The History and Complexity of Buddhism in Asia

“Buddhism is merely a minor belief system, a Buddhist is just the same as a Pacifist, and Buddhists are peaceful people…” that is what people in Indonesia or some other countries, where Buddhists are considered a minor community, say about Buddhism. But, what would happen when Buddhists are the major society in a country as in Sri Lanka and Thailand? How do they deal with one another? How do they manage conflict amongst them? How do they deal with diversity?


This would be more interesting if we extend the questions to a conversation about the internal issues of Buddhist communities nowadays. For instance, how are Buddhist knowledge and customs transferred from one nation to another, like the case of Buddhist education and ordination for monks and nuns? Are there any problems on power and gender relation in this regard? And, why do Buddhists consider the concept of “Early Buddhism” and “Engaged Buddhism” as alternative solutions in their everyday life in facing contemporary world and its complexity?


Those questions have been answered by A/P Anne M. Blackburn, an expert on the history of Buddhism in Asia, in an interview by Jimmy Marcos Immanuel. They talked about Blackburn’s framework in her research on Buddhism in Asia. They also talked about Buddhism in the colonial and post-colonial periods, some issues of Buddhism in diversity, Buddhists’ knowledge transfer, and gender and power relations in Buddhism. It ended with a conversation about the concept of “early Buddhism” and “engaged Buddhism.” Below is the interview between Jimmy (CRCS) and Blackburn (AMB).


Buddhism in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods

CRCS : In your general work on history of Buddhism in Asia, how do you deal with the dominant narrative and the subaltern narrative (or minor narrative) in history?


AMB : I think it’s a really good question, an interesting question, and there are a number of different ways to think about it and answer it. One way of answering it would be to say that in my own work, I am quite interested in moving to a different scale of examination to focus on individuals and smaller social groups because I think that if we move to that smaller scale, it’s easier to see the kind of creativity and agency of particular Asians, particular Buddhists, in their historical time and space. And so in some ways you could see some of the works that I’m doing as partly a kind of retrieval history. I’m trying to retrieve some of the stories of individuals and smaller groups. Sometimes, in the past, these stories have not been really looked at because people are doing the analysis on the larger scale.


For instance, if we study the relationship between colonialism and Sri Lankan Buddhism, we might not see the people quite clearly enough, we might not see the smaller groups quite clearly. The story might be told as the story of more abstract processes. So, one of the things that I am trying to do in my own work is to, in a way, look under the dominant narrative, beyond the abstract processes, and try to repopulate the history- that is to say put the people into that history again. So, in that sense, some of my recent work is also closer to a micro-historical approach.

Obviously, we have to remain aware of the larger processes, including economic processes and discursive processes. We cannot just somehow look at the individual in isolation from those wider processes but I do think that moving to that level of individual and smaller groups is quite helpful. And if we do that, to go back to the nature and intent of your question, if we do that, I think we begin to see that histories of religious communities, of religious institution- building, even of what we now call identity, are quite complicated, which means that the dominant narrative also has to be corrected, augmented.


CRCS : As we know, sometimes the minor community and/or the subaltern do not have any chance to replicate, even to produce their thoughts or voices to the society. How would you make sure that the narrative that you are dealing with belongs to the particular community or the subaltern itself? We often face the complexity of the two narratives that the dominant narrative affects or influences the minor one, they interfere. Doesn’t it seem that you decline the dominant to get the origin of the community itself?

AMB : I see. I may be going over a bit to clarify something a little bit further. Earlier when you were asking me about dominant and minor narrative, I was thinking partly about dominant and minor narratives in the existing academic writings and in that sense, when I said retrieval or when I try to bring some minor narratives or narratives interview. I meant it in that way.

CRCS : In terms of methodology?

AMB : Yeah, that’s right. I think, it would be difficult for us to say that I am really doing a subaltern history. In as much as, well, I am doing a subaltern history if by subaltern we mean any colonized persons. And we could make that argument. But sometimes, especially in South Asian Studies, we use the term to talk, not just about colonized persons but ,as you know very well, colonized persons of a particular class. Maybe more marginalized, economically, without so much social status. Maybe not fully a part of a literate world. According to that understanding of subaltern, it would not encompass the people I am studying because although they were a part of a colonized community, and in that sense, in some ways disenfranchised (vis-à-vis the British colonial regime, which was of course racist and exclusionary) nonetheless the people I have been focusing on are the literati. They are high-class people, or high-caste-status people, in their own sphere. They have a lot of power, even if they may not have so much power, steady power, vis-à-vis the colonial apparatus. They have a lot of power in their own contexts. It’s actually a very interesting question, whether and to what degree we could consider religious elites in colonized context, subaltern.

CRCS : Do you mean like the case of Hikkaduve Sumangala in your book “Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka”?

AMB : Yes, exactly. So, we might not easily consider him a subaltern figure, but if we attend to his history and the history of those people who are working closely with him, we can bring to light some of these historical processes that we might not otherwise see clearly; which takes us back to that methodological point. But still, your point about the subaltern is very important here, in a sense that one of the criticisms that could be made of this book is that it is still telling a very elite history of Buddhism or the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka. One could say that, although it moves to a much more local scale, much more individual scale, still this is not a book that can really tell us a lot about the Buddhist man or woman in the street who ran a small shop in Colombo, or who was still working on a farm in the South, and what their Buddhism was in the colonial context. This book does not go very far to help us understand that.

That’s of course I think quite difficult to do, to be able to retrieve that kind of history. Important, to try, to do it, but I think it’s quite difficult. But there are still projects that can be done in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, borrowing more from model of the studies of the subaltern people, and the new work in South Asian Studies. For instance, in Sri Lanka we have not done enough works with land records; we still have not done enough work with newspaper records. There are still legal disputes, small-scale legal disputes. There are still records that would help us to understand much more the conditions of the subaltern in the British colonial context and their relations in some ways with religious institutions.

CRCS : Compare to the colonial period, are there any resistance to the hierarchy in the post-colonial period among the community itself?

AMB : Yes, definitely both during the colonial period and the post-colonial period, we can see in the Sri Lankan Buddhism, a number of moments where people who were lower in social status or social-economic hierarchy have in the sense resisted those who were above them. For instance, you might remember that one theme, minor theme, in my book Locations of Buddhism, is that there were changes in the economy of Sri Lanka under the British that enabled people of lower caste-status to make money, and as they make more money, they were increasingly resisting in the sphere of social performance. They were resisting the authority of those of higher caste people and so you can see, even the way these lower caste people chose to support new monastic organizations as a kind of resistance. They were engaged in a caste-related resistance.

CRCS : Didn’t Buddhism take place in that case?

AMB : And it certainly took place in the form of Buddhism because for instance, they were using Buddhist institutions and especially sponsoring new monks and new monastic communities using those kinds of strategies as a way of first of all creating a religious community that would be more congenial for them, maybe devotionally and socially more comfortable. But they were also doing it as a kind of social declaration. We are also to be taken seriously. We have our own Buddhist institutions, we have our own monks.

CRCS : So, just to make it clearer. It means the discourse of state and religion is also applied in this conversation?

AMB : Well, I was still talking about a colonial context in which the state was the British colonial state, and the British colonial government had a shifting position on how much it would control or interfere with Buddhist activities. For the most part, they tried not to involve themselves too closely in the Buddhist institutions but periodically they would regulate some of the financial affairs. We can see also elsewhere in the British Empire that they were experimenting with how to handle the problem of religion: how much should you just let the local colonized people deal with their own religions, institutions and so on, and how much should the British government come to intervene. But then, if we look at the post-colonial period in Sri Lanka of course, there are very interesting things to talk about in terms of the relationship between Buddhism and the state. It’s because increasingly after the 1950s, a series of national governments and major political figures chose to really celebrate Buddhism and to make Buddhist themes, Buddhist symbols, Buddhist so-called identity a major part of the politics of the majority community. In the Sri Lankan case this means the Sinhala-speaking community who are mostly Buddhists.

CRCS : What do you call this phenomenon?

AMB : What do I call this phenomenon? Sometimes I call it Buddhist chauvinism.

CRCS : Why is it chauvinism? Why not the emerging of Buddhism?


AMB : Buddhism of course had been for a long time close to various kinds of political power. That’s not new. I mean kings in Sri Lanka (or when we call it Lanka in the earlier period, pre-independence period), kings of Lanka often supported Buddhism, sometimes, they supported Buddhist persons, Buddhist institutions, sometimes they supported Hindu ones also. Sometimes, they gave support to Muslim teachers, there was occasionally support for Catholicism.

Anyway, there was a lot of religion related to the polity in the pre-colonial and pre-independence period but in the post-independence period things were changing partly because there’s a new idea of a nation. As we know we end up in the 20th century with a new ideas of nation, new ideas of patriotism, new ideas of national identity and then when religion is drawn into a political conversation in the context of majoritarian-nation-states, then it’s a different manifestation of any particular religion. So, we can see the ways in which Buddhist persons, Buddhist ideas and Buddhist institutions are used in new ways in the post-colonial period.

Some of those ways, I would find worrying because they have been quite exclusionary and have helped to create a majoritarian community that has not given very much comfort or security to, for instance, Muslims or Hindus or Christians in Sri Lanka. But people will also look at it on the other side and say that it’s quite natural. That after the independence the majority community wanted to consolidate power and security at the time of independence and it was natural that they chose Buddhist symbols and themes.


Buddhists in Diversity

CRCS : Comparing to Indonesia in which Moslem people are the major community, basically how do Buddhist people live in their own diversity in Sri Lanka, like with Muslims, Catholics and Christians? How do they, as the major community, treat the minority?

AMB : I would say that there’s been a tendency towards a dangerous majoritarianism in Sri Lanka over time: that the state is unwilling to give as much security, legal security, religious security, security for certain kinds of development, educational security to the minorities, and it’s acted giving priority to the dominant community. It’s not articulated very…very explicitly in a policy. There’s no Bhumi Putra, official Bhumi Putra, ideology. But if we look at the discourse of the government, successive governments in Sri Lanka after independence, and we look at changes in the constitution, we can see that the balance of power has shifted away from protecting minorities- whether they are linguistic minorities or they are religious minorities. That’s at the level of state apparatus- we talk about the education, the constitution, the police, things like that.

CRCS : Did it also happen during the colonial era?

AMB : Well, the religious diversities were also very much present in the colonial era, and Christianity and especially Protestant Christianity had some privileges because the British Colonial regime, although not officially religious, was culturally Christian and partly Protestant Anglican. And they were supportive in a way of other Protestant missionary activities even though they usually tried to prevent a direct connection between the British Government and the missionary work. This is a very delicate question. I would say that there was more room, there may have been more security for religious minorities in the colonial period precisely because the government, which was the British colonial government, was not supporting, directly supporting, the majority Buddhist or Sinhala population.

So the somewhat hands-off approach of the British with respect to religion actually probably made a slightly safer space for a variety of religious communities in Sri Lanka. But the reason I am hesitating, trying to find the right words to discuss this, is because of course the British government was also restricting religious expression in certain ways. They were monitoring who had certain festivals, whether or not you would be allowed to play music or the call to prayer or have processions for various Hindus or Buddhist or Muslim holidays, or things of this kind. They were also controlling how much a religious institution could be involved in education and things like that. So, I do not want to make a picture that suggests that under the British colonial period all religious institutions were happy and no one had any problem. Of course, that is absurd. There were much constriction of all the religious communities but I think this is the point: under the British, there were constrictions of all the religious communities. Christianity probably did the best. Not surprisingly, given the Christian cultural world of the British.

But after the independence, especially after the 1956, increasingly the nation of Sri Lanka in its governmental politics, its political campaign, its constitutional voice — that became increasingly majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist. So, even now in Sri Lanka supposing I am a Sinhala speaker (I am member of the linguistic majority) but I am a Christian or maybe I have married a Muslim, and I consider myself a Muslim; I would feel insecure in some ways. Even though I am speaking the language of the majority I will feel less secure because I am not a Buddhist and the ethos and the governmental apparatus are both are in favor of Buddhists.

CRCS : So, interfaith dialogue movement is not popular there?

AMB : It is popular with a small group of people as I think in many cases.

CRCS : Because they strive for their life?

AMB : That’s right. I want to say something about these responses of mine about the state of British politics in the post-independence period in Sri Lanka. In answering you so far, I have been talking at the level of the state, the governmental apparatus, things like that, constitution, politics, at that level. But if we go back to take your question about how are people in Sri Lanka interacting across religious groups, then of course, in the level of individuals or neighborhoods or cities it could be quite different. So many people would be on friendly terms with their neighbors even if their neighbors were of a different religion. Still, in a wedding you invite them even if they are Muslim or Hindu or Christian or whatever if the social bonds are close enough. Or maybe at schools, the children go to school and they mix up with people of different religious traditions. Sometimes, there can be those personal connections.

CRCS : I am asking that question because in Indonesia many non-Buddhist people see Buddhists as pacifists; they would not injure any other religious adherents. But in case they are the majority, violence might happen.

AMB : Yes, it is interesting. I think in Indonesia, perhaps in Singapore we see this also, Buddhism is not understood to be a threat, and maybe Buddhism is being interpreted as a sort of friendly universal tradition that can offer some spiritual support for people and be useful for social service, but it’s not going to be too politically dangerous or create some kind of difficulty. But yes, let’s just say that in a different demographic context it could be otherwise.


Knowledge Transfer, Gender and Power Relations

CRCS : In the case of Sri Lanka, as a center of Buddhist education or maybe we can say as a school of thought, how does Sri Lanka affect knowledge and/or behavior of Buddhists in some places like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and other Asian countries?

AMB : It’s a great question, and by the way, this is an area that really should be researched very much more. So if anyone has an interest in these things, wants to research these kinds of ties in the contemporary period, it would be very…very interesting. It is clear that people are coming to Sri Lanka still to study Buddhism either as monks or nuns or they are coming as non-monastic people maybe they are studying in the universities, or maybe they are studying in Buddhist institutions. But that has never really been studied in depth, something that really deserves some investigation to know exactly the answer to your question. What kind of knowledge is flowing; how are opinions being formed.

One thing that I suspect is that when scholars or students of Buddhism come to Sri Lanka from overseas, they will quite often follow a course of study in PaIi language and they will learn about doctrinal texts and some of the earlier Buddhist literature associated with traditional Theravada Buddhism. They might not learn Sinhala language, maybe they are functioning more in Pali and English. If they do not learn Sinhala language they will not be necessarily exposed to the more politicized discourse on Buddhism in Sri Lanka. They might be really engaging more in a kind of religious education that is more distant from that framework. But as I say, we really need to know much more about students from abroad who are studying, what they are studying, in what language are they studying, how they are relating to the Sri Lankan environment, what they are bringing home with them. I mean, we see for instance in some of the Buddhist temples where I have done research, there were monks from Bangladesh and Nepal and Burma, not usually Thailand, but Cambodia. Still I have not met any Indonesian monks in Sri Lanka. But, if those people come and stay for a long time in the temple or temple school then they will learn some Sinhala, the majority language of Sri Lanka, they will start to become a bit more a part of everyday life in Sri Lanka. And if they do that they will see something about the kind of politicization of Buddhism. But seeing it does not necessarily mean that they would bring it back to their own place. They might think, oh okay I see in Sri Lanka there is this interpretation of Buddhism that has a political agenda but that’s not the Buddhism we’re bringing back to Indonesia or Bangladesh or Burma, what we’re bringing back is the understanding of the Pali language or the understanding of the Tripitaka text, that canonical texts of Buddhism.

CRCS : In the case of Thailand, where Indonesian monks have been ordained, have you seen any power relation of the king that gives specific impacts on Indonesian monks and nuns?

AMB : It’s an interesting question. I would not say it’s the power of the king. I mean, I’m no expert on Thailand but I read something about Thailand, certainly I know something about it. I would not say that it’s a direct impact of the king or the royal family. It is the case that the state government in Thailand controls the monastic world, administratively through ministries and registration of temples and registration of monks, things like that. And so definitely the monastic world in Thailand is a part of the bureaucracy that is related to the state and historically as you know, certain leading Buddhists had been in the royal family and had a big impact on Buddhism in Thailand. You are all aware of that history. But I think that for instance when foreigner comes to Thailand to be ordained as monk, they are coming into contact, to the best of my knowledge, really with the whatever local educational institutions, and they are coming into contact with the Sangha bureaucracy, the monastic bureaucracy. But they normally would not penetrate the monastic environment deeply enough that they would really reach any center of power. So what they would be really encountering would be the teaching ends and approach to Buddhism characteristic of a particular temple or a particular lineage, particular school.

I think one of the really important things in studying Buddhism all through this region that we are interested in is the study of lineage. I always encourage people to study lineage much more because if we understand what are the teacher-student relations, and ordination relations, we will see what is the chain of ideas that is travelling with these ordinations and that can be interesting. So for instance, if someone wants to look at, you know, these new Indonesian Buddhists who are taking their ordinations in Thailand and they were to really explore — with whom did they study in Thailand? which temple? who were their teachers? what are the doctrinal perspectives of their teachers? — that could be very useful.

CRCS : This is inter-nation and cross-cultural.

AMB : Yes, that’s right. I mean, it’s quite exciting because it’s a very interesting wide area for exploration and with the nuns also, in cases where bhikkhunis are being ordained.

CRCS : I heard that there is an issue of gender relation in their ordination and customary, in which the bhikkhuni are treated different way from the bhikkhus or monks. Do you think it’s also a matter of patriarchal system which has something to do with the royal family? Or maybe they are just complementary as well as gender relation, in general, in Indonesia?

AMB : This is a very interesting topic also and I would like to learn more about the bhikkhunis in Indonesia, and how they are creating their own communities now with their ordinations brought from overseas. I do think that there is a strong patriarchal style in the Sri Lankan context definitely. But that is probably characteristic of the Theravada Sangha generally; that is to say that even though we know that they were Buddhist nuns ordained quite early as bhikkhunis in the history of Buddhism, as the medieval and modern history of Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and Burma and Thailand, female religious specialists were disadvantaged in terms of access to resources, ordination and things like that. But one of the things to know also is that in Burma and Thailand I think that these ten-precept women (who are not fully ordained bhikkhunis but are in some ways leading a sort of semi-monastic life) often can be quite well- educated. In certain cases, they have been able to create strong communities and they receive quite a lot of respect from the lay people who support them and sometimes they are able to make strong relations with the male monastic also. Hiroko Kawanami from Lancaster University has written some interesting things about this. And recently Justin McDaniel and Steven Collins have been writing a bit about some of the learned ten-precept women in Thailand who are studying Pali, meditations and so on.

Sometimes the Burmese government or the Thai government or the Sri Lankan, or the high levels of monastic administration have tried to constrain the bhikkhuni ordination also. They put political pressure on it. In Sri Lanka, the government itself has not really intervened in these bhikkhuni questions but there are a lot of disagreements in the Sangha, among the monks. Some male monks support bhikkhuni ordination, they’re quite happy to have Sri Lankan women go to Taiwan, now maybe Thailand, and become ordained, or to Korea, South Korea. Some of them are very hostile. But there are now, there are teachers in Sri Lanka, male monks, male monastics, who will conduct the bhikkhuni ordination for women from wherever, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, yeah.


“Early Buddhism” and “Engaged Buddhism”

CRCS : Since the last past decade, the issue of early Buddhism has been discussed in Buddhist community, they seem to choose the term of early Buddhism as the best approach to their everyday life. What do you think about this phenomenon? What is actually the characteristic of early Buddhism that they talk about?

AMB : This is of course very interesting. There is very little that we can know about the earliest Buddhism because the textual records that we have are already relatively late. So when people talk about early Buddhism, when Buddhists talk about early Buddhism and they talk about wanting to reproduce the ideas of early Buddhism or act the way early Buddhist did or return to the purity of early Buddhism, in some ways, they are seeking to make a connection to something that we cannot know about. So, in a way, there is an imaginary quality to this early Buddhism. People who want to come as close as possible to early Buddhism will read the earliest Buddhist scriptures that we have in the Pali form or via the Sanskrit and Chinese materials, something like that. But that takes them to a period already some centuries after the life and death of the Sakyamuni Buddha. But, I think in the world of Buddhist practice, people will often quite naturally feel as though — if they can closely study the words of Sakyamuni Buddha, if they can study the Buddha-vacana, the words of the Buddha, that are said to be contained in the tripitaka texts, scriptural texts — they can have access to a model for Buddhist practice and the key ideas.

If we look at it from a sort of historical analytical perspective, we might say that the interest in returning to early Buddhism, so-called “early Buddhism” is a long-standing phenomenon in the history of Buddhism. But we could say that people look to early Buddhism and want to come close to early Buddhism for different reasons at different times. So, for instance, let me give an example. One of my colleagues, Richard Jaffe at Duke is doing some very interesting work on Japanese Buddhist in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they really wanted to, some of them wanted to, return to early Buddhism, take the best from early Buddhism and draw on that to reinvigorate Japanese Buddhism. They’re in Japan, in its 1890 or something like that. So from Japan 1890, where do you go to find early Buddhism? They came to Sri Lanka, they came to India, they studied Pali; they tried to reproduce certain elements of Theravada Buddhist devotional life and so on. Why did they do it then? They were facing some instability in the Japanese Buddhist world and some Sangha-state difficulties and things like that. So that’s one example, kind of an interesting example of you know, an interest in the early Buddhism that take a particular form out of a particular time.

CRCS : But now?

AMB : Now we look around and we see who is interested in early Buddhism? In Vietnam, there’s a kind of Buddhist revival. Some people are interested in Theravada Buddhism. And they think it’s interesting because they associate it with most early, most pure Buddhism. But I think in Indonesian case also there is a strong interest in Theravada Buddhism and people will understand it as pure, early, uncorrupted, and things like that.

CRCS : Even among the Theravada community, they think that it’s more individual effort than communal effort.

AMB : Right. So, there’s a long and complicated story actually to understand here: how in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a certain idea of Theravada Buddhism and a certain idea of Mahayana Buddhism, and the notion that they have these distinctive characteristics related to social life and ethics and so on. Those ideas developed in a way I do not even fully understand myself at an intersection of Asian and European and North American discourse on Buddhism, but now these ideas that circulating. For instance, the idea that Theravada Buddhism is the Buddhism of individuals. Now if Theravada Buddhism is the Buddhism of individuals, people might think that it poses no threat to the state. It’s a matter of individual piety and individual spirituality–people might say that. In Singapore, since the early 20th century some Chinese Buddhists have been interested in Theravada Buddhism and they’re interested in it as some special kind of Buddhism. Maybe they think of it as early and rational and somehow suitable for a modern era. Sometimes here, the Buddhists in Singapore say: this Mahayana Buddhism, has too much superstition, is not modern enough; this Theravada Buddhism is rational.

The idea that Theravada Buddhism is rational is a very modern idea. I think if we talked to a Buddhist in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1500, the person was not going to say “I like the Pali Tipitaka because it’s rational;” they might say ” I like monks who chant in Pali because they do good magic.” So, this idea of purity, rationalism, and fundamental Buddhism; those are rather new concepts, actually.

CRCS : And I think it is only a conversation among the scholars, not really applied to ordinary people.

AMB : But it would be very interesting, if people who are studying Buddhism in Indonesia could really listen to the discourse and see what are the terms in which Buddhism is being described and where do those terms come from. When people are attacking Buddhism or defending Buddhism, they have an idea of Buddhism. What is that idea? That idea has history. Some ideas have histories. In a way, what I am saying is that even the form that Buddhism can take now in Indonesia has a long regional and international history. Because the discourse about Buddhism has been changing and changing and changing, that affects what can happen in Indonesia right now. That history shapes the terms that Indonesian Buddhism will use to define themselves, or celebrate themselves, or the terms in which someone else might attack them if they’re not in favor.

CRCS : As the last question. In relation to the issue of early Buddhism, we have also now a term called “engaged Buddhism,” what kind of trend is happening in this actually? What is the urgency of the appearance of “engaged Buddhism”?

AMB : Yes, it’s really a good question. Let’s see, the answer is again kind of complicated, I think. The idea of engaged Buddhism has roots in Asia but also roots in non-Asia, Euro-America or something like that. They intersect in certain points, and that is why the story gets complicated. Ideas about engaged Buddhism in North America cross-fertilized in different parts of Asia, and there’s a cross-fertilizing and borrowing effect going on. These processes also, people have not really understood them yet really historically. That is to say, there are lots of people who write about engaged Buddhism now, which is good. But not very many people are yet really asking about an intellectual history: how would we tell the intellectual history of engaged Buddhism?

But it has something to do with the way that Asian Buddhists have wanted to draw on Buddhist ideas as part of social criticism or social commentary. So you might say that some of the 20th century Thai interpreters of Buddhism have been engaged Buddhists, someone like Sulak Sivaraksa, who writes about Buddhism and economy, or a monk called Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. Some people might call them engaged Buddhists. They are social critics from an Asian context who are drawing on the resources of the Buddhist tradition. We might call some of the Vietnamese Buddhist activists who protested against the war and then engaged in some kind of reconciliation work even from Europe about Vietnam, we might think of them as engaged Buddhists, Asian Buddhists working with Buddhist traditions. But then also, and maybe some people would say that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Diaspora are part of the engaged Buddhism. But then another piece of the story is coming from those people who are working on social justice and ecology and things like that maybe in Europe or North America, South America, Australia and they are using resources from Buddhism and putting it together with other ethical ideas.

So you ask, what is the urgency? I think that the urgency has something to do with the a sense of crisis both in some Asian contexts and some non-Asian contexts that has led some Buddhist interpreters to want to use the resources of Buddhism for some kind of social justice or activism but the reasons are different in the different places.

CRCS : Thank you Prof. Blackburn.



Anne M. Blackburn is Associate Professor of South Asian Studies and Buddhist Studies at Cornell University, United States. She is actively doing research on Buddhism in Asia, and she has produced some constructive and thoughtful books of Buddhism. Some of them are 1) “Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture” (Princeton, 2001), 2) “Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia” (BPS Pariyatti Editions, 2003) ed. Anne M. Blackburn and Jeffrey Samuels, 3) “Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).


A/P Anne M. Blackburn
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University
346 Rockefeller Hall
(607) 254-6501


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