Buddhism Observed by Peter Moran

Peter Moran. Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Hardcover, viii + 224 pp.

Based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, this work is an anthropological study of the transnational Buddhism of Kathmandu Valley, more specifically the town of Bodhanath, which has become the home of many Tibetan expatriates as well as Western spiritual seekers who have adopted Buddhism as their religion.

As Moran acknowledges, he is working with somewhat ambiguous categories, notably “Buddhism,” “Western,” and even “Bodhanath.” This self-conscious methodological admission notwithstanding, he has succeeded in shedding light on the Bodanath phenomenon.

Moran opens his study with a discussion of one of the more challenging aspects of Tibetan Buddhism: that of “emanations” or tulkus, whom the author circumscribes as “semiotic beings.” He then goes on to consider tourism vs. pilgrimage and the ramifications of both in the context of Bodhanath’s commercial life. While the influx of visitors allows the “new” Buddhist monasteries to spring up in a relatively short span of time, the traditional practice of sponsorship remains the main support for these religious institutions.

The author then examines in detail the questions of what makes a monk and what makes a Western Buddhist. He concludes that a class of Buddhists has crystallized whose members have “emphatically specialized knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism” but who “do not quite fit into any of the Tibetan categories of Buddhist practitioner” (p. 156). As can be expected, a degree of self-consciousness seems to characterize this group of converts who meditate and know the scriptural tradition but have virtually no background in Tibetan culture. Then again, the Tibetan expatriates in exile in Kathmandu engage in their own quest for identity, a search stimulated by twenty-first-century commercialism and, not least, tourism.

Bodhanath, as this book captures very well, is a fertile “contact zone” in which individuals—born Buddhists and Western converts to Buddhism—seek to define or re-define themselves and their culture.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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