Defenders of the Dhamma

Buddhist temples are built so strong bombs can’t knock them down. Ever since the time of King Ashoka in the 2nd century BC, kings of Asia patronized the Buddhist faith by building temples, stupas, and monasteries. It came to be that traditionally Kings in Buddhists countries maintained their divine mandate to rule by virtue of their title as Defender of the Dhamma, a title still held by the King of Thailand. What is a Defender of the Dhamma? In its most simple definition, it would be a person legally held accountable for protecting the faith in the Dhamma in his country. Possibly the best historical narrative of what defenders of the Buddhist faith did in practice is the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa (link to the whole story) will be spoken about more in later posts. Sri Lanka itself has become so closely tied into the cultural identity of Buddhism it is frequently called by natives the dharmadwipa the ‘dharma island.’ If recent events foretell anything, it might be an opportune time for the global Sangha to see themselves as the dhamma-wipa amidst the raging sea of samsara.

 The days when traditional Buddhist societies had a central Defender of the Faith who could be held accountable is long gone. The question relevant to Buddhism in the age of religious terrorism is, who should be that now?

In countries where Buddhism came much later in time, such as Mahayana countries, the task of defending the faith was carried out in the spirit world with the help of the Dharmapala (“Dharma-defender”) deities lending a hand.

One possible answer is the Order. In the Vinaya Pitaka disputes in the Sangha can be largely seen to have been wished by the Buddha to be solved through dialogue and (less obviously) peer pressure. While living by the rules of the Vinaya, Buddhist monks might seem at first glance to be well suited to being the Defenders of the Faith, but in traditional societies this never happened, why? Lord Buddha never intended the Sangha to be the administrators of society, indeed, the Sangha was to be a refuge from society and a renunciation from mundane affairs. No, the Order is the Faith, the Defender would have to be someone else.

Perhaps it is possible for a Democracy to be a Defender of our faith? Surely in a predominantly Buddhist society, Buddhist political parties could gain power and influence society through the legislature. That is a common option for other religions, Christianity and Islam have political parties. Indeed, in the Sri Lanka constitution Buddhism is given a special place in what it means to be Sri Lankan. Although surely political parties are important for representing their peoples religion, more often they reflect the interests of economic interests and that is not our area of interest in 969. Without anyone else to do anything, Buddhists will have to rely on the democratic governments to protect Buddhists, such as what India is reportedly doing to step up security at Buddhist temples across India after the Bodh Gaya bombing.

The Buddha gave his teachings to all, irregardless of caste or class differences. He made no differentiation between the rich and poor, the young or old. All were welcome to partake of the teachings. As we inherited a faith without a king to protect it, without a government to guard it, and without a party to represent it, I hold the triple gem like a precious jewel, protected from the elements, as the above example of the Buddha provided, I will contend that all dhamma people are the Defenders of the Dhamma if they do so in a morally congruent manner.

A fuller treatment of this topic is beyond the time resources of the author but a full and scholarly debate on the role of Buddhist defenders of the faith is the most critical question for our time, and the single question the 969 movement begs our Buddhist readers to meditate on an answer to.

Leave a Reply