In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism, Immigrants, and Refugees

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theory and Method
  • Pre-Modern Migrations
  • Modern Histories
  • Cultural Adaptation beyond the United States and Canada
  • Politics, Identity, and Law
  • Trauma and Resilience
  • Social Healing and Emplacement
  • Ethics and Spirituality

Buddhism Buddhism, Immigrants, and Refugees
Christina Kilby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0279


The title “Buddhism, Immigrants, and Refugees” appeals to a distinctly modern context where states take the form of sovereign territories defined by borders whose crossing legally marks a person as “immigrant” and, in certain cases, “refugee.” For most of Buddhism’s history, states as they are known in the twenty-first century did not exist, and the people who carried Buddhism across cultural and geographical space inhabited many roles. They were monks, merchants, emissaries, exiles, brides, pilgrims, missionaries, and students; their movement was motivated by invitation, by command, by crisis, by opportunity, or by visions. As they lived and moved, their traditions lived and moved with them––and the places where they settled changed in response. While migration and cultural adaptation have been woven into the fabric of the Buddhist tradition from its very beginnings, the categories of “immigrant” and “refugee” are relatively new to Buddhist experience. This article overviews scholarship on “Buddhism, Immigrants, and Refugees” primarily in the modern era of bordered states, which is deeply intertwined with scholarship on globalization (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Globalization”). It includes sources that describe Buddhist experiences of movement, exile, and acculturation as well as sources that investigate the political, ethical, social, and psychological dimensions of immigration from Buddhist perspectives. This article is limited by its reliance on Anglophone scholarly literature, which disproportionately treats Anglophone contexts of Buddhist immigration (explained in part by the large number of Asian Buddhist immigrants to the United States and Canada in the twentieth century). Although the title of this article omits the term “internally displaced people” (people who are uprooted from their homes and communities, yet do not cross state borders), this article includes sources that address internally displaced people who are construed as immigrants by those in power as a technique of marginalization. Additionally, this article includes sources that address not only immigrants, refugees, internally displaced people, host communities, and aid organizations who serve them, but also governments and militaries who regulate state borders and who choose whom to include and exclude, often with violent consequences (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Buddhism and Nationalism”).

General Overviews

While the field of Buddhist studies is rich in scholarship on particular communities of Buddhist immigrants and refugees, there are to date fewer general overviews of Buddhist modes and experiences of immigration. Prebish and Baumann 2002 offers a collected volume of studies of Buddhist communities beyond Asia that span a variety of cultures, contexts, and concerns. Baumann 2001 provides a useful summary of the largest emigrations of Asian Buddhists in modern history, and Nelson 2017 demonstrates how the migration of Buddhists and Buddhism can be analyzed in terms of processes of localization and globalization. Kilby 2018 is a textbook chapter introducing Buddhism as a border-crossing religion, while Learman 2005 offers a collection of essays highlighting missionization as a central driver of Buddhist mobility. Taken together, these works offer a well-rounded and accessible introduction to the study of Buddhism, immigrants, and refugees.

  • Baumann, Martin. “Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective.” Journal of Global Buddhism 2 (2001): 1–43.

    This article overviews the major emigrations of Asian Buddhists in the modern era with attention to the dynamics of globalization. The author also introduces problems in the binary framework of immigrant-convert Buddhism that marks much scholarship on Buddhism and immigration.

  • Kilby, Christina A. “Buddha Dhamma.” In Religions of India. 2d ed. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 107–137. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    A general introduction to Buddhism in a textbook on the religions of India, this chapter gives focused attention to Buddhism’s border-crossing character, particularly in sections on “Buddhism beyond India” and “Tibetan Buddhism in Exile.”

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

    With a focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this edited volume of essays investigates the roles of both domestic and foreign Buddhist missionaries across a variety of locales and sectarian traditions (Theravada, Chinese, Tibetan, Pure Land, Shingon, Zen, and Soka Gakkai). This collection provides a rare emphasis on missionization as a key mode of Buddhist migration in the modern world.

  • Nelson, John. “Diasporic Buddhisms and Convert Communities.” In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Edited by Michael Jerryson, 381–397. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    This chapter juxtaposes the translocal dimensions of Buddhism with attention to the highly localized varieties of Buddhism across the globe. A cogent overview of Buddhism as a religion on the move.

  • Prebish, Charles S., and Martin Baumann, eds. Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    Many essays in this volume address the cultural adaptations of immigrant Buddhist communities, though some focus on the reception of Buddhism by the majority culture. The volume includes studies of regions beyond the “west,” including Africa and Israel, despite the title.

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