Varieties of Buddhist Healing in Multi-Ethnic Philadelphia


Methodology

This project involved the participation of a team of undergraduate student researchers between 2014–17. In the first phase, we identified about 40 Buddhist temples, meditation centers, sanghas, and other organizations within the Greater Philadelphia area. We attempted to capture as much cultural and linguistic diversity as possible, and broad geographic coverage. The results of this initial investigation are plotted on the Google Map above.

From 2015-17, teams of students visited the targeted locations and conducted preliminary interviews with monastics, teachers, or community representatives at each. Our questions focused on the connections between Buddhism and health, with a focus on understanding which of the community’s practices were thought to be relevant to maintaining physical wellbeing or overcoming illnesses. Our interviews were in many cases facilitated by student liaisons, themselves members of the cultural-linguistic group we were visiting, who were able to facilitate cultural awareness and offer some basic translation assistance when necessary. We took photographs and made audiovisual recordings of many of the interviews, as well as several ceremonies and events. These multimedia materials formed the basis for the development of a student-produced documentary video (in progress).

Findings

Preliminary findings have revealed that different approaches to Buddhist healing prevail in different ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic contexts around the city. My analysis of these differences is informed by previous scholarly attempts to model American Buddhism. We have found that, in certain cases, such models can be helpful for describing certain sites in Philadelphia. For example, we have confirmed Cheah’s (2011) observed segregation between white and Asian congregations, as well as certain assumptions of white Buddhists about traditional ritual practices prevailing in predominantly Caucasian meditation centers. Likewise, Numrich’s “two-Buddhisms” model (2005, 2006) might help to explain the Won Buddhism of Philadelphia Meditation Center’s parallel services for Korean- and English-speaking members, with virtually no overlap between the two groups. Likewise, the model introduced in Baumann 2002 helps to describe a split in one Vietnamese temple community between those members (all first-generation immigrants) who practice more “traditionalist” healing practices, such as deity veneration and sutra chanting, led by the temple’s monks, versus those who lean toward the “modernist” practice of meditation techniques, based on the works of Caucasian meditation teachers in a different building on the same temple grounds. Such correlations between some of the fieldwork sites and the current scholarship notwithstanding, we have found that no previously proposed model can adequately capture the diversity we are seeing on the ground in this one city. We prefer instead to describe Philadelphia’s Buddhist health practices using the “ecosystem” metaphor.

While my research addresses the issue of how to model diversity, which is relevant primarily to the study of American religion, we are equally interested in placing Philadelphia within the context of the larger Buddhist world (see Salguero 2015). While the Greater Philadelphia Area is a microcosm of contemporary America, representative of the same diverse mix one might expect to find in any major coastal urban center in the US, it is also in many ways a part of global contemporary Buddhism. My study has uncovered both parallels with and direct connections to Buddhist healthcare institutions in Asia, some of which we have been able to trace with follow-up field work conducted abroad. Through the course of this research, Philadelphia has become something of an “Indra’s Net” where thick description of local detail leads further and further afield via increasingly expansive webs of global interconnectivity. Thus, close attention to the practices, material culture, and aural and visual experience of Buddhist healing in Philadelphia provides a perfect launching-off point for the exploration of the diverse ways that aspects of Buddhism are being used as health practices at both the local and transnational scales.

In summary, this study seeks to bring continually overlooked non-white and non-English-speaking voices into the contemporary conversation about Buddhism and healthcare (see Hickey 2010 for critique of previous scholarship). It demonstrates the rich spectrum of therapeutic repertoires that Buddhism continues to make available to its devotees today—beyond the headlines and social media buzzwords associated with “mindfulness” (cf. Wilson 2014). It also measures the impact of Buddhism—its doctrines, practices, and cultural orientations—on the healthcare landscape of Philadelphia.

References

Baumann, M. 2006. Protective Amulets and Awareness Techniques, or How to Make Sense of Buddhism in the West. In C.S. Prebish and M. Baumnn (eds.), Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cheah, J. 2011. Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hickey, W.S. 2010. Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism. Journal of Global Buddhism 11: 1–25.

Numrich, P. D. 2005. Complementary and Alternative Medicine in America’s ‘Two Buddhisms.’ In Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered (eds.), Religion and Healing in America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2006. Two Buddhisms Further Considered. In D. Keown (ed.), Buddhist Studies From India to America: Essays in Honor of Charles S. Prebish. New York: Routledge.

Salguero, C. P. 2015. Toward a Global History of Buddhism and Medicine. Buddhist Studies Review 32.1: 35–61.

Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wu, Hongyu. 2002. Buddhism, Health, and Healing in a Chinese Community. http:// www.pluralism.org/affiliates/sered/Wu.pdf, last accessed 11 Jun. 2015.

Credits

Project Design and P.I.: Dr. Pierce Salguero (Assoc Prof, Penn State Univ.)

Student Research Coordinators: Paola Xhuli, Ryan Rose

Student Researchers: Ashley Cole, Patrick Kim, Alex Medina, Vinh Pham, Angelina Wu, Jane Yeung

Research and Translation Assistance: Gilbert Charles, Christina Chen, Duyen Hy, Patrick Kim, Sungsim Kim, Meihang Lim, Vinh Pham, Fa ’16 ASIA 497 class

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Please note that all content in this project was produced by C. Pierce Salguero and the above collaborators, and are offered here under a Creative Commons license. They may be copied, distributed, or displayed for non-commercial purposes as long as this website is attributed. Any derivative works must be released under the same terms.