‘Ethnocentric Buddhism’ is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent phenomenon. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example in Thailand there is the idea of ‘nation, religion, monarch’ (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma ‘nation, language and religion’ (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defense of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity – to defend one is to defend the other.
There are a number of possible factors and ideas that could shape the formation of an ethnocentric type of Buddhism in a given country. Not all of these ideas are available in each cultural context. Some are available across Buddhist Asia, some confined to a particular area or would have been used during different historical periods.
a. There is the idea of the ‘True Dharma’ existing in one particular place and of that location preserving this true version of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, in Sri Lanka after the transmission of Buddhism there some aspects of the Pali Canon would be considered to preserve the essential word of the Buddha. Later, national identity could be built around this idea together with other texts being used and composed together with Buddhist symbols (the tooth relic) creating the notion of a direct lineage to the Buddha. This is clearly linked to the idea of a particular text containing the essential teaching of the Buddha. The Saddharma–Pundarîka is the best know examples but there are many others. The Abhidhamma could be said to serve a similar purpose in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism.
b. The notion of the decline of the Dharma/Dhamma in its various manifestations (mappō, for example) – the teachings lasting a set period of time – lends itself to an urgency for a given people to preserve and defend the teachings of the Buddha.
c. Buddhism is threatened. There is a very real need to uphold Buddhism because of this threat. The teachings can be corrupted. The idea that the teachings can be corrupted is written into the Buddhist narrative DNA. This in turn gives rise to a natural sense of ‘Buddhist Nationalism’. What is essential to the tradition is emphasized and ‘Buddhist Fundamentalism’ comes to the fore in which the ‘other’ is polarized as a threat to the future of Buddhism.
d. Buddhism is linked to ethnicity – a particular ethnic group is under threat and have the need and the necessity to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. Other ethnic groups, unless they come under the control of the dominant Buddhist group are a threat. Movements like the so-called 969 movement in Burma and the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka exemplify some of these ideas. A possible Islamaphobic Buddhism and the ‘Buddhist Defense League are other examples
e. Unlike in ‘Protestant Buddhism’, where the laity have enhanced importance, the monastics, with all of their symbolic importance are again at the top of the hierarchy of ethnocentric Buddhism. The traditional hierarchical nature of Buddhist culture is returned. The monastics cannot be questioned in their symbolic roles as the direct link between the lay person and the overcoming of dukkha. Once again the aspiration is to one day be reborn when one can go from home to homelessness and renounce society. This will only be possible if the monastics of the present preserve the Dharma for that future rebirth.
f. Finally, linking many of these ideas is that of an emerging sense that blasphemy is being committed against Buddhism. Blasphemy is not usually an idea associated with Buddhism but it is coming to prominence in what I am terming ethnocentric Buddhism and it could increasing be argued that there is little reason to suppose that it has not been a component, an often prominent one, in other historical periods and might be linked to textual ideas of the sanctity of the Buddha and his tradition.
The picture shown is the symbol of the Burmese 969 movement. It is based on the Buddhist flag designed by J.R. de Silva and Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. Superimposed on it are the Burmese numbers ‘969’.
An excellent summary of the 969 movement is by Kyaw Zwa Moe in the Irawaddy. Alex Bookbinder in The Atlantic and Carlos Sardiña Galache in the South Asia Globe suggest, among other things, the numerological influence on the movement. Much useful material can be found on Maung Zarni’s Blog.