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Buddhism and Beyond

Martijn van Beek (Associate Professor, Section for Anthropology)

This project investigates the transmission and translation of Tibetan Buddhism as perceived and negotiated by Tibetan and western teachers, their organisations and followers. The focus of the project is on attempts at establishing viable, authentic forms and communities of practice, particularly in the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions.

Over the past thirty years or so, lineage holders have sought in different ways to transmit what is considered to be the essence of esoteric Buddhist philosophy and practice across profound cultural differences, between "East" and "West", but also across generations within different societies, whether historically Buddhist or not. A still limited but growing number of western students have been authorized as teachers at different levels of practice, developing their own ways of presenting, translating and transmitting the dharma. An anthropological study of these projects and processes, rationales and assessments of outcomes thus far may offer valuable insights into whether and how such spiritual traditions are being integrated, or not, in contemporary societies in Asia and in the West.

The study focuses on concrete connections constituted by the relationships and movements of people, objects, ideas and practices that constitute the “mode of existence” of spiritual traditions of practice, such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, in the world today. “Following the lineage” connecting teachers, students, their centres, organisations and activities, this project seeks to avoid rigid dichotomies of tradition and modernity, authenticity and fabrication, secularity and religion that continue to inform much scholarly work on religion and modernity, as well as popular discourse. At the same time, the profound differences in the ways in which Dzogchen and Mahamudra are being taught and practiced, in the organisations and forms of community, in teacher-students relationships, and in forms of authority are to be acknowledged, studied and discussed.

The project also traces how Dzogchen and Mahamudra lineages, their philosophies and practices reach beyond the domain of religion into contemporary psychology, management theory, and cognitive neuroscience. Here, too, I have a particular interest in the ways in which such contacts and collaborations feed back into the understandings, ways of presenting, translating and transmitting Buddhist philosophy and practice.