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Material Culture and Modernity in Tibetan Buddhism

Cameron David Warner (post-doc, Section for Anthropology)

This project studies the role of Tibetan Buddhist material culture in the transmission and translation of Buddhism to the West as compared to the simultaneous impact Western notions of modernity are having on Buddhist material culture within Tibet.  Though material culture plays a tremendous role in Buddhism, it has been relatively under-theorized in the study of Tibetan Buddhism. And in the major studies of Buddhist modernity, the impact of Buddhist material culture has not been investigated.

Building on doctoral research into the impact of Indian Buddhist material culture on the Tibetan assimilation of Buddhism, this study will utilize participant-observation among previously established contacts in Lhasa (China) and Boston (USA).  The first part of this comparative project will trace the impact of modernity on Tibetan material culture within Tibet.  Warner will interview Tibetans in Lhasa regarding their experience of the extensive iconoclasm and re-education campaigns aimed at eradicating the worship of Buddhist material culture, which was deemed "superstition" during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), as well as their reactions to the rapid rebuilding and restoration of monasteries throughout Tibet from 1980-present in service of a robust tourist economy, which attracts over 5 million visitors per year.

The second part of this project will attend to the transmission and translation of Tibetan Buddhist material culture into the West, specifically at sites near Boston, Massachusetts.  Following specific objects and ideas about them from Asia to Boston, Warner will investigate how "Tibetan" Buddhist objects become fundamentally intercultural objects inseparable from processes by which Buddhism is translated and exchanged in circuits between Asia and the West, between immigrant Tibetans and converts to Buddhism.  This project will illuminate not only the attractiveness of Tibetan Buddhist material culture, but also the broader social and generational shifts from the 1960s to the present which have led to renewed interest in the aura of icons, relics, and sacred sites in other religious traditions such as orthodox forms of Christianity and Hinduism.