Armies of the Enlightened

In recent years, massive groups of fervent believers have taken to the streets of Asia with angry political demands. They've railed against government corruption, condemned the onslaught of Western values and decried the erosion of traditional morals. Having built an extensive network of grass-roots aid groups, their numbers are exploding. Some have even picked up arms to defend their beliefs. Sound familiar? It should—only the faithful in question aren't Islamic fundamentalists or conservative Christians. They're Buddhists: members of what used to be Asia's quietest religion, one usually associated with pacifism and contemplation.

No more. In this era of religious fervor, an Asia-wide resurgence of Buddhism is spawning activists and increasingly assertive political movements, some of which even act like fundamentalists of other faiths. True, many Buddhist groups, like Taiwan's massive Tzu Chi movement, still practice nonviolence and antimaterialism; indeed, this meditative side is helping Buddhism make inroads among alienated urban professionals in India, China and elsewhere.

But other organizations are now wading straight into the rough-and-tumble of everyday politics, suggesting last year's monk-led protests in Burma weren't an anomaly. In Thailand, an ultraconservative Buddhist faction helped topple Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. In India, the populist leader of a rapidly expanding Buddhist-supported party is now being touted as a future prime minister. And in the most dramatic cases, some Buddhists have even begun advocating violence—such as Sri Lanka's fiercely nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party—or have started picking up guns themselves, as in southern Thailand.

The rise of this more activist form of Buddhism "is an instance of the wider politicization of religion worldwide," says Jim Holt, a religion professor at Bowdoin College. "I don't like the term 'Buddhist fundamentalism,' but there certainly is a militancy showing up."

Buddhism, which emphasizes detachment from worldly desires and compassion for all living beings, has been around for 2,500 years and has an estimated 350 million followers worldwide. Buddhists have yet to turn to terrorism—perhaps due to the religion's injunctions against violence. Still, many Buddhists are adopting a tough-minded new profile, which can be explained in part by their numbers. The religion is growing fast. Though it's hard to nail down exact figures, scholars say there are now some 100 million Buddhists in China alone. In India, the birthplace of Buddha, there were only 8 million in 2001, but experts now set the total at 35 million. And in Taiwan, the number of Buddhists grew from 5.5 million in 2001 to 8 million in 2006.

The boom reflects several factors. In China and Taiwan, the growth of the faithful reflects the loosening of political control. In recent years, Beijing has significantly eased restrictions on all the country's faiths, not least because religious values (once attacked during the Cultural Revolution) are now viewed as a vital bulwark of the "harmonious society" touted by the government. Meanwhile, as Asian societies grow richer, Buddhism's powerful critique of materialism is resonating among the new middle classes. Akash Suri, for instance, is a 25-year-old banker in New Delhi who once lived a lavish lifestyle, splurging on clothes, restaurants and expensive holidays. But a couple of years ago he began thinking "that all this fancy lifestyle was not making me happy. Instead there was anxiety and stress." Buddhism and meditation calmed him.

Buddhism offers Indians another powerful incentive: a way out of the country's oppressive caste system. This appeals especially to the vast number (approximately 170 million) of Dalits, or Untouchables. Last year, for instance, Hukum Das, a 22-year-old villager from the state of Maharashtra, joined 5,000 people in a mass conversion ceremony in Mumbai. "I don't want to be treated like an animal anymore," he says. Dalit scholars say more than a million Dalits have converted in the last decade.

These growing numbers are translating into political power regionwide. That's made Beijing, for one, deeply nervous. This month, for example, on the 49th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhists plan to march from the Indian town of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, to Lhasa, Tibet's capital—one of a series of protests linked to the upcoming Olympics.

Buddhism's growth could also translate to other, longer-term challenges to Communist Party rule. Experts on Chinese Buddhism say that more and more believers are converting to the Tibetan variety or worshiping with itinerant spiritual instructors at home, outside of government-approved temples—and outside government control. Many of these "living Buddhas," says Gareth Fisher of the University of Richmond, frequently criticize the ills of present-day Chinese society, including politically sensitive topics like corruption or environmental despoliation.

In India, meanwhile, resurgent Buddhist movements have begun entering politics directly. Udit Raj, a Dalit who converted to Buddhism seven years ago and founded a political party, says, "Dalits must liberate themselves from the shackles of their oppressed past. Buddhism is the path to liberation." Many of his fellow caste members agree and have gravitated toward the Bahujan Samaj Party, which now controls Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state. The BSP's populist Dalit leader, Mayawati Kumari, who follows Buddhist practices in her everyday life (though she hasn't converted) shocked observers last year when she helped her party win 206 seats in the 403-member state assembly; since then, she's started to be touted as a potential prime minister. Mayawati has made it clear where her support lies, encouraging ambitious plans to erect Buddhist landmarks throughout Uttar Pradesh—including a 150-meter-long, $250 million bronze Buddha at Kushinagar, where the historical Buddha died.

That sort of direct political participation is also evident elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, where the Buddhist Sinhalese majority has been fighting an on-and-off civil war against the island's Hindu Tamil minority since 1983, Buddhist monks have served in Parliament under the banner of the ultranationalist JHU party. So far, the JHU's numbers are small—it holds only nine seats out of 225—but that belies its influence. The party joined the governing coalition of President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year, and has attracted Sri Lanka's most chauvinistic Sinhalese, who accuse the government of being too accommodating toward the Tamil separatists.

Defying Buddhist traditions of tolerance, the JHU has supported a full-fledged military crackdown on Tamil fighters and has pushed the government to back away from an internationally mediated ceasefire. The JHU has also pushed for controversial laws to prevent proselytizing by foreign Christian missionaries and agitated against sharing foreign aid for the 2004 tsunami with the rebels.

This pugnacious side of Buddhism has manifested itself in Thailand, too, where well over 90 percent of the country's 62 million people are Buddhist. Thai monks are barred from serving as legislators, but a group called the Dharma Army, associated with a small Buddhist sect called Santi Asoke, already plays a key role in national politics, and helped bring down Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during massive street demonstrations two years ago.

The Dharma Army is led by Chamlong Srimuang, a charismatic ex-general and former Bangkok mayor who has turned the ascetic group (its members abstain from sex and eat only one meal per day) into a disciplined and highly vocal organization that attacks political malfeasance and corruption in the state-supported clerical establishment. The group opposed Thaksin for his alleged corruption and abuses of power, and, according to Zachary Abuza, professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston, lent critical support to the oligarchy and the military when they moved against him. The Dharma Army "really hate what Thaksin stands for," he says—namely a populist threat to the country's traditional hierarchy.

It was similar sentiment that drove last year's campaign by a number of other Buddhist factions to have Buddhism enshrined as the state religion. These org-anizations claim such a move is necessary to preserve Thailand's character and prevent the encroachment of foreign mores. "The Thai people just copy Western culture," says university professor and Buddhist activist Dhirawit Pinyonatthagarn. "Our values are under threat." But the change would have enraged the country's 5 million Muslims. Though it ultimately failed after Thailand's revered royal family intervened, groups like the Buddhism Network of Thailand (an umbrella organization) and the Buddhism Protection Center easily mustered tens of thousands of protesters to push for the change. Experts say the issue is almost certain to flare up again.

Meanwhile, in the country's south—where a Muslim insurgency has been raging for four years—many Thai Buddhists have taken matters into their own hands, forming paramilitary "self-defense groups" with the government's help. These groups are nominally nonsectarian, but they contain few if any Muslim members, and they often use Buddhist temples as training grounds. Many of the 7,000 volunteers drill using sticks instead of guns, but one expert (who didn't want to be identified to avoid compromising sources) says that the Thai government purchased a large number of shotguns from Russia last summer to arm them.

Not all of Asia's newly activist Buddhists have forgotten the Enlightened One's teachings about pacifism. A striking example is the Engaged Buddhism movement, which was founded in the 1960s by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who became an activist during the Vietnam War and was ultimately exiled to France by his country's communist rulers. He's since returned to his homeland twice, in 2005 and 2007; on both occasions his countrymen received him like a conquering hero. The movement, which emphasizes nonviolence and social action, has persistently lobbied for religious tolerance throughout the region—most strikingly in Sri Lanka, where members of the local Sarvodaya Shramadana organization hold regular, nonsectarian antiwar demonstrations. The group has also helped 15,000 communities build roads, find clean water and run preschools, says Sallie King, a religion and philosophy professor at James Madison University.

Engaged Buddhism has spawned a particularly powerful movement in Taiwan, where Tzu Chi and similar groups have bloomed in recent decades. Spurred by a larger Buddhist renaissance in Taiwan, Tzu Chi now claims 10 million followers worldwide. Founded by a Buddhist nun in 1966, Tzu Chi tries to steer clear of politics—yet it doesn't hide its light under a bushel, and has used its TV station and publications to promote a more altruistic vision of Taiwanese life. Today, Tzu Chi is considered one of the most effective aid agencies in the region. Its relief workers—known as "blue angels" for their distinctive uniforms—helped tsunami victims in Sri Lanka and Indonesia in 2004 and did aid work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tzu Chi's apolitical bent has allowed the group to expand its activities onto the Chinese mainland—with Beijing's blessing. The group has built schools, nursing homes and entire villages in poor inland areas like Guizhou province. Yet given the growing politicization of Buddhism elsewhere, there's no guarantee that China will continue to tolerate Tzu Chi's activities.

Especially since Buddhists are becoming more overtly political—even in Taiwan. Shih Chao-hwei, a 50-year-old religious-studies professor at Hsuan Chuang University, founded a group called the Life Conservation Association in 1993; it has since helped to pass a law protecting animal rights, and campaigns against abortion and against a move to establish casinos on the island. "We support issues, [not] specific politicians or parties," she says. Increasingly, it seems, more and more Buddhists believe their Teacher wants them to speak out, to organize, even to fight for their rights. As their numbers grow, there may come a day when even the mighty Chinese government can no longer keep them down.