Buddhism is customarily referred to as one of the great “world religions.” But it is a religion without a defining creed, revelatory core text, centralized authority structure, or indispensable practices and institutions. In fact, thinking about Buddhist traditions and practices as aspects of a single, pan-Asian religion is largely an artifact of early modern, trade-mediated, and politically-charged interactions among Euro-American and Asian cultures and societies. Over much of its twenty-five hundred year history, Buddhism has not been a world religion in the modern sense, but rather something much more like what religious scholar Robert Campany has referred to as a “cultural repertoire”—one that all evidence suggests was both remarkably appealing and adaptable. Within a thousand years of the life of its nominal founder, Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th century BCE, Buddhism was the most widely practiced religion in Asia, bridging cultures from the Swat valley of present-day Afghanistan to volcanic Java, from tropical Sri Lanka to arctic Siberia, and from the bustling manufacturing and market centers of the Indo-Gangetic plain like Mathura to the imperial capitals of China, Korea and Japan.
Yet, granted the set of associations that surround Buddhism today, its adoption across virtually all of Asia presents a considerable puzzle. Buddhism is now commonly viewed as having been founded on the insight that “everything is suffering” and on the practice of renouncing one’s social roles, devoting oneself to solitary meditation, and eventually gaining release from the cycle of life-and-death through a “blowing-out” or “cooling-down” (nirvana) of the ignorance-fueled flames of passion and desire. This characterization of Buddhism, found in any number of
Chan Patriarch Bodhidharma, Ming American humanities and world history
textbooks, has the merit of being simple and succinct. But it renders
dynasty, China; Photo Credit: www. mysterious the appeal of Buddhism and its adoption by hundreds of millions of
people, including culturally
metmuseum.org sophisticated ruling elites, illiterate farmers, and profit-motivated merchants. Whether among those living in
luxury, those uncertain about the source of their next meal, or those climbing commercially-crafted social ladders, world renunciation has never been an easy sell or popular ideal. The proposed institute aims in part at “solving” this mystery in the context of East Asia.
No less importantly, however, the program will place the widespread image of Buddhism as a religion of peaceful spiritual retreat in conversation with the historical reality that it had profound effects on civil society and politics and was not always warmly embraced or happily tolerated. For example, there were three major purges of Buddhism in premodern China. The most severe of these, in the mid-9th century, was due in part to imperial concerns about the inordinate tax-exempt wealth of Buddhist institutions, and led to the destruction of some 4,500 temples and monasteries, the burning of Buddhist libraries, and the forced laicization of over 250,000 monks and nuns. In medieval Japan, armed monks (sōhei) in the Tendai School intimidated adherents of other doctrinal schools and brazenly contested imperial policy in the streets of the capital. And, after nearly a thousand years during which Buddhism was the intellectual commonsense, the fervent embrace of Neo-Confucianism by Korean elites in the late 14th century led to the prohibition of many Buddhist rituals and a banning of Buddhist institutions from the capital.