The articles in this special issue illuminate the importance of aesthetics, affect, and emotion in the formation of religious communities through examples from the Buddhist world. This introduction reads across the contributors’ findings from different regions (China, India, Japan, and Tibet) and eras (from the 17th to the 21st centuries) to highlight common themes. It discusses how Buddhist communities can take shape around feelings of togetherness, distance, and absence, how bonds are forged and broken through spectacular and quotidian aesthetic forms, and how aesthetic and emotional practices intersect with doctrinal interpretations, gender, ethnicity, and social distinction to shape the moral politics of religious belonging. We reflect on how this special issue complicates the idea of Buddhist belonging through its focus on oft-overlooked practices and practitioners. We also discuss the insights that our studies of Asian Buddhist communities offer to the broader study of religious belonging.
This article investigates how the cultural politics of ethnoreligious belonging play out through everyday aesthetic practices at a market for Tibetan Buddhist objects in Chengdu, China – a multiethnic place that is perceived and experienced as “Tibetan” by the Tibetans and Chinese who work, live, and shop there. Based upon ethnographic research in Chengdu, I explore how Tibetan urbanites navigate the sensorially intense market, sorting its sights, sounds, and smells to determine who and what belongs as authentically Tibetan Buddhist. In the process, I argue, they are laying claim to an ability to feel the in/authentic acquired through being born and raised as a Tibetan. This practical ability is what I call an aesthetic habitus. Yet, many Tibetans fear this ability is being eroded; it is no longer clear who and what belongs, contributing to anxieties that Tibetans as a distinct ethnoreligious community will be extinguished.
Why is the museum at the headquarters of the lay Japanese Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai full of pianos? How did Gakkai members in Japan come to revere the compositions and ethos of Ludwig van Beethoven as means of defending Buddhist orthodoxy? And how did this Buddhist organization come to rely on classical music as a key form of self-cultivation and institution building? This article draws on ethnographic engagements with musicians in Soka Gakkai, along with study of the Gakkai’s development in 20th-century Japan, to detail how practitioners’ Buddho-cultural pursuits demonstrate ways cultural practices can create religion. Attention to Soka Gakkai’s fusions of European high culture with lay Buddhist teachings and practices troubles static definitions of “Buddhism” and signals the need for broader inquiry into the nature of religious belonging through investigations of aesthetic forms.
In September 2016, the Himalayan Buddhist festival Naropa 2016 took place in the Northwest Himalayan region of Ladakh, India. This article analyzes the spectacular aesthetics of the Naro Gyen Druk ritual, the focus of Naropa 2016. Drawing on ethnographic documentation of this ritual, I consider the role of ritual aesthetics in provoking affective, emotional, and bodily experiences among participants and their felt connections to the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the charismatic leader of the Drukpa Kagyü organization. I introduce the term “connectionwork” to emphasize how Buddhist conceptualizations of connections, drelwa (‘brel ba), bring to light how ritual and performances of charisma either work or fail to work in establishing religious belonging among Himalayan and international participants. Connectionwork helps to emphasize not only the work to organize and orchestrate religious rituals with the intention to institute religious belonging, but also the agential role that participants play in charismatic ritual performances.
This article argues that belonging can be characterized by absence. It explores this as experienced in two different geographical and historical contexts by two groups of actors: members of the early Tibetan diaspora in India (1959–1979) and former members of a religious group (Aum Shinrikyō) in Japan. The absence we conceptualize is double: it is not solely a spatial absence, but also a temporal absence in terms of the irreversibility of time. It is felt and articulated through emotions that play decisive roles in the constitution and sustaining of these communities. These communities as feeling communities are characterized by absence, but absence is simultaneously what makes them a community. This simultaneity allows our actors to create complex temporal frameworks by relating to reimagined pasts, different presents, and potential futures. Therefore, the article contributes to discussions of belonging by retheorizing the relationship between absence, emotions, and time.
This ethnographic study shows that women’s knowledge and practices involving food in Japanese Buddhist contexts circulate as gendered currency. It emphasizes how what we term “food literacy” cultivates aesthetic and affective senses of belonging among Buddhist practitioners. We argue that this embodied knowledge helps women negotiate their experiences of Buddhism and show how these experiences articulate the complexities of their bounded and self-disciplining Buddhist selves. Women use food literacy to teach, learn, and practice the way Buddhism feels and etch it into their own and others’ emotional, social, and material bodies. By recognizing women as stewards of religion, particularly through food literacy, we also elucidate how women’s uses of mundane practices illuminate food literacy as a value carrier that generates belonging through food. Such practices can equally become sites of failure to connect if the intended recipients do not share understandings or appreciations of the aesthetic and affective dimensions of it.
Studies of belonging and community formation often emphasize commonality of values, emotions, and feelings. This article highlights the importance of practices that create relations of distance between members as well as closeness. Drawing on fieldwork in institutionalized Tibetan Buddhist communities in northeastern Tibet (Amdo/Qinghai), I focus on everyday practices of respect and faith that materialize community by putting monks, reincarnate lamas, and laity “in their place.” This can include the most quotidian of acts, such as standing when someone enters a room. I argue that such practices of “feeling apart” and their refusal are central to individual negotiations of religious belonging and to the dynamic, ongoing process of community formation. The importance of these practices becomes particularly apparent when, as is the case in northeastern Tibet, seemingly taken-for-granted relations of belonging and the emotional style that enacts and creates these relations are felt to be precarious.
In the Tibetan Buddhist Treasure (gter ma) tradition, communities cohere around the marking of certain visions as offering insight into the proper method of ritual practices, the veracity of reincarnation claims, decisions about institutional structures, assertions of lineage relationships, and most importantly for the purposes of this article, the phenomenology of Buddhist enlightenment for readers lacking such experience. There is a long and robust history of doubt around such visions and their narrative accounts. Doubters seek to debunk and disenfranchise those whose visions they dispute. This article analyzes the emotional dynamics and aesthetic charge of five exemplary visionary accounts from the 17th–20th century, with a focus on how doubts are overcome through intense positive sensory experiences within their life stories. Such narratives generate a sense of religious belonging in Tibetan Buddhist Treasure communities, beginning with the visionary him- or herself whose successful navigation of doubt is resolved by the persuasive power of intensely positive aesthetic experience.
The article raises the question of how the multiplication of topics, turns, and perspectives in the currents of the study of religions can be explained. After the concept of a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn) is introduced, the study examines the epistemological consequences of the question What is religion? It is based on analyzing the practice of defining “religion” in German-language encyclopedias of the past three centuries. Surprisingly, the structure of these articles is largely persistent throughout this long period and consists mainly of etymology, definition (Wesensbestimmung), and a typology of “religion.” From this, an Aristotelian paradigm can be deduced. The claim for universality entailed in this paradigm ultimately led to a crisis and since the 1960s the study of religions has developed alternative approaches that emphasize aspects of human interaction, communication, and reciprocal relationships. I propose to subsume these new perspectives under the term “a relational paradigm.” Examples and consequences for this paradigm are offered in the conclusion.