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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel III: Transnational Buddhisms, 2:00 - 5:00

Beyond Americanization: On the Transnational Boundaries of Theravada America

Todd Perreira

The study of Theravāda Buddhism in America has emerged gradually in the last two decades generating along the way two landmark, empirically-grounded works including Paul David Numrich’s Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples (1996) and Wendy Cadge’s Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America (2004). The role of adaptation in Buddhism’s American context is also the chief analytical concern in Richard Seager Buddhism in America (1999) which employs a broad immigration and Americanization thesis and includes a chapter on how Theravāda is being “Anglicized and Americanized” in the U.S. Why has sociology’s rubric of “Americanization” come to dominate the research on Theravāda America? What has it helped us to see and what is it keeping us from seeing? Is this the most useful approach?

Following Appadurai’s lead in calling for a “transnational ethnography,” this paper de-centers the whole notion of Americanization by exploring what it means to be Buddhist in America for monks who engage in “circular migration” through the maintenance of social networks in two countries. Drawing on field research in both Thailand and America, I explore the movements and activities of monks on both sides of the Pacific and find their activities give new meaning to the notion of the bhikkhu as itinerant homeless wanderer and world renouncer. If the saffron-colored robes once signified abandonment of all worldly attachments, today they are also emblematic of a new cosmopolitanism that has made dual citizenship not only a possibility but a necessity and thus leads to new understandings of the globalization of Theravada Buddhism. Part of the richness and complexity of this study is that it entails the movement of not only Thai monks coming to America to serve as emissaries but of American converts who ordain at Thai temples in the U.S. and are sent to Thailand for emersion into Thai Buddhist culture, thus reversing the hyphenated identity and, as a consequence, our assumptions and expectations of the “Americanization” process.

This paper concludes with a call to reëxamine some of the basic assumptions underlying the Americanization thesis in the study of Theravāda America. Rather than conceiving of it as a unidirectional process of adaptation, accommodation, and acculturation, it may be more helpful to view it as a transnational process of negotiating and constructing what Taylor calls “modern social imaginaries” that enable the cultivation and “ethnicizaton” of a variety of composite identities. This opens up a new possibility for broadening our theoretical approach so as to better understand and account for the level of cultural and ethnic improvisation, innovation, and integration at work on the transnational boundaries of Theravāda America.

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