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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Psychology
  • Science
  • Gender
  • Engaged Buddhism

Buddhism Buddhist Modernism
David L. McMahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0041


Scholars have used a cluster of terms—“Protestant Buddhism,” “modern Buddhism,” and most commonly, “Buddhist modernism”—to refer to forms of Buddhism beginning in the 19th century that combined Buddhist ideas and practices with key discourses of Western modernity. They identify Buddhist modernism as characterized by an emphasis on texts, rationality, meditation, egalitarianism, and increased participation of women and laity, along with a deemphasis on ritual, dogma, clerical hierarchy, “superstition,” traditional cosmology, and icon worship. Buddhist modernism began in the context of European colonization and Christian missionization of peoples in Buddhist countries. It emerged both as a form of resistance to these forces and an appropriation of Western philosophy, religion, social forms, and ways of life, creating a hybrid of Buddhism and modern Western discourses and practices. It was a co-creation of educated, reform-minded Asian Buddhists and Western Orientalists and sympathizers, who presented Buddhism as rational and compatible with modern science, while at the same time drawing from rationalism’s critics, the Romantics and Transcendentalists, with their emphasis on interior exploration, creativity, and an organic, interdependent cosmos. Although novel in many ways, its advocates often claimed it went back to the original, “pure” Buddhism of the Buddha himself, prior to what many considered extraneous cultural accretions that had adhered to it over the centuries. It was more than just a return, however; it was a reformulation of Buddhist concepts in the categories, discourses, and vocabulary of Western modernity. Much of what is considered Buddhism today is inevitably part of, or at least deeply influenced by, these modernist forms that emerged over a century ago. Indeed, many 20th-century scholarly studies of Buddhism followed the modernists, assuming that this was “true Buddhism” and popular Buddhism on the ground was less than relevant. Only in recent decades have scholars begun to fully appreciate the modernity of these articulations of Buddhism against the backdrop of the great diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia and throughout their long history. Recent iterations of Buddhist modernism include global lay meditation movements such as the Insight Meditation, or vipassanā, movement, modernist forms of Zen, and socially engaged Buddhism, which vigorously addresses political and social realities while liberally borrowing from Western political and social theory and the language of rights. The works below include scholarly analyses of Buddhist modernism and scholarly works that assume certain modernist perspectives (i.e., feminist analyses of Buddhism and socially engaged advocacy scholarship), along with a small sampling of primary sources (i.e., popular or apologetic works) that reveal Buddhist modernism from the inside and in its historical development.

General Overviews

Bechert 1966 is a seminal work on Buddhist modernism, perhaps the first to identify it as a distinct phenomenon. Although it focuses on Theravada Buddhism, it lays the groundwork for thinking about Buddhist modernism more generally. Clarke 1997 and King 1999 both critically and broadly address the history of the interface between Western culture and Asian religion, including Buddhism. Lopez 1995 brings postcolonial studies to bear on the history of Buddhist studies. Lopez 2002 provides a reader containing brief excerpts from the writings of important Buddhist modernists from early figures such as Sōen Shaku to more recent ones such as Chögyam Trungpa. His introductory essay is a valuable historical and thematic survey of Buddhist modernism. McMahan 2008 is a book-length work on Buddhist modernism, which he sees as Buddhism that has been reformulated in interface with the key discourses of Western modernity. Berkwitz 2006 includes discussions of various facets of Buddhism’s interface with modernity in different nations and geographical areas.

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Geselschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda Buddhismus. Vol. 1. Frankfurt and Berlin: Alfred Metzner, 1966.

    A seminal work on Buddhist modernism, identifying it as a distinct phenomenon within Buddhism. Focuses on Theravada traditions; volumes 2 and 3 were published in 1967 and 1973, respectively.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen. Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    Contains essays on Buddhism in its modern development in particular geographical contexts. Includes discussions of Buddhism modernism in most places it exists around the world.

  • Clarke, J. J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

    A broad, sympathetic history of the encounter between Asian and Western philosophy and religion. Provides a general context within which to view Buddhist modernism.

  • King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the “Mystic East.” London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    Places modernist interpretations of Buddhism and Hinduism in the theoretical context of postcolonial theory and representations of Asian religions in the West. The discussion is not primarily on Buddhism—although one chapter is devoted to it—but, like Clarke 1997, it is important in elucidating the context of colonialism and postcolonialism in which certain features of Buddhist modernism arose.

  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Collection of essays on how scholars of Buddhism helped construct Buddhist modernism during the colonial and postcolonial periods. Incorporates a postcolonial-studies approach to critically interrogate the social, political, and cultural conditions that have shaped the Western study of Buddhism and thereby the development of Buddhist modernism.

  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West. Boston: Beacon, 2002.

    A sourcebook of Buddhist modernism from the late 19th century through the 1980s. Contains an excellent introductory essay on Buddhist modernism (or as Lopez calls it, “modern Buddhism”).

  • McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Historical and thematic treatment of Buddhist modernism, showing its development in interaction with key discourses of Western modernity: scientific rationalism, romanticism, Protestantism, and psychology.

  • McMahan, David L. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    A collection of essays exploring the challenges faced by Buddhism today, the distinctive forms that it has taken and the individuals and movements that have shaped it. Discusses the modern history of Buddhism in different geographical regions and examines key themes including globalization, gender issues, and the ways in which Buddhism has confronted modernity, science, popular culture and national politics.

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