23 June, 2024

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Projection Of Buddhism As Sri Lanka’s Greatest Soft Power

By Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe

The larger discourse created by Prof Joseph Nye in the 90’s by his most appealing term “Soft Power” is not a mere academic term limited to the scholars in International relations. The emergence of “soft power” clearly made significant impacts on the traditional spectrum of international affairs in a crucial way. In Nye’s analysis of soft power in a literal sense suggests that it is the ability to get what you want thorough attraction than force. In Nye’s analysis the soft power of a country is vested in three cardinal sources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. However, a question that comes to the fore is whether small states can always reckon those three factors as their status of hard power remains in a peripheral stage. Nye answers this question by placing their cultural values as a mode of attraction, which has been the case regarding countries like Singapore, Jamaica and Switzerland in Europe.

Given a wider context regarding the frontiers of soft power, I argue Sri Lanka can always rely on its historical Buddhist values to promote country’s attraction to the international community. Despite several opinions written by Indian academics connecting Buddhism to Indian soft power strategy, the realist view on the preservation of Theravada Buddhism stands in favour of Sri Lanka due to fervent factors. First, Sri Lanka has had an uninterrupted tradition of conserving Theravada Buddhist doctrine for the past 2000 years, albeit Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC under the orbit of India. Secondly, the Buddhist texts and teachings practised by the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka resonated with other civilizations and legitimized Sri Lanka’s position as the custodian of Buddhism even after Buddhism began to decay from the Indian subcontinent. The 20th-century Western interest in exploring Buddhist doctrine mainly emanated from the Buddhist revival carried out by the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka after engaging in a series of coarse debates with the Christian missionaries that culminated in the famous “Panadura debate”.

Tibetan diaspora currently occupies the global dominance of using Buddhism as a soft power under Dalai Lama, who stands as an icon against the hard power of irreligious China. But, in reality the Tibetan Buddhist diplomacy does not embody the Theravada traditions and many Westerners are ignorant regarding this distinction. It is worth noting the ostensible zest initiated by Nehru in the aftermath of independence to depict Buddhism as Indian’s living legacy did not last long. Especially, the robust promotion of Hindutva under Modi’s government seems to have marred the Buddhist outlook by lifting up Shankara, Yoga and other Hindutva values, which creates a realistic concern on India’s current ability to be the sole ambassador of Buddhism.

Meanwhile China has attempted to position itself through its historic tryst with Buddhism and this machinery goes parallel to China’s pursuits in projecting Buddhist narratives as a means to gain support from Asian neighbours like Sri Lanka, Myanmar for Chinese interest without the use of coercion. The Chinese public diplomacy in Sri Lanka, which makes an assiduous attempt in linking Buddhist symbols to their development projects reflects the rigour of China’s intense efforts in projecting Buddhism as a soft power. Indeed, building Lotus tower as the tallest telecommunication tower in Colombo reflects a deeper meaning stemming from China’s Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

However, it is relevant to remember that neither China nor India has better stances in using Buddhism as a soft power than Sri Lanka due to the island nation’s authentic contribution to the propagation of Theravada Buddhism around the world. In particular, the country’s association with codifying the Buddhist suttas (discourses) continuously elevates the status of Sri Lanka to a pristine sanctuary for Buddhism, which awaits worldwide recognition. It should be the paramount task of the state actors of Sri Lanka to aggrandize the country’s Buddhist identity as an intrinsic one, which is purely different from its Indic appearance, also Sri Lanka needs to place its approach to Buddhism as a soft power strategy without any Chinese elements as China ‘s Buddhist diplomacy often receives a vehement criticism.  In writing her analysis Tabita Rosendal notes “China’s narratives attempt to establish a discourse concerning the continuation of Buddhist cooperation between the two countries as a prerequisite for establishing a harmonious Buddhist world. Sri Lanka actors often reproduce the Chinese narratives and many statements largely mimic China’s discourse word to word”.   

The militant attitude of the Buddhist monks and their aggressive aphorism against Muslims and Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka is a stark contrast to any possible projection of Buddhist soft power in Sri Lanka. The questions raised by Harvard anthropologist Tambiah in “Buddhism betrayed? remains still valid in the West regarding the so-called nonviolent nature of the Buddhist society of Sri Lanka and indeed, it stands as a hindrance to promoting Buddhism as the country’s soft power. Yet, this is an issue that the foreign policymakers in Sri Lanka need to resolve by buoying certain initiatives to portray Sri Lanka’s historical legacy of Theravada Buddhism. For instance, Sri Lankan government can patronage the native Buddhist monks as religious ambassadors around the world to propagate the Theravada form of Buddhism. Especially the inquisitiveness among Westerners to know Buddhism better and the growing attraction for Buddhist Vidarshana meditation are the most appealing factors that Sri Lanka needs to address. The pacifist nature in its doctrine, which even denies the concept of self-defence and its pivotal rule reiterating the concept of “Patichcha samuppada’ as a rational inquiry are salient features for Buddhism as a standout, which can be a point of attraction for the growing atheism in Europe.

In a nutshell, Sri Lanka is endowed with the abundance of historical legitimacy and intellectual resources to take up Buddhism as its grand soft power. Yet, it needs to cling to a strategic position outnumbering Chinese and Indic claims as Buddhist ambassadors to the global community.    

*Punsara Amarasinghe is a post-doctoral researcher affiliated to Scuola Superiroe Sant Anna, Pisa and he held visiting fellowships at Wisconsin Madison, Sciences PO and Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He co-edited a book on the Post-Soviet state building for Routledge last year.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    ‘Buddhist monks and their aggressive aphorism … ‘ an interesting observation.
    .
    ‘ can patronage the native Buddhist monks as religious ambassadors…’
    Religions, as practised, especially in the modern world are indeed opium of the masses. The best government is the one that stays away from mixing politics and religion; a state should be a secular society.
    .
    Sadly many Buddhist monks in Theravada Buddhism practising societies like Sri Lanka and Burma are the furthest from Buddha’s teachings. Mahayana Buddhist societies of East Asia are just recovering from nightmare lives as in Cambodia and Vietnam.
    .
    Modi in India is determined to move away from PM Nehru’s and Dr. Ambedkar’s constitution. Younger Buddhists in the West are often more focused on fairness and mindfulness than on nirvana, and away from the monks with fusion of northern and southern branches of Buddhism, as Buddhism is not a religion in the Abrahamic religious sense.
    .
    A good society is a secular society with spiritual leaders staying miles away from politics.

  • 12
    0

    Lotus Tower in Colombo, reflects deeper meaning stemming from China’s Mahayana Buddhist tradition. At what cost ?? I am sure China hasn’t build any in Beijing or Guangzhou to reflect such deeper meaning. Doctor (yet another mushroomed PhD) why don’t you, also project greatest soft power called SB in Lanka burning constitution, threatening governments, antics of Ganasara, politics of Ratana, Shaffi saga, sterilization pills/methods only known to soft power, monks organizing violence against minority. . . . . . . You already have outnumbered China and India as SB ambassadors, just visit Lanka and see for your self.

    • 11
      1

      “The 20th-century Western interest in exploring Buddhist doctrine mainly emanated from the Buddhist revival carried out by the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka after engaging in a series of coarse debates with the Christian missionaries”
      Would it be possible to have such a debate in modern Sri Lanka without risk of the non-Buddhists being thrown into jail on charges of insulting Buddhism?
      The author seems rather mixed up. On one hand he lauds the supposed purity of Theravada Buddhism, but also admits the prevalence of Sinhala Buddhism.
      It is unlikely that the countries targeted for missionary activities are unaware of these contradictions. Also, as with other religions, there have been sexual scandals and shady scams involving Sri Lankan monks abroad. SL Buddhism is not as unique as the author makes out.

      • 10
        2

        “For instance, Sri Lankan government can patronage the native Buddhist monks as religious ambassadors around the world to propagate the Theravada form of Buddhism”
        Wow, that is such a great idea. Yes, send the whole bunch abroad, preferably to convert the Qataris and learn useful skills like building football stadiums.

        • 6
          0

          “OC”
          Not enough embassies to send the lot.
          But Qataris also had an even greater skill to get the games to Doha.
          They knew their business and did not lose on the deal.
          BTW.
          Do you know who built those stadiums?
          Do not say, it can pump up blood pressures.

          • 3
            1

            SJ
            “Do you know who built those stadiums?”
            Yes, that’s why I suggested sending our idle hamuduruwos. Hard work builds character, as Calvin’s dad says.

      • 6
        1

        OC
        He forgets Olcott and Blavatsky, both US citizens at the time, who played a major role in Buddhist revival in this country.
        There is an Olcott Mawatha he may not know of, although nothing to remember the good lady Blavatsky by.
        *
        History is shady business. It can help people to deceive themselves in any which way they choose to.

    • 3
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      China is least of all a Mahayana Buddhist country.
      Mahayana Buddhism was born in India.
      “Om mani padme hum”
      According to the Dalai Lama, Om Mani Padme Hum means that on the path of life, with intention and wisdom, we can achieve the pure body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
      *
      It may have been a Tibetan conspiracy that got the better of the stupid Chinese.

  • 6
    0

    What a load of bull.
    ”Sri Lanka can always rely on its historical Buddhist values to promote country’s attraction to the international community” Better warn them first of our sensitive & easily offended citizens. Wasn’t a practicing Buddhist tourist deported soon after landing because she had a tattoo of Buddha & another poor woman harassed because of a maritime wheel on her dress which our sensitive folk mistook for a ‘dhamma chakra’?
    I recently saw a clip on social media of a monk preaching a modern version of Buddhism with Pali quotes. According to him, Buddha has preached to live well, eat well, make money (but be charitable) & that applies to monks as well. Probably the reason for the good life of some monks enjoy today, going around in luxury cars & SUVs (even a BMW coupe). If so, I wonder why Buddha gave up the materialistic life of a monarch (maybe the easy life of preaching was better) & lived in a monastery, dependant on the goodness of people & restricting to one meal a day if he wished everybody to indulge in all the comforts to understand Nirvana. This monk (I believe his name is Siribadda or something like that) would certainly make a good diplomat to spread the new version of Buddhism, SL Theravada style. Next time I meet the foreign monks at Amarawathi monastery in UK, I need to tell them they got it all wrong.
    Cont.

  • 4
    0

    Cont.
    Didn’t realise that the Lotus tower in Colombo ‘reflects a deeper meaning stemming from China’s Mahayana Buddhist tradition’, in which case, why did we have to borrow money from China to build the damn thing?

    • 1
      3

      China is not a Mahayana Buddhist country.
      Mahayana Buddhism was also born in India.
      “Om mani padme hum”
      According to the Dalai Lama, Om Mani Padme Hum means that on the path of life, with intention and wisdom, we can achieve the pure body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
      *
      It may have been a Tibetan conspiracy that got the better of the stupid Chinese.

    • 2
      0

      Soft power in the guise of buddhism or anything else was always in the mind of the chinese from the day one. Now the Germans are worried, that the chinese would grab their intelligence networks through entering the 5G towers in Europe. Chinese turn out to be EBOLA level virus to the world by day.

      I did not understand what was wrong with Rajapaksa’s mentality when he singlehadedly made such decisions to build such a tall tower (lotus) in poverty hit Colombo, knowing that the investment would be better used to rebuild the collapsed society. Lanken thinking should long be rehabilitated in order to allow them using the voting power again. Otherwise, they would remain eternal ” easy prey” to predatory politicians such as MEDAMULANA b***puthas.

      Not a single investment they made during their tenure turned into a Mahavelli Reserve-style profit. After the Government of the United National Party had introduced the Mahawel Project ONLY those Rajarata farmers were provided with the necessary water for their agricultural activities and thus the country could achieve with their self-sufficiency in rice.
      .
      All aimed to line their pockets with the Chinese investments, which they then revealed and took advantage of. May these looters be punished by divine forces sooner than later. That is my only wish. Once that is done, I can close my eyes forever.

  • 4
    0

    I am not sure what the author tends to achieve with this discourse. While Sri Lanka has an important history wrt to Buddhism . The religion is by no means the sole property of any ethnic group. And the whole term soft power is a meaningless term . with all his knowledge and higher studies does he not know that the Tibetans have not achieved much from that soft power and most likely never will. The only reason why they occupy the western discourse is to be a thorn in the flesh of the Chinese who they are concerned will take their hegemony away. If that irritant was taken away no press politicians or Hollywood actors will care. and Tibet will be yesterdays news. also regardless of this discourse it is possible that the Athiest Chinese has done more to the livelihood average Tibetan than the Lama ever could.

    I suppose what I am saying is that it is better for Sri Lankans to sort out their own economic affairs and put in place a sustainable economy instead of talking rubbish about soft power.

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