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

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Missions and Missionary Activities
  • Temple and Association Histories
  • Monks
  • Youth Movement
  • Religious Practices
  • Current Trends and Needs
  • Malay and Chinese Sources
  • New Media and Contemporary Buddhism

Buddhism Buddhism in Malaysia
Jeffrey Samuels, Hun Lye
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0005


Buddhist texts make reference to two Buddhist monks coming to Malaysia shortly after the third Buddhist council, which took place in the 3rd century BCE. At the same time, however, the earliest archaeological evidence, found in the Bujang Valley (in the state of Kedah), suggests the presence of a Hindu—Buddhist kingdom as early as the 2nd century CE. From the 8th to the 13th century, the Malay Peninsula was under the influence of the Sri Vijaya empire, which was based on the island of Sumatra and which the Chinese monk I-Tsing described, in 671, as an important center for Buddhist learning with more than one thousand Buddhist monks. After the fall of the Sri Vijaya kingdom, the Thais—who controlled the northern Malay states—introduced Buddhist ideas and practices. Similar to the early period when multiple Buddhist traditions and schools of thought were represented, the formation and negotiation of Buddhist identity in contemporary Malaysia involve not only different Buddhist traditions (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayāna) but also different ethnic groups (Thai, Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Chinese). With Buddhist institutions responding to a much greater range of social and religious needs, ideas about orthodoxy and orthopraxy have become much more diffuse, thus raising fundamental questions concerning who gets to decide the boundaries of a religious identity as well as how religious identities become shaped further by overlapping ethnic and national identities. Finally, with Malaysia being a Muslim country and with Malays (who are, by definition, Muslims) being the majority ethnic community, many of the publications in this article attest not only to the diversity of Buddhism in Malaysia but also to the role that the religion plays in drawing and holding together particular minority Malaysian communities.

Historical Background

Although there are several treatments of the ancient history of Buddhism in Malaysia (Paranavitana 1966, Sengupta 1994, Hor and Trembath 2001), a comprehensive study is still lacking. Wheatley 1961 remains the most informative study of the early period, although it is a historical geography of the Malay Peninsula rather than a history of Buddhism. Other available treatments of Buddhist history of the region are either general surveys or on immigrant Buddhisms starting from the 18th century (McDougall 1956, Samarawickrama 2003, Udita 2002, Hor and Trembath 2001).

  • Hor, Yeap Tor, and Kerry Trembath. “An Outline of the History and Contemporary Status of Buddhism in Malaysia.” 2001.

    NNNThis article briefly examines the history of Buddhism in Malaysia from the 3rd century CE to the present. The authors also discuss relationships between Malaysia and China, the state of the three Buddhist traditions in contemporary society, and several key Buddhist associations and societies.

  • McDougall, Colin. Buddhism in Malaya. Singapore: D. Moore, 1956.

    NNNThis book provides a brief overview of the history of Buddhism as well as a longer history of Buddhism in Malaysia and Singapore. The appendices provide lists of Buddhist associations and societies present at the time as well as a brief note on Buddhist relics in Malaysia.

  • Paranavitana, Senarat. Ceylon and Malaysia. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Lake House Investments, 1966.

    NNNThis book provides a background to the historical relations between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (including Malaysia). Drawing on Sri Lankan chronicles, commentaries, and other texts, Paranavitana pays special attention to religious and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

  • Samarawickrama, Vijaya. A Buddhist Reflects on Malaysian Buddhism. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society and Sri Jayanti Association, 2003.

    NNNIn this short reflection, Samarawickrama discusses the history of Buddhism in Malaysia, particularly the contribution of Sinhalese Buddhists. He also provides brief details of the major Sri Lankan temples in Malaysia as well as key monastic figures. Finally, he gives a brief description of Buddhist rituals and ceremonies.

  • Sengupta, Sukumar. Buddhism in South-east Asia: Mainly Based on Epigraphic Sources. Calcutta: Atisha Memorial Publishing Society, 1994.

    NNNAlthough focused on Southeast Asia, Sengupta also devotes a short chapter to the early history of Buddhism in Malaysia and Indonesia. He notes that Buddhist art in the region of Kedah suggests that Buddhism in Malaysia began in the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

  • Udita, Galle. Brief History of Buddhism in South East Asia with Special Reference to Singapore. Singapore: Buddha Vihara Society, 2002.

    NNNThis book partly examines the founding of a number of Buddhist temples in Malaysia, beginning with the coming of Chinese migrants during the Liang Dynasty (502–566 CE) through the arrival of other immigrant Buddhists during the British colonial period, to the present. The article provides demographic information as well as discusses several key Buddhist (Mahayana and Theravada) temples.

  • Wheatley, Paul. The Golden Khersonese; Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya Press, 1961.

    NNNDrawing on inscriptions and archaeological remains, Paul Wheatley discusses, in part, the early role that Buddhism played in Malaya, particularly in the state of Kedah and Seberang Perai. He points to South India as a source for both Buddhism and Brahmanism.

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