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“The old paradigm for studying Buddhism was centered on monks and texts. We now understand that Buddhist practices and imagery are relevant throughout modern culture, rather than being confined to a select group.”
- Juliane Schober, Arizona State University
Grant Spotlight: The Theravada Civilizations Project

How do you define something that takes dozens of different forms? This is the challenge of studying Theravada Buddhism from an academic perspective. Practiced by over 150 million people worldwide, Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka and has significant communities of adherents in many other nations in Asia and the West. As a result, it is difficult for any individual scholar to get a complete picture of what Theravada Buddhist civilizations have in common.

“For a long time, scholars tended to work as individuals and focus their studies on one aspect exclusively, like Theravada texts [written in Pali, an ancient language of India], Thai Buddhism, or Sri Lankan Buddhism,” explains Juliane Schober, a Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. “No single person can be in command of all of the languages required to understand the entire Theravada community.”

In 2009 Schober and Steve Collins, a scholar of Pali and Sanskrit at the University of Chicago, developed the idea for a project that would bring together scholars from different fields and institutions “to formulate a comparative and multidisciplinary understanding of Theravada Buddhism.” In 2010, Arizona State University received a three-year grant from the Foundation’s Asia Program to support the “Theravada Civilizations Project.”

The centerpiece of the project has been a series of annual conferences, hosted by the University of Toronto (2012), Arizona State University (2013), and the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient center in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2014). The conferences have brought together scholars of history, anthropology, religious studies, language, literature and visual arts from institutions in North America, Asia, and Europe. In the process, they have revitalized the field.


Theravada Buddhist statutes in Thailand

“The old paradigm for studying Buddhism was centered on monks and texts, while the practices of lay people, institutions, rituals, and the veneration of religious objects like Buddha images were considered far less important to the tradition. That has changed,” Schober observes. “We now know that the study of Theravada Buddhist civilizations is defined by the use of a prestige language like Pali as an imaginary that lets people engage in Theravada practices and relate Buddhist narratives to local histories and communities." This new understanding has enabled scholars to see how Theravada practices are changing today and yet remain relevant in rapidly shifting contexts. “We actually now understand that Buddhist practices and imagery are relevant and pervasive throughout modern culture, rather than being confined to a select group of monks.”

The annual conferences have also fostered an active network of scholars who are interested in working in collaborative and interdisciplinary ways. The project’s website, theravadaciv.org, now has about 300 subscribers globally. It offers a digital gathering place, featuring bibliographies, discussion forums, and information on funding opportunities and relevant events. Schober explains: “most of us are the only experts in our field at our institutions. Having conversation partners is extremely productive and vital to the field.”

Another key component of the project has been a series of dissertation workshops for doctoral students, held concurrently with the main conferences. These workshops enable the scholars to get feedback from project scholars, to establish a large network of peers, and to see their work in an international and multidisciplinary context early in their careers.


Scholars pore over a historic Pali text during a conference in Chiang Mai

Schober observes that “by ensuring that we meet year after year, and that we reach younger scholars who are still completing their dissertations, we have been able to transform the field.”

The Asia Program renewed funding for the Theravada Civilizations Project in a second three-year grant in 2014, making possible additional conferences at King’s College and the University of London (2015), Arizona State University (2016), and the University of Chicago (2017), two more dissertation workshops, and a special concluding conference for the 30 past dissertation workshop participants. Routledge Press will be making selected materials from the conferences available in a three volume series – including books on Theravada Buddhism in modernity, depictions of the Life of the Buddha, and a collection of essays on critical terms across regions and time periods. Project scholars have shared their work at meetings of the Association for Asian Studies, the American Academy of Religion and the International Association of Buddhist Studies, extending the project’s impact to the wider field of religious studies.

Helena Kolenda, the director of the Foundation’s Asia Program, comments, “We have been pleased to support the Theravada Civilizations Project, whose broad aims have been to strengthen the field of Theravada studies intellectually and cultivate the rising generation of scholars. Through the conferences, workshops and website, Schober, Collins and their colleagues have fostered a new international network for creative examination of Theravada using thematic, multidisciplinary, comparative and trans-regional research approaches.”


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“By ensuring that we meet year after year, and that we reach younger scholars who are still completing their dissertations, we have been able to truly transform the field.”