Using participant observation and in-depth interviews, Wendy Cadge studied two Theravada Buddhist communities in the United States. The research is unique because the author systematically compares a "convert" community (i.e., a European-American group) with an "immigrant" community (i.e., a Thai-American group). Cadge is especially interested in how Theravada Buddhism is being adapted to the American context.
There are important similarities between the two groups. In both, members are mainly middle- or upper-class women. Both communities are non-residential centers for lay people who want to learn about or practice Buddhism.
The immigrant community is interested in both teaching Buddhism and transmitting Thai culture. Most of the participants are first-generation immigrants from Thailand. The temple is hierarchically organized, although the monks who run the group are more dependent on the laity than are monks in Thailand. Many of the female participants are professionals, and perhaps for this reason have more responsible roles than would be the case for women in Thailand. While in Thailand, rituals are usually arranged in relation to the phases of the moon, the Thai-American group holds regular Sunday meetings. Many of the rituals at the temple are meant for all members. Moreover in many cases whole families come to the temple. Not surprisingly, the members think of themselves as one large group or family.
The immigrant group holds a variety of activities – chanting sessions, meditation classes and such. The monks discourage magical practices such as fortune telling that are common in Thai temples overseas. Lay participants venerate the resident monks, and especially the deceased monk who discovered the type of meditation taught at the temple; some people pray to this monk for help when they are in need. However the main activity is merit making such as by donating food, time or money to the temple. The laity want a better life in their next birth.
The convert community is quite different. It is a lay-led group whose primary activity is practicing mediation; in addition, talks about Buddhist practice occur every Wednesday evening. Many of the members are single. Life is organized around small groups; most members are deeply involved in only one such group. Although the form of Buddhism taught at the center was developed by Theravada monks, participants use practices from various strands of Buddhism. People meditate not to amass merit but to gain nibbana (nirvana) in this lifetime.
The most interesting chapter, for me, concerns Buddhist identity. Many people in the immigrant group have an "ascribed" Buddhist identity, that is, they were taught as children that they were Buddhists, and this identity was accepted without much thought. Interestingly some of these same people have added an "achieved" Buddhist identity; because of exposure to other religions, and in some cases of ethnic intermarriage, these individuals [End Page 1849] examined why they were Buddhists and chose this religious identity. People with achieved identities often separate Buddhism and Thai culture. Cadge found a variety of achieved identities among the people in the convert group. Some thought of themselves as Buddhists, others simply as students of meditation, others as followers of several non-Christian traditions, others as having dual religious identities – as Jewish and Buddhist or Christian and Buddhist, while others did not choose any religious identity.
Cadge uses her findings to criticize Christian Smith's sub-cultural identity theory of religious growth. Smith argues that religions with strong boundaries and a sense of conflict with the larger society will grow. In contrast, Cadge claims that the groups she studied attract people because they are weakly bounded (see pp. 151-2, 164, 240). "It is because of these loose boundaries that Christian Smith's sub-cultural identity theory does not account for the religious growth and strength of these two organizations or of Buddhism in America more broadly." (p. 170)
In a few places, Cadge describes the changes within the Buddhist groups as examples of Americanization. But similar developments are occurring among Buddhists in the United States, other Western countries and in Asia. Modernization theory could have...