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date: 10 April 2021

Buddhist Geography and Regionalismlocked

  • Megan BrysonMegan BrysonUniversity of Tennessee

Summary

Since its birth in India about 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has spread throughout the globe. As Buddhism reached new areas, its followers developed their own regional identities and understandings of Buddhist geography. South Asia, and specifically the sites associated with the historical Buddha’s life, remained a conceptual center for many Buddhists, but the near disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 13th century allowed Buddhists in other regions to overcome their “borderland complexes” and identify sacred Buddhist sites in their own lands. This involved both the metaphorical transfer of sacred sites from South Asia to new places and the creation of new sacred sites, such as reliquaries for the remains of local saints and mountains seen as the abodes of buddhas or bodhisattvas. By the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial encounters introduced Buddhism to the West and created categories of national Buddhisms, which led to new visions of Buddhist geography and regionalism.

In addition to national Buddhisms, regional distinctions commonly applied to the Buddhist world include the mapping of Theravāda in Southeast Asia, Mahāyāna in East Asia, and Vajrayāna in the Himalayas, or the mapping of Northern Buddhism as Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna in East Asia and the Himalayas, and Southern Buddhism as Theravāda in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. These models have some salience, but the history of Buddhist geography and regionalism reveals that the locations and interactions of different Buddhist traditions are more complex. New models for Buddhist regionalism have moved away from static, bounded spaces to foreground processes of interaction, such as network analyses of trade and transmission routes or areas such as “Maritime Asia” or the “East Asian Mediterranean.”

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