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Religion

종교 탐방

IX. Buddhism in the contemporary world

 
 

 

1. MODERN TRENDS

During the 19th and 20th centuries Buddhism has been forced to respond to new challenges and opportunities that cut across the regional religious and cultural patterns that characterized the Buddhist world in the premodern period. A number of Buddhist countries were subjected to Western rule, and even those that were not felt the heavy pressure of Western religious, political, economic, and cultural influence. Modern rationalistic and scientific modes of thinking, modern notions of liberal democracy and socialism, and modern patterns of economic organization were introduced and became important elements in the thought and life of Buddhists and non-Buddhists in these countries. In this situation the Buddhists' response was twofold. They came to associate Buddhism with the religious and cultural identity that they sought to preserve and reassert in the face of Western domination. In addition, they sought to initiate reforms that would make Buddhism a more appealing and effective force in the modern world.

The Buddhist concern to challenge Western domination manifested itself both in the specifically religious and in the religiopolitical sphere. In the former, Buddhists used a variety of measures to meet the challenge posed by the presence of Western Christian missionaries, often adopting modern Christian practices such as the establishment of Sunday schools, the distribution of tracts, and the like. They also attempted to strengthen the Buddhist cause through the initiation of Buddhist missions, including missions to the West, and through ecumenical cooperation among various Buddhist groups. Organizations such as the World Fellowship of Buddhists (founded 1950) and the World Buddhist Sangha Council (1966) were established to promote cooperation among Buddhists from all countries and denominations. (see also Index: Christianity)

In the religiopolitical sphere, many Buddhist leaders--including many politically active monks--sought to associate Buddhism with various nationalist movements that were struggling to achieve political, economic, and cultural independence. Where these leaders and the nationalist causes with which they associated themselves have been successful (as, for example, in Thailand), Buddhism has retained a central role in political life. Where they were superseded by other forces (as in China), Buddhism has been relegated to the periphery.

Three emphases have been especially important in the various reform movements. First, many Buddhist leaders have put forward a highly rationalized, Protestant-type interpretation of Buddhism that deemphasizes the supernormal and ritualized aspects of the tradition and focuses on the supposed continuity between Buddhism and modern science and on the centrality of ethics and morality. This interpretation, according to its proponents, represents a recovery of the true Buddhism of the Buddha.

A second, closely related emphasis that has been prominent among modern Buddhist reformers represents Buddhism as a form of religious teaching and practice that provides a basis for social, political, and economic life in the modern world. In some cases the focus has been on Buddhist ideas that supposedly provide a religious grounding for an international order supporting world peace. Other reformers have presented Buddhism as a basis for a modern democratic order or have advocated a Buddhist form of socialism.

Finally, Buddhist reformers have initiated and supported movements that give the Buddhist laity (and in some cases Buddhist women) a much stronger role than they have had in the past. In the Theravada world, lay societies have been formed and lay-oriented meditation movements have enjoyed great success. In East Asia an anticlerical, lay-oriented trend that was evident even before the modern period has culminated in the formation and rapid expansion of new, thoroughly laicized Buddhist movements, particularly in Japan.

2. CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

The status of contemporary Buddhist communities and the kinds of challenges those communities face differ radically from area to area. Five different kinds of situations can be identified.

First, there are a number of countries where previously well-established Buddhist communities have suffered severe setbacks that have curtailed their influence and seriously sapped their vitality. This kind of situation prevails primarily in countries ruled by communist governments where Buddhism has, for many decades, been subjected to intense pressures that have undercut its institutional power and weakened its influence on large segments of the population. This has happened in the Mongol areas of Central Asia, in China (outside of Tibet), in North Korea, and, to a lesser extent, in Vietnam.

Second, there are places where well-established Buddhist communities have suffered similar setbacks but have retained the loyalty of large segments of the population. Perhaps the most vivid example is Tibet, where the Chinese communists have implemented anti-Buddhist policies that, despite their brutality, have failed to break the bond between Buddhism and the Tibetan sense of identity. In Kampuchea and Laos, similarly, communist rule (including even the reign of terror imposed by the Pol Pot regime that controlled Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979) does not seem to have broken the people's loyalty to Buddhism. (see also Index: Tibetan Buddhism, Cambodia)

Third, there are situations in which the Buddhist community has retained a more or less accepted position as the leading religious force and has continued to exert a strong influence on political, economic, and social life. This is the case in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where Buddhism is the dominant religion among the Sinhalese and Burman majorities, and in Thailand, where more than 90 percent of the population is counted as Buddhist. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, ethnic conflict and (especially in Myanmar) authoritarian rule and economic stagnation have resulted in political instability that has had a disruptive effect on the local Buddhist communities. In Thailand, however, Buddhism has a firm position within a relatively stable and rapidly modernizing society.

The fourth type of situation is one in which well-developed Buddhist traditions are operating with a considerable degree of freedom and effectiveness in societies where Buddhism plays a more circumscribed role. This situation prevails in several of the Pacific Rim countries, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and to a lesser extent in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where Buddhism is practiced by significant numbers of overseas Chinese. The primary example, however, is Japan, where Buddhism has continued to play an important role. In the highly modernized society that has developed in Japan, many deeply rooted Buddhist traditions, such as Shingon, Tendai, the Pure Land schools, and Zen, have persisted and have been adapted to changing conditions. At the same time, new Buddhist sects such as Rissho-Kosei-Kai and Soka-gakkai have gained millions of converts in Japan and throughout the world.

Finally, new Buddhist communities have developed in areas where Buddhism disappeared long ago or never existed at all. Thus in India, where Buddhism had been virtually extinct since at least the 15th century, new Buddhist societies have been formed by Indian intellectuals, new Buddhist settlements have been established by Tibetan refugees, and a significant Buddhist community has been founded by converts from the so-called scheduled castes. In the West (particularly but not exclusively in the United States), important Buddhist communities have been established by immigrants from East and Southeast Asia. Buddhist influences have penetrated into many aspects of Western culture, and communities of Buddhist converts are active.

For more than two millennia Buddhism has been a powerful religious, political, and social force, first in India, its original homeland, and then in many other lands. It remains a powerful religious, political, and cultural force in many parts of the world today. 

   


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