ADI Academic Profiles - Trine Brox and Elizabeth Lane Williams Ørberg

ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Buddism, Business and Believers

The global attractiveness of Buddhism seems to increase year after year. The common trope regarding its relevance in the 21st century emphasises a spiritual lifestyle that rejects materialism in favour of asceticism and meditative practices. It is no wonder, then, the sight of saffron-robed monks wearing fashionable sunglasses and carrying designer bags, or Buddhist monasteries’ display of riches and profit-making activities are interpreted by some as demonstrations of double-standards. These seeming paradoxes are conundrums whose potential as objects of research has received little attention. Trine Brox, associate professor in Modern Tibetan Studies at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, is determined to change this with the international, collaborative research project Buddhism, Business and Believers (the BBB-project).

Together with Elizabeth Lane Williams Ørberg, who is working as a postdoc on the BBB-project, Trine is building a new platform from where to study Contemporary Buddhism from an interdisciplinary perspective: the Center for Contemporary Buddhist Studies. The Center, which is established at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, will bring together researchers and stakeholders who are engaged in understanding contemporary processes that impact the manner in which Buddhism is practiced and understood today. While the Center aims at creating a supportive environment that scholars and others can turn towards and consult with affiliated scholars for expertise and support, the BBB-project is their first priority. The project holds tremendous relevance, which became evident when both The Carlsberg Foundation and The Danish Council for Independent Research showed their support for the idea and subsequently became their main sources of funding.

Trine: Buddhism is often regarded as something that has nothing to do with materialism and capitalism, but there are numerous historical and ethnographic examples of the various ways in which business and Buddhism, wealth and virtue, money and monks are entangled. Of course, Buddhist monasteries need an economic basis in order to serve as spiritual centers and repositories of Buddhist wisdom, and monks must have an economic basis to be able to disengage with the material world. We are interested in how Buddhists have positioned themselves in relation to a capitalistic market economy, both as a critique and as an engagement. But we are also interested in how non-Buddhists utilise Buddhism – be it as a philosophy, as a commodity, and so forth – in novel ways and in new arenas. We know that these many ways in which Buddhism and economy are entwined are complex and historical, but scholars seem to have neglected this aspect or have felt uncomfortable in dealing with these worldly exchanges, which seems to counter the ideals of Buddhism. In any case, Buddhism and business has been an uncomfortable and neglected pair in scholarly research.

Elizabeth: We are trying to break up with the idea of the secularization thesis, that religion is supposed to be removed from the public sphere or other value spheres such as economics, politics, aesthetics and science. What we are trying to do is to analyse how these are not separate spheres; that religion and economics and religion and politics are very much entwined. So we are looking at trajectories of how religion and economics and Buddhism and business have always been and continue to be entwined. And really gaining an emic perspective, to see how the Buddhists themselves engage with economic practices and business practices and whether they experience awkwardness or uncomfortableness. So really taking as a standpoint, as we say “from below” and from an ethnographic perspective.

Because of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of the BBB-project, it has been important to create ties to other academic institutions in order to ensure disciplinary diversity and expertise covering a range of Buddhist traditions and geographies. More than twenty scholars from North America, Europe and Asia are affiliated with the project and will visit the Center for Contemporary Buddhist Studies to discuss their research into Buddhism, business and economics in Tibet, India, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, USA, France, and Denmark. Furthermore, Trine and Elizabeth have set up an advisory board of eminent scholars working on Buddhism and modernity, including scholars from Copenhagen Business School, Aarhus University, University of Adelaide, and Yunnan Minzu University in China.

Trine: We see the study of Contemporary Buddhism as an interdisciplinary field and want to employ tools from economy, religion, anthropology and language-based area studies. Therefore, we have also involved scholars from different disciplines to look at these phenomena. Although we come from different disciplines, there is no problem of translation. We are not only able to find common ground and a mutual language, but also, we hope, to break new ground. I really believe that the meeting of disciplines is a fertile soil for innovative research, and in the BBB-project we especially aim at developing novel theory regarding mediation. We are interested in understanding how Buddhism mediates distinctions between virtue and value, spirituality and materiality, gifts and commodities. For example, how is Buddhism subscribing meaning and value to material objects, like statues or amulets, that consequently are bought and sold in the market place? How does Buddhism act as a mediator through which human relations are endowed with value and meaning?  

The project has received four years of funding, and Trine and Elizabeth can now plan the many activities which will engage scholars internationally. One of the scholars in the core team is Associate Professor Jørn Borup from Aarhus University, whose research in the BBB-project focusses upon the self-identity of Buddhists in pursuit of material wealth in Japan. Another scholar is Associate Professor Alexander Horstmann from University of Copenhagen, who will study the economic empire built around spiritual and material charisma of Buddhist saints in the Burmese-Thai borderlands. Like the rest of the scholars involved in the BBB-project, their previous scholarship deals with issues related to Buddhist modernities. Similarly, Trine’s previous research has challenged ideas of modernity and secularization. For instance Trine has delved into the complexities of Buddhism, secularism and democracy among Tibetan exiles in India, and in a recent article, Tibetan Minzu Market: The Intersection of Ethnicity and Commodity, she has documented the growth and history of a Tibetan commercial street in urban China where Buddhism is a defining characteristic of economic exchanges.

Trine: It has fascinated me how Tibetans and Han Chinese meet in this marketplace and have developed different kinds of exchange relationships there. The market is situated in Chengdu that is a gateway city for Tibetan entrepreneurs seeking material benefits, but conversely also a gateway city for Han Chinese who seek Tibetan Buddhist spirituality. They meet at this particular market to deal with Buddhism and money matters. The market, then, can be seen as a laboratory to investigate the entanglements of Buddhism and business: How are Buddhism or Buddhist-related items being bought and sold as a commodity? How is Buddhism acted upon for economic interests? And how does Buddhism itself act upon economy and economic relations?

Elizabeth is also fascinated by how Buddhism creates fields of opportunities and the ways in which Buddhists use Buddhism as a way to engage with the capitalistic market economy. She is conducting research into the branding of a landscape as Buddhist to generate income from spiritual tourism. This topic is related to the research that she conducted for her PhD dissertation (2014), Young Buddhist: Examining Ladakhi Buddhist Youth Engagements with Migration, Modernity and Morality in India.

Elizabeth: I looked at how these young Buddhists themselves understood Buddhism, and how they were influenced by living in an area undergoing a process of modernization. Part of that has to do with the interaction of tourists who come to the region, which is how many young Ladakhis gain a self-understanding about what it means to be Ladakhi and what it means to be Buddhist. In that way Ladakhis are also using tourism as a main instigator for spurring economic development and raising the income in the area.

Elizabeth and Trine are also looking forward to the study that will be carried out by the PhD-fellow, Marianne Hedegaard, who joined the team in March 2016. Marianne is a trained anthropologist employed on the BBB-project to work three years on a study that is called “Corporate Buddhism – Secularized Buddhist practices and value creation in the corporate world.”

Elizabeth: Marianne will do fieldwork on how corporations utilize spiritual methods and images in their multi-stakeholder management. This is important because we increasingly see companies that are applying Buddhist ideas or have been inspired by ideas that can be traced back to Buddhism. Several Danish companies, including my own work place, that is the University of Copenhagen, employ secularized Buddhist ideas such as Mindfulness, which is a contemporary offshoot of Buddhism. Buddhism comes in various forms – as a philosophy, as a technique, as a source of values and even as a management- or organisational tool – and these in turn have been used to motivate  employees, to attract customers, and to satisfy stakeholders.

Trine: We are not interested in dismissing these new forms that Buddhism have taken as less authentic, but see them as contemporary expressions. Where Buddhism is integrated into marketing strategies, becomes commercialized, guides business-relations, etc., reflect a general positive perception of Buddhist spirituality that we are surrounded with. Just think of Buddha Bars, the Zenphone, or how Macintosh Computers are using the Dalai Lama to promote their products; Buddhism is a brand! It sells! It creates value and meaning to a lot of people, and for commodities, companies, relations and Buddhist themselves. Buddhism is powerful and it changes people and their relationships through its inherent value and the value that it creates.

 By Mads Vesterager Nielsen, February 2016, University of Copenhagen