Buddhism Decoloniality and Buddhism
GJ Mason
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0283


Decoloniality is a relatively recent area of research in Buddhist studies. While there are a few studies dating from the early 2000s, since 2019 there has a marked increase of research in the field. Despite the recent increase in publications, however, the field is still very new. As such, this article’s focus is on very recent research. The research from earlier centuries is virtually nonexistent. However, this article will be updated as the field grows year-on-year. Decoloniality in Buddhist studies is still “finding its feet,” as it were, as evidenced by certain recurring issues that will be corrected over time. For example, many publications conflate the terms decolonial and postcolonial. Only a handful of publications apply decolonial theory, while the majority revert to postcolonial theorists. Nevertheless, the focus on decoloniality in Buddhist studies is to be welcomed. Emerging from the colonial research area of Oriental studies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Buddhist studies has largely still retained the categories set by Oriental studies, preferring to view Asia religions as unified by core sets of beliefs and texts. Decolonial research in Buddhist studies focuses more on practices and indigeneity, thereby releasing or “delinking” Buddhist research from the emphasis on central beliefs and texts set by early colonial research. Decolonial theory makes the point that religion through the lens of belief was a particularly “Northern” or colonial approach to studying religions that caused the “Other” as religious subject to be defined and categorized by colonial authorities. Decoloniality aims to “rescript” epistemology according to a “Southern” perspective.

General Overviews

There are very few overview studies of decoloniality in Buddhist studies. Buddhist studies in this field tend to rely on seminal works in postcolonial theory, such as Edward Said’s Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978). Very few publications apply the views of decolonial theorists such as Walter Mignolo, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, or Ramón Grosfoguel. As such, the texts in the overview section are included to give a background and theoretical framework for decoloniality in Buddhist studies research in the absence of published textbooks in the field. The field needs such overview publications to help define and give substance to the area of study. The texts cited below serve as a nascent grouping of texts that provide a background and theoretical framework for decolonial research in Buddhist studies until such textbooks are published. McGovern 2016 points to phenomenology as part of fabric of colonial Buddhist studies. Mignolo 2007 is a good introduction to decolonial theory. Said 1978 is a classic postcolonial text. Lopez 1995 was prescient in its focus on practice rather than belief in terms of recent studies in both material religion and decoloniality.

  • Lopez, Donald S., ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Although this book was published in 1995, predating the emergence of decolonial theory, it has proven to be prescient in terms of contemporary studies in decoloniality and religion. Lopez shows that Buddhism, rather than being doctrine- and belief-centered, from a practice perspective is revealed to be far more diverse and contextually based.

  • McGovern, Nathan. “The Contemporary Study of Buddhism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. By Michael Jerryson, 701–714. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199362387.013.7

    This chapter provides an incisive critique of the colonial roots of Buddhist studies. It shows how, via the uncritical and phenomenological approaches, Buddhism was shaped by the colonial lens to conform to a “Western” view of religion. McGovern is even critical of what he terms the postcolonial study of Buddhism, as it merely continues the use of similar errors that occurred in the colonial period of Buddhist studies.

  • Mignolo, Walter D. “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of Decoloniality.” Cultural Studies 21.2–3 (2007):449–514.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162647

    Although Mignolo does not discuss Buddhism, the article is a very balanced and thorough introduction to decolonialism, including its background and theoretical framework.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books, 1978.

    Said establishes “Orientalism” as a colonial literary construct. He describes the literacy process of denigrating the colonized subject. Said mainly analyzes the literary strategies of colonial writers to depict Arab culture and practice as undeveloped. However, he does refer to Buddhism in highlighting Orientalist writers referring to the “confusion of the Oriental mind,” and, in Weber’s case, he argues that Buddhist economics and religious “mentality was ontologically distinct” and entirely different from Protestant ones (pp. 232, 259).

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