03: Buddhism and Society

Wed., Aug. 20th, 09:30-17:30

The “Installation of the Lord(s) of the Teaching” (bstan pa'i bdag por mnga' gsol): Remarks on an Enthronement Rite in Sa skya

Caumanns, Volker (Lumbini International Research Institute, Dinslaken, GER)

Rituals, ceremonies and religious festivities have always formed an important part of Tibetan Buddhist life. Serving various religious and worldly purposes, and ranging from simple ritualized acts of devotion to elaborate monastic ceremonies, they permeate almost every aspect of Tibetan culture and, among other factors, shape reality as it is culturally experienced. Some of these rituals and ceremonies—and, one might add, their descriptions in written sources such as hagiographies, treatises, etc.—play a significant role in displaying and establishing religious and political authority, and thus the various “ways of ritualizing” should play an important role when it comes to analyzing the different ways in which religion and politics were intermingled in traditional Tibetan society.

In my paper, I would like to focus on an enthronement rite that was held in certain intervals at the “great monastic residence” (tib. gdan sa chen po) of Sa skya (i.e. the spiritual and administrative center of the aristocratic ’Khon family). 17th century sources, mainly stemming from the pen of the Sa skya throne holder A mes zhabs (1597-1659), provide us with some very detailed accounts of this ceremony during which one or several of the male scions of the ’Khon family were installed as regents on the throne of Sa skya. The ceremony—variously termed as “installation of the lord(s) of the teaching” (tib. bstan pa’i bdag por mnga’ gsol) or “installation as noble regent(s)” (tib. rgyal tshab dam par mnga’ gsol)—consisted in its core of a ritualized three-day Buddhist teaching. However, since the 16th century at the latest the “installation of the lord(s) of the teaching” was only the climax of large-scale festivities lasting several weeks that included the annually-held mdos ritual (i.e. the expelling of evil forces via an effigy), ’cham dances, the new-year celebrations and the entertainment (tib. gzhi len) of the guests.

My paper will give a brief overview of the history of the enthronement rite, followed by a description of how the different parts of the full festivities were performed in the 16th and early 17th centuries. As we learn from the Tibetan sources, the festivities were attended by the saṅgha (including the high monastic officials from Sa skya and other religious establishments) and aristocratic donors (and possibly lower strata of the laity), and at fixed stages, extensive offerings and gifts were presented to the new regent(s) but also to the various officials of Sa skya. Therefore, I will also discuss some aspects of this social interaction since the Tibetan sources allow us to draw conclusions with regard to the different levels of the monastic hierarchy of Sa skya and how, in this particular instance, they related to each other.


The Winter Visitors: Monks, Devotees and Construction of Bodhgaya as a Place

Chakrabarti, Bhaskar (Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Kolkata, IND)

Bodhgaya in eastern India is the place where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Now, it is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of Buddhist devotees who visit from all over the world. Although the devotees visit throughout the year, the number increases during the months of winter, when Tibetan refugees from all over India come and stay in Bodhgaya. Monks from various Buddhist monasteries also come during this period. The place thrives with activities for the devotees: debates are organised, meditation sessions are scheduled. Many devotees say that during the rest of the year, they look forward to visiting Bodhgaya for its winter activities. Some of them point to a kind of re-enactment of Buddha’s austerities that are associated with these daily rituals that are organised. Others talk about meeting old friends in Bodhgaya, or selling things in the winter-market and therefore the business opportunities. In this paper, I analyse the process of construction of ‘Bodhgaya as the place’ for the monks as well as the devotees, who visit during the months of winter. I explore what it means to be a follower of Buddhism in Bodhgaya, and come as a regular visitor every year. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with visitor’s groups (primarily Tibetan refugees who come from different parts of India, and the monks from different Buddhist monasteries), I try to understand the meaning of the place as perceived by the members of these groups. In particular, I ask: How far is the idea of Bodhgaya for these winter-devotees restricted to the monasteries, and the daily rituals? How is the idea of a sacred space in Bodhgaya constructed and defined, and to what extent does it differ between the monks and the devotees who visit during the winter? I argue that the sacred in Bodhgaya is not defined through an opposition of what is not sacred. The elements of sacred/non-sacred are interwoven in the construction of the place amongst the various participants through symbols and structures that are bound by socio-political and economic attributes.


Filial Piety and Political Issues in Ancient China

Guang, Xing (Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, HKG)

When Buddhism was first introduced into China, it faced many challenges and criticisms from local Chinese people, particularly Confucian scholars. The criticisms of Confucian scholars were mainly on ethical grounds, because the Buddhist way of life primarily focuses on individual liberation through moral perfection, which is very different from Confucianism, which chiefly focuses on family and society. In particular, the life of Buddhist monks, who were required to be celibate, shave their heads, and leave their homes and families, was incompatible with Confucian practice of filial piety as found in the Confucian Xiao Jing. This became a political issue in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265-420) when Huan Xuan came into power. A minister named Yu Bing reported to the emperor that monks should be ordered to pay respect to the emperor by kneeing down before him, otherwise Li or propriety would be interrupted as they did not do so in the previous dynasties. Thus the debate whether monks should pay homage to the emperor became a political issue and continued for several hundred years. This is actually a continuation of the criticism of filial piety because the Confucian text Xiao Jing discusses filial piety with a focus on politics. Thus, filial piety is called loyalty when the object is the emperor. Chinese Buddhists, both the lay and monastics such as the eminent monk Huiyuan, on the one hand, debated and argued that monks also paid their homage to the emperors in their heart and mind, but not in a manifested way. On the other hand, the Chinese Buddhists started the practice of paying debts to four kinds of people: parents, sentient beings, the emperor and Buddhism, which is taught in the Dasheng ben shengxin di guan jing, translated into Chinese by Prajñā in 790. But in another scripture, the Zhufo Jingjian Shezhengshi Jing, also translated by Prajñā, the emperor is placed as the first amongst the four. This became a regular practice in monasteries throughout China in the Tang dynasty and the monks also taught their disciples the teaching of paying debts to the four kinds of people. The Chinese Buddhists practiced the four kinds of kindness in the following ways: first, they made vows in ceremonies to pay their debts to the four kinds of people, second, they recited verses in morning and evening chanting of paying the four kinds of debts. Thus later there was no such a debate as whether the monks should pay homage to the emperor. This paper is a study of the practices of four kinds of kindness in Chinese Buddhism.


Buddhist Encounters with Religious Others: Historical Trajectories and Contemporary Realities in Sri Lanka

Holt, John (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA)

In two previous historical and ethnographic studies,[1] I have examined how the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and the Hindu deity Visnu, have been assimilated into Sinhala religious culture. These case studies illuminated a theory of religious change: elements of one religious culture are often incorporated into another when rationales are articulated for immediate pragmatic efficacy on the one hand, and compelling relevance to soteriology on the other. I also argued (against the grain of the modern socio-political context) that Sinhala religious culture has been historically remarkably inclusive, as evinced rather spectacularly by the fact that a Mahayana bodhisattva came to be regarded as the tutelary deity of the last dynasty of Theravada Sri Lanka’s kings (the Kandyan, 1592-1815), and that a supreme deity of central theological importance and cultic significance for Hindus came to be popularly regarded as the chief guardian deity of the Buddhasasana. A third book-length study[2] focused on artistic and ritual religious projects undertaken by a Kandyan king of Tamil Saiva origins, revealed not only rhetorical appeals to royal discourses rooted in both Buddhist and Hindu classical sources, but policies of social, economic and political accommodation for Christian and Muslim communities as well.

In this paper, I illustrate that this historic penchant for Sinhala Buddhist inclusivity is clearly reflected in the annual processions of the asala perahara in Kandy, reformed and restated during the early years of Kirti Sri Rajasinha’s late medieval reign (1751-82), a ritual articulation left largely intact today and regarded as the country’s signal national pageant. From close observations of this rite, it is clear that every caste participates in a ranked order, and that the cults of deities emanating from Mahayana Buddhist, Hindu Vaishnava, Saiva and Sakta origins participate in a hierarchically ranked framework. The hierarchical inclusivity so apparent in this ritual, a veritable symbolic articulation of a medieval “socio-cosmos,” was formulated on principles of verticality denoting perceived degrees of purity. The central focus of this paper is concerned with how occidental conceptions of political power introduced during the British colonial period (1796-1948), followed by the establishment of constitution-based modern democracies in post-colonial Sri Lanka, have promoted egalitarian ideals fostering a majoritarian democratic context in which relations between various communities (and their respective imagined collective identities) are now understood in terms of clearly demarcated horizontal relations. Thus, from a conceptuality based on vertically construed hierarchical inclusivity, reflected very clearly in the symbolism and ritual articulation of the asala perahara, a horizontally construed understanding of communal boundaries, accompanied by ethics of exclusivity has emerged, an exclusivity engendering and reinforced by contemporary ethnic conflict.

[1] Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) and The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation Politics and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
[2] The Religious World of Kirti Sri: Buddhism, Art and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).


Ambedkar's Neo-Buddhism and Social Action

Kumar, Pramod (Magadh University, Bodh-Gaya, Patna, IND)

Buddhism is one of those religious doctrines that have persisted for about 2500 years. During this period, the last century has seen a revitalization and expansion of Buddhism throughout south and south-east Asia. Ambedkarite Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada but with additional influence from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a distinctive interpretation. Of particular note is their emphasis on Sakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than merely as a spiritual leader. They point out that the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinction. Ambedkar’s followers do not believe that a person’s unfortunate conditions at birth are the result of previous karma, an idea which is accepted by almost all other Buddhist groups.

Ambedkar’s redefinition of Buddhist liberation as the amelioration of material conditions and social relationship in this life did not find ready acceptance among Buddhist intellectuals in India. One of the critics opined that Ambedkar chose Buddhism for its moral strength and egalitarian principles for a quality social change and not for its use as a political tool.


Accepting Disability – Karma as Coping Strategy?

Proyer, Michelle (Universität Wien, Vienna, AUT)

Drawing from experiences, interviewees shared about barriers and facilitators children with disabilities face in education in Greater Bangkok, this paper sets out to explore Buddhism’s role in the ‘Thai perception’ of disabilities. Children with varied disabilities attending schools in the urban area of Bangkok, their parents and teachers as well as other experts in the field of disability were interviewed several times over a period of three years (2010 -2013). One of the pivotal aspects within the interviews was many parents’ reference to Karma serving as explanation for their child’s disability as well as base for coping with challenges resulting from the disability. Main questions in relation to Buddhism’s impact focus on the following areas ranging from the microsphere of personal towards more general accounts. Furthermore, the impact of additional, e.g. global agreements and Western-based perceptions of disabilities and in what way they intersect with or impact ‘traditional’ patterns of understanding will be considered and subject to discussion.

  • How do Thai parents explain their children’s disability?
  • Which ‘Thai’-specific patterns can be identified? Which role does Buddhism play in these?
  • Which role does Karma as an explanatory pattern in relation to disability play in comparison to e.g. modern medicine and genetics? What other explanations are there and in what ways do they differ?
  • Has the importance of Buddhism in relation to understanding disabilities changed in the course of time? And if so: in what way and why?
  • How do international agreements (above all the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD) and the government’s plans and legal steps (e.g. Education Acts) to change society’s understanding from pity to a rights-based one play a role?

Trying to elaborate on these multi-layered facets, this paper seeks to shed light on the perception of the phenomenon disability in Thai society. This may lead to an understanding of what determines social attitudes and discriminatory behaviours and in how far these are linked to the explanatory pattern of ‘cause and effect’.


 “Scientific Evidence” for Rebirth in Contemporary Tibet: The Creative Appeals of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro

Sherab, Kunga (University of Toronto, Toronto, CAN)

While there is now a long tradition of dialogue between exiled Tibetan Buddhists and representatives of Western scientific disciplines, little is known about the evolution of this conversation in Tibetan regions of the PRC itself. This presentation will introduce previously unstudied sources from contemporary monastic leaders on the “scientific” proof for certain fundamental Buddhist beliefs, such as rebirth. Specifically, I will focus on the work of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro, a prominent abbot and scholar from Qinghai Province who has written extensively on this topic in recent years. His works cite scientific proofs for rebirth in light of classical Buddhist examples, while generally subsuming the scientific method as a “wrong view” (lta ba log pa) and asserting the superiority of Buddhist doctrinal positions. I will argue that new translations of Western science and the secularization of Chinese society (as this affects younger Tibetans) are the main reasons for these sorts of compositions amongst Tibetan Buddhist leaders today. My analysis will also argue that we ought to pay better attention to the evolving science-Buddhism dialogue in Asia itself, where the social and political stakes might be quite different than those usually considered by scholars. 


A Mechanism of Social Activism in Japanese Buddhism: An Example of Engaged Buddhism

Takase, Akinori (Jodo Shu Research Institute, Fuji, JPN)

This presentation reports an example of a new phase in Japanese Buddhism. Recently a Buddhist group started engaging in the homeless issue. The Buddhist group, named Hitosaji-no-kai, started feeding and supporting homeless people in the Sanya district, Tokyo. Though the group was started by some priests in the Jōdo Shū denomination (the Pure Land denomination), now many volunteers participate in its social program, regardless of religious affiliation. This researcher conducted fieldwork and interviews with 12 Buddhist priests in the group. This study clarified the characteristics of these activities and revealed that those who get involved in the homeless issue are motivated by the Buddhist teaching.

In modern Japan, Buddhist traditions are based on ancestral service such as funeral service and memorial service. People perform Buddhist rituals primarily for their ancestor worship services. This attitude is entirely connected to a unique management model in Japanese Buddhism. Most temples have a graveyard for their members. In general, Japanese people tend to be buried with their ancestors and worshiped as guardian spirits of the family after they die. As a result of that, lay Buddhists and Buddhist priests are connected through the family grave system. Therefore many temples are preaching more about ancestor services rather than pursuing individual enlightenment. Japanese Buddhism has been criticized as “funeral Buddhism” far removed from people’s daily life.

A new tide, however, has occurred in Japanese Buddhism. Some young priests have started to engage in social problems. This presentation reports one example, the Hitosaji-no-kai that Buddhist priests initiated to support homeless people in Tokyo. The group has three activities, 1) funeral support, 2) feeding the needy and 3) promotion of rice donation. Funeral support is a religious service for homeless people who passed away on the street. Feeding the needy is material support for the needy. The group goes to the homeless on the street to provide assistance such as food and medicine. Promotion of rice donation consists of encouraging other temple priests to donate rice to charitable activities. These activities, especially the first and the third, take advantage of the special resources of Buddhist priests.

There is another problem. In Japan, this kind of volunteer work, supporting and feeding the homeless, is not appreciated by the public. This is because people regard homelessness to be a result of laziness or choice. Even though some people are aware of the need for such work, the homeless are not welcome in their neighborhoods. Therefore volunteers who work on the homeless issue often suffer from a dilemma since they cannot expect social approval.

Through the series of these interviews, however, it was revealed that priests in Hitosaji-no-kai, have understood their activities as an aspect of the Pure Land teachings and that they have been motivated by a phrase taught by the founder, Honen (1133-1212). In other words their activities are supported by religious belief. Through this mechanism, we can see an example of applied theology in Japanese Buddhism.




IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien