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.