In This Article Buddhism in Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Illustrated Guides
  • Inscriptions
  • Manuscript Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Buddhist Kingship and Monastic Politics
  • Primary Sources for the Study of Regional Buddhist History
  • Colonialism
  • Ritual
  • Gender

Buddhism Buddhism in Southeast Asia
Anne Blackburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0152


The regional (for example, South, Southeast, and East Asia) and national (for example, Myanmar [Burma], Thailand) designations in use in the early 21st century are of recent vintage and may obscure our understanding of Buddhist histories in the region. There was and is considerable circulation of persons, objects, texts, and ideas across these boundaries. These crossed marine divides, political borders, and linguistic communities. Southeast Asian Buddhist communities shaped and were shaped by religious and other cultural practices beyond the region. Buddhism in early 21st-century Southeast Asia is often described as Theravada Buddhism, in contrast to Mahayana Buddhism found further to the north and east. However, historical and early 21st-century Southeast Asian communities reveal the impact of forms of Buddhism from several parts of the Buddhist world. Elements associated with both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are found in the region. Moreover, Buddhists in Southeast Asia often identified themselves through other terms of association, and it is sometimes anachronistic to use Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as key analytical categories.


Textbooks on Buddhism offer different balances of historical and ethnographic detail, and their textual emphases vary somewhat according to authors’ research interests. Few textbooks focus solely on Southeast Asian Buddhism. Swearer 2010 is an up-to-date and influential work, although Lester 1973 deserves attention despite its age. Several of the strongest textbooks treating Buddhism more broadly contain useful treatments of aspects of Buddhist thought and practice in Southeast Asia: Gethin 1998, Gombrich 2006, Harvey 1990, and Robinson, et al. 1996. Berkwitz 2006 is useful for its focus on modern Southeast Asian Buddhism. Wijayaratna 1990, while not strictly a textbook, is a suitable companion text for the monastic sections of the other works presented in this section.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C., ed. Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

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    Includes four substantial essays on Buddhism in Southeast Asia by 21st-century scholars, with a particular focus on modernization and colonialism.

  • Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Also available electronically. An introduction to Buddhist doctrine and philosophy drawing in part on Pali canonical materials that have strongly influenced Southeast Asian Buddhist communities. Especially useful for readers interested in Buddhist meditation and philosophy.

  • Gombrich, Richard F. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

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    A revised edition of a classic text focused considerably on Sri Lanka. The treatments of early Buddhism and monastic culture are particularly strong.

  • Harvey, B. Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    A substantial introduction to diverse aspects of Buddhism with useful attention to ritual, cosmology, and community life in Southeast Asia.

  • Lester, Robert C. Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973.

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    Although more than thirty years old, several chapters of this book offer importantly nuanced views on Buddhist practice and social life. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 may be fruitfully read as a complement to other texts mentioned in this section.

  • Robinson, Richard H., and Willard L. Johnson, assisted by Sandra A. Wawrytko and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996.

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    An ambitious high-level historical treatment with a strong bibliography, shaped to some degree by a reformist Theravadin Buddhist perspective. It offers valuable accounts of monastic practice and Buddhist debate over doctrinal and disciplinary matters.

  • Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

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    A revised edition of a classic text; particularly useful as an introduction to 20th- and 21st-century Thai Buddhism. Attentive to the place of ritual and temple life in Buddhist practice.

  • Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravada Tradition. Translated by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    A vivid and accessible picture of ideal monastic practice according to canonical Pali texts influential in Southeast Asian Buddhism.

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