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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 386–397;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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Berkwitz, Stephen C., and Ashley Thompson, eds. Routledge Handbook of Theravāda Buddhism. Milton Park and New York: Publisher, 2022. Pp. 394.

Whitter College

Over the past decade and a half or so there have been several important shifts in how scholars working within the field of Theravāda Buddhist studies have engaged local, regional, and transregional Buddhist peoples, traditions, communities, polities, etc., especially with regard to categories of representation, modes of practice, frames of cultural reference, and contexts of social engagement. A primary impetus for these shifts has been an effort to figure out how various terms like Theravāda, languages like Pāli, and communities like saṅgha fit with the incredible historical diversity and variation in lands and places and times that get labeled by such terms as ‘Theravāda’ or ‘Pāli’ Buddhism. The Routledge Handbook of Theravāda Buddhism constitutes a milestone in these shifts.

That the Handbook carries forward the kind of work and agenda developed in previous efforts by Theravāda studies scholars is clear. For instance, authors in the Handbook as well as scholars in other contexts have engaged the question of the term ‘Theravāda’ itself, its usefulness, past and present, and whether and when it would be prudent to invoke or draw upon different categories as analytical foci, theoretical objects, and/or as communal or individual expressions. The Handbook, however, is far more capacious and far more ambitious in its purpose and scope than many if not most works of its kind. The goal is to offer not only a snapshot of the current state of the field of Theravāda Buddhist studies but also to highlight Theravāda Buddhism as civilisational. On my read of the central arguments of the work, this means several crucial things. First of all, it means rethinking the study of Pāli language, the Pāli Tipiṭaka, and a Pāli-oriented understanding of saṅgha as the primary foci for an understanding and analysis of Theravāda Buddhism, even while recognising—and continuing to study assiduously—their importance for a great number of Buddhists in places like Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, etc., past and present. Second, it means figuring out the historical and cultural relations of, for instance, Pāli and vernacular forms of textuality, ritual, art, aesthetics, and materiality in such places. Third, it means attention to a potentially infinite variability in the dynamic relations of Buddhist ideas, practices, and geo-historical and social circumstances that emerge across relevant times and landscapes.


About the Author: Jason (Jake) Carbine is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Whittier College. His primary area of scholarly expertise is Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia, with a research specialisation in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and also with a comparative interest in parts of China. He has conducted field research in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, with an emphasis on ritual, practice, and religious spaces. He has also led study abroad programs in various parts of Asia (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Southwest China). Overall, his teaching and research in the study of Theravada Buddhism and other Asian religions combines historical and ethnographic methodologies and draws from an interdisciplinary body of research pertaining to the history of religions, textual studies, anthropology, comparative religious ethics, and environmental studies. He teaches a range of courses dealing with Asian religions from India to Japan, method and theory in the study of religion, Asian religion and society, globalisation, and the environment.


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