Being Buddhist in Contemporary Bhutan: An Ethnographic Study of Embodied Ethics, Contemplative Practices, and the Cultivation of Social Harmony

Walsh, Michelle, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Germano, David, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates lived Buddhism among lay practitioners in contemporary Bhutan. Texts that provide instruction for classical Buddhist practice emphasize the importance of philosophical views, ethical conduct, generating compassionate motivation, and an approach to relationships that cultivates social harmony. Yet, these aspects of lived Buddhism are largely minimized in modernist presentations of globalized Buddhism. Previous studies of Buddhist modernism that focus on the centrality of meditation, alignment of scientific rationalism, and decontextualization of practices have not adequately examined how lay practitioners in Asian Buddhist societies utilize longstanding traditional practices or integrate them with globalized forms of Buddhism. Bhutanese practice of Buddhism is evolving and adapting to modern needs, but in ways that are distinctively representative of their local traditions. This research documents the practices and teachings that Bhutanese incorporate into their daily lives and how that incorporation shapes contemporary Buddhist practitioners’ conceptions and behaviors. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Bhutan and textual analysis, I argue that lay Bhutanese are developing modern approaches to applying foundational ethics, values, and social practices as a means of training and transforming their minds. My research reveals that rather than shifting to meditation as the primary practice of mental transformation, as many modernist Buddhist forms do, the Bhutanese response is to modify the way they engage in foundational aspects of Buddhist practice while exploring how meditation can be integrated as a reflection of their Buddhist heritage. Examining these practices within a rapidly modernizing society such as Bhutan provides a unique opportunity to explore how contemporary Buddhists, with their changing ideas and practices, relate to secularized forms of globalized Buddhist discourse. I investigate how Bhutanese are now addressing modern issues by altering these practices in the face of rapid social change. I also analyze the intended and unintended consequences of these changes. This research both expands on scholarly accounts of Buddhism in contemporary Asia and challenges descriptions of Buddhist modernism as decontextualized, deinstitutionalized, and detraditionalized.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Buddhist Modernism, Bhutan, Lived Religion, Ethics, Contemplative Practice, Social Relationships
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