Buddhism, Diversity and ‘Race’: Multiculturalism and Western convert Buddhist movements in East London – a qualitative study

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Smith, Sharon Elizabeth

This study considers the development of convert Buddhism in multicultural environments. Its focus is on the encounters of people of colour (defined for the purposes of this study as people of African, Asian and Caribbean descent) with Western convert Buddhist movements, which tend to be predominantly white and middle-class.\ud The study uses an ethnographic case study approach informed by feminist epistemologies. The case-studies are of two of the largest Western convert Buddhist movements in the UK – the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and Soka Gakkai International-UK (SGI-UK) – and focus on their branches in the multicultural inner-city location of East London. The findings suggest that most Buddhists of colour in these movements come from the second generation of the diaspora. For the FWBO, there is an apparently hegemonic discourse of middle-class whiteness that people of colour and working class members of this movement have to negotiate as part of their involvement. In contrast, for SGI-UK, the ethos is one of a moral cosmopolitanism that encourages intercultural dialogue thus facilitating the involvement of a considerably more multicultural and international following. People of colour find that their practices of the techniques of the self provided by each movement enable them to feel more empowered in relation to their quotidian experience of racisms and racialisation, as well as encouraging them in a more anti-essentialist approach to identity that sees it as fluid and contingent.\ud To date, there has been little discussion of how Western Buddhism is developing in multiethnic and multicultural contexts, even though the West has long been a space of significant ethnic and cultural diversity arising largely from processes of colonialism and imperialism. This study therefore develops a new line of enquiry for consideration in studies seeking to illuminate the issue of how Buddhism is being translated in the West.
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