Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

When Buddhism Meets Cosmopolitanism

Ellen Zhang

As a politico-philosophical term in the West, cosmopolitanism has re-emerged in the humanities and social sciences in recent decades, especially in the context of the recent refugee crisis in Europe. The philosophy of “hospitality,” along with the Kantian notion of “a cosmopolitan right” beyond national borders, has been enthusiastically embraced and critically re-explored in political and ethical discussions, as we see in the work of contemporary French philosophers such as Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida,Footnote 1 and British sociologist Gerard & Delanty in his reworking of critical theory, which argues that cosmopolitanism arises with the transformation of collectiveness in the light of “the encounter with the Other” (Delanty 2009: 253). Martha Nussbaum (1998) sees practicing hospitality as a basic civic and moral virtue in the process of cultivating humanity to attain world citizenship.Footnote 2 Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) addresses a similar issue but with a much more critical mind when he talks about a socially and culturally situated nature of cosmopolitan process and asks: What does it mean to be a citizen of the world? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?Footnote 3

To an extent, Kant’s cosmopolitan utopia concerns humanity in general, with its emphasis on a universalistic orientation toward fulfilment of human capacities, especially rational moral agency. The human being, according to Kant, is part of “the world of necessity” on the one hand and “the world of freedom” on the other. This necessity vs. freedom dichotomy has had a great impact on the Marxist/Communist imagination of the cosmopolitan projects represented by the “new world citizens” of proletarians.Footnote 4 Meanwhile, communist cosmopolitanism seems to be identified with another term, namely “internationalism” as Enzo Traverso and Michael Löwy (1990: 136) have noted, “In a work such as The Communist Manifesto, cosmopolitanism and internationalism tend to fuse. There, the internationalization of the capitalist mode of production and the formation of the world market are seen as a process which has made cosmopolitan (kosmopolitisch) the production and consumption of all the countries” (Traverso and Löwy (1990: 136).Footnote 5 Kant associates his cosmopolitan ideal with “bourgeois republicanism” whereas Marx’s internationalist dream attempts to transfer cosmopolitanism to the revolutionary/proletarian class.Footnote 6 Nonetheless, both cosmopolitanism and internationalism share the belief in universal principles, a universal moral realm in particular. Despite the division of humanity into separate historically constituted communities with different belief systems, it remains possible to identify oneself with, and have a moral concern for, humanity. Critics of the Frankfurt School today, however, tend to use the term “global solidarity” instead of socialist internationalism.

Cosmopolitanism characterized by the ideal of the extension of the moral and political horizons of people has been criticized for its Eurocentric, exclusivity, and idealistic tendencies, as well as for ignoring controversies and clashes in the process of globalization today. As a matter of fact, cosmopolitanism is by no means a coherent theory or a well-defined concept albeit its literal form as an “ism.” Delanty’s “critical cosmopolitanism” points to a post-universalistic kind of cosmopolitanism, “which is not merely a condition of diversity but is articulated in cultural models of world openness through which societies undergo transformation.” It also indicates that cosmopolitanism “refers to the multiplicity” with manifold genealogies (Delanty 2006, 25, 27).Footnote 7 Delanty’s concern points to a long-standing metaphysical question, i.e., namely the relationship between one and many, or universality and particularity. Ethically, we run into the question concerning the definition of “common morality” [in a strong sense] and what cosmopolitanism means among people who claim to be “moral strangers” rather than “moral friends” in a specific community that emphasizes communitarian bonds (e.g., economic cooperation) of each individual member? Does ubiquitous internet use, increased human mobility and new political configurations in terms of global governance help people to embrace a cosmopolitan identity or cause more cosmopolitan entanglements?

Since globalization in past decades has given rise to unprecedented levels of mobility of people and ideas across national borders, it has also drawn attention to the growing levels of cultural diversity (the local within the global, or the hybrid between the local and global), raising questions regarding the possibilities of both cultural exchange and conflict. The anti-cosmopolitan stance attempts to show that cosmopolitanism is equated with the universalisation of a particular account of moral principles (such as rights and justice) and is therefore problematic for several reasons, including the tensions between the global and the local, the cosmopolitan and the national, and the imagined/abstract and the questioned/concrete. For example, directing their criticism against Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism, Benjamin Barber and Amy Gutmann argue that cosmopolitanism is an idea based purely on intellectual convictions while Richard Rorty challenges cosmopolitanism’s alleged dismissal of nationalism and patriotism.Footnote 8 In this context, how can we see cosmopolitanism as a means to resist the politics of fear and exclusion?

In Buddhism, conceptions such as interconnectedness, commonality, and mutual inclusiveness also imply a universalistic orientation that is based on shared human experience and common morality. Yet the idea of “Buddhist cosmopolitanism” still sounds odd because Buddhism is often seen as a religion that primarily centres on a soteriological concern (i.e., a personal or spiritual development that focuses on liberation from suffering/dukkha) rather than achieving a specific socio-political order. A number of scholars (such as Andrew Linklater and Eilis Ward) argue that we find commonality of “an emancipatory intent” in both Buddhism and current discourse on cosmopolitanism, maintaining that there are “basic considerations of humanity” in both the Buddhism and cosmopolitanism (Linklater 2007: 135). For Linklater, common humanity (such as human vulnerability to mental and physical suffering indicated in the Buddhist doctrine) can be taken as the basis of harmonious unity which is crucial for the argument of cosmopolitanism. Pradeep K. Giri contends that service to fellow human beings “is at the center for a cosmopolitan” (Giri 2020: 94). Footnote 9 The key question is if Buddhism offers a different set of conceptual tools in current debates on cosmopolitanism, and cosmopolitan ethics in particular.

Yet for some critics, including myself, it remains a question if the political potential of human vulnerability to suffering can be used as a strong argument for cosmopolitanism. Ward, for example, has coined the phrase “the suffering solidarity complex” (the SSC) to examine the validity of “the solidaristic potential of suffering” as an important concept in the context of cosmopolitan ethics solidarity, pointing out that Linklater solidity of its SSC rests on a radical account of the self in Buddhism, “more radical than that currently advocated in cosmopolitanism thought” (Ward 2013: 137). He further points out that the Buddhist understanding of self “refuses a world comprised of autonomous moral agents and abjures the idea of human nature with consequent implications for ethics and for the politics of solidarity” (Ward 2013: 137). What Ward tries to say is that the Buddhist idea of self (or more exactly, non-self/anatman), which is different from the Kantian notion of an autonomous moral agent, could offer an alternative perspective on cosmopolitanism. In addition, the universal capacity to extend sympathy to others exemplified by the Mahāyānic concept of compassion/karunā (cibei 慈悲), according to Linklater and Ward, could help us to find a universal “emancipatory intent”Footnote 10 that leads to the Kantian notion of “the worldwide community of human beings.”

Obviously, a politicisation of suffering is suggested here. Nonetheless, such understanding of the solidaristic potential of suffering also reminds me of the theology of “hospitality” given by Lévinas and Derrida, which is dependent on the idea of vulnerability to suffering as well as the idea of “de-territorialization” of the moral and political boundaries of community by being responsive to the needs of the other. The idea of hospitality in the context of the refugee crisis in Europe is recommended for the extension of geography’s scope of concern.Footnote 11 Both Lévinas and Derrida contend for an implicit understanding of proximity in terms of identity, shared interests, and solidarity. Thus, hospitality redefined as “caring at a distance” revolves around the question of whether concerns for people in close relationships can be transformed into active concern for distant strangers. Yet for Lévinas, the word “ethics” becomes a question about the “wholly other” that challenges the self-qua-being, thus separating itself from the traditional ontological framework of Being in the West, that is, the sameness or totality criticized also by Derrida’s deconstructive project. In On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), Derrida intends to answer the question on the possibility to uphold cosmopolitan hospitality and justice in the face of increasing nationalism after decades of globalization. He also asks: Should hospitality as a moral duty be grounded on a private or public ethics?Footnote 12 It should be noted that hospitality does not indicate a relationship that is constituted by reciprocal obligations. Meanwhile, Derrida uses the term “globolatinization” as a way of criticizing, complicating, and complementing the concept of globalization. Globolatinization, according to Derrida, describes a system of thought “that promotes a universalism of pseudo or petit-valuations and punishes those resistant and inflexible to them” (Alvis 2017: 590).Footnote 13 Therefore, for both Lévinas and Derrida, theories of hospitality speak of the possibility of an acceptance of the other as different but of equal standing.

Buddhism, however, tends to talk more about oneness and the interconnectedness of all beings. The Buddhist virtue of compassion represented by the images of Boddhisattvas in the Māhayāna tradition focus more on collective experience and shared social responsibility. In recent decades, the term “social responsibility” became popular in Buddhism with the emergence of what is called “socially engaged Buddhism” which stems from the “Humanistic Buddhism” 人間佛教of the Taiwanese masters Taixu 太虛and Yin Shun 印順 and was brought to the world by the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hahn. Socially engaged Buddhism emphasizes at least two aspects: (1) this worldliness and social responsibility and (2) collectivity and solidarity; both of which are formulated as responses to the critique from outsiders (i.e., to see Buddhism as being passive, quietist, otherworldly, and escapist). The universal care emphasized by the virtue of compassion breaks the line between proximity and distance. The fundamental argument upon which compassion is based is the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness of the world or interdependent origination (Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpadā; Chinese: 緣起緣生) which is, in turns, the key argument for non-self or anatman. The Buddhist idea of de-territorialization in the Chinese context is expressed through the concepts of “unconditional compassion” (wuyuan ci 無緣慈) and “one body qua shared sorrow” (tongti bei 同體悲). Yet I am still not clear how we can translate this lofty Buddhist vision of compassion into a viable ethical and political order marked by collective identities to include the recognition of others.Footnote 14 In contrast to Buddhism, the Confucian idea of interconnectedness is more family-oriented in that the cosmopolitan spirit is built on the question if “the other” can be viewed as a family member, and if the extension of human kindness from insiders to outsiders is possible, as P. J. Ivanhoe has put it: “If we try to think about and feel for other people on the analogy of how we feel about our own siblings, we are called on to have much greater sympathy for those we do not know. …Confucians ask us to extend the love, generosity, patience, and understanding we naturally tend to have for our siblings to everyone in the world. This is a much better aim and method than seeking to extend a sense of city fellow-feeling, for the latter is not deep or committed enough to carry us through the difficulties that extension entails” (Ivanhoe 2014: 38).Footnote 15 Then we must ask if the Confucian ethic of humanness or ren 仁is truly cosmopolitan and universal insofar as it could include certain contested others within its worldview.

To examine the Buddhist alternative worldview, we need to consider both ontological and ethical dimensions of the concept of “interdependent origination” that could be used as a moral response to the fact of cultural and religious diversity. The idea of interconnectedness of all things is by its very nature relational and holistic. Holism (a Greek word meaning all, entire, total) refers to the idea that various systems should be viewed as wholes, not merely as a collection of parts.Footnote 16 In Chinese Huayan Buddhism (華嚴宗), “Indra’s jewel net” is a much-loved metaphor. It is depicted in the Flower Garland Sutra (Avataṃsaka-sūtra; 《華嚴經》) to illustrate the interpenetration, inter-causality, and interbeing of all things. In view of cosmopolitanism, the word holism is both descriptive and evaluative, indicating a system of all-inclusiveness. According to Linklater, one of the cosmopolitanism’s desires is to enhance human interconnectedness (Linklater 2009:481).Footnote 17

I agree that the Buddhist idea of a relational and causal self is helpful to see the limit of a self-constituting world order when the logic of exclusion becomes the ontological foundation of all modes of subjectivity. In Cosmopolitan Liberalism: Expanding the Boundaries of the Individual, Monica Sanchez-Flores initiates a form of cosmopolitanism that expands the self to overcome cosmopolitanism’s negative identification with the project of modernity (Sanchez-Flores 2010).Footnote 18 Sanchez-Flores’s exposition and argument, to an extent, echo the Buddhist position. However, the idea of interconnectedness (vis-à-vis separation and segregation) or solidarity advocated by Buddhism does not necessarily support the idea of a single world order and culture. Linklater’s solidarity qua “an emancipatory intent” to release suffering can be regarded as a moral cosmopolitanism due to its strong emphasis on the cosmopolitan ethics which, he argues, could enhance the global public on the one hand and world openness on the other. However, such view is still operated with the liberal framework of the Western tradition, I think.

Obviously, there is a lack of the notion of “one world” in a sense of political sovereignty in Buddhism, and the Buddhist web of interconnectedness does not lead to its role in the preservation of a unified territory and in the integration of the people identified with that territory, as the ancient Chinese term “all under heaven” or tianxia 天下has suggested.Footnote 19 Nor does Buddhism have a clear notion of political order based on its ethics of compassion or non-harm principle. Nevertheless, Buddhism has been viewed, by some Western scholars, as a system of thought that is “rational and empirical,” or even as a kind of “mind science.” This view on Buddhist exceptionalism, according to Evan Thompson, a well-known scholar of Buddhism and Neuroscience, “is an inherent part of Buddhist Modernism.”Footnote 20 In other words, when we use modern concepts to interpret Buddhism for the sake of bringing Buddhism into the conversation of the contemporary discourse, we tend to downplay either the non-conceptuality of enlightenment or the specific account of liberation in the Buddhist tradition in order to bring Buddhism into the conversation of the contemporary discourse.Footnote 21 I think that we need to be cautious about a similar tendency when we try to bring Buddhism and cosmopolitanism together.

1. See Jacques Derrida, ‘‘Hospitality,” Journal of the theoretical humanities, No. 3, Vol. 5 (2000): 3-18. Also see Andrew Shepherd and James Clarke, The Gift of the Other: Levinas, Derrida, and a Theology of Hospitality (Pickwick Publications, 2014).

2. Nussbaum explores the ethical implications underlying the three characteristics of the educated citizen she puts forward: (1) the ability to engage in self-critical examination, (2) allegiance to the ideal of world citizenship, and (3) development of the narrative imagination. See Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,1998). It should be noted that revival of cosmopolitanism in recent decades is due to the rise of an explicitly political conception of cosmopolitanism relating to citizenship and democracy.

3. See Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006).

4. For more information, see Larry Ray & William Outhwaite (2016) ‘Communist Cosmopolitanism’ in European Cosmopolitanisms: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Societies edited by Gurminder K Bhambra and John Narayan, London: Routledge, 41-56.

5. See Traverso and Michael Löwy “The Marxist Approach to the National Question: A Critique of Nimni's Interpretation. 54 (2), 1990: 132-146.

6. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, cosmopolitanism was viewed as a pejorative term whereas socialist internationalism was a positive one. For more about communist cosmopolitanism, see Larry Ray & William Outhwaite (2016).

7. Gerard Delanty (2006), “The cosmopolitan imagination: critical cosmopolitanism and social theory.” The British Journal of Sociology. 57 (1): 25-47.

8. See the editorial, “Education and cosmopolitanism in Asia: an introduction.” ASIA PACIFIC JOURNAL OF EDUCATION 2020, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1–9

9. Pradeep K. Giri, “Buddhist Literature: A Cosmopolitan Philosophy” in Molung Educational Frontier, Vol. 10. 2020: 93-100.

10. Linklater see the emancipatory intent as “universal emotions” and thus a central question for him is how far universal emotions can develop to close the gap between cosmopolitan ideals and its political practice.

11. It should be noted that the asymmetrical terms in which Levinas pictures human relationships, with the other approaching me from a position of height and superiority, are not used in Buddhism even though a similar notion is implied occasionally. For example, for Buddhists, compassion is not simply a feeling of superiority; genuine compassion is about empowering others, helping them unlock strength and courage from within their lives in order to overcome their problems.

12. See Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Tran. by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. (London & New York: Routledge, 2001).

13. Jason W. Alvis, “Phenomenology’s Rejects: Religion after Derrida’s Denegations,” Open Theology. 3 (1): 590-599.

14. In real life, a person’s proximity to others – family, friends, and colleagues – rightly shapes his/her ethical priorities as a person living in relationship with them and they are not all equally important. This is what Confucians mean “love with distinctions.”

15. For detailed discussion on Confucianism, see P. J. Ivanhoe’s “Confucian Cosmopolitanism,” the Journal of Religious Ethics, 42.1 (March 2014): 22-44.

16. The differences between “holism” and “oneness” needs to be further explored.

17. See Linklater, “Human Interconnectedness”, International Relations, 23, 2007: 481–97.

18. See Monica Sanchez-Flores, Cosmopolitan Liberalism: Expanding the Boundaries of the Individual. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

19. As for the idea of tianxia in the light of cosmopolitanism, Chishen Chang and Kuan-Hsing Chen contends that “tianxia has its own genealogical trajectory and cannot be instrumentally deployed as a new political imaginary.” They point out that the primary meaning of tianxia in its narrow sense “referred to the political geographical area,” and then it was expanded later as “world order.” See Chang & Chen, “Tracking Tianxia: On Intellectual Self-Positioning” in Chinese Visions of World Order edited by Ban Wang (Duke University Press, 2017).

20. Ivan Mayerhofer, “From Buddhist Modernism to Buddhist Cosmopolitanism?” Religious Studies Review. 46 (3), 2020: 355-357.

21. In his book Why I am not a Buddhist? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), Evan Thompson devotes one chapter on cosmopolitanism in which he is in favor of Kwame A. Appiah’s conversational approach to Cosmopolitanism.

Ellen Zhang is a professor in and head of the Department of Religion and Philosophy and director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Other Responses