Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Buddhism and social justice: doctrine, ideology and discrimination in tension

In Sri Lanka, a prominent Singhalese Buddhist monk publicly proclaims that it is not a sin to kill Tamils. In Japan, the family register kept in a Buddhist temple and specifying the outcaste status of a lineage is provided to private detectives investigating the marriageability of a young woman. Throughout premodern Asia, monks in Buddhist monasteries are served by slaves and indentured servants. How is this possible? Doesn’t Buddhism promote peace, equality and freedom?

2010  -   2015
Jonathan Silk

Buddhism is widely perceived to be, and Buddhist sources themselves promote the tradition as, a philosophy of liberation. Yet Buddhist societies, both ancient and modern, not only evidence, but indeed seem to promote, social inequalities. The project 'Buddhism and Social Justice' explores the inner tensions in Buddhist cultures between inherited core values and social realities, with specific foci on questions of labor (e.g., slavery and forced labor, serfdom) and social status (e.g., caste and discrimination).

The project consists of five studies: a core investigation of slavery and caste in India, and studies on slavery in Korea, burakumin ('outcastes') in Japan, 'serfdom' and monastic economy in Tibet, and ethnicity and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. These are approached through text-historical, historical and socio-anthropological methods. The synergy between the projects lies in the question of how Buddhist ways of thinking and acting inform and structure historically Buddhist Asian societies, and how, correspondingly, Buddhist ideologies and dogmas were transformed in historical contexts.

This study seeks therefore to uncover the links between the ancient and the modern and the theoretical and the real-world, thereby leading both to a deeper appreciation of how religious systems function in societies in general, and to a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamics of historically Buddhist societies, particularly with respect to questions of social justice. As such, the work is situated not only within the realms of Buddhist Studies and Asian History, but also at the juncture of Religious Studies, Political Science and Anthropology, as it engages issues of Church and Society, Slavery Studies, and the study of Race, Ethnicity and Caste.

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