Money and Monasteries – a workshop report

October 20, 2017

On 21–22 September 2017, the workshop "Sangha Economies: Temple Organisation and Exchanges in Contemporary Buddhism" was held at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Organisers Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, Christoph Brumann and Beata Świtek, part of the research group "Buddhist Temple Economies in Urban Asia" since 2015, brought together fifteen international speakers from as far apart as Canada and Japan. David Gellner, professor at the University of Oxford and doyen of anthropological research on Buddhism, commented on all papers. This was the first conference to discuss the results of long-term ethnographic field research on the economic life of Buddhist temples, asking how Buddhist monks, nuns, priests, and priestesses deal with money, profit, and capitalism.

The importance of symbolic separation from the market
The research areas ranged from Ladakh (India) in the west to Japan in the east and from Siberia in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. Many speakers observed that even where commercialisation is most advanced, the symbolic separation of Buddhist gifts and donations from ordinary market exchanges remains important. What may look like payments to an outsider is still considered part of a separate sphere by both clergy and laity, and the principle of profit maximisation has only limited applicability in these transactions. It was also interesting to see an increase in charity projects of the sangha, that is, the Buddhist temples and monastic communities. While their relationships with laypeople used to revolve around the receipt of gifts and provision of ritual services, today they increasingly engage in social welfare and development projects, rubbing shoulders with state actors and secular NGOs.
An English-language edited volume with the revised conference contributions is in preparation.

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