Religion, Self-Help, Science: Three Economies of Western/ized Buddhism

This essay is a revised version of the presentation made at the 2017 Denmark workshop Buddhism and economics: Conceptual and theoretical approaches to a burgeoning field, organized by Elizabeth Williams-Ørberg and Trine Brox. The special section was edited by Williams-Ørberg, whose introduction is a valuable survey of the field. My thanks to both organizers for their efforts, and to fellow workshop participants for their kind input.

Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 20 (2019), 69–86 [open access, download available here]

Abstract: Scholars of Buddhism in the United States have attempted to give order to the
varieties of Buddhism that they encounter. Typically, such studies have focused on
doctrinal, lineal, or socio-historical factors that are, in many ways, already familiar in
the field of Buddhist studies. What has been less explored is the ways in which
Buddhism has become institutionalized in the United States. This study explores how
three pre-existing models of institutional organization have structured the forms that
various Buddhisms have taken, regardless of their doctrinal, lineal or socio-historical
background. Religion, self-help, and science comprise this three-fold structure.
Understanding this three-fold structure involves adding a third term to the common
opposition of religion as the transcendent sacred and science as the mundane secular.
That third term is the immanent sacred, which is generally suppressed by semiotic
pairing of the other two terms, but which is present in the culture of self-help. After
discussing the historical background of the three-fold structure, the different
economies of the three forms of institutionalization are considered, as well as two
additional institutional forms and also hybrid forms.

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