Abstract

Over the last thirty years or so, there has been a broad consensus about what constitutes modern forms of Theravāda Buddhism. “Buddhist modernism,” as it has been called, has been marked by an understanding of the Buddha's thought as in accord with scientific rationalism; increased lay participation, particularly in meditation practice and leadership of the Buddhist community; and increased participation by women in the leadership of the Sangha. In this paper, I call into question the universality of these forms by examining a contemporary Theravāda Buddhist community in southwest China, where Buddhism is best understood within the context of the modern governance practices of the Chinese state. Buddhists of the region describe their knowledge and practices not in terms of scientific rationality, for example, but within the ethnic categories of the Chinese state. I suggest that instead of understanding modern forms of Buddhism as a natural response to modernity, scholars should pay attention to how Buddhist institutions shift within the context of modern forms of state power.

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