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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedic Entries
  • Reference Materials
  • Textbooks
  • Monastic Lineages in Central Asia

Buddhism Buddhism in Central Asia
Matthew King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0211


Historically significant civilizations dotted the heart of Eurasia already by the first centuries of the Common Era. Then, Indic Buddhist traditions began to arrive along merchant routes and find local patronage. Central Asia, like Buddhism, is hardly a fixed or consensual category: it takes quite different shape depending on the subfield and the historical period. Scholars of Buddhism (as opposed to scholars of Islam, for example) generally use “Central Asia” in reference to networks of oasis towns, such as Khotan and Turfan, that made up the ancient Silk Road between eastern Iran and Dunhuang during the first millennia CE. Transported by merchants and monks, and according to the ebb and flow of conquest and regional political fragmentation, Buddhism flowed from the Indian subcontinent into and through these city-states. Out of complex multilingual and multicultural encounters leading to Islamic hegemony in the 7th century CE, Indian, Greek, Persian, Turkic, and Chinese civilizations were twined here in new and significant ways. The Buddhisms that formed in the contact zones of Central Asia found material expression in diverse artistic and architectural styles, and they were intoned and expounded upon in some twenty-four languages and written on page and stele in at least seventeen scripts. The Central Asian melting pot provided the foundations for later, more enduring Buddhist traditions in China and Tibet, and proceeding from there to Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and Siberia. Recent scholarship is charting the extent to which Buddhist traditions in Central Asia developed in transformative dialogue with Islam and gave shape to medieval European scholasticism. Despite its formative place in Eurasian history, however, scholarship on Central Asian Buddhism remains remote for nonspecialist Buddhologists and general readers. Much of this scarcity is due to the paucity of primary sources: the archaeological and material record remains fragmentary; the agents of transmission, translation, and innovation are too often nameless or otherwise untraceable; and primary languages have been long dead. Few general overviews are available of the rich scholarship on Central Asian Buddhism to help fill this gap. To compound matters, vast bodies of contemporary secondary scholarship in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Tibetan, and Mongolian remain inaccessible to nonspecialists in Europe and North America. While a comprehensive guide to that enormous, global scholarly literature would be a worthwhile contribution, it is well beyond the purview of this article (and of the Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism series more generally). What follows is a necessarily partial bibliography aimed at providing accessible scholarship for nonspecialists, undergraduate educators, and general readers. As such, its linguistic bias is with European-language scholarship. Even so, the sources described below will quickly lead interested readers to key, non-European-language specialist studies, relevant scholarly journals, and databases of primary sources according to interest and linguistic ability.

General Overviews

Few general histories of Central Asia take Buddhism as their primary focus. Puri 1987 is a widely available exception. Unfortunately, its promise as a comprehensive overview is significantly reduced for relying upon outdated and unreliable secondary sources, inconsistencies in transliterating source languages, and errors in basic descriptions of Buddhist doctrine. Litvinsky 1999 also promises a comprehensive overview but is today distrusted for similar reasons. Stein 1921 is a more enduring milestone in Central Asian Buddhist studies and outlines the influential “Serindia” concept. Brough 1965 is an influential and accessible study of the early phase of Buddhist dispensation into and through Central Asia. Gabain 1961 is a decent summary, but one that regrettably leaves aside Iranian peoples entirely. Kudara 2002 is an accessible outline of the major Buddhist periods, sites, and linguistic diversity in Central Asia. Neelis 2011 is notable especially for rooting its description of the Buddhist dispensation into Central Asia in broad histories of trading routes and merchant culture. Also rooted in broad histories of political, economic, and cultural development, Volumes 2 and 3 of the survey of Central Asian civilization of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provide readable surveys of Buddhist history in the region (Dani, et al. 1992). Walter 2014 is perhaps the most up-to-date summary of scholarly knowledge about Buddhism in Central Asia, while Schlingloff, et al. 2010 shows the methodological and disciplinary breadth of global scholarly networks interrogating its history.

  • Brough, John. “Comments on Third-Century Shan-Shan and the History of Buddhism.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 28.3 (1965): 582–612.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00071469

    Organizes some of the accepted historical evidence concerning early Buddhist history in Central Asia as prelude and context for a tentative dating of the “Niya documents,” a large collection of Khorosthī documents discovered by Aurel Stein.

  • Dani, Ahmad H., V. M. Masson, J. Harmatta, et al. History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1992.

    A six-volume survey of Central Asian civilization containing dozens of entries about Buddhist culture in the region. Though dated in some respects, Volumes 2 and 3 (covering 700 BCE–250 CE and 250–750 CE, respectively) provide an unusually clear guide to regional Central Asian Buddhist formations in their multiple linguistic, economic, material, and political environments.

  • Gabain, Annemarie von. “Der Buddhismus in Zentralasien.” In Religionsgeschichte des Orients in der Zeit der Weltreligionen. Edited by Johannes Leipoldt, 496–514. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1961.

    An accessible, if all too brief, summary that unfortunately leaves aside the role played by Iranian peoples in the Buddhist history of Central Asia.

  • Kudara, Kogi. “A Rough Sketch of Central Asian Buddhism.” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies 3.4 (2002): 93–107.

    In addition to providing a concise and accessible historical overview, Kugara gives readers a taste of the complexity of the Central Asian Buddhist literary record based on the twenty-four writing systems and seventeen languages found in the Otani collection of Central Asian Buddhist manuscripts at Ryukoku University.

  • Litvinsky, Boris A. Die Geschichte des Buddhismus in Ostturkestan. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1999.

    Provides a general overview of Buddhism in Central Asia (West Turkestan) as well as studies of Buddhism in the northern and southern oases of East Turkestan. The spread of Buddhism into China, early Buddhist communities in the region, their canons, and monastic life in East Turkestan are also covered.

  • Neelis, Jason E. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004181595.i-372

    Reexamines the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to clarify the contexts for Buddhist mobility into Central Asia. Offers alternative explanations for the Buddhist dispensation other than the usually accepted gradual diffusion model.

  • Puri, Baij N. Buddhism in Central Asia. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.

    A broad survey of the Buddhist city-states of Central Asia, regional Buddhist movements and their eminent representatives, languages and literatures, material culture, and Buddhist art.

  • Schlingloff, Dieter, Eli Franco, and Monika Zin. From Turfan to Ajanta: Festschrift for Dieter Schlingloff on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. Bhairahawa, India: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2010.

    A rich collection of more than seventy articles by many of the most eminent contemporary scholars of early Indian and Central Asian Buddhisms. Covers current knowledge about social, economic, political, visual, literary, and doctrinal history.

  • Stein, Aurel. Serindia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1921.

    Stein’s path-breaking and enduring magnum opus on Central Asian history, with substantial Buddhist materials. Notable for introducing the enduring term “Serindia” to demarcate those ancient civilizations in what is now northwestern Afghanistan and the former Soviet and Chinese Turkestans.

  • Walter, Mariko N. “Buddhism in Central Asian History.” In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to East and Inner Asian Buddhism. Edited by Mario Poceski, 21–39. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118610398

    Mariko Namba Walter’s recent and incisive chapter provides state-of-the-field summaries of current scholarship on Buddhist traditions across Central, Inner, and East Asia.

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