Religion in Consumer Society – University of Copenhagen

ADI Conference 2018 > Panels > Religion in Consumer S...

10th Annual International ADI Conference
Asian Dynamics Initiative, University of Copenhagen
18-20 June 2018    


Religion in Consumer Society: Perspectives from Asia

Conveners: Trine Brox, Jane Caple and Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg, Dept. of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

Over the past three decades, we have witnessed astonishing economic growth and the emergence of new markets and cultures of consumption across Asia. Rather than being eclipsed by such ‘late modern’ transformations, traditional and new forms of religion are intertwined with contemporary consumer cultures. Entailing the mediation of “various areas of social life … through market relations in the form of the consumption of commodities,” a consumer culture is one in which “marketization, commoditization, advertisement and branding are fundamental processes” (Gauthier and Martikainen 2013: 3). These processes coalesce in the growth of commercialized religion. This includes the sale for profit of: (i) experiences, such as meditation courses and pilgrimage tourism; (ii) messages, including mediatized religious teachings in the form of books, games, and audio-visual recordings; and (iii) things: material objects such as statues and icons that can function as both a decoration and recipient of offerings. Such religious commerce is certainly nothing new, but the scale and scope is. Mass-production enables an endless supply of a variety of religious products and services that are accessible and affordable to consumers far beyond historical religious and economic networks.

This interdisciplinary panel seeks to bring together scholars working on religion in Asia’s contemporary consumer societies, spanning a range of regions and including both rural and urban contexts. Avoiding normative approaches to consumption and commodification, papers will draw on original empirical research to consider themes such as:

  • The impact of consumer society on the rituals, identities, material cultures, traditions, values, ethics, world-views, ways of life, philosophies, sciences, even the secularisms associated with different religions in Asia;
  • The new forms that symbols, objects, teachings and practices assume as they are mass-produced, packaged and marketed for consumption and/or made into profitable businesses;
  • The analytical gains and limitations of using economic terminology in the study of contemporary religions.

18 June 2018

Religion in Consumer Society: Perspectives from Asia

Room: 35.0.12

13:15-15:15 Veg or non-veg? On Fieldwork and Food in India
Johan Fischer, Roskilde University
Marketing and consumption of Buddhism at tourist destinations in Ladakh, India
Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg, University of Copenhagen
Between Buddhist discipline and body economy: Commercialized kung-fu of the Shaolin temple in contemporary China
Lufeng Xu, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales
Buddhist Temples of the Future and an Invention of a Temple Community in Contemporary Japan
Paulina Kolata, The University of Manchester
15:15-15:30 Break
15:30-17:30 Commercialized Karma: Abortion Rituals in Taiwan
Grace Cheng-Ying Lin, John Abbott College
The multivalence of Buddhist power objects as commodities
Trine Brox, University of Copenhagen
From Accumulating Merits to Purchasing Graces: A Transfer or Rebound of Devotional Patterns
Junfu Wong, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Merit-making and Puer Tea Economy in a Theravada Buddhist Bulang Community
Zhen Ma, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
17:30- Reception


Johan Fischer,
Associate Professor, Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark

Veg or non-veg? On Fieldwork and Food in India
In 2011 the Indian state made it mandatory that all processed foods and drinks must bear green or brown marks. Green marks show that products are vegetarian and brown marks they are non-vegetarian. Even if the concept of ahimsa (noninjury to all living creatures) is integral to Hinduism India is one of the world’s largest exporters of meat and meat is widely consumed among Hindu groups. India’s Prime Minister since 2014 from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a strict vegetarian and promotes vegetarianism as a national project. After coming to power Modi decreed that all dietary supplements, care products and cosmetics should also be labelled as either green or brown. I argue that the complex and changing relationship between the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian in modern India is not well understood and that we need to unpack these in the interfaces between state/politics, markets and consumers. Hindu food and drink practices among divergent class and caste groups have always been contentious in India, but now the country finds itself at the interface of three major transformations that are fundamentally reshaping conventional forms of vegetarianism: Hinduization (promotion of Hinduism) of state and society; an increasing number of businesses that are involved in and must comply with rising vegetarian forms of regulation; and the emergence of a new Hindu middle class of about 300 million consumers. Building on ethnographic fieldwork in Hyderabad, Telangana, this project examines ways in which the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian are understood, practiced and contested in contemporary India.

Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg, Postdoctoral research scholar, Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

Marketing and consumption of Buddhism at tourist destinations in Ladakh, India
Since the Northwest Indian borderland region of Ladakh officially opened its doors to tourism in 1974, increasing numbers of tourists come to visit this region renowned as ‘Little Tibet’. Images of colorful monasteries perched on arid mountain tops and maroon-clad youthful monks are found in most if not all tourism marketing material, including websites, brochures, guidebooks and travel blogs. As one travel agent explained about the images in his tourism brochures, “If you take away the monks and the monasteries there is nothing left!” emphasizing the prominence and importance of Buddhism as the main brand and marketing strategy for Ladakh. Throughout my paper I take a closer look at how Buddhism is marketed and consumed within the growing and pervasive tourism industry in Leh, Ladakh. Based on in-depth ethnographic research among tourism operators and officials, Buddhist leaders and monks, domestic and foreign tourists, I highlight the complex social relations entangled in this Buddhism-based consumer society.  As Ladakh is not only Buddhist but has a predominant Muslim population, I consider the impact of Buddhist marketing strategies on Buddhist-Muslim relationships. And when the Leh marketplace is filled with an overwhelming presence of Buddhist-related goods sold as souvenirs, how do Ladakhis relate to the commodification and sale of these Buddhist commodities? Since Buddhism has become established as a tourism brand that “sells”, I take a close look at how this impacts Buddhist relations, practices and understandings, especially when Buddhist entrepreneurs, including monks, sell Buddhist commodities primarily for profit. I argue that within this Buddhist consumer market, a complex value regime emerges which challenges predominant assumptions about religion in the consumer society.

Lufeng Xu,
PhD Candidate, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris, France

Between Buddhist discipline and body economy: Commercialized kung-fu of the Shaolin temple in contemporary China
The Shaolin temple in Henan province of China, dating back to the 6th century, is not only the main temple of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist school, but also the birthplace of Chinese martial arts (kung-fu). Although a significant percent of the buildings was burned at the beginning of the 20th century due to the engagement of warlords’ conflicts, the Shaolin temple has been rebuilt since the 1980s after the success of a series of films by the name of Shaolin, resulting in a great mass fervour of kung-fu. Based on the reform and opening-up policy in the 1990s, the local government of Henan province decided to develop the tourist and cultural industries by taking advantage of the historical and traditional resources of the Shaolin temple, especially the kung-fu economy. To accommodate the market economy, the Shaolin temple, supported by the local government, founded a company in 1998 to manage different subsidiary corporations, including kung-fu schools, tea company, vegetarian food company and Buddhist pharmacy. Since the 21st century, the Shaolin temple has expanded its influence all over the world by establishing the Shaolin cultural centres in the Europe and North America. In 2015, it was reported that the Shaolin temple had even purchased a tract of land in Australia to set up a branch temple. But these business affairs, more and more common in Chinese Buddhism, have caused many disputes about the contravention of the traditional Buddhist discipline: The Shaolin temple is considered as profane enterprise rather than sacred temple, and its Buddhist abbot, Shi Yongxin, is derided as “Shaolin CEO”. This paper, by analysing the reconstruction and globalisation of Shaolin Buddhist temple in last three decades, aims to reveal the moral and economic dimensions of Chinese Buddhism in the consumer society of contemporary China.

Paulina Kolata,
PhD candidate, The University of Manchester

Buddhist Temples of the Future and an Invention of a Temple Community in Contemporary Japan
This paper explores an impact of commercial and market-driven narratives on Buddhist temple activities and religious networks of sociality based on kinship and death-related practices. I present a case study of a Buddhist temple consultancy firm set up by Matsumoto Shōkei, an ordained priest in the Jōdo Shinshū school of Japanese Buddhism. Through his activities, Matsumoto advocates transformation of Buddhist temples into spaces of communal unity. Through professional training workshops he advocates investing in activities focused on well-being, tourism and entertainment. Matsumoto, a Buddhist priests without a temple background and a family temple to inherit, launched his company, O-tera no mirai (‘Future of (a) temple(s)’), in order to develop an educational programme aimed at other Buddhist priests whose temples are facing financial precarity, especially those in the rural areas. It is a case of an “experimental” (Nelson 2014) Buddhist venture that endorses the concept of o-tera zukuri (‘creating a temple’), a flagship slogan of his consultancy that represents an idea of developing a community centred on a Buddhist temple as a place of belonging.

Matsumoto’s company presents a fascinating case of capitalising on the economic and religious anxiety of Buddhist priests concerned with the survival of their temples. However, it also endorses an alternative solution (and, for many, an exciting prospect) of asserting Buddhism’s relevance by tapping into economically rich consumer culture. The recipients of this commercial benevolence are Buddhist priests and secular members of the public alike. “Experimentalism” of Matsumoto’s approach to revitalising Buddhism is not novel (Nelson 2013; Ueda 2009), but the scope of his agenda is worth exploring. Matsumoto’s activities do not represent a survivalist effort of an individual priest in a specific geographical location. His consultancy programme mobilises groups of priests and their family members across geographical, sectarian and socio-economic spectrum on Buddhist priests. To explore the meaning and influence of his activities, I draw on ethnographic data collected during two periods of fieldwork in Japan in 2016-2017; and, I contextualise interviews and participant observations with an analysis of printed and online sources (including the O-tera no mirai educational materials).

Grace Cheng-Ying Lin,
Departments of Humanities, Philosophy and Religion, John Abbott College, Canada

Commercialized Karma: Abortion Rituals in Taiwan
This paper presents an ethnographical study of abortion rituals in Taiwan. The ritual has been part of the evolution of local religious discourses and institutions since the 1970s. Within this context, abortion is seen as an inappropriate means of ending a life. The aborted fetus spirits, called Yingling, are believed to wander the world of the living or the dead (the underworld) and need to be released from their attachments so that their parents’ karma is reduced. Women who have abortions can seek redemption by sponsoring and participating in the ritual. This paper demonstrates how the ritual flourishes through religious institutions’ commercialization strategies, including commoditization of ritual objects and services, as well as marketing and branding via media. Furthermore, a detailed symbolic analysis of the ritual process reveals how its consumerist logic renders the rite of passage customized and meaningful. Abortion rituals have been denounced as heterodox products of male dominance and religious manipulation by some religious scholars, priests and feminist activists in Taiwan. Nonetheless, at the same time, as this case study shows, the ritual also serves as an opportunity which assisted the participants in coping with difficulties and conflicts in life. Furthermore, along with the growing demand and supply, the ritual actualized a new image of the fetus, formulated a new post-abortion routine, and shaped a new sense of identity.

Trine Brox, Associate Professor, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

The multivalence of Buddhist power objects as commodities
The paper will discuss the concept of value in the context of religious materiality and commodification by following the life trajectories of a Buddhist power object in which it is idealised, produced, distributed, consumed, and retired.

In Tibetan Buddhism, especially valuable Buddhist material objects can be placed high in an object hierarchy based upon a valuation of that which we can call power, efficacy, magic, aura, or “...something else, which, for the lack of a better term, we have been calling ‘sacred.’” (Rambelli 2007: 264). They are objects that hold special promises relating to this “something else.” Some objects even promise enlightenment if one interacts with them in particular ways during the various phases of their life. The aura, efficacy and integrity of such objects, I argue, are the result of a complex balance involving production protocol, ritual action and faith labour, among others. But what happens to the value of a Buddhist power object when processes of commodification corrode one of these elements of the balance, making us doubt the object’s integrity? For example, when the mass-production and packaging of a Buddhist power object as a commodity make us suspect that the product cannot live up to the promises of efficacy that we under other circumstances connect to it? Or when we believe that the production conditions speeds up the velocity of an object’s wear so that the Buddhist power object actually breaks down – what is the value of the object then?

The paper is based on research conducted in China, India and Denmark. I have talked with people involved in the production, dissemination, sacralization, and consumption of Buddhist material objects, ranging from producers, marketers and ritual specialists to consumers in order to understand how they negotiate the value of Buddhist power objects.

Junfu Wong, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

From Accumulating Merits to Purchasing Graces: A Transfer or Rebound of Devotional Patterns
Archeological discoveries have suggested that the early transmission of various religions was started from the small beginnings, portable items such as rings or coins on which the prototype of divine icons was engraved. Larger figures which have later preoccupied the religious landscape were only reproduced based on these templates. After fading out from the mainstream of religious practices, beginning in the twentieth century, these minuscule religious products seem to have witnessed a new revival in quantities. For example, the prevalence of spirit tablets and sacred copies in some Asian countries fully articulated this new phenomenon. Nevertheless, what are the turning points that lead to this revival? From a preliminary concern, ever since the immense impact of consumerism imposed upon the modern society, the religious patterns of ordinary people have presented a new tendency of fast consumption. Correspondingly, the traditional way of practicing devotion changed from a daily liturgical behavior to an instant consumption phenomenon, from the context of accumulating merits to purchasing graces. Nevertheless, due to this post modernity turn, it provided the place for the revival of the small, affordable religious products. Following this line of interpretation, this paper attempts to reconsider the new devotional patterns of portable products as both a transfer and rebound to the conventional practices but within the framework consumerist ideology. It tries to contend that the revival, though owes to the change of consumption patterns, is an intermediate way of being religious without restraints. Since economic aspect is always a crucial but overlooked factor influencing the scale of these practices, therefore, by taking it into account, this paper further expects to give an overview of devotional patterns in relation to the economic circumstances.

Zhen Ma,  Postdoctoral Researcher, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany

Merit-making and Puer Tea Economy in a Theravada Buddhist Bulang Community
Based on in-depth fieldwork, this article examines the Theravada Buddhist practices of Bulang people in relation to the rapid development of a market economy in southern Yunnan, Southwest China. Tracing the anthropological understanding of Theravsada Buddhism in Southeast Asia and Southwest China, this article analyses the relationship between the risk and uncertainly of the modern market and Theravada Buddhist beliefs by focusing on the concept of merit and practices of merit-making in a Bulang village. I argue, first, that making merit is not only a religious preparation for a better rebirth, but also a protection for the present; Second, making merit by donation has made money become a transcendent power in religious practices; Third, the linkage between economy and merit making has become the driving force for both commercial and religious acts in the market oriented Theravada Buddhist community.