In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in the West (North America and Europe)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • New Buddhist Movements
  • Ritual Studies
  • Scholar-Practitioners and Buddhist Theology
  • Engaged Buddhism
  • Buddhism and Psychology
  • Feminism, Gender, and LGBT Studies
  • Buddhism, New Media, and Popular Culture

Buddhism Buddhism in the West (North America and Europe)
Scott A. Mitchell, Thomas Calobrisi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0176


The study of Buddhism in the West is built on the pioneering work of a handful of scholars in the mid-1970s. These individuals were bold enough to take the subject seriously within a reluctant academic discipline. Charles Prebish’s American Buddhism (1979) set the standard and many terms of debate for the decades to come. The field has grown considerably, despite a perceived lack of methodological sophistication (see Numrich 2008, cited under General Overviews). Scholars in this area generally approach the subject from one of three directions: area studies (Buddhism in the United States, Buddhism in France, etc.), something of a reverse area studies (e.g., Japanese Buddhism in the United States, Theravada in Britain), or topical studies (e.g., ritual studies, immigration and ethnicity, Buddhism and psychology). The most wide-reaching debates in the field generally revolve around questions of identification or classification and can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. For example, some question what “the West” is meant to signify, placing their research squarely in the context of postcolonial studies, transnational studies, or the construction of Buddhist modernism (McMahan 2002, cited under Ch’an, Zen, Sŏn). Others, such as Tweed 2002 (cited under Matters of Identity), recognize the difficulty of defining what constitutes a Western Buddhist when Buddhist culture has so thoroughly permeated the broader cultural milieu. Serving as a backdrop to these issues has been the wide-ranging and perennial debate regarding the “two Buddhisms” typology that, over the years since Prebish coined the phrase in 1979, has been considered, reconsidered, rearticulated, expanded to three Buddhisms, and renamed in a variety of ways. This article reflects these methodological approaches and topical debates, and it includes relevant sources from postcolonial studies, ritual studies, and engaged Buddhism. As mentioned, “the West” as an area of study is itself somewhat contested. Is the West limited to areas dominated by European culture? Do we extend this category to Australia and Oceania? For the sake of brevity, this article focuses on North America and Europe.

General Overviews

While the early study of Buddhism in the West was greatly advanced by the pioneering work of Emma McCloy Layman, Rick Fields, and Charles Prebish, the references in this section intentionally focus on more-recent scholarship, most of which points back to these earlier titles. Not listed here are any concise overviews of Buddhism in Europe, a deficiency resulting from the regionalism of European Buddhism and the difficulty of constraining that diversity within a single volume. Obadia 2000 does much to fill in this gap. Prebish and Tanaka 1998 and Prebish 1999, as a pair, provide an excellent overview of the most-compelling issues that faced American Buddhism at the end of the 20th century. Seager 2012 provides an excellent overview of American Buddhism in a volume well suited to the classroom. Numrich 2008 contains a wealth of more-recent scholarship on North America more broadly defined, largely from the perspective of the sociology of religion. Mitchell 2016 gives an up-to-date account of Buddhism in America, observing it from various theoretical frames. Harding, et al. 2010 offers historical, biographical, and sociological perspectives on Buddhism in Canada. Cox 2013 is the first book-length study of Buddhism in Ireland and is likely to become an important resource for scholars in the field.

  • Cox, Laurence. Buddhism and Ireland: From the Celts to Counter-culture and Beyond. Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2013.

    This book covers fourteen centuries of encounters between Irish people and Buddhism, highlighting the changing place and perception of the religion on the island from the medieval to the modern periods and into the early 21st century. It should prove to be an important resource for those interested in the subject.

  • Harding, John S., Victor Sōgen Hori, and Alexander Soucy, eds. Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada. Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

    Offering historical, biographical, and sociological accounts, as well as methodological considerations for the study of Buddhism in Canada, this work is perhaps the most comprehensive of its kind on the topic.

  • Mitchell, Scott A. Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    Structured for use as a textbook in a college classroom, Mitchell’s work looks at the landscape of US Buddhist traditions through three vantage points—“Histories,” “Traditions,” and “Frames”—in order to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date account of the subject.

  • Numrich, Paul David, ed. North American Buddhists in Social Context. Religion and the Social Order 15. Boston: Brill, 2008.

    A collection of well-researched and thoughtful essays, largely from the sociology of religion, on a variety of Buddhist communities in the United States and Canada. Essays by Numrich and Janet McLellan provide a broad grounding on thematic issues.

  • Obadia, Lionel, ed. Special Issue: Le Bouddhisme en Occident: Approches sociologiques et anthropologiques. Recherches Sociologiques 31.3 (2000).

    This edited collection contains a wealth of articles and scholarship on a wide diversity of Buddhist communities in Europe at the end of the 20th century. Includes articles by Martin Baumann, Elke Hahlbohm-Helmus, and Michelle Spuler.

  • Prebish, Charles S. Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    Something of a companion to Prebish and Tanaka 1998, this work covers similar but more wide-ranging territory. Most importantly, and distinguishing it from earlier works, Luminous Passage includes in-depth analysis of scholar-practitioners and Buddhist activity online.

  • Prebish, Charles S., and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    Based on a conference held at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, this collection of essays includes topical pieces on specific communities as well as reflections on broader American Buddhist themes of identity and ethnicity, psychology, and feminism. Prebish’s introduction and Tanaka’s epilogue add much to the discussion.

  • Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. Rev. ed. Columbia Contemporary American Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

    More for a general reader and an excellent overview for the classroom, this historical and topical overview of Buddhism in America remains an invaluable source. The expanded and revised edition includes new sections on generational issues, the importance of meditation and neurobiology, and the rise of the mindfulness movement.

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