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Diversity in practice: Placemaking among Sinhalese and Americans at the Washington Buddhist Vihara

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posted on 2023-09-06, 02:59 authored by Bridget M. Fitzpatrick

Since the 1960s, more than a million Buddhists have immigrated from Asia to the United States, joining descendants of Buddhists who came from China and Japan as early as 1840. The impact of these "ethnic" Buddhists on American religion and culture has been overshadowed in the media and scholarly research by the growing numbers of Americans who, in recent decades, have converted to Buddhism or sympathize with its teachings. These two groups of Buddhists, converts and immigrants, developed along separate historical and geographic trajectories, and it is only at the end of the twentieth century that all the traditions of Buddhism have come together in one place. In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, immigrants and converts are often considered so fundamentally different that researchers speak of a gap dividing the "two Buddhisms."; At the Washington Buddhist Vihara, a Theravada temple in Washington, D.C., Sinhalese immigrants participate together with American converts in classes, worship services, ceremonies and informal gatherings. This mixed congregation challenges the assumption that ethnic and convert Buddhists constitute naturally separate, homogenous communities; in fact, the Vihara functions as a point of contact through which relations of community and difference are negotiated. This study, based on fieldwork at the Vihara, problematizes the notion that people, place, and culture are inherently linked, and shows that differences in practice and perspective are constructed and maintained through ongoing interaction within an existing hierarchy of relations, rather than being the natural outcome of historical and geographic separateness. Participants at the Vihara express a variety of interests, constraints, and abilities, as evidenced by the multiple and highly contextual ways they define and use this place---how they practice, plan and organize events, modify their surroundings, interpret one another's actions, contest opposing views, and engage with the rapidly changing world around them. Through these kinds of "placemaking" activities, participants negotiate cultural meanings, relationships, and values on both local and global levels. As this diverse group of Buddhists comes together in the pluralist context of the United States, they may also be producing a place in which difference acquires new meaning.







Ph.D. American University 2000.


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