In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Internationalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • India as a Pilgrimage Center
  • Buddhist International Organizations
  • Buddhism Encounters in the Western World

Buddhism Buddhism and Internationalism
Brooke Schedneck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0209


It might seem that Buddhism and internationalism is a new topic in Buddhist studies scholarship; however, Buddhism has always been an international religion. From Buddhism’s emergence in India it spread in one direction to Sri Lanka and then to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. In another trajectory it crossed into Central Asia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. These journeys took place within diverse political, economic, religious, philosophical, and linguistic environments, which conditioned the reception and manifestations of Buddhism in each region. Buddhism continues to be an international religion, spreading globally through people, objects, art, film, books, and ideas. During the modern period, when Buddhism began to be studied and became known beyond Asia, other populations became interested in the religion. Through travel by Asian teachers to non-Buddhist locations as well as by non-Buddhist travelers to Asian countries, Buddhism gained a presence in populations where it had previously been absent. In addition, the migration of Asian populations to Europe, North America, and South America has spread the visibility of Buddhist identities. This article deals with issues that include the manner in which Buddhism spread, the means by which it did so, the reasons for its appeal, the ways Buddhism has adjusted to its various cultures, and the manner in which it both transforms and is transformed by cultures. Internationalism, by definition, stands in contrast to nationalism. Internationalism focuses on relationships between nations rather than the interests of a particular nation. Thus, the subject of Buddhism and internationalism must treat the process by which the religion has become international. For the purposes of this article, works on Buddhism and internationalism are cited that deal with the movement of Buddhism from one location to another. This scholarship includes the history of Buddhism’s spread from India to other parts of Asia as well as work on the more recent migrations and institutional links of Asian Buddhists to non-Buddhist countries. Recently, scholars have begun to look at the context of travelers from non-Buddhist countries practicing in Asian Buddhist locations. Therefore Buddhism and internationalism includes travel, short or long term, that serves to spread Buddhism’s teachings and practices. In addition to travel, internationalism includes the ways Buddhists envision themselves as part of broader communities and how they attempt to practice their core values on a global scale. No overarching international hierarchy of Buddhists exists as each nation and sect follows its own internal procedures. However, through organizations and charismatic leaders, some prominent individual Buddhists and groups have emerged who are well known worldwide.

General Overviews

Several useful introductions to Buddhism and internationalism are available. No textbook on the topic of Buddhism and internationalism exists, but some introductory works on Buddhism, most notably Mitchell 2002, discuss the tradition’s movement and transnational connections in significant detail. Obeyesekere 2003 is part of a general religious studies textbook that provides an overview of Buddhism as a global religion. Topics of missionary work in Learman 2005 and Walters 2005 and the spread of Buddhism in Braarvig 2012, Heirman and Bumbacher 2007, Abenayake and Tilakaratne 2011, and Zürcher 1962 provide excellent guides to the global scope of Buddhism.

  • Abenayake, Oliver, and Asanga Tilakaratne, eds. 2600 Years of Sambuddhatva: Global Journey of Awakening. Colombo: Ministry of Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs, Government of Sri Lanka, 2011.

    This edited volume surveys Buddhism in all the countries where it has spread. Scholars address disparate areas in Asia and the West.

  • Braarvig, Jens. “The Spread of Buddhism as Globalization of Knowledge.” In The Globalization of Knowledge in History. Edited by Jürgen Renn, 245–267. Berlin: Edition Open Access, 2012.

    This chapter deals with the geographical spread of Buddhism and the ways the tradition maintained continuity of its knowledge and lineages. Braarvig discusses monastic institutions, texts, images of the Buddha, and narratives as some of the Buddhist modes of diffusion.

  • Heirman, Ann, and Stephan Peter Bumbacher. The Spread of Buddhism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    This edited volume treats the early dissemination of Buddhism from India to China, Tibet, Mongolia, and the Middle East.

  • Learman, Linda, ed. Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

    An important edited volume that discusses the spread of Buddhism through the efforts of missionaries. The introduction illustrates the significance of mission for the Buddhist religion and its spread outside of India. The rest of the chapters focus on missionary case studies mostly from the modern period in Sri Lanka, Nepal, North America, Brazil, and Taiwan.

  • McMahan, David L., ed. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    This edited volume concerns the modern experiences of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, North America, and Europe.

  • Mitchell, Donald. Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    This introductory textbook on Buddhism takes a global approach to understanding the tradition. It focuses on the Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese experiences of Buddhism. Modern forms of Buddhism in Asia and the West are also covered.

  • Obeyesekere, Gananath. “Buddhism.” In Global Religions. Edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, 63–77. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Within this edited volume focusing on the transnational character of religions, Obeyesekere’s chapter on Buddhism concisely highlights the early dissemination of Buddhism. He then explores Buddhism’s contact with European scholars and practitioners, Buddhist diasporas, and meditation institutions outside of Asia.

  • Walters, Jonathan. “Missions: Buddhist Missions.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 1. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 6077–6082. Detroit: Macmillan, 2005.

    In this encyclopedic entry, Walters explains the impetus for mission in Buddhism discussing the early spread of the faith and ending with modern Buddhist missions. This work also compares ideas of mission among Christians and Buddhists.

  • Zürcher, Erik. Buddhism: Its Origin and Spread in Words, Maps, and Pictures. New York: St. Martin’s, 1962.

    Zürcher’s short volume concisely discusses Buddhism’s spread throughout Asia from India.

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