top of page

Notable acts of tolerance in the History of Asia

Abstract: This is an attempt to select and bring forward for consideration the notable acts of tolerance that have taken place along the course of oriental history from India to Vietnam and Japan. The writing is based on the assumption that tolerance was firstly and impressively initiated by the Sakyamuni Buddha in ancient India. The spirit of tolerance along with other human virtues such as compassion and non-violence has been continually inherited up to the present day amidst Buddhist-influenced cultures.

The theme of the conference is “ASEAN Buddhist Communities Contributing to World Peace and Environmental Sustainability” and its sub-themes are as follows,

1. Buddhism in the ASEAN Region: History, Opportunities and Challenges.

2. ASEAN Buddhism: Heritage and Acculturation.

3. ASEAN Buddhist Region: At the Crossroads of Modernisation and Globalisation.

4. Buddhism in the Region vis-à-vis Environmental Sustainability.

5. Buddhism as a Tools of Conflict Management for a Global Peace: A Case study of ASEAN

6. ASEAN Buddhism and the World Buddhism: What to learn and practice?

The sub-theme “ASEAN Buddhism: Heritage and Acculturation” caught my attention because I am interested in something relating to the ASEAN culture, particularly the culture of tolerance. That is why the tittle of my writing is “Noble Acts of Tolerance in the History of Asia”. This is an attempt to select, just a typical few because of the context of a conference, and bring forward for consideration the notable acts of tolerance that have taken place along the course of oriental history from India to Vietnam and Japan. The writing is based on the assumption that tolerance was firstly and impressively initiated by the Sakyamuni Buddha in ancient India. The spirit of tolerance along with other human virtues such as compassion and non-violence inspired by the Buddha has been continually inherited up to the present day amidst Buddhist-influenced cultures that in the case are of Viet Nam and Japan.

At the starting point of working on the concept of tolerance as a cultural practice I think in the first place that tolerance is associated with or has many things to do with the act of forgiveness or acceptance. The Free Dictionary online by Farlex provides the more elaborate definitions of tolerance as the power or capacity of enduring, or as the endurance of the presence or actions of objectionable persons, or of the expression of offensive opinions.

The meanings given above are basic and reliable, however, that is too simple to satisfy my quest. To delve a bit deeper in the searching of its meaning, I checked additionally the Reader’s Digest Reverse Dictionary and have taken to my notice several connotations of the adjective “tolerant”. Out of the connotations of the word, I selected out the following three to work on: (1) Undogmatic and liberal, especially in matters of church doctrine and ritual, broad-church, then it has “latitudinarian” as a synonym. (2) Forgiving of others’ faults or crimes, then “lenient” is its synonym. And, (3) unvengeful, willing to forgive and forget, then its synonymous term is “magnanimous”.[1]

On assuming the Indian toleration as the original source I will discuss the theme though the following headings: (1) Tolerance As A Policy; (2) Categoric Tolerance In Ancient India; (3) Vietnamese Tolerance; and (4) Japanese Tolerance.

Kai Ichiran Zu map of Japan (1806) 山村才助(Saisuke Yamamura, 1770-1807)

1. Tolerance As A Policy

“...The word ‘toleration’ in its legal, ecclesiastical, and doctrinal application has a peculiarly limited signification. It connotes a refraining from prohibition and persecution. Nevetheless, it suggests a latent disapproval, and it usually refers to a conditon in which the freedom which it permits is both limited and conditional. Toleration is not equivalent to religious liberty, and it falls far short of religious equality. It assumes the existence of an authority which might have been coercive, but which for reasons of its own is not pushed to extremes. It implies a voluntary inaction, a politic leniency.”[2]

So we can see the negative implications which are usually not extremely apparent when we have a first look at the word ‘tolerance’. Toleration is never absolute. It is relative, so relative that the extent of its relativeness might surprise us. Tolerance suggests an amount of disapproval on the side of the authority.

A Yayoi period bronze bell (dōtaku) of the 3rd century CE

The amount of unpleasant feeling lies latent behind any case of outward acceptance. In religious aspect, tolerance never means that there is something so ideal as religious liberty, let alone religious equality. The course of the religious history around the world gives so many evidences that no one can possibly deny the prevalence of global or regional intolerance, meaning the stark antonym of tolerance.

The toleration is never unconditional and boundless, it is almost always weighed carefully to determine to how much

tolerance is enough for serving certain goals. The intellectual motives of such a tolerance are varied through an interestingly multifaceted spectrum, from the mere inability of enforcing prohibitory measures to the respect for the right of private judgment, from lazy indifference to the charity that endures the objectionable, from the desire to secure conciliation by concessions to the intellectual breadth and humility that shrink from a claim of infallibility. And the most farseeing one is the wisdom to perceive that ‘force is no remedy’[3].

Ashokan pillar at Vaishali, 3rd century BCE.

2. Categorical Tolerance In Ancient India

Fortunately, Vietnamese and Japanese peoples have centuries of sharing the same background with respect to Eastern religions and cultures, among which Buddhist ideology has been contributing significantly in making the cultural foundation. Now, let’s talk about the conception of tolerance both nations have in their legacy, likely inherited from the same fountainhead in India. The most outstanding historical figure who apparently implemented the Buddhist idea of tolerance over the ancient India under his control is Ashoka the Emperor. The story says that just after getting the decisive victory over the opposing forces at Kalinga, the emperor revisited, alone in the evening, the bloody battlefield where the devastating military struggle had taken place not so long before. What his majesty saw gripped his heart in shock. In the twilight he saw scattered here and there the remaining pieces of the mutilated bodies in blood pools, he heard the interrupted hoarse sounds of groaning, moaning and lamenting from the struggling bodies of those who were gravely injured and going to die. He returned from the abhorrant scenery with a groundbreaking change in mind. He pledged that he would never conquer by military power again and he would conquer only by power of dharma. The substancial part of which, clarified by his later deeds, was the dharma of non-violence or ahimsa in Indian language. As already known, whenever there is the dharma of non-violence then naturally there is the dharma of tolerance that follows. That is “soft power” in contemporary terminology. It can be said that as a result of the Kalinga shock the emperor started to spread the Buddhist ideology throughout his empire. Historians call him the Constantine of Buddhism in India. Since then, of his majesty’s acts and decrees were inspired by the concept of compassion, non-violence and tolerance. Actually, the emperor had monuments of his legislation cut in stone expressing his liberal treatment of religion. One of his notable inscriptions is as follows,

“The king, beloved of the god, honours every form of religious faith, but considers no gift or honour so much as the increase of the substance of religion, whereof this is the root – to revere one’s own faith and never revile that of others.”[4]

A statue of the Buddha at Dharma Mountain

The above example of tolerance or, more terminologically, latitudinarian, given by Ashoka, actually, was a continuation from the tolerance sayings and practice recorded in the Sakyamuni Buddha’s life story. The following incident should not surprise us. “Once in Nalanda a prominent and wealthy householder named Upali, a well-known lay disciple of Nigantha Nataputta (Jaina Mahavira), was expressly sent by Mahavira himself to meet the Buddha and defeat him in argument on certain points of the theory of Karma, because the Buddha’s views on the subject were different from those of Mahavira. Quite contrary to expectations, Upali, at the end of the discussion, was convinced that the views of the Buddha were right and those of his master were wrong. So he begged the Buddha to accept him as one of his lay disciples (Upasaka). But the Buddha asked him to reconsider it, and not to be in a hurry, for ‘considering carefully is good for well-known men like you’. When Upali expressed his desire again, the Buddha requested him to continue to respect and support his old religious teachers as he used to.”[5]

It can be observed that the ways of action and reaction that have been carried out in almost all kinds of relationship nowadays, say, political, military, economical are simply intolerant and somewhat full of violence.

Fortunately, as mentioned above, the Vietnamese and Japanese peoples have been sharing to various extents in their cultural background the conception of compassion, non-violence and tolerance which are supposed to be handed down from the Sakyamuni Buddha tradition, and ever exemplified by Ashoka the emperor of ancient India.

The Mahabodhi Temple dates to the Gupta era, 5th century CE, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
The Mahabodhi Temple (Gupta era), 5th century CE.

Additionally, it can be noted here that in several of previous centuries when the Westerners came with their advanced industry and technology, Vietnam and Japan again have been sharing to some extent the similar feeling of material superiority and simultaneously of the exclusive monotheist totalitarianism of the West. The disillusion, however, gradually came in. And, all that glitters is not gold.

In fact what they have been disillusioned of is not something new or original, it is just what the Westeners themselves had been disillusioned of long before. They recorded and somehow stereotyped it in their encyclopedic knowledge. “However lamentable the fact may be, it should not surprise us that greater intolerance has been found in Christian nations than among any other peoples. Polytheism allows for an indefinitely enlarging pantheon. Its theology admits the existence of separate national gods among the various nations. But monotheism not only denies the existence of any such divinities; it regards the homage offered to them as a derogation from the worship due to the true God. Christianity, therefore, as well as the Judaism on which it is based, is necessarily intellectually intolerant. ...essentially aggressive; and the positive missionary work which this fact implies easily passes over into overt acts for the repression of idolatry and polytheism, contrary as they are to the genuine Christian temper.” [6]

Dong Son drum.

3. Vietnamese Tolerances

In the medieval Vietnam, we have the historical Tran dynasty, during which, besides the age-old influence of the Chinese Confucianism and Laoism, Vietnamese culture was affected nationwide by Buddhist conceptions, in which tolerance and compassion are remarkable. After defeating the Northern Mongolian invasion with thousands of invading troops captured, the Tran king decided to set them free, supplying them with transportation means, foods, and drinking water for them to come back home safely.

Among the aftermaths of the war was the internal issue, that is, there were the Vietnamese who had betrayed, ever serving in secret the invaders in view of their overwhelming strength and their apparent ability to win over and put the whole country under their rule for good very soon. Things did not go in the direction they expected. The Vietnamese patriots eventually won in their defense war. What had been in secret before was now disclosed with the list of their names in hand. The question was put forth to the Tran king, whether to give death sentence to them as an example to terminate right away any possible idea of treason, safeguarding the future faithfulness. The Tran king’s answer was calmly and decisively ‘No’ and commanded to openly burn to ash the list of the death-deserving.

“When the Yuan force was still strong, there were some unfaithful mandarins that made a relationship with them. As soon as the Yuan force had been defeated, a list of capitulation was found. The imperial court wanted to find them guilty and to punish them, but King Thanh Tong thought that there was no use punishing the individuals and he burned the list to reassure everyone.”[7]

One pillar pagoda built by Lý Thái Tông in 1049

The spirit of tolerance continues. And, it is a nice surprise to find out that tolerance heals injured souls much better than I have ever thought before. The Vietnam War is among the most devastating the world has ever known with numerous people traumatically affected and ecological system irreversibly damaged, not to mention the people who were killed and surely not resting in peace. As the war’s aftermath, that which has been lingering among the people of conscience who have survived the war are the long-lasting injuries, physical or mental. As attempts at healing them, alleviating their mental uneasiness, a significant number of US veterans have come back to Vietnam not to kill as before but for expressing their willingness to heal. On their own side, Vietnamese people welcome hospitably those who were once part of their life-and-death struggle. It does not matter whether their friendly attitude is a result of their legacy or not, it did surprise the veteran revisitors. This is documented by Patrick Hagopian, “an increasing number of American veterans revisited Vietnam and saw their old battlefields.

Some were amazed that the Vietnamese who had once borne arms against them in the “American War” seemed to bear them no amimosity... A U.S. veteran who had lost his sight because of wartime injury said, “I wasn’t here to cure my blindness but to heal the scars in my heart. And I think that’s happened.”[8]