Buddhism in Southeast Asia

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The 9th century Borobudur Buddhist stupa in Central Java

Buddhism in Southeast Asia refers to the forms of Buddhism which have flourished in Southeast Asia since ancient times. Historically, Mahāyāna Buddhism had a prominent position in this region, but in modern times most countries follow the Theravāda tradition. Southeast Asian countries with a Theravāda Buddhist majority are Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

Vietnam continues to have a Mahāyāna majority due to Chinese influence.[1] Indonesia was Mahāyāna Buddhist since the time of the Sailendra and Srivijaya empires,[2] but now Mahāyāna Buddhism in Indonesia is now largely practised by the Chinese diaspora, as in Singapore and Malaysia.

Mahāyāna Buddhism is the predominant religion of most Chinese communities in Singapore. In Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Indonesia, it remains a strong minority.


Cambodian statue of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Sandstone, 7th century CE
Vietnamese Buddhist monks holding a service in Huế

Early traditions[edit]

Buddhism reached Southeast Asia both directly over sea from India and indirectly from Central Asia and China in a process that spanned most of the first millennium CE.

Before the 12th century, the areas of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia were dominated by various Buddhist sects from India, and these included the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[3][4] In the 7th century, Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all major sects of Indian Buddhism flourished.[3]

The Khmer Empire and Srivijaya[edit]

During the 5th to 13th centuries, The Southeast Asian empires were influenced directly from India, so that these empires essentially followed the Mahāyāna tradition. The Srivijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north competed for influence, and their art expressed the rich Mahāyāna pantheon of bodhisattvas.

Srivijaya, a maritime empire centred at Palembang on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, adopted Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism under a line of rulers named the Sailendras. Yijing described Palembang as a great centre of Buddhist learning where the emperor supported over a thousand monks at his court. Yijing also testified to the importance of Buddhism as early as the year 671 and advised future Chinese pilgrims to spend a year or two in Palembang.[5] Srivijaya declined due to conflicts with the Chola rulers of India, before being destabilised by the Islamic expansion from the 13th century.

From the 9th to the 13th centuries, the Mahāyāna Buddhist and Hindu Khmer Empire dominated much of the Southeast Asian peninsula. Under the Khmer, more than 900 temples were built in Cambodia and in neighbouring Thailand. Angkor was at the centre of this development, with a temple complex and urban organisation able to support around one million urban dwellers.

Conversions to Theravāda[edit]

Though there are some early accounts that have been interpreted as Theravāda in Myanmar, the surviving records show that most Burmese Buddhism incorporated Mahāyāna, and used Sanskrit rather than Pali.[4][6][7] After the decline of Buddhism in India, missions of monks from Sri Lanka gradually converted Burmese Buddhism to Theravāda, and in the next two centuries also brought Theravāda Buddhism to the areas of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted previous forms of Buddhism.[8]

Vietnamese traditions[edit]

Buddhism in Vietnam as practised by the Vietnamese is mainly of Mahāyāna tradition. Buddhism came from Vietnam as early as the 2nd century CE through the North from Central Asia via India. Vietnamese Buddhism is very similar to Chinese buddhism and to some extent reflects the structure of Chinese Buddhism after the Song Dynasty.

Modern traditions of Buddhism[edit]

Thai Buddhist monks on pilgrimage

Currently, there is around 190-205 million Buddhists in Southeast Asia, making it the second largest religion in the region, after Islam. Thus, around 35 to 38% of the global Buddhist population resides in Southeast Asia.

  • Thailand has the largest number of Buddhists with approximately 95% of its population of 67 million adhering to Buddhism, placing it at around 63.75 million.[9][10]
  • Myanmar has around 59 million Buddhists, with 89% of its 66 million citizens practising Theravada Buddhism.[11][12] Around 1% of the population, mainly the Chinese, practice Mahayana Buddhism alongside Taoism, but are strongly influenced by Theravada Buddhism.
  • Vietnam may have a large number of Buddhists, but the Communist government under-reports the religious adherence of its citizens. It has around 44 million Buddhists, around half its population.[13][14] The majority of Vietnamese people practice Mahayana Buddhism due to the large amount of Chinese influence.[15]
  • 95% of Cambodia's population adheres to Theravada Buddhism, placing its Buddhist population at around 14 million.[16]
  • Malaysia has about 20% of its citizens, mainly ethnic Chinese, with significant numbers of ethnic Thais, Khmers, Sinhalese and migrant workers, practising Buddhism. The Chinese mainly practice Mahayana Buddhism, but due to the efforts of Sinhalese monks, Theravada also enjoys a significant following.[17][18]
  • Communist Laos has around 5 million Buddhists, who form roughly 70% of its population.[19][20]
  • Indonesia has around 4.75 million Buddhists (2% of its population), mainly amongst its Chinese population. Most Indonesian Buddhists adhere to Theravada Buddhism, mainly of the Thai tradition.[21]
  • Singapore have around 2 million Buddhists, forming around 33% of their populations respectively.[22] Singapore has the most vibrant Buddhist scene with all three major traditions having large followings. Mahayana Buddhism has the largest presence amongst the Chinese, while many immigrants from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka practice Theravada Buddhism.[23]
  • Philippines have around the 2% of the total population or around 2 millions. All the important schools of Buddhism are well represented in Philippines although it is predominantly Mahayana School of Buddhism that is practised in the country. Other Schools of Buddhism are also making their presence felt gradually amongst the people. Prime amongst these are - Nichiren Buddhism, Thervada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism.
  • Brunei, which has the smallest population in Southeast Asia, has around 13%[24] of its citizens and a significant migrant worker population adhering to Buddhism, at around 65,000.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CPAmedia: Buddhist Temples of Vietnam
  2. ^ Singapore Philatelic Museum website: Southward Expansion of Mahayana Buddhism - Southeast Asia
  3. ^ a b Sujato, Bhikkhu. Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools. 2006. p. 72
  4. ^ a b Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 131
  5. ^ Jerry Bently, 'Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 72.
  6. ^ Smith, Huston & Novak, Philip. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003
  7. ^ Gombrich, Richard Francis. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History. 1988. p. 137
  8. ^ Gombrich, Richard Francis. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History. 1988. p. 3
  9. ^ "The CIA World Factbook". Cia.gov. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  10. ^ state.gov - Thailand
  11. ^ "Crisis in Myanmar Over Buddhist-Muslim Clash". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  12. ^ "The World Factbook: Burma". CIA. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  13. ^ "state.gov – Vietnam 2012 (included over 50% Mahayana + 1.2% Theravada + 3% Hoa Hao Buddhism and other new Vietnamese sects of Buddhism)". state.gov. Retrieved 30 July 2013. 
  14. ^ http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2006/71363.htm
  15. ^ Vietnam Tourism - Over 70 percent of the population of Vietnam are either Buddhist or strongly influenced by Buddhist practices., mtholyoke.edu Buddhist Crisis 1963 - in a population that is 70 to 80 percent Buddhist
  16. ^ "The World Factbook: Cambodia". CIA. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  17. ^ "Religious Adherents, 2010 - Malaysia". World Christian Database. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  18. ^ state.gov (19.8% Buddhist + 1.3% Taoism/Confucianism/Chinese Folk Religion
  19. ^ "CIA – The World Factbook". Cia.gov. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  20. ^ "Religious Adherents, 2010 – Laos". World Christian Database. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  21. ^ "Religious Adherents, 2010 – Indonesia (0.8% Buddhist + 0.9% Chinese Folk Religion/Confucianism)". World Christian Database. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  22. ^ Singapore Department of Statistics (12 January 2011). "Census of population 2010: Statistical Release 1 on Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion" (PDF). Retrieved 16 January 2011. 
  23. ^ "www.state.gov". state.gov. 15 September 2006. Retrieved 20 November 2011. , "CIA Factbook – Singapore". Cia.gov. Retrieved 20 November 2011. , "Religious Adherents, 2010 – Singapore (14.8% Buddhist + 39.1% Chinese Folk Religion = 53.9% in total)". World Christian Database. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  24. ^ "The World Factbook: Brunei". CIA. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 
  25. ^ "Religious Adherents, 2010 – Brunei (9.7% Buddhist + 5.2% Chinese Folk Religion + 1.9% Confucianist)". World Christian Database. Retrieved 28 July 2013. 

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