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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference
  • Scholar Orientalists Who Worked from the West
  • Biographies of Orientalists
  • Orientalist Translators
  • Theosophy and Orientalism
  • Buddhism, the Esoteric, and the Occult
  • Literature, Buddhism, and Orientalism
  • Archaeology and Orientalism
  • Western Converts to Buddhism
  • Contemporary Orientalism

Buddhism Buddhism and Orientalism
Elizabeth Harris
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0280


Orientalists (Westerners who studied Asian cultures) arose in the period of European expansionism. Their passion was to produce knowledge of the languages, literatures, religions, and philosophies of the “East.” The Palestinian American Edward Said (b. 1935–d. 2003) was the first to theorize this activity, placing it within cultural and political studies with the argument that orientalism was a tool of Western global domination and manipulation. It was complicit with Western colonialism and distorted and restructured the “East” in order to exert power over it. Said focused on the Middle East and Islam. He gave little credit to the agency of those who were the objects of orientalism and was dismissive of the motivation of orientalists. His argument was then extended by others to cover religions such as Buddhism. Saidian scholars of Buddhist history argued that orientalism mined Buddhism to serve Western interests, textualized and reified it, and even introduced to Buddhists the idea that their religious practice formed a separate “religion.” Said’s argument forms the bottom line of the contemporary study of Buddhism and orientalism but has been contested, particularly by those who argue that the production of knowledge about Buddhism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was neither the product of the dominant West nor Asia alone but rather of their interaction within the context of modernism. What is beyond doubt is that the activity of Western orientalists in these centuries gave birth to new formulations of Buddhism both in Asia and the West that have been given different labels: Protestant Buddhism, Buddhist Revivalism, Buddhist Modernism, Westernized Buddhism. This bibliography includes primary sources, namely the writings of orientalists up to the early twentieth century, and contemporary scholarship within the field of Buddhism and orientalism. It recognizes that not only Buddhist studies in the West but also some Western Buddhist communities were children of orientalism and are still influenced by it. However, it also recognizes that orientalist representations of Buddhism were diverse, influenced variously by Western rationalism and scientific method, Christian missionary activity, and Western interest in spiritualism, the esoteric, and the occult. It should be remembered that the items listed in each section are illustrative and not comprehensive.

General Overviews

This section consists of overviews that include Buddhism in their analysis of the wider field of orientalism and studies that are specifically about Buddhism. Almond 1988 is a foundational study that applies Said’s thesis to the British reception of Buddhism. Almond argues that Buddhism was discovered by the West in the first half of the nineteenth century and then appropriated by the West to serve its own interests and needs. App 2012 contests the view that Western orientalism began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by mapping earlier encounters, beginning with Jesuit missions to Japan and China in the sixteenth century. App argues that these early encounters led to the idea in the West that there was a single oriental philosophy, characterized by the concept of “emptiness.” Clarke 1997 accepts Said’s view that no knowledge is apolitical but argues that the link between orientalism and Western colonial rule is only part of the story. Germany, for instance, was not a colonial power in Asia but its scholars had considerable influence in the early study of Buddhism. Although King 1999 accepts that Asians had agency within orientalist representations of Buddhism, the author argues that their voices were manipulated, transformed, and subordinated by Western interests. Lubac 2000 and Lenoir 1999 offer overviews that reflect French scholarship, Lubac from the perspective of a Roman Catholic background and Lenoir from the perspectives of sociology and religious studies.

  • Almond, Philip C. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598210

    Although diversity within the orientalist gaze is recognized, little emphasis is given to the agency of Asian Buddhists or lived Buddhism in Asia.

  • App, Urs. The Cult of Emptiness: The Western Discovery of Buddhist Thought and the Invention of Oriental Philosophy. Rorschah, Switzerland, and Kyoto, Japan: UniversityMedia, 2012.

    This provides a necessary corrective to the assumption that orientalism began in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

  • Clarke, J. J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

    A perceptive account of orientalism as it was expressed in Asia.

  • King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’. London: Routledge, 1999.

    A key text for the study of orientalism. Argues that however praiseworthy the motivation of some individual orientalists, the complicity of orientalist representations in British hegemony over South Asia has to be recognized.

  • Lenoir, Frédéric. La rencontre du Bouddhisme et de l’occident. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

    An insightful study from a scholar and film producer. His approach is broad brush, crossing centuries to demonstrate that Buddhism has continuously been reinterpreted by the West to meet its spiritual needs.

  • Lubac, Henri de. La rencontre du Bouddhism et de L’Occident. Oeuvres complètes XXII Sixième Section. Paris: Cerf, 2000.

    A sizeable work that surveys the encounter between Buddhism and the West, written by a prominent Roman Catholic theologian. Expanded version of 1953 edition.

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