Ivette Vargas-O’Bryan

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online February 2013 | | DOI:


Although the study of the anthropology of Buddhism falls within the anthropology of religion, it has evolved into its own interdisciplinary area, almost an “applied anthropology” for those outside the discipline of anthropology. The study of Buddhism through the lens of anthropology is not a new undertaking, with several fruitful studies from the 1960s onward; however, it has been inconsistent as a viable approach for scholars for many years. From about the mid-1950s until the early 1990s, historical, philosophical, and textual approaches dominated the study of Buddhism, providing the preferred lenses by scholars who often combined them with philological tools. These preferences were reminiscent of 18th and 19th century approaches toward Asian religions. The tendency was to elevate literary products over local practices, romanticize Buddhism, and reduce religion found in Asian contexts to Western essentialist notions. In turn, the rhetoric of “great and little traditions” became commonplace in the scholarship about Buddhism. What was described as “local” or popular was perceived and presented as corrupt and an aberration of an imagined “authentic” and static “great” monastic or ascetic and scholarly Buddhism. The view of insisting on an authentic or “original” Buddhism was often connected with perceptions concerning the Theravādin tradition. The lenses of colonial and postcolonial studies are also critical for the development of the anthropology of Buddhism. It is not ironic to find in the 1960s that anthropologists made a conscious effort to study Buddhism of the Theravādin tradition in areas with a colonial history. The anthropology of religion often constructed in these contexts dealt directly with the comparison of religious beliefs and practices in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, with notions of power, ethnicity and race, and the dichotomy between “magic” and the intellectual literary traditions. It was also common for scholars with personal ties to specific regions with a colonial past to counteract the textual and historical dominance. The relative paucity of earlier studies of the Mahāyāna traditions in the colonial contexts was likely due to the fact that these traditions were not as frequent in these contexts that they did not fit into European scholars’ notions of “authentic” Buddhism and, in some cases, these traditions were not accessible to academic studies. With postcolonial contexts and political events in Asia as well as the shift away from scholarly “ancestors” like Max Weber, later anthropologists paved the way to the study of Mahāyāna traditions, thus dispelling biases against them as corrupt forms of Buddhism. Early on, data collected for the anthropological study of Buddhism in general was structured under familiar theoretical constructs such as functionalism, structuralism or postmodernism in the fields of cultural (or sociocultural), social, archaeological, linguistic, or physical anthropology, and then expanded to include psychological and political lenses. The privileging of ethnographies in academic study became increasingly popular as one of the best ways to represent social acts. As the anthropology of Buddhism evolved, several particular foci like local religions and ritual, which typically occupies a central place in anthropology, were held to engage notions of popular versus elite or monastic Buddhism. Perhaps the most exciting trend derives from a diversity of scholars who employ an interdisciplinary approach utilizing anthropological, historical, and textual lenses with proficiency in vernacular languages. Psychology and the subarea of emotion studies co-opted Buddhism in order to study regional differences. An innovative area that is also evolving in contemporary studies of the anthropology of Buddhism is medicine and healing. Exciting works on religious revival and cultural identity, power and politics, and social engagement reveal the current innovations of several anthropologists and scholars of religion who cross boundaries. Although gender is an area in need of further development as a complement to the work done by textual scholars, there have been exciting ethnographic studies to date.

Article.  8003 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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