Theses Doctoral

Religious Routes to Conflict Mitigation: Three Papers on Buddhism, Nationalism, and Violence

Dorjee, Tenzin

The notion that religion intensifies nationalism and escalates conflict is widely accepted. In spite of its frequent association with violence, however, religious doctrines and institutions sometimes appear to have the radical power to deescalate conflict and reroute the expression of political grievances away from bloodshed. How, and under what conditions, might religion lend itself to the mitigation of ethnic conflict? Focusing on Buddhist nationalisms in East Asia and Southeast Asia, the three papers in this dissertation study the influence of religious beliefs on political attitudes and conflict behavior at various levels of analysis.

Using ethnographic approaches, case study methods, and original field data collected from nearly a hundred interviews among Tibetan subjects in India and Sinhalese monastics in Sri Lanka, these essays seek to deepen the nuances and complexity in our understanding of the relationship between Buddhism, nationalism, and violence.Paper #1 studies the relationship between Buddhism and suicide protest, focusing on the puzzle of self-immolation: Why do high-commitment protesters in some conflicts choose this method over conventional tactics of nonviolent resistance or suicide terrorism? Taking the wave of Tibetan self-immolations between 2009 and 2018 as a case study, this paper probes the causal importance of strategic considerations, structural constraints, and normative restraints that may have influenced the protesters’ choice of method. I develop a theoretical framework proposing that suicide protesters evaluate potential tactics based on three criteria: disruptive capability, operational feasibility, and ethical permissibility. Leveraging in-depth interviews and a close reading of the self-immolators’ last words, I conclude that the Buddhist clergy’s broad conception of violence, interacting with international norms, constrains the protesters’ tactical latitude by narrowing the parameters of what qualifies as nonviolent action, thereby eliminating many of the standard repertoires of contention from the movement’s arsenal while sanctioning self-immolation as a legitimate form of dissent. I argue that a fundamental paradox in the self-immolators’ theory of change, namely the tension between a tactic’s disruptive capability and ethical permissibility, ends up restricting their freedom of action.

Paper #2 zooms out to examine the relationship between religion, nationalism, and violence. It starts with a broad question: How, and under what conditions, might religion lend itself to the mitigation –– or the escalation –– of ethnonational conflict? To what extent do religious ideas travel from scripture to political preferences and conflict behavior? I develop two hypotheses predicting the influence of scriptural ideas on nationalist commitment and suggestibility to violence –– devoting special attention to how a group’s conception of its own national interest might be affected when the religious identity of its members supersedes their political identity. The paper finds that the Buddhist belief in rebirth can undermine the strength of one’s nationalist commitment by injecting a dose of ambiguity into one’s conception of identity. This suggests that a religious belief such as rebirth can be mobilized to deescalate ethnonational conflict by highlighting the fluidity of ethnic identity and thus lowering the stakes of conflict. Moreover, it also finds that Mahayana Buddhism’s emphasis on altruism, while rooted in compassion toward others, can end up increasing an individual’s suggestibility to violence and therefore should not be assumed to be a pacifying force in conflict. Mahayana doctrines, though built on more inclusivist founding principles than the Theravada tradition and therefore more resistant to exclusivist ideologies like nationalism, are nevertheless susceptible to utilitarian reasoning and lend themselves readily to the justification of violence. In our interviews, Tibetan monastics, educated under a uniform Mahayana curriculum, turned out to be far more suggestible to violence than their Theravada counterparts in Sri Lanka, an observation that supports our counterintuitive hypothesis linking an altruism-oriented curriculum with suggestibility to violence.

Paper #3 takes a historical case study approach to examine how Buddhist religious ideas may have, in interaction with liberal international norms, influenced the Tibetan leadership’s de-escalation politics in the Sino-Tibetan conflict. While paper #2 of this dissertation explored Buddhism’s relationship with nationalism and violence at the level of rank-and-file citizens, this paper shifts the focus from group-level preferences to elite-level decision-making. It relies on document analysis and process tracing methods to answer a particular historical question: How did the independence-seeking Tibetan nationalist leadership of the 1960s evolve into compromise-seeking pacifists in the 1980s and subsequent decades?

I seek to illuminate the pathways by which religious beliefs and charismatic leadership structure, in interaction with the normative constraints of liberal internationalism, may have facilitated the Tibetan leadership’s de-escalation politics in the Sino-Tibetan conflict. To do so, I leverage counterfactual history (Belkin & Tetlock, 1996), biographical data of key leaders (Creswell, 1998), and document analysis of their speeches and writings –– including a close examination of the Dalai Lama’s annual March 10 speeches from 1960 to 2011. While the other two papers explore the multifaceted relationship between Buddhism, nationalism, and violence by studying the political attitudes and conflict behavior of ordinary people and rank-and-file monastics, this paper delves into the political and psychological evolution of two Tibetan leaders, the Dalai Lama and former Tibetan prime minister Samdhong Rinpoche, to examine the ways in which private religious beliefs can interact with global norms to guide and constrain the high-level foreign policy decision-making of political elites.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2029-06-24.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Nathan, Andrew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 3, 2024