Buddhist Socialisms. Asian interactions of Buddhism, socialist ideologies and communist movements in historical perspective (completed)

(volume edited by Patrice Ladwig for ‘Routledge Studies in Religion and Politics’)

Patrice Ladwig

The interaction between socialism and Buddhism has usually been perceived as being marked by antagonism, violence and oppression. Certainly it is undeniable that under many Asian regimes that labeled themselves socialist, communist or Maoist, Buddhism suffered severe oppression. However, it has often been overlooked that in certain historical periods models of ‘Buddhist Socialism’, ‘Dhammic Socialism’ or ‘Buddhist Marxism’ were widespread in Asia. As a political ideology that advocates a form of socialism based on the principles of Buddhism, it attracted the attention not only of religious professionals, but also of politicians and leaders of social reform movements. Probably the most prolific effort to link socialism and Buddhism is to be found in Burmese history, where Prime Minister U Nu promoted Buddhist Socialism as a state ideology in the 1950s and 60s. Even after the demise of communism, this conjuncture of political ideology and religion continues to be effective: in 2008 the Dalai Lama described himself as a “Marxist monk” and as a “Buddhist Marxist”.

Looking at the modern history of Buddhism in Asia shows that these are not mere single incidences, but that in almost every country with a significant proportion of Buddhists there were efforts to merge Buddhism with socialist ideas and practices. In Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka a variety of Buddhist Socialism were promoted, especially in the postcolonial phase. In Japan, Korea, Tibet, India and other places monks and intellectuals looked for potential connection points between Buddhism and Marxism in order to promote anti-colonial or social reform movements. Due to their controversial agendas and their status as political oppositions, these movements and their promoted ideas were often only short-lived, like in Japan, Thailand or Sri Lanka. In other cases, the alliance of Buddhism and Socialism was driven by a more or less propagandistic and ideological impetus, like for example in Cambodia, Mongolia or Laos, where the sangha itself, and Buddhist teachings were used to spread socialist ideas.

This publication project explores the concrete religious, political and historical constellations these movements were grounded in and gives a comprehensive overview of the diverse interactions of different types of Buddhism(s) and various form of socialism. By taking a look at the religious movements and specific propagators of Buddhist Socialism, the book deals with one of the most important parts of Buddhist modernism that until now has been neglected in research. Besides investigating particular (often nationalist) forms of Buddhist socialism, a comparative framework will be advanced in order to determine what similarities and differences there existed in regard to the connection of Buddhist teachings, socialist ideals and practices. The volume will examine the ‘common core’ of these movements by focusing on topics such as social welfare and justice, the distribution of property, utopianism, anti-colonial resistance and secularism. Moreover, many of these movements drew on Buddhist teachings, folklore, mythology and cosmology that represent additional material for comparison.

By examining the links between socialist politics, communist movements and Buddhism in various Asian contexts, the volume contributes to ongoing debates of the relationship of politics and religion. On the one hand, establishing a new link between politics and Buddhism was essential for the legitimation of some Asian communist movements and attracted intellectuals and monks alike, but on the other hand this also allowed for political and social changes that were considered necessary for establishing specific visions of modernity and the nation-state. The contributions therefore will examine how Buddhism and Socialism were conceptualized to be an integral part of Asian modernities, ideally contributing to the creation of social justice, welfare and new ways of interpreting and spreading the dhamma. By focusing on specific non-Western ideas of modernity, the book will also allow for a de-centering of notions of a universal modernity and emphasize Asian Buddhists views. Covering material from Theravāda Buddhism (Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India) and various regions of Mahāyāna Buddhism (China and Japan), the volume will explore the heterogeneity of these movements, but will also highlight the continuities that mark the connections and conjunctures between Buddhism and socialism.


Go to Editor View