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In the Borderlands of the Buddha (completed)

This project explores the borderlands of the Buddha in a comparative perspective.

About the project

Buddhism has often been described as an accretive tradition: a tradition that leaves some fields of religious practice to other, often local ritual systems. Wherever Buddhism has spread, it has tended to incorporate, or, at least, find a way of coexisting with other religious traditions.

Local deities have been integrated into a cosmology that learned Buddhists have systematised into three levels of subtlety, six spheres of rebirth and two categories of deities: the ‘other-worldly’ (in Sanskrit lokottara) and the ‘this-worldly’ (laukika). Local ritualists have been assigned a place and a task of their own -- a task that, from a Buddhist perspective, is in some way or other subordinated to the universal Buddhist project of bringing enlightenment to the world.

Buddhism, therefore, has typically existed in contexts where its religious specialists and adherents have drawn boundaries between ‘Buddhist’ and ‘non-Buddhist’ teachings, practices, deities, and so forth. These boundaries have been in constant flux. Ideas, texts, people, and deities have been absorbed into Buddhism, only to be found non-Buddhist at other historical junctures.

The starting point for this project is the hypothesis that wherever Buddhism took root, there was a borderland on its margins, a territory that could be absorbed into Buddhism, but that could also be externalised, or declare its independence, as Buddhism’s other. The borderlands of the Buddha refer to the cultural field that was subject to these dialectic processes, in societies where Buddhism formed the hegemonic religious system.


The aim of this project is to explore the borderlands of Buddhism from a comparative perspective. To locate the issues that characterise these borderlands, we will focus on local ritualists and their relationship with Buddhist establishments in different Buddhist cultures. Some of the questions that will arise are:

  • Did Buddhist groups draw on a shared set of strategies to incorporate non-Buddhist practices into the Buddhist tradition?
  • If so, what political circumstances activated such strategies, or, vice versa, counteracted them?
  • Did Buddhist strategies of incorporation affect local ritualists from different traditions in similar ways?
  • In other words, were local traditions and local religious specialists of different backgrounds pushed in the same direction when confronted with a Buddhist establishment?
  • Or can we identify differences between areas and periods dominated by Mahayana and Theravada, Tantric and non-Tantric forms of Buddhism?
  • Can certain characteristics of the relationship between Buddhism and local cults shed light on the development of some such cults into independent religions, such as Bon in Tibet and Shinto in Japan?
Published June 7, 2010 8:54 AM - Last modified May 23, 2014 9:00 AM