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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
buddhadharma| 71 |winter 2007 This anthology, based on papers deliv- ered at a 2004 Oxford University symposium, looks at how moderniz- ing Theravada societies in southeast asian have engaged with political issues such as education, anti-colonialism and national identity, economics and law, security and peacemaking. This rather narrow focus means that its greatest value will be for other academic scholars, but some chap- ters raise issues that resonate more widely and challenge global Buddhism as well. Three chapters discuss Burma (Myan- mar) and there are two chapters each on Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The Bur- mese contributions review Buddhist influ- ence on Burmese education, monastic and lay, and on the development of law and political theory. The Thai chapters con- sider the essential role of ritual in pre- modern siam and the history of a spirit cult in the northeast. One of the essays on Laos looks at prophetic literature and the other argues that Laos did not become Buddhist until the fifteenth century. Peter Gyallay-Pap points out problems with the western liberal paradigm of political order in present-day Cambodia, while John Marston focuses on the history of a rural Khmer hospital for monks. Most of these developments can be understood as part of a pan-asian, reformist Buddhism movement influenced by, but also react- ing against, colonialism. asian Buddhism has always made a strong distinction between the monas- tic sangha and laypeople. Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis “leave home” and its respon- sibilities to follow the spiritual path full- time. This accords quite well with our modern western distinction between sacred and secular. The path of practice and enlightenment is an alternative to worldly pursuits and the power struggles that characterize politics. as the sociolo- gist Max weber famously put it, Bud- dhism is an “otherworldly religion.” Or so we tend to think. But of course it’s not so simple. To survive, successful religious institutions have always needed to reach an accommodation with the polit- ical order. according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha advised kings on a variety of politically related topics, including war (to be avoided) and how to alleviate poverty. This initiated a relationship that became even more important to the grow- ing sangha after he passed away. yet there was a price to pay, for if you want support from the powers-that-be, you must sup- port the powers-that-be. according to harris’s introduction, from its earliest days the sangha preferred to deal with monarchical forms of govern- ment. This is somewhat ironic, since the Buddha himself was from a more repub- lican city-state, shakya, one of many that were destroyed and swallowed up in the vicious wars of conquest that eventually cHurcH, sTaTe, anD THe MIDDle way buddhiSm, power And politicAl order edited by ian harris routledge, 2007 248 pages; $120 (hardcover) reviewed by david loy led to the establishment of india’s first empire, the Mauryan. The three big missionary religions— Buddhism, Christianity, and islam—were highly successful because each became the religion of an empire. Buddhism benefited greatly from the support of the third Mau- ryan emperor, ashoka, who reigned from 273 to 232 BCE. ashoka became legend- ary as the ideal chakravartin, a monarch who embodies the ten virtues of a ruler (generosity, morality, self-sacrifice, honesty, compassion, sense-restraint, non-hatred, nonviolence, tolerance, and promoting harmony). But he also seems to have used his position to promote the Theravada school, preferring it to other sects of Bud- dhism still extant at that time. according to tradition, ashoka was the model for a new kind of relationship between Buddhism and the state. instead of the usual claims about descent from a divine source, he sought to legitimize his rule through wise and compassionate poli- cies, which won the support of the Bud- dhist sangha. This was a crucial distinction that remains important today. as Peter Gyallay-Pap points out in his fine chapter on Cambodia, replacing the divine right of kings with the law of karma was a big step in the direction of egalitarianism and even democracy, for it denies any essential dif- ference between the nature of a king and the nature of his subjects. what’s impor- tant is not who you are but what you do. Nevertheless, Buddhist (and hindu) teachings about karma created problems daVid lOy is a prOfessOr at XaVier uniVersity in cincinnati, OhiO, where he hOlds the besl faMily chair fOr ethics, reliGiOn, and sOciety. his latest bOOk, cO-authOred by his wife, linda GOOdhew, is the Dharma of Dragons anD Daemons (wisdOM publicatiOns).