Modern Buddhism: Forged as anti-colonial weapon

What we think of as “Western Buddhism” actually began in Asia, in the 1860s. It was invented as a way of fighting back against Western military and religious aggression.

To counter Western threats, Asian rulers forced Buddhism to incorporate many Western ideologies. These include key principles of the scientific worldview and of Protestant Christianity.

That’s a surprising fact; but it is not just the answer to a historical trivia question.

The Buddhisms we have now were created with motivations probably quite different from ours. So it could be good to ask: do those Buddhisms address our current needs? Do we still want all those Western ideologies in Buddhism?

[This is a page in my Crumbling of Consensus Buddhism series. It is a conceptual overview of the next several posts. Those will have much more detail, including facts that support the broad generalizations here.]

The new threat from the West

For centuries, Asian rulers had faced the Western powers as approximate equals. That changed quite suddenly around 1840.

Western technology reached a tipping point. The West invented new military technologies Asia could not defend against: steam-powered gunboats, especially. Industrial manufacturing also gave the West enormous new economic power.

The West sent Christian missionaries around the world, backed with military might. Once a country was mostly converted to Christianity, it was easy to subjugate politically.

The West used this military, economic, and missionary power to “colonize” the rest of the world. That meant reducing entire countries, even most of whole continents, to slavery or near-slavery. Several Asian countries fell. Others fought back, successfully.

Asia could not match the West in technology, military power, or industrial production—although strengthening those was vital. The countries that successfully resisted colonization fought back with ideology as well.

Buddhism was an ideological key to success. But it was not the Buddhism of 1840. It was a series of new, modern, national Buddhisms, created in the later 1800s, by state decree. The Buddhisms we now know were first forged as weapons against Western colonialism.

Modern concepts, Asian values

Westerners themselves said that their power came from ideas. Devastatingly destructive gunboats were not a chance discovery. They were a logical product of technology, which was a logical product of science, which was a logical product of philosophy.

Christianity, a weapon even more destructive than gunboats, was an also ideology—and one that claimed to be justified with science and philosophy.

Clueful Asian rulers were convinced. To compete, they would have to adopt modern, Western concepts. But those were alien to Asian values. Importing them as-is would be difficult and probably disastrous. Instead, they needed to be modified. They would be domesticated. Asia would become part of the modern world, but Asian countries would retain their core social values.

Buddhism was the force they used to domesticate Western ideas.

Modern Buddhism: a four-edged weapon

By forcibly merging Buddhism with key modern concepts, Asian rulers accomplished four goals at once:

  1. Gain direct benefits from useful ideas
  2. Convert the masses from ignorant peasants into an educated industrial workforce
  3. Enlist Western liberals as allies against Western church and state power
  4. Eliminate the potential threat of monastic opposition, and co-opt the monastic sangha as an agent of state power

The Protestant Reformation of Buddhism

Starting in the 1860s, Buddhism was re-formed in ways similar to the Protestant Christian Reformation.

The key Protestant Christian innovation was to give ordinary people direct access to God through reading scripture and private prayer.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was organized for the benefit of the Church. It gave access to God only through public rituals, performed by priests, in Latin, an ancient language only priests could understand. The main religious function of the lay people was to give money to the Church.

Pre-modern Buddhism was organized much like Catholicism. It was good for monks, and parasitic on lay people. Lay people could not meditate, and had no access to Buddhist scriptures, which were written in ancient languages only elite monks knew. Religion was about public rituals, performed by priests, that ordinary people were not meant to understand. The main religious function of lay people was to give money to the monastic Sangha.

In terms of the four-edged weapon:

  1. For most people, the “Protestant Reformation” of Buddhism was a good thing. (It was not so good for monks, maybe.)
  2. Protestant missionaries could easily explain what was wrong with Buddhism’s familiar Catholic-style organization. Their arguments would make obvious sense to lay Buddhists. Reforming Buddhism to give lay people direct access to the sacred refuted the missionaries’ criticisms.
  3. Western governments backed Christian missionaries partly because they “uplifted savages from their local tribal superstitions.” Buddhism in 1840 mostly looked like a bunch of local tribal superstitions. When Buddhism was reformed to look like a “Great World Religion”, one that could compete with Christianity in its own terms, Western liberals were convinced to oppose missionization. They lobbied their governments to restrain the missionaries.
  4. By cutting out the middlemen, the Protestant-style reformation reduced priestly power, in Buddhism just as it had in Christianity.

It’s worth mentioning that the Buddhist struggle against Christian missionaries is still going on in many Asian countries. It seems that Christian evangelism mostly fails in places where lay people are directly involved in Buddhist practice. It succeeds where lay people’s main religious job is to give money to monks.

Rational, scientific Buddhism

Nowadays, Buddhism is often presented as thoroughly rational: it follows logically from sensible first principles. Buddhism is supposed to be, among religions, uniquely compatible with the scientific worldview.

Although this may be true for Buddhism now, it was not at all true in 1840.

Forced rationalization of Buddhism had four benefits:

  1. By giving religious justification to a rational, scientific worldview, Buddhism contributed to Asian industrialization.
  2. Especially, it helped reeducate people as competent industrial workers. You cannot run a modern economy if everyone believes that the world is flat, hell is a cave a few miles under ground, Buddhist rituals cure diseases, and magic amulets sold by monks are the best protection against demons.
  3. Buddhism could now convincingly claim to be more rational and scientific than Christianity. Many Western liberals were persuaded: the West should not colonize or missionize countries with a better religion than its own.
  4. Revealing some Buddhist teachings as absurd superstitions challenged the credibility and ideological power of the sangha. Reducing popular belief in the power of Buddhist magic cut monastic income from protective rituals.

Stay tuned for more

Later in this blog series, I will cover the Protestant Reformation and rationalization of Buddhism in much more detail. I’ll also look at two case studies: Japan and Thailand. Those are the two most important sources for current Consensus Buddhism.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

16 thoughts on “Modern Buddhism: Forged as anti-colonial weapon”

  1. @ David
    That was a fun tour — thank you!
    As you wrote earlier, McMahan’s book “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” does a great job documenting much of this too and with lots of support.
    I think, as I said concern your previous posts, people may react to the abstract notion of “Modern Buddism” as if it is a real thing and that you are accusing them of having or not having it, but I think that misses your point in this post:

    –> Buddhism-on-the-ground in developing countries was altered to defend again colonialism.

    Ways I could see people being defensive against this observation are that they may see your post as:

    (1) Implying that Buddhism before colonization was all superstitious.Real Buddhism is superstitious, nonsuperstitious Buddism is a modern invention. These folks want to think that their rationalized version of Buddhism is what the “real Buddha” taught and the rest is purely superflous cultural accretions.


    (2) Calling their Buddhism Modern


    (3) Calling all the values brought by modernism as faddish

    Instead, I see you illustrating how ideas and history mingle and evolved into the various forms of Buddhism of today. For people who think they know what-Buddhism-is or what-Buddhism-should-be, understanding this post on the evolution of ideas may shift their opinions a little.

  2. Dear David,

    I know embarrassingly little about Asian history of the 19th century. I just wonder to which extent your considerations also apply to Buddhism in the Himalayas. To my knowldege the most important development during that time in Tibet was perhaps the Rimé movement, but that does not quite seem to be based on the grounds that you are describing here. So when you speak about modern buddhism in Asia, what exactly are you referring to? Japan and South East Asia?


  3. Hi Florian,

    Yes; Tibet’s policy of isolation left Tibetan Buddhism entirely un-modernized until the 1959 diaspora. The ways in which it has and hasn’t modernized since then is an interesting story which I don’t fully understand.

    “Consensus” Buddhism is primarily rooted in modernized Theravada, with substantial input from modernized Zen. However, there are several Consensus leaders whose background is in Tibetan Buddhism (most clearly Lama Surya Das). It’s not clear how they have helped shape the core ideas and practices of the Consensus. I don’t really see any influence of Vajrayana there. Maybe that is exactly because Vajrayana wasn’t already modernized in Asia.

    I may try to write about modernized Tibetan Buddhism and its relationship with the Consensus later in the series. I’m not sure I understand it well enough. I read one of Lama Surya Das’s recent books, for instance, and it’s openly non-Buddhist. His ecumenism has gone so broad that he’s talking about God and quoting Sufis, and sounding very much like Eckhart Tolle. So what to make of that?

    I’d like to interpret this as a tacit recognition that Consensus Buddhism has failed. It was an attempt to re-package some Western ideology in exotic Asian clothes, and he understands that’s not working anymore. So he’s dropped the pretense and is just teaching the ideology as-is, with random quotes from assorted religions to make it sound like he has more to say than your uncle Bert.

    I don’t know, I’m probably missing the point.

    There’s also the fascinating question of how Tibetan Buddhism would have modernized if the Chinese hadn’t come in. The current Dalai Lama’s fascination with science is a clue, and there’s there’s the intriguing story of Gendun Chöpel. But, this would all be speculation…


  4. Dear David,

    Thanks, that is pretty much all along the lines I had thought about it. I had seen the film about Gendun Chöpel quite a while ago, and had almost forgotten about it. Interesting story, though also quite saddening in many ways. Especially when it comes to the political prisoners in Lhasa and all that. There are also some quite illuminating stories in “The Mishap Lineage” by Trungpa Rinpoche, going right into the 20th century,

    All the best,

  5. Here’s another viewpoint regarding a Japanese “reformer”. Inoue Enryo sought to re-vision Buddhist practice in Japan. Also some interesting points regarding the category of religion, as to whether that is an intrinsic Occidental notion or if it is a broader conception.

    While I’ve not yet located the original article being critiqued here it provides some interesting background for “Buddhism as export”. Not necessarily an anti-colonial weapon but more of a repackaging.

  6. Thank you! This comes at a good time. I’m doing the research now for a post on the late-1800s reinvention of Buddhism as a “World Religion” (as opposed to a set of “local tribal superstitions”).

  7. “Later in this blog series, I will cover the Protestant Reformation and rationalization of Buddhism in much more detail. I’ll also look at two case studies: Japan and Thailand. Those are the two most important sources for current Consensus Buddhism.”

    These case studies were very insightful. What I wonder about though… what about the Tibetan connection? Tibetan Buddhism also seem to be a major component in the consensus of Consensus Buddhism. (Actually it’s the Dalai Lama who is the most engimatic superstar of Buddhism in the West, visible far beyond Buddhist confines.) Can you / will you elaborate on the cultural / historical background on that, how this spice got into the stew, and how tantra and other eccentricities of the Tibetan tradition was digested by the Baby Boomers?

  8. Hi, Csaba — Yes, this is a hard question. Tentatively, the parts of Tibetan Buddhism that got into the Consensus stew are mostly Tibetan Sutrayana. It’s got Tibetan flavoring, but it’s the same stuff. Which is why the Consensus often talks about the compatibility of “all the great traditions.” By which they mean Westernized Theravada, Westernized Zen, and Westernized Tibetan Sutrayana, and don’t mean Pure Land, for instance. They also don’t mean Tantra, which is too scary to deal with—and would be incompatible. I’m not sure, though. I suppose I need to read more Lama Surya Das, but after a couple of volumes I can’t figure out where he’s coming from.

    I expect to do a post soon on ways Tantra might develop in this century.

  9. Quote: “The Buddhisms was have now were created with….”

    I had to read that koan four times before realizing it was a typo.

    I believe you meant to say “The Buddhisms we have now were created with….”

    Thanks for your engaging writing.

  10. Throughout its history, Buddhism borrowed vocabulary of the interpretative communities it was introduced. For example, Thai Theravada Buddhism had been affected by Mon and Khmer worldviews before it was adopted in Ayutthaya as a mainstream faith. Entering the era of globalization, Buddhism was affected by the ongoing rationalism and other scientific discourses when those Buddhist communities in that part of the world started weaving various modern discourses and imaginations into their Buddhist texts. Having said that, Buddhist Laws of Nature, Eight Fold Noble Path, Triraksana, Paticasamupada are deemed as the core of its mainstream teachings while most cosmological accounts expressed in other Buddhist texts were added presumably in India and Lanka. This is part of my studies and personal observation since I read Thai and other subjects in relation to regional cultures and languages.

  11. Buddhist worldview has been transcribed into varied ethno linguistic systems worldwide. However, its epistemology has never been watered down or totally altered, thanks to its strange or distinctive featuress. No matter how.. our human languages are limited in its semantic scope, thus failing to convey the true meanings and significances of most Buddhist thoughts and mental phenomena.

  12. Dear David, I love reading your articles, especially your vivid figurative explanation but you seem to overemphasize the concept of colonialism and postcolonialism, especially the impact of rationalism, Christianity and science upon certain forms of Buddhism while at the same time little attention is paid to the questions like how Buddhist teachings survive into modern times how other textual evidence can reflect or document sociocultural interactions at local, regional, and global levels that functioned over the past millennia to shape the way we meditated, the way we argued, the way we talked about the Buddha, and the way we crafted Buddhist teachings. For me, a lot of Buddhist teachings are not in line with the evolving knowledge you refer to as science. However, this does not necessarily mean that the said science is superior or accurate. Few hundreds years ago, the status of science is quite ridiculous, using Michel Foucault’s approach.

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