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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sociopolitical Studies
  • Gender and Buddhism
  • Theravada Tantra
  • Burma/Myanmar
  • Cambodia
  • Laos
  • Sri Lanka
  • Thailand

Buddhism Theravada
Justin McDaniel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0161


Did a separate Theravada school of Buddhism actually exist as a discernible entity before the modern period? Can we talk about Theravada Buddhism as a field of study or as a religion bounded by a distinct set of texts, rituals, beliefs, and institutions? The term “Theravada” is rarely found in texts in South and Southeast Asian languages before the 19th century. Moreover, Theravada is mistakenly associated with “early Buddhism,” even though there is no evidence that it was anything more than one of many intellectual, ritual, and organizational lineages in early Indic Buddhism. More properly instead of talking about an amorphous Theravada sect or school, scholars have started to trace ordination and teaching lineages, or look at the degree to which other categories such as araññavāsī/pupphārāmavāsī (forest/flower garden-dwellers) or gāmavāsī/nagaravāsī (village/city-dwellers), or ganthadhura (those who carry the burden of [textual] study) and vipassanādhura (those who carry the burden of meditation practice) were used in different places. Scholars have yet to define the contours of the Theravada. Therefore, the field has been divided into the citations that follow to reflect the tension between local anthropological and textual works and larger national, regional-based, and general studies. Unfortunately, space restraints limit the works cited to those written in Western languages and exclude the large numbers of studies on “socially engaged Buddhism” that has become quite popular in recent years and demands a separate bibliographic entry.

General Overviews

Early on, most studies of Theravada Buddhism were based on research done in Sri Lanka, or were purely textual studies that looked at the Pali canon and its early commentaries. Scholars such as T. Rhys-Davids, Caroline Rhys-Davids, Michael Viggo Fausbøll, Wilhelm and Magdalene Geiger, Frank Edgerton, Walpola Rahula, and Hermann Oldenberg looked closely at Pali texts. Even though “early Buddhism” and Theravada should not be studied as if they were the same subject, many of the important studies of early Pali literature have well served scholars researching later periods, especially those working on Buddhist art, homiletics, performance, narrative, and social ethics in Buddhist communities that use Pali texts in Southeast Asia. The influence of these Pali philological and literary studies cannot be discounted. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, Fujita, von Hinüber, and Jaini worked extensively on Pali texts popular in Southeast Asia. Richard Gombrich produced a number of foundational works. Gombrich 1988 was one of the first significant general studies on Theravada Buddhism. There are few general studies that focus on Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia in addition to the influential Swearer 2009. Furthermore, Keyes 1977 offers a cultural study of Theravada Buddhist communities. Collins 1998 is the most sophisticated attempt to understand Theravada or Pali Buddhism in terms of civilizational history. Two edited volumes—Pichard and Lagirarde 2003, and Lagirarde and Paritta Chalermpow 2006—have contributed much to our knowledge of the intricacies and intimacies of Theravada communities in the region. Skilling 2009 is the most comprehensive and well-researched general study to date. Some of the best general studies of Theravada Buddhism have been produced by art historians, but this subject is beyond the scope of this entry. The studies of Theravada Buddhism in Indonesia (especially the growing Thai Buddhist missionary movement there), Vietnam, and India remain desiderata. Shan Buddhist studies have increased in scholarly activity in the early 21st century, and Eberhardt 2006 (cited under Thailand) provides an intimate portrait of Shan Buddhist culture. Levine and Gellner 2005 (cited under Gender and Buddhism) studies the revival, especially among women, of Theravada practice in the Katmandu valley of Nepal. The study of early modern Arakan in Leider 2004 (cited under Burma/Myanmar) provides much information on Theravadin Buddhist history.

  • Collins, Steven. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    The most influential and sophisticated study not only of Buddhist notions of soteriology and utopia(s), but also of narrative and textual communities. This book is additionally responsible for launching a number of other studies on the “Pali imaginaire” in South and Southeast Asia.

  • Gombrich, Richard. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

    Does not discuss problems with defining Theravada Buddhism as a sect or school and generally presents an ideal history. However, although this study has a textual focus, it does make an effort to see how the complex Theravada tradition changed over time in Sri Lanka.

  • Hinüber, Oskar von. A Handbook of Pali Literature. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996.

    The most comprehensive and useful introduction to the manuscripts, editions, and available translations in French, German, English (and occasionally Japanese and Italian) of South Asian Pali canonical and commentarial texts. What is most impressive about this handbook is that von Hinüber covers later manuals, homiletic, and cosmological Pali texts composed in Southeast Asia, and not just canonical and early commentarial work.

  • Keyes, Charles. The Golden Peninsula. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

    Although not produced by a Buddhist studies scholar, this is a masterful study of the ways in which multiple religious traditions in Southeast Asia interact and are influenced by tensions over politics, ethnicity, economics, and gender.

  • Lagirarde, François, and Paritta Chalermpow Koanantakool, eds. Buddhist Legacies in Mainland Southeast Asia. Bangkok, Thailand: Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, 2006.

    Fourteen articles by the top scholars in Southeast Asian Buddhism, ranging from studies of murals and epigraphy to linguistics and history.

  • Pichard, Pierre, and François Lagirarde, eds. The Buddhist Monastery. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 2003.

    Although this collection focuses on Southeast Asia, there are a few articles on Tibet, Bhutan, and eastern Asia. It is a wide-ranging blend of twenty art historical, textual, and anthropological studies. Particularly useful for the study of monastic architecture and imagery.

  • Rhys-Davids, T. W. The Questions of King Milinda. Vol. 1. Sacred Books of the East 35. Oxford: Clarendon, 1890.

    Although Rhys-Davids and his wife, Caroline Rhys-Davids, translated or edited some of the most well-known Pali texts and launched the Pali Text Society, he also translated texts with questionable “canonical” status, such as Volume 2 of The Questions (published in 1894). His translations have been reprinted numerous times, and his editions even became the basis of textual study by elite monks and nuns in Southeast Asia. No student of Pali can work without his Pali-English dictionary.

  • Skilling, Peter. Buddhism and Buddhist Literature of South-East Asia: Selected Papers. Vol. 5. Edited by Claudio Cicuzza. Materials for the Study of the Tripiṭaka. Bangkok, Thailand: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2009.

    This is a selection of twelve articles by the leading scholar of Theravada Buddhism that reveals a breadth and depth rarely achieved by one person. Appendixes provided at the end of many articles list titles of stories, collections, inscriptions, languages, and the like. These, combined with the extensive notes and very useful bibliography, will make it a perennially useful reference work.

  • Swearer, Donald. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

    The recognized classic text introducing students to Southeast Asian Buddhism, which although focusing on northern Thailand, makes a number of broader points about shared regional practices. There is a good balance between historical and ethnographic evidence throughout. Originally published in 1995.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.