In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • European Sociocultural Background

Buddhism Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
Frank Usarski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0208


Unlike the consolidated research of Buddhism in Western countries from the 19th century onwards, the investigation of Early Modern European encounters with Buddhism still represents a demanding field of study. Academic works exclusively dedicated to systematically and chronologically exhaustive research into the subject are the exception and numerically disproportionate to isolated information and insights scattered over a vast literature for which Early Modern European encounters with Buddhism are a subordinate matter within a wider thematic framework. A series of interrelated factors is responsible for the relative unsatisfying state of the art. One reason is that Early European modernity is roughly dated between the mid-15th and the late 18th centuries, a period twice as long as the following centuries of Western-Buddhist encounter. A further intellectual obstacle has to do with the fact that although most of the relevant first-hand knowledge was produced by Christian missionaries and therefore had a religious background, the encounters were embedded in a complex interplay of economic and political forces. As a tiny minority in an alien cultural context, the missionaries’ activities were frequently threatened by non-friendly or even hostile reactions of local authorities. This bilateral constellation is a constitutive element for the field under investigation and represents an additional challenge for any researcher interested in a full understanding of the subject. A further difficulty has to do with the nature of the primary sources. In the remote widely unknown parts of the world, the missionaries assumed the role of cultural mediators gathering any information supposedly useful for their readers. In their letters and accounts, mostly written in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, or Latin, details about Buddhism rarely appear in an easily identifiable separate section but in the midst of data referring to geography, climate, politics, general cultural habits, etc. Moreover, due to the predominance of economic and political interests of the European overseas enterprise, not all of the Asiatic regions were equally important. Japan, for example, became highly attractive, while countries such as Cambodia played only a minor role. This hierarchy of relevance not only determined the moment of the Christian missionaries’ arrival and the duration of their sojourn but also the visitors’ production of knowledge in both quantitative and qualitative terms. All these elements represent the heuristic background for a substantially balanced bibliography on the Early Modern European encounter with Buddhism.

General Overviews

Due to the complexity of the field, the study of Early Modern European encounters with Buddhism is not restricted to contributions directly associated with the issue (for which Urs App’s thoughtful book [App 2012] is an outstanding example) but also benefits from publications that discuss relevant issues on the background of a wider conceptual interest. The three volumes of Donald F. Lach’s monumental work (Lach 1965–1993) are brilliant examples of this category of literature. Publications on Western Buddhism interested in the history of the phenomenon represent another rubric of useful sources as long as they begin their discussion with a discussion of earlier contacts between Asia and Europe that prepared the way for the later career of Western Buddhism. The frequently quoted books Lubac 1952 and Tucci 1949 fall under this category. The same is true for the publications Batchelor 1994 and Lai and von Brück 2001.

  • App, Urs. The Cult of Emptiness: The Western Discovery of Buddhist Thought and the Invention of Oriental Philosophy. Rorschach, Germany, and Kyoto: University Media, 2012.

    NNNFocusing on issues highly relevant to our purpose the book explores Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Latin missionary sources of the 16th and 17th centuries in order to respond to questions such as “What did Europeans first learn about Buddhist thought?” “When and where did this discovery take place and who was involved in it?”

  • Batchelor, Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 1994.

    NNNPart 3 of the book refers to the Jesuits who, from the late 16th century onwards, offered the Europeans first-hand reports about Asian countries and their religions, including Buddhism. Part 4 provides information about conquests in the field of philology in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965–1993.

    NNNThe three volumes of Lach’s massive work (volume 1, The Century of Discovery [1965]; volume 2, A Century of Wonder [1977]; volume 3, A Century in Advance [1993]) reconstruct the steadily growing knowledge of Asia from Antiquity to the 17th century, including many details referring to the Early Modern European encounter with Buddhism, the dissemination of knowledge about Asia, and its repercussions on literature and imagination in different parts of Europe.

  • Lai, Wahlen, and Michael von Brück. Christianity and Buddhism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.

    NNNParts of the book’s first chapters on Ceylon, China, and Japan are dedicated to a review on early Christian-Buddhist encounters, their respective political contexts, and the bilateral polemics involved.

  • Lubac, Henri de. La rencontre du Bouddhisme et de L’Occident. Paris: Aubier, 1952.

    NNNThe book covers the time between Antiquity and the first half of the 20th century. Readers interested in Early Modern European encounters with Buddhism find a series of relevant details, particularly in the second chapter, on Christian missionaries in Asia and their scientific legacy, which laid the ground for further Western Buddhist studies.

  • Tucci, Giuseppe. Italia e Oriente. Milan: Garzanti, 1949.

    NNNThis book summarizes the encounters between Italy and far Eastern, Southeast, and South Asian countries from the 4th century BCE to the 1940s and provides information about the evolution of the knowledge of Buddhism among missionaries and forerunners of “Orientalism”; in many cases, the knowledge was obtained through travel reports and imported Asian artifacts.

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.