Creating Transnational Buddhist Networks Through International Travel

Tue., Aug. 19th, 14:00-17:30

Buddhist Pilgrimage, Monastic Building and Corruption at the Seat of Enlightenment

Geary, David (University of British Columbia, Kelowna, CAN)

Bodh Gaya – the seat of Enlightenment – is widely viewed as the cosmo-geographic centre of the Buddhist world and a place of cultural, religious and moral superiority. Due to its sacred connection with the birthplace of Buddhism, it is also landscape endowed with religious merit and the pre-eminent location for pilgrimage activity attracting millions of Buddhist devotees each year. How has the recent globalization of Bodh Gaya as an international center of Buddhist pilgrimage led to certain moral and ethical quandaries for Buddhist groups, especially over the politics of land acquisition and corruption? How are criminal practices and Buddhist moral traditions entwined through monastic building and how does the production of a shared religious and moral space also create new forms of social inequality and communal opposition? Drawing on several years of fieldwork in Bodh Gaya, this paper will examine the different ways in which diasporic Buddhist communities navigate a complex moral landscape where the issues of land, power and money are entwined.


Trailblazers of Global Buddhist Networks: Early International Travelers

Harding, John (University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, CAN)

Even before the dramatic growth of Buddhist networks through international travel in the second half of the 20th century, variations of this mode for creating transnational networks was formative to the rise of modern and global Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the beginning, global networks have shaped modern representations of Buddhism in and beyond Asia and have fostered increased interest in Buddhism among North Americans and Europeans who did not grow up in the tradition. Although these global influences include a host of ideas, pressures, and cross-cultural flows facilitated by transformative technologies, there always has been an important role for Buddhist travelers creating global networks through face-to-face encounters.

This paper explores some of the early travels and travelers through the lens of the networks that prompted, and were extended by, their travel. Revisiting the travels and networks of Buddhist figures early in the modernization of this increasingly global tradition introduces lesser known characters, re-examines renowned Buddhist representatives, such as Shaku Sōen and Anagarika Dharmapala, and reinforces the Asian center of gravity for these modern and global networks despite some high profile travelers and crossroads in North America and Europe.

In addition to documenting some key early travelers and analyzing nodes of their transnational networks, the paper also suggests strong resonance between these early Buddhist travelers’ re-imaginations of Buddhism and modern representations and global popularity of Buddhism today.


The Lapland Temple Mountain in the Rural North of Sweden – A Halted Vision of a European Thai Buddhist Retreat Center

Plank, Katarina (Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, SWE) and Raddock, Elisabeth (Umeå University, Umeå, SWE)

On a mountain top outside Fredrika, a small village in the rural north of Sweden, a standing Buddha statue and the seated statue of Luang Pho Thuat, invoke reverence by visiting Buddhists. Plans of a large scale temple and meditation center have also invoked hope of religious tourism and economic growth in an area highly affected by depopulation – not only in local entrepreneurs but also in representatives of the Åsele municipality, which has, initially, financially supported the establishment.

The mountain has, on the one hand, become a pilgrimage site, visited by diaspora Thai women living in different parts of Sweden and temporary international migrant workers from Thailand picking berries in the forests of northern Sweden, as well as people belonging to other Buddhist communities, such as the Sri Lankan, or convert Buddhists. The site is, on the other hand, contested by Christians from near and far who also come to the mountain to pray against the establishment of the Buddhist retreat center. The building of a retreat center has, however, come to a halt. The Buddhist community is now in debts – nobody knows if and when the retreat center can be completed.

The paper discusses the background of the temple, giving contrasting examples of other establishment patterns of Thai Buddhist temples in rural Sweden, and gives particular highlight to the long distance travels both locally and internationally of diaspora Thai Buddhists (lay and ordained), the transnational networks being created, and the difficulties involved in supporting and maintaining temples in rural Sweden. We also look at the temple’s importance for Buddhist converts who have had a number of meditation retreats in the vicinity.


Thai Meditation Lineages Abroad: Creating Networks of Exchange

Schedneck, Brooke (Chiangmai, THA)

International travel to meditation centers in Thailand has created possibilities for transnational networks of exchange. International meditators who arrive in Thailand often wish to take the practice to their home countries by inviting their Thai teacher to give teachings and meditation retreats in the meditators' home country. Through fieldwork conducted in the international meditation centers in Thailand, this presentation illustrates the lasting effects of international travel to meditation centers, which can result in meditation teachers traveling abroad to teach new communities. More broadly, this presentation concerns Thai meditation lineages as they exist outside of Thailand, and the historical impetuses that created these networks. Examples of these networks include the Ajahn Tong lineage from Wat Chom Tong, Chiangmai, where an international lay lineage has created centers in Israel, Mexico, Canada, and Germany. Mae Chii Brigitte of Wat Prayong in Bangkok and Ajahn Nawi Piyadassi of Wat Tam Dauy Don, Chiangmai, visit Europe and America, respectively, each year through connections made with international students. Santikaro has created a meditation retreat center in Liberation Park, in Wisconsin, USA, in homage to his late teacher, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, former abbot of Wat Suan Mokkh, Surat Thani. The Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah is popular not only in Europe, America and Australia, but also in Malaysia. English-speaking forest monks who visit Thailand every year on their teacher’s birthday in January are often invited to stop in Kuala Lumpur and Penang to offer meditation retreats.

All of these examples illustrate how individual connections of student and teacher allow meditation methods and lineages to spread outside of Thailand. A single meditation practitioner can chance upon a center and teacher and create a relationship that leads to an annual meditation retreat and the possibility of new audiences for particular meditation lineages. These examples concern individual relationships that create long lasting, and in some cases, institutionalized meditation centers abroad. Through traditional social networks of dissemination from monk teacher to monastic disciple, international travel multiplies the circumstances in which Buddhism can adapt to new contexts, generating new interpretations and practices. These networks not only highlight the decreased significance of borders, but how new ideas and communities form.


The Appeal of Buddhism to Travelers along the Silk Road

Veidlinger, Daniel (California State University, Chico, San Francisco, USA)

Buddhism has been associated with travel and transportation since its inception. The Buddha himself led a peripatetic life wandering from town to town preaching his Dharma, and Aśoka sent missionaries travelling far and wide. Travelling merchants were the most prominent early converts to Buddhism and their importance in the religion continued for a long time. Symbols representing the various faiths of the world include natural phenomena such as the moon for Islam or fire for Zoroastrianism, but the Wheel of Dharma makes Buddhism the only religion that is traditionally represented by a means of transportation. Not just wheels, but other vehicles such as rafts, chariots, elephants, and even flying palaces are also prominently featured in the Buddhist imaginaire. Later, the word yāna, a generic term for vehicle, came to be used to refer to the different schools of Buddhism. Transportation terminology was essentially the domain of the Buddhists, and for good reason. This paper will explore the importance of travel in the development and acceptance of Buddhist ideas themselves, and will show that the changes in worldview undergone by one traveling from place to place, encountering along the road different ways of thinking, dressing, speaking and living are likely to foster in such a person an interest in the ideas and practices embodied in Buddhism. The psychological effects of travel forced those on the journey to wrestle with their previously accepted local truths, drawing them instead to Buddhism’s universal outlook and rejection of culturally specific social restrictions or religious rituals in a manner that fit more closely with the cosmopolitan experience of the world that they were now having. Looking at what can be garnered from sites such as Dunhuang, Kashgar and Khotan, this paper will focus on exploring the affinity that Buddhism has for travelers as one possible explanation for its remarkable success along the Eurasian transportation networks known as the Silk Road and will end by suggesting that this also helps to explain the religion’s currency amongst the wired, urbane, well-travelled classes of today.




IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien