, Volume 57, Issue 4, pp 625–642 | Cite as

Theorizing Nationalism: a Buddhist Perspective

  • Saul TobiasEmail author


Buddhism Nationalism Social theory 

‘Theoretical Drift’ and the Promise of Comparativism

Over the last several decades, increasing dialogue between Western and Asian thought has become a feature of a number of academic disciplines. Since the Empire first ‘wrote back’, scholars have made significant strides in rebalancing the hierarchy of assumptions that has accompanied comparativist work in various cross-cultural fields. In disciplines such as philosophy and religious studies, for example, we have witnessed a genuine effort to promote cross-cultural discussion on an even footing. This is not to suggest that research on Asian thought in these disciplines is equally well represented or funded in the academy. Rather, the point is that academic discussion within these disciplines acknowledges that the internal assumptions and conceptual frameworks of Asian thought are the appropriate starting points for any discussion of such thought, rather than imposition of Western assumptions and frameworks. Furthermore, these disciplines have gone furthest in realizing the benefits of genuine comparativist dialogue, by which I mean dialogue in which both sides are interested in interrogating their own ideas concerning topics ranging from ethics and metaphysics to textual exegesis, by seriously entertaining the perspective of their cross-cultural counterpart.

However, this promising state of affairs is not equally widespread across all disciplines. In social theory and the social sciences, despite anthropology having originated the principle of cultural relativism, a certain tendency is evident when considering the status and scope of Western versus non-Western thought. I call this tendency ‘theoretical drift’: the process whereby, in the absence of either a genuine effort to sustain comparative dialogue or a specific non-Western focus of inquiry, theory tends to drift westward. As such, the theoretical assumptions and paradigms of Western scholarship often retain their claim to universal relevance, while African or Asian approaches are viewed as valuable only insofar as they shed light on regional questions specific to African or Asian societies.

This theoretical drift has a noticeably vertical (i.e. from grassroots empirical up to abstract theoretical) as well as horizontal (i.e. Westerly) dimension: in fields which combine theory with empirical research, as is the case in many social sciences, attention to philosophical and ideological context is stressed at the level of grassroots (or rice roots) inquiry, but tends to drift Westward as these fields broaden their scope to more abstract or globalized questions. Hence, for the social sciences, an understanding of Buddhist thought is deemed critical for the illumination of ethnographic problems pertaining to Buddhist societies, but Buddhism is rarely treated as a theoretical paradigm that could shed light on general social-theoretical questions, regardless of such questions’ regional provenance. Such a limitation is, for the most part, not imposed on Marxist, or Weberian, or post-structuralist approaches, though of course, post-colonial scholars have raised interesting questions about how such approaches might require revision in non-Western contexts. Hence, the commitment shown by the social sciences to respecting cultural context has become a double-edged sword: ensuring that Buddhist or Confucian or Hindu conceptual frameworks are given due consideration when Asian societies are under the microscope, but also implying that these frameworks are largely irrelevant to social-theoretical questions beyond these societies.

One way to counter this theoretical drift is to consider the relevance of Asian or African theoretical paradigms to social and political questions of global reach and significance. For purposes of this paper, I would like to explore one such question, which has preoccupied Western social and political thought for many years. This question concerns the resilience of nationalism and its psychological appeal. Social scientists have long pondered what it is about nationalism that evokes such strong emotion and is able to mobilize so many to acts of violence, as well as self-sacrifice. Why, they ask, do nationalist movements continue to resurface in very different parts of the world, under very different economic, political or religious conditions? These questions have received considerable attention from a range of disciplines, including political science, sociology and social psychology, whose efforts have shaped the theories of nationalism provided by social and political theorists. As a system of ideas that treats issues of epistemology, psychology and social theory differently than most Western traditions, Buddhist thought offers a novel perspective on these questions. Drawing on different methods and assumptions, Buddhism offers an approach to nationalism that can help to explain the psychological mechanisms underpinning the phenomenon’s persistence and appeal. At the very least, an exploration of Buddhism’s significance for an understanding of nationalism contributes to countering theoretical drift, offering a theoretical contribution from a non-Western tradition to a social question of global significance.

Nationalism in Western Social Thought

Political Philosophy and Theory

Western scholarship has drawn on a number of theoretical paradigms in its effort to come to grips with the phenomenon of nationalism. These paradigms have been drawn from a range of disciplines, including political science, economic history and sociology. For eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thinkers such as Herder and Fichte, the nation was conceived as a quasi-organic entity with origins in the primordial history of the people (Herder 2002; Fichte 2009). Nationalism was therefore the recognition and promotion of this primordial and authentic community. This Romantic view of nationalism and the nation, which reflects the vitalism and organicism of the incipient social science of the period, has few defenders among political theorists today. Instead, most scholars understand nationalism as a product of political and economic changes beginning in the late eighteenth century. In contrast to the ‘primordialism’ of thinkers like Herder and Fichte, these scholars may be considered ‘modernists’ for their insistence that nationalism, and indeed the nation, be understood as entirely modern developments.

Though modernist scholars agree that nationalism is of recent provenance, they have, depending on their particular theoretical orientation, emphasized different causes for the emergence of nationalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Elie Kedourie (1960) offered a cultural-philosophical argument resting on the disaffection and alienation of Europe’s young middle-class intellectuals. Ernest Gellner (1983) rejected this cultural explanation in favour of a more economic argument. According to Gellner, the nation-state with its centralized organization and linguistic and cultural integration was the political form most suited to the demands of modern, industrialized economies. Other theorists, including John Breuilly (1993) and Anthony Giddens (1985), insist on a more directly political explanation. Breuilly asserts that politics is about control of the state and that nationalism must be understood in relation to ‘the objectives of obtaining and using state power’ (1993: 1).

While such explanations of the origins of nationalism differ according in their theoretical emphasis, reflecting shifts in the prevailing Western paradigms of social scientific thinking, a general consensus exists concerning the core principles that are common to most historical cases of nationalism. Anthony Smith (2001) has identified these three principles as autonomy, unity and identity. Almost all forms of nationalism advance these principles to a greater or lesser degree.

The principle of autonomy implies that one’s own nation possesses the right to rule itself and that it is, or ought to be, independent and self-regulating. For the German Romantics, autonomy implied something like a collective ‘self’ expressing its will; for more recent theorists, the idea of an inherent right to national self-determination. The principle of unity implies that the nation’s components, including its people, should be unified into a single cohesive whole. Sometimes, this takes the form of intensive efforts to diminish linguistic, religious or cultural differences among regions and populations. At the very least, the principle of unity demands solidarity among members of the nation in times of national need. The principle of identity holds that the nation’s unique historical and cultural character should be affirmed and reinforced. While the principle of identity takes different forms, it invariably involves positing a set of characteristics or values that belong to the nation in some absolute or authentic way and distinguish this nation from other national communities. This identity is held to be unchanging over time (Smith 2001: 25–7).

The three principles of autonomy, unity and identity encapsulate the aspirations and expectations that most nationalists hold regarding the political status of their nation. But these principles do not tell us what the nation is. This ‘thin’ conception of the nation, which leaves much of the content of the concept unspecified, suits the modernist claim that the nation is an ideological construct with no existence apart from nationalism. As suggested by Benedict Anderson’s notion of an ‘imagined community’ (1991), most theorists today assert that any objective reality the nation may possess depends solely on the individuals’ identification with and attachment to the nation as an idea. This ‘idea’ is primarily the handiwork of intellectuals and activists who utilize emerging mass media to create a common national narrative and draw together disparate cultural threads to construct, in Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger’s phrase, ‘invented traditions’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

While the idea of the nation as an ‘invention’ reflects the emphasis many contemporary Western scholars place on notions of ideology, discourse and social constructivism, such a conception of the nation has also been challenged. Political theorists such as Walker Connor (1994) and Anthony Smith (1995) contend that the nation as a purely modern and fabricated notion could not inspire the deep commitment and attachment that we see among its many devotees. The view that nations are essentially ideological devices for mobilizing the masses in the interests of political elites fails to do justice to the depth and durability of feeling the nation evokes. For this reason, a number of theorists of nationalism have necessarily cast their nets beyond the disciplines of sociology, economics and political science, to anthropology, religious studies and social psychology, in the effort to explain the particular power and depth of national feeling. Their explanations point to a variety of cultural attachments to preexisting forms of communal life, and the emotional power of religion.

Primordial Attachments and Religion

Anthropology and religious studies have provided valuable conceptual resources for the theorization of nationalism. Anthony Smith argues that it is possible to talk about forms of cultural community in the ancient and medieval worlds that could be construed as nations, or at the very least, have provided enduring forms of attachment that are crucial to the formation of modern nations. These proto-national communities are defined by ‘common ancestry myths and historical memories, elements of shared culture, some link with a historic territory and some measure of solidarity’ (Smith 1995: 57). To describe the force of such ethno-cultural bonds, Smith appeals to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘primordial attachments’ which Geertz defines as attachments that stem from ‘the assumed givens of social existence’ (Geertz 1973: 259). Geertz’s argument is that, as aspects of culture, these attachments are to a large extent constructed, but they nonetheless seem to possess a tangible reality which is more powerful than the legal bonds and attenuated social relationships that are part of the modern state. According to Geertz, ‘many people’s “sense of self” is bound up in the gross actualities of blood, race, language, locality, religion or tradition ….. These congruities of blood, speech, custom and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times, overpowering coerciveness in and of themselves’ (1973: 258–9). Such ‘actualities’ and the emotions they evoke form essential components of the nation as it emerges in the modern period. They reinforce a sense of the naturalness of nationalism, and of its inherent connection to preexisting sources of community and identity. Such ethno-cultural attachments are not solely the preserve of nationalism, but as Smith notes, ‘nationalism has elevated this conscious collective attachment to a preeminent position.… Hence, all those appeals to the members of a great “family”, for the defence of “kith and kin” and “hearth and home”, and the need for self-sacrifice for the good of “our country”’ (2001: 31).

In addition to these primordial attachments of blood, language and custom, religion has also been construed by theorists of nationalism to play an important role in building and sustaining nations. On the one hand, religion provides a familiar set of beliefs and daily practices that bind communities together much as the primordial attachments do. On the other hand, religion has also served a more elevated political function of defining a community’s divine origin and unique identity, and its collective sense of divine protection, purpose and destiny. It is this latter role of religion that a number of scholars now argue has been assumed by nationalism in the modern period. Anderson points out that the decline of religious collectivities and sacred empires such as Catholic Europe or the Muslim Umma coincides with the emergence of nations as new sacred communities (1991: 7). Smith agrees that nationalism replaces religion, which he understands along Durkheimian lines as a system of beliefs and practices that unite members into a community. ‘The nation can be regarded as a sacred communion of citizens, and nationalism as a form of “political religion” with its own scriptures, liturgies, saints and rituals’ (Smith 2001: 146). According to these theorists, we therefore find in modern nationalism many of the characteristics of religion: the sacralization and ritualization of sacrifice, the notion of the elect or chosen people, the quasi-messianism attached to founders and leaders and a sense of national destiny and posterity which supplants traditional faith in the afterlife.

If we combine the insights of these various Western perspectives on nationalism, we arrive at the conclusion that what makes modern nations different from their ancient and medieval predecessors, as well as from the purely political-legal concept of the state, is the combination of ideological and cultural components. Nationalism, with its core ideological principles of autonomy, identity and unity, is now central to the modern nations’ sense of themselves in a way that it never was for their proto-national predecessors, which relied more on religion or extended kinship ties to provide unity and identity. However, the primordial attachments of culture, encompassing land, language, kin and everyday religion, remain crucial to the substantive content and emotional appeal of the modern nation.

The Social Psychology of Nationalism

The description of modern nationalism outlined previously, incorporating both ethno-cultural attachments and religious aspects, represents a more comprehensive account of the modern nationalism’s main features than the more purely ideological account offered by the ‘modernist’ theorists. Nonetheless, such an account remains problematic. While appealing to quasi-psychological notions of ‘belonging’, ‘attachment’ and ‘identity’ to explain nationalism’s potency, these notions are rarely unpacked through precise psychological explanation. On the contrary, the tendency in political science has long been to explain human motivation in terms of rational calculation and strategic self-interest. These neo-Weberian assumptions concerning the psychological roots of social action fit neatly with the economic and political interpretations of nationalism that have dominated the literature. But they are inadequate when it comes to the intensity of feeling associated with nationalism (Connor 1994). As such, the precise manner in which these anthropological and religious components of nationalism function remains unclear. Are the ‘primordial’ attachments the psychological and affective ‘glue’ of modern nation states, constitutive of the self as they are deemed to be in prenational communities? Or is their role in the modern state more abstract and ideological, providing reassuring symbols of home and kinship? The role of religion in theories of nationalism is similarly ambiguous. Are we concerned here with an analogous relationship, in which nationalism fulfils some of the symbolic function of religion through its language, rituals and aesthetic trappings? Or are we talking about the distinctive psychological power of religion which nationalism usurps? Theorists such as Anderson and Smith assert that nationalism replaces religion, or acts like religion in forging a sense of communal solidarity or purpose. In Smith’s words, ‘we need to understand nationalism as a type of collective conduct … and this means we need to grasp the nation as a political form of the sacred community of citizens’ (2001: 82). The difficulty with this Durkheimian view is that, as in Durkheim’s own writings on religion, individual psychology tends to be effaced by broader sociological claims. What is not clearly explained is how religion functions at the level of personal psychology, and how it is that nationalism is able to fulfil the same psychological functions as religion at this level.

The specific psychological dimension of nationalism has received some attention in the work of Western social psychologists. Daniel Druckman, in a survey of social-psychological theories of nationalism, such as self-categorization theory and social identity theory, notes a number of psychological functions that may be involved in nationalism, including ‘the need for affiliation (affective involvement), the need for achievement (goal involvement), and the need for power (ego involvement)’ (1994: 44–45). One area of consensus among these various theories is that group loyalty and bias are not secondary to the formation of selfhood but crucial:

These theories of ingroup bias show how group membership becomes entangled with the way individuals perceive themselves in relation to their world… Membership in a clan, religious group, or ethnic group, becomes part of the individual’s self identity and critical to a sense of self-worth. (Druckman 1994: 49).

One important approach not surveyed by Druckman is the psychological model known as Terror Management Theory (TMT). Terror Management Theory, inspired by the work of Ernst Becker, proposes that anxiety about death, which pervades all human societies, shapes human culture and the particular psychological responses of individuals in specific, observable ways. In particular, various aspects of culture, including myth and religion, function as buffers against the anxiety of death. In experiments, it has been shown that increasing awareness or anxiety about death increases the individuals’ attachment to these aspects of culture, often to the point of their violent defence. From the perspective of Terror Management Theory, group identity, including nationalism, can be understood as one of these cultural buffers against mortality (Solomon et al. 2015: 116).

The principle limitation of the social-psychological input to the study of nationalism is that it is largely unable to account for the specificity of nationalism, as opposed to other forms of group loyalty and identification. The mechanisms that social psychologists describe in accounting for group loyalty and intergroup hostility are applicable to groups of almost any description, including religious, ethnic or political groups, of almost any size. Similarly, while an approach such as Terror Management Theory provides psychological arguments for group identification, little in the TMT literature helps us understand what is distinctive about nationalism. On the contrary, most of the literature includes nationalism in a list of the kinds of group identifications that are subject to the same analysis, including religious belonging, ethnic identity and communal identifications at any scale. This lack of specificity leaves open the questions of nationalism’s distinctive psychological appeal.

As this rather extensive survey of Western approaches to nationalism suggests, no single social science discipline, be it political science or economics, anthropology or religious studies or social psychology, can alone provide a full or adequate account of the various features of nationalism and its appeal. Broader social-theoretical efforts to explain nationalism in general have relied on the findings of these disciplines, and have been subject to the same limitations. While elegance, or the lack thereof, should not be a criterion in itself for accepting or rejecting a social theory, an approach that requires the assemblage of sometimes disparate concepts and explanations in order to account for the features of a phenomenon,should at least be open to fresh perspectives that may help to articulate these elements in an illuminating form. An alternative theory, whatever its provenance, that can help to clarify the relations between these various elements and provide insight into their functioning should be welcomed and given a hearing.

A Buddhist Approach to Nationalism

Buddhist Psychology of the Self

In response to the kinds of questions that the phenomenon of nationalism raises, Buddhist thought offers a unique perspective. In approaching the question of nationalism, Buddhism starts out with a number of advantages. Contrary to a discipline-bound tradition of Western scholarship that is only now being revised, Buddhist thought is intellectually predisposed to view psychological and sociological phenomena as inherently interconnected. For Buddhism, the boundaries between internal psychology and social (and physical) reality are more fluid and permeable than is the case in most Western social science, which has long sought to distinguish distinct objects of investigation and clearly demarcate disciplinary turf.

Second, Buddhism, perhaps counterintuitively, is well placed to make sense of the connection between religion and nationalism in the West. Adrian Hastings (1997) has suggested that nationalism as an ideology first emerged in Europe and not in Asia because Asian religion, particularly Confucianism and Buddhism, lacked the kind of developed sense of the political community present in Judaism and then later in Christianity. The assumption that Buddhism is apolitical and therefore irrelevant to understanding political processes has been largely debunked1; nonetheless, Buddhism’s non-theism, and its criticism of the notion of an eternal soul, is relevant to understanding the relation between religion and nationalism, because it provides a vantage point outside the theological assumptions of Judaeo-Christianity. The deeper connections between Western theistic religions and modern nationalism may have gone unnoticed by scholars of nationalism, because certain psychological assumptions underpinning both Western religion and nationalism are implicitly shared by much Western scholarship.

Third, Buddhist thought is quite successful in integrating principle aspects of existing accounts on nationalism into a coherent whole. A Buddhist account of nationalism begins with the understanding of psycho-social identity as a continual process of constructing and reinforcing a sense of self that lacks inherent existence. From this basis, Buddhism can show how principle features of modern nationalism function as ostensibly secure ground on which to construct this sense of self. The cultural chauvinism, xenophobia and violence that have often accompanied modern nationalism can be understood in terms of the forms of attachment and aggression associated with defending a secure sense of self.

The place to begin these investigations is with Buddhism’s conception of the self (Pali, attā; Sanskrit, ātman). Contemplating the nature of the self is a central preoccupation of all Buddhist traditions, and has resulted in an understanding of the self that can be distinguished from most Western conceptions, and certainly from those conceptions of the self implicit in much political theory.2 The most basic claim of Buddhist thought concerning the nature of the self is that the self does not exist in the way in which we conventionally think and feel it exists. Unlike much Western psychology that focuses its energies on strengthening and integrating a sense of self, Buddhism begins from a position that is critical of the self. It presents, in Caroline Brazier’s expression, a ‘non-self psychology’ (2003: 31).

Most Buddhist traditions distinguish between a conventional notion of the self and a substantively existing self. The conventional self is indicated by the grammatical label ‘me’. Insofar as it is necessary to function in the world, reference to such a self will be unavoidable. Candrakīrti, the great seventh-century Indian philosopher, acknowledges this conventional sense of self when he notes in his Madhyamakavatara that ‘the Buddha, free of thinking that the aggregates composed a self, did yet say “I” and spoke of “these my teachings”’ (2004: 74 [6: 44]).

The core of Buddhist teaching on the self is that beyond this mere label or conventional self, no substantive, truly existent self can be found. Yet, most unenlightened human thought and activity are dominated by the effort to confirm, enhance or defend just such an ‘impossibly-existing’ self.3 For most of us, the ‘I’ or me is not experienced as a mere label lacking any substantive referent. On the contrary, we use these words to designate something we feel to be definite and substantive: a self that can be clearly distinguished physically and conceptually from other things and people, and which exercises control over its acts and its possessions. For Buddhism, the belief in this impossibly existing self is not only an error and obstacle to liberation; it is also the source of the pernicious views and afflictive emotions that bring suffering to oneself and others.

Primordial Attachments and the Imputed Self

A further distinction is made by Buddhist scholars between two kinds of impossibly existing selves. These are the imputed self and the doctrinally based self.4 If we examine these two kinds of self, we can identify certain characteristics that bear on our understanding of nationalism’s psychological efficacy and appeal.

The imputed self is the self we implicitly feel to exist, and so can also be referred to as the ‘automatically-arising’ or ‘felt’ self. It is not premised on clearly articulated ideas or concepts; rather, it is assumed or intuited. Buddhism teaches that we usually do not scrutinize this felt sense of self too closely. When we do, we usually ‘pin’ it to some physical or mental factor in order to ground our sense that the self has real existence. Traditionally, these grounding factors are referred to as the five aggregates of experience (Pali, khandas; Sanskrit, skhandas). The five aggregates are material form (rūpa), usually identified with the body; feeling (vedanā), specifically a sense or felt quality of pleasure, displeasure or neutrality; discriminating awareness or perception (samjñā), specifically a characteristic of perception that marks an object as familiar or the same; volitional factors, such as habits, emotions, prejudices and impulses (samskāra); and consciousness or cognition (vijñāna). Whenever we are required to reflect on what grounds our feeling of self, we point to one of these five elements of our physical or mental experience. Either we identify with some aspect of our experience and feel it to be me in some essential way or we appropriate some aspect of our experience, feeling it be mine in some essential way, which implies a self that is the owner of this thing. This continual process of identifying with, or appropriating, one or more of the aggregates as the ground of self is called ahaṅkāra (‘I-making’ or ‘self-making’).

A number of classical Buddhist texts elaborate on this process of self-making, and reiterate that the resulting self is an illusion. In a refutation of the philosophical views of non-Buddhist schools, Vasubandhu (fourth–fifth century CE) points out that for most people, elevated notions of an eternal soul are not the primary object to which ordinary people refer in grounding their sense of self. Rather, he writes:

the object of the term ‘I’ and of this identification of the self is the aggregates. [This is known] because of people’s affection for them. People of ordinary intellect come to believe, ‘I am white; I am dark; I am fat; I am thin; I am old; I am young’. They identify themselves with these things. Souls are not of this type. Therefore, the identification of the self has the aggregates as its object. (Cited in Goodman 2009: 304)

This process of identification, however, is founded on a misperception of the nature of the aggregates. As the Buddha instructs in the Alagaddūpama Sutta, it can be shown with proper reflection that none of the aggregates can be considered to be the self, or can be properly thought to be a possession of the self:

Any kind of material form... any kind of feeling... any kind of perception... any kind of formation... any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near...should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self’. (MN 22:27)

Through careful philosophical analysis, the aggregates are ultimately revealed to neither be, nor contain, nor constitute possessions of, the self. They are, in fact, ‘not-self’ (Pali, an-attā; Sanskrit, an-ātman), in the sense that they are without inherent existence, and in the sense that they do not constitute the substantive self that we associate with the notion of I.

The aggregates are revealed to be inadequate bases for a self for two reasons. First, the aggregates are constantly changing and in that sense cannot provide the essence of a substantive self.5 In one well-known sutra, the Buddha evokes the inconstancy of the aggregates with these memorable images: ‘Form is like a lump of foam, Feeling like a water bubble; Perception is like a mirage; Volitions like a plantain trunk, And consciousness like an illusion, … It appears but hollow and void when one views it carefully’ (SN 22.95). Second, we cannot control the aggregates, which establish their independence from the self. Our bodies get sick, our emotions run wild and our thoughts can be compulsive or alarming. We find, in fact, that not one of these supposed anchors of our sense of self is dependable. Bhikku Bodhi (2005) expresses the psychological effects of this realization as follows:

Since we invest our notions of selfhood and personal identity with an intense emotional concern, when the objects to which they are fastened...undergo change, we naturally experience anxiety and distress. In our perception, it is not mere impersonal phenomena that are undergoing change, but our very identities, our cherished selves, and this is what we fear most of all. (22)

Because the self ‘is a defence that we create against the uncertainties of existence’ (Brazier 2003: 39), we fear the dissolution of the elements on which we have fastened our sense of self. As such, there is a strong incentive to attach ourselves to forms, or sentiments, or components of consciousness that seem most durable and incontrovertible. The primordial attachments of land, kin, customs and language, discussed previously, provide the basis for this stronger and more durable sense of self. Because there is no inherent connection between the aggregates and the imputed self, material more conventionally conceived as being external to the self can also constitute grist for the self-making mill. Instead of our aging bodies (rūpa), we can root our sense of self in a familiar terrain which seems to be unchanging. Instead of our mutable feelings of pleasure and displeasure (vedanā), we can stabilize these feelings by emphasizing our instinctual ties to family, and identifying with the preferences and prejudices of our kinship group or clan. Instead of the bewildering array of changing objects of perception (samjñā), we can ground our self in a set of perceptions whose familiar meanings have been stamped by the authority of custom, including cultural symbols, objects and roles. Instead of our individual attitudes and habits (samskāra), we can ground our sense of self in communal practices and in comforting rituals to which our minds and bodies feel naturally inclined. And instead of our inscrutable mental processes (vijñāna), we can ground our sense of self in what seems to be the very stuff of our cognition, namely an ancient language with its familiar rhythms and its ready-at-hand wisdom. Whereas other objects of identification and attachment may feel ephemeral or unreliable, this land, these kin, this language, these rites and customs feel constant and indubitable (see Table 1).
Table 1

Nationalist ideology and the doctrinally based self

The aggregates (skhandas)

Related primordial attachments

Form (rūpa)


Feeling (vedanā)


Discriminating awareness (samjñā)

Recognizable symbols, objects and roles

Volitional factors (samskāra)

Customs and rituals

Consciousness (vijñāna)


Nationalist Ideology and the Doctrinally Based Self

In addition to the imputed self, Buddhism also recognizes a doctrinally based sense of self. Unlike the felt sense of self, the doctrinally based self is conceptual and arises specifically through exposure to particular doctrines of the self. In the Buddhist sutras, such doctrines refer primarily to the Vedic belief in the atman, or soul, but the Western monotheistic religions share a similar notion. The imputed sense of self, which as we have seen is quite unstable and relies on identifying with the changeable skhandas to provide it some ground, is reinforced by this doctrinally based sense of self. This doctrinally based self is defined in terms of three very specific properties: the quality of being independent, the quality of being indivisible and the quality of being unchanging.6

The quality of being independent means that the self exists apart from the mind it uses or the body it inhabits. It is not determined by these things but is somehow autonomous. The quality of being indivisible means that the self is not made of separable parts but exists as a unity, for example, as a monad or spark of divine matter. And when we think of the self as static or unchanging, we mean that it is not affected by forces outside of itself, that it retains its essential identity over time. In Western religions, these qualities are often used to define both God and the soul; in fact, for Western theology, it is on the basis of God possessing these qualities that the soul is conceived to possess them too.

The three defining qualities of the doctrinally based self are the same principles identified by Smith as the core of ideological nationalism. Just as all nationalist ideologies assert the autonomy of the nation as an essentially self-determining entity, so the doctrinally based self is conceived as existing independently of the skhandas. As the nation is conceived to be a unified entity, so the doctrinally based self is conceived to be indivisible. And as the principle of identity suggests that the nation has a unique and authentic historical character, so the doctrinally based self is conceived to possess an unchanging nature which defines its personhood (see Table 2).
Table 2

The three defining qualities of the doctrinally based self

Qualities of the doctrinally based self

Principles of nationalist ideology






Identity (sameness over time)

The similarity between the core principles of nationalist ideology and the qualities of the doctrinally based self are not coincidental. As we have seen, a number of theorists of nationalism have attempted to explain the emotional appeal of nationalism by asserting a relationship between nationalism and religion. Some have argued that this relation is strategic: nationalist elites, recognizing ordinary people’s sentimental attachment to religion, have adopted the trappings and symbols of religion to enhance the appeal of nationalism. Other theorists have argued that the relationship is more fundamental, that with the decline of religion as a focus of community and the hope of salvation, nationalism has stepped in to fulfil this role. The psychological picture offered by Buddhism deepens our understanding of this relation. Buddhism’s conception of the doctrinally based self allows us to see that nationalist ideology does not merely borrow the trappings of religion or reenact religious ideas or doctrines in a secular form; rather, it offers a version of eternal and inviolable selfhood, that is, for human beings, a potent psychological lure and which religious doctrine, in both the West and the East, has taken the primary role in providing. In asserting the autonomy, unity and identity of the nation, nationalism provides a secular version of the guarantee of a unitary and immortal soul that both the great Western monotheisms and Hinduism provides. Because for Buddhism such a notion of the self is inherently illusory, a Buddhist perspective allows us to see how it can be produced through any number of doctrines, be they religious or secular, provided they offer the same reassurance of the self’s independent and unchanging nature.

Self and Nation

Conceptualizing the psychological appeal of nationalism in terms of a Buddhist understanding of ahaṅkāra or self-making sheds light on a number of other features of nationalism. First, it helps us make sense of the unusual degree of disagreement among theorists concerning what a nation is, a disagreement which is not as apparent in relation to comparable concepts such as the ‘state’ or the ‘polity’. In the nineteenth century, Walter Bagehot (2007) stated of the nation that ‘we know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it’. The problem was reiterated by Hobsbawn a century later when he pointed out that ‘in spite of the claims of those who belong to it that it is in some way primary and fundamental for the social existence, or even the individual identification, of its members, no satisfactory criterion can be discovered for deciding which of the many human collectivities should be labelled in this way’ (1990: 5). For Hobsbawn, as for many other theorists, this indeterminacy was reason enough to be sceptical of the nation as anything other than a conjuring trick manufacturing by elites for the manipulation of the masses. But from a Buddhist perspective, it is unsurprising that one cannot identify the essential nature of the nation. The nation, like the conventional self, is a useful fiction but is empty of inherent existence. It is impermanent, arising out of the coming together of temporary causes and conditions, and it depends for its appearance of essence on imputation or naming, that is, on the assent of those who accept its ‘real’ existence as a substantive entity.

This does not entail, however, that the nation can be simply dismissed as an empty illusion or instance of false consciousness. Like the impossible self, the nation functions and has effects. A second insight about nationalism provided by Buddhism is that the power of attachment endows conventional phenomena with a reality and force that belie their ‘imaginary’ status. Viewing the nation through the lens of Buddhist psychology therefore helps to resolve one of the principle difficulties with the dominant modernist account of nationalism in Western political theory: how to reconcile an insistence on the ‘imagined’ or ‘ideological’, in other words, purely conventional nature of the nation, with the intensity of feeling and commitment that this imputed phenomenon evokes.

This intensity of feeling and commitment is explained in terms of the combination of two features of nationalism. First, we have the primordial attachments that endure in modernity as important emotional components of nationalism. They provide a basis for the self that feels substantive and tangible, and they have the benefit of seeming more reliable and durable that our minds and bodies. They offer us a history, a cognitive map of our allies and enemies and a store of cultural meanings and traditions to provide reassurance and direction. In addition to the primordial attachments, the ideological aspect of nationalism appeals to our intellectual demand for certainty. It responds to a deep-seated desire for a doctrinally based self possessing the intellectual authority that the imputed self lacks. By virtue of its very abstraction, such a self appears permanent and insusceptible to the impact of the phenomenal world. In combining the core ideological principles of the doctrinally based self with the primordial attachments, the nation offers a uniquely strong foundation for a self, seeming to possess the rich materiality of existing things and the emotional weight of embodied relationships, and at the same time existing principally as an abstraction impervious to the corrosive effects of time and the influence of external phenomena (see Table 3). Furthermore, by including the particular qualities of the doctrinal self—autonomy, unity and identity—in an understanding of nationalism, the Buddhist view is able to differentiate the specificity of nationalism from other expressions of group loyalty and identification, such as the tribe or family, a task most psychological analyses of nationalism have failed to do.
Table 3

Self and nation

Aspects of the self

Aspects of the nation

Conventional self

The nation as ‘imagined’ community

Imputed self

Primordial attachments to kin, land, language and custom

Doctrinally based self

Nationalist ideology (autonomy, unity, identity)

Third, a Buddhist psychological perspective also allows us to see more clearly what distinguishes nationalism from other ideologies and movements such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism. While identification with the ideas and symbols of these movements is part of what makes one a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative’, none of these movements possesses the symbolic and cultural weight carried by the idea of the nation, precisely because they privilege certain ideas above the more tangible cultural and emotional materials upon which one builds a coherent sense of self. Furthermore, while these other movements provide an image of the relationship between self and society, only in nationalism do we feel ourselves to be in some profound sense constituted as selves in and through the community. This makes extricating one’s allegiances from the nation far more difficult than breaking ties to a political movement or philosophy. No such intimate identification of one’s very self with the community is required in any other such political movement, apart from theocratic or faith-based politics such as religious Zionism or political Islam.

Nationalism and Violence

Finally, a Buddhist account of nationalism enhances our understanding of nationalist extremism and violence. While all political ideologies and movements evoke strong emotions, scholars have noted the particular intensity of feeling as well as elevated levels of ethnic chauvinism, hatred and violence that have accompanied nationalism in various historical contexts. Attempts to explain this violence have often relied on claims about the symbolic force of nationalism, or on arguments that this extremism and violence is in the calculated self-interest of the opposing sides. The more fundamental explanation offered by Buddhism does not rest on the mere symbolic significance of the nation or its instrumental value, but understands violence as a direct consequence of grasping for an impossibly existing self.

In Buddhism, acts of hatred and aggression are understood as expressions of mental afflictions or unwholesome mind states (Sanskrit, klesha). While the situations that trigger these afflictive states of mind differ from context to context, they are always related at a more fundamental level to misconceptions about the nature of reality and the self. As Vasubhandu (fourth–fifth century) stated, ‘the mental afflictions [which cause suffering] arise from self-grasping’ (cited in Duerlinger (2009): 288). According to Buddhism, grasping for an impossibly existing self necessarily gives rise to disturbing emotions and distorted attitudes, among which the three ‘root poisons’ are ignorance, craving and hatred. The process of ahaṅkāra is therefore closely connected to the kleshas, both because the root klesha of ignorance is, fundamentally, ignorance about the nature of self, and because the process of self-making involves attitudes of grasping and repulsion that are the basis of intense attachment, prejudice and hatred. Given the centrality of all three poisons to the production of self, we can see that the assertion of difference from what is not self is as fundamental to the process of self-making as grasping for or identifying with what one takes to be self. As Caroline Brazier explains, ‘Those things that support identity are likely to evoke the strongest responses. I am likely to be strongly attracted to those things I identify with and strongly reject those things I actively dis-identify with. In this way, the self-structures are further defined and reinforced’ (2003: 37). To build one’s sense of self by identifying with the nation necessarily involves asserting one’s difference from, and aversion to, what is not the nation, as well. This helps to explain the phenomenon of exaggerated hatred towards groups against which nationalists are at most pains to define themselves. Far from embracing religious, historical or cultural similarities to other nations, emerging nationalist identities will involve the exaggeration and denigration of minor differences, and often the fomenting of violence as a way of reinforcing identity-defining antagonisms (Bauman 1990). This amplification of differences may take a relatively benign form, as in the kinds of jokes Dutchmen and Belgians tell about one another, or, as tragically witnessed in the Balkan wars, escalate into the polarization of fellow citizens and neighbours into mutually and murderously opposed enemies.

Both the imputed (automatically arising) self and the doctrinally based self (that is, both the ethno-cultural and ideological aspects of nationalism) give rise to disturbing emotions and attitudes. Alex Berzin explains that the power of automatically arising disturbing emotions derive from their perceived naturalness:

Automatically arising disturbing emotions…arise without depending on learning and accepting a tenet system. Since it automatically feels as though a person is self-sufficiently knowable, the automatically arising disturbing emotions arise based on believing that what we automatically feel about ourselves and others corresponds to reality. (Berzin 2008)

Because the imputed or automatically arising self feels natural and indubitable, the automatically arising emotions associated with it feel natural and indubitable too. If my sense of self is invested in my language, land or tradition, then any assault on that language, land or tradition is experienced as an assault on the self. In this way, the cultural or ethnic components of nationalism become grounds for suspicion, hatred and violence.

For most citizens, willingness to kill and die has traditionally depended more often on the invocation of those primordial attachments that constituted for many a felt or intuitive self. But as ideology has increasingly become part of many citizens’ sense of self, affronts to the abstract unity or identity of the nation can also be experienced as a personal attack. Because the key principles of ideological nationalism—autonomy, unity and independence—are so uncompromising in their assertion of the abstract purity of the nation, any perceived challenge to the autonomy or unity of the nation becomes a potential trigger of violence. And in fact, violence against perceived traitors often exceeds violence to outsiders, because acts of treason are far more threatening to the idea of the absolutely unity and singular identity of the nation. Michael Mann (1995) points out that an identity premised on a purist ideology leaves little room for compromise. Hence, the Terror in revolutionary France justified the murder of the royal family, aristocrats and clerics on the basis that their continued existence undermined the values of a nation that was, in principle, ‘one and indivisible’. Americans during the revolutionary period killed ‘loyalists’ precisely, because they were not patriots, in other words, they did not conform to the identity of the new nation. And as Hannah Arendt pointed out in Origins of Totalitarianism, it was the consolidation of modern European nationalism by the start of the twentieth century that led to the exclusion of entire groups from membership of the nation through denaturalization, expulsion and finally genocide (Arendt 1951).

A similar extremism is evident in the resistance to change which is a frequent characteristic of ardent nationalists. Of course, collective cultural elements are not fixed essences and are not static; the identity of nations is therefore no more stable than that of individuals. But for nationalists, there exists a deeply felt conflict between this reality of cultural change and the sense that nations are constant, unified and unchanging. Compounded by an ideological conviction that the essential characteristics of the nation are timeless and immutable, any cultural change that is felt to be too rapid and too threatening to the sense of fixed cultural identity will be resisted, often with violence. The xenophobia that seems to be a perennial features of modern nationalism bears out this point that the greater one’s personal identity becomes attached to a belief in a fixed and timeless national identity, the more likely perceived changes in that identity are to be blamed on ‘outsiders’ rather than on the impermanence that for Buddhism is characteristic of all phenomena.

Finally, a Buddhist perspective also helps us understand why the tendency to support extremism in the name of the nation seems to be particularly pronounced among individuals whose sense of self, as a result of their career or social role, is more intimately tied to this abstract sense of nationhood. Historically, the most extreme supporters of aggressive nationalism came from three groups of people: teachers and public sector workers, products of state higher education and recipients of army training (Mann 1995: 55). These environments bring together individuals of very different backgrounds, and often involve giving up more parochial attachments in order to forge a new identity. In the case of less ideological citizens, intense nationalist sentiment may be moderated by continued ties to regional or family life. But having sacrificed such identities in favour of a national identity, members of these deracinated groups have far more to lose if their sense of national identity is threatened. The formation of selfhood through indoctrination in the civil service, higher education or army life, which is premised more on the assertion of abstract principles than the more parochial primordial attachments, is understandably more brittle and uncompromising, and this may explain the marked tendency of these groups to support violence.


The nation and nationalism are phenomena that no single theoretical perspective can comprehend on its own. And the theoretical perspective provided by Buddhist thought certainly cannot simply replace explanations grounded in specific historical and political conditions. Nor can it hope to account for the variations in circumstances and conditions that accompany the expression of nationalism across regions and history. However, the challenge posed by the problem of theoretical drift in social and political theory is to apply the theoretical resources of non-Western thought to these kinds of intractable questions. Though Buddhism’s unfamiliar psychological assumptions and vocabulary may pose difficulties for Western social theorists, this should not preclude efforts to broaden theoretical discussions of issues such as nationalism to include its contributions. With its distinctive account of the self, the skhandas and the afflictions, Buddhist thought provides insight into the basic psychological mechanisms that explain the consistency of certain features of nationalism across various historical and political contexts, as well as the appeal and pervasiveness of nationalism and the intensity of feeling it evokes, even to the point of violence. To use a traditionally Buddhist distinction between causes and conditions, one might say that modern nationalism has required the coming together of numerous historical conditions, including modern technology and communications, the emergence of mass societies and the displacement of religion in the West. But from a psychological point of view, the enduring causes of modern nationalism lie in what Buddhism understands to be the very engine of our conditioned existence, namely the relentless process of ahaṅkāra or self-making. If the nation exhibits a certain durability and reality despite its intangibility, then this is because the reality of the nation is tied for many of its members to this ceaseless but ultimately impossible task of securing a substantively existent self.

MN. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikāya) (1995). Translated by Bhikku Ñāṇamoli and Bhikku Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications

SN. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Saṃyutta Nikāya) (2000). Translated By Bhikku Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications


  1. 1.

    See, for example, the essays collected in Hiroko Kawanami (2016).

  2. 2.

    On the sharp distinctions between Buddhist and traditional Western conceptions of the self, see Andrew Olendzki (2010).

  3. 3.

    The phrase ‘impossibly-existing self’ to designate an idea of self which cannot withstand philosophical examination is used by Alex Berzin (2013).

  4. 4.

    This distinction is a particular feature of Tibetan Buddhist discussions of the self. See, for example, Thubten Jinpa (2002).

  5. 5.

    See Peter Harvey’s ‘Theravāda Philosophy of Mind and the Person’. (2009)

  6. 6.

    The description of these three properties is fairly standard within the Buddhist tradition, although translations vary. Alex Berzin, for instance, translates them as ‘independent’, ‘monolithic’ and ‘static’ (Berzin 2008).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Liberal StudiesCalifornia State University FullertonFullertonUSA

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