Towards an anthropology of Buddhism. Ethnography, theory and comparison (completed)

(journal special issue edited by Patrice Ladwig (MPI MMG) & Nicolas Sihlé (Centre d'études himalayennes, CNRS)

Patrice Ladwig


The groundwork for the academic study of the anthropology of Buddhism was established in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Manning Nash’s edited volume in 1966, and particularly the monographs by, for example, Melford Spiro and Stanley Tambiah in 1970 became influential landmarks. Subsequently a special issue in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford in 1990 and books by David Gellner (1992, 2001) and Geoffrey Samuel (1993) have widened the scope of the previous works. Since then, although the anthropology of Islam and even more of Christianity have undergone a resurgence, it seems that the scholarship on the anthropology of Buddhism has largely fragmented into a variety of disconnected concerns. However, in the last few years a new interest in the ‘anthropology of Buddhism’, as an ethnographically based, comparatively and theoretically informed collective endeavor has started to emerge.

The present special issue wants to give expression to this emergent innovative dynamic, which involves sustained intellectual exchanges between specialists of very different kinds of Buddhism (South and Southeast Asian Theravada, East Asian Mahayana, Tibetan / Himalayan Vajrayana, or yet transnational extensions of all those). The introduction will provide a brief overview of the field, but also outline new lines of inquiry. The articles will be addressing classical anthropological themes as well as others emerging more recently into prominence. With a focus ranging from charisma and nationalism to the anthropology of ethics, all contributions share a common commitment to an empirically based scholarship, and an engagement with larger theoretical and methodological discussions within anthropology. Moreover, the contributions provide an assessment of and comparative engagement with scholarship on their topic beyond the bounds of the national, regional and ethnic traditions they are presenting. The issue therefore addresses themes and topics that are not only of interest for a regional or Buddhist studies readership, but, with its focus on comparison and theory, also reaches out to a larger anthropological audience.

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