Buddhism, Humanities, and Ethnographic Methods Conference, 29-30 April 2016, by Keziah Wallis

ASAA/NZ welcomes guest blogger Keziah Wallis, PhD researcher at the University of Otago. This is the first post in a new series reporting on conferences attended by our members.

Burlington, Vermont at the end of April was the site for a conference discussing the role of ethnography in the study of Buddhism. The conference was an attempt to extend discussions initiated at Buddhist Studies conferences which recognized shifts in ways that scholars approach Buddhism and sought to articulate why ethnographic approaches are essential to understanding what Buddhism is.  The call for papers requested participants to reflect on what it is that ethnography brings to the study of Buddhism that other methodologies cannot. With generous support from the University of Otago Division of Humanities, and the University of Vermont Humanities Center I was able to the conference and contribute some of my own research to the discussions.

Papers presented were on a broad range of topics, discussing emerging ethnographic fields, the positionality of the ethnographer, understanding Buddhist concepts and emotions, and knowledge and discipline in the study of Buddhism. The format of the conference was more in the nature of a workshop, and it was an excellent opportunity for me to be able to participate in the discussions which grew out of the papers presented. My paper championed for the role of ethnography in widening the scope of what we think of as Buddhist actors, and in challenging our understandings of Buddhist and non-Buddhist binaries. Building upon earlier debates in the anthropology of Buddhism, my paper claimed that an ethnographic approach was essential to a more nuanced understanding of the gendered roles and status of Burmese women within Buddhist frameworks.

Each group of presentations included half an hour for general discussion around the themes of the papers and then the hour discussion at the end of the conference extended into the conference dinner later that night. Insightful questions were asked about what would constitute an Anthropology of Buddhism and could all of the papers presented make a claim to fall within its purview. This discussion led quite easily to discussions about whether it was possible to separate Buddhism (or any religion) from the culture of its adherents and if not then surely a study of love and affection towards mine-detecting rats in Cambodia would be part of an Anthropology of Buddhism. The consensus of participants regarding ethnographic methods and Buddhism was that we needed to be careful not to create binaries between ourselves and other scholars of Buddhism. This consensus, in turn, led to the call for more inter-disciplinary studies of aspects of Buddhism with anthropologists working with textual scholars, sociologists, linguists, philosophers, and historians in order to better understand not only what is Buddhism, but what its role is in the lives of Buddhists.

Photo courtsey of Keziah Wallis.