Protestant Buddhism

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Term introduced by the scholar Gananath Obeyesekere referring to a phenomenon in Sinhalese Buddhism having its roots in the latter half of the 19th century and caused by two sets of historical conditions: the activities of the Protestant missionaries and the close contact with the modern knowledge and technologies of the West. In 1815 the British become the first colonial power to win control over the whole of Sri Lanka and signed the Kandyan convention declaring the Buddhist religion practised by the locals to be inviolable. This article was attacked by Protestant evangelicals in England and the British government felt obliged to dissociate itself from Buddhism. The traditional bond between Buddhism and the government of the Sinhala people had effectively dissolved while official policy favoured the activities of Protestant missionaries and the conversion to Christianity had become almost essential for those who wished to join the ruling élite. Leader of the movement that started as a result of these conditions was Anagārika Dharmapāla. The movement can be seen both as a protest against the attacks on Buddhism by foreign missionaries and the adoption in the local Buddhism of features characteristic of Protestantism. In essence, Protestant Buddhism is a form of Buddhist revival which denies that only through the Saṃgha can one seek or find salvation. Religion, as a consequence, is internalized. The layman is supposed to permeate his life with his religion and strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society. Through printing laymen had, for the first time, access to Buddhist texts and could teach themselves meditation. Accordingly, it was felt they could and should try to reach nirvāṇa. As a consequence lay Buddhists became critical both of the traditional norms and of the monastic role.

Subjects: Buddhism.

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