UU blogger CK asked some good questions about the last post. Here is a partial response to her issues.
We do see the emergence of phenomena that we could term “Buddhist fundamentalism,” but we have to be quite careful about how we use such a term. All of the Buddhisms that are engaging with modernity by producing fundamentalist versions are deeply implicated with post-colonial nationalism–this was not a driving force behind the rise of Protestant (American) Christian fundamentalism, the subject of the previous post, but it is the most important factor in understanding these seemingly fundamentalist new Buddhisms. Buddhism is replicated in a militant and intolerant mode in response to ethnic tensions related to struggles in post-colonial states, so this Buddhism fundamentalism arguably is not a particularly parallel phenomenon to the American Christian one. Not that American Protestantism lacks a nationalistic side–far from it–but the situation is considerably different and the degree to which various forces are driving change (versus just being “in the mix”) differs as well.
Just to highlight one of many implications of this difference, Buddhist fundamentalism seeks to secure a certain traditional area as strongly Buddhist (such as the island of Ceylon), against the threat of ethnic and religious others who (at least allegedly) seek to disrupt the practice of Buddhism. It is about retaining specific geographic places for Buddhism in the face of perceived non-Buddhist encroachment.
American Protestant fundamentalism, on the other hand, not only seeks to hold on to traditional privileges but in many incarnations actively seeks to spread to historically non-Christian places, displacing their current religions and becoming the dominant local power. Furthermore, it emerges out of tension with its close theological other–liberal Protestantism–not an ethnic other, and is most concerned (even beyond missionization) with the defeat of alternate nearby Christianities. Christian fundamentalism came to destroy Christian liberalism and to convert the world, in that order.
This helps us distinguish the two religious fundamentalisms. Buddhist fundamentalism does not emerge from theological debate and is not locked in a struggle to eliminate liberal Buddhism, nor does it have a missionary impulse–it seeks to retain homelands, not colonize new areas. For these reasons it is not in fact strongly theological–Buddhist fundamentalism does not stress Buddhist beliefs, but rather Buddhist forms of social organization, with the beliefs and practices that bolster these forms being only of secondary importance. It reads texts historically and often rather literally, yet does so not to prove theological points but instead in order to produce cohesive ethnic identity and strong claims toward land ownership.
On the matter of Abrahamic religions’ responses to modernity, this may not be a fully useful category. The emergence of Jewish fundamentalism differs significantly from that of Protestant fundamentalism. Protestant fundamentalism stresses a divinely given text in the rationale for its creation, but Jewish fundamentalism, while indeed yet another response to modernity, is considerably more tied to orthopraxy than orthodoxy when compared with Protestant Christianity. Not that divinely given texts are unimportant in Jewish fundamentalism, but they are in a way secondary to the concern for preservation of Jewish practice as a marker of identity, rather than Jewish belief as a marker of identity (whereas Christian belief is central Protestant fundamentalism, with Christian practice, while important, being of secondary consideration). This is because the concern that birthed Jewish fundamentalism wasn’t taint by theological heresy, but the threat of assimilation. Jewish fundamentalism locates Jewish distinctiveness in Jewish practice, not so much Jewish thought, so it is practices, not texts, that fuel it.
Islamic fundamentalism inhabits a middle-ground between the Protestant and Jewish fundamentalist approaches. It is about equal in stress on divinely given text and on sharia, the body of law that enforces practice. As with Buddhist fundamentalism it emerges not out of fear of close theological others but from the politics of the post-colonial world.
All of this means that any characterization of reliance on divinely given texts as distinctively “Abrahamic” is problematic–not because it also happens outside of this category, but because it doesn’t even happen as much as we might think within this category. “Abrahamic” isn’t that useful as a tool for understanding Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms (especially in comparison to Buddhist or Hindu fundamentalisms) because these three religions are arguably actually more different than similar to each other in their production of modern fundamentalisms.
As to the question of whether Protestantism has had an influence on the way Buddhists understand their origins, especially Protestant fundamentalism on Buddhism fundamentalism, we can see there has been some influence but that it is not especially strong. Protestant fundamentalism tends to provoke a greater degree of attention to texts in Buddhist fundamentalism, but where Protestant fundamentalism largely still wrestles with science as an enemy, Buddhist fundamentalism tends to appropriate scientific rhetoric to assert Buddhism as the most intelligent and transmodern of religions. The Christian influence on Buddhist nationalism, which subsumes Buddhist fundamentalism, has been mainly in forms of organization, education, and communication, rather than in approach to texts. And much of this influence is a 19th century colonial story, before the rise of fully-fledged Christian fundamentalism.
There will eventually be a series of posts here about defining liberal religion in such a way that it contains liberal forms of Buddhism, especially in North America. Maybe this post is a sort of lead-in to that discussion.