Monday, July 13, 2009
Land of Beautiful Vision: Making a Buddhist Sacred Place in New Zealand
Land of Beautiful Vision is the first book-length ethnography to address the role of material culture in contemporary adaptations of Buddhism and the first to focus on convert Buddhists in New Zealand. Sally McAra takes as her subject a fascinating instance of an ongoing creative process whereby a global religion is made locally meaningful through the construction of a Buddhist sacred place. She uses an in-depth case study of a small religious structure, a stupa, in rural New Zealand to explore larger issues related to the contemporary surge in interest in Buddhism and religious globalization. Her research extends beyond the level of public discourse on Buddhism to investigate narratives of members of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) about their relationship with the land, analyzing these and the FWBO's transformative project through a thematic focus on key symbolic landmarks at their site, Sudarshanaloka. In considering cross-cultural interactions resulting in syncretism or indigenization of alien religions, many anthropological studies concentrate on the unequal power relations between colonizing and colonized peoples. McAra extrapolates from this literature to look at a situation where the underlying power relations are quite different. She focuses on individuals in an organization whose members seek to appropriate knowledge from an "Eastern" tradition to remake their own society--one shaped by its unresolved colonizing past. In its exploration of the role of three key symbolic markers of relationship between the community, its motivating ideals, and the land it occupies, Land of Beautiful Vision brings together the diverse themes of land, colonization, environment, and the relationship between Buddhism and indigenous spiritual entities. It contributes to material culture studies, landscape studies, religious studies, and anthropology of religion. In exploring the domestication of Buddhism in a new cultural setting, it will be of interest to anyone wanting to understand the rise of Buddhism in new sociocultural settings. It will also be of interest to scholars and students of cross-cultural religious translation and settler societies.