12.1 Introduction: Finding Buddhism in Japan’s Postwar Constitutional Order
When it comes to constitutional law, Japan contrasts starkly with most other nominally Buddhist-majority polities. In spite of the fact that Japan conventionally numbers among countries with a population that is mostly Buddhist, Buddhism appears to have exerted a marginal influence on the composition and legal application of Japan’s modern constitutions (enacted in 1890 and 1947). This chapter considers historical causes and effects of Buddhism’s scant presence in the Supreme Court of Japan’s deliberations on constitutional religion/state divides, and it considers the impact of the 1947 Constitution’s strong separations between religion and state on the actions and attitudes of Japanese Buddhist actors. It discusses reasons why Japan’s identity as a Buddhist nation should be reconsidered in light of Buddhism’s low profile in its legal record, and it provides two case studies – of Buddhists’ post-disaster aid mobilization and lay Buddhist engagement in electoral politics – to illustrate how Japan’s postwar constitutional separations guide Japanese Buddhists as they mitigate legal challenges and confront concerns about violating constitutional norms. By highlighting ways Japanese Buddhist individuals and institutions have been shaped by concern for constitutional law, in spite of appearing rarely in court deliberations on religious freedom, I propose that Japanese Buddhism exhibits an inversion of tendencies found in many other Buddhist-majority regions. It thus serves as a necessary counterexample to include in a global overview of Buddhism and comparative constitutional law. In contrast to what Benjamin Schonthal terms a “Buddhist constitutionalism” evident in countries whose national constitutions have been drafted in keeping with forms of governance maintained by monastic lineages, Japanese Buddhist individuals and organizations represent what might be conceived as Buddhist constitutionalism’s mirror opposite, that of “constitutional Buddhism” (Schonthal Reference Schonthal2017).Footnote 1 The institutional makeup of Japanese Buddhist organizations and the dispositions and tactics cultivated by their clerical and lay adherents indicate that explicitly non-religious constitutional law serves Japan’s Buddhists as an operative framework. It is one they continually adapt in order to establish their legitimacy in the face of potential legal challenges, a leery public, and a need to preserve their increasingly precarious traditions.
Let us explore how a distinctive relationship between Buddhism and constitutionalism emerged in Japan. Today, Japan distinguishes itself by having the world’s longest-ever unamended national constitution. Put into effect on May 3, 1947, the postwar Japanese Constitution is also notable for its multiple articles that lay out how religion is to be separated from the state.Footnote 2 This emphatic demarcation is a product of reforms carried out by the US Occupation (1945–1952) after Japan’s surrender to the Allied powers on August 15, 1945.Footnote 3 As its advisors deliberated on how to articulate rights guaranteeing freedom of religion, the Occupation sought to forestall any possibility that Japan would return to its wartime-era regime requirement that the people of Japan foster loyalty as imperial subjects by taking part in Shintō shrine-based rituals.Footnote 4 These requirements were sanctioned by Japan’s 1890 Constitution, in which Article 28 stipulated that “Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief.”Footnote 5 Until 1945, Japan’s imperial subjects were promised the legal right to maintain private belief in Buddhism, Christianity, or other religions, but were nonetheless required to take part in ritual veneration of Shintō deities, including the Emperor, as civic obligations.Footnote 6 General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, and his advisors on religion characterized the wartime requirement to uphold what they termed “State Shinto” as evidence that post-imperial Japan needed guidance to establish “true” religious freedom.Footnote 7 Jolyon Thomas demonstrates, however, that Japan’s 1890 Constitution was on par with international norms for qualified forms of religious freedom, as embodied in the constitutions of the imperial powers that served as models for Japan’s expansion into its own empire (Reference Thomas2019). As a polity that installed requirements for civic engagement in ritual veneration of its deified sovereign, Japan’s contingent prewar and wartime religious freedoms were those of a normal constitutional government of the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries.
In contrast to its 1890 predecessor, the 1947 Constitution declares that sovereignty resides in the people of Japan and that the Emperor is relegated to “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.” Article 20 ensures that religious freedom is no longer limited by obligations for Japan’s citizens (no longer imperial subjects) to accommodate civic dedication to a non- or supra-religious Shintō, and that Shintō is demoted to a religion that is to no longer enjoy state support.Footnote 8 Article 89 prevents the Japanese state from subsidizing Shintō shrines, as it did during the imperial era, and Shintō instead now ranks alongside Buddhism and other religions that are guaranteed freedom but whose institutions must comply with the 1951 Religious Juridical Persons Law (revised significantly in 1996 and multiple times since) in order to enjoy privileges as shūkyō hōjin, or “religious juridical persons,” not least of which is relief from paying tax on revenue-producing property and faith-related activities.Footnote 9
Much of the scholarship on religion and constitutional law in postwar Japan thus focuses on Articles 20 and 89 to identify issues related to religion/state separations. Some studies also investigate religious concerns with Article 9, Japan’s famed postwar “peace clause.” Commitments by religion-affiliated actors to defending, amending, or doing away with Article 9 have animated much activism and debate, while Articles 20 and 89 set religious activities, institutions, and objectives apart from state enterprises.Footnote 10 It is worth presenting the text of these three articles in full, given that their contents pertain to challenges Buddhists have faced continually in postwar Japan, and to specific instances in this chapter:
(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
(1) Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
(2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice.
(3) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.
No public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use, benefit or maintenance of any religious institution or association, or for any charitable, educational or benevolent enterprises not under the control of public authority.
Despite the importance of the religion-related clauses to Japan’s Constitution, their application in Supreme Court cases has been sparing, and uneven. Cases brought before the Supreme Court of Japan that have involved rulings that interpret Articles 20 and 89 have almost exclusively concerned Shintō shrines and rituals (Hardacre Reference Hardacre1989, Reference Hardacre2017; Larsson Reference Larsson2017; Reference Larsson2020). The only religious freedom case in Japan’s highest court that has involved a Buddhist defendant was Nishida v. Japan (1963), in which a faith healer ordained in Shingon Buddhism was convicted for inflicting a head injury on a young woman in the course of exorcizing her of a tanuki (raccoon dog) spirit. The court rejected the practitioner Nishida’s claim that injuries resulting from her ritual practice did not qualify as a criminal act, even though her right to carry out exorcisms was protected by Article 20, stipulating in the decision that the Constitution’s Article 12 confirms that people must refrain from abusing their freedoms and rights and must utilize them for public welfare.Footnote 11 The only other non-Shintō religious freedom case was decided on February 24, 2021, when the Supreme Court justices announced in a 14–1 ruling that a Confucian temple in a public park in Naha (Okinawa prefecture) operates as a religious facility, in spite of its registration as a “general incorporated association” (ippan shadan hōjin), and that a waiver of land usage fees it received from the city government violated the constitutional divide (Abe Reference Shunsuke2021; Kyodo Reference Kyodo2021).
Some of the most high-profile cases concerning Shintō have involved suits by affiliates of other religions who have charged that their constitutional rights were violated by rituals carried out at shrines with the agreement or support of governmental representatives. The most heated controversy has tended to surround disputes related to Yasukuni Shrine, where spirits of Japan’s war dead, including Class A war criminals executed following the Tokyo Trials, are enshrined.Footnote 12 These cases also involve the network of prefecture-level “nation-protecting shrines” (gokoku jinja) at which the spirits of local residents who died in service to the Japanese nation are revered. Helen Hardacre chronicles the travails of the widow of an active-duty Japan Self-Defense Forces (the postwar Japanese armed services) member who was killed in a traffic accident in 1968. She sued the Yamaguchi Prefecture Veterans’ Association for deifying her husband via an apotheosizing rite (called gōshi) at the prefectural-level nation-protecting shrine, claiming that this violated her Christian beliefs. The Supreme Court ultimately decided against her, ruling that the shrine was also protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of belief and possessed the right to “seek the tranquility of that person’s soul through the religion that expresses one’s faith” (Hardacre Reference Hardacre2017, 420–422; see also Field Reference Field1991).
Concern about transgressing the postwar constitutional religion/state divide has encouraged a disposition on the part of Japan’s religious professionals to proceed with extreme caution so as not to be accused of inappropriately pushing religion into public life. As I will discuss through attention to the chapter’s two case studies, a type of separation anxiety is especially apparent in the personal conduct and institutional undertakings of Japanese Buddhist clergy and lay activists. Buddhist practitioners in Japan typically foster an extreme aversion for entanglement with constitutional matters. The early postwar case of a practitioner who invoked freedoms guaranteed by Article 20 is exceptional. The defendant Nishida was marginalized on multiple fronts: by virtue of not being a temple priest, because she engaged in the stigma-laden practice of exorcism (which tends to be downplayed by temple-based clergy), and because she was an ordained woman in a clerical hierarchy dominated by men.Footnote 13
Another Buddhist cleric made a notable appearance in Japan’s highest court, as a plaintiff in a case that involved a ruling on constitutional issues. Ernils Larsson details the activities of Anzai Kenjō, a Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) Buddhist priest who distinguished himself as the organizational head of twenty-four plaintiffs in a well-documented and long-lasting case called the Ehime Tamagushiryō lawsuit that culminated in the 1997 Anzai v. Shiraishi decision. Anzai and his fellow plaintiffs, with support from the Japan Buddhist Federation, were pitted against Shiraishi Haruki, governor of Ehime prefecture, who commissioned a tamagushiryō shrine offering ritual with public funds. Anzai and his allies decried this act as state patronage of Shintō that violated constitutional guarantees (Larsson Reference Larsson2017, chapter 7).Footnote 14 This instance of a Buddhist activist bringing a religious freedom case to the Japanese courts is extremely rare, and while there are numerous legal challenges pertaining to contracts, property, taxation, and other matters that involve Buddhist temples, their clergy, and their parishioners, Japan’s Buddhists have generally avoided litigation over constitutional issues.Footnote 15 It is likely that this absence in the court record is an important reason why legal scholars tend not to scrutinize Japanese Buddhism in studies of constitutional law.Footnote 16
12.2 Challenges Japan Presents to Treating Buddhism as a Framework for Comparative Constitutional Law
How should we make sense of contrasts between Japan and other countries with large Buddhist populations in comparative constitutional law? Specifically, how shall we account for Japanese Buddhism’s low profile in cases pertaining to religious freedom? A detailed history exceeds the capacity of this chapter, but a cursory overview is necessary to clarify reasons for Japanese Buddhism’s all but complete absence from religious freedom-related court proceedings.
In the centuries immediately preceding Japan’s rapid transformation into an imperial power following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Buddhist temples enjoyed governmental support from the Tokugawa (1603–1867) regime. Clergy were responsible for maintaining a “temple registration system” (terauke seido) that functioned as a census, family registry, basis for taxation, and a means for officials to root out social undesirables, such as outcastes (hinin) and Christians.Footnote 17 From the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912), the new regime began to promote Shintō. A new policy of shinbutsu bunri, or “separation of the kami (Shintō deities) and buddhas,” contributed to violent uprisings led by nativists as part of the haibutsu kishaku (abolish the Buddha, destroy Śākyamuṇi) movement that saw the destruction of numerous Buddhist temples and their material holdings, the defrocking of priests or their transformation into Shintō clergy, and the seizure of Buddhist lands and other wealth.Footnote 18 Thereafter, throughout the Meiji, Taishō (1912–1926), and early Shōwa (1926–1989) eras, Shintō was designated by the nation’s powerholders as Japan’s primordial faith and was routinely contrasted to the “foreign” tradition of Buddhism.Footnote 19 Buddhists sought to demonstrate the relevance of their teachings and traditions by undertaking reforms to suit state priorities, pledging fealty to the nation, and taking part enthusiastically in imperialist exploits, including war and violence against civilian populations.Footnote 20
Following World War II, Japanese Buddhism continued to experience upheaval. As religions were subjected to a new constitutional regime, parishioner bases shifted dramatically as millions emigrated from rural areas into Japan’s cities, driving the country’s postwar “economic miracle.” Even as numerous so-called new religions (many based in Buddhism), such as Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōseikai, Shinnyo-en, Soka Gakkai, and others attracted millions of converts in the postwar decades, these years saw a steady decline in denominational Buddhist patronage due to a reduction in temples’ regional communities and a growing tendency in Japan toward disavowal of religious identity.Footnote 21 Aversion to self-identifying as religious was exacerbated dramatically by events in the mid-1990s, most crucially the January 1995 Kobe-area earthquake and the sarin gas attacks by the apocalyptic new religion Aum Shinrikyō.Footnote 22 While religion’s public image was salvaged somewhat by positive impressions of aid mobilization by Buddhists and other religious activists after the March 11, 2011 compound disasters in northeast Japan, the generations that came of age after Aum have retained what many refer to as a “religion allergy.”Footnote 23 People in Japan today rarely describe themselves as religious, partly out of fear of triggering lingering associations with violence and social marginality.
The Japanese government’s statistics on religion, and some measurements by well-known pollsters, tend to mask the Japanese public’s distaste for explicit religious avowals. According to the 2020 Shūkyō nenkan [religion almanac], an annual report issued by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, there were 84,329 Buddhist-based organizations in Japan, including temples and other entities registered as religious juridical persons. As a proportion of the total number of legally designated religious bodies in the country, this amounts to 42.7 percent. Moreover, these organizations claimed 84,835,110 parishioners, or just over 67 percent of the Japanese population. A decade earlier, Japan ranked as the third-largest Buddhist nation in the world, in terms of adherent numbers, according to measures provided by the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Religious Landscape survey.Footnote 24 Going by these figures alone, it would seem appropriate to place Japan alongside Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and other identifiably Buddhist-majority countries and regions in a comparative framework.
However, popular Japanese nervousness about religion, including Buddhism, and prevaricating attitudes expressed both by those who deny religious affiliation and by self-described Buddhists, requires that we call this comparison into question. Most recent surveys cast Japan’s identity as a Buddhist country into doubt. The Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project calculates that self-identified Buddhists in Japan comprised 36.2 percent in 2010 and projected a drop to 33.2 percent in 2020; in 2050, only 25.1 percent of a rapidly aging, and shrinking, Japanese population is predicted to identify as Buddhist, and 67.7 percent will be religiously unaffiliated (Global Religious Futures Project 2016). A survey undertaken by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute in 2018 found that 38 percent of respondents affirmed belief in the buddhas, while 31 percent professed belief in the kami of Shintō. Ambiguity surrounds these NHK figures, given that respondents were mostly unwilling to firmly reject religion: only 32 percent confirmed that they “did not believe” in divine powers, 71 percent carried out ritual visits to (predominantly Buddhist) family graves, and only 12 percent did not perform religious activities of any type. The 2018 belief rates nonetheless conform to a broader trend of steady decline in reported religious activity observable in figures recorded from 1898, when close to 90 percent of the population claimed faith in the buddhas and kami.Footnote 25
The other chapters in this volume speak to the significant legal and political influence of Buddhist clergy and lay proponents in other parts of Asia. In most cases, these chapters indicate a level of Buddhist influence on public life that differs markedly from that found in Japan today. Contrasts between Japan and Theravāda-dominant polities in Southeast Asia are perhaps most glaring. Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang points to the persistence underlining all of the Thai constitutions from 1932 to 2017 of presumptions about the dhammarāja, the Buddhism-based notion of kingly power, and barami (karmic bonds and consequences) as means to perpetuate non-democratic command by an authoritarian elite as morally justifiable. Krishantha Fedricks highlights conflicts in post-civil war Sri Lanka between rival Sinhalese Buddhists, including monastics elected to parliament, who engage in intra-Buddhist disputes to produce competing visions of Buddhism-based ethnonationalist ideals they propose for constitutional enshrinement. Iselin Frydenlund identifies a comparable imperative in Myanmar to protect Buddhism against perceived enemies of the dharma by enacting laws that establish the country as a de facto Buddhist nation. Frydenlund expands upon Schonthal’s notion of “Buddhist constitutionalism” to outline how Burmese legal, military, and ecclesiastical forces have combined to privilege Buddhism as the state’s foundation. These examples make clear that, at least in Southeast Asia, Buddhism endures as a non-negotiable, taken-for-granted starting point from which to create and interpret constitutional law.
Postwar Japan, formulated as a constitutional polity based in an unamended constitution written by an occupying government that rejected specific religious commitments in favor of commitment to universal values, could be characterized as the inverse of these Southeast Asian examples.Footnote 26 The Japanese situation contrasts also with Buddhism’s legal profile in neighboring countries in Northeast Asia, which share Japan’s Mahāyāna Buddhist heritage. Mark Nathan, for instance, chronicles appeals by monks to the Supreme Court of Korea to arbitrate in disputes over interpretation of monastic rules of conduct (vinaya) and emphasizes the importance of court battles in determining South Korea’s contemporary system of Buddhist lay and monastic orders. And the legal profile of Buddhism in the People’s Republic of China differs from its status in contemporary Japan, as Cuilan Liu details in her research on the potentially surprising extent to which Chinese courts lean toward benefiting Buddhist claimants in inheritance disputes and otherwise avoid diminishing the legal authority of Buddhist institutions and lineages associated with the Buddhist Association of China, in spite of constitutional divisions between religion and state and the absolute dominance of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party (Liu Reference Liu2020).
Comparisons that take into account premodern Japanese regimes would position Japan closer to polities defined by Buddhist epistemologies. This volume’s studies of pre-1950 Tibetan monastic political rule, the pre-2008 Drukpa State in Bhutan, and Mongolian precedents provided by Berthe Jansen, Richard W. Whitecross, and Daigengna Duoer suggest exciting potential for expanding the comparative constitutional law framework to include a comparison of premodern Japan with Tibetan and other non-Japanese premodern Buddhist political orders. Regulatory norms within northern Asian antecedents could be compared productively with those of Japan after the establishment of Buddhism in the archipelago from the sixth century. This comparison would require that we follow these scholars in broadening our understanding of “constitution” to accommodate regulations that contrast with jurisprudence modeled on European standards.Footnote 27 Japan, as it coalesced in antiquity as a polity controlled by the Yamato court, began as a bureaucracy that promoted Buddhist ideals of kingship. The early Japanese court supported a network of government-sponsored monasteries and nunneries dedicated to protecting the country from disease, invasion, and social upheaval, and it included administration of the monastic community as a foundational component of governance.Footnote 28 An expanded interpretive purview would accommodate Japan’s Seventeen-Article Constitution of 604 and the Taihō Code of 703; while neither necessarily qualify as “proper” constitutions, both centralize monastic Buddhism as a foundational component of government, as do numerous edicts in the centuries that followed. Buddhist norms that informed early Japanese governmental structures, however, are not apparent in the country’s contemporary constitutional order. Including Japan in a comparative constitutional law exercise thus requires clear historical specificity.
Despite contemporary Japanese Buddhism’s comparative distance from law and government, and in spite of the fact that Buddhist priests and lay activists have appeared rarely in cases heard by Japanese courts, they and their organizations deserve attention in regard to present-day constitutional concerns. While Shintō has taken precedence in the courts, Buddhists have been forced to contend with constitutionally guaranteed divides in order to carry out individual and collective activities, formulate their institutions, and overcome popular suspicion propelled by postwar expectations that religious activists will steer clear of government in all its forms. This has meant that Buddhism, and Buddhists, in Japan have been defined by constitutional wording and interpretation. Additionally, Japanese Buddhist contentions with the 1947 Constitution contrast in crucial ways with examples found in other nominally Buddhism-majority countries. They thus provide valuable nuance to a comprehensive comparative constitutional law inquiry.
Here, I present two contrasting examples of Japanese Buddhist activists whose efforts have been constitutionally defined. The first is aid mobilization and training for religious professionals by Buddhist priests and other denominationally affiliated volunteers in the wake of the January 17, 1995, Great Hanshin Earthquake disaster and the March 11, 2011, compound disasters in northeast Japan. Because of restrictions enshrined in Articles 20 and 89, Buddhist aid providers have faced steep challenges negotiating access to state or state-affiliated facilities that would allow them to distribute material aid to the living and perform rituals to pacify the deceased. Having learned harsh lessons from difficult experiences in 1995, most notably with damage to the category “religion” wreaked by Aum Shinrikyō, activists in northeast Japan were able to navigate constitutional divides to the extent that they transformed emergency measures implemented following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear cataclysms into training programs for religious social welfare providers, the most prominent of which is now housed at a prestigious public university. This section outlines how constitutional concerns shaped the direction of these post-disaster initiatives. In particular, it demonstrates how uneasiness about direct religious engagement in public social welfare provision led, ironically, to use of sectarian resources to train Buddhist priests to “overcome religion” in order to secure positions in hospitals, hospices, and other caregiving settings. It also highlights uncertainty about the future of Buddhist-led care provider training programs and places for clergy in care provision teams, due in large part to persistent concerns about Japan’s constitutional religion/state divide.
The second example is the most well-known instance of sustained political engagement on a mass scale by a Japanese Buddhist organization, namely the actions of the lay Nichiren Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, and its affiliated political party, Komeito. This section considers the transformative impact of constitutional law on shifts undertaken by the religion and the party by chronicling a dramatic transformation that began with Soka Gakkai’s initial electoral forays in pursuit of an eschatological Nichiren Buddhist objective and led to Komeito’s rise to the position of casting vote in the National Diet. It also surveys politics surrounding constitutional law that are strongly affected by Komeito’s pivotal role in guiding successive governmental reinterpretations of Article 9. As the junior partner in the national-level governing coalition and a significant force in subnational politics, Komeito certainly represents the most prominent, and controversial, intersection of Japanese Buddhism and constitutional law. The case of Komeito also stands out as a promising example of Buddhist groups’ entanglements with constitutional law and party politics that is ripe for transnational comparison. Finally, this section considers another aspect of Soka Gakkai and Komeito that invites comparisons between legal contexts, namely how Japanese Buddhist practitioners’ mimesis of the constitutional form, the legal structures that gird it, and practices of commemorating and promoting the national constitution produces forms of “constitutional Buddhism.” In the chapter’s conclusion, I suggest ways Soka Gakkai and Komeito serve as a counterpoint to a pattern of “Buddhist constitutionalism” in order to productively complicate this volume’s comparative project.
12.3 Navigating Constitutional Religion/State Divides by “Overcoming Religion”: Post-Disaster Initiatives by Japanese Buddhist Aid Providers
Covid-19 was hard on training initiatives for Japanese Buddhists of all stripes, including those for Buddhist clergy and laity who provide clinical care. In a January 2021 email to the author, Taniyama Yōzō, Jōdo Shinshū priest and professor at Tōhoku University’s Department of Practical Religious Studies in Sendai, lamented that training programs for rinshō shūkyōshi, or “Interfaith Chaplains,” only went forward in 2021 at his department and at Ryūkoku University, a Jōdo Shinshū institution in Kyoto. Interfaith Chaplain training programs modeled on modules created in large part by him were on hold at the Jesuit institution Sophia University in Tokyo and at the headquarters of the Buddhism-based new religion Risshō Kōseikai. Declining enrolment in these certification programs can be blamed on an abrupt shift to online learning and difficulties finding clinical placements under pandemic conditions. But these initiatives faced challenges even before the onset of Covid-19, on account of uneasiness in Japan about religion in public spaces.
It is thus all the more notable that the care provider certification program founded by Taniyama and his colleagues found a place in a public university. Tōhoku University’s Department of Practical Religious Studies serves as a principal coordinator for the Society for Interfaith Chaplaincy in Japan (Nihon Rinshō Shūkyōshikai), which Taniyama founded in 2016 in cooperation with fellow priests from temple-based Japanese Buddhist denominations, Christian clergy, and representatives from a number of new religions, notably Konkōkyō, Risshō Kōseikai, and Tenrikyō. They have collaborated with psychologists, grief care specialists, hospice care workers, and other clinical experts to provide services for the dead and the bereaved after the March 11, 2011 disasters.Footnote 29 Mostly referred to as “3.11,” the Great East Japan Earthquake disasters left upwards of 24,600 people dead, injured, or missing, and dealt a severe psychic blow to Japan. They also inspired Japan’s largest mobilization of religious actors and their resources since the Pacific War.Footnote 30
Interfaith Chaplaincy can be characterized as a constructive response to negative attitudes that Buddhist aid providers have confronted after disasters. This new class of post-disaster chaplains learned harsh lessons after the January 17, 1995, Great Hanshin earthquake, which devastated the city of Kobe and its surrounding area in western Japan. Approximately 6,400 people were killed in and around Kobe and many thousands were displaced. The national government failed to coordinate effectively, and the suffering of residents, which stretched into the months after January 17, underscored a woeful lack of state preparation.Footnote 31 Failure by state agencies to deliver reliable assistance inspired people from across Japan to contribute to an upsurge in volunteering. Organizations of many different types mark the Hanshin earthquake anniversary as Hōsai no Hi, or “Disaster Prevention and Volunteerism Day,” by engaging in volunteer activities across the country. Religious volunteerism emerged as a significant component of this post-Hanshin response.
Following the January 1995 earthquake, hundreds of volunteer groups from temple Buddhist sects, new religions, Christian organizations, and Shintō shrines, including many that lost their own affiliates and facilities, mobilized to rescue disaster victims. Religious organizations housed numerous displaced residents in homes, temples, churches, and other institutions, raised funds for relief, and otherwise cared for survivors and the deceased. However, Buddhist clerics described running up against an “allergy to religion” when it came to dealing with state agencies (Chūgai Nippō, 1996). Their testimony makes clear that negative sentiments about religion in Japanese public life find purchase in the language of the 1947 Constitution, which sets the standard for how to condemn religious influence in the public sphere. Japanese religious aid launched in January 1995 faced opposition from a public that suspected aid groups might be hiding covert proselytization agendas and from government agencies that were nervous about transgressing constitutional principles. Priests interviewed about their 1995 aid activism described receiving requests from representatives of government agencies to not display any overt signs of their religious affiliation, even as these clergy sought to perform sutra recitations over bodies of the deceased. This is a memorial act that is their vocational specialty, and Buddhist invocations over the dead remain conventional in Japan. One Jōdoshū (Pure Land Sect) representative emphasized the hostility religious organizations faced in dealing with governmental restrictions, recounting how he and fellow clerical aid providers were denied permission to carry out funerary activities in public facilities while wearing their vestments. As a result, bodies that were lying in repose did not receive memorial rites.Footnote 32
Negative sentiments about religious aid provision prevented news about salutary efforts from making it into widespread media coverage. One notable example from Jōdo Shinshū, Japan’s largest temple-based Buddhist denomination, received only scant public notice. The Japan Buddhist Federation (Zen Nihon Bukkyōkai) calculated that 536 Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji-ha (Hongwanji lineage) temples were damaged or destroyed in the Hanshin earthquake, and that it lost twelve priests and clerical family members, the most of any denomination.Footnote 33 These deaths number among the 1,200 parishioners it lost, accounting for 19 percent of the total number of dead. In the absence of reliable government assistance, temple priests in the disaster area set about aiding local residents. Hongwanji-ha’s single largest aid activity was initiated by its Hokkaido Parish Young Priest’s Association. This group of volunteer clerics traveled more than 1500 km from the northern island of Hokkaido to Kobe, where they constructed twenty prefab housing units for refugees on the premises of the temple Kōenji, a facility that they called the Rokkō Hermitage (Rokkōan), named for the Kobe landmark Mount Rokkō. A total of 3,600 volunteers, including Jōdo Shinshū priests but also lay affiliates and other participants, cooperated to care for the material and psychological needs of victims housed in the prefab units. The Hermitage served as a base for the sect’s volunteers, who delivered material goods and counseling to Kobe residents struggling to carry on in the most devastated regions of the city.
Though public distaste for news about religious activism rendered this initiative largely invisible, the Rokkō Hermitage created an important precedent upon which Japan’s Buddhist denominations have built in responding to subsequent disasters. Importantly, especially in terms of attention to constitutional law, in spite of the fact that the complex stood on temple grounds, its Shinshū organizers intentionally designated it as a non-religious facility open to all in need. Secondly, resources at the Hermitage focused on the emotional and psychological needs of refugees rather than temple-based ritual responses. Hermitage residents were cared for by careful attention to a category that gained popularity in the broader context of the Hanshin disaster: kokoro no kea, or “care for the heart/mind/spirit,” a catch-all term referring to counseling and related measures taken to aid bereaved survivors. To raise funds for the Rokkō Hermitage, Hongwanji-ha appealed to the emotional bonds between disaster survivors and empathetic fellow citizens by enjoining activists from across Japan to sacrifice part of their daily expenses to feed the large budget the Rokkō Hermitage required. Volunteer work thus rose to the fore as a means by which the True Pure Land sect could demonstrate its relevance to the Japanese public.
Religious responses to the March 11, 2011, disasters indicate that many religious organizations in Japan internalized the hard lessons of 1995 and put in place plans to dispatch aid in ways that mitigated public fears about violating constitutional prohibitions. Upon hearing news of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, the headquarters of every imaginable sort of Japanese religious organization immediately suspended ordinary operations to mobilize relief. Measurements of aid mobilization after 3.11 indicate that relief and reconstruction initiatives launched by religious organizations made up a significant portion of the humanitarian response (McLaughlin Reference McLaughlin2016b; Okamoto Reference Masahiro2014). Japanese religious activists were among the first on the scene after the tsunami hit, opening their temples, shrines, churches, and other facilities to refugees as they dispatched volunteers to search mountains of wreckage for bodies and provide survivors with crucial emergency supplies. Long after most government agencies and other aid providers wrapped up their operations in northeastern Japan, religious practitioners continue to serve afflicted communities.
As they devised care initiatives, affiliates of Japan’s Buddhist denominations understood the need to conform with the expectation that they limit obvious religious displays. This concern was evident in the immediate tsunami aftermath. For example, priests associated with the Sendai Buddhist Association who volunteered to perform sutras over bodies gathered at municipally-administered disaster response centers composed an ad hoc manual that called for clerics to limit their recitations to no more than ten minutes in order to avoid triggering accusations that they were violating constitutional provisions (Fujiyama Reference Midori2020, 130–131). These same priests would contribute to the publication of a comprehensive disaster response guidebook for religious practitioners that includes attention to difficulties temples encounter being recognized as “designated evacuation shelters” (shitei hinanjo) by municipal and prefectural authorities (Buddhist NGO Network 2013, 33).
From March 2011, Japanese religion engaged in a double mobilization: while transporting personnel and emergency supplies to disaster-afflicted regions, religious groups and their advocates also mounted an elaborate print and electronic media campaign intended to disseminate images of aid work that would forestall the negative impressions that dominated coverage seventeen years earlier. In contrast to post-Hanshin prevarications over clerical involvement in first-phase relief work, accounts curated from 2011 by media-savvy religious activists and sympathetic academics cast Buddhist priests in ways that skilfully affirmed constitutional priorities. These media discourses tended to frame clerical contributions using neologisms such as borantia (volunteer), kokoro no kea (care for the heart/mind/spirit), the increasingly popular designation supirichuaru kea (spiritual care), and other categories that deliberately minimize Buddhist commitments (Berman Reference Berman2018; McLaughlin Reference McLaughlin2016a). Importantly, media coverage tended to emphasize the contributions of religious individuals over sectarian organizations. This approach preserved the religious liberties of the aid providers while it anticipated, and diffused, fears that these providers represented a coordinated conversion effort. The post-3.11 religion narrative also included a marked emphasis on ecumenical cooperation, which involved repeated use of phrases along the lines of “overcoming religious boundaries” (shūkyō no waku o koe) or “overcoming sectarian [divides]” (shūha o koe) in descriptions of Buddhist, Shintō, Christian, and other religious practitioners coming together to work with one another and with non-religious experts. There was a tendency to highlight praiseworthy efforts by innovative religious activists who were marginalizing their sectarian identities in favor of working with academics, medical professionals, and other nominally non-religious actors. In these accounts, religious action took the form of scientifically verifiable treatment that has immediate, this-worldly relevance – in other words, treatment appropriate for the needs of unaffiliated individuals rather than parishioners.
This carefully mediated post-3.11 religion narrative provided an alternative to images of religion as a threat to constitutional divides. The narrative’s emphasis on individual caregivers who side-lined their sectarian identities coheres with specific constitutional wording, notably of Article 20, which asserts that “No religious organization [emphasis added] shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.” Ironies abound as clerics rely on organizational support to foster professionalization in clinic-based care that requires them to “overcome” their sectarian affiliations. The Institute for Interfaith Chaplaincy began in 2012 as the Kokoro no Sōdanshitsu, or “Consultation Room for the Spirit,” an aid outreach initiative in Sendai that relied on funding from a host of Buddhist and Christian denominations and other religious associations. Donations from religious juridical persons enabled the establishment of the Department of Practical Religious Studies at Tōhoku University. Presentations by the Department and its advocates nonetheless affirm Interfaith Chaplaincy as non-sectarian and driven by individual activists rather than religious organizations, and concern for constitutional divides is palpable in Interfaith Chaplaincy training. Taniyama emphasizes that “religious care” (shūkyōteki kea) requires chaplains to be ready to provide whatever services the recipient requires.Footnote 34 This means that a Buddhist priest should be ready to join an evangelical Christian hospital patient in a bedside prayer, and a Protestant minister must be prepared to chant “all praise the Amitābha Buddha” (namu amida butsu) with a Pure Land Buddhist hospice care recipient. The public sphere, Taniyama stresses, should be seen as an “away game” for the religious professional, while the professional’s own temple or church is home field. At home, clergy can make presumptions about how to lead services, and practitioners enjoy constitutional protection of freedom of religion. Because Article 20 stipulates that no person can be compelled to take part in a ritual or teaching, the chaplain must wait to be asked to perform the service in a public setting: following Taniyama’s metaphor, he must be invited to play. The Interfaith Chaplaincy training materials insist that clear confirmation is required from all recipients before any religious act is performed in a caregiving situation outside sectarian boundaries.
Post-disaster activism confirmed for these instructors that the survival of their enterprises depends on how their actions are perceived in the public sphere. Retaining a place for Buddhist care providers in public forums remains a delicate balancing act, as indicated by the challenges these programs faced during the Covid-19 era. This precarity remains strongly determined by postwar constitutional mandates.
12.4 How Concerns about Constitutional Law Steered a Buddhist Party into “Normal” Politics: Soka Gakkai and Komeito
Claiming a Japanese membership of 8.27 million households, Soka Gakkai (the “Value Creation Study Association”) is a dominant presence in Japanese Buddhism.Footnote 35 It also exerts a significant influence in education, finance, publishing, and numerous other spheres. With a declared membership of close to two million Soka Gakkai International (SGI) adherents in 192 countries and territories, it may be Japan’s most successful religious export, in terms of adherent numbers. In Japan, Soka Gakkai is perhaps best known for its affiliation with Komeito, the political party it founded in 1964.Footnote 36 The Gakkai’s move into electoral politics invited heated critique from religious and political rivals. Much of this discourse has been informed by constitutional concerns. In turn, many of Soka Gakkai’s and Komeito’s institutional features have been shaped by attention to Japan’s national constitutions.
Soka Gakkai is a lay association following Nichiren (1222–1282), a Japanese Buddhist reformer who confronted the temple-based traditions of his day to propagate the belief that only exclusive faith in the Lotus Sūtra, the putative final sermon delivered by Śākyamuṇi before a retinue of beings from across the Buddhist realms, serves as an effective means of salvation during mappō, the degraded Latter Day of the Buddha’s dharma. The Gakkai maintains Nichiren Buddhist liturgies, such as chanting sections of the Lotus and repeatedly invoking its seven-syllable title, namu-myōhō-renge-kyō, and members rely on Nichiren’s writings as their primary Buddhist scriptural base. However, as the name “Value Creation Study Association” indicates, the group did not begin as a religion. It started as an educational reform movement, first called Sōka Kyōiku Gakkai (“Value Creation Education Study Association”), founded on November 18, 1930. The Gakkai’s first president was Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871–1944). He was a schoolteacher and intellectual who in 1928, with his fellow teacher and disciple Toda Jōsei (1900–1958), converted to lay affiliation under Nichiren Shōshū, a minority temple-based sect that reveres Nichiren as the Buddha of the mappō era. From the late 1930s, Makiguchi and Toda’s exclusivist convictions hardened, and Sōka Kyōiku Gakkai shifted away from educational reform to focus primarily on Nichiren Buddhist practices, including shakubuku, a forceful conversion tactic Nichiren prescribed for lands (such as Japan) that slander the Lotus. Conducting shakubuku led to conflicts with the wartime Japanese state, as did the group’s opposition to the governmental mandate that all religions enshrine kamifuda (deity talismans) from the Grand Shrine at Ise. Makiguchi and Toda were among very few adherents in wartime Japan to maintain Nichiren’s strict rejection of heterodox teachings and objects. They refused to enshrine the Shintō talismans and even encouraged converts to burn them, deeming them hōbō, or “slander to the dharma,” as they persisted in carrying out shakubuku conversions. The Gakkai leaders were arrested in July 1943 for violating the terms of the 1925 Peace Preservation Law. Both were incarcerated, and Makiguchi died of malnutrition in prison on November 18, 1944, on the anniversary of the Gakkai’s founding.
After World War II, Toda reformed the group as Soka Gakkai and drove institutional growth through a particularly hard-sell version of shakubuku. By the time of his death in April 1958, the religion had expanded to over one million adherent households. Converts were largely poor and socially atomized people who moved from the countryside into Japan’s rapidly growing cities. While the Gakkai’s aggressive proselytizing produced a massive surge in membership, it also created a negative public image. Public opposition to Soka Gakkai was driven in large part by the religion’s move into electoral politics from the mid-1950s, which led to the founding in 1964 of the political party Komeito, often glossed as the “Clean Government Party.” Today, Komeito qualifies as a “normal” political party, in the sense that it gathers votes by promoting policies that appeal to its constituents (Klein and McLaughlin Reference Klein, McLaughlin, Pekkanen and Pekkanen2022). Though it has wielded policy influence in national coalition with Japan’s majority Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1999, there is no evidence that Komeito has pursued an explicitly religious agenda in government, nor has it worked to undermine or otherwise transform Japan’s political structure. It nonetheless grew out of a Soka Gakkai campaign to satisfy a millenarian Nichiren Buddhist objective: the construction of a honmon no kaidan, or “true ordination platform.” This was to be a temple facility constructed at the Nichiren Shōshū sect headquarters at Taisekiji, near Mount Fuji, at which the sect’s (and then also Soka Gakkai’s) principal object of worship was to be enshrined. This enshrinement would celebrate the conversion of the populace to exclusive worship of the Lotus Sūtra, a goal interpreted by the group as the nation’s conversion to Soka Gakkai. Following Nichiren Buddhist dictates, a governmental decree ordering the construction of the ordination platform would be required. In postwar Japan, this entailed a majority vote in the Japanese Diet (Stone Reference Stone, Heine and Prebish2003). The Diet decree requirement appeared to violate the Article 20 prohibition on religious organizations exercising political authority or receiving privileges from the state, as well as the Article 89 proscription on public expenditure for the benefit of any religion.
Concern about potentially violating the then-recently promulgated Constitution did not stifle members’ enthusiasm for institutional expansion in the immediate postwar years. From the early 1950s, as Soka Gakkai grew by leaps and bounds, Toda drove members to work toward the kaidan goal by sending them into politics. The group first fielded independent candidates for local elections in 1955. In 1956, three Gakkai administrators were elected to the House of Councillors (Upper House), and a surge of local- and national-level electoral victories followed. Members in early Gakkai campaigns transgressed multiple times against elections law, driven as they were by the objective to convert the populace to realize their Nichiren Buddhist aim. Murakami Shigeyoshi surmised that Soka Gakkai’s shakubuku-driven efforts to gain a majority Diet vote and bring about the ordination platform was a case of substituting wartime refuge in the Emperor for a postwar effort from the ground up to install Nichiren Shōshū as Japan’s national religion (Reference Shigeyoshi1967, 155). In July 1957, Ikeda Daisaku (1928–), a Toda disciple who was then a Young Men’s Division leader, was arrested alongside other young leaders, not on constitutional grounds, but for violating elections law prohibitions against house-to-house campaigning. Soka Gakkai came to eulogize Ikeda’s legal tribulations as the “Osaka Incident,” an episode they treat as the now honorary president’s hōnan, or “persecution [for defending] the dharma.” He was cleared of all charges in January 1962. By this time, Ikeda Daisaku was third president of Soka Gakkai, having taken the office on May 3, 1960.
May 3 has become one of Soka Gakkai’s most significant commemorative dates. The importance of the Gakkai’s May 3 memorials is emblematic of an ethic of constitutionalism that underlies the religion and, to a lesser extent, its affiliated political party. Both Toda and Ikeda ascended to the Gakkai presidency on May 3, the same day that the 1947 Constitution went into effect, and Japan’s annual May 3 Constitutional Memorial Day also serves as Soka Gakkai’s “Mother’s Day,” as well as the wedding anniversary of Ikeda and his wife Kaneko. A survey of other Gakkai and Komeito events on May 3 reveals the deep importance of the date for the religion and the party. This became particularly apparent under Ikeda’s leadership, when the Gakkai’s political engagement increased dramatically, keeping pace with the lay sect’s explosive membership growth and institutional diversification. Between 1960 and 1970, Soka Gakkai in Japan grew from just over one million to over seven million households, and the organization began to gain significant numbers of followers in countries overseas. On November 27, 1961, Gakkai politicians in the Diet organized as Kōmei Seiji Renmei (or Kōseiren), the “League for Just and Fair Politics,” enacting a new political body following a May 3, 1961 announcement at Soka Gakkai headquarters that established an institutionally distinct “culture bureau” (bunkakyoku) that would oversee political engagement (Kōmeitō Shi Hensa Iinkai Reference Shi and Iinkai2014, 35–36). On May 3, 1964, Ikeda declared that henceforth Soka Gakkai would be a purely religious organization, that politics would be left to Kōmei politicians, and that the religion would soon establish an independent political party (Kōmeitō Shi Hensa Iinkai Reference Shi and Iinkai2014, 35–41). This declaration, falling as it did on Constitutional Memorial Day, resonates with the constitutional guarantee separating religion and government. On November 17, 1964, the day before Soka Gakkai’s founding anniversary, Ikeda announced the dissolution of Kōseiren and the establishment of Kōmeitō.
Initially, Komeito did not separate religious and political objectives. Just as Soka Gakkai is heir to the twin legacies of Nichiren Buddhism and humanism, Nichiren Buddhist priorities and a modern ideal of securing world peace through democracy inform Komeito’s official founding statement. It reads (in part):
We hold the firm conviction that it is only through the singular path of the Buddhist philosophy of absolute pacifism – that is, the superior path of a harmonious fusion of government and Buddhism (ōbutsu myōgō) – that the world will attain salvation from the horror of war. The Clean Government Party, through the founding ideals of a harmonious fusion of government and Buddhism and Buddhist democracy (buppō minshūshugi), will fundamentally cleanse Japan’s political world, confirm the basis of government by parliamentary democracy, put down deep roots in the masses, and realize the well-being of the common people.
From August 1, 1956, Toda Jōsei had issued an essay titled “Ōbutsu myōgōron” (“On the Harmonious Union of Kingship and Buddhism”) in which he asserted that this utopian goal was to be realized through conversion of the populace and construction of the ordination platform (Toda Reference Jōsei1956, 204). Ikeda’s use of ōbutsu myōgō in Komeito’s November Reference Kōmeitō1964 founding statement reaffirmed the goal to unite Buddhism and government, and members continued to be inspired by this millenarian aim as they worked for Komeito campaigns. From 1964, Komeito fielded candidates in both the Lower and Upper Houses, and it expanded its presence in local legislatures across Japan. By June 1969, Komeito was the third-largest party in the National Diet, and its proportion of votes in national and regional elections was still increasing. However, Komeito’s fortunes shifted abruptly. On May 3, 1970, following a scandal the previous year surrounding a failed attempt to quash the publication of a book titled I Denounce Soka Gakkai, Ikeda announced a formal institutional separation between Soka Gakkai and Komeito. The religion renounced its ordination platform plans, and Komeito eliminated its references to Buddhism and replaced them with a pledge to uphold the 1947 Constitution.
The party gained its largest-ever proportion of Diet seats in 1983, but suffered setbacks thereafter, and while Gakkai members have continued treating electioneering for Komeito candidates (and their allies) as a component of their regular practice, the party struggled to define its raison d’être until it entered into coalition with the LDP in 1999. In the meantime, constitutionalism grew into something of a Soka Gakkai constant. While Komeito began to prevaricate on its commitment to strict constitutional observance, Soka Gakkai consistently supported constitutional preservation. In particular, reverence for Article 9 continued to inspire Gakkai events and organizations. Early examples include the Youth Division’s 1974 “May 3 Memorial Peace Constitution Preservation Central Committee Event” in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, at which the Committee leadership asserted the need to protect the Constitution for its guarantee of religious liberty (Kiuchi Reference Hiroshi1974, 169).
A fierce loyalty to constitutionalism drove Gakkai institution-building and member dispositions over the course of Ikeda’s leadership. Except for a small and rapidly diminishing number of elderly pioneers who converted under Toda, the present-day majority of the Gakkai’s adherents, and almost all members who power Komeito’s campaigns today, came of age as Ikeda disciples. From early in his presidency, Soka Gakkai transformed from an organization run by Ikeda into a group dedicated to him, and after Soka Gakkai split from Nichiren Shōshū in November 1991, member reverence for Ikeda grew ever more intense. Having left behind the Nichiren Buddhist ordination platform objective, Soka Gakkai clarified its commitment to the constitutional ideals Ikeda cherished, and the religion focused to an increasing extent on cultivating Ikeda’s profile as an international statesman who reached across cultural and national boundaries to advance peace, in keeping with Japan’s postwar international stance as pacifist exemplar.Footnote 38
During Ikeda’s most vigorous decades, from the 1960s into the early 2000s, members engaged in a tireless mix of peace-promoting activities. The group became famous for its “world peace culture festivals” (sekai heiwa bunkasai) in which thousands of costumed members swirled through stadiums in complex dance numbers as marching bands performed triumphal Gakkai anthems and attendees in the stands held up placards bearing peace messages. From January 1983, Ikeda began issuing annual Peace Proposals, treatises with detailed recommendations for multilateral action in the interest of resolving global conflicts. Nichiren Buddhism’s status inversed, shifting from the group’s guiding framework into a foundation undergirding Soka Gakkai’s “three pillars”: peace, culture, and education.
Even as Ikeda rallied Gakkai members around a peace platform that upheld the Japanese postwar Constitution’s ideals, Komeito began to compromise on its support for pacifism. After its May 3, 1970, separation from Soka Gakkai, the party at first emphasized the absolute pacifism of its founding charter. It asserted that Japan should maintain neutrality and should establish alternatives to the 1960 US–Japan Security Treaty and maintenance of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (Kōmeitō Reference Kōmeitō1973, 44–45). From 1978, however, the party came to acknowledge the legality of the US–Japan Treaty and the JSDF. Komeito’s next significant adjustment came in 1992, when it supported the LDP decision to include JSDF troops in UN peace-keeping operations. After it entered into coalition government with the LDP from 1999, Komeito made more concessions, going along with Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s decision to send troops to the Persian Gulf (2002) and Iraq (2004).Footnote 39 This policy shift inspired some of the first protests against Komeito by Soka Gakkai members (Nakano Reference Jun2016, 68–69). On January 21, 2004, a group of adherents called the “Society for Preserving the Peace Constitution Opposed to the Iraq Troop Dispatch” (Irakku Hahei ni Hantai Shi Heiwa Kenpō o Mamoru Kai) submitted 1,800 signatures to Komeito headquarters protesting the party’s policy reversal (Asahi Shinbun 2004; Nakano Reference Jun2016, 67–69). The largest anti-Komeito protests by Gakkai adherents were triggered by the party’s support of eleven security bills sponsored by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō that were rushed through the National Diet in September 2015. These laws allow Japan the “right of collective self-defense,” which includes the ability for the JSDF to come to the aid of Japan’s military allies. This is a security posture that radically reinterprets the Article 9 pledge to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Observers in summer 2015 were struck by the presence of protesters waving Soka Gakkai flags and bearing signs emblazoned with strident Nichiren Buddhist and Soka Gakkai slogans in demonstrations before the Diet and at other locations across the country. These were Gakkai adherents who endured harsh rejection by their fellow members as they rebuked the party their religion founded for abandoning its foundational pacifism (McLaughlin Reference McLaughlin2015).
Komeito now sidesteps clear-cut policy commitments when it comes to constitutional interpretation or revision. The party manifesto for the 2017 general election, for example, only included a short discussion in the final section that mentioned the potential for adding a third clause that acknowledges the legality of the JSDF, should this be supported by a majority of Japanese voters (Kōmeitō Reference Kōmeitō2017). In the 2019 election manifesto, the only mention of the Constitution appeared as an appendix and simply stated that revision “should be discussed carefully from now on” (Kōmeitō Reference Kōmeitō2019), and the manifesto for the October 2021 election only dedicated the penultimate page of its seventy-two-page “Policy Compilation” (Seisakushū) to constitutional matters (Kōmeitō Reference Kōmeitō2021). However, while constitutional fidelity as a Komeito priority seems to be fading, the party remains well known for its historical success as a brake against LDP constitutional revision attempts. Adam Liff and Ko Maeda compared the LDP’s 2012 constitutional revision draft to proposals made on May 3, 2017 by Prime Minister Abe (Reference Liff and Maeda2019). Instead of pursuing the 2012 LDP amendment strategy of kaiken (wholesale revision), Abe’s 2017 proposal followed a modest plan first outlined by Komeito in 2005 to potentially add a third clause to Article 9 to acknowledge the legality of the JSDF, while leaving the first two clauses unchanged, should public opinion indicate approval for this course of action. Without at least 80 percent Komeito voter support for LDP politicians running in Single-Member Districts, the LDP would fall below a simple majority in both Houses of the National Diet and would lose the two-thirds super-majority typically retained by the coalition. So long as Komeito holds a significant number of Diet seats, and so long as Gakkai members continue to electioneer on behalf of LDP politicians, Gakkai member dedication to pacifist principles ensures that the LDP-Komeito coalition remains unlikely to revise or replace the 1947 Constitution.
As Komeito has shied away from explicit engagement with constitutional matters, Soka Gakkai has deepened its commitment to constitutionalism. One way the religion expresses its constitutional focus is by enacting its own constitution, which looks very much like its Japanese national constitutional predecessors. The Gakkai’s promulgation of a constitution is in keeping with how the group models itself explicitly along the lines of Japanese state institutions. Elsewhere, I have characterized Soka Gakkai as a “mimetic nation-state” to explain the comprehensive extent to which the religion replicates state and state-affiliated institutions within its own parameters (McLaughlin Reference McLaughlin2019a). These replicated institutions include a massive bureaucracy modeled on a civil service, doctrinal instruction and other forms of study derived from standardized education, de facto sovereign territory at its headquarters and other facilities protected by trained cadres and bedecked by a tri-color flag, and collective memory of the organization preserved in anthem-like songs and a massive and ever-expanding published record that functions akin to a national literature. The group also mandates donation practices labeled zaimu (finances, or taxes) and offers singular reverence to its apotheosized Honorary President Ikeda Daisaku.
A written constitution numbers among the Gakkai’s nation-like appurtenances. Announced on November 18, 2017, on the anniversary of the group’s founding in 1930, the “Constitution of the Soka Gakkai” establishes an orthodox understanding of its history and confirms the transcendent authority of its “eternal mentors,” the three founding presidents Makiguchi, Toda, and Ikeda.Footnote 40 Aspects of this document follow standards set out in Japan’s 1947 Constitution. For example, Article 15 stipulates that a vote of two-thirds of the members of Soka Gakkai’s Constitution Amendment Committee is required to make any changes to the document, a rule that appears similar to Article 96 of the 1947 national Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the Diet and a referendum of 50 percent plus one vote in order to carry out a constitutional amendment. Notably, the Gakkai version of this clause makes no room for the voice of an electorate. Overall, Soka Gakkai’s constitutional mimesis arguably takes its cue less from the postwar constitution than its 1890 predecessor. Like that of the Meiji Constitution, the preamble of the Gakkai equivalent outlines a genealogy that confirms the constitution’s basis in primordial and transcendent authority. Where the 1890 Constitution speaks in the voice of the Emperor who “ascended the throne of a lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal,” the Gakkai Constitution declares a “profound karmic connection” from Śākyamuṇi Buddha to Nichiren to Makiguchi and Toda, culminating in Ikeda. The Meiji Constitution repeatedly confirms the supremacy of the Emperor while deferring to the need for the populace to create and interpret appropriate laws. Similarly, the Gakkai’s 2017 Constitution affirms the primacy of the three founding presidents while empowering the religion’s administrative bodies to generate and oversee its internal regulations.
Ironically, Soka Gakkai’s mimetic equivalent of a national constitution appears closer to the document upheld by the wartime state that martyred its founding leader and destroyed the wartime-era Gakkai. Soka Gakkai’s 2017 Constitution appears to call for a utopian version of the very polity that victimized its originators.
12.5 Conclusion: “Constitutional Buddhism” as a Counterpoint to “Buddhist Constitutionalism”
On May 3, 1970, on the tenth anniversary of his appointment as third president of Soka Gakkai, Ikeda Daisaku affirmed the religion’s policy of seikyō bunri, or “separation of politics and religion,” the principle upheld in the Japanese Constitution that came into effect on the same day in 1947. In his address, Ikeda postulated that Soka Gakkai might adopt conventions from the Japanese political system and institute a practice of soliciting votes from the religion’s membership. He suggested that, in the future, Soka Gakkai might put in place a term limit of three or four years for an elected Gakkai president (Kiuchi Reference Hiroshi1974). The 2017 Gakkai Constitution, however, stands as the culmination of decades spent solidifying Ikeda Daisaku as the religion’s absolute authority. Its content and tone suggest that the referents for the Gakkai’s mimetic processes are drawn not only from the postwar constitutional order and its defenses of pacifism and unconditional freedom of religion, but also from the prewar, Emperor-centric constitutional nation-state. Komeito has needed to compromise on constitutionalism in order to survive as a small party within Japan’s postwar political system. Soka Gakkai has remained free to promote utopian visions inspired by multiple Japanese constitutional precedents.
While its 2017 Constitution may stand as the example that hews most closely to national models, Soka Gakkai is not the only Japanese Buddhist organization to promulgate a constitutional equivalent. Sōtō Zen, for instance, formulates its denominational regulations as a multi-article “Sōtō Sect Constitution” (Sōtōshū Shūken), and other temple-based denominations present their guiding rules in similar formats, albeit not always in documents that bear the title “constitution.” One might also posit that an ethic of constitutionalism is identifiable across the broad spectrum of Japanese Buddhism, whether or not an institution maintains a set of internal rules that functions in a de facto manner as a constitution.Footnote 41 The case study of post-disaster clerical aid makes clear that Buddhists in Japan formulate their public conduct and institutional practices to comport with national constitutional norms. This widely shared ethic is certainly the result of Buddhism’s fraught position in modern and contemporary Japan and is indicative of the need for Japan’s Buddhists to defend their continued relevance to the nation.Footnote 42 Soka Gakkai’s mimesis of a national constitution can also be read as a defensive posture adopted in response to being targeted by political rivals and the threat of legal challenges mounted within a state based in constitutional law. It is a distinctive instance of what is otherwise a widely shared Japanese Buddhist convention to internalize and manifest concern for the nation’s constitutional authority.
This chapter’s introduction included a brief discussion of Benjamin Schonthal’s theory of “Buddhist constitutionalism” that describes processes in Southeast Asia in which “Buddhist ideas and institutions figure prominently as topics of constitutional negotiation.”Footnote 43 In Southeast Asian nations, lawmakers, monastics, and other powerholders work to secure Buddhism as a foundation for the state, maintaining a principle of enshrining religious teachings and institutions that Schonthal compares convincingly with Islamic and other religiously informed state-building enterprises. I suggest that the cases in this chapter exemplify a contrasting ethic of constitutionalism that has emerged as a response to the comparatively precarious position Buddhism has occupied in Japan since the nineteenth century. There is an observable urge on the part of contemporary Japanese Buddhists to foster “constitutional Buddhism,” Buddhist constitutionalism’s opposite. The Japanese Buddhist cases, perhaps especially the case of Soka Gakkai’s constitutional mimesis, represent a countercurrent within what Schonthal identifies as global Buddhist fluidity between two putatively heterogeneous categories of religions and constitutions. In many Buddhist-majority countries, Buddhism persists as a foundational influence on the formation of national constitutions. By contrast, influence flows in the opposite direction in Japan, where Buddhist organizations take their cue from constitutions that set out an explicit religion/state divide. A full account of Buddhism as a lens through which to approach comparative constitutional law must account for Buddhism’s circumstances in Japan.
This chapter explores the Vietnamese state’s constitutional framework for governing Buddhism. The framework includes: (1) principles in the big-C Constitution (the formal, written Constitution of 2013); (2) small-c constitutional rules, including broader legislation enacted to implement the formal Constitution, particularly the 2016 Law on Religions and Belief; and (3) the Buddhist constitution, a body of governing law of the Buddhist community, particularly the Charter of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (on the religious constitutions, see Schonthal Reference Schonthal2021; on small-c constitutions, see Chilton & Versteeg Reference Chilton and Versteeg2021). This chapter argues that the constitutional framework for Vietnamese Buddhism is both facilitative and regulatory. On the one hand, the constitutional framework facilitates the development of Buddhism due to its historical role, the state’s reformist commitment, and the state’s universalist outlook toward religions. On the other hand, the same constitutional framework places Buddhism under state control, so as to prevent Buddhist opposition to the socialist regime and to rally the support of Buddhist followers for state-building.
Some historical context is helpful before we begin the analysis. Buddhism is the second-largest organized religion in Vietnam (after Catholicism) with 4,606,543 followers according to the government’s official 2019 report (General Statistics Office of Vietnam 2019). Historians debate whether Buddhism came to Vietnam in the third or second century BCE from India, or in the first to second century from China, but in any case, it is well established with deep roots (Taylor Reference Taylor2018). In the Ly dynasty (1009–1225) and Tran dynasty (1225–1400), Buddhism was a state religion and played an important institutional and legal role, including legitimizing royal authority (Anh Reference Anh2002). The Le dynasty in the fifteenth century endorsed Confucianism as the official ideology, but Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism coexisted within the framework of the harmony of three religions. In the period of the French colonial rule, the influence of Buddhism declined due to the spread of Christianity. During the Vietnam war from 1945 to 1975, Vietnam was divided into North and South: Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South, was a Catholic and launched an anti-Buddhist policy, which triggered protests by Buddhists against the government (Roberts Reference Roberts1965). After national unification, the socialist state supported the unification of Buddhist organizations under a body called the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (BSV, Vietnamese: Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam) (Trần Thị Hằng Reference Hằng2020). Another Buddhist organization called the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (UBSV, Vietnamese: Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam Thống nhất) rejected joining the BSV, was banned by the state, and operates in exile (for an overview of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam, see Soucy 2017).
This chapter is organized as follows. The first part from Section 13.2 explores the constitutional framework for Vietnamese Buddhism, Section 13.3 explains the facilitative and regulatory elements of the constitutional framework, and finally, Section 13.4 offers a conclusion.
13.2 The Governing Framework
13.2.1 The Big-C Constitution
The 2013 Constitution does not mention Buddhism. However, it includes the principles of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, of representative institutions, and of religious freedom, all of which are relevant to the framework for the state’s governance of religions in general and Buddhism in particular.
First, the Constitution provides for the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam over “the state and society” (Article 4). Society includes Buddhism, which means – at least in theory – that the religion is under the Party’s leadership. In fact, responding to the increase in complaints and disputes involving religious facilities, and protests carried out by religious believers, among others, in 2003 the Party issued a resolution which laid down political directives to guide the state’s management of religious affairs. This included creating the conditions for religions operating within the law (such as the commitment to religious freedom), promoting patriotism among religious followers, and preventing the use of religions to oppose the state and the socialist regime (Resolution on Religious Affairs 2003). These political directives deal with religions in general and are thus applicable to Buddhism, along with other faiths. Buddhist groups as well as other religious groups are required to operate within the Party policy regarding religious affairs. In relation to religious policies, the Constitution confirms Marxism–Leninism as the Party’s official ideology (Article 4). As the Party plays the leading role in society, its ideology prevails thanks to the Party’s propaganda and indoctrination. Following this framework, Marxism–Leninism is secular, while Buddhism is sacred, and this generates an ideological tension between the Party and Buddhism. To deal with the tension, the Party tolerates Buddhism but also seeks to ensure that the religion will serve the Party’s political goal to build socialism in Vietnam. As a response, the quasi-official BSV aligns with Marxist ideology, as evident in its motto “Dharma, Nation, and Socialism.”
The second constitutional principle of note concerns the Fatherland Front. The Constitution provides that “The Vietnamese Fatherland Front is a political alliance and a voluntary union of the political organization, socio-political and social organizations, and prominent individuals representing their class, social strata, ethnicity or religion, and overseas Vietnamese” (Article 9). As the Fatherland Front is an ally of the Party, the BSV, as a member of the Front, is presumed to support the Party and submit to the Party’s control. In addition, like other member organizations, the BSV must perform the constitutional duties and functions of the Fatherland Front, including promoting national unity and social consensus, supervising state activities, and participating in state institutions (Article 9).
The third constitutional principle affecting Buddhism relates to the place of religion in representative institutions. Article 22 of the Constitution provides for the right to stand for election to the National Assembly. Article 69 of the Constitution defines the National Assembly as “the highest representative body of the People.” Thus, even in the context of a one-party state, Buddhists are represented in the legislature. To illustrate this, after the last election in June 2021, five Buddhist leaders (compared with one Catholic leader) were elected to the National Assembly (Thanh Trà Reference Trà2021). Although the national elections are under the Party control through the Fatherland Front’s multiple rounds of nominations, the National Assembly represents different sections of the society, including religion. As Buddhism is a major religion, with the BSV allied with the party and the state, the representation of Buddhists in the National Assembly is understandable. The inclusion of Buddhist leaders in the legislature may help to ensure the support of Buddhist organizations for the state and law.
A fourth constitutional principle to note is that of religious freedom. The Constitution stipulates that:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of belief and religion, and has the right to follow any religion or to follow no religion. All religions are equal before law. 2. The State shall respect and protect the freedom of belief and religion. 3. No one may violate the freedom of belief and religion, nor may anyone take advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.
Under these provisions, Vietnamese citizens are free to adhere to Buddhism as well as any other religions. There is no state religion in Vietnam: although Buddhists are practically an ally of the party and the state, the Constitution does not provide for any state support for Buddhism or any other religion. This is due to the constitutional commitment to the equality of religions. The last clause in the religious freedom provisions, regarding the manipulation of religion for illegal purposes, justifies state’s regulation of religious activities, including the practice of Buddhism.
Buddhist groups played no role in shaping the constitutional framework governing its activities. However, Buddhist monks sometime engage in public constitutional debate in defence of religious autonomy, as well as for other issues. For example, when the state released a draft constitution for public debate in 2013, a Buddhist monk called for the constitutional recognition of religious organizations as legal entities so that they could enjoy more autonomy (Tá Lâm Reference Lâm2013). More recently, in April 2021, the BSV submitted a petition to the relevant authorities opposing a draft regulation by the Ministry of Finance which provides that the state will manage the “merit money,” meaning funds donated to religious institutions. As reported by mass media, the BSV argued that the term “merit money” was not clearly defined, and in practice the term is mainly used to refer to money donated to Buddhist institutions rather than to those of other religions. The BSV also invoked Article 53 of the 2013 Constitution to affirm that “merit money” does not belong to public property managed by the state (Thiên Điểu Reference Điểu2021). In this case, Buddhists employed constitutional argumentation to strengthen their demand for financial autonomy, as a response to the state’s attempt to place Buddhism under greater control.
13.2.2 The Small-c Constitution
The small-c constitution refers to a body of legislative rules issued by the Vietnamese state to regulate religions and to implement relevant provisions in the big-C Constitution (Vu Hoang Cong Reference Cong2016). In 2004, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee enacted the Ordinance on Belief and Religion. The Ordinance was recently replaced by the Law on Belief and Religion (hereinafter, the Law) enacted by the National Assembly in 2016 and implemented in 2018. The Law, however, retains the substantive contents of the Ordinance (Bui Reference Bui, Neo, Jamal and Goh2019).
The Ordinance and the Law do not specifically mention Buddhism but articulate a general legal framework for the state’s management of religion which is applicable to Buddhism. The Ordinance and the Law influence Buddhist activities in two modes: facilitative and regulatory. First, the Law recognizes religious freedom, and therefore facilities the freedom of Buddhist practices (as well as other religious practices). This has enabled the development of Vietnamese Buddhism after national unification. The development is manifested in various aspects, such as: an increase in the number of Buddhist followers; numerous Buddhist festivals; the creation of four Buddhist academies for Buddhist teachings at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Can Tho; the publication of numerous Buddhist texts (around 1,000 titles with around 6,000,000 copies published by the Religion Publishing House since 1999); the engagement of the BSV in international Buddhist activities; and the holding of the United Nations Vesak Cerebrations in Vietnam in 2008, 2014, and 2019 (Nguyen Thanh Xuan Reference Nguyen2012, 77–84).
The religion Law is also an instrument for the state to regulate Buddhist activities. Regulation of religion refers to “the state’s intentional intervention into the religious activities of the target believers and followers and their organizations and groups” (Bui Reference Bui, Neo, Jamal and Goh2019, 149). Using this definition, one can identify three regulatory aspects: setting binding standards (legal rules); state monitoring to ensure the implementation of these rules (monitoring); and using coercive sanctions (sanctioning) to guarantee compliance (Bui Reference Bui, Neo, Jamal and Goh2019, 149). Below I will illustrate the application of this general regulatory framework to Buddhism in Vietnam.
First, regarding setting standards, the government applies to Buddhist groups general legal rules prohibiting certain types of religious activities and religious organizations. The Law prevents religious organizations, including Buddhist organizations, from undermining national unification or conducting propagation campaigns in contravention of the state’s laws and policies. In addition, annual programs for Buddhist activities (among other religious activities) must be approved by local governments. Local authorities may suspend Buddhist activities if they believe that they endanger national security and public order. Moreover, Buddhism – as with all other religions in Vietnam – must be officially recognized by the state. The BSV, like other religious organizations, must be formally approved and registered with the state. The congresses of the BSV and the establishment and operation of Buddhist schools must also be approved by the authorities.
Second, there are different state institutions at both central and local levels responsible for monitoring the implementation of legal rules regarding religions in general, including Buddhism. At the central level, according to a decision taken by the prime minister in 2018, the Department of Buddhism in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs plays a role in governing Buddhism. There are also committees for religious affairs in local governments, which are responsible for managing religions, including Buddhism, at the local level.
Third, the Ordinance and the Law do not provide for formal sanctions of unapproved religious activities and organizations. However, authorities have employed informal mechanisms to deal with unapproved religious activities and organizations, including those involving Buddhists. For example, Thích Huyền Quang and Thích Quảng Độ, patriarchs of the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, were placed under house arrest because of their opposition to the government (Johnson Reference Johnson2007).
13.2.3 The Buddhist Constitution
The Charter of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (hereinafter, the Buddhist Charter) was first adopted by the Sangha in 1981 and has been amended six times, with the last amendment in 2017. The Buddhist Charter can be considered a kind of constitution for Buddhism in Vietnam. It lays down fundamental principles for the Buddhist community, the structural institutions of the Sangha, the distribution of the authority and duties among Buddhist leaders, and amendment rules. Beyond being a religious document, the Buddhist Charter operates as an instrument for the state to manage Buddhism. In this regard, its formal structure and substantive contents share several features of the state’s Constitution.
220.127.116.11 Formal Structure
The Buddhist Charter’s formal structure is similar to those of the state’s Constitution. It includes a preamble and thirteen chapters divided into seventy-one articles. It includes the titles below:
Chapter I: Name, Badge, Flag, Song, Headquarter
Chapter II: Aims, Components
Chapter III: Principles of Operation and System of Organization
Chapter IV: Patriarch Council
Chapter V: Executive Council
Chapter VI: The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam at Provinces and Cities
Chapter VII: The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam at County, District, Town, and Provincial City
Chapter VIII: Congress, Conference
Chapter IX: Clergy
Chapter X: Monastery and Members
Chapter XI: Finance, Property
Chapter XII: Praise of Merit and Discipline
Chapter XIII: The Validity of The Charter and Amendments to The Charter
Like the state’s Constitution, the Buddhist Charter has an expressive function. Descriptively, the Buddhist Charter’s preamble provides a narrative of the history of Vietnamese Buddhism and the birth of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam:
In more than two thousand years of presence in Vietnam, accompanying the nation, Buddhism has become the religion of the nation. Throughout the history of nation building and nation defence, in the cause of national liberation, national unity, as well as building and protecting the Socialist Fatherland of Vietnam today, Vietnamese Buddhism has always been a reliable and strong member of the national unity bloc … Since 1975, the Fatherland has been united, the whole country unites for the goals of “prosperous people, strong country, democratic, equitable, and civilised society,” Vietnamese Buddhism fully has the opportunity to fulfil the aspiration to fully unify church organizations, associational organizations, and Buddhist denominations, and to establish the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam on November 7, 1981.
The Buddhist Charter describes Buddhism as an ally of Vietnam generally and of the socialist state in particular. In describing modern Vietnamese history, the Buddhist Charter’s preamble uses similar language of the state Constitution’s preamble, such as “to liberate the nation, reunify the country, defend the Fatherland” (The Constitution of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, preamble). The Buddhist Charter’s preamble also aligns the creation of the BSV with the Vietnamese socialist state’s goals (“a prosperous people and a strong, democratic, equitable and civilised country”) which are confirmed in the state Constitution’s preamble (The Constitution of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, preamble). The parallel between the preambles of the Buddhist Charter and the state Constitution aims to establish a constructive relationship between Vietnamese Buddhism, the BSV, and the Vietnamese socialist state.
Prescriptively, the Buddhist Charter expresses the aspirations and commitments of the Buddhist community. Its preamble declares the motto “Dharma, Nation, and Socialism” (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, preamble). The BSV’s stated aims are to develop Buddhism and to contribute to building Vietnamese socialism, a commitment also confirmed in the preamble of the state’s Constitution (The Constitution of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, preamble). In addition, Article 6 of the Buddhist Charter expresses the Buddhist, nationalist, and internationalist commitments: “The purpose of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam is to promote Buddhism, develop the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam at home and abroad, participate in building and protecting the Fatherland, serve the nation, [and] contribute to building peace and peace for the world” (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Article 6). Particularly, beyond religious aspirations, the Charter commits the Buddhist community to contributing to nation building. The nationalist commitment aims to align Vietnamese Buddhism with the state’s societal and institutional development.
13.2.4 Buddhist Institutions
Apart from the expressive function, the Buddhist Charter operates as a blueprint to structure and coordinate powers within Buddhist institutions and with regard to their relationship with state institutions. It stipulates the Leninist organizational principle of democratic centralism: “The Sangha leads according to the principle of democratic centralism, collective leadership, individual responsibility, majority decisions and unity of action” (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Article 10). Democratic centralism aims to combine democratic discussions and centralized actions, confirmed in the state’s Constitution (The Constitution of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, Article 8). On the basis of democratic centralism, the Buddhist Charter creates a hierarchical Buddhist institutional system, relatively similar to the state’s constitutional system.
At the central level, the BSV includes the Patriarch Council and the Executive Council (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Chapters IV and V). The institutional functions and relationship of these two bodies have some features in common with those of the National Assembly and government provided in the state’s Constitution. The Patriarch Council, created with a five-year term by BSV’s congress, is a collective decision-making body, while the Executive Council is an administrative institution. Some language of the state’s Constitution is used to describe the functions of these Buddhist institutions. For example, the Charter provides that the Patriarch Council is “the supreme leading organ” of the BSV and its Standing Committee enjoys the power of “supreme supervision” over the activities of the Sangha and the Executive Council (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Articles 15 and 16). This echoes the state Constitution’s description of the National Assembly as “the supreme organ of state power” which has the power of “supreme supervision” over the government and other state organs (The Constitution of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, Article 69).
Apart from the central institutions, the structural hierarchy of the Buddhist organizations includes provincial and communal sanghas. The local sanghas are comprised of the Patriarch committee and executive committee, modelled after the structure of the central Sangha. The communal sanghas work under the guidance of the provincial sanghas which in turn work under the guidance of the central Sangha (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Articles 31 and 38). Thus, the Buddhist Charter provides for a hierarchical relationship within Buddhist institutions, consistent with the broader principle of democratic centralism.
The local sanghas are structured in line with the state’s local administrative system. Additional Buddhist sanghas can be created at the local levels subject to the approval of the local governments at the same levels (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Articles 29 and 37). The parallel administrative arrangement places Buddhist institutions at various levels under the management of the state institutions at the same levels. This allows state authority to closely monitor the activities of Buddhist institutions.
18.104.22.168 Buddhist Constitution and State Institutions
According to the Law on Belief and Religion, the Buddhist Charter is only implemented after it is approved by the state. The state’s approval ostensibly ensures that the Buddhist Charter will serve the state’s management of Buddhism. In addition, in consistence with the Law on Belief and Religion, various activities regarding implementation of the Charter (such as the elections of the Patriarch Council and Executive Council, and the holding of the BSV’s congress) must be approved by state authorities. In this way, the state can keep Buddhism firmly under its control.
The Buddhist Charter also seeks to coordinate the relationship between the state and Buddhist institutions. For example, the Charter provides that BSV’s Executive Council must be “responsible for coordinating with competent state agencies in dealing with organizations and individuals speaking out and disseminating information with distorted, inaccurate, and unorganized content related to Buddhism in general and to the organizations of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha at all levels and to its members” (Charter of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Article 19). The Charter requires Buddhist institutions and members to cooperate with state institutions in the management of Buddhism. Moreover, the Charter stipulates that:
If members of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam have activities and acts that hurt the reputation, harmony, and interests of the Sangha or members of the Sanga, and harm the great unity of the whole nation, the peace, independence, and unity of the Fatherland, the Sangha shall deal with canon law [Vinaya], and depending on the extent of violations, the Sangha shall request the competent state agency to consider and handle it in accordance with the [state’s] law.
This provision enables the punishment of members of the BSV for their actions against not only the interests of the Buddhist community but also the interests of the state. The provision also allows the Sangha to request the state authority to apply legal remedies. The Sangha is, therefore, an ally of the state in its internal management of Buddhism.
13.3 Factors of Governing Buddhism
The state constitutional framework has facilitated the development of Buddhism in Vietnam, shaped by factors internal and external to the Vietnamese context. The internal factors include the historical role and nature of Vietnamese Buddhism and the state’s reformist commitment. As Buddhism has a long tradition in Vietnam and deep roots in the Vietnamese culture, the constitutional framework needs to accommodate its continuing development.
In addition, during the Vietnam war, Buddhist monks played an important role in opposing the Diem government and advocating for peace. As Topmiller states: “Some Buddhists perceived the deep distress in South Vietnamese society over the war and responded with calls for peace. Sensing significant war-weariness after a quarter-century of conflict, Thich Nhat Hanh introduced a resolution calling for an end to the fighting during a conference of monks early in 1964” (Reference Topmiller2002, 7). The fact that Buddhist monks resisted the South government to struggle for peace would make the socialist state less hostile to Buddhism after national unification.
Another internal factor involves the socialist party-state’s reformist commitments. The reform program known as Doi moi (Renovation) introduced by the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1986 has resulted in the implementation of several liberal policies, which include policies that not only support economic liberalization but also those which facilitate religious freedom. For example, different to the previous dogmatic belief that religions would soon disappear in a new socialist society in Vietnam, in 1990 the Communist Party of Vietnam issued a resolution announcing reformist views and policies regarding religion. The resolution recognized three points: “religion is a long-standing issue”; “belief and religion are spiritual needs of a part of the people”; “religious ethics has many things suitable for the construction of a new society.” (Nguyễn Nguyên Hồng Reference Nguyễn2018). These reformist views have facilitated the development of religion in general and Buddhism in particular.
Another internal factor concerns the political leaders’ discourse which recognizes the positive contribution of Buddhism to state-building and social and economic development in Vietnam. John Gillespie observes that “Hồ Chí Minh is credited with saying that the values underlying Buddhism and Christianity are fundamentally the same as the party’s objectives. According to this theory, the party should remain staunchly atheist, but acknowledge that in the transition to socialism, religion promotes social order and enriches lives” (Reference Gillespie2014, 143). More recently, President of State Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has said, “Over the past forty years, many Buddhist monks and nuns have made contributions and sacrifices for the revolution. The Buddhist Sangha has always been at the forefront of national unity.” (Nguyễn Phan Reference Phan2021). Such political rhetoric indicates the positive view of the state toward Buddhism, which has constituted a necessary political condition for the development of the religion in Vietnam.
Apart from internal factors, the constitutional space for Buddhism in Vietnam has been animated by external factors beyond the Vietnamese context. Globalization has led the Vietnamese state to engage with international legal regimes, and sign major international human rights treaties. This international engagement has resulted in the party-state’s turn toward a universalist approach to religion, including Buddhism. As Gillespie points out, “Party leaders have developed a more cosmopolitan outlook and expanded their loyalties to include a wide range of religious beliefs and practices. A consensus is emerging that the party should recognize and promote religiosity in Vietnamese society” (Reference Gillespie2014, 141–42). This approach to internationalization enables the development of religions in general – and Buddhism in particular – in Vietnam.
As noted above, the constitutional framework of Vietnam places Buddhism under the state’s control. As Buddhism has enjoyed a significant place in Vietnamese culture and society, the socialist state has recognized the importance of turning it not into an enemy but a supporter of the state. The regulative constitutional space is, therefore, animated by both preventive and constructive political motivations. The preventive motivation is that the state needs to preclude Buddhism from becoming a force inimical to the socialist regime.
This preventive motivation may have been inspired by the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam’s continued opposition to the socialist regime. For example, in 2013, a leader of the UBSV issued a letter opposing the Vietnamese government’s imprisonment of Cu Huy Ha Vu for his subversive actions, including his call to delete Article 4 of Vietnam’s Constitution, which mandates the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam (Thich Vien Dinh Reference Thich2013). One of the leaders of UBSV stated: “The United Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam has a clear goal of serving the nation and the dharma, not socialism” (Gia Minh 2015). The UBSV’s goal is resistant to the BSV’s goal and the Vietnamese socialist state’s goal. The state, therefore, is motivated to prevent Buddhist groups from cooperating with dissidents who oppose the socialist regime.
The constructive motivation in the constitutional regulations of religion is that the state needs to mobilize social forces, including Buddhist followers, for state-building and socioeconomic development. As Buddhists are an important social force, the state needs their support for state-building and the implementation of state policy. This explains why Buddhists have been included in state institutions and involved in national affairs, for example, supporting state authority in the fight against the spread of the Covid-19 virus in Vietnam (Hồ Phúc Reference Phúc2021).
This chapter has explored the multiple constitutional framework employed by the state to govern Buddhism in Vietnam. It has illustrated the elements and functioning of such a constitutional framework, consisting of the principles and rules in the formal Constitution, the small-c constitution or legislations, and the Buddhist constitution or Charter of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam. On the one hand, the constitutional framework facilitates the development of Vietnamese Buddhism due to the nature and role of Buddhism in Vietnamese history, to the state’s reformist policy regarding religious freedom, and to the party-state’s universal perspective on religious freedom. On the other hand, the state places Buddhism firmly under its control to ensure that it supports the Party and its programs of state-building and socioeconomic development.
To some extent, the Vietnamese case illustrates unique features compared to other countries in terms of the relationship between Buddhism and constitutional law. These peculiar aspects are mainly due to the presence of Vietnamese socialism, as in the case of the mimicry of the Vietnamese socialist political principals visible in the BSV Buddhist constitution, the BSV’s replication of national socialist institutions in its organizational structure, and the general intimacy between Buddhism, Communist Party, and the Fatherland Front.
However, the Vietnamese case also reveals commonalities with the other Buddhist contexts analysed in this volume. One comparable aspect is the relation between Buddhism and constitutional design. A written constitution may not directly refer to Buddhism, but its general provisions on human rights, religious freedom, and the broader institutional setting will undoubtedly affect the practice of Buddhism. Another element that can be compared is the distinction between Buddhist constitutionalism and the legal regulation of Buddhism. While the former concerns how Buddhist fundamental norms and principles hold state authorities accountable, the latter deals with how states use law to regulate Buddhism. A third dimension that can suggest similarities across national contexts is the presence of Buddhist constitutions, other examples of which can be found in this volume. The Charter of the Sangha of Vietnam provides a good example for the comparative study of constitution-like Buddhist texts, which in this case, draws heavily on the structure of state constitutions. What the analysis of the Vietnamese case in this chapter can suggest is that a comparative study of Buddhist constitutions needs to explore the relational similarities between Buddhist constitutions and state constitutions, which are echoed in similar content patterns in the guiding charters of both states and Buddhist groups. The exploration of these similarities may help to highlight the important interaction that takes place between Buddhist and state constitutional regimes.
This chapter looks at the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), which claims authority over the largest Buddhist community in the world, as it has tried in recent years to assert itself as an influential actor on the global stage. The BAC has acted with the full support of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), via one of its key instruments for influence in Chinese societies and abroad, the United Front Work Department (UFWD, herein United Front) (Brady Reference Brady2019). The goal of this chapter is to understand how the emergence of the BAC affects constitutional law in countries where Buddhism plays an important role in the political and legal system.
I will introduce the BAC as the main institution representing Buddhists today in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and examine the relationship between the BAC and the CCP United Front. Next, I assess the BAC efforts to establish itself as one of the prime movers among Buddhist international organizations and interpret the significance of this increasing visibility. The chapter dovetails with a broader research agenda headed by Yoshiko Ashiwa and David Wank (Reference Yoshiko and Wank2020), examining how the United Front operationalizes Buddhist activities outside China.
14.2 The Buddhist Association of China
The BAC claims authority over the largest Buddhist community in the world. Estimating the precise size of the community is difficult, in part because, as in other East Asian societies, many people practice what Michael Carrithers calls “polytropy,” which means that they simultaneously practice more than one religion (2000). The BAC estimates – which err on the conservative side and are reproduced routinely by the official media – of the total number of Buddhists in China suggest that there are around 100 million adherents (ZFX 2017a). Recently conducted sociological surveys, however, point to widely divergent numbers, depending on the methodology used by the investigators (Wenzel-Teuber Reference Wenzel-Teuber2017, 27). For example, the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS), a survey created in 2010 by the Institute of Social Science Survey (ISSS) in Beijing University, reported vastly different numbers in 2012 and 2014, depending on whether people were asked about their religious affiliation or their beliefs in deities. Wenzel-Teuber (Reference Wenzel-Teuber2017, 27) also quotes from the 2012 survey by sociologists Lu Yunfeng and Zhang Chunni, undertaken for the CFPS, which showed that about 6.5 percent of respondents disclosed an affiliation to Buddhism; two years later, over 15.8 percent of respondents mentioned their belief in the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Whether one chooses the more conservative figure of 91 million or that of 212 million, however, more Buddhists live in China than in Thailand, the country with the second largest number of Buddhists, projected to number 67 million by 2020 (Pew-Templeton 2016).
This large Buddhist community, relative to other countries, represents only a minority of the Chinese population, and not a sizable proportion, even though there are more Buddhists than there are followers of other religions in China. In a country where 90 percent of the population in 2012 professed no religious affiliation, and 73 percent admitted in another survey two years later that they have no religious beliefs, the cultural influence of Buddhism in Chinese society – while significant in aesthetics, the practice of popular beliefs, and ethics – does not reach as deep as it does in societies where Buddhism represents the religion of the majority, let alone countries in which it is the state religion. There are significant differences, moreover, when one considers the specific forms of Buddhism practiced by different ethnic groups, known in China as national minorities (xiaoshu minzu 小数民族) (Borchert Reference Borchert2017). While a small minority of the Han population practices Buddhism of the Mahāyāna school, the influence of the Vajrayāna school is more prevalent among most of the Tibetan and Mongol minorities (Charleux Reference Charleux, Zarcone, Khosronejad and Hobart2017). The Theravāda school, which is also practiced among some of the minority populations in the Southern parts of the country, is not practiced to the same extent (Sasas Reference Sasas2020). Still, China is the only country in the world with significant numbers of adherents to all three major branches of Buddhism.
The leadership structure of the BAC reflects these realities, albeit in a way that does not reflect the relative proportion of the three Buddhist schools. Its official documents distinguish between Han (hanzhuan 漢傳), rather than Mahāyāna (dacheng 大乘); Tibetan (zangzhuan 藏傳), rather than Vajrayāna or esoteric (mizong 密宗); and Southern (nanzhuan 南傳) Buddhism, rather than Theravāda (shangzuobu 上座部) (ZFX 2017b). For 2017, the State Administration for Religious affairs (SARA) provided the following numbers of registered sites for the three branches of Buddhism: 28,270 sites for the Han tradition; 3,862 for the Tibetan sites; and 1,705 for Southern sites (Wenzel-Teuber Reference Wenzel-Teuber2018, 34). In 2014, SARA counted 148,000 ordained Tibetan clergy, but only half that number among Han monastics, and only 2,000 clerics among Southern Buddhists (Wenzel-Teuber Reference Wenzel-Teuber2018, 35). Only in the first years of its existence did the BAC governance structure reflect this reality. During the first congress between 1953 and 1957, only one among the four honorary chairs was Han; the others were the Dalai Lama, the tenth Panchen Lama, and the spiritual leader of the Mongol orders. Of the seven vice-directors who assisted the BAC director, only one was a Han, four represented the Tibetan school, and one the Southern school. The governance structure of the BAC has since changed significantly: today, the majority of the thirty-three vice-presidents represent Han Buddhism.
The state’s rigid definition of what constitutes an acceptable religion makes the enumeration of religious believers even more difficult. If sociological surveys can count those who mention an affiliation to a religion or a belief in a deity, they often miss those whose beliefs belong to what the sociologist of religion Yang Fenggang (Reference Fenggang2006) called the “black market” of religions. By this, Yang means those religions opposed by the state, in contrast to the “red market” of religions recognized by the CCP. For obvious reasons, people who follow religions that the state opposes are not likely to admit they do so. The population is aware of the religions the CCP opposes as well as those it labels “evil cults” (xiejiao 邪教), but there is another category of tolerated practices in the liminal space between religion and culture, belief, and heritage. Yang Fenggang (Reference Fenggang2006) describes these as “gray market” practices, for which people may not fear sanction. People affiliated with Falun Gong know about this too well: their practice was legal before the state imposed a ban in the summer of 2000 (Palmer Reference Palmer2007).
The established sangha fears this kind of competition from the margins of the official Buddhist associations, and over the years it has expressed its opposition to new religious movements that use the name or the symbols of Buddhism, such as Falun Gong, or the Guanyin 观音 Method of Master Qinghai 青海 (Irons Reference Irons2018). The BAC also fears sources of division within its own ranks, like the ethnic and linguistic cleavages mentioned above. A primary source of concern is the unrest in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in the prefectures where ethnic Tibetans live (Powers Reference Powers2016). Moreover, tensions exist even within the Han clergy. Anonymous sources allege that Jingkong (Chin Kung 净空), a well-known overseas monastic who claims to speak in the name of the Chinese tradition and has established a large following abroad and in China, has seen his writings condemned as “pornography” in 2019 (Wang Reference Yichi2020). Tensions within the BAC also broke out in the open with the downfall of its President Xuecheng 学诚 in 2018, following allegations of sexual misconduct (Johnson Reference Johnson2018).
The association has looked after the interests of the sangha and lay devotees since its founding in 1954, often against great odds. Most Buddhist monastics chose not to move outside China after 1949 and showed loyalty to the new regime (Xue 2009). That attitude did not serve them well, however: Buddhism went through what historian Hou Kunhong (2012) described as a stage of “calamity” for three decades. While full collectivization happened only in the late 1950s (Clarke Reference Clarke2017), the most zealous CCP cadres had earlier confiscated landed property of religious institutions to meet the state objectives of modernization, as documented by Jan Kiely (Reference Kiely, Kiely and Brooks Jessup2016) in the case of Suzhou. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the BAC faced near extinction, as much property was destroyed and monastics had to return to lay life, while lay followers were forced to hide their beliefs (Welch 1969). The pressure on Buddhists was disproportionately felt among Tibetan and Mongol minorities: Buddhism represented a key element of their social organization, and they viewed religious persecution by Red Guards in ethnic terms as an attack by the Han majority against minority nationalities. These disruptions did not last long, but they left a legacy of suspicion toward the CCP and the Han that never dissipated among Tibetans and Mongols (Woeser Reference Woeser2020).
After 1978, with the policy of economic reform and opening which favored foreign investment and support from overseas Chinese communities, the BAC began to recover. From 1980 until 2002, Zhao Puchu, a lay Buddhist, served as its director. Known for his organization of relief for refugees during the war of resistance against Japan, Zhao was one of the key founders of the Chinese Association for the Promotion of Democracy (CAPD) in 1945, a group that brought together intellectuals and CCP members (Ji Reference Zhe, Ownby, Goossaert and Zhe2017). One of the key themes that Zhao sought to develop as BAC president was demonstrating that Buddhism was compatible with socialism, a process that Ji (Reference Zhe2004) divided into three stages. First, in the early 1980s, the BAC promoted the idea of “combining Chan with agricultural work” (nong chan bingzhong 农禅并重), to ensure that monasteries would be self-reliant. Second, in the 1990s, as more monasteries reopened, traditional aspects of religious exchange revived, and lay followers made offerings in return for spiritual benefits, a practice known as “cultivating the good earth” (zhong futian 种福田) or “making merit” (zuo gongde 做功德). In the third stage, as many local governments sought to attract investment from abroad, the BAC emphasized the use of Buddhist cultural capital for tourism, under the slogan “culture builds the stage and the economy performs (wenhua datai, jingji changxi 文化搭台，经济唱戏)” (Chang Reference Kuei-min2016).
The above account of the close relationship between the CCP and the BAC does not deny that the latter has some agency, as Yoshiko Ashiwa (Reference Yoshiko, Yoshiko and Wank2009) demonstrated in her case study of Xiamen Buddhists: clerics, she showed, use existing institutions to preserve their autonomy. Although the BAC is subordinated to the state apparatus according to the mechanism described below, it shares with the CCP some concerns about influence from its competitors. Even if the BAC has become a powerful institution that can serve the state by rallying its followers behind the CCP – the essence of United Front work – it can also protect the interests of the Buddhist sangha against forces that can undermine its authority from within. For these tasks, lay and monastic Buddhist milieu (fojiaojie 佛教界) relied on many institutions. Hence, Buddhist academies developed for the training of monastics also served the social reproduction of the monastic orders (Ji Reference Zhe, Zhe, Fisher and Laliberté2019, 171). The householder groves (jushilin 居士林), where devotees meet for their religious practice and socialization, played a key role in the life of lay Chinese Buddhists. Destroyed at the time of Mao, these institutions have since been revived, according to Jessup (Reference Jessup, Kiely and Brook Jessup2016, 69). Other revived institutions include vegetarian restaurants, publishing houses, and merit societies (gongdehui 功德会) that provide relief to people in need. Simply because these groups can promote moral activism does not mean that lay Buddhists have built a social movement (Fisher Reference Fisher2017). These developments have all happened in the context of an unpredictable and potentially repressive legal system.
14.3 Constitutional Law in the PRC: Serving the CCP United Front Work
There is no constitutional law in the PRC that compares to what one observes in the West or in the liberal democratic societies of East Asia: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (Dowdle Reference Dowdle, García and Frankenberg2018). The CCP concept of rule of law, inherited from the experience of the former Soviet Union, also draws on ancient Chinese ideas of Legalism (fajia 法家), as distinct from the moral tenets of Confucianism (rujia 儒家). The CCP draws on the Legalist idea that the state ruler is supreme over the judiciary; this old idea fits nicely with the superimposed practice from the Soviet Union that assigned to the Communist Party the role of vanguard institution above the law (Li Reference Ling2015). Many aspects of social life, including religious beliefs and practices, are accordingly subjected to the paternalistic guidance of the Party. The basic political supremacy of the CCP has not changed in any fundamental way, even with legal reforms in recent decades. Mao had denounced constitutionalism as a bourgeois invention and deprived the Chinese judiciary of independence. Although the policy of economic reform and opening by Deng Xiaoping has led outsiders to believe that the CCP has relinquished totalitarian ambitions, it never gave up its authority in the realm of religious affairs. If anything, under Xi Jinping, the CCP regime is moving towards a new phase of control, as it seeks to nullify any restraining influence from constitutional law (Delisle Reference Delisle2017; Minzner Reference Minzner2015).
The weakness of constitutional law in China is rooted deep in its history, and the Buddhist tradition has only marginally influenced this development (Beydon Reference Beydon2015, 527ff.). Although the status of Buddhism, as a social force and as a religion, has changed over the course of centuries and imperial dynasties, the dominance of Confucianism and Legalism in the legal system endured until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), when reformers promoted the introduction of Western norms of constitutionalism in their project to modernize China (Piquet 2005). These attempts failed during the Republican era (1911–49) as the country was divided politically between different warring factions and suffering from the Japanese invasion; no central government had the will or the capacity to reform the legal system. Moreover, neither the concept of the rule of law derived from the Germanic–Roman legal code nor Common Law judicial thought managed to leave a good impression among Chinese patriots. Introduced in the treaty ports during the Qing Dynasty, Western legal forms were associated with the unequal treaties that protected the Western and Japanese privileges of extraterritoriality (Scully Reference Scully2000). It was only near the end of the Civil War, in 1947, that the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang 國民黨, or KMT) promulgated a constitution for the Republic of China (ROC). This green shoot of constitutionalism vanished from China after 1949 when the CCP took control and would be suspended for thirty-eight years in Taiwan, where the KMT relocated the ROC government. In the absence of constitutional law, the unfettered power of the state can impose its will on society. In the PRC, however, the state itself serves as an instrument for the CCP, an organization that sees itself as the vanguard of society, guiding all social forces, including religions.
Although internal reforms have erased some of the most extreme language used at the time of Mao, its charter still asserts that the CCP stands above the legal system enforced by the government (Holbig Reference Holbig2018). China’s system differs starkly from the legal regimes prevalent in Western societies and most other societies where the rule of law prevails: the state is not an impartial arbiter between different political factions, but an instrument in the service of the political line determined by the CCP. This conception of the law, implemented in the Soviet Union and other Leninist regimes (as well as by the fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany), found acceptance in the CCP because it resonated with some of the characteristics of China’s own legal system that had remained in place after the fall of the ancien régime in 1911: most importantly, the idea of a strong state led by a vanguard elite (Zheng Reference Qi2015). The CCP United Front represents a key instrument in that renewed assertiveness, both domestically and on the international stage.
Once the CCP gained power in 1949, it formalized the United Front with the creation of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference. That deliberative assembly included representatives of “people’s organizations” from a wide variety of sectors: broad categories of the population such as youth, women, and returned overseas Chinese; economic groups such as chambers of commerce, trade unions, and a variety of other associations, federations, and foundations representing different corporations and guilds (Sagild and Ahlers Reference Sagild and Ahlers2019). Our focus is on the religious component of the broader United Front. Although they remained committed to the view that religion would whither under socialism, CCP leaders initially avoided precipitous actions against religious believers during campaigns against “sects” and foreign missionaries, lest they oppose the new regime. To that end the CCP United Front sought to nurture “patriotic” religious leaders who were supportive of socialist ideals, and relied on them to ensure that they would obtain compliance with government directives from their followers (Wickeri Reference Wickeri2011). The Religious Affairs Bureau – which would later become SARA – and the BAC emerged in that context in 1954. That period of relative openness did not last long.
The failing attempt in 1954 at establishing constitutional law became increasingly apparent between 1956 and 1976. Meanwhile the United Front went into what Gerry Groot (Reference Groot2004) called its phase of “hibernation.” Religious associations had by then become targets of attacks by young “red guards,” and even after the peak years of the Cultural Revolution began to subside in 1969, the radical factions of the “Gang of Four” maintained their restrictions on religion. The period covered by these political vicissitudes may appear short, but the damage to a generation has proven enduring and long-lasting. The aging monastic leaders who had survived the political persecution found few successors, and it would take years before the BAC recovered lost ground. The political struggle initiated by Mao Zedong had led to the abolition of the 1954 Constitution and its replacement by the 1975 Constitution, which instituted the principle of the CCP as the paramount source of power. Although that document did not last more than three years, the 1978 Constitution, which brought back some of the elements of the more lenient 1954 Constitution, such as checks on executive power and guarantees for religious beliefs, maintained the principle that citizens must support CCP leadership and the socialist system.
After Deng took charge as paramount leader of the CCP, the new leadership revived the United Front and expanded the scope of its activities to include Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities. In 1982, the CCP enunciated “The basic viewpoint on the religious question during our country’s socialist period,” known as Document 19. This political statement spelled out the limits in which religious freedom can be exercised (Potter Reference Potter2003). The SARA resumed its duties as monitoring agency for all religious activities and the BAC reestablished itself as a key component of the apparatus of state control for Buddhism, albeit in a subordinate position. Under Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, the priority of the government was to deepen the policy of reform and opening. The CCP United Front, however, focused more openly on Taiwan, and it encouraged religious exchanges, along with trade, business, and tourism, to serve the goal of “re-unification.” This approach included the pilgrimage to the goddess Matsu, but also the humanitarian work of Taiwanese Buddhist associations across the Taiwan Strait. The strategy also included an effort to support the rebuilding of Buddhist temples. These efforts paid off, as Buddhist leaders rallied behind the regime in denouncing Falun Gong in 1999 (Tong Reference Tong2009). During the administration of Hu Jintao, the situation in Tibet became a major target of attention for the CCP United Front. Near the end of Hu’s tenure as CCP secretary-general in 2012, the United Front encouraged the development of charity by religious organizations to serve the public interest (cishan gongyi shiye 慈善公益事业), a policy which the BAC endorsed enthusiastically.
Under the instruction of the CCP Secretary-General Xi, the United Front again changed its approach vis-à-vis religion after 2014, when Xi expressed his wish to see Chinese religions becoming more “Chinese,” a goal that has left many people perplexed, since all the five recognized religions in China have been going through a process of acculturation for centuries (Cook Reference Cook2017). A speech in 2016 clarified further the meaning of this “Sinicization” (zhongguohua 中国化): religion must serve the interests of the state and the value of the CCP (Vermander Reference Vermander2019). In 2018, the CCP passed new regulations that implemented these ideas, with the incorporation of SARA under the umbrella of the CCP United Front (Joske Reference Jones2019). These policies reveal the wish of the party to monitor religious affairs more closely than ever before. Two aspects of this policy stand out. Firstly, the CCP reverted to a policy which was more hostile to religion in general, and seemed to target, in particular, Christians and Muslims. Secondly, the CCP redefined religions such as Buddhism and Daoism as “culture,” promoting them at the expense of the others.
The new reorganization of the CCP United Front deepens some of the trends observed under the administration of Hu. When Xi took power, SARA was divided into four bureaus, one for Buddhist and Daoist affairs; one for Christians; another for Muslims; and one for all the other types of religions inside or outside China about which the regime wanted to know. The incorporation of SARA’s four branches into the United Front suggests greater integration and coordination with its other key missions: communication with like-minded people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan (Third Bureau), and liaison with people among overseas Chinese (Ninth and Tenth Bureaus). Recent efforts by the CCP United Front to promote its interests on the international stage via the promotion of the BAC has added a layer of complexity to the issue of Buddhist institutions and constitutional law throughout contemporary societies. In the framework of its strategy of “soft power” to support the project of “One Belt One Road,” the CCP has promoted the transnational expansion of Chinese temples and sponsored the organization of international Buddhist meetings that serve to establish the presence of the BAC on the global stage (Raymond Reference Raymond2020). The next section looks at the achievements of the CCP in making Chinese Buddhism more visible.
14.4 From the World Fellowship of Buddhists to the World Buddhist Forum
The BAC stood little chance of being admitted into international Buddhist associations after its founding in 1954 and has faced difficulty for half a century. This exclusion rested on three rationales reinforcing each other: the context of the Cold War (1954–91); the influence of the BAROC (Buddhist Association of the Republic of China) in Buddhist international associations (Jones Reference Piquet1999); and the CCP’s continued insistence on rejecting the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama. During the Cold War, as recent evidence confirms, the US diplomacy service sought to enlist Southeast Asian Buddhists to support its policies against the PRC (Ford Reference Ford2017). In contrast to the PRC’s admission to the United Nations (UN) in 1971, the BAC had to wait another three decades before achieving the same feat in the major international Buddhist associations. The difficulties experienced by the BAC within the PRC through the end of the 1970s, which undermined its credibility to represent Chinese Buddhism, may explain this delayed admission.
Another causal factor behind the late recognition of the BAC may lie with the nature of the two most important international Buddhist organizations: the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB 2021a) and the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC 2021). Although both advertise their activities, there is little academic study in the English language about their activities (Schedneck Reference Schedneck2016). The WFB included mostly representatives of the Theravāda tradition, practiced by a minuscule minority in the PRC. And while the WBSC leadership includes a greater proportion of the Mahāyāna clergy than the WFB, a disproportionate number of them were based in Taiwan. As the latter endured a regime of martial law from 1949 to 1987 which limited freedom of expression, the independence of the BAROC from the government in Taipei may seem theoretical. However, as Jones (Reference Jones1996) showed, the BAROC clergy had agency and could defend the interests of Buddhists in Taiwan. Moreover, it had its own reasons to support the authoritarian regime in Taiwan: it shared with the KMT a hostility to the CCP regime and did not fear religious persecution under the culturally conservative Chiang Kai-shek. These facts, in their view, only added credibility to the BAROC claim of representing Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan.
The WFB, founded in 1950 in Colombo, relocated its permanent headquarters to Bangkok in 1969. Although based in the Theravāda world, since 1986, countries where the Mahāyāna tradition prevails have hosted most of its conferences (WFB 2021b). The BAC tried unsuccessfully to gain admission and asked for the first WFB conferences to exclude the delegation from Taiwan (Abbott Reference Abbott1966). The exclusion of the BAC from the WFB until then mirrored the exclusion of the PRC from the UN until 1971. The BAROC gained legitimacy in representing Chinese Buddhism when the BAC stopped activities in China from 1966 to 1978, but that position appeared vulnerable and open to challenge with the reform and opening policy that followed. The WBSC, also established in 1966 in Colombo and relocated in Taipei in 1981, stood out as primarily an association of monastics and their organizations. It worked to harmonize the three traditions of Mahāyāna, Theravāda, and Vajrayāna, and includes representatives from all traditions; its leadership counts a larger proportion of Taiwanese than the WFB, and its third, fifth, and seventh conferences were held in Taipei.
The admission of the PRC to the UN and the extension of diplomatic recognition by the US in 1979 did not lead to an improvement in the BAC situation within the international Buddhist organizations. More research needs to be done to fully understand why national Buddhist associations waited so long before agreeing to extend an invitation to the BAC to join them in international Buddhist organizations. The process took years, if not decades, after most of their governments extended recognition to the PRC. The opposition of the BAROC alone – although understandable – does not suffice to explain this delay. Certainly, the BAROC played a disproportionate role in the WBSC, but not in the WFB. The BAC’s staunch opposition to the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama, who is much respected by his peers, has certainly complicated relations between Buddhists from the PRC and their counterparts abroad, at least until 2008 (Repp Reference Repp2008). However, that motive does not suffice.
When Deng Xiaoping sought to open China to foreign investors, the revival of Christian institutions such as the YMCA and the Amity Press mattered more to the CCP than supporting Buddhist institutions because of the connections of Christian institutions to their counterparts in North America (Carino 2016). Showing good will toward religions sent a message that China was now open to international cooperation. That approach toward religion also affected Buddhism, although it was limited mostly to Japan and South Korea. This changed with the sixteenth WFB conference held in 1988. That event was remarkable for two reasons. Convened in Los Angeles, this was the first such conference held outside of Asia. Under the sponsorship of the Hsi Lai (literally “Coming to the West”) Temple, it resulted from the initiative of Hsing Yun, a Chinese monastic who had established in Southern Taiwan a major monastic order, the Buddha Light Mountain (Foguangshan) (Chandler Reference Chandler2004). This mattered to the BAC because Hsing Yun has never hidden his wish to promote Chinese Buddhism on the international stage. Moreover, although he did not express sympathy for the CCP, he shared with the latter an opposition to Taiwanese demands for self-determination.
The eighteenth general conference, held in 1992, took place in Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, also under the cosponsorship of Foguangshan. In the same year, another event occurred that went unnoticed outside of Taiwan, but with significance to relations with China and the future of Buddhism in that country. The Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest philanthropical organization in Taiwan, received from the CCP the authorization to deliver relief to victims of flooding in eastern China that year, and to contribute to the rehabilitation of villages. This case of relative openness represented an example of CCP United Front work directed at the Taiwanese, promoting the idea of “reunification” with China (Laliberté Reference Laliberté2003). Despite these cases of rapprochement between Chinese and Taiwanese Buddhists, the exclusion of the BAC from the WFB remained in place. As the WFB organized its events without it, the BAC sought to work around its exclusion from Buddhist international associations by creating its own international institution, the World Buddhist Forum (WBF), with an international conference held every three years (Ramachandran Reference Ramachandran2019).
In 2006, the Religious Culture Communication Association of China, a CCP United Front organization, worked with the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, and two prominent Buddhist leaders in Taiwan, Hsing Yun and Wei Chueh, to set up the first WBF in the province of Zhejiang, the first religious event of its kind since the establishment of the PRC (Zongwen Reference Zongwen2006). The second WBF, held three years later in both China and Taiwan, promoted a CCP priority: the “re-unification” between China and Taiwan at a time when the political climate in Taipei seemed to favor that possibility. However, the United Front work achieved mixed results, as Taiwanese Buddhists preferred to leverage their own networks to serve broader interests outside the PRC (Brown and Cheng Reference Brown and Tun-jen2012). Held in 2012, the third WBF showcased the eleventh Panchen Lama, promoting the CCP preference for the spiritual leadership of Tibetan Buddhism. Held in Hong Kong, that conference suffered from the same limitation as the previous ones: it was a China-centric event, with limited international participation that went unnoticed outside the Sinosphere (Xinhua 2012). Even as the United Front has shifted again to a new strategy directed at other genuinely international Buddhist associations, the global landscape of Buddhism has become more complicated: in addition to the WFB and WBSC, a new association has emerged in New Delhi, the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC 2021).
The IBC, which began in 2010, resulted from the initiative of an Indian monastic, Lama Lobsang. Convening for the first time in 2013, the IBC could not benefit from the Indian government’s patronage, because of the Indian state’s constitutional (if not actual) commitment to secularism. However, with the arrival into power of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adopted a strategy that mirrors the United Front’s, promoting events such as the IBC meetings on Indian soil, as examples of Indian “soft power” projection in the international arena (Ranade Reference Ranade2017). For the CCP, the IBC represented the same problem as the WSBC: its governing structure included monastics from associations that were politically close to governments whose relations with China were difficult. Moreover, the participation of the Dalai Lama made the participation of any member of the BAC problematic. In the same year, however, the United Front efforts to ensure the BAC joins the WFB finally bore fruit: not only was the BAC admitted into the WFB, but the latter met for the first time in the PRC (Ma & Liang 2014).
When the fourth WBF convened again in Wuxi in 2015, it had lost one of its main raisons d’être because the situation in Taiwan the year before had taken a turn less favorable to the CCP, following popular rejection of a cross-strait service trade agreement between Taiwan and China submitted by the KMT (Ho Reference Ming-shi2019). When the WBF convened for the fifth time in Putian, Fujian, three years later, it experienced a confirmation of these setbacks (Xinhua 2018). The Taiwanese general election held in 2016 had brought to power Tsai Ying-wen and delivered most of the seats in the legislature to the party led by her, the Democratic Progressive Party, whose policy opposes PRC rule over Taiwan. The WBF promoters have not issued any announcement about a sixth meeting in 2021; it is unclear if this is because the CCP has realized that the organization has lost its purpose, or because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Likewise, the other major venue through which the PRC could perform its “religious diplomacy,” the WFB, did not meet in 2020, and had no plans to meet in 2021.
14.5 Interpreting the Significance for Buddhists Worldwide of the BAC “Going out of China”
Why would the CCP choose to rely on Buddhism for its “soft power”? The CCP recognizes the growing relevance of religion in global affairs – not necessarily in China itself, but abroad. In the current nationalist turn of the Chinese government, Christianity – whether Protestant or Catholic – has no appeal for the regime: the evidence of its presence in China evokes the “century of humiliation.” Moreover, many Chinese political dissidents have over the years converted to Christianity and attracted the sympathy of foreign governments (Wright and Zimmerman-Liu 2015). Islam presents the regime with a thorny dilemma: on the one hand, the supply to China of energy from Muslim-majority countries may lead one to believe that the CCP would seek to cultivate the goodwill of Islamic countries by promoting an image of good relations with Islamic minorities within the country. On the other hand, the security concerns of the regime, whether they are real or manufactured (as a justification ex post facto for its policies targeting the Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs) appear to trump the wish to cultivate good relations with Islamic regimes. Daoism is a less valuable asset than Buddhism for a different reason: apart from ethnic Chinese minorities living overseas, few people outside China practice that religion.
When the CCP acknowledges the international influence of Buddhism, it can harness the importance of that religion in neighboring countries, as seen above, as well as its popularity for many other people living outside Asia. These include not only those with Chinese heritage, but also others disenchanted with their own religious tradition who are seeking answers in their search for meaning (Scott Reference Scott2016). Moreover, from the perspective of the CCP leaders who have a more nationalist orientation, the authorities can evoke important precedents in Chinese history, for example when Buddhism constituted a crucial element of governance during the two “foreign dynasties.” In those periods, the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) and the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty, who had maintained good relations with Buddhist clerics, incorporated into one realm the people of Central Asia alongside the Chinese. Although the patronage of Buddhist monastic hierarchies under the Yuan and the Qing favored Tibetan and Mongol Buddhists and not the Han Chinese hierarchies, the present regime nevertheless relies on these historical precedents to reinforce its legitimacy in international fora.
For three decades after 1949, the multi-denominational composition of the BAC leadership structure suggests that the CCP recognized the legacy bequeathed to the Republican regime by the imperial regime. Under Mao and his successor Deng, a sizable proportion of the leaders of the BAC were still representing the Tibetan tradition. Under the two more recent administrations of Jiang and Hu, however, the BAC has moved away from that, with the voices of Tibetan Buddhism within its leadership structure increasingly drowned out by those of the Han tradition. To what extent this reflects the tense relations between the Han central government and the restive Tibetan minority in the Greater Tibetan area is not clear. There could also be another rationale: Mahāyāna Buddhist leaders have worked hard since 1995 to improve relations between China, Japan, and South Korea (Zhang Reference Zhang2012, 28; Yang and Cheng Reference Zeng-wen and Cheng2010).
In more recent years, many in the CCP would certainly welcome a “softening” of PRC diplomacy at a time when “warrior diplomacy” has put off many governments and people around the world (Martin Reference Xiaojun and Jun2021). However, a few obstacles stand in the way of this strategy of “soft power” through Buddhist diplomacy. In Western societies particularly, most people know little about the Chinese Buddhist tradition, but many are already familiar with the leaders of the Tibetan, Japanese, or even Theravāda traditions. Many in the West who already associate the Buddhist tradition with a message of peace and non-violence attribute those qualities to the Dalai Lama, and they have not failed to notice that the CCP has targeted him for decades. The strategy of the CCP on this matter has backfired. Unless the CCP ceases the rhetoric that demonizes the Tibetan leader in exile and unless the BAC demonstrates a sincere attempt to enter into dialogue with him, it will be difficult to convince outsiders in the West of its goodwill.
The United Front reliance on the BAC also faces some serious limitations in Asian countries, on several grounds. A major obstacle to overcome is the tarnishing of Buddhism by the violent actions of extremist leaders such as Ashin Wirathu in Burma and movements such as the Bodu Bala Sēnā in Sri Lanka (Keyes Reference Keyes2016; Reny Reference Reny2020), that claim to defend their religion against its enemies. These movements have little to do with the CCP, but they matter to its United Front strategy with the BAC, as it targets societies where most of the population is Buddhist. These movements horrify democratic societies, and engagement with them may cancel out the effectiveness of any projection of soft power by the PRC via the BAC on the global stage. One way to preempt such an outcome would be to take a principled stand and publicly speak out against extremist violence. However, the BAC abides by the CCP principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs and has so far kept quiet.
Of course, the political leanings of Buddhists in Southeast Asia are diverse. Without denying there are hyper-nationalist movements, pro-democratic and non-violent groups have arisen in the region, which are associated informally in what scholars have defined as engaged Buddhism (Sivaraksa Reference Sivaraksa2005; Queen and King 1996). New groups of Buddhist democratic activists, such as the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance founded by U Nat Zaw have also emerged (Lehr Reference Lehr2019). As targets of authoritarian regimes themselves, these Buddhists are not likely to support the BAC because of its close relationship with a regime that is an accomplice to their tormentors. Although the differences between the schools are not sources of conflict in the way sectarian differences can be between Christian denominations and the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam, it is not clear how Buddhists in Theravāda countries view China, considering the minority and marginal status of Theravāda in China (Yang Reference Zi2017).
The CCP United Front must also overcome formidable obstacles in societies where most Buddhists identify with the Mahāyāna tradition in East Asia. As religious minorities in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Buddhists in these three countries are unlikely to sway most of the population to their side. Moreover, reflective of the political pluralism that prevails there, no government-licensed corporation holds a monopoly on the representation of Buddhists, which means that there is competition between Buddhist leaders and their followers (Watts Reference Watts and Jonathan2004; Nathan Reference Nathan and Jerryson2017; Laliberté Reference Laliberté2004). In other words, even if the BAC were successful in swaying a national Buddhist association’s leadership to espouse the policies of the CCP, its rank-and-file members may not follow suit. For instance, although the monastic Hsing Yun, founder of the popular Taiwan-based Buddha Light International Association promotes the improvement of relations with China, aligning him with some high-ranking members of the KMT and allied political parties, many lay Buddhists in the same association do not agree with the views of their leaders on matters of politics.
If the CCP were to succeed in overcoming these obstacles and bringing into a United Front the BAC and other national Buddhist associations in countries with Buddhist majorities to influence their respective governments, the international community would face a serious conundrum. Such a convergence could reinforce trends already unfolding in most of Southeast Asia, where authoritarian governments either support the PRC as a fellow authoritarian regime or depend on its promise of developmental support (Soong Reference Jenn-Jaw2018). As demonstrated by the deafening silence of many authoritarian governments in Muslim-majority countries over the genocide committed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Kelemen and Turcsányi Reference Kelemen and Turcsányi2020), we should not be surprised if the authoritarian governments of countries where most people identify as Buddhists support the PRC policy against the Dalai Lama. Buddhist actors who seek to shape, interpret, and reformulate constitutional law in their respective countries based on their spiritual tradition will have to keep in mind that the international organizations that represent them face the prospect of being influenced by a fellow Buddhist association, one that cannot come close to achieving that in its own country.
There is even a risk that Buddhists in Southeast Asia who want cooperation with their Chinese counterparts may have to fulfill some conditions. One telling example, taken from Buddhists in Canada, gives us a sense of what is in store. Even though Canada is a country where the rule of law prevails and Buddhists can express their views without fear of retribution, key actors in that milieu have shown remarkable deference to the CCP United Front perspective that “there is one China in the world” and that “Taiwan is part of China.” Hence, the online directory of the Canadian Buddhist associations, which numbers over 450 associations and groups them by national origins, ranks branches of Taiwanese associations in Canadian cities as Chinese, mirroring the practice that the PRC is imposing on governments, international organizations, private corporations, and even civil society organizations (Sumeru n.d.). If Canadian Buddhists fear upsetting the CCP United Front on a matter such as the sovereignty of Taiwan, there is little reason to believe that Buddhists in countries more dependent on China’s largesse will be more assertive in the affirmation of their own views.
What are the implications of the above for constitutional law? Different Buddhist traditions have shaped and influenced the legal systems of the countries in which they have evolved but China stands out from its neighbors in that respect: although Buddhism represents a vital element of its religious tradition, philosophy, and culture writ large, it has left no important trace on its legal system, let alone its constitutional law. Constitutionalism – or more specifically the idea of an independent judiciary – has been declared one of the seven forbidden topics that Chinese academics should not address, following orders issued by the General Office of the CCP Central Committee to institutes of higher education in 2013 (the others are universal values, press freedom, civil society, civic rights, historical mistakes by the CCP, and elite cronyism). Since the establishment of the PRC, Buddhist elites have failed to leave a mark on the evolution of constitutionalism, leaving the field open to “rights protection lawyers” (weiquan lushi 维权律师) and other legal activists – many of whom, such as Gao Zhisheng 高智晟, are Christians (Xi Reference Lian2013). The promotion by the CCP of Buddhism in a variety of international associations does not mean a new-found appreciation for religion, but a return to a purely instrumentalist strategy of using a United Front work to convince Buddhists in Southeast Asia that they share the same ideals as the CCP for harmonious coexistence, peace, and development. Human rights and self-determination are improper topics in that kind of “dialogue.” In democratic and open societies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the public can see through the ulterior motives behind the projection of “sharp power” by the Chinese state. On the other hand, the non-democratic regimes in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos, prone to soliciting the acquiescence, if not the legitimation, provided by Buddhist monastic orders in their own countries, may welcome this source of support from a Buddhist association sponsored by a fellow authoritarian state. Buddhist actors who seek to shape, interpret, and reformulate constitutional law in their respective countries will have to come to terms with the reality of a fellow Buddhist association that may wield considerable influence abroad if its sponsors support it, but little capacity to push back at home if it wants to express dissent.
15.1 The Case of Inner Mongolia in the Study of Buddhism and LawFootnote 1
Since Rebecca French declared Buddhist legal studies a “missing discipline” in 2004, this interdisciplinary subfield has been slowly but surely growing. However, as Benjamin Schonthal and Tom Ginsburg have pointed out, most of these advances focus on the ancient, premodern, and early modern periods, and on Buddhists sources relating to Buddhist conduct (Schonthal and Ginsburg Reference Schonthal and Ginsburg2016). This chapter addresses this gap in the “missing discipline” by focussing on the state regulations of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia in the early twentieth century.
The early twentieth-century regimes considered in this chapter are the Republic of China (1912–49), the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo (1932–45), and the Mengjiang United Autonomous Government (1939–45). These three modern states competed to make claims of sovereignty over Inner Mongolia, the southern half of Qing-era Mongolia after the northern half (Outer Mongolia) declared independence under the Bogda KhanFootnote 2 government in 1911. Under the leadership of Bogda Khan, who was also the Eighth Jebtsundamba KhutugtuFootnote 3 (1870–1924), Outer Mongolia operated as a theocratic state until the establishment of the socialist Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924.Footnote 4 Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, never became politically independent and was subject to the influences of the competing nation-building and empire-building projects of modern China and the Japanese empire. This period between the fall of the Qing empire (1912) and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949) was formative not only for the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as we know it today, but also for the state regulations of Buddhism in the region. During this period, Chinese and Japanese policymakers considered the Buddhist tradition in Inner Mongolia as ethnically and geopolitically relevant for their frontier policies. In the same way that Buddhism was understood to be the solution to the “Tibetan Problem” for the Republic of China (Tuttle Reference Tuttle2005, 11), Buddhism was also taken as the key to winning the support of Inner Mongolia and beyond for nation-building and empire-building projects.
This chapter argues that early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia makes a fascinating case for the study of Buddhism and law in the modern East Asian context because it was governed by multiple states and empires, which drew upon parallel and overlapping policies toward Buddhism as part of their competing projects of nation-state construction and imperialism. As a religion that is neither fully foreign nor domestic for the Chinese and Japanese policymakers, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia also provides an important case study for the understanding of how religions on the “ethnic frontier” were understood and governed by modern East Asian nation-states that were built on ethno-nationalist foundations. While Buddhism and law in Asia is often discussed in national terms, the Inner Mongolia case exposes the fact that different legal structures sometimes exist for people of different ethnic groups belonging to different Buddhist traditions living under one nation or empire, and that legal practices directed at the peripheries may look very different from those directed at the center.
One reflection of this distinctive context is that the terms used to discuss Buddhism in Inner Mongolia in the legal discourses of the Republic of China, Manchukuo, and Mengjiang were not fojiao or bukkyō, terms more commonly used to refer to Buddhism in the Chinese and Japanese languages. Instead, the type of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was mostly referred to as “Lamaism” (C: lamajiao; J: ramakyō),Footnote 5 or sometimes as “Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhism” (C: mengzang fojiao), or “Manchu-Mongolian Buddhism” (J: manmō bukkyō).Footnote 6 In contrast to the Buddhist traditions of China and Japan, “Lamaism” was understood as spatially, temporally, racially, and morally distinct in the legal languages of these modern East Asian states. More specifically speaking, “Lamaism” was imagined to be an “exotic” Buddhism practiced by ethnic groups on the “frontiers” of nations and empires built on Sinocentric and Japan-centric foundations. “Lamaism,” with its maintenance of the reincarnated lamas and traditional monasticism, was deemed “backwards,” “superstitious,” and even morally “degenerate” for the modern nation-state, when compared to Chinese and Japanese Buddhism that had been open to modern reforms.
Situating this “Lamaism” on a spatial and temporal frontier, the legal practices of the three modern states of Republican China, Manchukuo, and Mengjiang aimed to exploit Buddhism in Inner Mongolia for their multiethnic nation-building and empire-building projects and strived to discipline the religion as a political-economic issue that needed to be depoliticized, modernized, and reformed. On the one hand, these three modern states supported Buddhism and the tulku system of reincarnated lamas under “religious freedom” legislated in their constitutions and emphasized Buddhism as a commonly shared heritage that could link culturally diverse regions in post-Qing Inner and East Asia together into new modern nation-states. In these discourses, the three modern states would replace the Manchu rulers of the Qing empire as the new patrons in the priest–patron relationship with the tulkus of Inner Mongolia. These renewed alliances would not only help justify the three modern states’ claims over disputed land on the “frontiers” of post-Qing Inner Mongolia, but they would also help to create coalitions to combat Soviet influences and Euro-American imperialism.
On the other hand, in the actual articles of the regulations, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was governed and disciplined as a political-economic issue. Politically, “Lamaism” in Inner Mongolia and the substantial authority of its tulku system was deemed inappropriate for the modern states that operated on centralized power. Thus, monastic involvement in politics was restricted in legislations that attempted to challenge existing Buddhist structures. The management of monastic affairs, such as reincarnations and monastic exams, became centralized, and monastic organizations were restructured with new centers of authority. Economically, “Lamaist” monasticism in Inner Mongolia was understood to be one of the major causes of the decline in population in the region and the culprit for the shrinkage of prime-age male labor forces. Laws were thus created to curb the growth of monasticism so that an “unproductive” male population could be redirected toward more economically “productive” endeavors. It also became necessary for monastic assets, such as land, property, monastic population, and lay subjects, to be regularly registered with and surveilled by the central governments.
This rather contradictory promotion and limitation of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia in the laws of the Republic of China, Manchukuo, and Mengjiang shows that instead of completely revoking the Qing policies on Buddhism among the Mongols, the modern East Asian states chose to maintain a certain kind of continuity with Qing-era practices so that they could continue to make claims of sovereignty over Qing-occupied territories. As Gray Tuttle has argued for modern Tibet, the Inner Mongolia case examined in this chapter also shows us that religion can serve as “a crucial link between the social organization of dynastic empire and that of the nation-state” (Reference Tuttle2005, 3). The Inner Mongolia case examined in this chapter demonstrates that Buddhism indeed served as a “crucial link” through which the three modern East Asian states competed to make sense of remnant ethnopolitical, economic, and labor structures from the Qing era. This formative period between the fall of the Qing to the end of World War II eventually established a legacy of governance and legal precedents on which the People’s Republic of China’s frontier policies would be built later.
15.2 Buddhism in Inner Mongolia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Similar to Tibet, Inner Mongolia at the turn of the twentieth century was a significantly Buddhist society. Toward the end of the Qing era, there were around 1,600 monasteries and temples and 100,000 Buddhist monks in the region, which comprised around 10 percent of the entire male population (Delege Reference Delege1998, 452). In certain regions, this percentage was even higher: in the Xilingol League, for example, in the 1940s the total monastic population was 20 percent of the entire population in the region and 42 percent of the entire male population (Delege Reference Delege1998, 219). On the steppes of Inner Mongolia, where life remained largely nomadic for centuries, Buddhist monasteries were often the only architectural structures that dotted the landscape. Many of the larger monastic institutions also functioned as colleges that taught languages, medicine, and astrology. For centuries, monasteries in these regions of Mongolia were the sole providers of education, health care, and social mobility.
In Inner Mongolia, as was in the case of Tibet, Buddhism was intimately linked with political power. Since the second conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism in the late sixteenth century, Mongolian society operated under the principle of dual law (qoyar yosu, Tib., lugs gnyis), which maintained that both the state and the Buddha Dharma were fundamental sources of spiritual refuge and the most sacred domains of one’s social duties (Wallace Reference Wallace, French and Nathan2014, 321). This principle of dual law was said to have originated in India and refers to the conjoining of Dharma and rule (Tib., chos srid zun ‘brel) and the sharing of authority between religion and the state. Buddhist teachings and state laws were regarded as complementary and equal, occupying distinct social domains. However, under certain circumstances one or the other could be regarded as preeminent, and in some cases both orders could be concentrated in a single person (Ruegg Reference Ruegg and Piliavsky2014, 68). Under this principle, both the Buddha Dharma and the state would endure as long as they continued to be consolidated and interdependent; conversely, crimes committed against either the state or Buddhism entailed serious karmic consequences (Wallace Reference Wallace, French and Nathan2014, 321). This system of dual law encouraged the formation of priest–patron relationships between powerful rulers and monastic networks not only in Inner Mongolia, but all across Inner Asia.Footnote 7 In this relationship, the lama, especially incarnate ones, served as the donee (takhil-un oron, Tib., mchod gnas), while the state ruler served as the donor (öglige-yin ejen, Tib., yon bdag). The lama offered religious teachings and spiritual protection for the state, and the state ruler promised to defend monastic properties and the socioeconomic privileges of the lamas. In this arrangement, offenses committed against the state entailed serious karmic consequences; on the other hand, the state also had the duty to regulate the conduct of the monastic community and their interactions with lay communities and state authorities (Wallace Reference Wallace, French and Nathan2014, 324).
Economically, Buddhist institutions in the Mongolian regions in the Qing period also possessed enormous wealth. Monasteries, especially the larger ones, and the incarnate lamas received sizeable incomes through donations and contributions from elite patrons and shabinar – lay disciples and subjects of a monastery, or a reincarnated lama. The shabinar were required to pay services, such as corvee labor to maintain temples and monasteries, as well as taxes in kind and in currency (Moses Reference Narangoa1977, 131–32). For example, in 1918, the Eighth Jebtsundampa Khutugtu had 8,833 shabinar families, 21,180 lamas, for a total of 49,878 individuals under his jurisdiction (Moses Reference Narangoa1977, 127). The annual tax income from the shabinar subjects alone for the Jebtsundamba ranged from 500,000 to one million lansFootnote 8 of silver per year (Moses Reference Narangoa1977, 132). The total wealth of the Jebtsundamba’s personal estate was estimated at 57 million gold rubles or one fifth of the total wealth of Outer Mongolia in 1921 (Moses Reference Narangoa1977, 125). Although the khutugtus of Inner Mongolia were not as wealthy as the Eighth Jebtundamba at the turn of the twentieth century, they similarly received significant donations and contributions from patrons and shabinar subjects, in addition to accumulating wealth from herds, land, land rentals, and money lending (Miller Reference Miller1959, 97–105). For example, in some regions of Inner Mongolia, such as in the Jalaid banner,Footnote 9 the lamas (4 percent of the population) reportedly held 7 percent to 23 percent of the cattle and horses in the entire banner (Miller Reference Miller1959, 116). Monasteries in the Kharachin banner alone were able to collect at least 100 million wenFootnote 10 from their hundreds of qingFootnote 11 of leased land in 1835 (Huricha Reference Huricha2013, 230). Being the only permanent structures on the vast steppes in Inner Mongolia also allowed the monasteries to become trade centers and key economic hubs. Often located on major trade routes, the monasteries held regular fairs where markets, trade, and large-scale public rituals took place (Miller Reference Miller1959, 109; Huricha Reference Huricha2009, 202–3).
Therefore, to say that Buddhism was a formidable political, social, and economic force in Inner Mongolia at the turn of the twentieth century is an understatement. The power of the tradition of dual law and the influence of Buddhist economy in both local and transregional terms was not lost on the modern states and empires in the post-Qing that were vying to gain control of the region for their nation-building and empire-building projects. It is their attempts at governing the powerful Buddhist institution in Inner Mongolia that is the focus of this chapter.
15.3 Qing Regulation of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia
Prior to the twentieth century, Mongolian society operated under a kind of legal pluralism in addition to the dual law tradition that allowed the regulation of Buddhism to be managed from afar, regionally, and within specific monastic settings. In the Yuan period (1271–1368), the administration of local religious affairs in the empire was delegated by the Khan to Tibetan clerics (Barrett Reference Barrett, French and Nathan2014, 214). After the second conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism in the late sixteenth century, multiple types of laws were instituted within Mongolian territories to regulate Buddhism, including banner laws, state laws, the laws of individual monasteries, and the laws of governing the Great Shabi (Ikh Shav’), the personal estate of the Jebtsundamba Khutugtus (Wallace Reference Wallace, French and Nathan2014, 320). Buddhist monasteries, especially the large network of Geluk Buddhist monasteries in Inner Mongolia, also had their own internal monastic regulations in the form of bca’ yig, or monastic constitutions that instituted administrative procedures, curricula, and financial protocols, among other things.Footnote 12
During the Qing period, Mongolia was understood by the Mongols to be a constituent realm or ulus within the Qing empire that existed not as a part of but alongside China (Khitad) and Tibet (Töbed), so in this view, Mongolia had its distinctive way of life and government system that the Manchu Qing rulers preserved and nourished (Atwood Reference Atwood2002, 37–38). Governed separately from the rest of Qing China, Buddhist affairs in Mongolia were regulated from Beijing by the Lifanyuan, or the Court of Colonial Affairs that oversaw issues of the Qing Empire’s frontiers. In governing Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, the Lifanyuan acted on behalf of the Manchu emperors in the dual law structure and was mostly responsible for codifying and promulgating regulations that were intended to bind all Buddhist monastics throughout Mongolia. Among other things, these regulations established administrative posts for monasteries, managed their salary schedules, handled requests that the emperor grant a name to a temple or contribute toward a temple’s repair, planned visits of high-level lamas to the capital, regulated pilgrimages, prohibited certain groups of Mongols from becoming lamas, and restricted the right of lamas to be buried at the sacred site of Mount Wutai (Miller Reference Miller1959, 76). The Lifanyuan also managed the titles and positions of prominent Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist monastics, and even prevented high-level incarnate lamas from being identified among the Mongols, in order to curb their influence, although Mongolian incarnate lamas became more common in the late Qing (Atwood Reference Atwood2002, 36). As we will see in the next paragraphs, the regulation of Buddhism in the post-Qing attempted to preserve and maintain these Qing-era policies based on the dual law and priest–patron arrangements before more intrusive reforms were introduced.
15.4 Republican China’s Regulations of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia
With the fall of the Qing empire in 1912, the Lifanyuan was abolished. Taking its place to govern the religious affairs of Inner Mongolia was the Mengzangju (Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Bureau) of the Republic of China, which was later reorganized into the Mengzangyuan (Mongolian and Tibetan Ministry) in 1914 (Lin Reference Lin2006, 32). This time, instead of a government agency managing the affairs of the Mongols and the Tibetans for the multicultural Manchu Qing empire, the Mengzangju and Mengzangyuan were agencies that served a modern nation-state built on Sun Yat-sen’s vision of “Five Races Under One Union” (wuzu gonghe). Under this vision, the Republic of China connoted a single nation formed through the union of the Han Chinese, the Manchus, the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Muslims. Unlike the Qing Manchus that had created racial hierarchies that placed themselves at the top, the Republic of China pledged to treat all five races as equal before the law, eliminate any special status, and represent all five races in the new parliament (Atwood Reference Atwood2002, 39). However, in practice, the new Republic did not dare to eliminate the special ethno-legal statuses that these different ethnic groups had enjoyed under Qing rule (Atwood Reference Atwood2002, 40). To woo the support of the Inner Mongolia nobility, the President of the Republic, Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), maintained the privileges that the Mongol nobles had enjoyed in the Qing period, increased their salaries, and gave them prestigious posts in the capital (Atwood Reference Atwood2002, 40). For high-ranking Buddhist lamas, the same strategy of preserving Qing-era treatment was deployed (Boyan Mandu Reference Mandu1979, 109).
On the other hand, the new Republic was also aware of the large monastic presence in Inner Mongolia, which posed potential threats to the central authority and placed economic strain on the nation. Considering this, members of the Mengzangyuan, or the Mongolian and Tibetan Ministry, proposed the “Legislation for Limiting Mongols on Becoming Lamas”Footnote 13 in 1924. The six-article document proposed to prohibit the only child or the sole living heir of any given family from joining the Buddhist monastic order. Parents of children who did not wish to join the monastic order would be unable to force their children to become lamas, especially when they were underage. Those who wished to join the monastic order were required to report to their banner officials first and could only be ordained if the banner leaders had found that none of the articles had been violated (Mengzangyuan Reference Mengzangyuan1924, 43). This proposal expressed concern over the decline of the Mongols since the Qing and the decrease in population due the growth of Buddhist monasticism, and it argued that Buddhist monasticism must be limited if the Mongolian population was to bounce back (Mengzangyuan Reference Mengzangyuan1924, 42–43). A report carried out by the Mengzangyuan revealed that the proposal gained unanimous support within the Ministry, even though the Republic of China’s Constitution at the time promised freedom of religion. On this point, the report explains that although the twelfth article of the Constitution of the Republic of China promised freedom of religion to its citizens, this proposed legislation was based on “the utmost of good intentions,”Footnote 14 because it was aimed at preventing a further decrease in the Mongolian population (Mengzangyuan Reference Mengzangyuan1924, 44–45). The report also reminded members of the Ministry to “not openly limit” monasticism and instead use the words of “respect and support” (Mengzangyuan Reference Mengzangyuan1924, 45).Footnote 15
Similar limitations were imposed on Buddhist monasticism in Inner Mongolia when the Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-shek was established, ushering in a period of political tutelage beginning in 1928. One of the first things that the Kuomintang (KMT) did when they came to power was to divide the central part of Inner Mongolia into the four new provinces of Rehe (Jehol), Chahar, Suiyuan, and Ningxia. Other Mongol regions were then incorporated into the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin (Lin Reference Lin2006, 25). On this disfiguration of Inner Mongolia under the KMT, Hsiao-ting Lin writes, “The newly established provincial boundary cut ruthlessly across the traditional Mongol tribal and league or banner boundaries, contributing further to the Mongols’ disunity and facilitating their ultimate colonization by the Han Chinese” (Reference Lin2006, 25).
Unlike the treatment of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia during the Yuan Shikai period, the state regulation of Buddhism in the Republic of China after the KMT came into power was more intrusive. Buddhist affairs were managed by the Mengzang weiyuanhui (Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, MTAC), which had to approve most decisions, such as the appointment of important lamas’ reincarnations, the granting of monastic certifications, and the handling of shabinar. In June 1931, the KMT government issued the “Statutes for the Supervision of Mongolian Lama Monasteries”Footnote 16 where it stated that all “Lama” monasteries in Inner Mongolia must release all shabinarFootnote 17 from monastic possessions and that all monasteries report their registers and budgets annually to the MTAC (Wuliji Reference Taogetao2015, 300–1). In December 1935, the “Statutes for the Management of Lama Monasteries”Footnote 18 were announced by the Republican government. The statutes further required all “Lamaist” monasteries and lamas to register with the MTAC, and stipulated that only the reincarnation identifications, appointments, and remunerations approved by the MTAC would be recognized (Zhongguo di’er lishi dang’an guan 1994, 13). In a supplementary directive to the statutes announced in January 1936 and entitled, “Measures for the Awards and Punishments of Lamas,”Footnote 19 lamas were rewarded with elevated titles and monetary prizes if “meritorious services”Footnote 20 were performed for the nation, and were punished through forced secularization, demotion of titles, and monetary fines if they did not register with the MTAC as prescribed (Zhongguo di’er lishi dang’an guan 1994, 14–16).
It is unclear whether these Republican Chinese regulations were enforced on the ground. Scholars of the Republic of China, such as Hsiao-ting Lin, have pointed out that it should not be assumed that Chiang Kai-shek’s asserted policies on China’s frontier and minority affairs reflected what he and his regime intended to achieve, especially given the fact that the Nationalist Government, which emerged as a localized regime in Nanking, only had alleged authority over the vast border regions of Qing China (Lin Reference Lin2006, 32). Lin argues that the KMT’s assertion of sovereignty over the frontier was based on a political imagination that was engineered to maintain its nationalist façade and legitimacy (Lin Reference Lin2006, 13). In fact, Lin reminds us that frontier policies were more important for internal power struggles within the Nationalist Party and that “regional militarists and politicians also capitalized on frontier and ethnopolitical issues to criticize and oppose their political enemies in Nanking” (Lin Reference Lin2006, 32). In any case, the regulation of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia merged with a much broader set of political goals emanating from Nanking, namely, to create the impression of taming the frontier in order to consolidate the nation.
15.5 Manchukuo Regulations of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia
While Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was being regulated in the laws of the Republic of China, the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo and Mengjiang were also drafting competing regulations of Buddhism for the area under their control. Although Manchukuo encompassed most of northeast China, a significant Mongol population lived in the eastern part of the state, especially the Xing’an Province, which the Republic of China also claimed for itself. According to a 1940s study, the Xing’an region included 32 percent of the geographical area of Manchukuo and contained 64 percent of the Mongol population in all of Manchukuo (Qi Reference Qi2016, 14). Connecting Manchukuo with the Soviet Union, Outer Mongolia, and the northern part of the Republic of China, the Xing’an region was considered to be geopolitically critical to Manchukuo and the “lifeline” (J: seimeisen) of the Japanese Empire. In this crucial region, the presence of Mongolian Buddhism was dominant. Official statistics from the Manchukuo government records 29,697 lamas and 985 Buddhist monasteries in the region in the 1940s (Manzhou diguo zhengfu Reference zhengfu1969, 830). A total of 61 percentFootnote 21 of these lamas were located in the Xing’an area alone (Manzhou diguo zhengfu Reference zhengfu1969, 828–29).
In contrast to Republican Chinese laws, Manchukuo regulations of Buddhism in its Mongol regions attempted to separate Buddhism from political activities to reform Buddhist monasticism and to create transnational Buddhist organizations and education programs. Nine months after the creation of Manchukuo, in December 1932, the Xing’an Provincial government issued a directive called “On the Prohibition of Lamas’ Involvement in Politics.”Footnote 22 This directive stated that the practice of dual law in the Inner Asian Buddhist tradition was incompatible with the new nation-state of Manchukuo, which was built on the foundations of “scientific development”Footnote 23 (Guowuyuan fazhichu Reference fazhichu1936, 2).Footnote 24 The directive recognized that although religion (C: zongjiao, J: shūkyō) offered moral teachings and bonded people for the unity of societies, it had only been necessary in the past when humanity was “ignorant,”Footnote 25 and lacked the organizational units of families and nations (C: jiaguo, J: kakoku). With the establishment of bureaucratic structures and legal processes, the directive contends, the nation was able to use politics (C: zhengzhi, J: seiji) to regulate morality and discipline wrongful behaviors, rendering religion relevant only in the realm of spiritual salvation (Guowuyuan fazhichu Reference fazhichu1936, 2). Thus, for Manchukuo, a modern state operating under the ideology of the “kingly way”Footnote 26 (C: wangdao, J: ōdō), the mix of politics with “Lamaism” was considered to be not only inappropriate but an unacceptable “immoral practice”Footnote 27 (Guowuyuan fazhichu Reference fazhichu1936, 2). In other words, the directive made it apparent that Manchukuo now operated under a centralized authority of the “kingly way” in the Confucian model of sage rulership, and not in the model of the dual law that had been supported by the Manchu rulers of the Qing.
In August 1940, the Manchukuo government issued another, more comprehensive collection of policies regarding the regulation of Buddhism. Entitled, “Outline for the Reformation of Lamaism,”Footnote 28 this document contained policies to address the “problems” of Lamaism for the welfare of the Mongolian people (Manzhou diguo zhengfu Reference zhengfu1969, 825). These “problems” were the “low quality” of lamas, the heavy economic burdens that lamas and monasteries had created for the Mongolian people, and the issue of depopulation caused by regional overpopulation of monastics (Manzhou diguo zhengfu Reference zhengfu1969, 825). To solve these “problems” of Mongolian Buddhism in Manchukuo, the Outline lists the following seven articles of reform.
The first article of reform was the creation of the Manchukuo Empire Lamaist GroupFootnote 29 that would unite all the lamas in the nation under one organization. This new organization would not only centralize followers of Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism into a nationwide religious reform movement, but it would also prevent “blind dependency”Footnote 30 on khutugtus from outside the nation.
The second article claimed to remedy the imputed fact that many of the 30,000 lamas within Manchukuo were uneducated, illiterate, and unaccomplished. In order to “improve” the situation, public secular education programs would be established within major monasteries and reeducation programs introduced for underage lamas. These public education programs were aimed at inserting modern knowledge into existing monastic curricula to cultivate the future leaders of Mongolian Buddhism. Monastic study-abroad programs were also initiated where young Mongolian lamas would be sent to Buddhist monasteries in Japan to study, where “the most correct Buddha Dharma flourished.”Footnote 31
Third, the ranks, titles, and posts of Mongol lamas that had been preserved in the region needed to be organized and centralized under the approval of the Manchukuo Empire Lamaist Group, which implied yet another intervention at restructuring the monastic organization systems established since the Qing.
Although the Tibetan language was the lingua franca among Mongol Buddhists in the region, the fourth article encouraged Mongols to use Buddhist texts in Mongolian language in their daily practices and liturgies. Showing awareness that changing the language of religious rituals overnight is not an easy task, the article recommended a gradual promotion of Mongolian Buddhist texts.
Articles five and six addressed perceived deficiencies in monastic infrastructure. Article five promised that, in addition to establishing the Manchukuo Empire Lamaist Group, the Manchukuo government would found a national head temple (J: sōhonzan) for all the lamas of Manchukuo at a suitable location headed by a respectable khutugtu. Article six promised that the economic management of Buddhist monasteries in the state was to be systematized. Specifically, a clear financial management system needed to be set in place to oversee the assets of the monasteries and the daily spending of the monastic community.Footnote 32
Seventh, regarding the Mongol lay Buddhist population, an emphasis was put on the development of secular public education, especially for the cultivation of “a critical stance toward the superstitious elements within Lamaism”Footnote 33 (Manzhou diguo zhengfu Reference zhengfu1969, 825–27). Interestingly, what entailed “superstitious elements” was not elaborated on in the document.
As with the regulation of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia under Republican Chinese laws, it is unclear how these Manchukuo policies directed at reforming Mongolian Buddhism were implemented on the ground. The Manchukuo Empire Lamaist Group was indeed created on December 5, 1940, in Xinjing, the capital of Manchukuo, and was headed by the Chagan Khutugtu, a high-ranking Mongolian lama, and the Japanese vice director Satō Tomie (Narangoa Reference Moses2003, 501). About two hundred Mongol lamas were also sent to Japan to study between 1932 and 1945, funded by Japanese Buddhist organizations such as the Jōdo, Shingon, and Tendai schools (Narangoa Reference Moses2003, 500). However, these policies did not seem to spark significant discussions of Buddhist reform among the Mongols themselves.Footnote 34 On the effects of these policies toward Mongolian Buddhism, Narangoa Li writes:
In general, the response of the Mongol leaders in Manchukuo to Japanese reform efforts was selective. They were happy with the introduction of modern facilities such as health care and medical training and they were generally willing to accept the broadening of the education system and the promotion of Mongol culture. But especially on more strictly doctrinal issues, the Mongolian lamas and politicians saw little reason to change their established beliefs and practices at the behest of the Japanese.
Interestingly, Thomas DuBois has found that as in the case of codified laws of Manchukuo, case records were largely silent on the topic of Buddhism and religion in general (DuBois Reference DuBois2017, 126), which again raises the issue of the actual implementation and enforcement of Manchukuo regulations on Buddhism. DuBois adds, “such silence on the topic of religion notably contrasts not only with the activism displayed in government ordinances, but also with the pivotal role that other judiciaries have subsequently played in the interpretation of religion” (Reference DuBois2017, 127–28). Similar to how Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was governed under the Republic of China with an “imagined sovereignty” over the frontier region, the Manchukuo policies were probably more active on paper than in practice.
15.6 Mengjiang Regulations of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia
As Japanese influence expanded from Manchuria to Inner Mongolia following the establishment of Manchukuo in 1932, the puppet state of the Mengjiang United Autonomous Government was created in 1941 under the military leadership of Demchugdongrub (1902–66), a Mongol prince who also spearheaded an independence movement in Inner Mongolia. At first, the same policies toward Buddhism created in Manchukuo were to be implemented in Mengjiang (Hirokawa Reference Hirokawa, Uchida and Shibata2007, 92). However, being a Qing-era Mongol noble and a devout Buddhist sandwiched between rising Chinese, Japanese, and Soviet powers, Demchugdongrub looked to the past to the traditions of the Qing for inspiration in his management of Buddhist affairs in his state. As a result, the Office of Lama Seals and Services (C: lama yinwuchu), a Qing-era administrative agency overseeing Buddhist affairs in Mongolia and Tibet, was revived (Hirokawa Reference Hirokawa, Uchida and Shibata2007, 92). However, the prince was not unreceptive to the suggestions of modern reforms of Buddhism suggested by the policies of Manchukuo. As Hirokawa has pointed out, Demchugdongrub was supportive of the Buddhist reform measures aimed at solving the depopulation issue among his fellow Mongols (Reference Hirokawa, Uchida and Shibata2007, 92). Thus, at the Xilingol League Conference of 1942, the administration under Prince Demchugdongrub promulgated regulations to limit monasticism. These regulations prohibited the only son of any family from joining the monastic order, and put a cap of four as the maximum number of monastics a given family could have (Narangoa Reference Moses2003, 503).
By the end of 1942, qualifying monastic examinations were carried out in the various leagues in Mengjiang, promoting the secularization of Buddhist lamas in the region. For example, after lama qualifying examinations were instituted in the Ulanqab League, only 375 individuals out of 525 passed.Footnote 35 Out of the remaining 150 individuals, 55 joined the army, and 95 joined other forms of secular occupations (Hirokawa Reference Hirokawa, Uchida and Shibata2007, 92). In 1943, the Mengjiang government further tightened its grip on the growth of monasticism. Newspapers at this time began criticizing the tradition of child lamas and blamed Tibetan Buddhism for the decrease in the Mongolian population (Hirokawa Reference Hirokawa, Uchida and Shibata2007, 94).
As for how these reform policies toward Buddhism were received by the Mongols, Narangoa suggests that there was neither enthusiastic support nor significant protest. She argues that Mongolian Buddhist resistance to Japanese policies in the puppet states of Manchukuo and Mengjiang was weaker than that of colonial Korea, and there were no active Mongolian Buddhist attempts to protest Japanese invasion and war, nor cases of entire monasteries converting to Japanese Buddhism, as had occurred in colonial Korea and Taiwan (Reference Moses2003, 506).
15.7 Governing Buddhism on the Frontiers of the Nation and the Empire
To summarize, the regulation of Buddhism in Inner Mongolia in the post-Qing by the Republic of China, Manchukuo, and the Mengjiang governments began with a continuation of Qing-era policies. In the early years of the Republic of China, the socioeconomic statuses that high-level Buddhist leaders in Inner Mongolia had enjoyed in the Qing were maintained and even further elevated in service of political alliance-making. Considering the amount of political, religious, social, and even emotional capital that the Buddhist institution was able to maintain in Inner Mongolia, all three of these modern East Asian states chose not to drastically disrupt the status quo of dual law that respected the Buddhist clergy as much as (if not more than) the state. As a result, although the policymakers of these modern states saw Buddhism in Inner Mongolia as an outdated “superstitious” institution that caused the decline of Mongolian society both demographically and economically, the reforms that they wanted to see had to be planned gradually and diplomatically.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the policies of these three modern states toward Buddhism in Inner Mongolia began to limit monasticism and Mongolian Buddhist agency. To diminish the power of Buddhist monasticism in Inner Mongolia and to increase the non-monastic population in the form of mobilizable labor forces for the nation and the empire, the tradition of “monk taxes,” which required families sending at least one male child to the Buddhist monastic system, was restricted in various ways. As an alternative to the Buddhist monastery, which had served as one of the only venues for education in Qing Inner Mongolia, modern public secular education was offered to children and young adults, often on the sites of large monasteries. In the 1930s, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was regulated to be separated from political involvement, and the management of monastic affairs was given to new structures of monastic organizations created by these modern states to deal specifically with ethnic religious matters on the frontiers. In this period, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was increasingly the subject of biopolitics and governed as a political-economic issue for the state. Monastic assets, such as property, income, herds, and monastic population were required to be registered with the central government. The practice of holding shabinar, or lay subjects at monasteries for labor, was also abolished.
But as we have discussed in the previous paragraphs, how these regulations were implemented on the ground, if they were indeed implemented at all, is rather murky. Situating Buddhism in Inner Mongolia spatially on the frontiers of Sinocentric and Japan-centric nation-states, these regulations of Buddhism were mostly top-down elite legal practices directed from metropolitan centers at the periphery. As Hsiao-ting Lin has contended, frontier policy for the Republic of China was a form of “imagined sovereignty” (Lin Reference Lin2006, 15), which I argue the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo and Mengjiang similarly participated in, given the fact that both puppet states did not stay in power long enough for their policies to be implemented effectively on the ground. Observing how these post-Qing modern East Asian states made competing claims of “imagined sovereignty” over Inner Mongolia, we can see that overlapping legal structures were created that competed to govern Buddhism in the region. These competing regulations and frontier policies may have played a role in the internal power conflicts of these modern states, such as in the case of the Kuomintang, but they were also useful for nation-building and empire-building projects. For the policymakers of the Republic of China, Manchukuo, and Mengjiang, Buddhism was one of the only trans-Asian threads that could link ethnic groups with different languages and cultures together under one nation and/or empire. Therefore, having the power to manage and govern Buddhist institutions meant the ability to tap into and mobilize the political, economic, and social capital of the religion, and to do so transnationally.
As tools of nation-building and empire-building, these elite regulations assumed a linear temporality and a teleology of “progress” and “modernization” for Inner Mongolian Buddhism deemed “unproductive” and “backwards.” I argue that this is a form of epistemic violence inflicted on the religious bodies (especially the non-tulku ones) on the peripheries of modern national and imperial projects. In her well-known essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak states that “The clearest available example of such epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other” (Spivak Reference Spivak, Williams and Chrisman2003). The state regulations of Buddhism in our Inner Mongolia case are examples of this colonial project remotely orchestrated to constitute the Other through competing and overlapping frontier policies.
It is important to remember that the practice of epistemic violence through legal processes preceded actual violence in the Mongolian case. In post-Qing Outer Mongolia, similar limitations were created to curb Buddhist monasticism in the region, especially after the fall of the theocratic Bogda Khan government when the socialist Mongolian People’s Republic (1924–92) came into power. Under the leadership of Khorloogiin Choibalsan (1895–1952), approximately 18,000 lamas were killed in a socialist purge lasting eighteen months from late 1937 to mid-1939, and all but a handful of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed across the country (Kaplonski Reference Kaplonski2014, 5). Before the carnage took place, however, modern legal and bureaucratic frameworks existed to “know and control the population and the lamas, to introduce measures of governmentality, and to rule through the economic deployment rather than the blunt application of power” (Kaplonski Reference Kaplonski2014, 226). As Christopher Kaplonski shows, for the Mongolian socialist state, the problem of the lamas was “not that they were religious but that they possessed substantial economic, political, and ideological power” (Reference Kaplonski2014, 227). The way that the socialist state chose to solve this “lama question” was first through accommodation, symbolic violence, structural violence, and proactive measures before choosing direct physical violence (Kaplonski Reference Kaplonski2014, 226). Indeed, state violence for modern Mongolia was not an event but a process that involved multiple modes of violence.
In Inner Mongolia, although the Republic of China and the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo and Mengjiang did not manage to stay in power long enough to purge Buddhism on a similarly massive scale,Footnote 36 their legacy of governing Buddhism and the infliction of epistemic violence through legal practices would later be inherited by the Chinese Communist Party in its policies toward ethnic minorities’ religions in the People’s Republic of China. In May 1947, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was established under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China itself in October 1949. In the “Policy Guidelines for the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Government,”Footnote 37 announced on April 27, 1947, “freedom of religion” was promised to the Mongols in the region. However, in the same document, “separation of religion from the state”Footnote 38 was to be instituted. Lamas were also persuaded to “voluntarily” participate in secular industries and join the larger labor force (Zhonggong zhongyang tongzhanbu 1991, 1111–13).Footnote 39
By the early 1960s, there were about 17,000 Buddhist monks in Inner Mongolia, compared to 100,000 at the end of the Qing period (Delege Reference Delege1998, 761). According to a 1961 survey, 11,584 lamas out of 13,000 surveyed participated in forms of secular labor. Of these, 354 individuals were involved in mining, 2,330 in agriculture, 6,400 in husbandry, 1,200 in medicine, and 1,300 in other industries (Delege Reference Delege1998, 761). During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia experienced brutal repressions similar to that of the Mongolian People’s Republic in the 1930s and was one of the worst affected areas within the People’s Republic of China. According to official statistics, the Cultural Revolution resulted in over 22,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries in Inner Mongolia (Brown Reference Brown2007). The Buddhist community was heavily affected in the campaign to remove “the Four Olds.” It is unclear how many Buddhist monastics in Inner Mongolia were killed or injured during this period, but according to official statistics, only 5,000 lamas were found in the region after the Cultural Revolution in 1984, and 3,854 out of these 5,000 lamas reported no sources of income (Delege Reference Delege1998, 779). The number of Buddhist monasteries still standing in the area was also reduced from at least 1,600 at the end of the Qing period to less than 500 after the storm of the Cultural Revolution (Delege Reference Delege1998, 777). Only seventy-two monasteries received renovation funds from the government and were reopened to the public between 1985 and 1995 (Delege Reference Delege1998, 777).
15.8 What Can the Inner Mongolia Case Tell Us about Constitutional Law and Buddhism?
The Inner Mongolia case discussed in this chapter can tell us at least four things about the relationship between constitutional law and Buddhism in the modern East Asian context. First, although the constitutional practices of modern East Asian states were mostly influenced by western law,Footnote 40 they contained considerable continuities with the laws of imperial China when it came to the regulation of Buddhism in Inner Asia. Western constitutional ideas such as “freedom of religion” were present in the modern East Asian constitutional discourses discussed in this chapter, but they had to be mediated through previously existing political formations and structures, such as the tradition of dual law that allowed Buddhism to play key roles in legitimating or resisting political and legal orders.
Secondly, when we observe how Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was regulated in post-Qing East Asia, we begin to see that there were parallel, overlapping, and competing legal structures in place. Different laws were created to regulate different traditions of Buddhism in different geographical regions practiced by people of different ethnicities. This can be seen in the varieties of legal vocabulary developed to govern Buddhism. For example, while institutional Buddhism was regulated as fojiao in the Republic of China, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was regulated as lamajiao, or “Lamaism,” which was understood as an ethnic religious tradition that needed uniquely designed modernizing reforms. Thus, the regulation of religion on the frontier regions, which was more often informed by frontier policies, can look very different from the regulation of religion in the rest of the nation. At the same time, the Inner Mongolia case shows that in the modern East Asian context, there could be overlapping and even competing legal structures – competing constitutions – operating simultaneously when it comes to the regulation of religion. Competing claims of sovereignty over the region of Inner Mongolia allowed modern states backed by very different political ideologies to “flex their legal muscles” in religion governance in overlapping and competing ways.
Thirdly, the state governance of religion in modern East Asia reveals its teleological dimension. Situating the region of Inner Mongolia and its people in a particular spatiality and temporality, namely, the “frontier” and the “pre-modern,” Buddhism and Buddhist monasticism in Inner Mongolia came to be understood as “uncivilized,” “backwards,” and even morally “degenerate” in the reform policies of the Republic of China and the Japanese puppet states of Manchukuo and Mengjiang. Following this logic, Buddhism in Inner Mongolia was governed and disciplined in these state regulations as a political-economic and biopolitical problem. As DuBois has pointed out in his study of religion in early twentieth-century northeast Asia, “[l]awmaking and social policy are not merely a passive platform for the expression of religious ideas, but a realm of ethical and theological exploration in their own right” (Reference DuBois2017, 109).
Lastly, these parallel, overlapping, and competing regulations of religion created paradigms of constitutional practice that created a legacy of religion governance and frontier policies that would be inherited by subsequent nation-states, even if the new state operated under a different political ideology. I argue that this legacy of the governance of religion on the frontiers exemplifies a legacy of epistemic violence carried out through the processes of law-making. This legacy has been passed on from the Qing to the People’s Republic of China. As Ilana Feldman argued in her book Governing Gaza, the authority of any governmental bureaucracy is reiterative; it has to be enacted through practice as an ongoing process and cannot simply be established once and for all (Reference Feldman2008, 15).Footnote 41 Interestingly, the legacy of reiterative authority examined in this chapter only reveals the contingent nature of these modern East Asian states, be it the Republic of China, Manchukuo, Mengjiang, or the People’s Republic of China.
On November 24, 1960, at around three o’clock in the afternoon, six young monks (all between the ages of 21 and 35) surreptitiously entered the Supreme Court building in Seoul, South Korea. Upset about a ruling that had been handed down earlier that day, they demanded to see the Chief Justice, but upon learning that he was out, they went to the office of the presiding judge, Ko Chaeho. Although the young monks were told that the presiding judge, too, was not in his office, they barged in anyway, announcing their intention to wait for him. At least some of the monks present that day were familiar with this office, having visited just one day prior with their senior monastic leader, Chŏngdam sŭnim, who had lectured Ko about the righteousness of their cause. The leader had also apparently warned the judge that if the Court ruled against their side in the pending case, the monks seated before him were prepared to become martyrs for the cause.
Thus, the next day, after delivering a short message explaining their opposition to the Court’s ruling, each of them pulled out a knife and, as promised, attempted to disembowel themselves right there in the judge’s office. When the crowd of some four hundred Buddhist monks, nuns, and laity who had gathered outside the courthouse to demonstrate heard a rumor that the young monks had killed themselves to protest the decision, they stormed the Supreme Court building. This chain of events resulted in over three hundred arrests, including the six young men who had tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, as well as Chŏngdam himself, who was accused of orchestrating the events from behind the scenes.Footnote 1
This incident remains as shocking to learn about today as it was for those hearing about it just over six decades ago when it occurred. Although those protesting at the Supreme Court that day were roundly condemned in the press for their extreme actions, public opinion at the time was decidedly in their favor when it came to the larger goals of their so-called purification movement (chŏnghwa undong 淨化運動). The monks who snuck into the Supreme Court building ostensibly to commit hara-kiri were part of a minority group of monastics who had sought to restore the vow of celibacy in post-colonial South Korea as a necessary qualification for membership in the Korean monastic order. They had managed to wrest control of the Chogye Order (Chogyejong 曹溪宗) from the dominant faction that permitted monks to marry and eat meat, but only with the heavy support of the president at the time, Syngman Rhee.
This story of married monks and attempted disemboweling may seem like an odd way to start a chapter on Buddhism and constitutional law, but the emotionally charged events described above also involve an important set of legal disputes that help to illuminate the mechanics of Buddhism and constitutional law in Korea. The purification movement has been studied from a wide variety of perspectives, but few studies have fully appreciated what one might call the “clash of constitutions” that lies at its core. Celibacy may have been the most visible theme in the legal battles over control of the Chogye Order, but the court cases and extra-judicial conflicts were not really about celibacy per se. Rather, litigants and judges in these cases focussed instead on the legal justifications for revising the Chogye Order’s own constitution (chonghŏn 宗憲) or, by extension, the legality of the meeting or gathering in which these changes were authorized.
Neither the Vinaya, nor any traditional temple regulations that predated the colonial period, represented legitimate sources of authority under the law. The courts were concerned only with the written constitution, rules, and regulations of an organization composed of members who self-identified as Buddhist. At the same time, the Korean courts – guided as they were by their own national constitution – were unwilling to wade into the doctrinal disputes over celibacy due to the provisions contained in Article 12 of the 1948 Constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion and the separation of religion and the state.Footnote 2 Ultimately then, the clash between unmarried and married monks – between supporters of monastic “purification” and proponents of the status quo – became a contest over the respective legitimacy of two rival Buddhist monastic constitutions written by and representing the rival factions. And that contest was enabled, even encouraged, by legal mandates stemming from state law.
16.2 Prelude to the Purification Movement: Temple Laws and Monastic Marriages in the Colonial Period
The origins of the above events can be traced to the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), when clerical marriages among Korean monks became normalized and increasingly common. Korean monks who may have had wives or concubines, and sometimes families, could certainly be found prior to Japan’s colonial takeover of Korea, but such relationships were usually kept secret. Exposure to Japanese Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, introduced the idea that monks could legally marry. Clerical marriage in Japan had been decriminalized in 1872 during the early years of the Meiji period (1868–1912). In Korea during the mid-1920s, celibacy was removed from the requirements necessary to become the abbot of a temple according to Korean own temple laws (sabŏp 寺法), which were then approved by the government-general.Footnote 3 The colonial government claimed the sole legal power to approve or certify revisions to the temple laws, but did not assert the power to enforce (or, conversely, to abrogate) the Vinaya precepts that ostensibly underpinned monastic conduct. These powers had been formalized through the creation of the Temple Ordinance (sach’allyŏng 寺刹令) in 1911, after the start of colonial rule, as a way for the Japanese government-general to regulate the entire Korean monastic community.Footnote 4 This law mandated the creation of temple laws, which were legal rules laying out the administrative authorities and regulations to be observed by monks living at a particular temple. When the longstanding desire to create a centralized monastic order finally brought about the creation of the Chosŏn Pulgyo Chogyejong in 1941, a constitution (hŏn 憲) for the monastic order (chong 宗) that superseded the individual temple laws was written, which set out the qualifications to become a monk or a temple abbot, as well as other positions within the monastic order.Footnote 5 However, with no way to adjudicate the propriety or impropriety of allowing monks to marry and eat meat based on the Vinaya or other sources of Buddhist law, court rulings in this matter necessarily revolved around the issue of who had the power to revise the monastic order’s constitution (chonghŏn) and whether the actions taken to do so were in accordance with the organization’s own governing procedures.
Discussions of law and Buddhism during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) typically begin (and often end) with a discussion of the Temple Ordinance (sach’allyŏng) mentioned above. Studies of colonial-era Korean Buddhism have comprehensively traced the law’s broader implications for the exercise of state power and colonial control over the Buddhist community, and the practical impact of the law on Buddhism has been widely examined. The law itself, though, is actually rather short, consisting of just seven articles, only five of which actually contain substantive content. Briefly, the Temple Ordinance required government approval for the disposal of any temple property (Article 5), for merging, relocating, closing, or renaming temples (Article 1), and for any activities taking place at temples and monasteries other than those specified by this law (Article 2).Footnote 6 In addition, Article 4 mandated the appointment of an abbot (chuji 住持) to act as the legal representative of the temple. The abbot had to assume responsibility for administrative duties, including managing all property and assets of the temple, and for carrying out ceremonies and rituals at the temple. Article 3 stipulated the creation of temple laws (sabŏp), which had to be officially approved by the Japanese governor-general, and these regulations not only detailed the relationship between head or main monasteries (ponsan 本山) and branch temples (malsa 末寺), but also set forth the necessary qualifications for becoming an abbot.Footnote 7 These temple laws came to play an important role in the question of clerical marriages during the colonial period since the revisions approved by the government-general in 1926 removed celibacy from the list of required qualifications to assume the duties of abbot, which seemed to open the door to legal recognition of monastic marriages.Footnote 8
In addition to these seven articles, the Temple Ordinance also came with a set of enforcement rules that further spelled out the legal regulations and rules to which monasteries and temples would be subjected.Footnote 9 The enforcement rules mainly elaborated on the third and fourth articles of the Temple Ordinance concerning, respectively, the temple laws, especially the head-branch temple structure, and the role and duties of the abbot as the legal representative of a temple. Article 1 stated that the temple laws must explicitly address the procedures for selecting and replacing an abbot or otherwise handling a vacancy in the post, but Article 2 gave the ultimate power to decide who would serve as abbot to the colonial state, negating the independence that Article 1 seemed to promise. In the case of the thirty head monasteries (later increased to thirty-one), the abbot had to be approved directly by the governor-general, while the branch temples could obtain the consent of provincial officials when filling the post. The remaining articles dealt mostly with matters pertaining to the position of abbot.
Article 3 of the Temple Ordinance instructed the thirty “head temples” to compose “temple laws,” which were designed to cover a wide range of monastic operations and activities related to the structure, organization, offices, and finances of the head monasteries and their branch temples.Footnote 10 The laws appear to have been based in part on the sectarian regulations and temple laws found contemporaneously in Japan, and they generally follow a similar pattern of 13 chapters and roughly 100 articles.Footnote 11 Jeongeun Park points out, however, that through “a clever blend of Korean Buddhist practices and Japanese Buddhist customs,” the Korean temple laws were largely accepted by the Korean Buddhist community. Park further posits that the laws “successfully stabilized the entire Korean Buddhist monastic community on the heels of the Japanese annexation of Korea” (Reference Park2017, 146). Unlike the laws and regulations for many Japanese Buddhist institutions at the time, however, the early iteration of temple laws adopted by Korean monasteries explicitly stated that individuals who marry or eat meat are not eligible for bhikkhu (pigu 比丘) ordination or for taking the bodhisattva precepts.Footnote 12 This was a problem mainly for those monks who sought higher positions within the monasteries, such as the abbot, because they were more closely scrutinized; even those who were empowered to vote in the elections for abbot had to have received bhikkhu ordinations. Nevertheless, the colonial state retained ultimate supervisory powers over the temple codes because the ratifying of those laws required the approval of the governor-general.
After being exposed around the turn of the twentieth century to the practice of marriage among Buddhist clerics in Japan, some within the Korean Buddhist community wanted to permit Korean monks to enjoy similar opportunities (Jaffe Reference Jaffe2001). For many progressive-minded Korean monks, Japanese Buddhism at the time seemed to represent a modernized form of the religion, which should be emulated to strengthen their own tradition and secure its place in contemporary society. As early as 1910 the monastic reformer Han Yongun expressed strong support for clerical marriage when he submitted formal petitions on two separate occasions to the Japanese authorities, asking them to remove any restrictions on monks and nuns that would prevent them from marrying.Footnote 13 Han even appended the text of these petitions to his Treatise on the Restoration of Korean Buddhism (Chosŏn Pulgyo yusillon 朝鮮佛敎維新論), published in 1913, where he further explained his position on the topic of monastic or clerical marriages. From a practical point of view, Han feared that maintaining the precepts on celibacy would hinder the modernization and reform of Korean Buddhism, leading to a steady decline in the number of people willing to join the monasteries. He also argued that it would make it exceedingly difficult for monks to effectively carry out propagation (p’ogyo), further jeopardizing the future viability of the religion in the peninsula.Footnote 14
These types of arguments in favor of clerical marriage did not result in any changes to the laws and regulations governing the monastic community during the first decade of colonial rule. Yet they did bear fruit in the following decade.Footnote 15 In October 1926 the governor-general approved the revised temple laws that had been submitted by some abbots of the head monasteries, thereby lifting the restrictions on certain monks needing to have bhikkhu ordinations, namely the abbots themselves. The reality on the ground, of course, is that a good many monks were already married by this time, and some even had families of their own. According to some estimates, roughly half of all monks were married during the mid-1920s (Kim Reference Kim, Gimello, Buswell and McBride2014, 213).Footnote 16 By the end of the colonial period in 1945, a clear majority of Korean monks had taken advantage of the relaxed rules to find marriage partners.
Despite being a small minority, a committed core of mostly senior monks sought ways to restore the vow of celibacy to its rightful place among the Vinaya precepts required for ordination, and many of these individuals were affiliated with the Sŏn hagwŏn (Sŏn Study Center). This important organization was formed in the 1920s as a conservative, practice-oriented monastic organization that operated independently of the colonial-recognized Dual Sŏn-Kyo Order of Korean Buddhism (and later from its successor, the Chogye Order). It served as the institutional base for the celibate faction of Buddhist monks for the remainder of the colonial period, and it was also pivotal, organizationally speaking, for carrying out the purification movement after liberation (Taehan Pulgyo Chogyejong Kyoyug’wŏn Reference Pulgyo and Kyoyug’wŏn2001, 195–200).
16.3 The Unconstitutional Longevity of the Temple Ordinance after Liberation
After liberation from Japanese rule, the Korean people soon learned that they would not immediately be given the right to govern themselves. In the southern half of the peninsula, where the Americans established a military government (USAMGIK) to rule the country, one might reasonably have expected them to eliminate the Japanese laws regarding religion, especially onerous ones like the Temple Ordinance that so blatantly infringed the religious rights and freedoms of the monastic community. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a false assumption. The law was never overturned during the period of American military rule that ended in 1948. This is perhaps less surprising when we consider the fact that the Americans mostly left the Japanese legal system intact in order to facilitate the daunting task of running a country about which they knew next to nothing (Hahm Reference Hahm and Song1996, 70; Henderson Reference Henderson and Shaw1991, 139). The Pacific Command (AFPAC) under General MacArthur gave vague assurances to the Korean people in Proclamation No. 1, promulgated the day before the commander of USAMGIK and his troops landed in Korea, about protecting their “personal and religious rights” (Cho Reference Cho2013, 153; Kim Reference Pŏmjun2007, 301). This was followed about a month later with the public announcement of Ordinance 11, which eliminated various laws regarding the Japanese emperor, Shintō shrine worship, and related matters, as well as containing in Section II a blanket repeal of all laws that “would cause discrimination on the grounds of race, nationality, creed or political opinion” (Henderson Reference Henderson and Shaw1991, 140).
The Temple Ordinance, however, was not among those laws that were explicitly struck down. The following month, Ordinance 21, issued on November 2, stipulated that “all laws which were in force, regulations, orders, notices or other documents issued by any government of Korea having the force of law as of August 9, 1945, will continue in force until repealed by [a] competent authority” (Henderson Reference Henderson and Shaw1991, 139). Beginning with this declaration, the Temple Ordinance, which gave state actors a degree of control over internal monastic affairs, would remain in force throughout the period of American military occupation and beyond.
Although the American military government claimed to be upholding the principle of religious freedom in Korea, the Buddhist and Christian communities were treated very differently by the state, and there was very little doubt about which group was favored.Footnote 17 Christmas, for instance, was designated a national holiday in October 1945, despite the fact that Christians represented only a small fraction (perhaps two to three percent) of the total population at that time (Cho Reference Cho2013, 155; Kim Reference Pŏmjun2007, 307). The Buddha’s birthday, by comparison, did not become a national holiday in Korea until thirty years later in 1975 (Kim Reference Kwangsik2011, 237). Other examples could be cited, but most important, as long as the Temple Ordinance remained in effect, the Buddhist monastic community would be subject to government oversight and interference through the imposition of legal constraints that did not apply to Christian organizations. The Temple Ordinance clearly gave the Americans a powerful tool that enabled them to keep a watchful eye on Buddhist temples and monastic leaders and to exercise substantial control over them. At the same time, the American military government relied heavily on native Koreans who could speak English, which disproportionately favored Christians who had been educated in mission schools, where English language instruction was guaranteed.Footnote 18 The unfairness of maintaining the colonial-era law that regulated the Korean monastic community was repeatedly emphasized.
Buddhist leaders from around the country made repealing the Temple Ordinance a priority when they gathered at the first national monastic conference (chŏn’guk sŭngnyŏ taehoe) which was held after liberation on September 22 and 23, 1945 and headed by Kim Pŏmnin (Kim Reference Kwangsik2011, 213–14). All thirty-one head temples under the Japanese system were asked to send representatives, and all but a few in the northern half of the peninsula did so.Footnote 19 At the gathering, steps were immediately taken to eliminate this head-branch temple system and to abolish the temple laws since they were both deemed colonial creations. In place of these governing structures, the Buddhist leaders set out to erect a more centralized monastic order (chongdan) that used a type of parish system (kyoguje 敎區制) with a central administrative affairs office (ch’ongmuwŏn) at T’aego-sa, the headquarters monastery, that would oversee various regional offices (kyomu) in the provinces (Kim Reference Ŭngch’ŏl1997, 102–3). They also formed a Central Assembly (chung’ang chonghoe) which met in early 1946 and passed a constitution for the order. Although a monastic constitution was technically created when the monastic community received permission to establish a temple headquarters of the newly renamed Chogye Order in 1941 during the late colonial period, the one created in 1946 was the first to be drafted free from state interference. Despite the fact that the current constitution of the Chogye Order is considered a revision of an original passed in 1962 (for reasons that will be discussed), the 1946 monastic constitution was the basic template that was later revised during the course of the purification movement.
The continued existence and enforcement of the Temple Ordinance, however, remained a major obstacle to fully implementing these institutional changes and other reforms. Kim Kwangsik has noted that multiple requests for the repeal of this law in the summer of 1946 were all ignored. He also points out that in March of the following year, the Order formally submitted a written petition to the newly created South Korean Interim Legislative Assembly (SKILA), and its demands even received the backing of twenty-five of its members (Kim Reference Kwangsik2011, 214–15). Although this body unanimously passed a piece of legislation on August 8, 1947 that would have abolished the Temple Ordinance – not to mention other Japanese laws regarding religion – and created in its place a temporary law dealing only with the protection of Buddhist property, the American military government refused to approve it (Kim Reference Pŏmjun2007, 304; Kim Reference Kwangsik2011, 215; Mun Reference Mun2011, 224).Footnote 20 Thus, despite their best efforts, Buddhist leaders within the Chogye Order never managed to convince the Americans to do away with the Temple Ordinance, which remained in effect when Syngman Rhee took over from the Americans at the helm of a new government in 1948, giving him undue powers to intervene in the internal affairs of the Buddhist monastic community.Footnote 21
16.4 The Battle Over Celibacy and Control of the Chogye Order
Not long after the conclusion of the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭngman), the first president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), in power from 1948 until he was forced out by the people in 1960, began issuing a series of presidential messages or specifically “admonitions” (yusi 諭示), that were highly critical of clerical marriage among the Buddhist monks in Korea. These public statements are widely seen as sparking the purification movement that quickly consumed much of the time and energy of the Buddhist community for the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Rhee’s motivations for wading into this matter are opaque and his sincerity may be questionable, but the impacts of his actions on Korean Buddhism are profound and undeniable.Footnote 22
After the Korean War ended, stories began circulating about President Rhee’s visits to various Buddhist temples. In one case, he claimed to have seen women’s undergarments hanging out to dry; in another anecdote, he supposedly witnessed a Korean monk with not one, but two wives! It was also rumored that he encountered a monk who had studied in Japan for a long time and who had a Japanese wife, alongside written placards of praise for the Japanese emperor. True or not, these stories served to conveniently illustrate the main thrust of Rhee’s rhetorical attack on the married monks.Footnote 23 Rhee cast the practice of monastic marriage as a vestige of Japanese colonialism, which amounted to a corruption of traditional Korean Buddhist monasticism, and he bemoaned the lack of morality and patriotism among these monks. Therefore, he instructed married monks (and their wives, of course) to vacate the precincts of Buddhist temples and to turn over the running of the Chogye Order and its temples to the monks who adhered to the vow of celibacy. It is important to keep in mind what a bold statement this must have been: at the time of his first public pronouncement on this issue in 1954, celibate monks constituted an estimated ten percent of the total number of Korean monks and controlled not even one monastery in all of Korea.
Despite the constitutional guarantees separating religion from the state, Rhee was able to utilize his authority under the Temple Ordinance to justify his intervention into the internal affairs of the monastic community. Because the law was not abolished during the period of American military rule after liberation, Rhee could use this powerful legal tool to maintain control over the monastic community. Eventually, the Supreme Court invalidated certain parts of the law and its accompanying enforcement rules, but this did not take place until 1956, and even then, the justices did not strike down the law entirely.Footnote 24
The disputes over control of the Chogye Order and its temples initiated by Rhee would eventually turn not only litigious, but also violent.
16.5 Contentious Debates and Rival Constitutions
The minority of unmarried monks argued against clerical marriage by drawing both on religious grounds and appeals to tradition. By not following the precepts outlined in the Four-Part Vinaya that had been used in Korea traditionally, which clearly prohibited sexual activity as a major transgression, they argued that the monastic community had become corrupted. Syngman Rhee’s intervention, however, added a strong undercurrent of nationalist arguments to the debate, assigning blame for the supposedly degenerate state of Korean Buddhism to the corrupting influence of Japanese Buddhism and the legacy of colonialism. In response, the married faction “argued that they practiced taejung Pulgyo (Buddhism for lay people) and modern Buddhism” (Park Reference Park, Craig Jenkins and Gottlieb2007, 135). In other words, they maintained that monks who married could better understand the everyday lives of the laity and thus were better suited to carry out propagation. They also claimed that if they were not monks, then neither were the unmarried monks since they did not adhere to the entire Vinaya either. Although the leadership of the Chogye Order attempted to make concessions by offering to give the celibate monks possession of some monasteries, the unmarried faction forged ahead with its plan to cleanse the order completely of married monks.
To this end the celibate monks convened their own first national conference at the Sŏn Hagwŏn in August 1954, at which they resolved to revise the order’s constitution. The revised constitution, which reinstituted celibacy as a necessary qualification for ordination and maintaining one’s status as a monk, would be adopted at a second national conference held in late September of the same year (Mun Reference Mun2011, 245–53). The unmarried monks were steadfast in their refusal to recognize married clerics as legitimate members of the monastic order, insisting instead that they be classified simply as lay people or as a special group of (lay) Dharma protectors (hobŏp chung 護法衆).Footnote 25 The married monks had earlier that summer already revised their own constitution, passed in 1946, presumably to legally identify two types of monks – those that maintained the vow of celibacy as well as those that entered into marriages – as both belonging to the order (chongdan).
President Rhee continued to periodically issue presidential messages supporting the unmarried monks and denouncing the married clerics, with his second appearing on November 4, 1954, after the unmarried monks had produced and passed their revised version of the order’s constitution at their first two monastic conferences (Sinmun ŭro pon Han’guk Pulgyo kŭnhyŏndae sa 1995, 185–87). The impasse between the two sides soon sparked violent confrontations in the temples as well as litigation in the courts, and Rhee issued yet another yusi on November 19 (Sinmun ŭro pon Han’guk Pulgyo kŭnhyŏndae sa 1995, 188). The Rhee administration directly intervened at the ministerial level, bringing the leaders of each faction together repeatedly for face-to-face meetings to seek a resolution. At one of these meetings on December 22, 1954, held at the National Police Headquarters, representatives of the two sides were presented with a document outlining the government’s basic position on the dispute and containing a concrete proposal for how to resolve it. Of particular interest is the assertion that the married clerics should be classified as propagation monks, which is very close to the position taken by the married monks who had already revised their constitution in accordance with this same basic approach:
The monastic order is composed of two groups, ascetic monks and propagation monks. The ascetic monks, constituting celibate monks and nuns, and monastics of more than 10 years after making a divorce, should concentrate on one or two practices in the following five practices: (1) the preservation of precepts, (2) the practice of Seon [Sŏn meditation], (3) the chanting of the titles of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, (4) the reading of scriptures, and (5) the chanting of spells. They should live and practice Buddhism in the praxis compounds, follow the teachings of the Seon patriarchs, and obey the monastic rules. The propagation monks should preserve the ten precepts and can practice Seon, chant the titles of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, read scriptures, or chant spells. They are also able to accomplish the mission of Mahāyāna Buddhism by dedicating themselves to propagation, education, and social affairs and to take charge of all administrative and accounting affairs.
Although this compromise would have technically allowed married monks to remain in the order, the proposal further specified that the so-called propagation monks had to remove their families from temple grounds and that any private homes within the boundaries of the temple should either be removed or taken over by the temple, but only after financially compensating the married monks (Mun Reference Mun2011, 268). The government’s proposal was completely rejected by the three representatives of the celibate monks who were present at the meeting, and the conflict, violence, and court battles continued unabated. Lay Buddhists and the general public for the most part supported the celibacy faction, and with public opinion on their side and the president’s office exerting pressure on lower-level ministers and possibly the courts, the celibates eventually gained the upper hand and took control over most of the Buddhist temples in the country.
16.6 Controversies and the Court
The controversy continued into the following year as more seizures of temples, more frequent and intense fighting, and more lawsuits in the secular courts dominated the news. There were further meetings between the two sides and efforts by government officials and agencies to mediate the dispute. By the summer of 1955, however, the unmarried monks were ready to hold another national conference for celibate monastics. This time they wanted explicit government authorization for their gathering, allowing them to ostensibly establish a legal basis for a newly revised monastic constitution that placed power in the hands of those who had received the traditional bhikkhu ordinations and to reinstitute celibacy as a condition for monkhood. Two conferences were thus held in quick succession in the first two weeks of August, with a newly revised constitution created at the first, which would then be passed and confirmed at the second. Government officials from the Ministry of Education who were present at the conference could thus grant approval and permission for the celibate faction’s version of the monastic constitution, their selection of executive and administrative officers, and their control over the appointment of abbots to the country’s roughly 1,000 temples (Mun Reference Mun2011, 296–97; Park Reference Park, Craig Jenkins and Gottlieb2007, 238).
In terms of the subsequent court battles that eventually came before the Supreme Court on that day in late November 1960, the central legal question the Court had to consider was whether this celibate monastic conference was, in fact, authorized and sanctioned in accordance with the rule of law. The only reason this fact mattered at all was because of the monastic constitution that was passed that day: the changes to the Chogye Order constitution, if approved by the courts, would legally establish a definition of monkhood that excluded married individuals.
The situation remained tense, however, and the married monks did not willingly step aside. Nor, for that matter, did the celibate monks have enough qualified monks to complete the takeover of every Buddhist temple in the country. Accommodations were eventually made to allow some of the married monks to resume their positions at many of the smaller temples and monasteries. The married faction also refused to hand over the management of key business interests and corporations affiliated with the Chogye Order. However, the lower courts eventually validated the monastic conference, thus approving the celibates’ revised constitution and handing power to the unmarried faction of monks, which they maintained through the remainder of the 1950s.
In April 1960, facing growing protests over political corruption and his government’s widespread human rights abuse, Syngman Rhee was forced to resign from office. His departure reignited the internal conflict within the monastic community, as unmarried monks lost their most important backer and the married monks sought to retake many of the temples they had previously lost, often through force. With the Supreme Court set to rule later that year on the case concerning the government’s recognition of the national conference of unmarried monastics in August 1955, tensions were extremely high. The non-married faction continued to demonstrate to publicly press their case, with the Ven. Ha Dongsan, who was the Supreme Patriarch of the celibate faction of monks, even leading a procession of demonstrators to the Supreme Court while sitting cross-legged on the roof of an automobile. As noted earlier, while the ruling merely sent the case back to a lower court, it was interpreted as favorable to the married monks since they had prevailed in the pending case.
16.7 Legal Afterlives under Park Chung Hee
While that case was pending, a new political leader emerged, and the new regime that came to power in May 1961 following a military coup took immediate steps to quell the disorder that had engulfed the monastic community by forcing the two sides to come together and form a “unified order” (t’onghap chongdan 統合宗團) in early 1962.Footnote 26 The new leader, Park Chung Hee, moved fairly quickly to push through a new law to replace the colonial-era Temple Ordinance, which had remained in effect for more than a decade and a half after liberation from Japanese rule. Less than six months after the married and unmarried monks were forced to come together and create the unified order, Park repealed the Temple Ordinance and replaced it with the Buddhist Property Management Law (Pulgyo chaesan kwalli pŏp 佛敎財産管理法) in May 1962.Footnote 27 While the long-overdue elimination of the despised colonial-era Temple Ordinance was certainly welcomed by the Buddhist community, its replacement unfortunately followed many of the former law’s precedents.Footnote 28 Despite being challenged in court on constitutional grounds, the Supreme Court held in 1969 that the Buddhist Property Management Law did not violate the constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom and neutrality toward religion, a dubious verdict that some legal scholars and others have repudiated.Footnote 29 After democratization in 1987, this law was finally replaced with the Traditional Temple Preservation Law (Chŏnt’ong sach’al pojon pŏp 傳統寺刹保存法) which went into effect in late May the following year with the promulgation of its accompanying enforcement rules. It has remained in place since that time.Footnote 30
Park’s forced alliance between the two factions failed to completely quell the unrest and discord, and feeling disadvantaged by the new arrangement, the married monks once again turned to the secular courts to resolve the issue. Once again, the courts failed to address the necessary qualifications for monkhood and the question of celibacy, and concentrated instead on matters pertaining to the rules and regulations regarding the number of people needed to validate and certify decisions made by the administrative leaders of the organization. In the end, though, after they had lost the last of their court appeals in 1969, the leaders of the married faction broke away and formed a separate order, officially named the T’aego Order of Korean Buddhism (Han’guk Pulgyo T’aegojong 韓國佛敎太古宗).Footnote 31 Other Buddhist orders were formed and also gained legal recognition in the 1960s under the Buddhist Property Management Law; each of these possessed the right to determine whether monks needed to adhere to a vow of celibacy or could get married in order to become a member.
While much more could be said about the historical episodes described above, the details show clearly the complex entanglements of Buddhism and constitutional law in Korea, both historically and in the present. At issue was not one type of constitution but two – state constitutions and monastic constitutions – which themselves existed in various relationships fraught with tensions. During the Japanese colonial period, the Temple Ordinance required that each head temple create its own set of rules and regulations, known as temple laws, to govern individual monasteries. These temple laws, while notionally autonomous, were nonetheless open to state intervention, and that dynamic gave rise to one sort of tension between monks and state authorities. After the advent of American military rule on the peninsula and continuing after the creation of a South Korean state, these constitutional tensions took a slightly different form. Where the constitution for the Republic of Korea mandated a separation between state and religion, the constitutional conflicts among rival factions of Chogye monks drew state leaders and courts into the fray.
Through all of this, notions of Buddhism and state authority were not resolved or stabilized but multiplied and were increasingly contested. Rather than narrowing or “stabilizing” discourses around internal governance and administrative regulation of the monastic community, these nested constitutional conflicts opened up new spaces for intense disagreement and instigated an internal schism among monks and lay Buddhists alike. At the same time, constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and separation of church and state forced the Supreme Court to sidestep any determination about the Vinayic propriety disputes of allowing monks to marry – ultimately the Court sidestepped the matter, sending the dispute back to a lower court on technical, procedural matters.Footnote 32 In other words, the Court could not pronounce on the content of monastic constitutions, but only on the question of who had the right to amend or draft them. In fact, one of the biggest differences between the colonial and post-colonial contexts may have been the greater judicial recourse that was available to members of the monastic community in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the litigiousness that came to characterize the purification movement as a result. While Buddhist actors were able to use colonial courts to press certain claims relating to internal monastic disputes, these judicial avenues were highly constrained under colonial authorities. The establishment of the Republic of Korea and its constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the separation of religion and the state, on the one hand, allowed for increased judicial recourse on the part of Buddhist actors, but on the other hand, it simultaneously restricted the ability of the courts to adjudicate doctrinal disputes, including whether monks had to take a vow of celibacy to be considered monks.
The case of the purification movement in Korea highlights an important aspect of Buddhism’s interlinking with constitutional law in Asia. Not only does it highlight the significance of history, sectarianism, and change in national constitutions, but it also calls attention to the importance of non-state constitutions – Buddhist monk constitutions – in the legal, political, and religious histories of this complex part of the world.