The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism

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Michael Jerryson
Oxford Handbooks
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     736 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion is constantly on the move. Buddhism in the globalized, interconnected world of the 21st century is no exception. When I taught World Religions for the first time—around 2014—I remember being struck by how quickly old Protestant churches in California were being converted into Buddhist “centers” and “temples.” It was clear to any resident in the American regions that—to borrow a phrase from The Wizard of Oz—“we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism is a recent addition to the Oxford Handbook series which attempts to trace the movements, shape, and nature of contemporary Buddhism around the world. With over forty chapters (and contributors), the tome is sure to satisfy any curious readers about where this “world religion” (some dispute this title) stands today.

The book is divided into two sections, “Geographies” and “Modalities.” The former is a sweeping, seven-section geographical survey of how Buddhist traditions and movements have landed where they currently are. The “contemporary” in the book’s title is evident in how the authors frequently relate the last century—a tumultuous one for Buddhism—and its relationship to the present. The individual chapters are each dedicated to a different region, and as this comprised a solid twenty-one chapters, some authors were unable to find much Buddhist-distinctiveness for their region. There are, on the other hand, many cases in which Buddhism looks so different in some regions that it is hardly recognizable to others. 

Indeed, there are many “Buddhisms” (plural). The term “Buddhism” itself must also be contextualized: “Buddhism is a Western term for which there is no exact equivalent in many Asian languages” (350). The same goes for certain traditions within Buddhism(s). “The invention of ‘Theraveda’”, for instance, “arose in the colonial period in which Buddhism was studied and labeled and, in the process, transformed by European and Asian scholars and practitioners. It took root in the early postcolonial context in which emerging nation-states sought to establish the rhetorical and physical infrastructure necessary to sustain independence” (237). 

Such effects of Westernization and modernization on contemporary Buddhist life and practice has an interesting tale to tell for American readers. For instance, in a fascinating turn of events (involving such things as the Theosophical Society of 1875), “Buddhism” in the US immediately took on a local flavor. The “construction of a modernist form of Buddhism that relied on ancient sacred texts and, subsequently, through the pre-packaged form of Orientalist Buddhism custom-made for Americans to include scientific racism, Western philosophies and religion that emphasized individualism, freedom, and the rejection of superstitious practices is what formed and popularized Euro-American Buddhism” (329). Thus, “[i]t was a textual Buddhism that presented the teachings of the Buddha as a rational system of philosophical thought devoid of ritual, magic, and superstition” (318). 

As a result, Americans have a very skewed perception about what (non-Western) Buddhism is all about. In fact, Buddhists from Asia are viewed by American Buddhists as deviant. “Both the history of Asians in America and that of Orientalism in American Buddhism have worked against Asian American Buddhists,” one chapter explains. “As immigrants of Asian ethnicity, they are seen as ‘perpetual foreigners,’ and as traditional Buddhists, they have been marked as practicing a corrupt and less-than-authentic Buddhism … they are not seeking alternative spiritually, like many disaffected Christians and Jews who turned to Buddhism to selectively pick and choose, much like a shopper at a mall, spiritual resources not connected to prescriptions and proscriptions associated with their former institutional religions. Rather, Asian American Buddhists are seeking to preserve their cultural and religious heritage in their adopted land” (330). For anyone who has ventured to explore or learn about Buddhism in California or—in my case—Boulder, Colorado, all of this makes perfect sense, as unfortunate as this deformity might be to some. 

“Modernization” is naturally a regular theme in the book. Like all religions, Buddhists have had to ask: how much should one preserve, and how much should one accommodate to new modes of behavior and thought? Sometimes adherents resolve to plant a foot firmly in the past andanother in the future. “It is no wonder, then, that images of saffron-robed monks posing with money, earing fashionable sunglasses, and carrying designer bags provoke wonder in some and disgust in many at the seemingly paradoxical sight of monks with money. [This mix] seems to unsettle modern sensibilities” (512). Similar situations emerged with Tibetan Buddhists, where “patronage was as source of anxiety, and an indicator that contemporary monks were in danger of being corrupted” (155). In the end, for better or worse, “[w]e are living in a time where if a religion is to be effective for its adherents, it usually finds some way to combine self-help positive thinking, the pursuit of happiness, and self-realization with a spiritual tradition emphasizing individual agency” (394).

There are plenty of interesting tidbits about the current landscape of Buddhism. For example, “Korea, is also the only country in the world where Buddhism and Christianity are not only the two largest religions, but also nearly equally divided in terms of self-professed followers” (114). Furthermore, “slightly more than seven out of every ten followers of Buddhism in the world are members of a religious minority” (114). “It is often over-looked,” another chapter begins, “that the oldest extant printed book is actually a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra that reads: ‘Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution” (467). Some statements were also more opinionated than others, such as that Buddhism is “the oldest extant proselytizing religion” (467)—many argue that Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, and others that Judaism was “first.” 

In any case, the destructive effects of statism and politics are also visible. For instance, “in 1951, China ‘liberated’ Tibet; in the years since, the Chinese state has forcefully sought to incorporate Tibetans into the broader Chinese polity, and this has entailed the widespread evisceration or destruction of the religious and political institutions of the ‘old’ Tibet” (144). At times, of course, Buddhism greatly benefited by legal concessions and assistance. 

I was slightly disappointed by the lack of pedagogical and visual aids. Though there were a few, but many chapters could have benefited by, among other aids, charts, tables, pictures, and ven diagrams. Nevertheless, one cannot fault the collection for lacking breadth, despite being a “survey.” All in all, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism is a full and scholarly reference work, replete with bibliographical resources and helpful analysis.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is a former Associate Professor of Theology and currently serves as as professor of Economics and Business at the University of the People and Western Dakota Technical Institute.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Jerryson's research interests pertain to religion and identity, particularly with regard to gender, race, and class. He is the co-founder and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion's Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence. He co-edits the Journal of Religion and Violence and serves as a senior editor of religion for the Oxford University Press' Handbook series.



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