What’s in a name? How Indonesian Buddhism gained its second ‘D’

Buddhists make up a small fraction of the population in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, but a look back at the faith's origins and evolution in Indonesia reveal a rich and intricate history intertwined with colonialism and nationalism

Roberto Rizzo
October 14, 2020
What’s in a name? How Indonesian Buddhism gained its second ‘D’
Buddhist monks pray at the Borobudur temple during the Vesak festival in Magelang, Central Java in 2012. Photo: Clara Prima/AFP
In Short
  • Written form of Buddhism in Indonesia standardised in 2019 to have a second ‘D’
  • Minor spelling alteration alludes to the wider evolution of Buddhism in the country
  • With the change, Indonesian Buddhism brought closer to transnational sects

In early February 2019, somewhere in the corridors of the central Jakarta headquarters of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Civil Registry and Population Office issued a seemingly minor notice, watched closely by Indonesia’s Buddhists. 

According to the ministry, from that moment on all citizens’ personal documents and state paperwork describing their religion as agama Budha had to be updated to Buddha. This apparently simple addition of a second ‘d’ to the bureaucratic affairs of Indonesia’s fifth official faith sparked enthusiasm among many of its adherents. 

The hype around a tiny adjustment to the name may look disproportionate, but a peek below the surface spells out a years-long struggle of the country’s modest but resilient community. Unpacking that history reveals the spell-check as a symbol of an ongoing re-orientation of the religion’s course in Indonesia, a turn towards traditional, transnational schools like Theravadism from the nationalised Buddhism deemed “more Indonesian” by early post-independence leaders.

Just how much Indonesian Buddhism is caught between this lengthy process of reconfiguration from the national to the international is apparent from the contradictory explanations given for the change of spelling. 

In an interview with The Jakarta Post, Jandi Mukianto, vice-chair of the Board of Buddhist affairs, welcomed the change on the basis of its consistency with the current Indonesian dictionary entry of Buddha, reflecting more closely the spelling of the word in Pali – the classical language for the Theravada school of the Buddhist canon.

An explanatory note on the civil registry office’s website, however, described the change as clearing up a confusing homonym: Budha, in fact, was also the name of the third day of the seven-day Saptawara week as part of the Pawukon calendar system, which was once common in both Java and Bali before the introduction of the Gregorian and Islamic cycles. 

Why an apparently unproblematic doubling in the name should be of any relevance, and why it could be indicative of a deeper internal transition in the Buddhist faith in Indonesia, can be understood only by zooming out on the matter.

Indonesian Buddhism – The one and the many

Buddhism’s evolution in Indonesia is closely bound to the colonial history of the archipelago. 

The large number of Dutch officials residing in the archipelago and their inclusion of European-educated Javanese and Chinese elites in the colonial administration facilitated the spread of intellectual ideas that fused “Eastern religions”, Buddhism above all, and political philosophy. This intellectual movement inspired none other than the founding fathers of Indonesia, Sokarno and Hatta, and spread in distilled form among the general population. Theosophical aphorisms like ‘All religions are one’ or the more cautious ‘All religions teach the good’ are still widespread maxims in Indonesia today.

Buddhism – or rather Boeddhisme (in Dutch) and Bouddhisme (French), as these translated classics manifested in the Dutch East Indies – gained currency rapidly, especially after the formation of the Batavian Buddhist Association in 1934. 

But in Indonesia, Boeddhisme was, in the early 20th century, a term too close to a number of pre-existing uses referring to many different things. These other uses were not entirely overlapping and were sometimes even in contrast with the cosmopolitan kind of Buddhism emanating from Theosophical circles.

Among other “native” connotations, Buda was the well-established name of an old alphabet in use in West Java and akin to Sundanese. Budha was the semi-ethnic identifier for the Tengger communities in East Java practising a Hindu-Javanese form of religion. Budhojawi or Budho Jawi Wisnu was a revivalist movement initiated in the 1930s in East Java with the intention of bringing back to life the “religion of Majapahit”, the last of the pre-Islamic kingdoms of Java. 

Hindu-Budha or zaman Budha became, in popular parlance, the generic reference for the cultural world of Java prior to the progressive founding of Islamic sultanates. 

The importance of Buddhism in the Indonesian chronicles post-independence can hardly be overstated

While the scattered Buddhist elements of pre-Islamic Java bear little resemblance to the modern understanding of Buddhism, the linguistic proximity between the latter and the multiple local meanings attached to Budha was a major trigger in the explosion of revivalist rhetorics in a newly formed nation-state in search for historical depth. 

Contemporary Buddhism, in other words, could be constructed as a return of the perceived authenticity of a pre-Islamic and, most importantly, pre-colonial Indonesia.  

The last national census in Indonesia was carried out in 2010 and found 1.7 million Indonesians who stated their religious affiliation as Buddhist. That is roughly 0.72% of the country’s population, a proportion consistent with the censuses carried out since independence and expected not to change dramatically in the latest census currently underway

While the numbers may not appear high by any standard, the importance of Buddhism in the Indonesian chronicles post-independence can hardly be overstated. 

Through the decades, Buddhism has crossed paths with a number of far-reaching issues in Indonesia – the process of nation-building and the role of heritage debates perhaps the most tangible among these. But these dynamics hide just beneath the surface of tensions between the State, the multi-religious Javanese majority and the Chinese minority. 

As a rare example of a televised story involving Indonesian Buddhists, some may recall last year’s legal debate involving a woman charged with blasphemy in Sumatra for commenting on the volume of a mosque’s loudspeaker. Many suspected that the exaggerated 18-month sentence was due to the woman’s double-minority status as a Chinese Buddhist in a Muslim-majority region. 

Anti-Chinese sentiments and the making of an “Indonesian” Buddhism

One link is still missing though between the multiple meanings of Budha and the implications of its double-D form. 

If the Buddha and Buddhism in newly-independent Indonesia would still go about by different names and declinations, the grounding of contemporary Buddhist practice in the imaginary of the historical zaman Budha would be strategic for giving it a “native” feel in place of its origin as a colonial import – or, even worse, identification as a “Chinese” religion, as it came to be interpreted in neighbouring Malaysia.

Indonesian-Chinese pray and offer incense at a Buddhist temple in downtown Jakarta in 1998. Photo: Kemal Jufri/AFP

Anticipating the socio-political dangers of anything relatable to Chinese culture or communist-atheist references in the decades to come, the Chinese-Indonesian monk Ashin Jinarakkhita was precisely this missing ring. 

Born in Bogor, West Java, Jinarakkhita was a hybrid character in many respects, but especially in his nationalistic vision of Buddhism. Avoiding any excessive emphasis on Chinese aesthetic, linguistic or organisational elements, Jinarakkhita founded the Buddhayana association in 1955, a group that was supposed to work as a fully comprehensive Buddhist school, surpassing the traditional Theravada and Mahayana divide in Southeast Asian Buddhism. 

The influence of the non-denominational Buddhayana, and especially the near-saintly cult of the charismatic personality of Jinarakkhita, has been huge. But especially noteworthy was its effort to fill out governmental requirements of what a ‘proper’ religion ought to be in the gloomy anti-communist climate of the 1960s. Jinarakkhita managed to prove that Indonesian Buddhism was a religion compatible with Abrahamic faiths, the Buddha being a prophet like Jesus and Muhammad, and God being Sanhyang Adibuddha, a concept recovered from an ancient Tantric text circulating in the archipelago in the fourteenth century.

If Jinarakkhita and his Buddhayana managed to address the sticky issue of Buddhism in the early years of the post-colonial New Order regime by legitimating it as a fully ‘Indonesian’ religion, succeeding also in recovering the usage of the Borobudur complex for religious ceremonies, the everyday religious practice wasn’t much affected beyond the bureaucratic reconfiguration of places of worship from klenteng (Chinese-syncretist temple) into vihara (Buddhist house). In rural enclaves, Buddhism kept being, mostly, a formal umbrella term for the continuation of localised religious practices.

How Indonesian Buddhism got his second “D”

But the continued development of this Indonesian Buddhist bureaucracy would create the framework for the eventual rise of the transnational schools.

Instituted in 1976, Sangha Theravada Indonesia (STI) proved in a relatively short time the most effective institution in standardising Buddhism in Indonesia, from the urban temple in Java to the hamlet on the Rinjani slopes of Lombok. By the 1990s, STI had branched out into a tight set of sub-organisations that dealt with all aspects of social life, from ministerial posts to education in viharas. The STI also established important monastic and lay connections with sister groups in Theravada-majority countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. 

In 2016, over ninety viharas were registered under Theravada in Java and Bali alone. Some of them had changed orientation, a particularly famous case being the large Watugong-Buddhagaya temple in Semarang. Once a stronghold of Jinarakkhita’s Buddhayana and saluted as “the first Buddhist temple in modern Indonesia since the times of Majapahit”, the complex was completely revamped and aesthetically refurbished by STI in 2006.

Through financial support and frequent monastic visits, STI changed the face of Buddhism in rural Indonesia, communities that were otherwise perceived as at danger of Islamisation or Christianisation. It introduced in cities and villages alike lay meditation techniques such as vipassana and it popularised celebrations and holidays like Kathina – the ritual donation of robes to ordained monks – in accordance with Thailand and Sri Lanka. 

STI was responsible, crucially, for the important number of translation projects into Indonesian, as well as the massive spread of Pali as its “sacred language” of reference. The namaskara invocation surged to an obligatory commencement in any kind of ritual, public and private, Pali chanting became ubiquitous and, with its traditional double-D romanisation and the loyal adoption into Indonesian translations, fixed itself visually and verbally with an efficacy unmatched by any previous development.

In other words, far from being a petty correction, the notice issued in 2019 from deep within the Ministry of Home Affairs held a much wider symbolism. It authenticated the full passage of Indonesian Buddhism from the inarticulate, hyper-local, world of zaman Budha, into a double-D Buddhism closer aligned with the faith around the globe, representing a new awareness and cosmopolitanism among Indonesia’s youngest and oldest minority group.

Roberto Rizzo is an anthropologist. He has worked extensively in Indonesia on the subjects of Buddhism, heritage and religious revival. He’s currently based at the University of Milan – Bicocca, Italy.

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