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The history of Buddhism

A new alliance is beginning to take shape in South and Southeast Asia with the news that the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) has invited Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement in Burma, to visit them in Sri Lanka.

There is clearly a new phenomenon emerging and a new term is needed to describe precisely what is happening on the ground with this collection of new Buddhist alliances. There has been much talk of “Buddhist terror”, “extremist Buddhism” and most famously, “the face of Buddhist terror”, however these headlines are sensationalist. A more subtle and nuanced description is needed, focusing upon key features of this new phenomenon in Buddhism taking shape in Burma and other parts of the world, notably Sri Lanka.

There have been those who have commented upon the supposed use of Buddhism by the National Religious Protection Group (NRPG), a group headed by Wirathu, a vanguard leader of ultra-nationalism in Burma. It has also been suggested that the ruling party in Burma, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are manipulating notions of Burmese identity with those of Buddhist identity. However, there is no clear consideration of these elements from the historical perspective of Buddhist ideas.

“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.

There are a number of possible factors and ideas that could shape the formation of an ethnocentric type of Buddhism in a given country. Not all of these ideas are available in each cultural context. Some are available across Buddhist Asia, some confined to a particular area, or would have been used during different historical periods. There is the idea of the “true dharma” existing in one particular place and of that location preserving this true version of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, in Sri Lanka after the transmission of Buddhism, some aspects of the Pali Canon would be considered to preserve the essential word of the Buddha. Later, national identity could be built around this idea together with other texts being used and composed together with Buddhist symbols, the tooth relic for example, creating the notion of a direct lineage to the Buddha.

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