Buddhism Buddhism as Local Religion
Heather Blair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0090


This essay provides a review of research on how Buddhism has indigenized and localized in the process of adapting to particular cultural contexts. These adaptations take many forms, but major variations include the composition of new scriptures, accommodations to particular political orders, and combinations with local religious beliefs and practices. This last mode of adaptation has often proven to be a challenge for Buddhologists because it begs the question of just what the boundaries of Buddhism are. Indeed, recent books and series referring to Buddhisms in the plural reflect a growing perception of the need to account for variation, difference, and particularity—in short, the local qualities—of what is now a global religion. One may well ask whether there is in fact any translocal, transhistorical Buddhism that can be separated from particular historical and local contexts. The ways in which Buddhists and researchers respond to this question vary significantly. Some see doctrine as a more-or-less consistent source for Buddhism writ large, while others maintain that the social and discursive conditions informing any definition of Buddhism necessarily make that definition particular, not universal. Thus, questions of whether Buddhism can be or is necessarily a local religion are subject to debate, and that is part of what makes this area of inquiry so fertile. In disciplinary terms, anthropology has perhaps been the earliest and most steadfast contributor to scholarly interest in local Buddhism(s), anthropologists have consistently drawn attention to the social dynamics, economics, and politics of Buddhist practices and rituals. However, as will become apparent below, philologists, historians, and philosophers are also demonstrating that the production of Buddhist literature and doctrine, as well as the construction of Buddhist knowledge through education and scholarship, is also firmly located in space and time. As a result, not only “folk” Buddhism but also the activities of religious specialists and intellectual elites are now being analyzed as local phenomena. The following discussion is organized along regional lines, mostly framed in terms of contemporary nations and geopolitical regions. This approach runs the risk of reifying the modern nation-state as the cardinal category for research design on local religion, but it does have the virtue of being expedient. Researchers necessarily specialize in particular languages and they tend to focus on Buddhism as it is practiced in particular areas of the world. Nations provide convenient, familiar categories under which to group regional studies and research on local religiosity.

Foundational Studies

To date, there are no general overviews of Buddhism as a local religion, and given that the local is by definition not general, that may be precisely as it should be. On an introductory level, Berkwitz 2006 furnishes a readable college-level textbook comprising chapters transparently titled “Buddhism in ____ (Burma, Japan, etc.).” A number of seminal, previously published articles that raise important methodological questions are collected in Derris and Gummer 2007; many of these essays redound upon the issue of local Buddhism, and they are particularly recommended for beginning graduate students. As an effort to account for local beliefs and practices on a case-by-case basis, the Buddhisms series from Princeton University Press is worthy of note. The same is true of the Princeton Readings in Religion series, which provides a diverse collection of primary source materials (Lopez 1995–2007; specifically, see Buddhism in Practice, Tantra in Practice and Religions of Asia, China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet in Practice). Unfortunately, comparative studies of local Buddhisms are scant, but for one such foray that includes useful methodological reflections, see Gellner 1997. Interest in Buddhism as a local religion has grown in part as a reaction to disciplinary habits that first developed during the European colonization of Asia. Studies in the postcolonial vein have examined the emergence of the academic field of Buddhist studies (Almond 1988, Lopez 1995), and they have called attention to colonial and Orientalist reliance on textual, especially canonical, materials to construct a supposedly universal body of doctrine that comprises a “true” and translocal Buddhism. Such studies have also shown that the practices of real, live Buddhists in specific places and times had long been devalued or outright ignored (Schopen 1991). In sum, critiques of colonial visions of a unified, universal, textual Buddhism have galvanized interest in Buddhism as a local religion, and have drawn attention to vernacular materials, social history, and other sources and methods. With its balanced account of modernizing and globalizing trends in Buddhist thought and practice, McMahan 2008 provides a very useful background for the shifting terrain of Buddhist studies.

  • Almond, Philip C. The British Discovery of Buddhism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598210

    A watershed in postcolonial Buddhist studies and a core reading for the history of the field more generally. Focuses on Victorian apprehensions of Buddhism “as a textual object.” Useful in understanding the body of knowledge to which the study of Buddhism as a local religion reacts.

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

    Textbook appropriate for college use, as well as for anyone not familiar with regional developments and/or Buddhism in modern-to-contemporary culture. Essays address current social contexts and are penned by younger scholars; the photographs are poor quality, but the bibliographies are useful.

  • Derris, Karen, and Natalie Gummer, eds. Defining Buddhism(s): A Reader. Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2007.

    Collection of influential previously published essays; recommended for graduate students. Does not explicitly address the theme of local Buddhism(s) per se but does illuminate the early-21st-century disciplinary matrix in which attention to local Buddhist beliefs and practice has become increasingly important. Includes seminal pieces by Gregory Schopen, Charles Hallisey, and others.

  • Gellner, David N. “For Syncretism: The Position of Buddhism in Nepal and Japan Compared.” Social Anthropology 5.3 (1997): 277–291.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8676.1997.tb00375.x

    Acknowledges that the term syncretism is plagued by difficulties, not least an obsession with (authenticating) origins. On the basis of a brief comparison of Nepalese and Japanese Buddhism, however, Gellner concludes that syncretism can usefully refer to a style of religious coexistence in contrast to bricolage, synthesis, or complementary accretion.

  • Lopez, Donald S., ed. Curators of the Buddha. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Landmark collection of articles by respected scholars on the influence of colonialism on Buddhist studies. Consistently provocative and interesting; standard reading for graduate students.

  • Lopez, Donald S., ed. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995–2007.

    Better known as Such-and-Such in Practice, and designed to challenge the traditional Buddhist studies canon, these collections of translated primary sources preceded by brief introductions are idiosyncratic and unsystematic. They also contain fascinating material, much of which highlights interactions among Buddhist and local beliefs and practices.

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

    Balanced account of modernization as a series of complex flows of cross-cultural influence. Recommended for upper-level undergraduates as well as graduates and professional researchers.

  • Schopen, Gregory. “Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism.” History of Religions 31.1 (1991): 1–23.

    DOI: 10.1086/463253

    Famous article also collected elsewhere (e.g., in Derris and Gummer 2007). Offers a trenchant critique of the notion that religion is located in texts. Schopen has been an influential advocate for the study of epigraphical sources, material culture, and (local) Buddhist practices.

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