In This Article Buddhism in the West (North America and Europe)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • New Buddhist Movements
  • Ritual Studies
  • Two Buddhisms
  • Typology, Identity, and Ethnicity
  • Scholar-Practitioners
  • Engaged Buddhism
  • Buddhism and Psychology
  • Feminism, Gender, and LGBT Studies
  • Buddhism, New Media, and Popular Culture

Buddhism Buddhism in the West (North America and Europe)
Scott A. Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0176


The study of Buddhism in the West is built on the pioneering work of a handful of scholars in the mid-1970s. These individuals were bold enough to take the subject seriously within a reluctant academic discipline. Charles Prebish’s American Buddhism (1979) set the standard and many terms of debate for the decades to come. The field has grown considerably, despite a perceived lack of methodological sophistication (see Numrich 2008, cited under General Overviews). Scholars in this area generally approach the subject from one of three directions: area studies (Buddhism in the United States, Buddhism in France, etc.); something of a reverse area studies (e.g., Japanese Buddhism in the United States, Theravada in Britain); or topical studies (e.g., ritual studies, immigration and ethnicity, Buddhism and psychology). The most wide-reaching debates in the field generally revolve around questions of identification or classification and can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. For example, some question what “the West” is meant to signify, placing their research squarely in the context of postcolonial studies, transnational studies, or the construction of Buddhist modernism (Quli 2009, cited under Colonialism and Postcolonialism; McMahan 2002, cited under Ch’an, Zen, Sŏn). Others, such as Tweed 2002 (cited under Typology, Identity, and Ethnicity), recognize the difficulty of defining what constitutes a Western Buddhist when Buddhist culture has so thoroughly permeated the broader cultural milieu. Serving as a backdrop to these issues has been the wide-ranging and perennial debate regarding the “two Buddhisms” typology that, over the years since Prebish coined the phrase in 1979, has been considered, reconsidered, rearticulated, expanded to three Buddhisms, and renamed in a variety of ways. This bibliography reflects these methodological approaches and topical debates, and it includes relevant sources from postcolonial studies, ritual studies, and engaged Buddhism. As mentioned, “the West” as an area of study is itself somewhat contested. Is the West limited to areas dominated by European culture? Do we extend this category to Australia and Oceania? For the sake of brevity, this entry focuses on North America and Europe.

General Overviews

While the early study of Buddhism in the West was greatly advanced by the pioneering work of Emma McCloy Layman, Rick Fields, and Charles Prebish, the following intentionally focuses on more recent scholarship, most of which points back to these earlier titles. Baumann 1997, for example, gives an excellent and concise overview of scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few decades. Not listed here are any concise overviews of Buddhism in Europe, a deficiency resulting from the regionalism of European Buddhism and the difficulty of constraining that diversity within a single volume. Obadia 2000 does much to fill in this gap. Prebish and Tanaka 1998 and Prebish 1999, as a pair, provide an excellent overview of the most compelling issues that faced American Buddhism at the end of the 20th century. Williams and Queen 1999 and Prebish and Baumann 2002 cover some overlapping ground, in particular Tweed’s recurring theme of “night-stand Buddhists”; the latter, however, covers a broader spectrum of Buddhism in the West, including Europe. Seager 1999 provides an excellent overview of American Buddhism in a volume well suited to the classroom. Numrich 2008 contains a wealth of more recent scholarship on North America more broadly defined, largely from the perspective of the sociology of religion.

  • Baumann, Martin. “The Dharma Has Come West: A Survey of Recent Studies and Sources.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 4 (1997).

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    A concise overview of scholarship on Buddhism in Europe, North and South America, South Africa, and Australia from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, making it an excellent resource for scholars who need to get their feet grounded in the early research. Available online.

  • Numrich, Paul David, ed. North American Buddhists in Social Context. Religion and the Social Order 15. Boston: Brill, 2008.

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    A collection of well-researched and thoughtful essays, largely from the sociology of religion, on a variety of Buddhist communities in the United States and Canada. Essays by Numrich and McLellan provide a broad grounding on thematic issues.

  • Obadia, Lionel, ed. Special Issue: Le Bouddhisme en Occident: Approches sociologiques et anthropologiques. Recherches sociologiques 31.3 (2000).

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    This edited collection contains a wealth of articles and scholarship on a wide diversity of Buddhist communities in contemporary Europe. Includes articles by Baumann, Elke Hahlbohm-Helmus, and Michelle Spuler.

  • Prebish, Charles S. Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

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    Something of a companion to Prebish and Tanaka 1998, this work covers similar but more wide-ranging territory. Most importantly, and distinguishing it from earlier works, Luminous Passage includes in-depth analysis of scholar-practitioners and Buddhist activity online.

  • Prebish, Charles S., and Martin Baumann, eds. Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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    An important and wide-ranging collection of essays by top scholars in the field; covers Buddhism throughout the West more broadly defined, including Europe, the Americas, and Oceania and Africa. Topics include issues of immigration, psychology, ritual, feminism, and history.

  • Prebish, Charles S., and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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    Based on a conference held at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, this collection of essays includes topical pieces on specific communities as well as reflections on broader American Buddhist themes of identity and ethnicity, psychology, and feminism. Prebish’s introduction and Tanaka’s epilogue add much to the discussion.

  • Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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    More for a general reader and an excellent overview for the classroom, this historical and topical overview of Buddhism in America remains an invaluable resource. A revised edition is forthcoming (as of early 2010).

  • Williams, Duncan Ryūken, and Christopher S. Queen, eds. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. Papers presented at “Buddhism in America: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship,” held at Harvard Divinity School, May 1997. Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.

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    This collection covers important ground and gives serious and self-reflective criticism to the scholar-practitioner’s place within the academic study of Buddhism.

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