[Buddha-l] Fwd: mega-church & proselytising

Sally McAra s.mcara at auckland.ac.nz
Mon May 16 23:26:47 MDT 2005

Richard P. Hayes wrote:

>On Sun, 2005-05-15 at 17:53 -0600, Sally McAra  wrote:
>>I'm rather fascinated by the whole concept of "holy objects" from an 
>>anthropological perspective, as well as the fact that on a personal 
>>level I feel pretty ambivalent about lavish temples etc.
>I've tried to feel ambivalent about lavish temples, but I just can't
>seem to cultivate ambivalence. They really disgust me. 
As it happens, the chapter I'm currently drafting for my phd explores 
the "research position" and the need for personal reflexivity in doing 
this kind of research. To start with where I'm coming from: I'm a 
buddhist (though I am a bit iffy about the label, that is what I would 
tick on the census form), but I'm more inspired by the little I know 
about Quaker philosophy than much of what I see in various buddhist 
institutions. I'm also an environmentalist. And then,  I'm also an 
anthropology student.

This is my attempt to distill out some of what I've been thinking about 
while writing that - it might sound a bit introspective. But then, it is 
to do with thinking about what I meant when I said I felt ambivalent.

I consciously take this "ambivalent" approach; my anthropological 
"fieldwork" required immersing myself in another worldview (in this 
case, living at the retreat centre, helping around the place, attending 
their classes and retreats, interviewing people, etc etc), in order to 
try to understand it. Judging it as good or bad, weird or normal, etc,  
does not help the process of entering into other people's world view.

As a result of hanging out with these folk, my understanding has 
changed. At first it just seemed misguided, and that they would be far 
better off doing things that were much more verifiably useful and 
helpful in alleviating suffering: such as aid projects that empowered 
the disenfranchised, and helped them to help themselves; and to 
encourage people in wealthier strata of society to adopt practices of 
voluntary simplicity.

I have not given up this view, but I also have a feeling for what they 
are trying to do, and was able to feel persuaded at least some of the 
time I was there, that it was a good idea - thus I have developed some 
empathy for those who are trying to build Buddhist holy objects, and 
their reasons for doing so; and also the diverse range of responses to 
their plans (this is the subject of my research). Having spent some time 
hanging out with people who think of building stupas, statues, elaborate 
shrines, and big prayer wheels etc as the most "beneficial" thing that 
can be done to save sentient beings from suffering, I now feel as if I 
can empathise with the ideals that motivate them - even if I don't 
always agree. This is, I have to say, a rather tricky balancing act! 
This is the [critical] cultural relativism that the new pope, the former 
cardinal ratzinger thought was so poisonous. It is key to doing 
anthropology. Perhaps it has something in common with the ideal of 
equanimity in buddhism?

It also makes me think differently about how we label some practices 
with terms like "superstitious" or otherwise, not realising how we 
ourselves do things that look pretty weird to others.... It is a good 
idea to turn our criticisms back on ourselves from time to time.
E.g., I have encountered numerous instances where liberal "westerners" 
think it downright embarrassing and misguided/ superstitious when a 
westerner adopts the lotus position, or chants some mantras and spins a 
prayer wheel. But then it is deemed beautiful (coffeetable book style) 
when it's a little old Tibetan lady spinning a prayer wheel, and perhaps 
thinking she is making merit by doing so. Well, it is good that we have 
overcome our colonialist /imperialist prejudices where  the "other", 
non-westerners, etc, were deemed inferior and riddled with superstitious 
beliefs etc, but are we just transferring the subject of prejudice in 
this lopsided cringe factor? OK for Tibetans, but not for us?  Why? 
What's behind this?

> the methods of aggressive acquisition are hardly different
>for a religious organization than for a commercial giant such as Wal-
>Mart or Home Depot or Costgo or Ikea. (I hope you kiwis have no idea
>what I'm talking about, for that would assure me that you have been
>spared this ghastly phenomenon.)
Actually, we do... And we have some home-grown equivalents. But yes, the 
phenomenon of big box stores and big box churches is obviously much more 
established in the USA than little old NZ. So far as I know, in NZ these 
churches arent all that grand from the outside. Maybe I just havent been 
going to the right parts of town.... (BTW, the Foguangshan is building a 
massive Chinese-style temple in South Auckland).
We have our own extremely conservative church movements. See 
http://www.destinychurch.org.nz/ for a guy who calls himself a bishop... 
They have organised rallies to protest the "civil union bill" (similar 
to the gay marriage debate) all wearing t-shirts printed with the slogan 
"enough is enough", etc etc.

>But do read the Harper's
>articles if you get a chance. There are three of them in the May 2005
>issue: "Inside America's most powerful megachurch" by Jeff Sharlet;
>"Feeling the hate with the national religious broadcasters" by Chris
>Hedges; and "The evangelical roots of economics" by Gordon Bigelow. 

Thanks for that.

>There is quite a bit of detail about the building, both inside and out,
>and the artwork. It sounds pretty wild. Here's a teaser from the
>article: "Metallic and modern, the sanctuary is built like two satellite
>dishes clapped belly to belly. It was designed, I was told to 'beam'
>prayer across the land."
Woo, that's pretty far out. But then, face it, some buddhists get into 
this stuff too! And it almost has a New Age ring to it.
Prayer flags and prayer wheels are *supposed* to do something similar.

And I have read about stupas being built to suppress local spirits that 
were causing negative influences (like droughts and war) in Tibet.
"the _chortens,_ _mani_-walls and _rigsum-gompo_ were not simply there 
for devotional reasons - in effect, to remind villagers of their 
Buddhist faith - but rather for specifically apotropaic reasons: they 
were _khag-gnon_ - ritual objects designed to suppress malevolent 
powers." (149) (from Mills, M.A., 2003. Identity, Ritual and State in 
Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa 
Monasticism.RoutledgeCurzon. pp149-50). Such things have been carried 
thru to the "West" in various ways but I won't go into that just now - 
it's getting dark and I'm going home.

Well, I realise that people on buddha-L are more interested in the 
philosophical side than these sorts of practices, but in fact the area 
between ideals and practice is something I'm quite curious about.; e.g., 
the ways in which various religious groups try to use objects, rituals 
etc with "spiritual" powers, for worldly ends such as protection of 
crops. Using meditation to deal with workplace /domestic stress might be 
something similar?

>>A lot of megachurch buildings are rather plain, at least here in NZ. 
>If you'd like, I could ask God to send a few dozen American evangelicals
>to New Zealand.
 I had a pair of mormon missionaries from the USA as neighbours for a 
bit (although they seemed to have given up on the Pakehas [anglo-new 
zealanders] and were targetting the chinese immigrants; the two guys 
were fluent in mandarin but knew nothing about mainstream nz).

>shining steel and glass buildings surrounded by concrete parking lots
>the size of forty football pitches. 
They will have to change how they operate when their congregation can no 
longer afford the soon-to-be expensive fossil fuel to drive from all 
over the place to "worship"!

>A gang of American pastors would probably love having some New Zealand sheep to herd around. 
That reminds me, growing up in a country known for its sheep, I  thought 
the christian metaphor of a shepherd lovingly tending his flock was a 
bit odd, given that they soon get sent off to the freezing works 
(abbatoir/slaughterhouse) for an early and undignified end.

the wool-blind sheep are
they are put into a
and taken to the
freeeeeeeeeeeeezing works

(something I wrote at about age 15)


Sally McAra
PhD candidate
Department of Anthropology 
The University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Auckland 1001
New Zealand

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