Buddhism in International Relations: Buddhist NGOs and monks/scholars

This series on Buddhism and international relations by Durgesh Kasbekar is a modified series from an essay “Buddhism in International Relations” by the same author. International relations and global politics are often absent from reflections about Buddhism in academia. This series aims to provide a small corrective and highlight how Buddhism affects and is affected by international relations in the contemporary world.

Part One lays the foundation for how Buddhism in international relations should be understood, and looks at the “first tier” of Buddhist NGOs.

Durgesh Kasbekar is an Executive Committee member of the Religion in International Relations Section, International Studies Association (ISA). The views expressed by the author are personal and do not reflect those of the ISA or Buddhistdoor Global


Traditional International Relations (IR) scholarship has largely ignored religion as a determinant of IR between nation-states, organizations, and people. The role of religion in IR theory calls for a nuanced understanding of how religion, as a social and political force, influences the international system and the nation-state (Kasbekar, 2017). This theory helps build this understanding by employing political science to examine different authority structures, belief systems, and movements. The idea that religious beliefs motivate human behaviour is a central element to the study of how religion influences politics (Kasbekar, 2017).

Compared to Christianity and Islam, IR scholars have not much explored Buddhism for its role in religion in IR. Several factors contribute to this imbalance. First, a challenge in IR theory is the fact that the international discourse of IR since the end of World War Two has been informed by Judeo-Christian religions, with almost non-existent influence exerted by spiritual traditions from East Asia. The bias is entrenched in literature and theory on IR. IR theories such as realism, neo-realism, liberalism, and constructivism are rooted in ideas put forward by Western philosophers and thinkers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Kenneth Waltz, Hans Morgenthau, Michael Barnett, Emmanuel Adler, and others (Kasbekar, 2017).

Second, another and perhaps even more likely reason for this shortcoming is that Christianity and Islam symbolize and represent the two regions (the United States/Europe and the Middle East) that IR theorists concentrate most when they approach the topic of religion and IR. Christianity has shaped secularization theory, and unfortunately, Islam is pre-dominantly associated with terrorism post 9/11. The emphasis on both has been unequal and different (Kasbekar, 2017). A third reason would be the dearth of IR scholars who study IR’s intersection with East Asian and Indic Religions.

IR scholars Nukhet Sandal and Jonathan Fox admit that they are not familiar with the East or South Asian cultures and languages or any other religions or traditions. Hence, they have not been able to probe into the native literature and news that could have escaped the attention of the international media. This makes it difficult for them to offset the existing bias in the literature. They welcome any such work on IR and religion that goes beyond Abrahamic traditions (Sandal & Fox, 2013). In sum, to develop a deeper understanding of IR, we must set aside our bias toward dominant Judeo-Christian worldviews. While these views should receive attention like any other religious paradigm, it is important that scholars dedicate much more of their attention to regions where worldviews originate in other faiths (Kasbekar, 2017).

Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism in IR has different tiers to it. Trans-national networks of Buddhist organizations and religious leaders represent the first tier from various countries/traditions whose reach and influence spans across different countries across the globe. The second tier would be the declaration of 15th December 1999 as the International Day of the Vesak at the United Nations (UN). It was perhaps a defining moment of organized Buddhism in IR – particularly at the UN. Bhutan’s effort in conceptualizing the World Happiness Report (WHR) – published annually since 2012 represents the third tier. There is a difference between the Buddhist efforts related to the Vesak Day and the WHR. Although Sri Lanka led the efforts in obtaining the recognition for the Vesak Day at the UN through its then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN, 2020), Thailand, Vietnam and other Theravada countries played a contributing role in this achievement. On the other hand, a sole Buddhist country- Bhutan assisted by economist Jeffrey Sachs was responsible for the origin and development of WHR as a concept. A fourth tier is the co-operative/competitive relationship between India and China with Buddhism as an instrument as statecraft. A fifth tier would be a potential inter-governmental agency possibly named as Organization of East Asian, Indic and Folk Religions (OEAIFR) which may seek voting rights for minority religions and a Permanent Observer status at the UN similar to the Vatican and the Organization of Islamic Co-Operation (OIC).

The First Tier

The first tier of Buddhism and IR relates to trans-national and trans-regional networks of non-state religious actors. While different traditions within Buddhism differ with each other on certain issues, there have been several efforts to bring these traditions together. International Buddhist organizations with branches, affiliates, office bearers and members spread across different continents and countries across the world strive to spread the word of the Dhamma and unify different Buddhist schools of thoughts under one umbrella. Sri Lanka took the lead in conceiving and forming an international body named The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in 1950 in Kandy, Sri Lanka (World Fellowship of Buddhists, n.d.). It followed it up with the formation of another world body – The World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC) in 1966 (World Buddhist Sangha Council, 2021). The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was formed in Thailand in 1989 (International Network of Engaged Buddhists, n.d). California based Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) followed in 1992 (Buddha’s Light International Association, n.d). These are just a few prominent trans-national bodies.

The Kobe (Japan) based World Buddhist Supreme Summit and the Mongolia-led Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP) have organized international Buddhist summits (Buddhist Summit, n.d.; Klasanova, 2019). Though the organization belongs to the Mahayana tradition, it has regularly invited heads of states or monarchs from Theravada countries viz. Sri Lanka/Cambodia and priests from the Vajrayana tradition. It has held conferences/summits in diverse venues to ensure varied participation (Buddhist Summit, n.d.). The Thailand based International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) does not exclude universities of any tradition. Although Buddhism is decentralized, there is evidence of a consistent effort to unify different traditions.

In addition, numerous Buddhist religious/spiritual leaders and teachers from the Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, Zen, and other traditions have nurtured followers in different regions of the world in the last century. Some of them are:

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
  • Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh,
  • Ven. Yifa,
  • Ven. Sheng Yen,
  • Ven. Seungsahn,
  • Ven. Cheng Yen,
  • Ven. Thich Thien-An,
  • Ven. Chuk Mor,
  • Ven. Soyen Shaku,
  • Ven. Hsuan Hua,
  • Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw,
  • Ven. Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera,
  • Ven. Yen Pei,
  • Ven. Nyogen Senzaki,
  • Ven. Kodo Sawaki,
  • Ven.Yin Shun,
  • Ven. Hsing Yun,
  • Ven. Anagarika Dharmapala,
  • Ven. Ashin Jinarakkhita,
  • and Ven. Somdet Phra MahaGhosanda.

Listing all of them is beyond the scope of this article. The author respects all those not mentioned here and holds them in very high esteem.

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