Managing enlightenment

Conference at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology on the economic activities of Buddhist monasteries

September 14, 2017

On 21 and 22 September 2017, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology will host the conference "Sangha Economies: Temple Organisation and Exchanges in Contemporary Buddhism". Organised by Christoph Brumann, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, and Beata Świtek, the conference brings together twenty international experts and members of the research group Buddhist Temple Economies in Urban Asia to discuss why and how Buddhist monks engage in diverse economic activities in spite of striving for distance from worldly matters, and how Buddhist communities negotiate this tension.

Monasteries as economic actors
The first Buddhist monks were mendicants with no fixed abode, but over time they settled down and established monasteries that often became home to hundreds or even thousands of monks and nuns. Many of these monastic communities, called sangha, have become significant economic factors. "There is scarcely any other religion in which monasticism plays as large a role as it does in Buddhism", says Prof. Dr. Christoph Brumann, head of the research group on Buddhist temple economies in the Department 'Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia'. "Therefore it is surprising that very little research has been conducted on the economic organisation of Buddhist monasteries. For it goes without saying that monastic communities must engage in diverse economic relations in order to survive."

Economic success and commitment to poverty
Research on Buddhism has to date largely focused on the extensive religious prescripts that regulate the details of worldly existence. For example, monks often own only little private property because Buddhists should not let worldly goods distract them from their most important task – the path to enlightenment. "It is precisely this expectation, even demand, by members of the religious community that they distance themselves from economic activities that makes studying the economy of Buddhism so interesting", says Brumann. "For in addition to accepting donations of the congregation, monks also survive by providing religious services. These include, in particular, burial and memorial rituals – something that is a religious duty for believers." In many places there is a price for the performance of these rituals. "It isn’t something people talk about", explains Brumann. "Nevertheless, everyone knows that the priest is paid for his services. The priests, however, see this payment not as a compensation for a service, but rather as an expression of gratitude for something freely and selflessly offered to lay believers."

Debates about money and prosperity
Brumann and his research group have conducted extensive anthropological field studies in the Tibetan part of China, Mongolia, the Russian republic Buryatia, and Japan to observe how priests and lay believers respond to this contradiction between religious expectations and pragmatic actions, for people can hardly escape noticing the fact that some monasteries and providers of Buddhist services enjoy great economic success. Brumann: "Naturally, some people are displeased by this. And therefore the way that Buddhist communities deal with prosperity and money is a recurring source of controversy." Both clergy and laity must justify the exchange of economic goods and find some way to reconcile this with the monks’ vows. Sometimes they are successful; sometimes not. "In Japan, for example, there was a great furore when a business listed the services of priests on Amazon. Such overt commercialisation violates all expectations about proper clerical behaviour", Brumann explains.

No central organisation
Because of the wide variety of Buddhist lifestyles, it is not possible to identify a generally applicable pattern of economic involvement. The conditions in affluent Japan, where temples are usually managed by a single priest and his family, are completely different than in China or post-socialist countries. "Because there is no central administrative and organisational body comparable to those of many Christian churches, Buddhist communities have developed in very diverse ways over the past 2,500 years. But that is what makes them so interesting for anthropological research", Brumann concludes.

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the department 'Law & Anthropology' in 2012.
Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

PDF of the conference programme

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Christoph Brumann
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-204

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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