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How Diverse Is Buddhism in Southeast Asia?

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Conventional wisdom labels the Buddhism of Southeast Asia as Theravāda. Indeed, customarily a general distinction pertains between the "southern," Theravāda, Buddhism of Southeast Asia, whose scriptures are written in Pali, and the "northern," Sanskrit Mahāyāna (including Tantrayāna), Buddhism of Central and East Asia

A Thai or a Burmese most likely thinks of the Buddhism of his country as a continuation of the Theravāda tradition, which was allegedly brought to the Golden Peninsula (Suvaṇṇabhūmi) by Aśoka's missionaries Sona and Uttara in the third century bce. But modern scholarship has demonstrated that prior to the development of the classical Southeast Asian states, which occurred from the tenth or eleventh century to the fifteenth century ce, Buddhism in Southeast Asia—the area covered by present-day Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia (Kampuchea), and Laos—defies rigid classification.

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Religious landscapes in certain other areas of Muslim Southeast Asia are even more complex. In Indonesia, for example, the range and prominence of national religious organizations (such as Nahdlatul Ulamaand Muhammadiyah) is far more extensive. So too is the tradition of religious boarding schools (pesantren), many of which promote regionally variable and otherwise distinctive visions of Islam. Contemporary political organizations and movements (some seeking partial autonomy or complete independence for outlying regions, as is the case in the southern Philippines) are also far more varied than Malaysia’s. Feminist groups in Java and other areas of Indonesia, for their part, are highly diverse as well and much more variegated than in Malaysia. Indonesia’s national motto, “unity in diversity,” is nonetheless relevant here, as it is in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. More generally, there are important commonalities among Muslims throughout Southeast Asia that derive from their observance of common rituals, their embodiment of broadly shared values, and their shared identity as Muslims living in an ethnically diverse and rapidly modernizing world. Recent advances in medical and other scientific technologies have raised a host of legal and ethical questions for Islamic theologians and jurists, as have new networks of communication and more encompassing processes of globalization. Some such questions concern the appropriateness for Muslims of contraception and other forms of birth control, blood transfusions, organ transplants, euthanasia, food additives, and certain types of cosmetics and other products used for the care of the body

These dilemmas have given rise to a spate of authoritative rulings or opinions on specific points of law or dogma, which are known as fatwas. Not generally in dispute, however, are Islamic prohibitions on gambling, pre- and extra-marital sex, as well as the consumption of alcohol, drugs, and pork. Observance of these prohibitions is an important symbol of being a Muslim, analogous in some ways to the performance of daily prayers and the adoption of certain styles of dress and moral demeanor.

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Asian private and public life, with secularism little more than a theory. Religion continues to define the majority of people’s sense of self in Southeast Asia and thus defines their worldview. In Southeast Asia, “good” religion thrives, and yet, tens of thousands of people have died in conflicts involving religion. Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims have all been, and are still involved in, major and minor disputes, conflicts, and killings for ostensibly religious reasons. Most of the time, Southeast Asian religious groups are not in conflict and live in mutual tolerance, interacting in public spaces, markets, work, and the like, though less so in private life. Nevertheless, a persistent unease exists between religions and ethnic groups, and conflicts do occur. There are also frequently clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims, though conflicts pitting Christians against Buddhists or animists also occur. Many Southeast Asians struggle with this fact and generally conclude that religious conflict comes from bad people misusing the common good of religion (Graham Brown, 2005). They conclude that politics, ethnic tensions, resources, and other factors—not religion—are always to blame. Taking a brief though serious look at religious violence in Southeast Asia challenges this cherished Southeast Asian belief in the essential goodness of religion and in the belief of religion’s ability to nurture peace. Southeast Asia is geographically and religiously split between a mainland region that is largely Buddhist and a maritime region that is largely Muslim. Sunni Islam represents the majority religion with estimates of just over 40 percent of the Southeast Asian population. Buddhism (mainly Theravada) comes in second, followed by Christianity, with the bulk of its followers living in the Philippines. Thus, while Southeast Asia as a whole is religiously pluralistic, individual nations are near religious monoliths, the exceptions being Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia. To the consternation of purists, all three world religions are heavily influenced by indigenous animist religion, which makes them religious hybrids that often escape strict categorization. Ethnicity is an issue in religious conflict because religious identity in Southeast Asia is frequently inseparable from ethnic identity.Before European colonial conquests, wars between people of the same religion in Southeast Asia were commonplace. Mainland Theravada kingdoms and states were frequently at war with one another, as were maritime Sultanates and minor Muslim states

Overarching Theravada or Islamic culture did not create a common shared sociocultural identity that quelled political, economic, or ethnic disputes. Except in the border regions between Burmese states and Muslim Bengal and on the Malay Peninsula, wars between Buddhists and Muslims were infrequent, and when they did occur, they were seldom specifically about religion. The wars between Siam and northern Malay Muslim states were primarily territorial and political, and while religious identity was a very important aspect, one would not categorize these conflicts as religious wars (Gary D. Bouma, Rod Ling, 2010).

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Ultimately, as the region undergoes rapid development, the role of religion is shifting

This will ultimately affect perceptions of identity, a change that will create anxiety in many young men and women and may see them gravitate toward extremism or other positions of intolerance. Coupled with labour migration, shifting gender roles and changes to traditional social structures, this creates a crucible for potential conflict. Addressing these insecurities of identity in a changing society (where identity is less likely to be prescribed by religion) will be key to tackling the spread of communal violence and extremism. Far-sighted approaches are needed in order to build robust, tolerant and inclusive Southeast Asian societies.

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Kamarulzaman Askandar, “The Aceh Conflict: Phases of Conflict and Hopes for Peace” in A Handbook of Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia, ed. Andrew T. H. (Cheltenham, United Kingdon, Edward Elgar Publications, Ltd., 2007), 251.

Graham Brown, Overcoming Violent Conflict: Peace and Development Analysis in Maluku and North Maluku , vol. 4 (CPRU-UNDP, 2005), 37; Human Rights Watch. Vol.14, No. 9 (C) – December 2002. “Breakdown: Four Years of Communal Violence in Central Sulawesi.”

Toh Chud, “No End in Sight,” The Economist, last modified January 2, 2016, https://

Gary D. Bouma, Rod Ling, and Douglas Pratt, Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: National Case Studies (New York: Springer Publishing, 2010), 92–94.

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