Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Is Buddhism Individualistic? The Trouble with a Term

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 28, 2021

Is Buddhism Individualistic? The Trouble with a Term

Donna Lynn Brown
University of Manitoba

Western scholars have been calling expressions of Buddhism “individualistic”—or denying the charge—since the 1800s. This article argues that “individualism” and related terms are sometimes problematic when applied to Buddhism. Because they are associated with Western modernity, they contribute to hegemonic discourses about Asia and Buddhism, skew representations, and reinforce stereotypes. Because their referents have been many and varied—including escaping caste and family, asociality, lay practice, and racism—their use leads to imprecision, confusion, and lack of comparability among analyses. And because they have moral connotations, they can blend observation with valuation and polemic. The article examines selected scholarly works that maintain or deny that Buddhism is individualistic, highlights problems associated with the term, and concludes that, in many cases, more precise and less value-laden descriptors should be found.

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