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RELS336 Buddhism, State and Society (Advanced)

Buddhist thinking about ideal political order including relationships between religion and state, monks and kings, morality and power, ethics and war, religious difference and the 'nation'. Buddhist political philosophy.

Often imagined as a pacific, other-worldly religion, Buddhism has for a long time been involved in social and political struggles throughout Asia. In Sri Lanka monastic groups have been involved in nationalist politics. In Thailand, Buddhist monks have involved themselves with environmental activism. In Cambodia and Korea, Buddhist temples served as key sites for anticolonial mobilisation. This paper examines the links between Buddhism and politics in the colonial and contemporary periods.

Paper title Buddhism, State and Society (Advanced)
Paper code RELS336
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (Distance learning)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $955.05
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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One 200-level RELS or RELX paper
RELS 436, RELX 336, RELX 436
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology

Teaching staff

Ben Schonthal

Paper Structure

Topics covered include:

  • The Buddha's social and political background
  • Buddhist kingship and alternative forms of governance
  • Nationalism, Buddhism and the state
  • Buddhism, Marxism and the Cold War
  • Buddhist perspectives on war and peace
  • Buddhist protest movements
  • Buddhist economics and environmentalism
  • Political implications of Buddhist meditational practice
  • Buddhist political parties


  • Essay outline 10%
  • Essay 40%
  • Final exam (2 hours) 50%
Teaching Arrangements

One 2-hour lecture per week, plus tutorials in most weeks


All readings will be made available electronically.

Course outline
View sample course outline for RELS336
Graduate Attributes Emphasised

Communication, Critical thinking, Ethics, Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Self-motivation, Research
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.

Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete the paper will have:

  • A broad knowledge of the differing ways in which Buddhist thinkers have imagined the ideal relationship between religious and civil power, morality and politics, monks and kings
  • An understanding of the ways in which the imperatives, technologies and ruling apparatuses of modern Asian states have altered the ways in which dhammic polities are expressed, enacted and contested
  • A familiarity with the ways in which experiences of direct colonialism and indirect/internal colonialism (e.g. in Siam) have altered the relationships between political power and monastic life
  • A strong familiarity with the dominant theorists and theories in the study of Buddhism and politics (including Tambiah, Collins, Huxley, Gunawardena, Holt, and others)
  • A knowledge of the ways in which these theorists and theories have built upon and critiqued each other
  • An awareness of the range of sources available (and unavailable) to academic research on Buddhism, and name-knowledge of texts, epigraphic and art historical sources
  • An ability to assess the ways in which Buddhist notions of governance accommodate, acknowledge and/or permit moral and soteriological diversity
  • The ability to make connections between ideals of Ideal governance and historical religious and political realities so as to evaluate the ways in which the first might reflect, subvert or legitimate the other
  • The ability to critically appraise the strengths, weaknesses and biases of dominant theories in the study of Buddhism and politics and to appraise the adequacy of evidence and the soundness of logic
  • The ability to design a research paper, identify a clear research question, conduct independent research using appropriate primary and secondary source materials and to draft a cogent, persuasive and original written argument

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system