Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Buddhism as a Civilization

I’m pulling together some research I’ve done on the early history of Buddhism, not [just] as a religion, but as an ancient civilization, and its implications for our present global technological civilization.  Perhaps we can bridge the gulf between proponents of a ‘secular’ Buddhism and a ‘religious’ Buddhism if we understand Buddhism as a civilization that includes both secular and religious institutions

First, let me say that I have been arguing for years that Buddhism was always more than a religion, that it was a fully-developed civilization in Northern India, 500 BCE. It had its place among other, competing civilizations, including that of its rival civilization, the Vedic religion. My assertion, based on Sociology of Religion, is that “individuals don’t create religions, civilizations do.” Furthermore, I think its a mistake to think that the religion of Buddhism produced the civilization; rather, it’s more likely the other way around, that Buddhist civilization produced the religion.

What we in the West have received from ancient Buddhism is only its religious beliefs and practices, and at that, primarily those of the ordained Bhikkhu Sangha. What has been missing is the research and exploration of other facets of Buddhist civilization. 

There is lots of evidence now, emerging from recent archeological digs, that Buddhism was far more widespread than we have heretofore surmised. Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. “Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

“Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence?” 

KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable. “Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety; merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao says. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce too.” [See Hindustan Times, Mary 15, 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/art-culture/discovery-channels-how-new-finds-are-changing-buddhist-history-101621060757051.html

Archeologists have uncovered complex Buddhist settlements, including schools and universities, trading centers, ore mining and smelting, coinage, art and science, at sites in Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia. The latest and perhaps most significant early Buddhist site is at Mes Aynak, southern Afghanistan, featuring a 2000 year old Buddhist city, beneath which is a 5,000 year old Bronze Age civilization.

New archeological discoveries along the Silk Road show that Buddhist settlements were built along major trade routes from the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan to Uzbekistan and the Eurasian Steppes, and from China to Rome. One Buddhist scholar, Dr. Lewis Lancaster, featured in a video below, asserts that we should think of early Buddhism as a pan-Eurasian civilization, rather than just a peculiar religion of Northern India. Another interview with Dr. Debashish Banerji, a Sanskrit scholar, offers evidence the Buddhism was a combination of two cultures, North Indian and Central Asian. He asserts that Vedic Indians did not bury their dead in stupas–that’s a practice of Central Asian cultures. Likewise, Dr. Lancaster asserts that “where you find cremation, you find Buddhism.” He asserts that cremation was not practiced in early Vedic civilization. Furthermore, cremation produced relics, bone fragments, that have been found in Buddhist monastery sites and settlements throughout Central Asia. 

More controversial is the assertion that artifacts attributed to Shiva cult are actually Buddhist, that Shiva ‘lingams’ are actually Ashokan pillars. The cross-over between later tantric Buddhism and the Shiva cult have been debated for centuries, and it is known that the two cultures influenced each other. 

“Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments,” says Sarao. In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant than ever.”

Dr. Lewis Lancaster’s video lecture (below) offers evidence that early Buddhist civilization was widespread throughout the Eurasian continent, produced science, medicine, art, book printing, universities, and a thriving intercultural economy that spread from India to China to the Greeks and the Roman Empire. I have read other scholars who argue that Buddhism was popular amongst the trading classes because it did not impose rules about ritual pollution for coming into contact with people of other castes, religions and cultures. Traders who practiced Buddhism could trade with anyone from any culture. Lewis argues that Buddhism was successful as the ‘world’s first global religion’ because it was highly mobile and transportable. Furthermore, he asserts Buddhism is poised to become a major world religion once again because it provides an ethical way of life that does not require belief in God and is congruent with a global technological civilization.

Finally, this video lecture by renowned Buddhist scholar Gregory Schopen (“Buddha as a Businessman”) provides evidence that “the Buddha”, as we’ve come to know him through the vast literature of the Vinaya, was a legal innovator and shrewd businessman. Schopen asserts that early Buddhist Sangha was as much an economic system as a religion, and was supported and spread primarily through trade and the economy. 

Buddhist law, economics, science, medicine, education, literature, art, trade and craft, and yes, religion and philosophy–hallmarks of a a highly organized civilization–is evidence that Buddhism was not just a religion, but a fully-developed civilization that was deeply involved in the secular affairs of governance and the economy. Perhaps we can bridge the gulf between proponents of a ‘secular’ Buddhism and a ‘religious’ Buddhism if we understand Buddhism as a civilization that includes both secular and religious institutions. 

Dharmaecology is an effort to embed Buddhist dharma and practice into a larger social ecology system that includes governance, economics and culture. 

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This entry was posted on 2022/04/13 by .


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