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Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Podcasts

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism and Holy War

“One must note the feature of religion that keeps it on the front page and on prime time: it kills.” Martin Marty

An uncritical reading of this statement from the eminent scholar in the mainstream media, and should not discourage scholars from taking seriously the issues that it raises.  Is there something particular about religion which makes it a more potent ‘violence enabling mechanism’ than other factors? Are some religions more likely to inspire violence than others? And why should scholars even care? In this interview, Chris discusses these issues and more with Professor Brian Victoria, who, in addition to his scholarly credentials,  is a fully ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

The interview proceeds in two sections. First of all, Professor Victoria delineates his understanding of Holy War, which are expanded upon more fully in his freely available article Holy War: Toward a Holistic Understanding. Discussion flows from Karl Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age and a movement from ‘tribal’ to ‘universalistic’ religions,  through to the potential connections between religion, nationalism, and threat perception, with potentially controversial examples from contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Israel and Palestine being cited along the way. The interview shifts its focus to the specific example of violence associated with (Japanese) Zen Buddhism, providing a stark contrast to its (admittedly positive) stereotypical reputation. How could the precept ‘there is no self’ be connected to violent acts? And what about the widely known idea of karma? You’ll have to listen to find out…

We have also published a response essay to this interview entitled Religion, Violence, and Cognition, by our very own Kevin Whitesides. Listener’s might also be interested in our previous interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media, and Zoe Alderton’s response to this – Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia.

Dr. Brian Victoria is Professor of Japanese Studies at Antioch University where he has been Program Director of Japan and Its Buddhist Traditions since 2005. He trained at the Sôtô Zen monastery of Eiheiji and is a fully ordained priest in that sect. He is also the author and co-author of numerous books and articles on Zen, including “Zen Master Dôgen“, Zen at War”  and Zen War Stories. The Japanese language edition of “Zen at War” served as a catalyst for Myôshinji, the largest branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, to publicly apologize for its role in support of Japanese militarism during WWII. During the program in Japan, Brian teaches Development and Doctrine of Buddhism. Together with other program instructors, he also supervises a select number of student field research projects.

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html