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Hamilton College

Publication Date

Fall 2016

Program Name

Vietnam: Culture, Social Change, and Development


Through ethnographic research, I plan to examine the institution of Zen Buddhist education. I study how the applied socio-cultural meanings of what it means to be a “Buddhist” affect individual and shared meanings of Zen Buddhism. I focus on how pedagogy and practice of Zen Buddhism influences personal interpretations of Buddhist thought and tradition.

Over the years, many Buddhist scholars have brought to light several methodological issues with the study of Buddhism via examination of the canon. These concerns range from issues of objectivity and intention to interpretation and creativity; while also including other complications regarding politics and power. Scholars also question the role of written text in general due to the multifaceted nature of Buddhism. Critiques of the traditional historical-philological approach towards studying Buddhism suggest studying alternative semiotic forms of oral and vernacular traditions. For this reason, I investigate patterns of students’ personal, ritual, social and institutional interaction with Zen Buddhism, as well as their evolution within the monastic order.

For the purpose of this study, curriculum should be thought of not as the physical texts, but rather the flow of knowledge among Zen educators and practitioners. Though many of the ancient texts are treated as intellectual history, Buddhism itself is composed of the living interaction between the text and the students’ learned interpretation of the religion. Monastic students and teachers should therefore be thought of as scholars and practitioners who are constantly seeking knowledge of Buddhism, rather than those who possess it. Monastic education reveals that Zen Buddhism should be studied not as an object with particular features, but as a series of integrated processes which aid its practitioners in mastering their minds and thoughts to attain the peaceful natural state of the Buddha, or the True Mind.

Buddhism, in practice, is a production of the learned interpretations of a student. This definition allows for a more full bodied examination of the Buddhist religion, since it is a practice based heavily on subjective analysis; students negotiate meaning within the context of lived experience. In Buddhism, tradition and pedological methodology are adaptive; they reflect the trajectory of one’s interpretive process. Referring to oneself as a ‘Buddhist’ is primarily a function of the individual’s conception of Buddhism. As this conception develops, so too does the user’s practice and holistic experience of the Buddhism as a mode of being, as well as his/her conception of what it means to ‘be’ Buddhist.

I choose to conduct ethnographic research at Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm supplemented with in-depth interviews of the nuns and monks who practice there due to the nature of Buddhism; this decision is founded on the expectation that meaning, for Zen Buddhists, is produced on the local level in contextual circumstances. Local production of meaning is crucial for the study of Zen Buddhism, and this paper, since it reveals the interaction between the Dharma and its students; thus connecting the real life and practice of Zen Buddhist practitioners to the institution’s theoretical teachings.


Anthropology | Arts and Humanities | Asian Studies | Community-Based Research | Family, Life Course, and Society | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology of Religion



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