Taking Refuge in the Dharma: post-colonialism, ritual theory, and American Buddhist studies

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Here it is! The long awaited Dissertation! Be careful clicking that link up there. It’s a rather hefty PDF file on the order of 3.3 megabytes. Happy reading!

Abstract:  The prevailing notion among scholars of Buddhism in the West, variously phrased, is that this emerging phenomenon may be characterized as essentially a democratic, lay-centered, socially engaged Buddhism with a decreasing amount of ritual—a set of assumptions rarely challenged. Curiously, despite the tacit assumption that there is no ritual in American Buddhism, there are very few scholarly works on the subject of American Buddhist ritual to either confirm or deny this stereotype that anecdotal evidence suggests is false. This dissertation argues that an approach to the study of American Buddhism through ritual will enable the scholar to see beyond the di#erences between the standard “two Buddhisms” model and come to appreciate how Buddhism is developing as a transnational religion in an increasingly globalized world.

The dissertation begins with an examination of American Buddhist academic history, placing the study of American Buddhism within the larger of context of Buddhist studies. Revealing the !eld’s inherited Orientalist presumptions, a post-colonial view of Buddhist history takes into consideration the active role Asian Buddhist missionaries have played in the creation of Buddhist modernist movements. As an antidote to an exclusively historical approach to the study of Buddhism, this dissertation then outlines the basis of a Buddhist ritual theory based, in part, on Catherine Bell’s definition of ritual.

An examination of the dharma talk as ritual within the specific socio-cultural context of Berkeley, California, reveals an American Buddhism which is created by multiple subjectivities, developed in conversation between Asian-American and Euro-American Buddhists, and enacted by larger, global Buddhist trends. Collectively, these influences and perspectives challenge the geo-centric models of Buddhism common within the academy. This dissertation then raises the question, if transnational Buddhist trends continue, how relevant will a distinct “American Buddhism” category be for Buddhist studies?

© 2008 by Scott A. Mitchell

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