chapter  3
Maha¯ya¯na in the republic, Maha¯ya¯na in the empire
Tracing “religion” from republican China to the early Qing Dynasty (1920s – 1723)
ByJoseph Walser
Pages 32

In the last chapter, I showed that, in the case of the Dalai Lama and the 20th-century construction of Tibetan Buddhism, some of the features of Mahāyāna that had been central to Tibetan polity – especially its doctrine of emptiness and the Dharma Body of the tulku – ceased to be available as political by the end of the century. But this rather profound shift in the optics of Buddhism is by no means confined to Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism. We see a similar shift occurring in China, Korea and Japan as well. The occultation of the political hues of Mahāyāna in each of the nations from which the West has inherited its understanding of Mahāyāna in the late 19th and 20th centuries has rendered emptiness available to us only as a private “religious” experience, a “philosophical” doctrine, a “scientific” truth or a kind of “therapy” (each of the terms in quotes having an interesting genealogy of its own in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). I am not arguing that any of these reclassifications are necessarily wrong, or even particularly “modern” 1 but rather that the configuration of the categories of “religion,” “philosophy” and “science” that Mahāyāna now falls into, is itself the product of negotiations of power within the radical reconfigurations of nationhood across the globe in the late 19th and 20th centuries – reconfigurations that sought the political marginalization of religion. This chapter makes two claims. First is that the global privatization of religion that becomes ubiquitous in the 20th century is a function of the replacement of monarchies and empires by polities that were either outright republican or that shifted more powers from the singular sovereign to the governing assembly (the parliament, the congress, etc.). The rise of a new type of constitution – one that expressly located the origins of power in the people as opposed to Heaven, God or some other Ultimate – rendered increasingly obsolete (and therefore invisible) the role that religion had played formerly to structure and vouchsafe political obligations. The second claim is that, by contrast, when we look at the way that Mahāyāna was used in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912; a dynasty encompassing Tibet, China 41and Mongolia) prior to the 20th century, we can see that Mahāyāna had been a crucial element in the Qing amalgamation of what had been distinct polities and ideologies. Indeed, it is not too hard to imagine that without the very idea of a “China,” facilitated by this amalgamation, there would have been no “People” 國民全體 to whom Sun Yat-sen could grant “sovereignty” 主權 to in his 1912 Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China.