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date: 24 March 2023

Global Theravada Buddhism: Asian Foundationslocked

Global Theravada Buddhism: Asian Foundationslocked

  • Mavis L. FennMavis L. FennDepartment of Religious Studies, University of Waterloo


The establishment and development of Theravada in South and Southeast Asia was driven by relationships between the king, the sangha (community of monks and nuns), and the laity. It is an imaginaire through which precolonial history is seen as a time when ideal kings and an ideal sangha mutually supported each other and worked for the benefit of the people through the teaching and the performance of rituals that allowed lay people to make religious merit (punna) toward future lives. The king protected the realm from attack, protected it internally through ensuring stability, and supported the sangha. The king was the largest financial supporter of the sangha and had oversight over it. Kings periodically reformed the sangha administratively and “purified” it of unacceptable behavior and belief. These reforms generally saw an increase in the king’s power vis-a-vis that of the sangha. The ideal king was the cakkavattin, “righteous ruler” and world conqueror. The historical instantiation of this ideal was King Ashoka. These relationships were often tense and fractious but with colonization, especially by the British in the 19th- to mid-20th century, this ideal provided the basis for postcolonial visions of the emerging nation states.

Three common themes arose as Buddhists grappled with colonization. The first was that there had been both an institutional and personal decline in the dhamma that contributed to the loss of independence. The second was that the dhamma needed to be protected from further decline and this required the reform of the sangha and expansion of lay practice—in particular with regards to the laity’s involvement with and public support for the sangha. The third was an idealization of the past. These themes played an important role in the creation of anticolonial independence movements that led to the emergence of modern states, Buddhist nationalism, and Buddhist modernism.

The bhikkhuni sangha, established by the Buddha in India, died out around the 11th to 13th century where it existed. In its absence, alternative forms of practice and orders of religious women arose. A movement in the late 1980s and 1990s worked to revive the bhikkhuni order. While there are bhikkhuni both within and outside of Asia, those in South and Southeast Asia are not considered authentic by monastic authorities and government, and the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha remains controversial among monks, laity, and women in alternative orders.


  • Buddhism

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