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

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Inscriptions
  • Manuscript Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Buddhist Kingship and Monastic Politics
  • Primary Sources for the Study of Regional Buddhist History
  • Colonialism
  • Ritual
  • Gender
  • Material and Visual Cultures

Buddhism Buddhism in Southeast Asia
Anne Blackburn, Thomas Patton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0152


The regional (for example, South, Southeast, and East Asia) and national (for example, Myanmar [Burma], Thailand) designations in use in the early 21st century are of recent vintage and may obscure our understanding of Buddhist histories in the region. There was and is considerable circulation of persons, objects, texts, and ideas across these boundaries. These crossed marine divides, political borders, and linguistic communities. Southeast Asian Buddhist communities shaped and were shaped by religious and other cultural practices beyond the region. Buddhism in early 21st-century Southeast Asia is often described as Theravada Buddhism, in contrast to Mahayana Buddhism found farther to the north and east. However, historical and early-21st-century Southeast Asian communities reveal the impact of forms of Buddhism from several parts of the Buddhist world. Elements associated with both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are found in the region. Moreover, Buddhists in Southeast Asia often identified themselves through other terms of association, and it is sometimes anachronistic to use Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as key analytical categories.


Textbooks on Buddhism offer different balances of historical and ethnographic detail, and their textual emphases vary somewhat according to authors’ research interests. Few textbooks focus solely on Southeast Asian Buddhism. Swearer 2010 is an up-to-date and influential work, although Lester 1973 deserves attention despite its age. Several of the strongest textbooks treating Buddhism more broadly contain useful treatments of aspects of Buddhist thought and practice in Southeast Asia: Gethin 1998; Gombrich 2006; Harvey 2013; and Robinson, et al. 1996. Berkwitz 2006 and Crosby 2014 are useful for their foci on modern Southeast Asian Buddhism, generally, while Harris 2005, Holt 2017, and McDaniel 2011 provide sustained analyses of Buddhism in specific Southeast Asian countries. Wijayaratna 1990, while not strictly a textbook, is a suitable companion text for the monastic sections of the other works presented in this section.

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

    Includes four substantial essays on Buddhism in Southeast Asia by 21st-century scholars, with a particular focus on modernization and colonialism.

  • Crosby, Kate. Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity and Identity. Wiley Blackwell Guides to Buddhism. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

    Provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date introduction to the history, teachings, practices, and institutions of Theravada Buddhism.

  • Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Also available electronically. An introduction to Buddhist doctrine and philosophy drawing, in part, on Pali canonical materials that have strongly influenced Southeast Asian Buddhist communities. Especially useful for readers interested in Buddhist meditation and philosophy.

  • Gombrich, Richard F. Theravāda 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. The treatments of early Buddhism and monastic culture are particularly strong.

  • Harris, Ian. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

    A detailed study of 20th-century Cambodian Buddhism that looks into its historical development as well as its reestablishment after the Pol Pot era.

  • Harvey, B. Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013 [1990].

    A substantial introduction to diverse aspects of Buddhism with useful attention to ritual, cosmology, and community life in Southeast Asia.

  • Holt, John. Theravada Traditions: Buddhist Ritual Cultures in Contemporary Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824867805.001.0001

    A comparative study of commonly practiced Buddhist rituals in South and Southeast Asia and how such rituals reflect political, social, and economic situations.

  • Lester, Robert C. Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973.

    Although more than thirty years old, several chapters of this book offer importantly nuanced views on Buddhist practice and social life. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 may be fruitfully read as a complement to other texts mentioned in this section.

  • McDaniel, Justin. The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7312/mcda15376

    An engaging and accessible study of lived religious aspects of Buddhism in contemporary Thailand.

  • Robinson, Richard H., Willard L. Johnson, Sandra A. Wawrytko, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996.

    An ambitious high-level historical treatment with a strong bibliography, shaped to some degree by a reformist Theravadin Buddhist perspective. It offers valuable accounts of monastic practice and Buddhist debate over doctrinal and disciplinary matters.

  • 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-century and 21st-century Thai Buddhism. Attentive to the place of ritual and temple life in Buddhist practice.

  • Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to Texts of the Theravada Tradition. Translated by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511527500

    A vivid and accessible picture of ideal monastic practice according to canonical Pali texts influential in Southeast Asian Buddhism.

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