This website is home to a collaborative digital humanities project that highlights, maps, and explores the influence of Buddhism on the healthcare landscape in Philadelphia. The overall goal for the project is to understand the impact of Buddhist institutions, practices, and cultural orientations, with a particular emphasis on frequently overlooked non-white and non-English-speaking voices. This website provides a resource that increases public and scholarly understanding of American religious diversity, as well as exploring the intersections between religion and health. The site also makes available documentary videos that are geared toward a general audience. We hope that the data collected here will be useful for teaching and research projects related to Buddhism and religious pluralism in the U.S., and also will provide a platform for the ongoing collection of data on Buddhism’s impact on contemporary healthcare.
Statement of Purpose
This project shares some features with other digital projects such as Harvard’s Pluralism Project and Ohio State’s American Religious Sounds Project, but with a targeted focus on exploring connections between Buddhism and healthcare. Our project’s raison d’être is to generate conversations and improve understandings about the close relationship between two of the most important facets of human experience, religion and health. A number of big questions are raised by this project, including: How do faith and health interrelate? How do communities respond to collective trauma and challenges? How do newcomers to America navigate the healthcare infrastructure? How do religious organizations help or hinder social support networks? This project does not seek to resolve these questions with easy answers, but rather to provide a framework and infrastructure with which to engage with and to explore these questions and others that may arise.
The project unites researchers, students, and Buddhist communities in a common effort to build bridges of understanding. Both the data and the documentary videos are intended to provide accessible introductions to the intersections of religion, health, and community in diverse urban centers of the U.S. At a time where American politics and national discourse are becoming increasingly fractured along ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial lines, we are of the belief that this type of research project can play a role in facilitating greater understanding and cohesion among groups of different Americans.
Our pedagogical goals and teaching methods are described separately on our Pedagogy page.
The project encourages collaboration, methodological diversity, interdisciplinary approaches, and artistic expression. The interdisciplinary nature of the research we are doing is reflected in the makeup of the team. The P.I. is an interdisciplinary scholar with background in history of medicine, East Asian studies, and anthropology. Other members of the team bring strong backgrounds in anthropology, Chinese religions, digital humanities, documentary filmmaking, history, religious studies, and science and technology studies. This collaboration infuses the project’s outcomes with an interdisciplinarity, as the team members learn from one another during planning, data collection, film production, and writing at various phases of the project. As it is multifaceted, it makes important contributions to several fields simultaneously:
Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies: This project furthers research on the deep connections between Buddhism and medicine that have persisted historically and in contemporary times across the globe (Salguero 2017). The specific topic of the effects of Buddhism on American healthcare is a piece of this overall puzzle that is much in need of scholarly investigation. While the rise of popularity of mindfulness meditation has been amply covered in English-language publications (e.g., Wilson 2014), the media coverage and scholarly work on American Buddhism has unduly focused on Caucasian meditation practitioners, while tending to gloss over the significant contributions of people of color in both its history and contemporary practice (Quli 2009, Hickey 2010, Cheah 2011). Previous scholarship has tended to see Buddhism among Asian Americans in terms of a single indiscriminate category of “Asian,” “heritage” or “traditional” Buddhism, as distinct from mainstream Caucasian Buddhism (Baumann 2006, Numrich 2006). Consequently, scholars of American Buddhism have largely treated Asian American Buddhism as a monolithic entity, and overlooked the important ways that cultural, demographic, and neighborhood-specific features make a difference in shaping Buddhist practice in different communities. Extending beyond an exclusive focus on mindfulness and other meditation practices, we highlight the many other diverse practices and cultural orientations toward health and healing in contemporary American Buddhism — including a wide range of healing rituals, events encouraging social cohesion, and opportunities for cultural education for the community.
Asian American Studies and Medical Anthropology: A major goal for this project is to bring overlooked Asian American voices into the contemporary conversation about Buddhism and healthcare in the U.S. Social histories of medicine have illuminated the politics of medical access and knowledge exchange within the context of migration and immigration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, health officials in San Francisco identified laboring communities in Chinatown as festering sites of disease and depravity (Shah 2001). Though Asian Americans have transformed from “inassimilable alien” to “model minority” in the United States and Canada, this does not reflect the more complex undercurrents of immigrant experience across communities. Medical practices are as multiple as the individuals and objects that embody them (Teng 2013). Accounts of transnational medical practices have set the foundation for new theoretical frameworks, inviting further inquiries into comparing the movement and transformation of “native” and “indigenous” knowledge (Zhan 2009). As discourses of race and class grow increasingly fraught in the United States, a close study and re-presentation of communities otherwise overlooked in the broader American consciousness offers new and necessary perspectives in the use and transformation of health care practices and medical knowledge.
Public health policy: This study focuses on Buddhist institutions as a way to de-center hospitals and clinics as sites of medical care, and to bring into focus a new site for research. Aside from a few minor articles that have focused narrowly on one particular temple or group of practitioners (e.g, Wu 2002, Numrich 2005), there have been no large-scale studies of the role of the Buddhist temple in shaping health-seeking attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. At the same time, the study of American immigrant communities has never been more important than at this particular moment, given the current prospects of potentially radical change in both national healthcare and immigration policies. It is a high priority to measure, record, and understand how communities are responding to changing healthcare needs, and how they are turning to religious organizations for information, guidance, and support. The data illuminated by our project is of enormous and obvious relevance to healthcare policymaking, as well as to our understanding of daily life in American urban centers.
- 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.
- Chan, S. 1991. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne.
- 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.
- Quli, N. F. 2009. “Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for ‘Tradition’ in Buddhist Studies.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16, last accessed 10 Feb. 2018.
- Salguero, C. P. 2017–19. Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology, 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Shah, N. 2001. Contagious Divides Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Takaki, R. 1989. A History of Asian Americans: Strangers from a Different Shore. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Teng, E. J. 2013. Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Wilson, J. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wu, H. 2002. “Buddhism, Health, and Healing in a Chinese Community,” last accessed 10 Feb. 2018.
- Zhan, M. 2009. Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames. Durham: Duke University Press.