This paper focuses on Buddhism in America, an neglected area of inquiry in anthropological study. There is a need for modern ethnographic studies to shed light on historical issues, paradigms for comparative inquiry, and thus, explore the impact of Buddhism on modern American society (Glazier, 1997). The enormous growth of Buddhism in the last quarter century (Smith, 2002) makes this an especially pertinent topic in American anthropology. We utilize Glazier’s model to add Buddhism as a topic in the area of modernity studies.
This is a preliminary study of the nature of Buddhism in America. We conducted participant observation with a Buddhist meditation group in a north eastern state in the US for four months in the spring of 2010. Based on our preliminary ethnographic data, we believe that a unique perspectives of Buddhism in America can be identified: non-religious and therapeutic involvement or use of Buddhism. Also, new forms of practice become evident, for example, ‘walking meditation’ and ‘bowing to other Buddhists,’ are identified as characteristics of Buddhism in America. It is interesting to note that at the end of meditation sessions, participants not only bow to the Buddha statue, but also bow to each other. This is a unique ritual dynamic which appears to be consistent with the worldview of American people - being equal and individual. The meditation group also practiced ‘walking meditation’ which is easy to do in everyday life. Additionally, we observed that American meditation rooms provide additional cushions to sit on which are a further element, along with walking meditation, which help American beginners to meditate more easily.
These study observations shed light on the current situation by providing new lenses from which to understand and focus on different ritual performances/interpretations of Buddhism, and their meanings and functions in society. The most important reflection is that religious change is not an isolated cultural phenomenon but that it happens within multiple aspects of social change (Winzeler, 2008). Thus, ‘a change in symbolic contents can be meaningfully achieved only if the social reality changes as well’ (Malefijt, 1968: 359). Spiro states that ‘ritual activities can be a form of expressive culture’ (p. 120), and the different and unique forms of rituals of Buddhism may be expressive of different elements of American culture.
Choe, Jaeyeon and McNally, John
"Buddhism in the United States: an Ethnographic Study,"
International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage:
1, Article 9.
Available at: http://arrow.dit.ie/ijrtp/vol1/iss1/9