Population & Society

The Third Eye: Buddhist Perspectives on the Future of Asia and the World

Thursday, April 28, 2022

How to make sense of the volatile, fast-changing world – and how to address the governance challenges it poses? Writer and Buddhist layman Raymond Lam looks at Buddhist perspectives on globalization and today’s complex geopolitics.

The Third Eye: Buddhist Perspectives on the Future of Asia and the World

Putin on the Buddha: The Russian president on a 2013 tour of a Buddhist temple in Buryatia, Russia (Credit: President of Russia)

Policymakers and analysts survey an increasingly volatile 2022 that seems to be characterized by two major trends. These are: first, the protracted decline of the post-Cold War consensus that elevated markets and globalization (often attaching democratization as an inevitable side-effect) as the prime ideological priority of governments; and second, rising nationalism accompanied by an ideological, seemingly irreconcilable bifurcation of the world between Chinese and American political interests. Both trends have been accelerated by a hyperconnected, online world of social media, leading to not just political but also epistemic splits characterized by declining trust in traditional institutions of authority and information.

These trends can be captured as a profound shift in values, nationhood and knowledge. The loss of faith in the ability of globalization to provide greater prosperity or sustain and spread democracy is a profound shift. This has led to analysis being framed (especially in the Global North) as an existential tussle between authoritarianism and democratic liberalism. It is perhaps easy to see why: Donald Trump and the American right, Marie LePen and European leaders sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have often been assigned labels such as “dictator” or “far-right” by many Western outlets.

Yet, these figures are ideologically diverse and represent, at a more basic level, a challenge to an economically globalized world and the elevation of a specific new priority, “populist nationhood”, as a higher good. Even Joe Biden, whose tenure as US president (along with the Democrats’ grip on power) is looking increasingly imperilled by the right-wing resurgence that Trump supercharged, has operated to some degree on similar terms, with a discourse of economic self-interest invoked by his predecessor.

Finally, the realignment of national and cultural priorities, accompanied by a receding of confidence in democracy in both the Global North and the Global South, has led to fundamental disagreements about what can be called knowledge and what is worth pursuing as knowledge – an epistemic shift in what brings meaning to human existence and what outlets are the means with which to attain said meaning.

Asia’s philosophical traditions have been a bridge of “witnessing” to both the continent’s ancient heritage and its breakneck modernization and return to the center of world power and political priorities. Among these philosophical and spiritual continuities, few have been more ubiquitous and responsive to the challenges and opportunities of modernity than Buddhism. From the Industrial Revolution to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as coined by the inventor of Davos, Klaus Schwab, Buddhist leaders and institutions have influenced and been influenced by ancient history and recent modernization to the point of serving as vehicles of soft diplomacy since at least the mid-20th century.

In this article, I briefly address how Buddhist ideas might be relevant to understanding today’s world of geopolitics, conflict, and identity – and if a modern Buddhist perspective could make sense of the global shift in values, nationhood and knowledge. In the values rubric, I draw on the examination by political scientist William J Long of Georgia State University of radical interdependence, what he calls an “alternative, global IR [international relations] theory based on Buddhist philosophy”, while also putting forward some preliminary ideas that could reinforce and strengthen the application of radical interdependence: cognitive change and extraordinary empathy.

There are many examining the highlighted problems with methodologies that share similarities while also being distinct, such as economist Clair Brown of the University of California, Berkeley and Dasho Karma Ura, who heads the Centre of Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness Research. I find the three rubrics offer the clearest distinction separating Buddhist thought from conventional international relations and statecraft.

Radical interdependence and cognitive change

In his book A Buddhist Approach to International Relations, Long argues that Buddhism represents one of the most complete, non-Westphalian approaches that can transcend the limitations of present models. I would also argue that Buddhism is best positioned to offer a different pathway out of the two trends highlighted in my introduction. Buddhism has its philosophical roots in Asian thought, has sympathy and support in the Global South, and has a unique understanding of the nature of reality that Asian nationalists and Western thinkers alike have tried to articulate and apply as alternative frameworks for politics and economics.

In his book, Long deploys one ancient and one modern example of explicit Buddhist statecraft: Ashoka the Great’s Mauryan Empire and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan today. These are uniquely Buddhist political configurations, but just as Buddhism was able to adapt to the radically different societies in India and China, “it is reasonable to assume that its social teachings can be integrated into Western social theory and practice too.” Buddhism’s view of politics is pragmatic and flexible. Furthermore, its radically different set of assumptions about humanity, our relations with each other, and the world naturally leads to political and economic recommendations that are plausible, solid alternatives to policymakers’ current epistemic quandaries.

What is this alternative position? In short, “an ultimate ontological truth of radical interdependence and the ethical responsibilities a trainable mind entail.” The latter notion of a trainable mind is the basis for Buddhism’s position that leaders can transform the world by transforming themselves: cognitive change. For now, let us focus on radical interdependence. Long proposes:

Buddhist worldview: Bhāvacakra – the Wheel of Life (Credit: Pocholo Calapre / Shutterstock.com)

Buddhist worldview: Bhāvacakra – the Wheel of Life (Credit: Pocholo Calapre / Shutterstock.com)

“Buddhism is the basis for a politics of radical interdependence and, ultimately, what Buddhists call ‘fearlessness’, that is, caring equally for others’ welfare. The latter connotes that individuals have the potential of overcoming perceived duality and accepting the creative possibilities and moral responsibility of open-ended impermanence and interdependence. According to Buddha, one’s nature, when realized through training the mind to understand the true nature of reality, makes equanimity, unselfishness, and cooperation our natural, underlying social disposition, not self-interest, because caring equally for all is only logical when one fully realizes the truth of our radical interdependence.”

Buddhism sees politics as a pragmatic vehicle that, when used properly, empowers the individual to improve themselves spiritually. Its view of Buddha-nature in all beings, along with the Avatamsaka Sutra’s image of radical interdependence as Indra’s Net (all things reflected in one another), mean that extraordinary empathy is a drastically different conception of what a leader should be: looking out for one’s “own” tribe, “own” nation, “own” interests.

There have been various organizations that, in principle, allude to a common good among multiple stakeholders and countries, namely the United Nations. However, while the UN was a step in the right direction, Buddhism would argue that its principles should be taken further. “Self-interest” progressively loses standing and relevance in public discourse, because the Buddhist argument is that the self is not real and anatta (no-self) should be taken seriously in civic life, not just as a philosophical concept.

Of course, envisioning extraordinary empathy and realizing radical interdependence are difficult things to do without a fundamental, long-term rewiring of not just ideas, but the very brain, which dreams up of these ideas and creates institutions supporting them. It is striking how the transformation of the mind is not taken seriously by conventional policymakers as a remedy to the world’s suffering. Perhaps the suggestion conjures up world leaders sitting cross-legged for ten minutes in a mindfulness photo-op before returning to business as usual. Of course, this has long been how meditation was marketed in the West, sometimes by meditators and Buddhists themselves.

Nevertheless, if the attitude to transforming one’s inner world is treated as “business as usual,” ranked as a low priority, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and end up being business as usual. Society as a whole seems to have given up on demanding better of our leaders, and a Buddhist analysis of present global predicaments would argue that the common denominator of dualistic, binary thinking emerges again and again: a symptom of untrained minds. This situation would seem to demand urgent rethinking and rectification.

An eye on India, China and Russia

In his book, Long upholds Bhutan as a modern example of a nation state approaching Buddhism for national and political interests, but in fact, many countries have done this with varying degrees of intensity and frequency since the 2010s. India, China, and Russia have certainly been the most prominent examples. In a policy paper published by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Yoshiko Ashiwa and David Wank observe that China’s strategic promotion of Buddhism had grown vaster than any religion-based initiative since 2014. One implication is the question of cooperation between “Sinicized Buddhism representing Chinese great civilization” with “other locally embedded Buddhist traditions in Asian countries, as well as Westernized Buddhism that seeks ecumenicism.”

When it comes to Chinese governance, China’s leader Xi Jinping quotes liberally from old classics and invokes Confucian modes of social relationships. As Mario Poceski at the University of Florida has observed, the officially atheist Communist Party sees itself as custodians of China’s three traditional philosophies (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism), presenting itself as the “guardian and curator of traditional Chinese culture and religion.” The reason is clear: A 2020 Pew Research Center study found 48.2 percent of China’s population practiced some form of spirituality or were affiliated to religion in some way.

Buddhism, however, is the tradition Xi has come closest to seeing as an “outward-facing,” spiritual “guiding light” for China. Since 2015, there have been associations made between the Chinese leader and a Buddhist historical figure: Chan/Zen master Yinyuan Longqi (1592–1673), known as Ingen in Japan. A commentary in Nikkei Asia by Nakazawa Katsuji highlights how, in 2015, Xi associated Yinyuan Longqi with bringing not just the Obaku school of Zen to Japan, but also advanced culture and technology, contributing to Japan’s social and economic development. On 3 November 2021, Japanese ambassador to China Tarumi Hideo visited the temple Yinyuan Longqi practiced in before setting off for Japan, Wanfu Temple in Fujian Province. This, along with a planned reset of Sino-Japanese relations for 2022, indicates a possible confirmation on the Japanese side that Xi sees the life and teachings of Yinyuan Longqi as a vision for Chinese statecraft.

Brothers in Buddhism?: Both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, on a 2015 visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, have stressed spiritual guidance in governance (Credit: Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

Brothers in Buddhism?: Both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, on a 2015 visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, have stressed spiritual guidance in governance (Credit: Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

Let me also briefly discuss Russia and India, countries I have covered since 2015. In the years leading up to 2011–12, Russian president Vladimir Putin courted the Russian Orthodox Church as a spiritual ally to uphold what both the Kremlin and Patriarch Kirill as traditional values binding Russian society. By 2013, Putin had begun doing something similar, but on a smaller scale, with the Buddhist communities of Buryatia, Kalmykia (the seat of Gelug influence in Russia), and Tuva. These are Russia’s autonomous Buddhist-majority republics. From my discussions with Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the honorary representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Russia, Buddhism seems to act as a “bridge between” (or perhaps transcends) Russia’s spiritual traditions, its interfaith instinct demonstrative of a pragmatic and “harmonious” attitude that serves both the people and Russia’s national needs.

I pinpoint September 3 and 4, 2015, as having been the “formal” dates that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off Buddhist soft diplomacy as an explicit rubric of India’s international relations approach. These dates cover the first Samvad conclave (and similar conferences in India and other allied countries), launched as a project between Modi and Japanese ex-PM Abe Shinzo, which was spearheaded by various stakeholders including the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and the Tokyo Foundation. Partners to the project have included not only various NGOs, but also countries India identifies as “Buddhist democracies”, including Mongolia and Thailand.

Without diving too deep into the intricacies and results of the Samvad project, what Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP_ attempted to project was to outline a Buddhist vision of international relations: one centered on conflict avoidance and environment consciousness. These two terms, deployed by Modi in his 2015 speech launching Samvad, appeal to cognitive change as the catalyst for shifting international relations from “ideology” to “philosophy,” which he saw as essential for removing the “us versus them” paradigm in conventional diplomacy. He outlined cognitive change as the stimulus for environment consciousness as well:

“The Buddhist tradition, in all of its historical and cultural manifestations, encourages greater identification with the natural world because from a Buddhist perspective nothing has a separate existence. The impurities in the environment affect the mind, and the impurities of mind also pollute the environment. In order to purify the environment, we have to purify the mind. The eco crisis, in fact, is a reflection of imbalance of mind.”

Leadership – in the realm of the non-transcendental

The diverse leaders that are considering Buddhist ideas as alternatives to conventional thinking do so with clashing national interests. Yet as noted above, they seem to arrive at strikingly similar conclusions: the dissolution of boundaries and inner and outer transformation, with a dose of ecological awareness to boot. Like Christian political theory, Islamic governance or, indeed, secular political ideologies such as democratic liberalism or Communism, Buddhism’s ideals can stray far from realities on the ground. Furthermore, the challenges posed by the trends of shifting values, priorities placed on nationhood and nationalism, and epistemic uncertainty via the ascendency of social media, are unpredictable and immense.

Nevertheless, Buddhism holds politics to be in the realm of the non-transcendental, and therefore the non-dogmatic. Pragmatism and adaptation, buttressed by ethical principles, can be applicable to many different countries with divergent contexts and modes of governance. There is room to discard that which is no longer working (or not working well enough), and make adjustments using credible alternatives and ideas that do work. The question that could be posed to policymakers and analysts sympathetic to Buddhism could therefore be: How should Buddhism’s unique approach address the digital and technological trends of the 21st century? How can Buddhist ideas adapt to and facilitate the needs of a post-Covid-19 world? What does Buddhist wellbeing mean for a diverse society with often conflicting stakeholders? And, perhaps at a more profound level: what does power mean to Buddhism, and how should Buddhism handle power?

This conversation remains very much in its infancy. Consider that less than ten years ago, neither China nor India looked to Buddhism as providing serious cues for internal statecraft and international diplomacy. As far as Buddhist thinking goes, perhaps it is faulty to even think of Buddhism as an “alternative”, for that itself implies dichotomy and duality. Buddhism is not a packaged, complete “entity” that is vying to necessarily replace or displace an imagined body of conventional thinking. In considering Buddhist philosophy, we are consciously attempting to transcend precisely the mindset of “this or that”, which has set the 21st century on a path of geopolitical volatility and epistemic fracture.

To communicate accurately the profound, all-encompassing political vision of Buddhist thought will require the same caution and sensitivity the Buddha employed when he first began teaching after attaining enlightenment: How, the Buddha himself asked, could the inexpressible, that which lies prior to thought, be captured in the naturally limiting confines of human words and language? How, in our era, can that which transcends all be deployed for the benefit of a fragmenting world? In ancient times, the Buddha could simply maintain “noble silence”. His successors in our time might not have the same option.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Raymond Lam

Raymond Lam

Buddhistdoor Global

Raymond Lam is senior writer at the online journal Buddhistdoor Global. A Chinese Buddhist layman since 2008, he read religious studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and at The University of Queensland. He became a religion journalist and began working for the Buddhistdoor organization in 2010. He is a trustee of The Heythrop Association.

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