In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonialism and Postcolonialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Missionary and Other Colonial Sources
  • Post-Orientalism
  • Network Histories
  • Burma
  • Cambodia
  • China/Taiwan
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Sri Lanka
  • Thailand/Laos
  • Tibet
  • Vietnam

Buddhism Colonialism and Postcolonialism
Anne Blackburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0052


The study of colonial and postcolonial histories in relation to Buddhism and the use of postcolonial theory by scholars of Buddhism are fairly recent developments within the field of Buddhist studies and its allied disciplines of history, anthropology, and art history. Many of these approaches to the study of Buddhism were initially influenced by the work of Edward Said and related postcolonial and post-Orientalist studies of the way forms of knowledge and practice were reshaped in the context of colonial administrative projects. In this regard, some scholars of Buddhism took inspiration in particular from studies of how Hinduism, and to a lesser extent Islam, were “imagined” as part of colonial-period engagements in Asia. In addition, scholars of Buddhism were sometimes struck by the importance of Buddhist-inspired symbols, discourse, and institutional influence to anticolonial and nationalist projects and sought to document and analyze these phenomena. Since the early 1990s, scholars of Buddhism have worked on problems related to colonialism and postcolonialism from what may be conceived as four broad directions. In the first place, the history of the academic study of Buddhism has been investigated in relation to its roots in European colonial and missionary projects that first brought knowledge of Buddhists and their practices to the attention of Euro-American scholars of religion. Second, scholars have documented and analyzed the textual orientation of the first several generations of work in Buddhist studies, sometimes relating this textual emphasis to the religious orientation of non-Buddhist colonial scholars of Buddhism, and examining the ways in which a focus on the study of authoritative Buddhist texts led to historically inexact and essentialist treatments of Buddhist communities and their practices. A third body of scholarship examines the impact of colonial-period social and technological changes on the institutional, textual, and ritual lives of Buddhists, and the ways in which Buddhist teachers, institutions, and practices also became linked to anticolonial and nationalist activism and political life. All of these perspectives emphasize the relationship between European colonial contexts and those of European colonies in Asia. More recently, scholars of Buddhism have begun to consider intra-Asian and intra-Buddhist colonialism, as well as the networks between Asian Buddhist communities that deepened and flourished during the heyday of European colonial rule in Asia.

General Overviews

There are no textbooks focused solely on Buddhism and colonialism and/or postcolonialism. However, several volumes contain valuable discussions of these topics. Berkwitz 2006 contains essays treating all parts of the Asian Buddhist world, focused primarily on Buddhist development in the contexts of colonization and modernization. Gombrich 2006, Swearer 2010, and Robinson, et al. 1997 provide some useful framing comments; colonialism is most central to the account in Gombrich 2006. Little is available in the way of anthological treatments of Buddhist texts from colonial and postcolonial contexts. Lopez 2002 provides an interesting point of departure for thinking about the way the study and practice of Buddhism in Europe and America were shaped by Asian Buddhists speaking to “the West.”

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

    Includes substantial essays by a new generation of scholars, with a particular focus on modernization and colonialism.

  • Gombrich, Richard F. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    A revised edition of a classic text, focused considerably on Sri Lanka. Draws on the work of Obeyesekere and Malalgoda to present a view of Sri Lankan Buddhism in the context of colonialism that emphasizes its “Protestant Buddhist” character.

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

    A stimulating collection of readings from Buddhist thinkers active in the 19th and 20th centuries, in Asia, America, and Europe. This anthology offers voices from colonizing and colonized Buddhist arenas, and is especially strong as a resource for thinking about which interpretations of Buddhist textuality and history were exported from Asia to Euro-America.

  • Robinson, Richard H., and Willard L. Johnson. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. Assisted by Sandra A. Wawrytko and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997.

    An ambitious high-level historical treatment with a strong bibliography. Contains brief references to 19th- and 20th-century colonial contexts, occupations, and nationalist movements.

  • Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

    A revised edition of a classic text, particularly useful as an introduction to 20th- and 21st-century Thai Buddhism. In this context, see particularly chapter 2, which references Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka as well as Thailand.

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