South and Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism
Buddhism started to lose influence in India in the 7th century, and all but disappeared after the fall of the Pala Empire in the 12th century, apart from in the far northern Himalayan regions. The end of the 19th century saw the revival of Buddhism in India, when Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the help of British scholars. Their main purpose was to restore the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, and they were very successful in building temples at all Buddhist sites, all of which have monks.
In the 1950s, Ambedkar started a neo-Buddhist movement among the untouchable caste, whereby hundreds of thousands have converted to Buddhism to avoid caste stigma. The last decade has also seen increasing interest in Buddhism among the urban middle classes. At present, Buddhists make up approximately 2% of the Indian population.
Sri Lanka has been a center of Buddhist learning since Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century BCE by Mahendra, the son of the Indian emperor, Ashoka. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism. It has also experienced long periods of decline during war, and from the 16th century onwards when the island was colonized, and European missionaries proselytized Christianity.
Buddhism experienced a strong revival in the 19th century with the help of British scholars and theosophists, and so Sri Lankan Buddhism has sometimes been characterized as “Protestant Buddhism,” with an emphasis on scholarly study, pastoral activities by the monks for the lay community, and meditation practices for laypeople. The country gained independence in 1948, and since then there has been a strong revival of interest in Buddhist religion and culture.
Today, 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with the majority of people following the Theravada tradition. After a 30-year civil war, Sri Lanka is now seeing a rise in nationalistic Buddhism, with some organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) organizing anti-Muslim riots and attacks on moderate Buddhist leaders.
Historical research has shown that Buddhism has a history of more than 2,000 years in Burma, with about 85% of the population currently identifying as Buddhists. There has been a long tradition of a balanced emphasis on meditation and study for the ordained community, and the lay population maintains great faith. One of the most famous Burmese Buddhists is S.N. Goenka, a lay teacher of vipassana meditation techniques.
Since Burma gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948, both the civil and military governments have promoted Theravada Buddhism. Under the military regime, Buddhism was strictly controlled, and monasteries that housed dissidents were routinely destroyed. Monks have often been at the forefront of political demonstrations against the military regime, such as the 8888 Uprising and the Saffron Revolution in 2007.
Over the last decade, various nationalistic groups have emerged, attempting to revive Buddhism and oppose Islam. Ashin Wirathu, the monk-leader of the 969 Group, has referred to himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden,” and has proposed the boycott of Muslim-owned shops. Under the guise of “protecting Buddhism,” outbreaks of violence against mosques and Muslim homes have been common, with counterattacks by Muslims further fanning the flames.
Buddhism was the predominant faith of the region until the 11th century. Nowadays, less than 1% of the population is Buddhist, and they are concentrated on the Chittagong Hills Tracts near Burma.
There are four Buddhist temples in Dhaka, the capital, and numerous temples throughout the eastern villages. Cut off from Burma, however, the level of practice and understanding of Buddhism is quite low.
Buddhism was introduced to the Southeast Asian empires starting from the 5th century CE. Theravada is followed, with strong influence from folk religion and Hinduism, as well as Mahayana Buddhism. Unlike Sri Lanka and Burma, there has never been an ordination lineage for women. Almost 95% of the country is Buddhist.
The Thai monastic community is modeled on the Thai monarchy, and so has a Supreme Patriarch as well as a Council of Elders, who are responsible for keeping the purity of the tradition. There are monastic communities who dwell in the forests, and those who live in villages. Both are objects of great veneration and support from the lay community.
The mendicant monks of the forest traditions live in isolated jungles and engage in intense meditation, strictly following monastic rules. The village monks primarily memorize texts and perform ceremonies for the local people. In keeping with the Thai cultural belief in spirits, these monks also provide amulets to the laypeople for protection. There is a Buddhist university for monks, primarily for training monastics to translate the Buddhist scriptures from classical Pali into modern Thai.
Buddhism first reached Laos during the 7th century CE, and nowadays 90% of the population profess belief in Buddhism mixed with animism. During the Communist regime, the authorities didn’t at first repress religion outright, but used the Buddhist sangha to further their political aims. Over time, Buddhism was subject to severe repression. Since the 1990s, Buddhism has seen a resurgence, with most Laotians being very devout, and most men joining a monastery or temple for at least a short time. Most families offer food to the monks, and visit temples on the full moon days.
Theravada Buddhism has been the state religion since the 13th century, with 95% of the population still Buddhist. During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge attempted and nearly succeeded in destroying Buddhism; by 1979, nearly every monk had been murdered or driven into exile, and every temple and library had been destroyed.
After the reinstatement of Prince Sihanouk as king, restrictions were slowly lifted, and interest in Buddhism revived. Cambodians are also strong believers in fortune telling, astrology and the spirit world, and monks are often healers. Buddhist monks participate in a wide range of ceremonies, from naming ceremonies for children, to marriages and funerals.
Buddhism arrived in Vietnam 2,000 years ago, first from India, but then primarily from China. However, it started to fall out of favor with the ruling classes in the 15th century. A revival occurred in the early 20th century, but during the Republican period, pro-Catholic policies antagonized Buddhists. Now, only 16% of the population profess Buddhism, but it’s still the largest religion.
The government is now more relaxed about Buddhism, although no temples are allowed to function independently of the state.
Indonesia and Malaysia
Buddhism arrived in the area around the 2nd century CE, travelling through trade routes with India. Throughout much of its history, Buddhism was practiced alongside Hinduism until the 15th century, when the last Hindu-Buddhist empire, Majapahit, fell. By the start of the 17th century, Islam had completely supplanted these religions.
According to the Indonesian government’s panchashila policy, official religions must assert belief in God. Buddhism does not assert God as an individual being but is recognized because of its assertion of the Adibuddha, or “First Buddha,” as discussed in the Kalachakra Tantra, which had flourished in India a thousand years earlier. Adibuddha is the omniscient creator of all appearances, beyond time and other limitations, and although represented by a symbolic figure, is not actually a being. Adibuddha is found in all beings as the clear light nature of the mind. On this basis, Buddhism was accepted alongside Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Sri Lankan monks have been trying to revive Theravada Buddhism in Bali and other parts of Indonesia, but on a very limited scale. Those showing interest in Bali are followers of the traditional Balinese mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and local spirit religion. In other parts of Indonesia, Buddhists, who make up about 5% of the population, come from the Indonesian community of Chinese origin. There are also some very small Indonesian Buddhist sects that are hybrids of Theravada, Chinese and Tibetan aspects.
20% of the Malaysian population adheres to Buddhism, and they are made up mainly of overseas Chinese communities. Half a century ago there was a decline in interest in Buddhism, and in 1961 the Buddhist Missionary Society was founded with the aim of spreading Buddhism. The last decade has seen a surge in Buddhist practice, even among youth. There now exist numerous Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana centers that are well funded and supported.
East Asian Mahayana Buddhism
People’s Republic of China
Buddhism has played a prominent role for the last 2,000 years of Chinese history, and Chinese Buddhism has itself played a dynamic role in the spread of Buddhism in East Asia. The early Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) witnessed a golden age for Buddhism, with the flourishing of art and literature.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, the majority of Chinese Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and most of the well-trained monks, nuns and teachers were executed or imprisoned. Suppression of Buddhism was even more intense in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. As China reformed and opened up, interest in traditional religions grew again. New temples were built and old ones restored. Most of the people who joined monasteries were from poor and uneducated families from the countryside, and education levels have remained low. Many temples exist merely as tourist sites, with the monastics acting merely as ticket collectors and temple attendants.
Today, a large number of Chinese people are interested in Buddhism, with devotion to Tibetan Buddhism increasing noticeably. Current estimates put the Buddhist population at 20%, and temples throughout China are busy throughout their opening times. As people have gotten wealthier and busier, many are trying to escape stress through looking into Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is of particular interest to many Han Chinese, especially as an increasing number of Tibetan lamas teach in Chinese.
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Overseas Chinese Areas
The East Asian Mahayana Buddhist traditions deriving from China are strongest in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwan has a strong monastic community of monks and nuns very generously supported by the lay community. There are Buddhist universities and Buddhist programs for social welfare. Hong Kong also has a flourishing monastic community. The emphasis among the overseas Chinese Buddhist communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines is on ceremonies for the welfare of ancestors, and for prosperity and wealth for the living. There are many mediums through whom Buddhist oracles speak in trance and whom the lay community consults for health and psychological problems. Chinese businessmen who are the main driving force behind these “Asian tiger” economies frequently make generous donations to the monks to perform rituals for their financial success. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia also have a growing number of Tibetan Buddhists.
Buddhism reached the Korean peninsula from China in the 3rd century CE. Buddhism in South Korea is still relatively strong, despite increased attacks from fundamentalist Christian organizations. The last decade has seen a large number of Buddhist temples destroyed or damaged by fires started by such groups. 23% of the population is Buddhist.
Buddhism arrived in Japan from Korea during the 5th century, and has played a prominent role in Japanese society and culture. From the 13th century, there has been a tradition of married temple priests with no prohibition against drinking alcohol. Such priests gradually replaced the tradition of celibate monks. Historically, some of the Buddhist traditions have been extremely nationalistic, believing Japan to be a Buddhist paradise. In modern times, some fanatic doomsday cults also call themselves Buddhist, although they have very little to do with Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings.
About 40% of the population identify as Buddhists, and most Japanese mix belief in Buddhism with the original Japanese religion, Shinto. Births and marriages are celebrated following Shinto customs, while Buddhist priests perform funeral practices.
Temples in Japan are beautifully kept for both tourists and visitors, although many are very commercialized. For the most part, actual study and practice is severely weakened. One of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations, Soka Gakkai, originated in Japan.
Central Asian Mahayana Buddhism
Buddhism arrived in Tibet as early as the 7th century CE. Over the centuries, with royal patronage and support of the aristocracy, Buddhism became entrenched into the various aspects of Tibet life.
After the occupation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, Buddhism in Tibet was severely repressed. All but 150 of the 6,500 monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, and the vast majority of learned monastics were either executed or died in concentration camps. After the Cultural Revolution, most of the reconstruction of monasteries has been through the efforts of former monks, the local populace and Tibetans in exile, with the government only helping to rebuild two or three.
The Chinese communist government is atheistic, but allows five “recognized religions,” one of which is Buddhism. While they claim to not interfere in religious matters, after the Dalai Lama recognized a young Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, he and his family promptly went missing. Soon after, the Chinese government launched their own search, finding a half-Chinese, half-Tibetan boy. The Dalai Lama’s choice has not been seen since.
Nowadays, each monastery, nunnery and temple has its own government work-team. These are plainclothes policemen and women who “help out” with various tasks. This basically means that they watch and report on the monastic community. Sometimes, these work-teams can be as large as the monastic population itself. Aside from government interference, one of the main problems facing Buddhists in Tibet is a lack of qualified teachers. Monks, nuns and laypeople are all very eager to learn more, but the majority of teachers have only limited training. In the last decade, the government launched a Buddhist “university” near Lhasa. It acts as a training school for young tulkus, where they learn Tibetan language, calligraphy, medicine and acupuncture, as well as some Buddhist philosophy. The digital age has brought young lay Tibetans closer to Buddhism. Many of them become members of Wechat and Weibo groups that share Buddhist teachings and stories. Learning more about Buddhism is now seen as a way of strengthening one’s identity as a “real Tibetan.”
Most of the monasteries of the Kalmyk Mongols living in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Several have now been rebuilt, but there is an even more severe shortage of teachers than in Tibet. New young monks have become very discouraged by the lack of study facilities and many have left.
The worst situation for Tibetan Buddhists under the control of the People’s Republic of China, however, was in Inner Mongolia. Most of the monasteries in the western half were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the eastern half, which was formerly part of Manchuria, many had already been destroyed by Stalin’s troops at the end of the Second World War when the Russians helped liberate northern China from the Japanese. Of 700 monasteries, only 27 were left.
Since the 1980s, efforts have been made to reestablish temples and rebuild monasteries, which are attended not only by Mongolians, but also Han Chinese.
In Mongolia, there had been thousands of monasteries, all of which were either partially or totally destroyed in 1937 under the orders of Stalin. In 1946, one monastery was re-opened in Ulaan Baatar as a token symbol, and in the 1970s a five-year training college for monks was opened. The curriculum was highly abbreviated and had a heavy emphasis on Marxist study, with the monks allowed to perform a limited number of rituals for the public. Since the downfall of communism in 1990, there has been a strong revival of Buddhism with the help of Tibetans in exile. Many new monks are sent to India for training, and more than 200 monasteries have been rebuilt on a modest scale.
One of the most serious problems that faced Buddhism in Mongolia after 1990 was the arrival of aggressive Mormon, Adventist and Baptist Christian missionaries, who come under the guise of teaching English. They offer money and aid for people’s children to study in America if they convert, and give out beautifully-printed, free booklets on Jesus in the colloquial Mongol language. With more and more young people being drawn to Christianity, Buddhist organizations have started to distribute information about Buddhism in the colloquial language, through printed materials, television shows and radio programs.
Aggressive religious conversion has now been banned in Mongolia. In 2010, 53% of the population was Buddhist and 2.1 % were Christian.
Tibetans in Exile
Among the Tibetan traditions of Central Asia, the strongest is with the Tibetan refugee community around His Holiness the Dalai Lama in exile in India since the 1959 popular uprising against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet. They have restarted most of the major monasteries and several of the nunneries of Tibet, and have the traditional full training program for monk scholars, master meditators and teachers. There are educational, research and publication facilities to preserve all aspects of each of the schools of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
The Tibetans in exile have helped revitalize Buddhism in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan, including Ladakh and Sikkim, by sending teachers and retransmitting the lineages. Many monks and nuns from these regions are receiving their education and training in the Tibetan refugee monasteries and nunneries.
While the majority of the Nepalese population is Hindu, there are strong Buddhist cultural influences still evident in the country of Buddha’s birth. Ethnic groups such as the Newars, Gurungs and Tamangs practice the traditional form of Nepalese Buddhism. Buddhists make up 9% of the population.
Following a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism, Nepal is the only Buddhist society that keeps caste distinctions within the monasteries. The last 500 years has seen the emergence of married monks, with a hereditary caste who become temple keepers and ritual leaders.
Buryatia, Tuva and Kalmykia are the three traditionally Tibetan Buddhist regions of Russia. All of the monasteries in these areas, except for three only damaged in Buryatia, were totally destroyed by Stalin in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, Stalin re-opened two token monasteries in Buryatia, under strict KGB surveillance; disrobed monks put their robes on as uniforms during the day to perform rituals. After the fall of communism, there has been a large revival of Buddhism in all three regions. The Tibetans in exile have sent teachers, and new young monks are sent to train in the Tibetan monasteries in India. More than 20 monasteries have been re-established in Buryatia, Tuva and Kalmykia.
Detailed knowledge of Buddhism arrived in 19th century Europe due to European colonization of Buddhist countries, and through the works of Christian missionaries and scholars. Around the same time, Chinese and Japanese immigrant workers built temples in North America.
All forms of Buddhism are also found throughout the world, in non-traditionally Buddhist countries. There are two major groups involved: Asian immigrants and non-Asian practitioners. Asian immigrants, particularly in the US and Australia, and to some extent in Europe, have many temples from their own traditions. The main emphasis of these temples is to promote devotional practice and provide a community center to help the immigrant communities maintain their individual cultural identities. There are now more than four million Buddhists in America, and more than two million Buddhists in Europe.
Thousands of Buddhist “Dharma centers” of all traditions are now found in more than 100 countries around the world, and on every continent. Most of these Tibetan, Zen and Theravada centers are frequented by non-Asians and emphasize meditation, study and ritual practice. The teachers include both Westerners as well as ethnic Buddhists from Asia. The largest number of centers can be found in the US, France and Germany. Many serious students visit Asia for deeper training. Further, there are Buddhist study programs in numerous universities throughout the world and an ever-growing dialogue and exchange of ideas between Buddhism and other religions, science, psychology and medicine. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has played a most significant role in this respect.