Towards an Anthropology of Buddhism

Sat., Aug. 23rd, 09:00-17:00

Discussant: Gellner, David (University of Oxford, Oxford, GBR)


Becoming Buddhist Anew. Some Remarks about a Buddhist Ritual Initiation

Brac de la Perrière, Bénédicte (CNRS, Paris, FRA)

In this paper, I will examine a ritual of initiation involving Burmese Buddhist laypeople, men or women, on their way to enter in a Buddhist esoteric congregation. The ritual will be analyzed against existing anthropological analysis of transitional rituals in order to show how belonging to a specific community of practitioners is built in the ritual to create the realization of a new “truly” Buddhist identity. This realization may be said to be equivalent to an “internal” conversion. Furthermore, the contrastive use of ritualism will be commented upon with the aim to identify a tendency in the Burmese religious field to differentiate in a marked way specific fields of practices qualified in Burmese as “lines” or “paths”.


The Buddhist Gift and the Making of Moral Worlds: Perspectives on Different Forms and Modes of Giving in a Tibetan Context

Caple, Jane (University of Manchester, Manchester, GBR)

Anthropological and historical studies of Buddhism have shown the Buddhist gift to be central to our understanding of Buddhist societies. A significant strand of this work has examined the social and economic functions of religious donation, conceptualising it as working according to the moral logics of an ‘economy of merit’, a regime of value that reproduces and reinforces social and economic hierarchies (see e.g. Spiro 1982, Mumford 1989, Clarke 1989, Cole 1998, Gutschow 2004, Rozenburg 2004, Berkwitz 2006). This paper aims to look beyond the political and economic stakes of religious donation to consider its moral stakes, in other words the ways in which practices of giving (as acts of moral consequence) relate to the (re)making of local moral worlds. It thus follows the recent ‘moral turn’ in anthropology by seeking to take morality seriously as a distinct aspect of the human condition and of social life (see e.g. Barker 2007, Heintz 2009, Fassin 2012). It approaches this through the situated local context of a contemporary Tibetan society in the People’s Republic of China and is based on the analysis of narratives collected 2008-2014. Narratives, as Zigon (2008) argues, both shape and are shaped by local moral worlds and give us a rare opportunity ‘to see and hear the articulation of competing and contesting moral perspectives’.

Firstly, the paper will examine the range of practices understood by local people as forms of giving to ‘their’ monasteries. These include practices which the existing anthropological literature has widely understood to be religious donation, such as the sponsorship of a new temple or large-scale monastic ritual or the gifting of food to monks. However, they also extend to practices that have as yet been little explored, such as shopping in a monastery shop. Within these different forms of giving we can also discern a range of modes, from spontaneous acts of giving to highly organised and collective contributions. Secondly, the paper will explore how these different forms and modes of giving are being understood, evaluated and/or distinguished by monks and lay people. What are the moral logics, underlying values, tensions and contradictions that their perspectives can reveal? How do these fit with our existing understanding of the ethics of the ‘Buddhist gift’? What are the frames of reference within which ethical reflections and moral judgements are being made? Finally, what is at stake? My interlocutors are living through a time of rapid social and economic change, perceived by many to be morally troubled. Based on previous studies, such as those by Robbins (on the Urapmin) and Zigon (on Russia), we would therefore expect to see actions bearing a strong sense of moral weight. Is this the case? If so, is the moral significance of different forms and modes of giving limited to processes of individual ethical self-cultivation? Or does it extend beyond the individual to the making of institutions and communities into the kind of moral beings people feel and hope that they should be?


The Paradoxical Place of Meditation in South Korean Lay Buddhism

Galmiche, Florence (Université Paris Diderot, Paris, FRA)

The development of meditative practices among lay people is regarded worldwide as one of the characteristics of contemporary Buddhism. South Korea is by no means an exception to this trend. The spirit of the so-called “Buddhist modernism” has significantly influenced Buddhist practices and values in Korea and meditation is widely praised – both by monastics and the laity – as a rational form of religious engagement, compatible with modernity. An ethnographic study of this phenomenon shows however a very contrasted if not paradoxical position of meditative practices among lay Buddhists.

The main (and monastic) Buddhist institutions are now actively promoting the Kanhwa sŏn (看話禪) form of meditation as the hallmark of Korean Buddhism. In line with this orthodox view and discourse, temples are urging lay devotees to “become real and correct Buddhists” and to turn to meditation. Among the laity, meditation is undoubtedly lauded and attracts a lot of attention: the books, broadcasting programs, conferences, classes and retreats that deal with this topic are quite successful. However, one can also hear many expressions of embarrassment and dismay among Buddhists when it comes to their actual practice of meditation. For the general temple public, mostly women over 40, meditation is praised and can be a common topic of discussion, but it is also kept at distance as something intimidating, even sometimes regarded as “out of one's reach”. For the public of meditation classes – which represents a different balance in terms of age and gender – this meditation practice has been more directly experienced but remains nonetheless frequently described as something difficult to access, whose instructions are not completely available to a lay audience. Whether or not they are doing meditation themselves, a majority of lay Buddhists still associate this activity with a monastic lifestyle and regularly point out the gap between its requirements and their everyday “mundane” life.

Through ethnographic research conducted in South Korea, this presentation aims at exploring the ambivalent place of meditation among lay devotees. It will show that meditation has become a reference for popular Buddhism and has partly reshaped some of the practices generally associated with it like propitiatory prayers and ceremonies. It will also try to shed light on the complexity of a movement, which aims at popularizing a practice and knowledge that have a very elitist background and are deeply connected with the definition of religious authority. Finally, it will also present how other forms of meditation, beside central Kanhwa sŏn, are emerging and developing among laity.


Introduction: Towards an Anthropology of Buddhism

Ladwig, Patrice (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, GER); Sihlé, Nicolas (Center for Himalayan Studies, CNRS, Villejuif, FRA)

Through a recent series of panels/workshops, in Asia, America and Europe, the project of an “anthropology of Buddhism” as an ethnographically based, comparatively and theoretically informed shared endeavour of a community of scholars (in the way that we have seen the recent formation of an “anthropology of Christianity”) is starting to emerge, and this panel aims at contributing in a visible way to this dynamic. In the present introduction we will offer a brief overview of the existing anthropological scholarship on Buddhism and Buddhist societies, on the basis of its major themes, approaches and characteristics. Looking at the example of the relatively robust and vibrant anthropology of Christianity, we will suggest both certain sources of inspiration that specialists of Buddhism could take into consideration, and specificities of the anthropology of Buddhism. Finally, we will consider two indispensable twin dimensions (besides institutional or organizational challenges) that a proper “anthropology of Buddhism” needs to develop if it is to fulfil its promise: a comparative outlook (still largely lacking in the existing scholarship), and a more consistent engagement with larger theoretical discussions within anthropology.


The Transnationalism of Merit: Diaspora Communities and Cambodian Student Monks, Pilgrims and Building Projects in South Asia

Marston, John (El Colegio de México, México, MEX)

When socialist restrictions on Cambodian Buddhism were loosened in the early 1990s, Cambodian monks began traveling to Sri Lanka and India, as well as other Buddhist countries, to study. Eventually a pattern emerged whereby the study of many young monks was supported by individual sponsors from Cambodia or, more commonly, the Cambodian diaspora communities of Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. This corresponded with the new phenomenon of Cambodian groups going as pilgrims/religious tourists to the two South Asian countries in trips organized by Cambodian monks and prominent lay figures. This likewise impacted the situation of the student monks to the degree to which pilgrims sometimes became sponsors of student monks or publicized their need for sponsorship. These trips, and the videos generated by them, also served to generate support for projects to build Cambodian-style temples in India and Sri Lanka, especially since most of the Indian temples were close to sacred Buddhist sites. The paper will attempt to give an overview of these processes and explore the complex negotiation of religious and national identities taking place among Cambodian and South Asian actors.


Revisiting a Tibetan Bonpo Ceremony in Highland Nepal: An Essay in Uncompromising Anthropology

Ramble, Charles  (Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, Oxford, GBR)

In 1992 Maurice Bloch published an article entitled “What goes without saying: the conceptualization of Zafimaniry society”. The article proposed a reworking of his own previous ethnography from the point view of the Madagascan Zafimaniry themselves. The resulting presentation, Bloch suggests, would differ substantially in terms of both structure and content from an account produced by an alien, professional anthropologist. “Buddhism”, in the formulation “Anthropology of Buddhism”, is of course metonymic for “Buddhist societies” or “Buddhist institutions”. Classical anthropology has had an uneasy relationship with literacy, an “intrusive element” (in Jack Goody’s phrase) for which various kinds of accommodation have been proposed by different authors (Cohn’s advocacy of treating historical sources “the way an anthropologist treats his field notes” is one example). In spite of these adjustments, in practice most anthropological studies of Buddhist societies (at least, those that engage with texts and doctrine) entail hybrid approaches that involve philological and historical components. What would a strictly anthropological investigation, a rigorous “anthropology of Buddhism”, yield? Taking its cue from Bloch’s experiment, this paper will revisit a ceremony that the author has previously examined from a multidisciplinary perspective, and will consider what the outcome might be if all the facets of this ceremony were examined from a more conventionally anthropological standpoint. The ceremony in question is the Dögyab, a week-long composite of Bonpo tantric performances and secular rituals, involving a substantial literary (scriptural and administrative) component, celebrated in a Tibetan-speaking part of highland Nepal.


Rethinking Buddhist Authority and Secular Power in Modern Myanmar

Schober, Juliane (Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA)

The complex tensions between Buddhism and politics have been the subject of anthropological writing for decades (Mendelson 1975; Tambiah 1977; Ferguson 1976, among others). More recent work has explored the history of relations between monks and political power as well as the history of scholarship on the subject. We have come to understand how colonial scholars constructed an “orthodox” Buddhism that was pristine, “other-worldly” and “non-violent”. Their interpretations of the Pali literature resonated with cultural hegemonies in the Theravada world to represent essentialized truths. Such idealized conceptions of “otherworldly” Buddhist authority and practice also informed Burmese Buddhist revivals during the U Nu and later military eras of nation-building. 

Against this history of the anthropology of Buddhism in Burma, my paper examines recent contestations when monks publicly asserted their moral authority in the face of political tensions over the nation’s future. Specifically, I explore two monastic movements in Myanmar that gained world-wide attention. They are the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2007 and the anti-Muslim 969 movement that continues to foment violence. These ethnographic examples present two divergent articulations of modern Buddhist authority that have engaged the world of secular politics in order to shape political realities and national ideologies. How must we rethink the anthropology of Buddhism in light of these contemporary monastic efforts to reshape secular politics?


From the Anthropology of Buddhism to a Buddhist Anthropology

Tuladhar Douglas, Will (University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, GBR)

There have been numerous excellent studies of Buddhist societies present and past conducted under the rubric of anthropology. Anthropology, however, is the study of human societies and it presumes—indeed, imposes—a number of presuppositions that deserve robust interrogation. Asad, Latour, Masuzawa, McCutcheon and others have exposed the European genealogy of ‘religion’ and shown that it depends on implicit theories about what constitutes persons and knowledge. The reflexive methodology of anthropology demands that we take seriously challenges to our own methods and frameworks that emerge through conversations with our collaborators, informants and teachers.

What would happen if we undertook research in a Buddhist milieu, but took seriously just one aspect of Buddhist doctrine: society is made up not of humans, but persons? I will argue that in the case of conservation anthropology, this is not a theoretical gambit but a wholly practical shift that liberates us from oppressive norms and implicit collaboration with powerful authorities.


The Hermit as Modern Saint in Contemporary Eastern Tibet

Turek, Maria (Universität Bonn, Bonn, GER)

Since the 1980s, ethnic Tibetan regions of the Sichuan and Qinghai provinces of post-Dengist China have become the scene of a vibrant religious revival. Also revived today is the traditional practice of hermitism, widely spread in all Tibetan societies, but seriously underrepresented in scholarship. 

The foremost objective of this paper is to bring up the ritual and social implications of Tibetan hermitic practices in general, and especially their revival in the post-traumatic, secularized and colonized landscape of peripheral China. In the current revival, hermits are not only important leaders; they are also often looked up to as “saints” in emic terms, they are revered as perfect embodiments of tradition, fields of merit, sought-after religious instructors and popular role models. For this contextual richness, observing the revival of Tibetan hermitism offers an opportunity of approaching this complex phenomenon from different theoretical perspectives and with the help of methodologies rooted in multiple fields.

I will present the case of a religious career of the contemporary hermit Tsultrim Tharchin, to show how he evolved from a village cadre to a local saint, an embodiment of the legendary yogin Milarepa, but with a global allure. Following the narrative of Tsultrim Tharchin’s life provokes important questions about the nature and meaning of Tibetan hermitism, especially today. Why do people, who live in a decosmologized world, choose the radical path of an ascetic? What is it about their liminal status that has them develop into embodiments of tradition? What role does renunciation play in their empowerment, also on the social plane? How is renunciation understood by the contemporary Tibetan hermits and how is it lived?

The lifestories of Tsultrim Tharchin and his disciples also allow to recognize a number of paradoxes connected with hermitism - some of them played up by the Buddhist doctrine and the ascetic ethos, others arising from the specific situation of Tibetans living under the authoritarian Chinese state. The perceived transformation of the body into an embodiment of tradition is crucial to the hermit’s ability to reconcile these contradictions, insoluble for other members of society: both the ontological dilemmas of human existence and the specific quandaries of Tibetans in a time of crisis.

The case of Tsultrim Tharchin also shows that through becoming embodiments of tradition, virtuoso hermits are empowered to perform paradoxes. Thus, they become active in the world they abandoned, attract large communities of enthusiasts seeking a life in solitude, may apply tradition to introduce reform, and in spite of their renunciate lifestyle, might subliminally embrace social and even political, collective hopes of contemporary Tibetans in the PRC.

The case study material was collected in the Yushu Autonomous Prefecture in 2007 and 2008; its results were published in a broader framework of my dissertation (“In This Body and Life: The Religious and Social Role of Hermits and Hermitages in Eastern Tibet Today and during Recent History,” Humboldt University of Berlin, 2013).




IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien