The Buddhist Path in the 20th Gentury. Religious Values in the Modern History of Theravada Buddhist Countries by A. Agadjanian is a complex study of the history of Theravada Buddhism’s modern transformations and its manifold influence on five Asian societies — Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. An attempt was made to generalize different kinds of sources (including religious texts, historical narratives, statistics and field data of social anthropology). There is also an analysis and comparison of different scholarly views concerning the interrelation between religious and social dynamics in the Theravada world.
Theoretically, religion is considered as a kind of the «universal system of meanings» that endows the human praxis with sacral and symbolic significance. The stages of the «social display of religious meanings» are discerned: the Doctrine and its perception (hermeneutical process); the cult and its dramatic realization (ritual process); the religious social programme, which contains the meanings of all social phenomena, values, attitudes, patterns of social behaviour and forms of social organization. Through these three stages the ultimate meanings of doctrinal soteriology are gradually translated into the terms of this-worldly praxis.
Chapter I. «The Buddhist Teaching in the 20th Century», contains an exposition of major Theravada Buddhist notions, including ontology, cosmology, ethics, and esp. the correlation of two main doctrines of kamma-samsara and nibbilna. The unity of high (monastic) and low (lay) levels of religiosity is postulated. The main features of the Buddhist world-outlook are: unsubstantiality, universal correlation of all phenomena, a fluent hierarchism, the ethical determinism.
Then the modern reformist exegesis in Theravada Buddhism is considered. The significance of this exegesis was a quest for the Buddhist cultural identity as a responce to the Western challenge, and for the legitimation of social changes through the use of traditional cognitive means. The reformism of Dharmapala, Buddhadasa and others are studied, as well as such new synthetic ideologies as Thai «civil religion» and Burmese «socialism». In spite of some formal resemblance to the European Reformation, deep diffe- rencies in contents are analysed.
Chapter 2, «The Cult and Ritual Process in the 20th Century», deals with to the sahgha and its functional place in Theravada societies. The monastic Order as a whole and each its member incarnate the fundamental antinomy of intravert and extravert orientations (the idioms of arahat and boddhisatta). Sahgha is a symbol of world renunciation and a social institution at the same time. The sahgha’s existence in this century was precarious balancing between these two paradigms — other-worldliness and this-worldliness. The derivative antinomies are considered, including those of the organization of sacral space (remoteness and centrality, dispersion and unity), meditation and priestly ceremonial roles, poverty and property, universalism and parochialization. The relationships between the sahgha and the lay world are based on the principle of exchange of dana (donations) for religious merits or charisma, that the world constantly needs. The sahgha’s role in politics is considered in the same way. In the 20th century the trends of «purification» and «profanation» were parallel and manifested in the forest fundamentalist asceticism and monks’ social and political activities, correspondingly.
Chapter 3 «The Buddhist System of Socio-Cultural Meanings: the Theravada Social Programme» studies the basic social values of Theravada Buddhism in both ideal-typical and historical perspectives. The meanings of basic notions like ‘individual’, ‘interpersonal relationship’, ‘group’ are investigated through a comparison of the empirical reality with the doctrinal concepts, of anatta, punna, karuna, bodhisatta etc. The main features of the Theravada social programme are the «incomplete individual», the openness of boundaries between the ‘self and others, the personal merits as a base of individual identity, the socially-referred personalism, the hierarchy of patron- client dyadic associations.
Chapter 4 «Buddhism and Power» studies the Theravada political tradition as derived from the core of Buddhist mentality, and its implications in contemporary politics. The political tradition includes the mythology of a sacral righteous kingdom with soteriological goals; the parallelism of charismatic and power hierarchies; the notion of sacral space (instead of territorial sovereignty); the predominance of the ethical legitimation; the state «despotic paternalism»; a millenarian radicalist tradition. In the 20th century the perception of «western» political forms (nation-state, parlamentarism, party pluralism, etc.) has been accompanied by their traditional legitimation with the use of many Buddhist symbols and notions. All political regimes whether they be democratic or authoritarian demonstrate the persistence of such features as paternalism, patron-client personalist hierarchies, etc. in today’s political process.
Chapter 5 «Buddhism and Economy» deals with economic implications of the aforementioned matrix of Theravada social mentality. The notion of “wealth» in the traditional cultural context in conceived rather in social than in material terms; the «social wealth» is measured by the volume of social ties, influence, and power. The emergence of new economic roles in the 20th century is culturally legitimized by references to the traditional values and behavioural patterns. Buddhism doesn’t hinder economic growth or provoke it, but its symbolic and semantic mediation is necessary to legitimize new economic attitudes and to ensure new social groups’ identities and their recognition by others. The idea of «Buddhist economy» is also studied.
The monograph draws the differences between the five countries’ «little traditions» of Theravada, and their societal implications in the 20th century. The Buddhist cultural heritage cannot be considered as a determinative factor of modern developments. But the persistence of Theravada traditional semantics cannot be ignored in understanding the specific response if this civilization to the challenge of the Western modernity. Such «legitimate development» is a kind of morally and psychologically justified «vector», which is searched for in the history of every society.