Newly established Nordic Himalayan Research Network

Together with Dan Hirslund, we have initiated a Nordic Himalayan Research Network in order to build collaboration and scholarly exchange among Himalayan researchers of different disciplinary backgrounds and with different regional expertise: It connects Nordic scholars who work on India, China, Nepal and Bhutan but who are otherwise part of more nationally-oriented research networks. The Himalayas, as a region, traverses national borders and addresses issues of minority populations and peripheral societies with its syncretic mixture of political and religious systems, ethnic groups and unique environmental features. The aim of the network is to strengthen Himalayan studies in the Nordic region and to help to facilitate international collaboration.

Please feel free to join the network! Write to us with your name, affiliation and tell us more about your Himalayan research.

https://himalayanordic.wordpress.com/

Is the Conventional Wisdom of Buddhism waning?

After reading Mark Carrigan’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Social Media IS Scholarship”[1]  about the benefits of writing a blog post as a way to keep track of research ideas, as well as to force oneself to write research ideas in a coherent, i.e. readable, fashion, I feel inspired to write this blog post about the writing/thinking that I am engaged with in relation to my research on Buddhism and economics. In particular, I am working with how Buddhism has been marketed and branded within the context of tourism in Ladakh (Northwest India) where Buddhism has been recognized as the region’s Unique Selling Point (USP). In my earlier writing on this topic, I looked at how the reason why Buddhism as the region’s USP works so well is due to the imaginative values that Buddhism brings to marketing strategies. These values rely on widespread conceptions of Buddhism as peaceful and spiritual, as a non-religion, and as a non-materialistic or non-economic religion. Much of my work, in both my writing and teaching, addresses these conceptualizations of Buddhism- not necessarily in debunking these ‘myths’ about Buddhism, but adding complexity to the often over-simplified images that float around the world about Buddhism, popping up in popular culture narratives and marketing strategies.

Since my work relates to Buddhism and economic relations, and I am not an economist, I have been reading work written by economists to become familiar with well-known yet complicated terms, such as capitalism, neo-liberalism, consumerism and commodification, in addition to marketization and branding. While these terms often get thrown around with presumptions that the audience knows what one is talking about, as an anthropologist I find myself stubbornly asking myself and my colleagues, “What do you mean by capitalism?” “What do you mean by consumption?” In my attempts to understand Capitalism (no easy feat- yet I am content to rely on the key term ‘profit’ or ‘profit-seeking ventures’ as one of the main characteristics of capitalism), I have been reading the work of economists. Today I turned towards the work of John Kenneth Galbraith- a prolific Canadian economist who has written twenty books, with titles such as American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967).

I came across Galbraith’s work, especially from The Affluent Society, through reading the work of Jochen Hirschle which addresses how to conceptualize value within the marketization of religion (Hirschle 2014). In particular, I have been inspired by how Hirschle conceptualizes imaginative value, and the ‘values’ that religion brings to marketing strategies- something which I attempt to analyze in my own work on the branding and marketing of Buddhism in the context of tourism in Ladakh. Hirschle refers to Galbraith’s (1958) Affluent Society when he writes:

“Galbraith argued… the central problem of capitalism is no longer that of rationalizing and increasing production, but rather that of selling the huge amount of commodities it produces (Galbraith 1975: 149). … in the modern context, the natural order of production and consumption has been reversed. Production no longer satisfied the original wants of individuals; rather, to keep economic growth stable under conditions where these wants are already fulfilled, “production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy” by itself (Galbraith 1975: 149).”

Hirschle continues:

“While Galbraith clearly understood that the “institution of marketing” (Sheehan 2020: 32) plays a crucial role in these attempts to control demand (Galbraith 1975: 150), he barked up the wrong tree when it came to explaining how these measures actually operate (Baudrillard, 2009: 74). Galbraith argued that marketing measures actually create the wants that are necessary to sell a product under conditions of affluence (Galbraith, 1975: 151)… Conversely, contemporary sociologists and marketing experts agree that marketing is hardly able to seduce consumers by means of designing and implementing new wants; rather, they try to attach positive connoted cultural value to a profane “use-value product” in the hopes that a fusion of the two enhances a product’s desirability.” (Hirschle 2014: 127)

What was that wrong tree that Galbraith was barking up? In order to find out more about these marketing measures and whether or not producers of goods are in the business of producing wants and desires, or if they  merely attach already existing desires, or cultural values, to their goods, I started reading Galbraith.

In reading The Essential Galbraith (Galbraith 2001) as a non-economist with limited time, and a long list of literature I would love to read, I came across a chapter on “The Concept of Conventional Wisdom,” a chapter which gave me one of those ‘aha’ moments which are so gratifying in academic work. In this brief chapter, he vaguely explains what conventional wisdom is, how it comes to be, and the importance of conventional wisdom for business executives- both in their role as not only business but also social and political leaders, but also in marketing the goods they produce. In addition, and here is where I get to the point of writing this blog post, he writes:

“The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events. As I have noted, the conventional wisdom accommodates itself not to the world that it is meant to interpret but to the audience’s view of the world. Since the latter remains with the comfortable and the familiar while the world moves on, the conventional wisdom is always in danger of obsolescence…. The fatal blow to the conventional wisdom comes when the conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable. This, sooner or later, must be the fate of ideas which have lost their relation to the world”(Galbraith 2001: 24).

In my own writing about the marketing and branding of Buddhism in Ladakh, I have often been confounded by the widespread, conventional wisdoms regarding Buddhism that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post: Buddhism as peaceful, spiritual, a non-religion, non-economic and non-materialistic. Throughout my work in Ladakh, when I am confronted by these conventional wisdoms that tourists often repeat in conversations and interviews, I am always a bit confounded by how these conventional wisdoms are not becoming obsolete- especially in the confrontation with Buddhists in Ladakh who :

1) are not always peaceful (Buddhist/Muslim clashes frequently break out, as recently as last month due to a Buddhist woman marrying a Muslim man) (Gettleman 2017)

2) engage with ritual practices, dogma, clerical elite in what to me is clearly a form of institutional religion that is often rejected by Westerners seeking a spiritual alternative to institutional religion (most often Christianity). Buddhism is, in the ways in which Westerners discuss how Buddhism is a non-religion, clearly a religion, and not merely a philosophy, world-view or spirituality

3) engage with economy and materialism- how else would these magnificent monasteries be built, filled with monks who have to eat, sustained and expanded upon?

Throughout the past month or so I have been wondering what impact the Rohingya crisis in Burma[2] might have on the tourism industry in Ladakh: will this crisis impact the conventional wisdom that ‘Buddhism is peaceful’? Here you have a very prominent example of non-peaceful Buddhists engaging in what leaders have termed genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Burma. Will this work to destabilize the ‘Buddhists are peaceful’ conventional wisdom? While the 14th Dalai Lama is often recognized as the global face of Buddhism, especially as the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize and his global tours promoting non-violence and peace, images of angry monks and desolated villages now seem to be the current global face of Buddhism as the news of the Rohingya crisis dominate the media. Already I have been noticing a rise in the number of popular media articles which take a critical stance towards Mindfulness- which rests on the understanding that one can attain peace and well-being through meditation (which although not explicitly is implicitly a Buddhist-based practice). This seems to be an about-face from the widespread praise filling newspapers, magazines and blog posts (just do a search for Mindfulness on the Huffington Post and a long list of Mindfulness- heralding articles will surface). Will the Rohingya crisis be the fatal blow to the conventional wisdom that Buddhists are peaceful? Is this the “march of events” which proves this conventional wisdom to be “palpably inappropriate”? If that is the case, then multiple livelihoods will be impacted, since the Buddhism is peaceful conventional wisdom has long been that imaginative value attached to use values of uncountable goods and services. Think about the adjective ‘Zen’ and how many products are marketed on this imaginative ‘peace’ value- cars, MP3 players, perfumes, hotels, resorts. Is this moment when Buddhism loses it’s Conventional Wisdom status as a peaceful religion in exchange for a more complex view and understanding of this ancient religion?

 

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. “The affluent society.”  Nova York, New American Library.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 2001. The essential galbraith: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gettleman, Suhasini Raj and Jeffrey. 2017. “On the Run for Love: Couple Bridges a Buddhist-Muslim Divide.” New York Times, October 12, 2017, Asia Pacific. Accessed October 13, 2017. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/world/asia/india-buddhist-muslim-marriage.html?mwrsm=Facebook&referer=http://m.facebook.com/.

Hirschle, Jochen. 2014. “Adding Imaginative Value: Religion, Marketing, and the Commodification of Social Action.” In Religions as Brands, New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Jean-Claude Usunier. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

 

[1] http://www.chronicle.com/article/Social-Media-Is-Scholarship/241467

[2] See the recent blog posts by Michael Jerryson for a Buddhist Studies scholar perspective on this crisis: https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/forum/religion-and-the-persecution-of-rohingya-muslims/responses/buddhist-inspired-genocide

https://blog.oup.com/2017/10/buddhist-nationalists-ethnic-cleansing-myanmar-part-2/

Age of Faith and the Age of Reason: Are we witnessing a new historical period among Himalayan Buddhists?

Age of Faith and the Age of Reason: Are we witnessing a new historical period among Himalayan Buddhists?

Recently I read Annabella Pitkin’s insightful article on “The ‘Age of Faith’ and the ‘Age of Knowledge’: Secularism and Modern Tibetan Accounts of Yogic Power” published in Himalaya.[1] While her article focused on three Tibetan Buddhist teacher’s perspectives on interpreting oral histories of yogic power revealed by one Tibetan master from the mid-20th century, their critical evaluation of the current era of Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalayas resounds with much of the research that I engaged in among Ladakhi Buddhist youth in India. While the monk’s perspectives were perhaps more invested in maintaining the importance of faith in the Buddhist tradition, they came with a lucid understanding of lay Buddhists’ access to and interest in knowledge about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. Within my conversations with lay Ladakhi Buddhist youth, especially those who migrated away from Ladakh to pursue a higher education, they frequently emphasized the importance of knowing Buddhism over believing in Buddhism. As one interlocutor commented, “The parents are practicing more, but students are knowing more.” For many Ladakhi Buddhist youth who have undergone training in a modern education system, the importance of correlating reason, logic and science with the practices and understandings of Buddhism was deemed highly important in order to adjust Buddhism to become more relevant to their 21st century lives (Williams-Oerberg 2014, 2017).

In interviewing Ladakhi Buddhist youth about their practices and understandings related to Buddhism, a picture quickly developed of a generational divide between parents and students in which students understand the ways in which their parents practice Buddhism as based on ‘blind faith’ and ‘superstition’, while students prefer to “know” more: to know why it is that certain ritual practices are performed; what are the benefits of engaging in these practices; and how these practices might help them in their daily lives. As these students are pursuing an English-medium modern education, their English skills are strong enough that they prefer to learn about Buddhism from English sources. And with the dispersion of knowledge about Buddhism being printed and disseminated through Internet sources, youth have gained access to Buddhist sources which their parents did not have access to even a couple decades ago. This point was also raised by Pitkin in her article, in which she writes how within a context of new educational institutions in the post-1959 world, there is a “greater lay participation in Buddhist life and new engagements with forms of Buddhist identity” (ibid. 108). This I also find to be relevant in relation to Ladakhi Buddhist youth- they were much more engaged in Buddhist life than typically assumed by the elder generations, especially in relation to pondering over the importance of identifying as a Buddhist as a religious and ethnic minority in India (see Williams-Oerberg 2014, 2015, 2017).

However, while it seemed at times to be a neat generational divide between parents who believe and practice more, and students who know more, this generational gap did not hold when, for example, I interviewed an 85-year-old Ladakhi Buddhist in Leh, Ladakh. This elderly man also stressed the importance of knowing Buddhism over practicing ritual and believing in these rituals based on ‘blind faith’ and ‘superstition’. He also related how he relies on reading books in English about Buddhism and his primary form of Buddhist practice is vipassana meditation rather than daily rituals.[2] His comments initially confounded me – here he was stating the same approach to Buddhism that young Ladakhi students related to me in the midst of pursuing a prestigious higher education. And he was not only a parent, but a grandparent. However, the distinction quickly became clear again- there is not so much a generational divide as an educational divide. He was one of the first Ladakhis to have been sent outside of Ladakh to pursue a modern education. His parents sent him to the Biscoe School in Srinagar in the 1930s. Biscoe School is a Christian missionary Boys school that was opened in the 1880s and taught in the English medium; it is also the oldest school in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state where Ladakh is situated. At this time a handful of Ladakhi parents were convinced by Christian missionaries that the best thing they can do for their sons is to send them to Srinagar to pursue a modern education. Many of these first modern-educated Ladakhis returned to Ladakh and paved the way for not only leading Ladakh along the path towards modernization, but also for leading towards the emphasis on the importance of modern education in Ladakh- the reason that an increasing number of Ladakhi youth are sent outside of Ladakh to pursue a prestigious higher education.

Where Pitkin does emphasize the access to educational institutions, she also emphasizes the particular context for Tibetans in the post-1959 scenario. In this scenario, Tibetan Buddhism is not only influenced by an increased lay involvement in Buddhist life mostly due to participation in educational institutions and access to written Buddhist sources, she also emphasizes the international demands that are placed on these Tibetan Buddhist teachers she interviewed who in some way or another have students who are positioned outside of the Himalayas- whether it be Tibetans who migrated to Europe and North America, or European and North American Tibetan Buddhists who are not ethnically Tibetan. From the perspective of these teachers, the pedagogical aspects related to teaching aspects of ‘knowing Buddhism’ and ‘believing Buddhism’ represent a fine balance between faith and knowledge. However, for lay Ladakhi youth, it is exactly this faith which is questioned and examined putting greater pressure on Himalayan Buddhist teachers to address their interests and needs as 21st century lives. This is a theme that I will address in a paper on “The centrality of ‘youth’ in promoting and reforming Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh” that I will present at the AAR meeting in Boston, November 16-20, 2017.

 

The “international pressure”, moreover, that lay Ladakhi youth experience is of a slightly different nature as well: through their interactions with tourists, they gain a particular perspective on Buddhism that differs significantly from the ways in which Buddhism has traditionally been practiced and understood in Ladakh. The Leh district of Ladakh which has a Buddhist majority[3] experiences a tremendous influx of tourists during the summer months. The tourism industry is now the largest industry in Ladakh and has facilitated the swift transition from a land-based economy to a cash-based economy. Modern-educated youth, especially young men, typically spend their summers working among tourists as trekking and tourist guides, guest house operators, travel agency owners and operators, etc. Often, they encounter questions about Buddhism from tourists, but also statements and understandings about Buddhism that differ significantly from the everyday, mostly non-reflective approach to Buddhism that they were brought up within where normally one does not question the practices or the teachers but engages in the ritual practices wholeheartedly, and with strong devotion to the Buddhist teachers and leaders. Some of the differing viewpoints that Ladakhis encounter in their interactions with tourists include: an emphasis on Buddhism as not a religion but a philosophy and a way of life; the absence of dogma and hierarchical relations; meditation as a primary form of Buddhist practice; and Buddhism as a method for self-development and improving one’s well-being. These perhaps ‘Western’ viewpoints are also those that are produced in written, English-medium literature in books and in online resources that further impact young, modern-educated understandings of Buddhism.

 

While Pitkin’s article addresses the particularities of the Tibetan post-1959 context, there are many facets of the changing approaches to Buddhism that resonate with the ways in which young Ladakhi Buddhists consider Buddhism as an integral part of their 21st century lives. I would concur with her interlocutors that there does seem to be a historical shift in the way that Buddhism is being propagated among Himalayan Buddhists: A new historical period in Himalayan Buddhism that emphasizes knowledge over faith, and in which Buddhist teachers need to come up with new pedagogical methods for instilling faith in their young modern-educated followers.

 

 

Pitkin, Annabella C. 2016. “The ‘Age of Faith’ and the ‘Age of Knowledge’: Secularism and Modern Tibetan Accounts of Yogic Power.”  Himalaya 36 (1):96-115.

Williams-Oerberg, Elizabeth. 2014. “Young Buddhism: Examining Ladakhi Buddhist Youth Engagments with Migration, Modernity and Morality in India.” PhD, Anthropology, Aarhus University.

Williams-Oerberg, Elizabeth. 2015. “Internal Migration among Ladakhi Youth.” In Internal Migration in Contemporary India, edited by Deepak K. Mishra, 154-179. New Delhi: Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Williams-Oerberg, Elizabeth. 2017. “Young Buddhism: Analyzing transnational currents of religion through ‘youth’.” In EASTSPIRIT: Transnational spirituality and religious circulation in East and West, edited by Jørn Borup, Marianne Q. Fibiger and Katarina Plank. Boston and Leiden: Brill Publications.

 

[1] http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2204&context=himalaya

 

[2] Vipassana meditation is not a common lay Buddhist practice in Ladakh, although there is a growing interest in vipassana, mostly among modern-educated lay Ladakhis.

[3] Ladakh is split into two autonomous districts in the Jammu and Kashmir state of India: Leh district which has a Buddhist majority and Kargil district that has a Muslim majority.