The Spread of Buddhism in The West: Missionary work and the Pattern of Religious Diffusion

  • James William Coleman


Most of us are familiar with the missionaries who played such a critical role in the spread of various forms of Christianity outside the Western world. In the last 50 years, Buddhism has shown remarkable growth in the Western world, and it seems natural to wonder if such missionary work played a similar role in its expansion and to try to account for whatever differences there may have been. Such an analogy, however, is much more difficult to maintain than it appears. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities often pride themselves on their fairness, objectivity, and lack of cultural bias. But the same lexicon we use to proclaim those virtues is itself replete with eurocentric bias. The concept of “missionary work,” for example, is deeply rooted in the European Christian experience. Almost everyone in the West is acquainted with the image of the bible-toting evangelist, suffering through the deprivations of life in the “Third World” in order to spread the word of God. Although we are a little less clear on what an Islamic missionary might be, it is not so hard to conjure up the image of a mullah struggling to do dawa to spread the knowledge of the holy Qur’an to nonbelievers. But what exactly would a Buddhist missionary be like? If we are to apply a concept like missionary work to a non-Western tradition, we must pare off its Western, eurocentric connotations and strip it down to its bare essentials.


Missionary Activity Buddhist Tradition Missionary Work Religious Change Buddhist Practice 
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Copyright information

© Jamie S. Scott and Gareth Griffiths 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • James William Coleman

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