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date: 28 September 2023

Global Theravada: Transmission Beyond Asialocked

Global Theravada: Transmission Beyond Asialocked

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


Theravada Buddhism is practiced by 150,000,000 people worldwide and is found on every continent except Antarctica. Its global transmission came via two streams. One was the emigration of Theravada Buddhists from Asia (heritage). The other was a Buddhism most closely associated with the colonial period and adopted by non-heritage Buddhists.

Heritage and non-heritage Buddhists share some challenges. Both faced initial difficulties in being designated a religion outside of Asia. In Australia, performing marriages was one criterion for designation as a religion, and the Swiss forbade the establishment of monasteries until 1973. Finances are a problem as well. Finding money to maintain monks and buildings can be difficult. While zoning regulations can affect both, it can be more difficult for heritage Buddhists due to language, desire for traditional temple architecture, and community resistance or racism. Both may initially share space with other groups, and both have concerns about passing Buddhism on to the next generation.

Heritage Buddhist communities and their monks face additional challenges. The community may be dispersed over a large area, and transportation may hinder regular attendance. Disagreements occur regarding the primary focus of the temple, cultural preservation, or religious services. Monks may find it difficult to follow the Vinaya rules strictly and may be criticized by the laity when they do not. There also may be considerable lay leadership as countries require charitable organizations such as churches and temples to establish a board of directors.

While non-heritage Buddhism tends to be layperson led, their communities also struggle with issues of power and leadership within a group, social justice issues, issues concerning what constitutes traditional and proper practice, and money and management issues.

The Theravada bhikkhunī sańgha died out around the 13th century. While its revival in the 20th century is generally accepted outside Asia, it is still highly contested in South and Southeast Asia. Organizations such as Sakyadhita International are often accused of trying to impose colonial and feminist ideas on largely uninterested female renunciants.

The terms used in Buddhist studies to describe, discuss, and compare these various Buddhisms are highly contested. Terms such as the two Buddhisms and ethnic/Western/traditional/modernist are problematic on several fronts: they are not accurate descriptors of the multiple forms of Theravada Buddhism; they assume that Buddhism is a static “thing,” and they have undercurrents of imperialism and racism. Although no general agreement exists regarding terminology, heritage and non-heritage or convert are commonly used in Buddhist studies. They too are problematic because they can easily be understood as Asian and White. The terminology and its implications continue to be debated.


  • Buddhism

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