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‘Buddhism(s) for this World’ and ‘Engaged Buddhism’: Some Key Differences

In: Journal of Social Innovation and Knowledge
Author:
André Laliberté School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

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Abstract

This article highlights the key differences between two approaches to Buddhism adopted worldwide, ‘Buddhism(s) for this World’ and ‘Engaged Buddhism.’ Although these two terms seem interchangeable, the article presents some differences arising from specific historical circumstances. While the former originated in a reform movement within Chinese Buddhism at the beginning of the twentieth century, the second one, which emerged later, encompasses a much wider variety of Buddhist movements. While ‘Buddhism(s) for this world’ started as a reformist movement, it has become in some cases the vehicle of nationalism. Meanwhile, ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ a somewhat more diverse movement indirectly inspired by his predecessor, has embraced many social justice causes but struggles to institutionalize. The article presents the geopolitical context of international rivalry in which these two trends seek to affirm their respective perspectives.

Introduction

‘Buddhism(s) for this world’ refers to a practice we can define by its negative, i.e., what it is not. It does not emphasize funeral rites, concerns about life after death – including reincarnation – and the other-worldly beings that presumably populate it, such as ghosts, spirits, and gods. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ refers to a particular kind of ‘Buddhism for this world’, and not all associations identified with ‘Buddhism for this world’ qualify as ‘Engaged Buddhism.’ This is the main point that this article seeks to clarify. The organizations credited for being ‘Engaged Buddhists’ include the Soka Gakkai International, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Buddhist Global Relief, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Zen Peacemakers, and the Order of Interbeing. Some have also included among ‘Engaged Buddhist’ groups associations such as the Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight, Garden Relief Projects, the UK Network of Buddhist Organisations, Fo Guang Shan, and Tzu Chi. These listings are problematic. The criteria for inclusion are not specified, and these listings present organizations with very different objectives. This paper aims to distinguish between ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhism for this World’ as these categories refer to very different issues.

A Chronology

‘Buddhism for this World’, or ‘Humanistic Buddhism (Rensheng Fojiao 人生佛教/Renjian Fojiao 人間佛教)’ had emerged in the context of aspirations for the renewal of Buddhism at the beginning of the twentieth century in China.1 Except for Buddhists in the Chinese diaspora, the movement was largely unknown outside that country. It has since acquired a canonical status as an example of a socially relevant practice of religion in the Sinosphere (Travagnin 2022). Most of the texts about that movement tend to be hagiographic and celebrate the ideas of the leading proponent of that approach to religion (Li 2019; Miao Guang 2019).

Other societies where Buddhism represented an essential element of the social and political structure experienced their own questioning over adapting tradition to modernity. This often translated into the search for compatibility between anti-colonial nationalism and religious identity. Such was the situation for Burma and Sri Lanka, with dire consequences for the latter (Tambiah 1992; Keyes 2016). In other cases, the close association between a strong monarchy and the Buddhist clergy, as in Thailand and Cambodia, made such aggiornamento appear irrelevant (Dubus 2018; Kasetsiri 2013). For China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, where Buddhist institutions could not shape the politics of their own country, the issue was to ensure their survival in the context of competition with Christianity, the expansion of the modern state, and a general questioning of their intellectual traditions, of which Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics constituted an important component (Shields 2017; Nathan 2017).

‘Buddhism for this world’ appeared in the first half of the twentieth century in the Sinosphere and remained dormant in the tumultuous period extending from the Chinese Civil War until the movement of Cultural Renaissance in Taiwan that coincided with the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China (prc). It spread from Taiwan in the late 1960s to the overseas Chinese community and its endorsement by the Buddhist Association of China twenty years after (Stapleton and Yu 2022). ‘Engaged Buddhism’ emerged in Vietnam during the American War in that country, and although its originator acknowledged inspiration from ‘Buddhism for this world’, his actions and that of other protagonists identified with that trend significantly differ in their practice. Outsiders in South Asia and the Western world embraced ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and mostly did not know much about ‘Buddhism for this world’. As both movements expanded, the latter became recognized as a form of the former (Kuah-Pearce 2014; Yao 2012). This author finds this problematic because some significant differences exist between both trends.

In a nutshell, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ refers to individuals and associations whose main protagonists have faced censure, opposition, or threats from powerful political actors because of their advocacy for social justice (Ha, Favoreu, and Trew 2021); associations that identify with ‘Buddhism for this world’ are risk-averse and have developed mutually constitutive relations with governments, some of which are authoritarian and have repressed religious actors (Ashiwa and Wank 2006; Laliberté 2022). One caveat to remember: this author admits the definition of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ proposed here does not capture the reality of all Buddhist associations that are active socially and politically. For example, it does not include movements promoting religious intolerance or an aggressive form of nationalism (Gamage 2021). It is reckoned that this definition reflects a form of liberal bias because the classical texts of the tradition rejected social and political activism (Lele 2019). However, this author stands by it because it is how its promoters have articulated it and acquired a status.

This liberal bias does not imply that the proponents of ‘Buddhism for this world’ are conservatives, even less anti-liberals. It means that the advocates of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ promote a worldview that can be qualified as progressive because of their actions in favor of social justice and redress for past and present social and economic injustice. Their views often imply active political participation in movements for civil rights, anti-war protests, and the empowerment of minorities. While ‘Buddhism for this world’ may also embrace the goals of non-violence and peaceful co-existence, they do not hold any ambition to intervene in politics and change the social structure (An 2023).

The validity of that distinction is made clear by emphasizing the differences between key individuals and associations associated with ‘Buddhism(s) for this World’ and ‘Engaged Buddhism’. What follows will show how much the actions of Thích Nhất Hạnh and like-minded Buddhists, whether lay or monastics, such as Dr. Ambedkar, Sulak Sivaraksa, the Dalai Lama, and Daisaku Ikeda, differ from those who came to be known as the figureheads of ‘Buddhism for this World’, such as Hsing Yun and Cheng Yen. Although the narrative above had made clear that the trend known as ‘Buddhism for this World’ emerged before the expression of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ became known, I choose below to emphasize the latter first because it is better known than the former outside of the Sinosphere, and because many historians of Buddhism have chosen to trace the antecedents of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ in struggles for social justice that predate the formalization of the doctrinal innovation of ‘Buddhism for the human realm.’

‘Engaged Buddhism’ qua Socially Engaged Buddhism

People identifying with ‘Engaged Buddhism’ support campaigns for conflict resolution, human rights, economic development, national self-determination, and environmental protection (King 2009; Keown, Queen, and Prebish 2003; Queen and King 1996). A brief conceptual history of this term reveals some fascinating paradoxes. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ groups together a quite disparate number of people and organizations worldwide, some of whom are unaware of each other, do not speak the same language, and, in many cases, lived in different historical periods. A term that has acquired currency among academics in the anglosphere since the second half of the twentieth century, it refers to many personalities whose mother tongue is not English and, in many cases, were actively struggling for freedom from British colonial rule and American military intervention in their own country.

It is not a political movement, although an International Network of Engaged Buddhists exists that brings together 59 partner associations, mainly from Asia (Gleig 2021). Thailand, India, and Japan count many such associations, and most countries East of Pakistan count at least one. No partner associations exist in only four countries: China, the Philippines, North Korea, and East Timor. The tiny Buddhist communities in the majoritarian Catholic populations of the Philippines and Timor Leste explain the absence of an engaged Buddhist association in these countries. The absence of any Engaged Buddhist association within China and North Korea relates to the politics of these two countries: China counts the largest number of Buddhists in the world, and that religion has been present in North Korea for centuries. In both cases, however, the religion is subordinated to the regime.

‘Engaged Buddhism’ does not refer to any of the three main schools or traditions of Buddhism: the key figures I present below belong to each of the three main traditions of Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. Moreover, some Buddhist practitioners have made the case that ‘Engaged Buddhism’ could represent a fourth school, or tradition. At least the followers of one of the key figures of that movement – discussed below- have supported that claim in India, where the school of Navayana, or ‘New Buddhism’, has emerged (Bansode 2020). Although the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ has found acceptance in English and resonates with other European languages that convey similar meanings,2 the term does not always travel well in the region where it has emerged.

Hence, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is usually translated in Mandarin as ‘Buddhism that enters the world’ – rushi fojiao 入世佛教, sometimes as ‘left-wing Buddhism’ – zuoyi fojiao 左翼佛教, and on occasions, as ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ – renjian fojiao 人间佛教, the translation whose validity this paper contests. In Japanese, the expression ‘Socially Engaged Buddhism’ – shakai sankaku bukkyo 社会参画仏教 has the advantage of clarity. In Korean, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ translates as “practical Buddhism’ – silcheon bulgyo 실천불교 or 實踐佛敎. In Indonesian, it is known as ‘actively engaged Buddhism’ – Buddha yang terjun aktif. In Vietnamese, it is ‘committed Buddhism’ – phật giáo dấn than.

Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926–2022) is credited with inventing the concept. He saw its origins in the context of a movement for reform within Buddhism in Vietnam, which had been influenced by the Buddhism for this world developed by Taixu (Soucy 2021). He created in 1964 the Unified Buddhist Church and founded an Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies with other monastics, which later became a Buddhist University. Established in Saigon, it offered courses in Buddhist studies and other subjects such as Vietnamese culture and language. In the same year, Nhất Hạnh co-founded a corps of volunteers working for peace, the School of Youth for Social Service (syss), which counted nearly 10,000 volunteers and social workers. They established schools and clinics and contributed to rebuilding villages in rural areas affected by war. In 1966, Nhất Hạnh went to the US to advocate peace in Vietnam and wrote a book about his proposal: VietnamThe Lotus in the Sea of Fire. The South Vietnamese government took umbrage and reacted by branding him a communist and a traitor, a move that prompted Nhất Hạnh to relocate to Paris that year. Despite his advocacy for peace, he was denied permission to return to his country after the North Vietnamese army won control of the South in 1975, and his publications remained banned. He opened two centers outside Vietnam: The Plum Village monastic community in France and the Community of Mindful Living in California (Irons 2008: 176–177).

Some of the personalities recognized in the literature as Engaged Buddhists lived and worked before Thích Nhất Hạnh came up with the idea of ‘Engaged Buddhism.’ Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), known as Dr Ambedkar, stands out as the most visible of these cases (Stroud 2017). Ambedkar was interested in Buddhism, even though he was not one himself. He held that many of the core beliefs and doctrines of the Buddhist traditions were flawed, and he argued that they may have been inserted into the scriptures in a later era, which, in his view, disqualified them as Buddha’s teachings (Keown and Prebisch 2013; Zelliot 2015). Ambedkar was an unorthodox thinker; he also considered basic Buddhist concepts such as Karma and ‘rebirth’ superstitious (Keown and Prebisch 2013). He argued for a new tradition, the Navayana (Queen 2000: 23), to stand for the rights of the Dalit Buddhist movement. He advocated abandoning practices and precepts such as the institution of monk after renunciation and basic concepts such as samsara, meditation, and nirvana. (Keown and Prebish 2013: 25). He advocated the re-interpretation of Buddhism in terms of class struggle and issues of social equality (Zelliot 2015: 13, 361–370).

Ambedkar expressed interest in Buddhism in 1950, relatively late in life, when he was already an important statesman as a key actor in the movement leading to India’s independence. He visited Sri Lanka and Burma as a member of the Rajya Sabha for Bombay State, where he attended the World Fellowship of Buddhists. He organized a formal public ceremony for 500,000 supporters in Nagpur on 14 October 1956, where he also completed his conversion.3 His wife Savita (1909–2003) and his son Yashwant Bhimrao Ambedkar (1912–1977) pursued his legacy.4 Not long after his conversion, Ambedkar passed away and became a deity for the followers of Navayana, who worshipped him in that version of Buddhism (Junghare 1988). The book he wrote, The Buddha and His Dhamma, has become the holy scripture for Navayana or Dalit Buddhists (Queen 2015).

Tenzin Gyatso, better known worldwide for his Buddhist title as the Dalai Lama, arguably stands out today as the most visible figure of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and one of its most prolific writers (Kittel 2011). Since his formal recognition as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1939 and his escape to India in 1959, where he established a government-in-exile, he is seen by most Tibetans as their spiritual leader and was also perceived as temporal and political leader until his retirement as head of the Tibetan Central Administration. The association of the Dalai Lama with ‘Engaged Buddhism’ may go a long way in explaining why this expression could be problematic in China (Puri 2009).

The case of Aung San Suu Kyi, long seen as an example of ‘Engaged Buddhism’, reveals the limitations to that categorization. In her political rhetoric, she has departed from her father, who was one of the main heroes of Burmese independence, by developing during her incarceration the language of a socially engaged Buddhism, known as active Metta, that has resonated with the population (McCarthy 2004). On the international stage, she received considerable attention as a prominent proponent of a peaceful transition to democracy in her country (Kittel 2011). However, when she became a special counselor in 2016 following relatively open elections, she fell from grace as she defended at the International Court of Justice the denial by the ruling military junta that they had perpetrated the act of genocide against the Rohingya minority (Lubina 2020).

Sulak Sivaraksa (2015), in his political engagements in the politics of Thailand, encapsulates a vital issue about ‘Engaged Buddhism’: the nature and significance of that engagement (Hongladarom 1997: 97–109). Sivaraksa promoted the defense of the Buddhist tradition in his country, as it faces the pressures of materialism and individualism. On the surface, this agenda seems to mirror the advocacy of Tibetan Buddhists’ right to preserve their distinctive culture or the rights of aggrieved minorities such as the Dalit. However, other discourses for the defense of cultural identity, as seen in the discourse propagated by the Burmese or Sinhalese movements described later, beg the question of whether ‘Engaged Buddhists’ are always progressive. As Ikeda’s career suggests, labels such as progressive, liberal, and conservative can create confusion in this context.

Engaged Buddhism represents a bottom-up approach to the religion that seeks to address many of the key problems contemporary societies face. However, this poly-centric movement needs to contend with another trend that is quite significant in the Buddhist world and often confused with Engaged Buddhism: the thought of renjian fojiao 人间佛教, inconsistently translated as ‘Humanistic Buddhism’, ‘Buddhism for this world’, or ‘Buddhism for the human realm’. Wikipedia translates ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as rushi fojiao 入世佛教, an expression absent in the writings of Buddhist scholars in the sinosphere. Professor LiuYuguang 刘宇光 (2006) referred to it as zuoyi fojiao 左翼佛教, or left-wing Buddhism.

‘Buddhism for this World’

An idea developed exclusively in the sinosphere as renjian fojiao, ‘Buddhism for this world’ has become canonical in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in the prc, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora (Ji 2013). Its antecedent of rensheng fojiao 人生佛教had emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in Eastern China. After an eclipse of about two decades following the passing away of its principal founder, Taixu 太虚, it re-emerged in Taiwan. It spread from there to overseas Chinese communities before its reappropriation by the Chinese Buddhist Association two decades later. What is the meaning of ‘Buddhism for this world’? Why it took so long to gain prominence? Why did it start to develop in Taiwan before its return in China? How did it achieve this level of acceptance across political and cultural divides? Once we elucidate these points, it becomes possible to discuss the implications of these trends for the future of Buddhism.

Taixu and Rensheng Fojiao

A Rejection of a Religion That Focused on Funeral Rites, Ghosts, and Spirits

Taixu and his contemporaries were aware of Western Christianity’s progress in their country and on the global stage. They wanted to make Buddhism relevant to the nation and the modern world. The reform of Buddhism was inseparable from China’s reform. Taixu saw some affinities between his project of modern Buddhism and the ideologies of nationalism and socialism that attracted the attention of his contemporaries (Pittman 2001). Because of these ideas, more conservative monastics did not approve of Taixu’s vision and its implications. Taixu tried to rally other monastics to his ideas but failed during his lifetime. When he died prematurely in 1947, the fate of Buddhism appeared as a sideshow in the context of the country being engulfed in the civil war that opposed nationalist and communist armies.

After the ccp took power in 1949 and with the onset of the Cold War, all the subtleties disappeared. From the ccp perspective, all religions were associated with the feudal society the new regime sought to eradicate. If Buddhists could expect more lenient treatment from the ccp than Christians because they did not depend on foreign missionaries, they still suffered the facile association with parasitism that affected co-religionists since imperial times. For the first two decades of the prc, religious development came to a stop. No matter how hard clergy and lay intellectuals sought to profess and demonstrate their loyalty to the ccp and the compatibility of their religion with socialism, the more doctrinaire members of the party prevailed during the Cultural Revolution and stopped their activities (Yu 2009).

As mentioned before, the idea of ‘Buddhism for this world’ inspired Thích Nhất Hạnh in 1964. In the context of the Cold War, however, this was problematic. In South Vietnam, as elsewhere in other East Asian societies such as Taiwan under the dictatorship of anti-communist regimes, the pro-Western leanings of the political leaders coincided with the Catholic faith of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon and the Methodist affiliation of Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei. In Vietnam, Buddhism suffered persecution from the bigoted government of Diem. In Taiwan, the religion did not suffer that fate, but within the ranks of the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (baroc), the conservative perspective prevailed, and it took time before the ideas of Taixu gained acceptance. The sympathies expressed by the founder of ‘Buddhism for this world’ for socialism did not help. However, the theological reinvention of that doctrine by Yinshun 印顺 changed the equation for Taiwanese Buddhists (Travagnin).

Renjian Fojiao in Taiwan: Source of Soft Power or United Front Work Instrument?

While Thích Nhất Hạnh faced ostracism from the South Vietnamese government and its American supporters because of his anti-war activism, Buddhists in Taiwan followed a different path. The clergy of the baroc espoused the anti-communist positions of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang 国民党, kmt) in power in Taipei during the international meetings of the World Buddhist Sangha. The position of the official Buddhist association was not difficult to understand despite the regime of martial law imposed on the population after 1949: the freedom to practice their religion contrasted with the closure or the destruction of temples and the persecution experienced by their co-religionists in China before 1978. The baroc clergy opposed resistance to the ideas of Taixu, but the dynamics of Taiwanese society pushed for a change (Jones 1999). Many Christian missionaries exiled from China after 1949 contributed to support the kmt regime by helping orphans, the elderly without children, and other people in need. However, as they aged and the numbers of Christians stagnated, the government turned to other groups for the outsourcing of social services provision.

In that context, Cheng Yen 证严, a young nun who had followed the teachings of Yinshun, established in a few years what would later become one of the largest philanthropic societies on the island, the Tzu Chi Foundation (Huang 2009). Starting as a small female monastic community in 1966, it managed a bone marrow databank and developed an influential network of hospitals throughout the island. Meanwhile, Hsing Yun 星云, a monastic who had escaped from his native Jiangsu province in China, established the Foguangshan 佛光山monastery to teach the Dharma and made his teaching one of the most visible examples of prosperity religions in Taiwan (Chandler 2004). Other refugees from China, such as Sheng Yen 圣严 and Wei Chueh 惟觉, created their organizations to promote the teachings of ‘Buddhism for this World’, that is, the teachings of Taixu as amended by Yinshun and other Buddhist philosophers after they had reworked the more contentious elements of his teachings (Pacey 2005).

During the 38 years of martial law imposed on society, no monastic of note opposed the regime the way Thích Nhất Hạnh did against the government of Diem in Vietnam. Likewise, no lay Buddhist of a stature comparable to Daw San Suu Kyi or Dr. Ambedkar emerged during that period to use his or her morality to protest violations of human rights. This attitude contrasts with the clergy of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. This much smaller organization took a stand for the promotion of the right to self-determination of Taiwanese and faced jailing as a result (Rubinstein 1991). During the period of democratic transition, Buddhist associations contributed to the peaceful nature of that important political change (Madsen 2007). However, some of them, such as Foguangshan and Chungtaichan, the monastery headed by Wei Chueh, made public declarations during elections that revealed their partisanship despite their claim of political neutrality (Laliberté 2004). In both cases, they opposed candidates for the presidential election that China rejected, giving many Taiwanese the impression that they were fellow travelers to the ccp.

‘Buddhism for this World’ in China: A Resource for Neo-traditionalist Nationalism

The relatively late inclusion of Taixu’s teachings in the charter of the Buddhist Association of China proposed by its President Zhao Puchu in the 1980s comes across as a paradox, as it revealed the existence of a conservative Buddhism in a socialist regime (Ji 2013). However, it does make sense in the context of China’s complicated politics. When the ccp took power in 1949, barely two years after Taixu had passed away, the country faced many uncertainties: It took five years before the new regime decided to set up an official organization, the Buddhist Association of China, representing the interests of all Chinese Buddhists. At least two political issues mattered to the ccp then: the prominence of Tibetan Buddhists in the leadership served the minority nationalities’ policy of the new regime and thereby helped nation-building (Tuttle 2005). Promoting Buddhism could also serve the objective of diplomacy in relation to Japan, Korea, and other Southeast and South Asian countries where many Buddhists lived.

Five years after its founding, the usefulness of the bac disappointed the regime. It did not calm the situation in Tibet, whose population rose against the ccp. Also, it failed to change the nature of relations with Japan and Korea, which remained firmly ensconced in their alliance with the US, and it could not sway the governments of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, which stood behind the US as well. In Ceylon and Nepal, Buddhist actors were staunchly nationalist and opposed socialism. From the mobilization period that led to the great famine until the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution almost two decades later, the bac could no longer serve the ccp. Mao supported the excesses of the young Red Guards, who aimed to destroy all traces of religious life in New China. The idea of reform within Buddhism appeared irrelevant as it entered a cataclysmic period (Hou 2012).

With the policy of reform and opening set up by Deng Xiaoping, the ccp encouraged the revival of religious institutions, driven underground under Mao, to better manage them (Goldman 1986). This served many key policies: on the one hand, it attracted investments from abroad, as overseas Chinese were encouraged to valorize the heritage of their ancestors. Under his successor Jiang Zemin, the ccp exploited, among other pretexts, the bac grievance about misusing their symbol, the dharmacakra, by the new religious movement Falun Gong to legitimate its campaign against them (Penny 2005). Some Buddhist clerics welcomed this crackdown against a competitor organization that sometimes launched virulent attacks against them. Finally, under Hu Jintao, the government started to encourage greater participation of religious associations in the delivery of social services (Laliberté 2011). Besides the official association sanctioned by the regime, no other Buddhist association comparable to Foguangshan or Tzu Chi can develop in China.

The trend of renjian fojiao has served the regime very well because it matched many of its policies (Krause 2019). The ccp has also relied on Buddhism outside the prc as an instrument of its foreign policy via relics diplomacy with Southeast Asian countries, preservation of the Buddhist heritage in Central Asia, and overall promotion of China as the center of global Buddhism (Raymond 2020). It has achieved that by working closely with united front associations to organize World Buddhist Forums, all held in the sinosphere, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and cities in the prc.

The reintroduction of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ in China took three paths. Business people from Taiwan (taishang 台商), some of whom happened to be Buddhist themselves, saw a potential for expansion in religion and their business in China (Huang 2019). Academic and cultural exchanges, encouraged by both sides, led to a more profound interest in the shared heritage of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ and an increase in the study of Taixu’s ideas (Dong 2017). Over time, the interest turned into invitations to Taiwanese Buddhist associations such as Tzu Chi and Foguangshan, perceived as possible elements that could favor a resolution of tensions between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait (Chen and Chen 2021). Chinese publishers printed writings from their founders in simplified characters, which became available in mainstream bookstores throughout China. Scholars became interested in the social services offered by Buddhist associations, and a colloquium bringing together scholars, religious personnel, and state and party cadres discussed the possibility of Chinese Buddhists replicating in China the delivery of services that Buddhist associations performed in Taiwan.

Some Implications

Now that the distinction between ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ is established, I propose some remarks about what I could term the geopolitics of Buddhism, i.e., the attempts by the representatives of both trends to assert the paramountcy of their respective approaches to the religion in the global Sangha (Habito 2007). While one could schematically argue that ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ has not traveled much beyond the Sinosphere, the reality is more complex, as the ethnic Chinese diaspora – as distinct from overseas Chinese and Taiwanese – has spread on all continents. Likewise, in the case of ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ it belongs to none of the three traditions of Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana, and it has spread beyond the Asian diasporas. Although the religion ranks fourth behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in adherents, it is practiced by people living in the most dynamic region of the global economy, albeit one threatened by the twin perils of aging populations in East Asia and increasing threats from climate change. While ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ promotes an approach to global affairs that refrains primarily from criticizing governments – including authoritarian ones, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ differs from that stance, embodying social struggle, sometimes against established social and political structures of oppression.

While the previous section discussed the predominance of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ in the Sinosphere, this does not exclude the presence of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ in that part of the world, even though the latter is far less influential and is embodied with individuals and very small associations. In Taiwan, Chao Hui established her credentials as a progressive and Engaged Buddhist (Chen 2011), celebrating the first same-sex wedding in the whole continent. She has already emerged as a key opponent to the expansion of the nuclear industry and supported many other causes. Her activism, however, did not receive support from other Buddhist masters, and Chao Hui could not command the resources of associations such as Tzu Chi and Foguangshan. A few lay Buddhists have also emerged as key figures of Engaged Buddhism: hence, Wang Ching-wen, who advocated the end of capital punishment, and the leaders of the Sakyadhita movement. As we have seen above, the present context of political repression in China and the hksar prevents the emergence of any Engaged Buddhist movement. The trajectory of Engaged Buddhism has stopped in its tracks in the country where it emerged in the first place.

‘Buddhism for the human realm’ has not established a strong foothold in the other East Asian countries – Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. On the other hand, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ has acquired a special status. Watts (2023) traces the existence of such a trend in Japan centuries before Taixu and Thích Nhất Hạnh developed the concept. The role of the Soka Gakkai in Japanese society stands out as an example of Engaged Buddhism, as seen above. However, many people who approve of the secular institution of separation between religion and politics find the support of the Soka Gakkai to Komeito quite problematic. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ in South Korea is another example of a trend written back in history. According to its proponents, Korean Buddhists launched a reform movement near the end of the Choson Dynasty, which promoted an aggressive form of state Confucianism. However, the influx of Japanese Buddhist missionaries shaped the evolution of that tradition. As we have seen above, the Vietnamese socialist regimes had rejected the legacy of ‘Engaged Buddhism’, even though it objectively served its interests against the short-lived regime in South Vietnam.

The paradox of these two trends of Buddhism in Southeast Asia is that while some of the best-known tenors of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ live in that part of the world, they have often opposed governments that did not embrace this aspect of the religion and appear more amicable to the more quietist approach of ‘Buddhism for the human realm.’ Although altogether, the number of Theravada Buddhists living in Southeast and South Asia represents about half the total for Mahayana Buddhists in the sinosphere and less than a third of the total number for Buddhists from all traditions, their influence in the global Buddhist institutions stands out of proportion from their number, with the headquarter of the World Fellowship of Buddhists always located in a country of the Theravada tradition. The other characteristic from that region that appears ominous for the future of both trends is the emergence of a third current of Buddhist nationalists who instigated violence against Muslim minorities in Myanmar, such as the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) and the 969 Movement (Lehr 2019, 158, 175–77). Although these groups represent minorities within Myanmar, they complicate the portrait of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as a politically active religion. A sobering reminder that ‘engagement’ does not always mean ‘progressive’: it can also point to active involvement in violence and militancy.

‘Engaged Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ in the countries of the Vajrayana tradition stand out as minority trends in marginalized regions. Hence, while ‘Engaged Buddhism’ may remain possible for Nepalese and Mongol Buddhists who are free to practice their version of the religion, it remains impossible for Tibetans in China who look at the 14th Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, and who face hardship for doing so. For Tibetan Buddhists in exile, ‘Engaged Buddhism’ may be the option by default because of their conditions. ‘Buddhism for the human realm,’ however, may not gain influence among them, noticeably because of its close association with official Chinese Buddhism, now enshrined in the charter of the Buddhist Association of China. This predicament, well-known the world over, affects a small proportion of the global Buddhist community and gives the ‘Engaged Buddhism’ of Tibetans a visibility out of proportion with their numbers. However, despite this marginalized status, the ccp seems to fear the influence of the Dalai Lama over the Mahayana Chinese Buddhist community, which is far more numerous (McConnell 2013). Therefore, it has steadfastly sought to court influence in different international gatherings, sponsoring its own, such as the wbf, and trying to influence others.

The nascent fourth tradition of Buddhism, the Navayana, developed by Ambedkar’s successors, may represent the smallest. However, the circumstances of its emergence make it the embodiment of ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ with little relation to the more quietist approach of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’. Identified with the cause of the Dalits, an aggrieved but significant social minority, it has received far less attention outside the boundaries of India. However, the cause of Dalit empowerment, as an example of the struggle for social justice, ought to resonate wildly beyond India and Buddhism. The global competition for leadership of Buddhism, embodied by the controversy of an international Nalanda Buddhist university in Bihar, India, or Lumbini, in Nepal, has now brought the United Nations as an actor (Harcey 2022). India could have some claim for legitimacy thanks to this development of Navayana in Maharashtra, the presence of the Tibetan-government-in-exile on its soil, as well as the existence of small indigenous communities of Buddhists in Ladakh and throughout the North-East part of the country. The Indian government under Congress has tried to harness this possibility, although it remains a work in progress.

The trends of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ discussed so far constitute the political and social manifestation of a much larger religious reality that is often uncomfortable in intermingling between religion and politics. In other words, many people who profess to be Buddhists show little interest in getting involved in politics. As the attitude of Cheng Yen expressed above reminds us, for many Buddhist clerics, there remains a perception that politics is corrupt. As the chronicle of institutionalized Buddhism in the international arena demonstrates, this perspective can, at best, be qualified as naïve. This section points to some of the key stages of international Buddhist meetings. It will highlight that behind lofty phrases about the shared ideals of peace and harmony in such meetings, geopolitical ambitions and rivalries are writ large, with ramifications in many areas, ranging from tourism to inter-religious marriages (Bhandari 2019; Smith 2009).

Starting with the World Fellowship of Buddhists (wfb), an international meeting organized beyond the confines of the dynamics of ‘Buddhism for this world’ and ‘Engaged Buddhism’ described so far, this series of meetings reflected some of the key issues during the overlapping periods of decolonization and the Cold War (Chambers 2017). Established in 1950 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), by Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera, the new association brought together representatives of Buddhist associations from 27 countries. Although the wfb speaks for all the three main traditions of Buddhism, a disproportionate number of the delegates represent the Theravada tradition. The wfb leadership has always been from that same tradition, even though most Buddhists are affiliated with the Mahayana tradition. Twelve out of the first 21 congresses held by the wfb were held in countries of the Theravada tradition, and only six in countries of the Mahayana tradition. After 2002, the situation changed dramatically, with seven out of nine meetings hosted by countries of the Mahayana tradition.

The wfb reflected the world order prevailing in the early stages of the Cold War. As Eugene Ford (2017) recalls in his research on the origins of the wfb, the US Central Intelligence Agency showed great interest in that association to shape the evolution of Buddhism in countries that faced Communist insurgencies. This international grouping brought together the representatives of national Buddhist associations, with one massive exception. The Chinese Buddhists did not have an association expressing their views. The baroc made that claim on behalf of all Buddhists in China, even though it could only receive material support from Buddhists residing in Taiwan. This situation ran parallel to the claim of the nationalist party ruling Taiwan during the period of martial law under the pretense that it represented the entire Chinese population. When the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 stated that the government in Beijing was the sole government of China, it left the issue of Taiwan unresolved in a practical sense because the government of the roc remains in control in Taiwan. When the United States finally extended diplomatic recognition to the prc in 1979 and severed formal relations with the roc, the existing arrangements within the wfb remained in force.

Reacting to the systematic exclusion of the Buddhist Association of China from the wbc, the ccp United Front work decided at the beginning of the twenty-first century to mount a counter-offensive that would ensure Chinese Buddhism would assert its presence on the world stage on a scale commensurate to its importance in the geopolitics of Buddhism. The World Buddhist Forum, described above, served that purpose and promoted the Belt and Road Initiative from East Asia to Europe and Africa. In recent years, the ccp has intensified the promotion of its objective outside China. Although the world has paid much attention to its – somewhat counter-productive – ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, it has also relied on international connections with Buddhists the world over to promote a gentler variant of its outreach to the world (Ashiwa and Wank 2020).

The Global Buddhist Congregation has emerged as another case of an international Buddhist group serving a state’s interest in recent years. This time, the instigator of that international meeting was India, albeit the genesis of that movement remains unclear to this day (Ranade 2017). Initiated when Manmohan Singh ruled the country as head of the Congress, it welcomed the Dalai Lama and Buddhists from many other countries but never reached the same level of attention as the wfb and did not receive the kind of support that the ccp United Front Work organizations lavished on the wbf. Because representatives of Chinese and Taiwanese Buddhism largely ignored that event held in New Delhi, few, if any, representatives of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ left their mark on this event.

Conclusion

Whether the trends of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ or ‘Engaged Buddhism’ will prevail in global Buddhism remains to be seen, as international associations compete to represent the whole Buddhist tradition. The World Buddhist Forum has proven successful so far at embodying the trends of ‘Buddhism for the human realm’ that prevails in the Sinosphere in a way that its rivals cannot match. However, it is essential to note that in the competition between the World Fellowship of Buddhism, the World Buddhist Forum, and the Global Buddhist Congregation, none of these conferences or international meetings has proven hospitable to ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as it is known in the West. The remark that ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is just a neo-colonial appropriation of an Asian tradition needs not to be taken seriously: its best-known proponents presented in this paper’s early section all have an Asian identity. That issue aside, the risk of divergence between a Sino-centric Buddhism promoted by an authoritarian state, and dispersed groups with a more liberal and progressive agenda are likely to grow. The demographic weight of Chinese Buddhism in the global sangha and the ccp’s support for its international presence make it a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, less visible actors like the Soka Gakkai International, the Tzu Chi Foundation, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhism, which are becoming increasingly transnational and multi-cultural in their membership, stand a better chance in the long run to embody the universal appeal of Buddhism.

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1

Throughout this essay, I choose not to translate ‘renjian fojiao’ as ‘humanistic Buddhism’ because this expression conveys too many contradictions. See the discussion below on Soka Gakkai (Hughes Seager 2006). Moreover, some intellectuals in the Buddhist milieus have objected to the association between humanism and Buddhism, because they believe it takes the religious implications away from the tradition (Thelle 2010/2011).

2

Budismo comprometido in Spanish; Budismo engajado in Portuguese; Bouddhisme engagé in French; Engagierter Buddhismus in German; and Geëngageerd boeddhisme in Dutch.

3

Born as Sharada Kabir.

4

His first wife, Ramabai, who died at age 37, was the mother of Yashwant.

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