How Buddhism is Being Used to Promote Nationalism in Sri Lanka and Japan

In this essay, I am discussing how Buddhism is being used to promote nationalism in two countries, Sri Lanka and Japan and I am discussing contemporary as well as historical perspective with its similarities and differences.

Let’s starts with the example of Sri Lanka

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With the long history and a distinctive culture, Buddhist religion plays a prominent role in the island of Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks starts to travel to the Sri Lanka by the third century BCE and inhabitants of the Island quickly embraced Buddhist institutions and practices. We can quantify the impact of Buddhism in the historical days in Sri Lanka in couple of ways. First, ancient Buddhist monasteries and archaeological sites throughout the island, which demonstrates the long-standing and extensive presence of sites associated with Buddhist worship and practices and second, the numerous historical texts called VAMSAS.

The fusion of these Buddhist sites and texts are sufficient to explain the Sri Lanka as a place where the Buddhas religion has flourished for millennia. In modern Sri Lanka, these assertions charged significance in debates over national identities and multiculturalism. From the Buddhist texts such as the MAHAVAMSA (Great Chronicle) from the sixth century CE, Sri Lanka occupies a special place as ‘Island of the Dharma,’ where in Buddha himself visited the Island and prophesied that his SASANA would illuminate the land and be established there for posterity.

There was little doubt about the supremacy of Buddhism in the island’s religious and political sphere before sixteenth century in Sri Lanka. King Parakramabahu-1, purified monkhood resulted in a huge unified SANGHA which adhered to the conservative vision of the Theravada order that stressed strict monastic discipline and the acceptance of a closed canon of Pali Buddhist scriptures.

The Sri Lanka island declared itself independent from British rule on February 04, 1948, after successive colonial rules by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The long colonialism tries severely weakened Buddhist institutions but did not lead to the conversion of more than about ten percent of the island’s population.

Since the nineteenth century, the modernizing trends among Sri Lankan Buddhism have given rise to a form of Buddhist nationalism that fuses religious ideals with political activity. The Buddhist Laity widely criticized the entrance of Buddhist monks into political arena. But the Scenario is slightly shifts when Anagarika Dharmapala starts to encourage monk in early twentieth century to lead the religious and social reforms he envisioned for the country, monastic involvement in politics eventually followed. Primarily, Dharmapala concentrated on the monks who would serve their village rites and practices of medicine and astrology in order to become preachers who motivated the Laity on the development of Buddhist morality, which would in turn become the basis for promoting the dignity and prosperity of the nation (Seneviratne 1999;40). In accordance with this thought, monks should pro-actively involved in Sinhala society, upgrading the morality of all citizens and bringing about a cultural revival in order to lay the foundations for a vibrant and independent nation-state. Thus, for securing individual comforts and the collective welfare of the people of Sri Lanka, The Buddha Dharma plays vital role.

The Sinhala Buddhists, followers of Dharmapala saw Buddhism as having distinctively special role in the formation of Sinhala culture and national identity. During the several centuries of colonial rule in Sri Lanka, number of Sinhala Buddhists concludes that for a revival of Buddhism held the key to a broader cultural revival that could pave the way towards independence from Great Britain. The monks intended to focus the role of rural development in bringing about a national regeneration, during early twentieth-century. During this period some of the Buddhist monks emphasized the economic development of the rural village through development projects, crime eradication and temperance, which were finally rooted in the development of Buddhist morality, which also includes virtues such as punctuality, activeness and cleanliness. One of those Buddhist monk is Ven. Kalukondayave Pannasekhra (1895-1977). The involvement of monks in such social welfare projects strengthen the nationalist sentiments in the Island as well as the model of Christian missionary, who were also engaged in similar projects. These type of activities, also allowed the monks to regain the central role in society, which were during colonial rule took over by colonial sponsored institutions such as hospitals and schools.

The numerous monks start to stress social service in national politics as part of the proper role of a Buddhists monk, in the final years of British rule in the island. The Buddhist monks along with the Indian nationalists strongly engaged in political debates and activities in their respective countries against the British imperial presence in their countries. In the years of independence in 1948 and thereafter the island witnessed vigorous debates over the legitimacy of monastic involvement in politics. Ven. Walpola Rahula, the author of ‘the heritage of the Bhikkhu’ and holder of doctoral degree in France, was one of the more prominent advocates for the political monks. He argued that the Buddhist monks have a duty to serve the nation by advising the country leaders on political issues and giving popular support for righteous policies.

During 1950s, the bonds between religion and the state in Sri Lanka was strengthen with the help of Monastic involvement in the country’s politics. The Buddha Jayanti was recognized in Sri Lanka publicly in the year 1956, after 2500 years since the Buddha passed away. This is the year, when election take place and new party that promote Buddhist nationalist agenda was swept into the office, who setting off a chain of events that strengthened the formal association between Buddhism and the Sri Lankan state. A report ‘The Betrayal of Buddhism,’ was started by the ALL Ceylon Buddhist Congress, published in 1956 and neutralised the negative effects of Christian mission and, especially, the state-funded English schools run by missionaries in the island. During these years, numerous monks formed a political organization to campaign actively for the new party promised to support Buddhist interest. The new constitution in 1972 asserted Buddhism the foremost place among other religion in the country, and which states, that it was the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism while still assuring fundamental rights to members of other religions.

The Tamil minorities provoked the communal riots in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983, due to the unfortunate effect of alienating the Tamil minorities by some other government policies. The liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was formed as a Tamil rebel organization in 1976 and starts armed conflict with the state in1983 following the riots which results the deaths of several thousand Tamils in the island, which includes renowned politician and Buddhist monks.

Until the military defect of the LTTE in 2009, the civil war become a cause celebre for Buddhist nationalists who warned of the dangers still facing Buddhism in postcolonial Sri Lanka. The number of Buddhist monks participated in protests against the LTTE and the foreign organization or bodies that were supposed to be supporting the Tamil separatist cause, such as Norwegian government.

Following several assassinations of political leaders and peace initiatives, Buddhist nationalism gaining assertive profile in the following years of the conflict with the LTTE. The entrance of global economic and cultural forms along with Christian missions from the west sparked a backlash against foreign influences that were supposed to be threaten the island’s religious and cultural heritages. To promote the Buddhism religion, Ven. Gangodawila soma (1948-2003), the reputed Buddhist monk, introduced a public campaign as a path to increase national prosperity and protect Sinhala cultural heritages. Monk soma helped to galvanize aids for a nationalist program which could defend Buddhism and the nation from foreign forces and influences that threatened to undermine them, through regular television appearances, newspaper column, and sermons delivered at temples around the island. Buddhist nationalists of Sri Lanka have drawn criticism to the World bank, Hindi films and non-government organizations (NGOs) for the allegedly harmful effects they have on Buddhism and Sinhala culture.

The growing hostility in Sri Lanka towards the agents of globalization is seen in the formation of a political party called The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) led by Buddhist monks, who subsequently secure nine seats in the parliament for the party’s monastic leaders in 2004. The presence of robed monks participating as politicians remain controversial in Sri Lanka and invites public and private criticism about the morality and decorum of these monk-politicians.

In contemporary Sri Lanka, Buddhism retains and influential place in both private as well as public affairs. Its contemporary expressions have been conditioned by the experiences of Sinhala Buddhists with European colonialism, Christian missionaries, orientalist scholarship, ideas and aspirations of gender equality, partisan politics, ethnic separatists, and global political and development organizations. For some Sri Lankan, Buddhism is a symbol of national unity and a cultural heritage that is unique to Sri Lanka.

Japanese nationalism in the other hands;

There are more than 75000 Buddhist temples in Japan, which claims over 93 million members. Majority of the Japanese claims that they have faith in Buddhism more than other religion.

The economic problems and the pressure from western power to open its ports for trade were cracking by the timbers that supported Japanese Tokugawa regime in the mid nineteenth century. Samurai rebels finally brought down the decrepit regime in 1868, after more than 260 years of rule and vowed to restore the emperor to power. Then the Japan’s first modern era, called Meiji starts which ends on 1912.

After getting power, the new Meiji government starts to disestablish Buddhism from the state apparatus, of which it had been a part for centuries. The government restrict Christianity and established the TERAUKE system in which all families were required to register with the Buddhist temples, from the beginning of seventeenth century. During the first few years of the Meiji government, the system of giving economic benefits to the Buddhists priests was withdrawn and new laws were passed that required families to register with government offices rather than temples.

The new regime frequently characterised Buddhism as foreign, although Buddhism had been the most powerful form of organized religion in Japan for over a thousand of years. Many of the founders of the Meiji government were from domains in western Japan where anti-Buddhist sentiment ran high among rulers. These sects of societies saw priest parasites on society and are destruction to builds a strong and modern society or nation.

Japanese Buddhist institutions had a long history of backing different political regimes and were hungering to prove how they could support the restoration of imperial rule. Buddhist leaders overlooked their difference and formed inter-sectarian organization to strengthen the unity. The Pan-Sectarian Buddhist Ethical League (Shoshu dotoku kaimei) was one of the most influential organization, that formed towards the closing of 1868. In the support of government, Buddhist leaders, throughout the country spreades the slogan such as ‘love the country and protect the Dharma’, ‘revere the emperor and serve the Buddha’, ‘pacify and preserve the country through Buddhism’. More than 3000 Buddhists priests joined in the Great Teaching Promulgation Campaign (Daikyo senpu undo) as instructors, as a demo of their craving to donate to the propagation of imperial ideology. Some important temples, for example, Nishi Honganji and Eiheiji, donated money to the new government to show their support.

The early Meiji period was also a time for replication. Designating the hostile sentiments of many in the new government, Buddhist jumps to construct a history of Buddhism in the Tokugawa period as decadent. Tokugawa Buddhism therefor becomes a foil in contradiction of which they could define themselves and where they sought to go. Part of this redefinition of themselves involved accusing their own previous drawback for the suffering. To eliminate these transgressions Fukuda, along with Shaku Unsho and other leading clerics, tries their own restoration by seeking to revive what they saw as fundamental to Buddhism. In particularly, they emphasized with which prohibited killing, stealing, lying, illicit sex, and slandering the three jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha).

During the med 1870s, government policies softened toward Buddhism and Buddhist leaders, particularly of Shin Buddhism, started to emphasize themselves.

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