In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Methodological Considerations
  • Reference Works
  • Data Sources and Cooperatives
  • Local Religions and Transformations
  • Ritual
  • Psychology and Emotion
  • Medicine and Healing
  • Religious Revival and Cultural Identity
  • Power of Place and Politics
  • Social Engagement
  • Gender

Buddhism Anthropology
Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0001


Although the study of the anthropology of Buddhism falls within the anthropology of religion, it has evolved into its own interdisciplinary area, almost an “applied anthropology” for those outside the discipline of anthropology. The study of Buddhism through the lens of anthropology is not a new undertaking, with several fruitful studies from the 1960s onward; however, it has been inconsistent as a viable approach for scholars for many years. From about the mid-1950s until the early 1990s, historical, philosophical, and textual approaches dominated the study of Buddhism, providing the preferred lenses by scholars who often combined them with philological tools. These preferences were reminiscent of 18th and 19th century approaches toward Asian religions. The tendency was to elevate literary products over local practices, romanticize Buddhism, and reduce religion found in Asian contexts to Western essentialist notions. In turn, the rhetoric of “great and little traditions” became commonplace in the scholarship about Buddhism. What was described as “local” or popular was perceived and presented as corrupt and an aberration of an imagined “authentic” and static “great” monastic or ascetic and scholarly Buddhism. The view of insisting on an authentic or “original” Buddhism was often connected with perceptions concerning the Theravādin tradition. The lenses of colonial and postcolonial studies are also critical for the development of the anthropology of Buddhism. It is not ironic to find in the 1960s that anthropologists made a conscious effort to study Buddhism of the Theravādin tradition in areas with a colonial history. The anthropology of religion often constructed in these contexts dealt directly with the comparison of religious beliefs and practices in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, with notions of power, ethnicity and race, and the dichotomy between “magic” and the intellectual literary traditions. It was also common for scholars with personal ties to specific regions with a colonial past to counteract the textual and historical dominance. The relative paucity of earlier studies of the Mahāyāna traditions in the colonial contexts was likely due to the fact that these traditions were not as frequent in these contexts that they did not fit into European scholars’ notions of “authentic” Buddhism and, in some cases, these traditions were not accessible to academic studies. With postcolonial contexts and political events in Asia as well as the shift away from scholarly “ancestors” like Max Weber, later anthropologists paved the way to the study of Mahāyāna traditions, thus dispelling biases against them as corrupt forms of Buddhism. Early on, data collected for the anthropological study of Buddhism in general was structured under familiar theoretical constructs such as functionalism, structuralism or postmodernism in the fields of cultural (or sociocultural), social, archaeological, linguistic, or physical anthropology, and then expanded to include psychological and political lenses. The privileging of ethnographies in academic study became increasingly popular as one of the best ways to represent social acts. As the anthropology of Buddhism evolved, several particular foci like local religions and ritual, which typically occupies a central place in anthropology, were held to engage notions of popular versus elite or monastic Buddhism. Perhaps the most exciting trend derives from a diversity of scholars who employ an interdisciplinary approach utilizing anthropological, historical, and textual lenses with proficiency in vernacular languages. Psychology and the subarea of emotion studies co-opted Buddhism in order to study regional differences. An innovative area that is also evolving in contemporary studies of the anthropology of Buddhism is medicine and healing. Exciting works on religious revival and cultural identity, power and politics, and social engagement reveal the current innovations of several anthropologists and scholars of religion who cross boundaries. Although gender is an area in need of further development as a complement to the work done by textual scholars, there have been exciting ethnographic studies to date.

General Overviews and Methodological Considerations

A number of works cover the anthropology of Buddhism in a general way, and several of these target the methodological approach. These often present a corrective to the preference of the Theravādin over the Mahāyāna traditions in past scholarship. Nash’s landmark 1966 essay critiques the lack of field experience of historical and textual scholars; here, Nash, et al. 1969 provides one of the earliest attempts by anthropologists to expand the field of Buddhist studies beyond the historical and textual. Smith 1968 is a unique study for its period, one of the earlier attempts to engage on a theoretical level what Smith called a “Buddhist anthropology” of contemporary Sinhala Buddhist society and its engagement with the secular. The Oxford-based special 1990 issue of the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (JASO) is especially dedicated to the anthropology of Buddhism. An in-depth introduction, five review articles, sixteen book reviews, and two essays problematize the approaches of the anthropology of Buddhism, especially the prioritizing of the Theravādin tradition and the neglect of the Mahāyāna because of Western academic preferences and biases. Gellner 2001 applies the often popular Weberian approach to the study of religion in ethnographic studies of Nepal and Japan. Spencer 1990 provides an update on the anthropology of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In tracing the history of the disciplinary identification of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as an anthropological object, De Silva 2006 questions Weberian and structuralist models including colonialist production of knowledge in the study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of cultural and social anthropologists directing their attention to the study of rituals in Nepal, particularly Tibetan and Newar Buddhisms. Samuel 2005 updates the author’s earlier 1978 call for an interdisciplinary approach to Tibetan religious studies. Here he offers a new approach to Tibetan studies scholarship, which he sees represented as predominantly monastic oriented, and invites scholars to follow Southeast Asian scholarship’s shift to a more anthropological lens. Ramble 1990 notes in a study of Tibetan communities that anthropology concerns the ways in which traditions differ, not the degrees to which they do, noting discrepancies between precept and practice (a typical trend in the anthropology of Buddhism, as in the works of Richard Gombrich).

  • De Silva, Premakumara. “Anthropology of ‘Sinhala Buddhism.’” Contemporary Buddhism 7.2 (2006): 165–170.

    DOI: 10.1080/14639940601025148

    Traces the history of the disciplinary identification of Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka as an anthropological object. This essay also disputes the idealized Weberian and functionalist approach and the ways in which anthropological and colonial productions of knowledge about religion and ritual have objectified Buddhism in an unproblematic way.

  • Gellner, David N. “Introduction: What Is the Anthropology of Buddhism About?” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 21.2 (1990): 95–112.

    Part of a special JASO issue edited by Gellner dedicated to the anthropology of Buddhism and the wider issues of definitions and categories like Theravāda and Mahāyāna, Buddhist ritual, and the role of Christian Western scholars in scholarship about Buddhism.

  • Gellner, David N. The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A collection of essays that both engages with Max Weber’s work combined with detailed ethnography from Nepal and Japan. It challenges critical questions in the anthropology and sociology of Buddhism and Hinduism.

  • Nash, Manning, Gananath Obeyesekere, Michael M. Ames, et al. “Ethnology: Anthropological Studies in Theravāda Buddhism.” American Anthropologist 71.6 (December 1969): 1149–1152.

    This is one of the earliest attempts, by nine anthropologists, to expand Buddhist studies beyond the historical and textual approaches and so-called romanticist scholars who dominated the field and created a foundation for further approaches in the anthropology of Buddhism.

  • Ramble, Charles. “How Buddhist Are Buddhist Communities? The Construction of Tradition in Two Lamaist Villages.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 21.2 (1990): 185–197.

    This essay discusses the anthropological focus by examining the discrepancy between precept and practice. The author examines the ways in which village communities form representations of the religion itself, and how Buddhist precepts and forms of behavior are incorporated into local traditions.

  • Samuel, Geoffrey. “Tibet and the Southeast Asian Context: Rethinking the Intellectual Context of Tibetan Studies.” In Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion. By Geoffrey Samuel, 192–214. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005.

    This work offers a corrective to the problem in Tibetan studies of isolating Tibetan societies from other Asian cultures and their studies, as well as the lack of larger regional discourses, especially Southeast Asian anthropology. The essay also critiques the lack of integration between Tibetanist and Sinologist discourses and the predominance of studies of monastic-oriented religious studies.

  • Smith, Bardwell L. “Toward a Buddhist Anthropology: The Problem of the Secular.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 36.3 (September 1968): 203–216.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/XXXVI.3.203

    This essay is one of the earliest attempts to discuss theoretically a particular Buddhist anthropological approach to contemporary Buddhist encounters with issues of the secular and the development of a new social ethic.

  • Spencer, J. “Tradition and Transformation: Recent Writing on the Anthropology of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 21.2 (1990): 129–140.

    This review article discusses the key perspectives in the anthropology of Buddhism and covers some of the seminal works about Sri Lanka. Key perspectives that have been the landmark of this approach include colonized Buddhism, the Buddhist way of life through the works of Carrithers and Southwold, and Buddhism transformed in the works of Gombrich and Obeyesekere.

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