Varieties of Buddhist Healing in Multiethnic Philadelphia

Project Overview

This project explores the impact of Buddhism—its doctrines, practices, and cultural orientations—on the healthcare landscape of Philadelphia. The study seeks to bring continually overlooked non-white and non-English-speaking voices into the contemporary conversation about Buddhism and healthcare. It also 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.”

This project involved the participation of a team of undergraduate student researchers. Between 2014–17, small teams of students visited the targeted locations and conducted preliminary interviews with monastics, teachers, or community representatives. Interviews were in many cases facilitated by student “cultural liaisons,” who themselves were members of the cultural-linguistic group we were visiting and were able to facilitate cultural awareness and offer some basic translation assistance when necessary. Photographs and audiovisual recordings formed the basis for the development of a student-produced documentary video (in progress).

Questions asked focused on the connections between Buddhism and health, with emphasis on understanding which of the community’s practices are thought to be relevant to maintaining physical wellbeing or overcoming illnesses. 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 (Cheah 2011; Numrich 2005, 2006; Baumann 2002; Hickey 2010); however, I have found that no previously proposed model can adequately capture the diversity on the ground in this one city. While my research addresses the issue of how to model diversity, I am equally interested in placing Philadelphia within the context of global contemporary Buddhism. This 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.

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://pluralism.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Wu.pdf, last accessed 11 Jun. 2015.

Credits

Project Design and P.I.: Dr. Pierce Salguero (Associate Professor of Asian History and Religious Studies, Penn State University)

Student Research Coordinators: Paola Xhuli, Ryan Rose

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

Research Assistants: Gilbert Charles, Christina Chen, Duyen Hy, Patrick Kim, Sungsim Kim, Meihang Lim, Vinh Pham, students from various Religious Studies and Asian Studies classes

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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.