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Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends, People, and Ideas

Tag: politics

The Right Balance: Negotiating Buddhist Power in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan commandos march during a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara on 18 May 2014

After a mob attacked a UN safe house for Rohingya refugees on 26 September near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne came out with some of the strongest public words I’ve seen leveled by a Buddhist public servant against fellow, self-proclaimed Buddhists. “As a Buddhist I am ashamed at what happened,” Senaratne told the press a day after the attack. “Mothers carrying very young children were forced out of their safe house which was attacked by a mob led by a handful of monks. This is not what the Buddha taught. We have to show compassion to these refugees. These monks who carried out the attacks are actually not monks, but animals.”

Strong words from a government that’s struggling to convince a skeptical Buddhist establishment it isn’t attempting to undermine Buddhism’s interests. One might read Senaratne’s condemnation as a subtle plea to mainstream Buddhists: “we are sincere, critical Buddhists.” Not only has it been accused by detractors of pandering to religious minorities, the center-right United National Party is also being pressured to underwrite the state patronage and protection of Buddhism that is guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s current constitution.

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Indian Buddhist Diplomacy: Some Musings

Raymond Lam

Narendra Modi making offerings at the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, 5 September 2015

In 2014 I began to cover the role of Buddhism in the diplomacy of Modi’s India. I have really just one gentleman to thank for setting me along this path. Prashant Agrawal was serving as consul general to Hong Kong and Macau when he organized an exhibit on ancient Indian Buddhist art in the district of Wan Chai. I always thought that the Indian diplomats’ approach to promoting Buddhism was the right one. Because they were serving on the ground in local Chinese cultures, their efforts to promote Indian Buddhism or Buddhism’s heritage in India emphasized the narrowing of differences and broadening of common ground. They didn’t seem as forced as the work of those who are aligned with the Hindutva ideology of Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP.

The diplomats’ method of showcasing information and exhibiting artifacts tends to emphasize the integral role of Buddhism in the evolution and story of Indian civilization. In contrast, attempts within India itself to sell Buddhism have perhaps inevitably coalesced around the personality and self-promotion of Modi (I have heard people, including some Buddhist figures, ridiculously comparing him to a modern-day Ashoka). It comes as no surprise to me that the government’s domestic attempts to project itself as an advocate of Buddhist interests have sometimes fallen flat—especially to Buddhist representatives visiting India during any of the expensive and lavish conferences it has hosted for this purpose.

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Postcard from Raymond: The Phoenix and the Lion

Medieval China. The Tang dynasty has been toppled and from the chaos rises an incredible woman with a monastic courtier helping to pull the strings. The brilliant, tenacious, and fearless Wu Zetian (624-705) was China’s first and only empress and her alliance with one of the most powerful monks of the day, Huayan preceptor Fazang (643-712), was a theocratic marriage unlike any other. Mindful of Confucian bias against her and in search of religious legitimation, she styled herself as a “chakravartin,” a Buddhist monarch, and Fazang helped sanction her sovereignty, promote her reputation as a bodhisattva, and undermine and suppress her enemies both in and beyond China.

Fazang personally taught to Wu Zetian a performative metaphor using a lion made of gold. The lion was the cosmos and its various parts the phenomena of reality. The gold represented emptiness. The lion clearly had a mane, teeth, claws and eyes, but the essential “what” of the lion, gold, was the same. Differences are all superficial in the integrated, interconnected universe of Buddhism.

This alliance ended unhappily when Fazang threw his lot in with his patron’s conspirators. In 705 he forced her to relinquish the Dragon Throne. For a while, this throne had been straddled by a true phoenix. On her deathbed, the former empress felt hurt and betrayed by Fazang, whom she had trusted for so long. Yet Fazang saw himself as saving Buddhism from being identified by the upcoming emperors as a rogue religion for a woman who would be seen by Confucians, however justly or unjustly, as an illegitimate usurper.

Their tragic story is a classic and emotional tale of Buddhism’s pressure under Confucianism, the “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t” status of women, and how an ex-concubine and a monk tried to navigate the hypocrisies and fickleness of imperial power… even if it cost them each other.

Explore more with us at Buddhistdoor Global, your doorway to the Buddhist world and your source for Dharma journalism. Join our BDG Group on Facebook and follow our blog to brighten up your week with more postcards and light snippets of spiritual reflections!

Conference: “The Inexplicable and the Unfathomable: China and Britain, 1600–1900”

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The “Chinese character seems at present inexplicable,” observed Lord Macartney during his celebrated embassy to China in the 1790s, while the Chinese themselves at this time often described “western ocean barbarians” as “unfathomable.” The failure of Macartney’s embassy is well known, not least the Emperor Qianlong’s dismissive comment that “we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

A sense of bafflement might therefore overwhelm the present-day visitor to the Forbidden City, on encountering its glorious array of English clocks, many imported during Qianlong’s reign. The present conference will consider some of the endless misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions that characterized relations between Britain and China in the four centuries under review, in fields as varied as religion and art, and commerce and literature. It will also explore, however, the burgeoning range of contacts between the two countries, and the increased mutual understanding achieved by two cultures separated by “the confines of many seas.”

Venue: Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN

Program:

Friday 11 November

17:30–18:00 Registration

18:00–18:10 Welcome: Ted Lipman (The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation) and David Park (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

18:10–19:15 Donald S. Lopez (University of Michigan): “Britain and Buddhism: George Bogle in Tibet, 1774–1775”

19:15 Reception

Saturday 12 November

09:45–10:15 Registration

Session 1 – Chair: Roderick Whitfield (School of Oriental and African Studies)

10:15–10:45 Greg Clingham (Bucknell University, PA): “Cosmology and Commerce on Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China, 1792–1794”

10:45–11:45 Catherine Pagani (University of Alabama): “Elaborate Clocks and Sino-British Encounters in the 18th Century”

11:15–11:25 Discussion

11:25–11:55 Break

Session 2 – Chair: David Park (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

11:55–12:25 Tang Hui (University of Warwick): “’The finest of Earth’: Selling Porcelain in 18th Century Canton”

12:25–12:50 Lars Tharp: “China on a Plate: Images from Hogarth to Whistler”

12:50–13:00 Discussion

13:00–14:30 Lunch

Session 3 – Chair: Frances Wood

14:30–15:00 Jessica Harrison-Hall (The British Museum): “Collecting Chinese Art at the British Museum 1760–1860”

15:00–15:35 Edward Weech and Nancy Charley (Royal Asiatic Society): “The Thomas Manning Archive and Prospects for a New Perspective on British Intellectual Engagement with China in the Early 1800s”

15:35–15:45 Discussion

15:45–16:15 Break

Session 4 – Chair: Lars Tharp

16:45–17:15 Elizabeth Chang (University of Missouri): “Writing Personhood from the Frontier of Western China”

17:15–17:45 Frances Wood: “The View from the Other Side: China’s Reactions to the West”

17:45–18:00 Discussion and concluding Remarks

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