Written by: Julia Hardy
In the modern age, Buddhism is characterized by its diversity. In some countries it is a cultural institution. In some it is deeply engaged in political conflicts. Some governments that are in conflict with Buddhism have tried to destroy it. In others countries, Buddhism is just becoming established or evolving in new forms.
In some countries, Buddhism has become an integral part of the cultural landscape. In these countries, there are thousands of temples, large and small. Some have museums where historical works of Buddhist art are displayed and remarkable architecture and landscapes are featured. Other temples are gathering places for locals. One might find a monthly flea market or souvenir shop side by side with people participating in rituals commemorating deceased relatives. There are prominent Buddhist universities where the Buddhist tradition is taught. Buddhist rituals of national importance, such as the ringing of the temple bell on New Year's Eve in Japan, still attract huge crowds. While some experience their Buddhist faith intensely, others say they participate in rituals for cultural reasons rather than as a matter of belief.
In other countries, Buddhism has been in conflict with government authorities. In China, the practice of Buddhism was discouraged for much of the 20th century. Temples and works of art were destroyed, and monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life. Buddhism in China was virtually devastated, and is just beginning to recover. The Chinese government also assimilated Tibet, forcing its political and religious leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, to flee the country. In Tibet, temples and art were also destroyed and monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned.
In Burma (Myanmar), Buddhist monks have recently protested against the current government at their peril. Buddhists have also been involved in political conflicts in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.
There have been occasions in which Buddhist monks have taken up arms and participated in military conflicts. In Tibet, some monks became resistance fighters, while others employed methods of peaceful protest and were jailed or faced gunfire from police or troops. Even before these events, some Tibetan monks were involved in armed conflicts between rival monasteries. During the Vietnam War, some Buddhist monks became North Vietnamese soldiers.
During the shogun era in Japan, military men took up Buddhist practice as a way of cultivating self-discipline and becoming better fighters. Some Japanese Buddhist monks and scholars renewed this tradition to support their nationalism during World War II.
One can see Buddhist themes in works of art throughout Asia. Buddhism also figures prominently in Asian popular culture, where one may see films or anime with Buddhist themes or Buddhist characters. The dissolute or degenerate Buddhist monk is a frequent stereotype in literature and film, often a comic character.