Publication Date

Spring 2019

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Jeffrey Samuels (Director), Eric Bain-Selbo, and Patrick Pranke

Degree Program

Department of Philosophy & Religion

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The purpose of this thesis is to comprehensively explore Theravāda missionary activity. The philological, textual, theoretical, and ethnographic methods used to investigate the historical, sociopolitical, religious, and ethical aspects of early Theravāda, the U.S. Vipassanā (Insight) meditation movement, and modern Burmese Theravāda revealed nuanced meanings in the descriptions of these adherents’ endeavors with respect to proselytizing, converting, and the concept of missionary religions. By exploring the secular features that contributed to their religious appearances, a more developed contextualization of Theravāda “activity” reshapes understandings of the larger concept of missionary religions. I argue that what has been maintained in the establishment of early Theravāda, and continuance of Theravāda thereafter, is the preservation of a secular activity with respect to resolving diverse sociopolitical and ethical tensions through religious articulations and practices of tolerance and egalitarianism.

In brief, the first chapter is a philological study on the Pāli word “desetha” or “preach.” The word desetha, and thus its meaning, is traced to its Prākritic form—a contemporaneous language more likely spoken by Gotama Buddha—to posit a more accurate translation for this word. Next, a theoretical examination into early Theravāda’s sociopolitical, ethical, and religious environment demonstrates the larger secular, rather than religious, features that contributed to this ancient movement’s emergence. A contextual analysis comparing the emergence and establishment of the “secular” U.S. Vipassanā (Insight) meditation movement to that of early Theravāda follows, in order to explore how the former aligns with Theravāda missionizing. Lastly, an ethnographic study on Burmese Buddhist monastics is presented. In relation to missionary activity, the Abhidhamma, a Buddhist doctrinal system, not only provides Burmese Buddhist monastics with a system of applied ethics that shapes how they interact with Buddhists and non-Buddhists in America, but also helps to explain the larger concern of viewing such activity as strictly “religious.”


Buddhist Studies | Ethics in Religion | Other Languages, Societies, and Cultures