The papers collected in this volume were presented at a conference held in March 2011 at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The conference aimed to bring together scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and different geographical, linguistic, and temporal specializations and encourage historical criticism on Buddhism in premodern and early modern Southeast Asia. As such it was one of the first and only conferences devoted to this broad, necessarily comparative, and deceptively straightforward topic. In a simplistic sense Buddhism as a general intellectual, institutional, devotional, literary, and social phenomenon was a dominant force throughout much of Southeast Asia during the precontemporary period, attested through its early traces at Dvāravatī, Śrīkṣetra, Śrīvijaya, Haripuñjaya, and Campā, across the medieval terrains of Đại Việt, Pagan, Angkor, Majapahit, and Sukhothai, and in the later polities of Mrauk U, Ava, Lan Xang, Sipsongpanna, and elsewhere. Regional Buddhists, regardless of how we define the ascription, were responsible for an array of innovations and cultural products that cut across diverse fields of learning and ritual, ranging from medicine, law, alchemy, political economy, and grammar to scriptural hermeneutics, apotropaic technologies, and art and architecture. However, as the papers in this volume suggest, the Buddhist cultures of historical Southeast Asia are best understood as multivocal, marked by a dynamism and difference that varies across geography and time. It is therefore more appropriate to speak of Southeast Asian Buddhism in the plural — of Buddhisms rather than a Buddhism — and it is to this plurality that one sense of the “dynamics” of the volume's title seeks to draw our attention.
Today the study of historical Buddhisms in premodern and early modern Southeast Asia stands at an encouraging juncture. In many ways the field — or rather the constellation of multi-and inter-disciplinary scholarly projects seeking to understand different facets of regional Buddhist pasts — is in the process of being re-envisioned. Comparison and macrohistory are becoming increasingly desirable frameworks of analysis although critical of their past prejudices. Scholarship is marked by a turn towards careful examination of local and vernacular expressions of Buddhist culture as well as a return to long-standing questions concerning the transregional diffusion and networked interrelationships among varied texts, aesthetic forms, and religious ideas and practices.