made themselves politically useful.

If the question you pose is limited in scope to Yarlung Tibet specifically, what I've read is that Buddhism had a few things going for it. First, it was more aggressively missionary than the other traditions you mention. As a result it was much more international than anything else. If you're sandwiched between the great civilizations of India and China (and the rest of central Asia besides), why not adopt the one thing they share in common? Especially when Buddhism is international and sophisticated and your culture is seen as backwards.
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Re: Buddhism's political utility

Postby Indrajala » Sat Feb 02, 2013 5:24 am

Greg wrote:The religions that have succeeded and endured are the ones that made themselves politically useful.


That's an unfortunate truth. Religions that prove viable over the long-term are often beneficiaries of violence and even empire. How often throughout history have the spoils of war been reinvested into religious undertakings, infrastructure and clergy?


First, it was more aggressively missionary than the other traditions you mention. As a result it was much more international than anything else.


It might have held appeal given the absence of social class in the religion, too. Inviting in Brahmins to be your superior would have been unwise, but just as well the Confucians had their own social theories which were quite Sino-centric and moreover a long list of state procedures and customs that had to be followed. Buddhism on the other hand was a lot more adaptable and flexible in many respects, and quite universal. You didn't have to be an Indian Brahmin or aristocrat of good birth to attain sagehood.



If you're sandwiched between the great civilizations of India and China (and the rest of central Asia besides), why not adopt the one thing they share in common? Especially when Buddhism is international and sophisticated and your culture is seen as backwards.


That's true. At the time everyone knew about Buddhism. You could send monastics alongside emissaries. They were also often free to pass borders with ease. In much of Asia having a well-supported sangha was a sign of state power. It was a form of soft power projection. This is one reason why the Japanese perhaps invested so heavily in it after the 7th century: to demonstrate to everyone that they were a unified and powerful civilized state capable of supporting a sophisticated Buddhist community. After the 660s when Silla took control of the Korean peninsula with the help of the Tang the Japanese were concerned that such expansionism might reach them. I think by demonstrating that they were not backwards barbarians the Tang and Silla states had all the less reason to initiate conflict with them.
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Re: Buddhism's political utility

Postby Alfredo » Fri Mar 01, 2013 2:09 am

Why Buddhism? To further political, economic, and cultural ties with India (and to a lesser extent, Central Asia), which endured until the arrival of Islam, when the pilgrimage / trade routes to India were cut off, at which point Tibet reoriented itself to the east.
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Re: Buddhism's political utility

Postby dude » Sun Mar 17, 2013 8:19 am

Huseng wrote:I recently read the following bit in Routledge's History of Tibet:

    Thus, while we may acknowledge genuine piety among the community of believers and the attraction of the coherent world view offered by the Buddhist message, we must conclude that Buddhism provided a unifying socio-cultural model that was promoted by Yarlung dynasty kings for political purposes.


Curiously, the same thing occurred in Japan around the same time period when Buddhism was actively promoted by both the royal family and struggling central state in order to consolidate and unify the country. There were indeed devotees, but Buddhism served an important political function in both early Japan and Tibet.

Now there are a few points worth considering in respect to what both countries were dealing with:

    - A lack of a cohesive centralized state in a disorderly multi-tribal society.

    - A landed aristocracy with their own interests often at odds with the royal family.

    - Unorganized native polytheist traditions often connected with political interests at odds with the struggling central state.

    - A fear of China, which in the Sui-Tang period (589-907) was visibly expansionist, well organized and extremely wealthy.

It begs the questions how did Buddhism address and remedy these concerns? Why was it Buddhism and not, say, Daoism, Confucianism or in the case of Tibet some sect of Hinduism? Why has Buddhism, not just in Tibet and Japan, provided so much political utility to pre-modern states?

If we consider that alongside Buddhism there is always monasticism, then it makes sense that a monarch could gain the favour of a devout Buddhist populace by becoming the sole or primary sponsor of the sangha. I suspect the early leaders of Japan and Tibet had this in mind.

There is also the matter of morality and ethics proposed by the religion which presumably in a fledgling country with much tribal violence would have been appealing by leaders to promote so to placate the populace.

One other perhaps unfortunate point to admit is that Buddhism as a religion of non-violence lends itself to being easily controlled from above. Lacking the means to forcefully resist, and dependent on certain parties for its existence institutional Buddhism is readily contained and directed by the powers that be.

If anyone else has some ideas to share, please do so.




It begs the questions how did Buddhism address and remedy these concerns? Why was it Buddhism and not, say, Daoism, Confucianism or in the case of Tibet some sect of Hinduism? Why has Buddhism, not just in Tibet and Japan, provided so much political utility to pre-modern states?


It seems to me that any school of thought takes root and spreads in a country when the time is right and the teaching is suited to the capacity and temperament of the population.
Governments always interact and interdepend on religious institutions, because religious leaders have the ear of the people. Needless to say, if one is corrupt, the other is sure to encounter corruption as well. On the other hand, if one is purified, it will root out corruption in the other. Buddhism as a blueprint for conduct applies to countries as much as it does to individuals and families.
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Re: Buddhism's political utility

Postby randomseb » Sun Mar 17, 2013 2:11 pm

There are many cases on inter-faction strife and even violence between different buddhist lineages and their followers. For example Dogen in Japan had his sangha attacked by followers of the traditionalists. In some places there was strife between monasteries, that originally were offshoots of each other. Buddhism is not a cure-all solution for problems of the world, because said world is peopled by the lost and confused.

Besides, there's a lot of politicking in buddhism in general, what with the whole focus on lineages and texts and names and different paths.. Which is kind of amusing, considering this is an attachment and source of suffering, and a whole load of mental weight dragging one away from raw practice of liberating your mind.

:rolleye:
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