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In this alternate history timeline, the Roman Emperor Justinian declared the state religion to not be Christianity, but Buddhism. This wouldn't be too much of a stretch, as Buddhism predated Christianity and, like Christianity, preach on the importance of love, peace and humanity. As a result of this point of departure, we would see the monarchs, dukes and nobles of medieval Europe walking around wearing kimonos and sokutais, priests wearing jōes and samues and knights dressed in dō, haramaki, karuta and tatami armor and wielding katanas, naginatas and yumi bows.

That's a neat idea, but what about the powers of the "church"? (I airquote for clarity's sake.) How would political and religious structures work in a Buddhist medieval Europe?

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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't they wear stuff from India, considering Buddhism's origin? Also, I think any answer that doesn't just tell you to copy from Japan/China/India's religious structure will require more information about point in history where "history split" and the circumstances. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 3 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ (1) So he thinks that Buddhism, an Indian religion, spread to Japan (who largely rejected it in our history) as well as Europe. Then Japan, a major power at best even at its peak, manages to "take control of" and "become the face of" Buddhism, spreading its culture back across an entire continent? I don't think it's plausible, not to mention way too convoluted. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 4 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ (2) Keep things short and simple and just have Japan take control of part of mainland Asia early in history and develop into an early superpower along the lines of Imperial Britain, and spreading Shintoism as Britain did Christianity. I say take control of part of mainland Asia, because getting off that tiny island will give Japan access to the natural resources needed to develop into that superpower in the first place. Additionally, if anything, it would be EASIER to accept a new religion if it's similar to the old one. I don't know where he pulled his facts from. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 4 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ (3) As for why the entire world isn't Japanese, make it so that Japan lost control of their colonies. However, they remained in power and Shintoism was acceptable enough that the religion persists even after Japan was fought back. I do like his idea of incorporating that kind of attire into religious attire, because it's the easiest way to make things stick. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 4 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ What is the extent of cultural borrowing and what version of Buddhism becomes the state religion? Also, where Buddhism comes from to the Roman empire (China or India)? If it comes from China, does Justinian also borrow Confucian teachings? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 4 at 18:40
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Monks, not Priests

The Christian church in Europe developed a strong so-called "lay" hierarchy, meaning the ladder of Pope, bishops, and parish priests; parish churches and cathedrals formed the core network; the monastic orders came late, and while rich and powerful, always played the second fiddle.

But with Buddhism, the monks and monastic communities are the foundation; technically, there is no church structure other than monastic structure. Places of worship for laymen are an afterthought, and are always attached to monasteries, physically or at least administratively.

So, religion in medieval Buddhist Europe would be focused on a loose network of monasteries. Abbots, not bishops, would be powerful; and there would be no Pope and no formal top-down hierarchy. The older monasteries would be more influential, especially with regard to "daughter" monasteries they founded, but there would be no formal chain of command that the Christian church so insisted on.

On the other hand, the Empire would thrive. In Catholic Europe, it was mostly the Church that, quite deliberately, broke the power and influence of the Emperor in order to strengthen the Papacy; this resulted in the breakup of the Empire into a multitude of competing sovereign nation-states. But the Buddhist structure would see no advantage in weakening the Empire. On the contrary, they would benefit from a strong central administration that would protect and subsidize the peaceful monasteries. This is the pattern from all the Buddhist countries; the monks supported Ashoka, the Son of Heaven, and the Tenno, regardless of the fact that, technically, only Ashoka was an actual Buddhist.

So, in a Buddhist Europe, there would be no France, England, or Spain; or more precisely, they would exist as more-or-less autonomous provinces of the Holy Roman Empire. This could result in a very different dynamic. Local warfare would be reduced, due to both Imperial enforcement and Buddhist peace ideals. But the advance of Islam, rather than encounter loose resistance by local Spanish and French forces, would be faced with the professional army of a continent-wide united Empire, rather than just the Byzantines. The advance would likely be stemmed in mid-Africa. On the other hand, the retributive Crusades would not occur, especially considering that Jerusalem has no religious significance to the Buddhist faith.

Italy would not have the historical importance that it had in RL; there would be no Holy See with its immense political clout, and the merchant republics of northern Italy would not exist as independent city-states. The Renaissance, if it happened at all, would occur somewhere else. Buddhist missionaries would reach into Russia, and into Africa. Trade over the Silk Road would expand. The discovery of the Americas would probably be long delayed, for two reasons: firstly, there would be no significant Atlantic fishery, as Buddhists do not consider fish a Lenten staple; secondly, there would be no need to establish alternate access to the Orient. It is anyone's guess how the Mongol invasion would develop, given well-established relations between the European and Chinese empires. With a centralized army, and without constant internecine conflict, military technology would probably take much longer to develop to the gunpowder stage, and the Industrial Revolution might not happen at all, being replaced by slow, gradual development, with frequent setbacks, following the Chinese model.

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  • $\begingroup$ I note that one result of that structure and the reasons for it is that Shinto is still flourishing in Japan. Buddhism regards the gods as irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Aug 5 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary: As a Christian, I think Christianity would be improved by being a minority religion. Less opulence, corruption, and authoritarianism, more missionary work and charity. A competitive environment forces you to get your act together, or fail. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Aug 5 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ Nevertheless that would be a major social factor limiting influence. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Aug 5 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is an excellent and wide-ranging attempt to answer a very broad question. However, why do you assume that Western Europe will be an imperial superstate? Buddhism is perfectly capable of supporting an environment with lots of minor kingdoms (e.g. Southeast Asia). Plus, the POD is Justinian adopting Buddhism, by which point the Western Empire is already gone. In real life, the papacy played a major role in creating the Holy Roman Empire (e.g. by crowning Charlemagne and promoting the doctrine of translatio imperii); if the pope no longer exists, it's likely the HRE won't either. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 18:46
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Fundamentally, the worldviews of Christianity and Buddhism can't be farther apart. Siddharta encountered suffering in the world and sought to reject the world. Reality is illusion; the ultimate goal of existence is extinguishment (nirvana). Jesus encounters suffering in the world and embraces it and the world. Reality is real, though broken; the ultimate goal is union of creation with the creator. (Nutshell descriptions)

Ultimately, the political and religious structures would likely mimic what we find in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and other Buddhist countries.

In Thailand, they have a monarch and a supreme patriarch. That's one model that could be followed. Functionally, I think it would be much the same as the function of the Pagan temple & mystery rites system that already existed in the Empire. Possibly, the emperor, as pontifex maximus, could assume the role of highest monk and thus become, like the later English monarchs, head of both "church" and state.

If we assume that the Empire slid into decay as it did here in our own timeline, then I'd suspect that Emperor Zenon would retain the title of P.M. In the western empire, we know that Odoacer respected the Emperor and did not seek to proclaim himself emperor in the west. Very likely, there would not have been anything like a papacy in Rome, let alone anything like the concept of pope as successor of the God-man on Earth. It's possible that Zenon could have appointed a patriarch for the western Buddhists.

By the time Late Antiquity smoothly rolls into the middle ages, you'll most likely find a hodgepodge of new and ancient monasteries, local kings and warlords feuding over their territories, perhaps the rise of high kings or emperors that might seek to challenge the dignity and splendour of Constantinople. Some of these places may be granted a patriarchy or may install one of their own. Or kings may usurp the Emperor's style and call themselves Pontifex Maximus.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a lot of Christianity-superiority at the end there. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 4 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Just to poke a bit and support @HenryShao's observation, (a) "The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka banned slavery and renounced war." (b) "Ueki examined the terms 'male' and 'female' as based not solely on the physical characteristics of each sex biologically but also on their functional roles within society, calling them the 'male principle' and 'female principle,' and concluded that no difference is preached in the Shakyamuni's teachings regarding the enlightenment of woman." and (c) "All human beings as per Buddhism are equal, and Buddhist concepts recognize the inherent (*continued*) $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ ...dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings." I think you have a good point about innovation, as conflict has often been the precessor of innovation. But an argument could be made that slavery and human rights would be a ton better had Buddhism rather than Christianity become the dominant western philosophical influence. Frankly, what might be the biggest problem is justifying that it did. China's military history would suggest that Buddhism didn't have that much influence on national policy. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ “Don't even think about abolitionism and women's rights or even basic human rights, as those are all Christian in origin.” Christianity: ~2000 years old. Women suffrage: ~ 100 years old. Claiming technology, human rights, and progress are Christian inventions is at best not true and at worst slander at all non Christians. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 0:32

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