In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Nationalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

Buddhism Buddhism and Nationalism
Volker Grabowsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0249


Theoretical works pertaining to the birth and development of modern nationalism have a strong focus on Europe and the Americas. This is due to the axiomatic contention that nationalism originated in the West and only later spread to Asia and Africa in the course of European colonialism and imperialism. Such a conventional approach, positioning nationalism as the outcome of homogenizing historical processes in the fields of economy, education, print-capitalist culture, and industrial social organization, tend to overlook the significance of primordial ethno-religious loyalties for the emergence of nationalism. Buddhism, the dominant religion in large parts of East, South, and Southeast Asia, has played a crucial role in Asian nationalist movements. Given the close connection between Buddhism and traditional precolonial polities, particularly Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, it is not surprising that Buddhism was used to arouse nationalist sentiments against foreign powers, and that it contributed to new forms of national integration in the postcolonial period. It may be even argued that purely secular nationalism, without a major admixture of religious movements, has been rare in Asia. The identification of Western domination with Christianity, for example, gave rise to nationalist movements in mainland Southeast Asia to defend traditional cultural values in the midst of a process of social and economic modernization. Buddhists often embraced nationalism in the name of modernity. Regarding Buddhism as part of their indigenous heritage, Buddhists developed national pride. In Sri Lanka and Burma, Buddhism was identified with the history of the nation, and thus this religion was promoted as a tool to defend the nation against Western colonialism. In Thailand, the only noncolonialized country in Southeast Asia, Buddhism has constituted a pivotal pillar of “official state nationalism” since the late 19th century. In China, Buddhists also used their religion to counterbalance the challenges of Western cultural encroachments. In neighboring Japan, which actively embraced Western civilization, Buddhists tried to prove, in a defensive manner, that Buddhism represented a religious practice essential to Japanese cultural identity. In Korea, under Japanese colonial rule since 1910, and in Tibet, considered as part of China since the Qing dynasty, a Buddhist nationalism had to develop its own identities as distinct from Japanese and Chinese Buddhism, respectively. In the increasingly transnational, globalized world of the 21st century, Buddhism still provides a source of legitimacy for the nation-state, and a source of national identity for the majority populations in several Asian countries, sometimes directed against non-Buddhist (Muslim, Hindu, etc.) minorities perceived as cultural threats.

General Overview

Buddhism in Asia encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices that differ from each other significantly. As a result, a comprehensive study of the relationship between Buddhism and the sociopolitical sphere, notably the religion’s role in nationalist movements, was lacking for a long time. The monumental work of the eminent German indologist Heinz Bechert (see Bechert 1966 and Bechert 1967) is restricted to the countries of the orthodox Theravada tradition, which is primarily practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Though published in German half a century ago, this work remains an indispensable reference. A major breakthrough in the study of the relationship between Buddhism and politics in modern Asia is Harris 1999, though this edited volume does not include chapters dealing with China, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The dependence between Buddhism and the state in historical perspective is discussed in a rather comprehensive overview in Frydenlund 2013, while the edited volumes Jerryson and Juergensmeyer 2009 and Tikhonov and Brekke 2013 discuss the role of violence in Buddhism both historically and with regard to contemporary societies. In scholarly work on the origins of nationalism, it is sometimes overlooked that modern nationalism is not the outcome of a homogenizing historical process, but has often been contested by cultural revivalist movements, as emphasized by Walton 2017. Buddhist millenarian revolts against the centralizing policies of colonial or semicolonial domination at times contradicted the aspirations of nationalist movements (Ladwig and Shields 2014). The relations between political Buddhism and other religions is examined in Keyes 2016, which is, however, confined to the Theravada world’s relationship to Islam. The transnational ties of the East Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhist monastic orders and national articulations of Buddhism are highlighted in Borchert 2007, which explores the relationship between religion and nation in Asian countries with a significant Buddhist population.

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus. Vol. 1, Grundlagen, Ceylon. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1966.

    This work deals with theoretical considerations of the social and political role of Buddhism and provides a very detailed case study of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus. Vol. 2, Birma, Kambodscha, Laos, Thailand. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1967.

    This volume treats the developments in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia, namely Burma (rather extensively), as well as Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos (more briefly). It also includes an excursus about the predominantly Mahayana Buddhist Vietnam. A third volume, published in 1973, contains a very detailed annotated bibliography reflecting the state of the art until the late 1960s, along with selected documents (in English).

  • Borchert, Thomas. “Buddhism, Politics, and Nationalism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.” Religion Compass 1 (2007): 529–546.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00035.x

    Exploring the relationship between religion and nation in those Asian countries with a significant Buddhist population, the article emphasizes that contemporary Buddhism is marked by a tension between the transnational ties of the respective national Sanghas and national articulations of Buddhism. This main thesis is illustrated by the Dai (Tai) Lue minority in southern Yunnan, China.

  • Frydenlund, Iselin. “The Protection of Dharma and Dharma as Protection: Buddhism and Security across Asia.” In The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security. Edited by Chris Seiple, Dennis Hoover, and Pauletta Otis, 102–112. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013.

    The chapter examines the relationship between Buddhism and the state in historical perspective. It also discusses the readiness of “neo-traditionalist” and “fundamentalist” Buddhism to support an ethno-nationalist state.

  • Harris, Ian, ed. Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

    An introductory exploration of the relationship between Buddhism and politics in modern Asia. Whereas the volume covers the whole of South and Southeast Asia, there are several lacunae for Central and East Asia (China, Mongolia, and Bhutan).

  • Jerryson, Michael, and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    None of the eight contributions discuss directly the relationship between Buddhism and nationalism. However, the volume is important to understand the role of violence in Buddhism. Includes a translation into English of Paul Demiéville’s classical essay “Buddhism and War” (pp. 17–58).

  • Keyes, Charles. “Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist Nationalism: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.” Review of Faith and International Affairs 14.4 (2016): 42–52.

    DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2016.1248497

    This article examines briefly how Buddhist nationalism in four Theravada countries has shaped relations with members of other religions, notably with Muslim minorities, living in these countries.

  • Ladwig, Patrice, and James M. Shields. “Introduction to Against Harmony: Radical Buddhism in Thought and Practice.” Politics, Religion and Ideology 15.2 (2014): 187–204.

    DOI: 10.1080/21567689.2014.898413

    The authors, specialists in Lao and Japanese Buddhism, respectively, give a general overview of Buddhist socialist radicalism and millennialism. As these movements were often directed against the state, they also reveal the tensions between Buddhist nationalism and the revival of local religious traditions.

  • Tikhonov, Vladimir, and Torkel Brekke, eds. Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Asia. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    This volume evolved out of a workshop hosted by the University of Oslo in 2009. It is a collection of eleven essays discussing the participation of Buddhist monks in nationalist movements and their attitudes toward militarization and violence in their respective societies.

  • Walton, Matthew J. “Buddhism, Nationalism, and Governance.” In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Edited by Michael Jerryson, 532–545. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    This short but excellent overview article deals with the attitude of Buddhists toward political ideologies in various East and Southeast Asian societies. The author problematizes the overlappings and contestations of Buddhist nationalism and Buddhist revivalism.

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