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41I42XDmNfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have followed my varied opinions over the years are probably aware that an obscure book, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, is one of my favorites in terms of understanding the human condition. Though the book’s core focus is a cognitive anthropological treatment of religion, it also has a nice introduction contrasting the normal form of analysis in mainstream American cultural anthropology to the naturalistic paradigm. Books like these are very useful for overly intellectual types (religious and irreligious) who naturally reduce religion to explicit propositions, often relating to theology. Cognitive anthropology suggests that in fact the basic fundamentals of the religious impulse have very little to do the explicit cultural trappings which are so well known in the organized religions which arose after the Axial Age. Often these complex systems of belief and practice are centered around philosophical or revealed truths, and statements of confession which exhibit logical structures, at least superficially. Though it is probably a misleading analogy, many think of DNA as the blueprint for the form and function of organisms. In a similar fashion it is common to see religious texts and the opinions of seminal thinkers as the blueprint for a given religion. The empirical reality is that this view is upside down. Traits which we think of as seminal to religion, such as profession of specific elements of faith, are relatively recent cultural innovations on top of a far more robust and deep primal layering of religion as a psychological and cultural phenomena.

If we kept that in mind then op-eds with titles like this would be far less surprising, Sri Lanka’s Violent Buddhists:

Extremist Buddhist monks are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The B.B.S. and its counterparts have incited mobs to demolish mosques. A June speech by the B.B.S. chief Galagodaththe Gnanasara triggered anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s southern villages; thugs burned homes, four people were killed and at least 80 were injured. But instead of arresting Mr. Gnanasara, the president simply urged “all parties concerned to act in restraint.”

Reading the canonical Gospels would anyone have assumed that Christianity would serve as the foundation for militant orders such as the Knights Templar? The idea of Buddhism as a peculiarly pacific religion I think makes sense more in light of the biases of its introduction in the West (some of the same goes for Hinduism, which is often reduced to Vedanta, with other streams of practice and thought being termed “debased”). Oda Nobunaga’s suppression of militarized Buddhist orders in medieval Japan is just one illustration how the religion was turned toward forceful ends over the past few thousand years. I am broadly open to Peter Turchin’s thesis that “higher religious” that have emerged in the last 2,500 years are cultural adaptations to multi-ethnic empires where a new moral and ethical basis served to unit elites and ameliorate tensions introduced by social stratification. But it is also clear that these ideological systems of thought which took upon religious garb have also made accommodations with the temporal powers that be (e.g., the orthodox Christian “vice-reagent of God upon earth” and the Dharmic cakravartin).

In the particular historical context of Therevada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Theological Incorrectness is useful because the author did his field work in that nation, and shows how in practice there is little difference between Buddhists and Hindus in relation to implicit beliefs and rituals. This despite the high social tension between the two groups, and the canonical chasm between Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also important to know that Buddhism in Sri Lanka went through a 19th century Renaissance, where input from Southeast Asian Theravada and Western sympathizers revitalized the religion and reshaped its self-image among the elites.* The extent of its decline and the reversal of its fortunes is evident in the fact that prominent leaders from the lowland Sinhala gentry converted from Protestant Christianity to Buddhism in the 20th century as a nationalist statement (while Sri Lankan Catholicism has withstood the test of time, most of the Protestant converts of the colonial era have been reabsorbed into Buddhism among the Sinhala). This exhibition of “muscular Buddhism”, and its connection to Sinhala nationalism, is nothing new or out of the ordinary, but has roots that go back many generations.

* Some have argued that the elite self-perception of Theravada Buddhists in terms of their religion being a philosophy as opposed to religion is due in part to Western influence in the 19th century. This being part of the “Protestanization of Buddhism,” transforming a ritualized national cult into a confessional set of creeds.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Buddhism, Sri Lanka 
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  1. Razib,
    Slightly off-topic: do you know if the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka have similar genetic histories, or if Tamils are a recent intrusion from the Indian mainland?

  2. What I find a bit odd is the Western idea that Tibetan Buddhism is an oasis of peace and enlightenment in East Asia, when the truth is that Tibetans have a long, proud history of warfare. The Mongols evidently could relate to the Tibetans; they favored Tibetan over Chan Buddhism during the Yuan.

    That aside, explicit cultural trappings may not form the basis of religion, but they have a great deal to do with its expression, and therefore its consequences. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Roman generals worshiped Mars. As for the Templars, there’s enough even in the gospels on which one can base a warrior cult. The innovation of martyrdom, for example, is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

    BTW, glad to see you mention Olcott, the Theosophist saint of Sri Lankan Buddhism. That’s a hell of a story.

    • Replies: @AG
    Tibaten lama buddhism allows meat-eating. Mongolians are basically carnivores like Eskimo. This version of buddhism fits their life style better.

    On the other hand, China, Korea and Japan are agricultural societies which produce more grain over meat. Thus, Chan or Zen buddhism fit these cultures better.
  3. Maybe it’s just because, unlike many on the forum, my original background is in the social sciences, but I really fail to understand why so many people (barring perhaps the truly religious) fail to see this.

    I mean, historically speaking, one need only look at say the counter-examples of Christianity being used to defend slavery and then playing an instrumental role in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Or the rise of Liberation Theology in Latin America – despite the established Church being traditionally mostly in bed with the moneyed elites, and the official Catholic hierarchy coming down quite hard upon it. Religion is obviously a societal discourse which changes over time, not an intrinsic, essentialized thing. Or, to put it more simply, religion is one element of “groupness,” which historically was largely inseparable from ideas of nation, laws, custom, and manners. All were an integral part of learning how to behave within the accepted norms of your society. The local group norms of course could change over time, flowing like a river, but individual lives were still largely defined by finding a way to advance your agenda within this norm, rather than rejecting the framework entirely.

    Regardless, a good secular example of the same processes you discuss here can be seen within the U.S. political system. The left and the right’s divisions have become more stark in recent decades. Not so much in differences between beliefs, but in that virtually any personal action is intimated to have potentially political aspects, and that (outside of family) people increasingly do not socialize with those who hold different political views. But I’ve always found it interesting to note that on the local level, where the shibboleths of national politics hold less sway, the two sides converge. Upper-middle class Republican professionals generally want well-funded local public schools. And “liberal” towns frequently have some of the most reactionary development strictures. Unless you’re talking about some hyper-religious enclaves, there is a strong consensus in the American system as to what people want from local government – good public services at a low cost, and as little change to your neighborhood as possible. Yet another example of how what we say and what we do often have little to do with one another – and what we say is, to a large degree, about repeating the proper mantras to fit into our social circumstances.

  4. @Bill P
    What I find a bit odd is the Western idea that Tibetan Buddhism is an oasis of peace and enlightenment in East Asia, when the truth is that Tibetans have a long, proud history of warfare. The Mongols evidently could relate to the Tibetans; they favored Tibetan over Chan Buddhism during the Yuan.

    That aside, explicit cultural trappings may not form the basis of religion, but they have a great deal to do with its expression, and therefore its consequences. It's no coincidence, for example, that Roman generals worshiped Mars. As for the Templars, there's enough even in the gospels on which one can base a warrior cult. The innovation of martyrdom, for example, is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

    BTW, glad to see you mention Olcott, the Theosophist saint of Sri Lankan Buddhism. That's a hell of a story.

    Tibaten lama buddhism allows meat-eating. Mongolians are basically carnivores like Eskimo. This version of buddhism fits their life style better.

    On the other hand, China, Korea and Japan are agricultural societies which produce more grain over meat. Thus, Chan or Zen buddhism fit these cultures better.

  5. AG,

    It’s certainly not the case that meat-eating is the key doctrinal or practical difference between Tibetosphere and Sinosphere Buddhisms! Several Tibetan lamas in exile have become enthusiastic proponents of vegetarianism. The Japanese monk Shinran scandalised some people by eating fish, but no one thought he had converted to Tibetan Buddhism.

    The connections over several hundred years of Mongols and Manchus with Tibetan religious leaders is complicated and worth a nuanced look. I suppose it begins with the racial caste system of the Mongol Yuan empire in China, in which Mongols ranked 1st and anyone else from outside of China to the north or west ranked 2nd, ahead of the Chinese themselves. That is, to be non-Chinese was to be privileged. Under those circumstances, it would be natural to see Tibetan Buddhism as more appropriate for the élite than Chinese Buddhism. After 1368, the anti-Chinese caste system was never reinstituted, but the Tibetans’ reputation as religious specialists appears to have continued by inertia. Note that, in the time from Kublai Khan to the present, there has only been on ethnically Han imperial dynasty, the Ming, so it’s not as if there is a large sample size of how different Han imperial regimes have behaved in recent centuries. The Ming emperors continued to provide patronage for Tibetan lamas (the Yongle Emperor’s hosting of the Karmapa is a notable example), although I suppose it was at a reduced level.

  6. There’s an interesting book by Xinru Liu called “Silk and Religion” about the westward diffusion of silk from China, the use of purple dye for ceremonial garments, and funeral practices in India, Islam, and Christiandom.

    One aspect of the process is the use of silk as a winding sheet for corpses at funerals, which tended to be associated with the veneration of tombs and of relics (body parts) of saints and holy men. The peculiar thing about this was that to the extent that the scriptures of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity spoke of the veneration of relics and of tombs, they denigrated or forbade the practice. It was really pre-theological. In Chinese (“Confucian”) religion, by contrast, the veneration of relics and tombs is central. Presumably the practice traces back to archaic times, and the Chinese just didn’t reform it.

    It was also striking that important aspects of practice could be discretely transmitted from practitioners of one religion to those of another without there being much if any communication of doctrine.

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