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date: 18 August 2019

Contemporary Buddhism and Education

Abstract and Keywords

Modern Buddhist education in Asia is an organic part of the project of Buddhist modernization pursued by a number of Buddhist reformers, often as a response to the challenges of imperialism, capitalism, and Christian proselytism. While in some cases (notably in colonial Burma) the resistance to colonialism could translate into the resistance of the monastery schools to the introduction of “modern” subjects, in most cases Buddhist educational systems attempted to reinvent themselves, using modern techniques of teaching and evaluation as well as modern institutional forms—for example, that of a sectarian Buddhist university. Such a reinvention brought considerable successes in many places, notably Japan and South Korea, but modernization success is rife with inherent pitfalls. Once integrated into standardized modern educational marketplace, Buddhist educational institutions risk quickly losing their specifically religious character, with religion remaining as simply one compartmentalized and professionalized subject. In the countries where modernization has been state-driven (typically, People’s Republic of China), Buddhist educational modernization often implies close cooperation with—and ultimately co-optation by—the state institutions.

Keywords: Buddhism, education, market, modernity, colonialism

Learning occupies an important place in the overall doctrinal structure of Buddhism. Canonical textual learning (Pali: pariyatti) is understood to be a necessary condition for the maintenance of sasana (the Buddhist creed). In the tradition of Indian Buddhism after the reign of Emperor Asoka (r. ca. 269–232 b.c.e.), the monastic complexes, or viharas, were the recognized seats of learning. Learning in post-Asokan Buddhism was not necessarily limited to the study of canonical literature.

The Pali expression grantha-dura (the vocation of book), which was used in that era, also included the study of grammar, history, logic, and medicine. As an famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited a number of Indian viharas in the late seventh century, Yijing (635–713), could testify, the learning was deemed important as a means of refuting the arguments of the “heretics” (non-Buddhists) and disseminating the Buddhist doctrine among the better educated classes of society (cited in Shrimali 2011). Nalanda, the famed monastic university in today’s Bihar where Yijing stayed for eleven years, was estimated to accommodate 3,000–5,000 students, whose numbers also included the pilgrims from such faraway places as China or the proto-Korean kingdom of Silla (Mookerji 1998, 396–468). Nalanda, which existed between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, is considered representative of the educational tradition in Indian Buddhism. A graduate/doctoral school carrying the same time-honored name was opened on September 1, 2014, in the vicinity of the historical site, sponsored by the Indian government and a number of international donors.

Monasteries used to be the main seats of doctrinally focused education in the Buddhist traditions outside India as well. In traditional China—and even more so in Tibet—monasteries were concurrently playing the role of cultic, economical (including the practice of usury), welfare, and educational centers. The concrete content of monastic education could depend on the sectarian identity of the monastery. In Chinese Chan (Meditation School) monasteries, for example, the stories about and the sayings of the old masters were a crucially important part of the curriculum, as the biographies of the representative Chan master of the Song dynasty (960–1279), Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), tell us (cited in Levering 2000). Buddhist learning for the better-educated lay folk could also take place through the work of the numerous Buddhist devotional associations, which were mostly guided by the monks (p. 519) and had either recitation of some particular sutras or the creation of a Buddhist monument as their explicit aim. Meetings of such associations—which could well number more than a thousand members—were usually accompanied by sutra recitation and preaching, and thus could provide an opportunity for some basic doctrinal learning for the non-monastics (Ch’en 1976).

This chapter deals chiefly with the fate of Buddhist education in modern and contemporary times, both in Asia and in the new Buddhist milieus of the West. It will demonstrate that in many cases, the development of modern Buddhist education coincided with the rise of Buddhist modernism, definable as a movement that aimed at adjusting Buddhism to the new circumstances dominated by nation-states and capitalist market economy (or state-guided industrialization under “socialist” banners). Modern Buddhist education was aimed at creating Buddhists capable of operating in the new environment while keeping their traditional religious allegiance; its goal was to utilize modern institutional forms and pedagogical devices as “skillful means” (upaya) to ensure the survival of Buddhism on the global religious market, in competition with formidable rivals (Christianity often being perceived as the main rival). In some countries—typically, in Japan—modern Buddhist institutions of learning proved a success in terms of quality and capacity. However, at the same time, the modern Buddhist educational systems turned out to be susceptible to such current trends as professionalization and compartmentalization, with religion gradually becoming simply a smaller part of a complicated curriculum. Buddhist educators often have to survive by allying themselves with an activist nation-state and submitting to its requirements and controls (e.g., the People’s Republic of China), or commodifying the religion as a product in a late capitalist market of symbolic goods (e.g., Buddhist educational institutions in North America). The question of to what degree such education remains true to the Buddhist agenda remains open for debate.

Buddhism, Nation, “Civilization”

Beginning in late nineteenth century, modernization became a pressing issue for the Asian Buddhist traditions. In the majority of Asian societies with a strong religious tradition of Buddhism, a legal framework of religious pluralism (“freedom of conscience”) was introduced, either by colonizing powers—as in colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka) under British rule—or by their own governments (as in the case of Japan). On the newly formed modern religious market, missionary Christianity was often perceived as a strong and threatening competitor, as it was commonly associated with the dominant (Western) culture of the capitalist world-system. Christian missionaries were seen as outrivaling Buddhists by offering their adepts, among other things, high-quality educational services, which combined religious learning as such with more general curricula emphasizing new, modern subjects. This sort of competition led a number of reformist Buddhists in a variety of Asian societies to critically reflect on their own educational tradition, which largely reserved the in-depth Buddhist training for the monastics and in most cases marginalized the non-doctrinal subjects. Consequently, in most Asian Buddhist traditions, religious modernization was equated with the development of modern Buddhist education—available for laypeople (including women) as well as monastics, and equipping Buddhists for functioning in the modern world. A number of (p. 520) examples of modernist educational attempts from several Asian societies—including Sri Lanka, China, Japan, and Korea—will be discussed in more detail.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), considered the “father” of Buddhist modernism (often referred to as “protestant Buddhism”; see Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988) in colonial Sri Lanka, is known for having established a number of modern Buddhist schools (Nalanda, Ananda, Mahinda, etc.), for both boys and for girls. He was also instrumental in establishing some pirivenas (Buddhist monastic colleges), such as Vidyodaya Pirivena (later to become a secular university). These schools were to continue the older tradition of monastic learning, but in more modern institutional settings. By 1927, there were ninety-four Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, many of them built and maintained by the local communities without governmental support. Buddhist education became, in the end, a major part of the Sinhala nationalistic project (Zhao 2011, 413).

In the case of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala nationalism, despite a sense of rivalry with Christian missionaries on the part of the Buddhist clergy and lay activists, there was hardly any serious challenge to the position of Buddhism as the mainstay of the Sinhala ethno-cultural identity. In many other Asian societies, however, Buddhists had to struggle to establish their nationalist credentials, and the development of modern education was one of the venues for such a fight. A typical case was China, where Buddhism was seen rather as an impediment to modernization than a national religion. After the reform of the school system was commenced in the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of monasteries had their land confiscated for school use or turned themselves into modern schools, the monks being unceremoniously kicked out. The trend continued in the early Republican period—that is, during the 1910s and 1920s. It is known that, for example, in Guangzhou, a major urban center in coastal southern China, one large monastery was converted into a police school, and another became a law college (Poon 2011, 137). In order to survive in such a hostile environment, Buddhism had to modernize—and building a modern Buddhist educational system was the logical first step.

China’s equivalent of Dharmapala, the best-known proponent of Buddhist modernization, was Taixu (1890–1947), a monk who concomitantly was a nationalistic revolutionary and enjoyed a close connection with the Nationalist Party elites. Taixu, an early admirer of Darwinist evolutionism, was fascinated by European science—and subscribed to the claim, generally shared by Buddhist modernists internationally, that Buddhism was the most scientific religion and at the same time could easily surpass the limits of science. He also lamented the monastic tradition of withdrawal from the world, and was open to learning the strong points of the Christian missionary educational endeavors. An able fundraiser and educator, Taixu opened seven Buddhist academies by the end of the 1930s, largely establishing the foundation for modern Buddhist education in China (Wei-huan 1939). In the Buddhist academies (universities) that Taixu either founded or administered—such as Wuchang (founded in 1922) and Minnan (founded in 1925)—the curriculum included secular subjects (Chinese classics, Japanese language, etc.) as well as more traditional Buddhist doctrinal study. The students—both monks and lay Buddhist devotees—were also practicing their preaching skills as part of the study program (Callahan 1952).

Yet another important way of custom-tailoring Buddhist learning for the laity were the Dharma talks in the many Buddhist societies and associations that Taixu founded or was associated with. A Norwegian Christian missionary deeply—and favorably—interested in Buddhism, Karl Reichelt (1877–1952), attended a series of Dharma talks Taixu delivered for (p. 521) the Buddhist Laymen Association (Fojiaohui) in Wuhan in the summer of 1932. He noted that attendance was good (500–700 persons every day) and that most attendees were upper-class citizens—merchants, lawyers, doctors, officers, and so on. Astonishingly, many of them were young, in many cases students. The talks emphasized the intellectual content of Buddhist doctrine, although it did not fully exclude some elements of worship. Much in the way in which the talks were arranged (singing, organ music, testimonies, etc.) owed to the Christian missionary example (Reichelt 1934, 317–319). At the same time, rural dwellers and urban plebeians remained largely outside the influence of the “new Buddhism” that Taixu and his kindred spirits were propagating. For these groups, “Buddhist education” implied mostly learning the ways of conducting rituals and producing merits—something modernist intellectuals were eagerly condemning as superstition.

Taixu, a Buddhist nationalist, is known to have played an important role in mobilizing Chinese Buddhists, both monks and laity, for resistance against the Japanese aggression in 1937–1945 (Xue 2005). At the same time, ironically enough, it was exactly the Japanese way of building modern Buddhist education that he took as a benchmark for his own efforts. In Japan, Buddhist colleges appeared during the Meiji period (1868–1912), as Japanese Buddhism struggled to establish its nationalistic and modernist credentials. There, old sectarian schools were transformed into modern universities, which were to compete against their Christian missionary rivals. For example, the Japanese representative sect of the Meditative (Zen) school, Soto, remolded its seminary into Komazawa University in downtown Tokyo in 1882. Indeed, the Nichiren sect was even more ambitious—its school had become Rissho University by 1872. One of the last sects to acquire its own university was the Pure Land Jodo sect. Its Ryokoku University in Kyoto came into being in 1922. Yet another branch of Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, could boast a university, Toyo, founded in 1887—then as a Tetsugakkan (“Philosophy Hall”)—by an eminent Buddhist reformer, Inoue Enryō (1858–1919).

A son of a Jodo Shinshu priest who acquired a doctoral degree in (Western) philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University in 1896, Inoue was in many ways a role model for Taixu. He combined strong nationalistic leanings with Buddhist devotion, and, on the understanding that Buddhism represented the very gist of the “Oriental learning,” wanted to establish a higher educational institution in which “Eastern philosophy” would be taught on the same grounds as its Western counterpart. After observing the workings of the educational system in Europe, Inoue concluded that

[i]‌n each country, in the universities (of course) as well as in the elementary and secondary schools, the characteristics of that particular nation form the basis of the curriculum. And then students of other nations can be incorporated into it, and connections between nations can be noted.

(cited in Staggs 1983, 275)

Thus, teaching Chinese classics, Japanese history, and Buddhist philosophy would not violate the spirit of the Japanese Meiji-era “civilization and progress,” with its particular sensitivity to Japan’s reputation in the West. University-level philosophy teaching was to benefit the Buddhist elite, both lay and monastic; the plain (“foolish”) people were to be educated through the cheap, popular books that Inoue and other like-minded Buddhist reformers were authoring prolifically, and through popular lectures, which Inoue himself was very fond of delivering. According to Inoue, Buddhism—unlike Christianity, which was predominantly an “emotional religion” permeated with irrationality and superstition—could (p. 522) function on both higher and lower levels, depending on the qualities of the audience. Elite Buddhism was a rational faith perfectly compatible with modern science, while popular Buddhism had to appeal, for example, to the widespread beliefs in the immortality of the soul (Staggs 1983).

Both Taixu and Inoue were among the inspirations for their Korean contemporary, Han Yong’un (1879–1944), Korea’s best-known modern Buddhist reformer. In his famed blueprint for the reform of Korean Buddhism, On the Reformation of Korean Buddhism (Choson Pulgyo Yusinnon, 1913), Han explains his disappointment with the “slavishness” of the traditional monastic education, which left little opportunity for learners to establish their own, original opinions—the students were destined to become the faithful “slaves of the ancients.” Then, he demands that monks learn more of “general knowledge”—that is, the basics of modern (Western) civilization. The problem, Han assumed, was the dearth of competent teachers; Korean Buddhist masters for the most part had little acquaintance with the world of modernity (Tikhonov and Miller 2008, 63). The only way to produce a sufficient number of qualified teachers for the new, modern Buddhist schools was, in Han’s opinion, to send the ablest monks abroad (Tikhonov and Miller 2008, 63–64). Undoubtedly, Han was deeply impressed by the travels to India and study tours to Europe undertaken by some of the Meiji-era Japanese monks. However, in reality, the absolute majority of the Korean monks who studied abroad during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) went to Japan’s Buddhist schools.

Han himself, having taken several months’ sojourn at Komazawa University in 1908, was indeed no exception—ironically enough, as he further developed in the later 1910s into a nationalist opponent of the Japanese colonial rule. It is not that modern Buddhist schools did not exist in Korea in the time when Han’s On the Reformation of Korean Buddhism was being written. One such school, Myongjin—the predecessor of today’s flagship Buddhist university of South Korea, Dongguk—was indeed opened in 1906, and even briefly employed Han as a teacher in the early 1910s. This educational enterprise was not, however, purely a product of Korean Buddhist nationalism. Japanese Jodo missionaries were deeply involved, and the only foreign language the Myongjin students were to learn was indeed Japanese. The lack of sufficient nationalistic credentials in many spheres, education included, became a major setback for institutional Buddhism in 1950s–1980s South Korea, and eventually gave Christianity a serious competitive advantage on the religious market: for several decades after 1953, Korean Buddhism was engulfed in a feud between those monks who accepted the modern Japanese custom of clerical marriage, and these who remained celibate, and its proselytizing activities were severely inhibited (Pak 2007). Colonial-era Korean Buddhism being tightly controlled by the Japanese administration, Han Yong’un, a maverick inside the Buddhist milieu, was in no position to establish any educational institutions on his own—unlike Taixu and Inoue, who both enjoyed solid political and financial backing from the powers that be.

Buddhism, National Identity, and Culture Exports

In colonial-era Korea, (anti-imperialist) nationalism was articulated either by Christians or Christian-influenced intellectuals or by leftists of various persuasions, but in most cases (p. 523) not by Buddhists. The situation was, however, completely different in such Southeast Asian states as Thailand or Burma; there, Buddhism was understood to belong to the core of the ethno-national identity. However, the modernization of Buddhist education was no simple issue there, and the resistance offered by more traditionalist elements inside the sangha was more salient than in the cases of China or Japan. Unlike China or Japan, where religious pluralism entailed competition between Buddhists and non-Buddhists (chiefly Christians), the Burmese or Thai sangha was confident enough of its central position in the society to participate in resisting what it regarded as undue impositions by colonizers or Westernizing state powers. In Thailand, which managed to escape colonization, the Sangha Act of 1902 centralized the sangha governance and also instituted a new, coordinated system of exams in Thai and Pali, with uniform texts being used throughout the country. The uniformity of the new educational requirements was to contribute to the creation of a uniform ethno-cultural nationalism that was able to withstand the pressures of the age of high imperialism.

In Burma, which was colonized in its entirety and rendered into a province of British India in 1886, modern, secular education in vernacular and English—complimented by the Christian missionary schools—and the Buddhist kyaungs (monastery schools) led a sort of separate, parallel existence: monks were resistant even to the inclusion of modern arithmetic in the curriculum, not to mention English, despite pressure from the colonial government. Besides the Buddhist distrust of the colonizers, the point of contention was a different understanding of the basic aims of education: Buddhist educators wanted to raise a believer who would view life as a process of merit creation, rather than a modern, disciplined subject preoccupied with economic rationality. A compromise between the two divergent educational strategies were the Buddhist Anglo-vernacular schools, which came into being in the late 1890s; soon, governmental schools started to include some Buddhist instruction in their curricula, but as one, compartmentalized discipline of “religion”—a far cry from the traditional Buddhist education, which aimed at complete internalization of Buddhist doctrines (Turner 2014, 45–74). Nevertheless, Burmese education retained a dual nature, with monastery schools coexisting with the public ones.

Thailand also ended up having a dual—secular Westernized and monastic Buddhist—education system: a way to circumvent the monastic resistance against the inclusion of “modern” subjects in the curriculum was to establish rong rien wisaman, or special schools, in some monasteries, to give the monks the needed general knowledge (Dhammasami 2007). These schools were abolished in little more than two decades; and only in 1970 was the monastic curriculum revised and supplemented with general subjects (Dhammasami 2004). While criticized as too Buddhist by the non-Buddhist minorities (Muslim Malays in the south of the country, etc.), the public school system was still clearly distinguishable from the old monastery education tradition. It appears that the exposure to English—the language of colonizers and missionaries—in the process of learning was more problematic for the Theravada monastic communities in Burma and Thailand than it was for Mahayana Buddhists in Japan or China. The latter, indeed, perceived English as a tool for possible transmission of Buddhism to the West—that is, as one more sort of “expedient means” (upaya).

One of the first East Asian monks to succeed in this endeavor was Shaku Soen (1860–1919), a Japanese Rinzai sect monk and a graduate of the private Keio University, where, among other subjects, English was studied. Indeed, mastery of this language allowed Shaku Soen to travel to Sri Lanka and India at the end of the 1880s, establishing transborder inter-Buddhist connections at the time when other Japanese Buddhists were striving to learn the (p. 524) essence of Western Buddhology in Europe, thus bestowing a new, modern aura on their religion. Takakusu Junjiro (1866–1945), an Oxford-educated Sanskrit expert, was particularly important, as he was one of the first non-Westerners to be recognized as a Buddhist studies authority in the West. While Takakusu’s influence was mostly limited to academic circles, Shaku Soen’s presentation at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago created much publicity for Buddhism in the United States, and resulted in the growth of the first circles of Buddhist enthusiasts around such colorful personalities as Paul Carus (1852–1919), a Spinozian pantheist and promoter of interfaith dialogue. Shaku Soen’s disciple, Suzuki Daisetsu (1870–1966), who was even more fluent in English and collaborated actively with Carus in translating and propagating Buddhist texts in the United States, was a crucially important influence in the process of Buddhism’s transmission to the Western (primarily Anglophone) world.

Like Takakusu and Inoue, Suzuki was a graduate of the elite Tokyo Imperial University, and was clearly aware that Buddhism had to be presented to the Western audience as both “quintessentially spiritual teaching” (free from “superstition”) and “rational religion compatible with science” if proselytizing among educated Westerners were to be successful. This resulted in rather conscious modernization of Buddhism, stripped now of all the elements that a modern Western public could deem irrational, and converted into a globalized commodity, no longer embedded in any particular culture. Still, until World War II, Western Buddhism remained largely a pursuit of the elite, occupying a rather small niche on the religious market, which was still dominated by more conventional forms of Christianity.

Buddhist Education and Non-Capitalist Modernity in Asia

World War II and the ensuing events—including the establishment of non-capitalist (self-described “socialist”) developmentalist regimes in a number of societies with an age-honored Buddhist tradition, such as mainland China (in 1949), North Korea (1948), and Vietnam (North Vietnam in 1945, unified Vietnam in 1976)—profoundly influenced the fortunes of Asian Buddhism, and changed drastically the ways in which education on Buddhism was to take place. Generally, the modernist radicals wishing to lead their countries along the non-capitalist line of development—which they understood to be the fastest and fairest, and able to mobilize huge popular support for their projects—shared a suspicion of religion, going back to the age of Enlightenment, with their Soviet Bolshevik role models. Bolsheviks considered the Russian Orthodox Church an obstacle on their path toward building socialism in Russia, as this church formerly enjoyed a privileged status as the state religion in the Tsarist Empire, and as such was easily suspected of “counterrevolution.” However, Buddhists did not necessarily enjoy the same privileged position in all Asian societies. Thus, directly transplanting Soviet methods of “anti-religious struggle” onto the Asian soil could often be highly problematic.

The closest parallel to the anti-Orthodox campaign by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s–1930s was to be found in Mongolia, a virtual Soviet satellite state since 1921. Still, Buddhist educational infrastructure demonstrated its tenacity amidst the modernizing state’s attempts (p. 525) to liquidate or greatly reduce it, thus reconfirming Buddhism’s crucial position for the Mongolian ethno-cultural identity. In traditional Mongolia, about one-third of the population lived on the territories administrated by the monasteries, and Buddhist hierarchy combined the functions of the secular authority (Morozova 2009, 8–9). As a result of the anti-religious campaign of enforced, accelerated secularization of the society, which mainly took place in the late 1930s, coincidentally with the anti-Orthodox purges in the Soviet Union, almost all monks were forcibly laicized, with a large number of them falling victim to the governmental repressions. Still, not unlike the Soviet Union, where the anti-Orthodox policies were partly reversed in 1941 as the assistance of the church was needed in the pan-national wartime mobilization, Mongolian governmental policies toward Buddhism also demonstrated a streak of flexibility. Buddhism’s continuous importance was, after all, only too tangible to the authorities. By 1944, Gandantegchinlen, a huge monastery compound in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, was reopened. There, the Buddhist University named after Zanabazar (1635–1723), an eminent cultural hero of medieval Mongolia, was opened in 1970 (the original name of the university is Өндөр гэгээн Занабазарын нэрэмжит Бурхан шашны Их сургууль). To the present day, this university is the only bona fide Buddhist institution of higher learning in the country, and the main training ground for future lamas (Buddhist priests). Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon was too important for the national identity of Mongols, as well as the diplomatic role of Mongolia in Buddhist Asia, to be simply discarded, even if the society was to be driven toward modernity through forced secularization.

In China, however, Buddhism hardly ever occupied any position comparable to that of the Orthodox Church in Russia since the early Tang dynasty (the seventh century). Confucianism, rather than Buddhism, easily became a target for the modernist rage. While nationalist authorities enlisted the cooperation of Taixu and other prominent Buddhist reformers of moderate political persuasions during the anti-Japanese War of Resistance (1937–1945), Chinese communists were eager to secure an alliance with a more radical wing of the Chinese sangha, provided that the monks were “patriotic” and generally conforming to authorities’ “guidance” (see Matthew Walton, “Buddhism, Nationalism, and Governance” Chapter 29 in this volume, for more information on the governmental controls over religion in China). Indeed, they did not have to wait very long for aspiring collaborators, as a number of reformist monks were themselves disappointed with the nationalist government’s corruption and, more generally, the exploitive and antihumane tendencies inherent in the market-driven social system. Already in 1950, Juzan, a prominent disciple of Taixu, organized a group of radical Buddhist modernists and sent to Mao Zedong a statement emphasizing the “atheist” nature of Buddhism and its full compatibility with communism (Welch 1972, 395–396). In the process of creating an earthly Pure Land—a socialist vision of a contradiction-free and affluent society, articulated in Buddhist-sounding terms—the Buddhists were to enlighten their monastic and lay followers on the “essential oneness” of socialist and Buddhist future visions. One vehicle for this purpose was Modern Buddhism (Xiandai Foxue), the journal for China’s pro-communist reformist Buddhists, published since June 1950 (and until 1964). The state-loyal reformers were soon consolidated into the newly established official Chinese Buddhist Association (1953). While the journal, as the core business of the association, undoubtedly played an educational role, no specialized Buddhist educational institutions aside from the heavily supervised Buddhist Academy of China (Beijing, founded in 1956) were tolerated, as the ultimate aim of the Chinese Communist Party was a completely secular society.

(p. 526) The monks were forced to work as ordinary citizens, and were encouraged by some radicals to grow hair, abandon vegetarianism, and marry: the laicization became practically forced when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. The Buddhist Academy of China was closed—and soon its fate was in fact shared by the majority of other Chinese universities, which were unable to normally function amidst the political upheavals. After more than a decade of radical onsluaght, Buddhism was rediscovered only in the late 1970s, as a part of more liberal reform policies. Since 1980, new monastic ordinations have been allowed, and provincial branches of the Buddhist Academy of China were at last opened, something the Chinese sangha had wished to achieve in the 1950s. This new alliance between sangha—as a very junior partner—and the state is undergirded both by the modernist and reformist aspirations largely inherited from Taixu and the heydays of pro-socialist Buddhism in the 1950s, and by the new social contract in post-Mao China, which allows citizens to enjoy their private lives as long as they do not engage in anything subversive from the view of the state goals.

Too Modern and Too Secular? Buddhist Universities in Postwar Japan

Mongolia and China give us examples of forced and accelerated secularization, which was often prosecuted with extreme brutality. However, in the field of Buddhist education, gradual secularization was taking place in orthodoxly capitalist Asian societies as well, under the weight of the market rather than state pressures, as originally sectarian educational institutions needed for their financial maintainance more fee-paying students than the Buddhist clergy could supply. And secular students, sometimes without any particular Buddhist connection, demanded a more general curriculum, although sometimes the university administrators were successful in making certain courses on Buddhism obligatory for the entire student body. In such affluent capitalist societies as postwar Japan, religion tended to gradually become a consumption product on par with other free-time activities. Concomitantly, sectarian Buddhist universities have been exhibiting a clear tendency toward convergence with the rest of commercial institutions of higher education.

A good example of the challenges they have to meet is provided by the changes that Komazawa University, one of Japan’s oldest Zen universities, has undergone in the postwar age. Originally founded by the Soto Zen sect, Komazawa today is a comprehensive university boasting a number of faculties (management, law, and economics) without any direct relationship to religion as such. Of the approximately 16,000 students of the university, only around 1,000 have Soto sectarian background (children of priests and other aspirants to the priesthood). At such departments as Soto Zen studies (Buddhist studies faculty), the proportion of the sectarian students amounts to 45–50 percent, but at other departments, aside from Buddhist studies, most students have little to do with Buddhism or the priesthood (Rowe 2004).

Theoretically, Komazawa University still remains a center for the training of Soto priests. Students can live for three years in a special dormitory, which closely follows temple life routines and offers basic learning and training needed for priesthood (kenshuryo, or “training (p. 527) dorm”), and receive a general (second) level of priest ordination. However, training for the priesthood is understood now as just one of the future career pathways open to these students, rather than the main objective of university’s educational activities. One part of the general curriculum that emphasizes the university’s sectarian affiliation is the year-long zazen (sitting meditation) course. However, the length of this course was reduced in the mid-1990s (it was originally two years long), and the name was changed into the more neutrally sounding “Buddhism and Humanity.” It looks as if the course constitutes more of a burden to the majority of nonsectarian students. Japan’s Buddhist educators have yet to find the way to make Buddhist doctrine and practice relevant to the secularized consumers of the information age.

The situation is broadly similar at most other sectarian universities of Japan as well: sectarian students tend to comprise only 10–15 percent of the general student body, and the compulsory courses on Buddhism often fail to influence students to any significant degree (Rowe 2004). A sort of exception may be found in certain smaller sectarian universities, which tend to be somewhat closer to their sponsor bodies than the larger educational institutions like Komazawa. At the Kyoto-based Otani University (ca. 4,000 students, excluding the affiliated junior college)—founded and run by Jodo Shinshu, a branch of Pure Land School, and famed because of the fact that Suzuki Daisetsu once taught there—approximately 22 percent of all the teaching staff and 13 percent of administrative staff are priests. While only about 6 percent of the students end up as Jodo Shinshu priests, all of them are required to attend the lectures on “Human Science” based on Jodo Shinshu doctrine and permeated with the ideas of the Jodo Shinshu founder, Shinran (1173–1263). But even in such a relatively sectarian-influenced school, the majority of students are not observant Buddhists and do not develop Buddhist beliefs during their period of study.1 In this sense, the term “Buddhist university” is no longer fully applicable to the Buddhist sectarian schools in Japan.

In postwar Japan, Buddhism largely failed either to become an important element in the new, post-authoritarian construction of Japanese modernity or to offer any alternative vision of modernity that was qualitatively different from the mainstream of the mass consumption society. It continued to function as a “funerary religion”—being employed mostly during funeral rituals—and in addition was consumed by corporate clients, who saw the highly disciplined life of the temples as good training grounds for their employees (Victoria 1997).

Buddhist Education for the Western Market?

Ironically enough, while in the 1970 and 1980s in Japan, Zen Buddhism became associated with corporate retreats and a business-led drive to “increase efficiency” of production, in the United States and Western Europe in the same period—or indeed, beginning already in the 1960s—Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular were increasingly appropriated by the counterculture generation, which was desperately searching for a way out of the culs-de-sac of the production-consumption cycle. Radicalized by the televised cruelties of the Vietnam (p. 528) War, a number of young people belonging to this generation started to see Buddhism as a way of expressing solidarity with non-Western peoples who were being brutalized by Western-imposed capitalist modernity. Buddhism, previously a rarefied pursuit of the elite, began to grow into a popular force among the young, college-educated North Americans and Western Europeans approximately in the late 1950s, and the trend continued through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This new demand led to the growth in supply on all levels—from the increased number of universities and colleges offering degrees in Buddhism to a number of Buddhist centers offering meditation and training sessions. While Japanese and South Korean (Sungsan, a temple abbot from Seoul, established his Providence Zen Center in 1972 in Rhode Island) Zen (Son) missionaries purposefully targeted mostly non-Asian Americans, the Chinese Chan missionaries’ activities tended to be more centered on the Chinese-American diaspora.

In the late 1960s, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism began to compete with East Asian branches of the Meditation School largely for the same public—educated, mostly middle-class Americans (in the majority of the cases the whites) disillusioned with industrial society. The popularity of the Buddhist trend made it possible to establish the first-ever Buddhist universities in North America in this period. One of them, Naropa University, was founded in 1974. Buddhist universities in the United States often have a strongly pronounced sectarian character. For a school with Buddhist roots that is not openly and officially sectarian, however, suspicions of a hidden religious agenda may be highly damaging. Several lawsuits were brought against Soka University of America (originally founded by Soka Gakkai, a Japanese neo-Buddhist denomination) by disgruntled former employees who alleged mistreatment based on their lack of Buddhist beliefs (Woo 2011). The lawsuits, while never succeeding at court, still demonstrated how potentially damaging a perceived religious bias may be in a modern, pluralistic environment.


The idea of Buddhist education changed significantly in recent years compared to the heydays of Buddhist modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, the emphasis was squarely put on the simultaneous need for both preservation of the traditional, canonical text–based Buddhist learning and exposure to the modern curriculum—subjects like English being needed to compete against Christian missionary activity and to bring Buddhism to the world beyond its traditional homeland.

Today, Buddhist textual learning in the language of tradition (Pali, Classical Chinese, etc.) is preserved inside the Buddhist universities in Theravada societies (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc.). In these societies, Theravada Buddhism provides the grounds on which modern national identity and nation-state legitimacy are built. Inasmuch as the maintenance of sasana is understood as a primary national task, Buddhist education tends to preserve much more conservative character than, for example, in South Korea or Japan, where Buddhism does not play a decisive role in defining national identity and where Buddhist universities largely joined the mainstream of the modern educational market. By contrast, in the case of Theravada societies, even a comparativist approach toward Buddhism seems almost impossible inside a system of learning that is predicated on Buddhism’s status as the core of ethno-national identity.

(p. 529) In this aspect, the creation of an English PhD program in Buddhist studies at Mahachulalongkorn University in Bangkok, one of Thailand’s two public Buddhist universities, is a recent event without precedent in Thai Buddhist educational history: for the first time, a Buddhist university undertakes to train scholars who would treat Buddhism as an object for study aimed at both the Buddhist and non-Buddhist public, and without any obligation to concurrently subscribe to Buddhist devotion. However, in such highly industrialized and urbanized societies of Mahayana tradition as South Korea or Japan, the textual learning in the language of tradition, using the traditional methods (memorization of relevant passages, disputation, etc.), is largely confined to the Buddhist studies departments of some Buddhist universities, while the rest of Buddhist university students are requested, at best, to master some general introductory courses on Buddhism or religion in general, mostly based on a comparativist approach to the study of religion.

While some of the Buddhist studies departments at Japanese universities earned worldwide acknowledgment for their scholarly achievements, their influence on the rest of their universities’ staff and students, not to mention the larger community, is modest at best. Especially in Japan, more relativizing and critical approaches toward Buddhist doctrine are much more accepted at the Buddhist centers of learning compared to most Theravada societies. However, in the larger community, Buddhism mostly occupies a niche as the provider of certain—mainly funerary—ritual services, and as such, it is hardly associated with the attempts by some Buddhist scholars to make it into a tool of social criticism and improvement. Notoriously, in most traditional Buddhist societies of Asia, karma theory is being continuously (ab)used to legitimize the existing socioeconomic order, with all its inherent injustices and contradictions (Victoria 2007). All the development of modern Buddhism education during the last century and a half notwithstanding, Buddhism generally has failed to become a tool of positive, liberational changes.

Whereas the niche that Buddhism occupies on the religious market is significantly different from its role in Euro-American societies, Western Buddhism—which has been developing its own educational structures since the 1970s—does not seem to essentially differ from its Asian counterparts in that it offers individual-level escape from the problems created by the consumerist market society, rather than a solution to these problems. However, at the same time, the epistemological and axiological alternatives to modern rationality, with its trademark indifference to individual human suffering (see Bauman 1989), of which Buddhism spreads consciousness through its modernized educational infrastructure, are important in perspective as a potential tool for cultural and sociopolitical changes.


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(1.) Personal communication by Prof. Son Chihye (Otani University), October 30, 2014.