Social Dimensions of Health

Video coming soon: Healing trauma at Phrea Buddha Rangsey Temple

In addition to their religious functions, Buddhist institutions normally also serve as community centers and as social spaces for members of a particular cultural-linguistic group to come together. These locations facilitate informal social networks and serve as information hubs. Such informal flows of information often focus on issues related to health, such as when temple-goers exchange recipes for medicinal teas, recommendations for specific online resources, or directions to a particular healthcare center via word-of-mouth. Community bulletin boards are a common feature of such spaces, and these sometimes feature advertisements for specific healthcare practitioners.

Such exchanges can be seen taking place among English-speaking congregations; however, they take on additional importance in non-English-speaking immigrant communities, as the temple may be one of the few environments where information is exchanged in the members’ native language. Temple spaces are particularly important resources for immigrants, as they facilitate connections with the home language, foodways, and other aspects of culture that help to reinforce the community’s identity and a sense of belonging.

Our research has also included interviews with temple members who have arrived in the Philadelphia area as refugees, or in the wake of violence or political persecution. For example, several interviewees among the Cambodian community in South Philadelphia have reported that the temple has helped them to connect with their home culture and build community in the area. Two of our respondents explicitly framed these activities as helping to heal the effects of the trauma of the violence experienced during the Cambodian Civil War (1968–75) at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and the community’s subsequent dislocation.

Another site where the temple has historically played a role in healing communal trauma is the Seabrook Buddhist Temple, a Buddhist Churches of America branch founded in 1945 as Japanese Americans were being relocated from WWII internment camps. Today, the temple community includes Caucasian members and those of mixed ancestry; however, the temple continues to serve as a touchstone for Japanese Americans both locally and regionally.


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Further reading:
  • Paula Arai. Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. — An intimate study of how Buddhist rituals are interwoven into Japanese women’s lives.
  • Joseph Cheah. 2011. Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press. — A study of the practice of Buddhism among immigrants and Caucasians in the US, through the lens of critical race theory.
  • Wakoh S. Hickey. 2010. “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism.” Journal of Global Buddhism 11: 1–25. — A critique of prevailing models of American Buddhism that seek to bifurcate Asian and Caucasian practitioners along racial or ethnic lines.
  • Hongyu Wu. 2002. “Buddhism, Health, and Healing in a Chinese Community,” last accessed 10 Feb. 2018. — Overview of health attitudes among Chinese residents of Boston.