Buddhism as Local Religion

Heather Blair

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Buddhism as Local Religion

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This essay reviews research into questions of how Buddhism has been indigenized and localized in the process of adapting to particular cultural contexts. These adaptations take many forms, but major variations include the composition of new scriptures, accommodations to particular political orders, and combinations with local religious beliefs and practices. This last mode of adaptation has often proven to be a challenge for Buddhologists because it begs the question of just what the boundaries of Buddhism are. Indeed, recent books and series referring to Buddhisms in the plural reflect a growing perception of the need to account for variation, difference, and particularity—in short, the local qualities—of what is now a global religion. All of this leads one to ask whether there is in fact any translocal, transhistorical Buddhism that can be separated from particular historical and local contexts. The ways in which Buddhists and researchers respond to this question vary significantly. For instance, some see doctrine as a more-or-less consistent source for Buddhism writ large, while others maintain that the social and discursive conditions informing any definition of Buddhism necessarily make that definition particular, not universal. Thus, the question of whether Buddhism can be or is necessarily a local religion is subject to debate, and that is part of what makes this area of inquiry so fertile. In disciplinary terms, anthropology has perhaps been the earliest and most steadfast contributor to scholarly interest in local Buddhism(s), and anthropologists have consistently drawn attention to the sociology, economics, and politics of Buddhist practices and rituals. However, as will become apparent below, philologists, historians, and philosophers are also demonstrating that the production of Buddhist literature and doctrine and the construction of Buddhist knowledge through education and scholarship are also firmly located in space and time. As a result, not only what is often referred to as “folk” Buddhism but also the activities of religious specialists and intellectual elites are now being analyzed as local phenomena. The following discussion is organized along regional lines, mostly framed in terms of contemporary nations and geopolitical regions. This approach runs the risk of reifying the modern nation-state as the cardinal category for research design on local religion, but it does have the virtue of being expedient. Researchers necessarily specialize in particular languages and they tend to focus on Buddhism as it is practiced in particular areas of the world. Nations provide convenient, familiar categories under which to group regional studies and research on local religiosity.

Article.  8041 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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