Here I want to talk about the relations of Church and State. These are simplest in Buddhism, which teaches that the truth is one, that all men ought to follow it and that all good kings should honour and encourage it. This is also the Christian position but Buddhism has almost always been tolerant and has hardly ever countenanced the doctrine that error should be suppressed by force. Buddhism does not claim to cover the whole field of religion as understood in Europe: if people like to propitiate spirits in the hope of obtaining wealth and crops, it permits them to do so.
In Japan and Tibet Buddhism has played a more secular role than in other countries, analogous to the struggles of the medieval European church for temporal authority. In Japan the great monasteries very nearly became the chief military as well as the chief political power and this danger was averted only by the destruction of Hieizan and other large establishments in the sixteenth century.
What was prevented in Japan did actually happen in Tibet, for the monasteries became stronger than any of the competing secular factions and the principal sect set up an ecclesiastical government singularly like the Papacy. In southern countries, such as Burma and Ceylon, Buddhism made no attempt to interfere in politics.
Buddhism and Hinduism both have the idea that the monk or priest is a person who in virtue of ordination or birth lives on a higher level than others. He may teach and do well but irrespective of that it is the duty of the laity to support the priesthood. This doctrine is preached by Hinduism in a stronger form than by Buddhism.
The intellectual superiority of the Brahmans as a caste was sufficiently real to ensure its acceptance and in politics they had the good sense to rule by serving, to be ministers and not kings. In theory and to a considerable extent in practice, the Brahmans and their gods are not an imperium in imperio but an imperium super imperium. The position was possible only because, unlike the Papacy and unlike the Lamas of Tibet, they had no Pope and no hierarchy. They produced no à’Beckets or Hildebrands and no Inquisition. They did not quarrel with science but monopolized it.
The views prevalent in China and Japan as to the relations of Church and State are almost the antipodes of those described. In those countries it is the hardly dissembled theory of the official world that religion is a department of government and that there should be regulations for gods and worship, just as there are for ministers and etiquette. If we say that religion is identified with the government in Tibet and forms an imperium super imperium in India, we may compare its position in the Far East to native states under British rule.
There is no interference with creeds provided they respect ethical and social conventions: interesting doctrines and rites are appreciated: the Government accepts and rewards the loyal co-operation of the Buddhist and Taoist priesthoods but maintains the right to restrict their activity should it take a wrong political turn or should an excessive increase in the number of monks seem a public danger. The Chinese Imperial Government successfully claimed the strangest powers of ecclesiastical discipline, since it promoted and degraded not only priests but deities.
In both China and Japan there has often been a strong current of feeling in the official classes against Buddhism but on the other hand it often had the support of both emperors and people, and princes not infrequently joined the clergy, especially when it was desirable for them to live in retirement. Confucianism and Shintoism, which are ethical and ceremonial rather than doctrinal, have been in the past to some extent a law to the governments of China and Japan, or more accurately an aspect of those governments. But for many centuries Far Eastern statesmen have rarely regarded Buddhism and Taoism as more than interesting and legitimate activities, to be encouraged and regulated like educational and scientific institutions.
By Pablo Antuna Buddhism for the Non-Buddhist Layman.