Buddhism as a New Form of Identity Narrative in Central Europe. The Case of the Czech Republic

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Buddhism as a New Form of Identity Narrative in Central Europe. The Case of the Czech Republic

Jitka Cirklova


“People are as furiously religious as ever...”

(Berger: 1992)

The main aim of the European Value System Studies (EVS, 1999/2000) was to analyze if the Europeans share common values which have their origins in Christianity. Or do those values change if so, in what directions. What became clear during a large-scale, cross-national empirical survey is the fact that about 20 percent of the population mix Christian beliefs with a belief in some form of reincarnation; two thirds of the population does not believe in a personal god but in some form of impersonal life energy. Another important finding about the transformation of modern culture is that the change is not taking place at the same speed in all cultures, but appears dependent upon the stage of socio-economic development and historical factors specific to a given culture. (EVS :


The picture of the cultural and religious development in the Czech Republic, accord nicely with the above described framework. In the early 90's, in the era of the economic transformation, various religious communities became visible. This form of religious tendencies was defined by Luzny (2001:111), a Czech scholar or religious studies, as a form of spiritual seeking in which were combined religious values with the humanistic ideals. According to his article this situation emerged as a reaction to the forced secularization by the communist regime and reappearance of traditional anti-Catholic tendencies in Czech society.

According to EVS the Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in Europe (see Table 1 and Table 2 for additional illustration of the situation). Additionally to this from 1991 - 1999 the number of people who defined themselves as members of some particular church decreased even more; from 39.4% in 1991 to 33.5% in 1999. Luzny claims that the public interest in spirituality developed in 1990' had decreased and the society returned to the previous secular trends.

What Luzny did not explained in his study are EVS data about growing number of the Czech population who defined themselves as religious without affiliation to some official Church. The number changed 37.4% from 1991 grew to 40.4% in 1999. The focus of my study is explicitly on this growing number Czech society. 

In the previously presented researches on the new religious tendencies in the Czech Republic (conducted by the Center for Research of Sects and New Religious Movements in Prague), the groups defining themselves as Buddhist, were referred only as a form of contemporary fashion or phenomena that will disappear in more stable economic and social situation . Here I am referring to the material published by the Center in the course of 90' for the purposes of education on the issues of dangerous sets. In my previous research, conducted in 1999 (Cirklova: 1999) I was analyzing how are the new religious movements understood, found attractive or not, for Czech high school students.

Fifteen years later the Czech Republic entered EU, the economic and the political situation can be defined as stable and presence of young Czech Buddhists have became permanent feature of the society. Therefore I believe in the necessity to conduct a new research which is reflecting the current situation, addressing the diversifying factors as well as the stabilizing elements in the field of the Anthropology of Religion in Central Europe.

The starting point of my research is the statistical findings and theoretical concepts of identity forming. The focus of my research is on the development of the civil society emerging from the practice of Buddhist religion in Europe. Therefore I am returning to the original question of the European Value Study I would like to also ask what the contemporary forms of the European identity are.

I. Buddhist communities in the Czech Republic; New permanent residents

I would like to narrow focus of my research to a certain group of young Czech adults for which Buddhism became form of lifestyle. This group accepted Buddhism after conducting of certain form of personal journey or development. The acculturation of a distant identity model was for them a form of a personal dissatisfaction with the concepts of identity narrative offered by the local culture. Their identity is therefore a product of a dynamic shaping process. The specific target population for my research is young couples within the Czech Buddhist communities.

The presence of the children born to these couples gives another dimension of my research. As I presuppose, the children are being brought up in a very new set of values than can be defined as European. Their value system, cosmology and worldview has been shaped new narrative (collective as well as personal) which their parents have internalized. The children, born as European citizens and surrounded by Western material culture, inherited the set of values and habit which were originally pronounced by Siddhartha in India four thousand years ago. Their understanding of history and time is not progressive but cyclic, as well as the believe in reincarnation is strongly in contrast with the narrative of salvation, just to mention two of the most basic.

More specifically, the question of my anthropological research is how are the contemporary forms of the religious beliefs transformed between generations? What is the place and role of the Buddhist religious values, emotions and knowledge in the children's education? Is the transmission of the religion in the family gendered; what is the role of the mother and the father in the religious education of their children (Berliner; 2005)? What is the reaction of the children to their religious upbringing? How are they interacting with the non-Buddhist surrounding? Are they further transforming the model of the worldview they parents are offering to them? If yes, in what sense is their understanding to the Buddhism different from their parents? 

1. Situation in the field

      1. a. Specificity of Social and Historical development: from humanistic ideals to religious pluralism

Before starting with the descriptive introduction of the Buddhist communities in the Czech Republic, I have to mention two strong social tendencies that have influenced, and still do, the values respected by the Czech public.

From it independence in 1918 until 1948 when the democratic regime was replaced by communism, the country, and its political and educational system was oriented on France, with emphasis on secularity as an important value. Among others, one reason was to separate national identity from the German model that was oriented around Christian values and mainly from the Austrian Catholicism which grow into a part of an official politic of the Empire. The first Czech president Tomas Garique Masaryk published in 1881 his dissertation (influenced by Durkheim's work) On Suicide as a Contemporary Social Feature. Also the following works, mentioned bellow, are strongly influence by the French model of science, demand of secular society, liberal values etc. He became publicly known; when as a young lawyer, in he 1899 risked his career in a trial against a Jew accused from a ritual murder without any direct evidence. Proving publicly, that the whole case was built on lack of knowledge of the Jewish religion and that the rational empirical investigation was replaced by irrational set of beliefs and anti-Semitism. The event not only influenced the future Czech judicial system, but mainly caused a major shift in public consciousness towards religious tolerance and pluralism. In 1901 Masaryk published book On Humanistic Ideals which had a great influence on shaping of the value system of the young nation. In 1904 came out book on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Consciousness. The book On Humanistic Ideals became part of the national rhetoric ever since; covering broad fields from political discourse, projects charity, academia to the discussions about the role of the Czech peace corps in Yugoslavia. The secular concept of the humanism is unifying elements of the Czech cultural and political scene. 

The second, not less important impact on the shaping of the public consciousness were the public activities of another Czech president and philosopher, Vaclav Havel, who in re-gained democracy focused on continuity of the very same ideals. One of his initiatives during 90' was organizing set of conferences between influential international public figures that belong to different streams of opinions (Forum 2000). Forum 2000 was focused on various aspects of globalization with emphasis on spiritual values and intercultural dialogs. The program continued up to 2004 under the name Bridging Global Gaps on a very communal level. Probably the most publicly known and visited events organized by Havel's foundation were inter-religious dialogs. When the representatives of various denominations were debating together and answering questions of public. In order to demonstrate how the events are presented in media. Following extract of the speech of Jana Silerova, who is the first female Bishop of the Czechoslovakian Hussite Church (Our family:June 2004) shows how is the religious plurality still an important issue in debates about values of the local society.

            ... We have to live openly in our global reality to the

      Personal un-transferable religious experience....without

      Yokes of dogmas, we have to be tolerant to our tradition

      As well as to the other traditions. Young and their children,

      Your children, can somewhere in the world tomorrow

      Fell in love to a Chinese Confucian or to a daughter to

      An African Shaman from Zimbabwe. We have to be prepared,

      .... We have to be tolerant. ...I am sure that Dalai Lama from

      Tibet would be a beloved priest between local mine workers!

      The globalization is also about this. (Our family:June 2004)

The emphasis on religious tolerance and pluralism is a significant part of the national discourse in the Czech Republic. This is the specificity I find considerable to be mention prior to developing any further hypothesis. The attitude in the Czech Republic towards religious values can not be considered as traditionalistic of but rather as traditionally open and pluralistic. Therefore the environment for developing of plurality of religious identities is rather friendly there.

       1. b. Buddhist Communities in the Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic are currently registered fourteen Non-profit Public Foundations/Associations which can be defined as Buddhist. Two new organizations, which established two new Buddhist community centers, were registered during the year 2004. The highest number, (5) of them is located in Prague; the rest are found in the major bigger cities (with population above 50 thousand people). All centers present their activities on their official Internet home pages.

Beside them, a number of similar pages was created by individuals, who also define themselves as Buddhist and either present their own activities (e.g. with some smaller group of friends organize meditation sessions). Or the aim of their Internet presentation is to inform public about Buddhism in general. In my thesis I will not be referring to these individual initiatives as they are highly diverse and it is difficult to evaluate their social impact. What interests me, are the larger associations with regular cultural, social, religious and educational activities that are frequented by stable numbers of members. These centers have an official status of a cultural/community centers and therefore people who visit them are more likely to be defined as those, who decided to internalize the Buddhism as a part of their life.

The key activity of the centers is to organize regular meditation sessions. Nevertheless they are registered and even by some of their members directed as cultural centers, the religious practice of meditation is the central point of their agenda. Another important content of the offered program are lectures by Buddhist monks from abroad or by people who spent time in Buddhist monasteries and are presenting their practical religious experiences. Also the lectures on canonical Buddhist texts are conducted. Other events such as weekend trips, literature publishing, teahouses, concerts and other cultural happening are part of the social life in each of the center.

The Czech Buddhist centers are oriented on the streams of Buddhism: Tibetan, Theravada (Thai, Ceylon or Burmese), Zen (Japanese or Korean) and Mahayana Buddhist tradition. One registered organization presents its focus on Buddhist ritual of Mandala building. Under the description of the official activity is stated: “sand coloring, spilling and sweeping.”

For the purposes of my research I decided to focus on three main streams of Buddhism in the Czech Republic: Tibetan, Theravada and Zen - Japanese. All of the three centers are located in Prague. The reason for my decision is to preserve the equal social reality, economic conditions and the variety of cultural opportunities the capital city offers to its inhabitants. My aim is to ensure similar social conditions, in which the observed interlocutors are living, practicing Buddhism and raising their children.

II. Theoretical concepts of Understanding to the European Religious Forms

      1. Theories of the Shifts in the Western understanding to the religion

Sociologists of religion offer theoretical explanations of the processes and casual relationships behind the changes of the European value systems, which are measured by the inquiries such the EVS presented (Davie:2000, Bellah: 1970). One approach sees that the major changes in the Western understanding of the religion are closely connected to the social changes starting in the late 1960'. Since than we can observe a shift in the view of western spirituality. The spirituality of dwelling was replaced by the spirituality of seeking (Wuthnow 1988:90-120).

The concept of spirituality of dwelling is based on the fundamental model of social order, Emile Durkheim's definition of religion as beliefs and practices, supporting the traditional picture of patriarchal family and traditional model of moral community. Western religion and its habitation spirituality needs places as the Garden of Eden or Promised Land, or in smaller scale a church, a monastery, because those are the places where “God dwells” (Wuthnow 1988:90). From rigid society with strict Christian moral rules which were broadly accepted as the ethic code emerged in sixties another - anti-structural modes of spirituality.

This, in the West extremely popular model, in comparison with the traditional form of spirituality, emphasizes the varied gifts of the individual. Spirituality of seeking pays virtually no attention to the contrast between sacred and profane, but concentrates on mixture of spiritual and rational, ethical and stereological, individual and collective activities whereby the person in modern societies seeks meaning in life.

Another competing theoretical explanation of the shift in the European values connects the current spread of beliefs in the reincarnation with the influences of postmodern literature. The postmodern concept of the world sees the structure of the space as a maze, which has no center, no periphery, no exit, because it is potentially infinite. It can be structured but is never structured definitely. Similar changes can be seen in the postmodern grasping of spirituality (Bignell 2000:81). Biblical narrative has the moment at which a revelation of God's plan for the world occurs; it has time for the apocalypse as the awful destruction of the world and a salvation from time and an access to grace for those who are saved at the Last Judgment. By contrast, postmodern theories of the end of history present this as a perpetually unfinished narrative, since there is no retrospective revelation of the meaning of history, no Last Judgment, and therefore no redemption. This is often offered as one of the possible explanations of the growth of the beliefe in reincarnation among Europeans.

      2. Religious Conversion versus a New Identity Narrative?

I would like to start the following part of the theoretical overview with the reference to Otto's and his inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (Otto: 1923). Following the track he outlined I suppose the religious conversion and the process of the individual/secular identity formation are two interconnected processes and therefore I will present them as such.

Leaving out the aggressive form of religious conversion known under the term brain washing, I will start with two less violent models - rupture and drift (Lofland, Skonvod: 1981). What is understood by a religious conversion is an open, consciousness acceptance of values, concepts and views of some religious groups. Lofland starts with defining pre-conversion conditions as a form of tension the individual suffers from difference between the experienced and lived in reality and his ideals about the World. Also in this stage he/she is confident that the problems can be solved throughout the religion. After undergoing some strong emotional life-experience, referred as the rupture, which can be negative as well as positive one, the individual start to interact with some religious group and further personal religious development follows (Lofland, Skonvod: 1981).

The drift model of conversion can be described as a cumulative change, sometimes-even unconsciousness, and change of identity and of social ties. The direct tendency towards a specific belief is not direct. According to Lofland and Zock (Zock: 2005) the various motives are inter-playing in the conversion process. The first impulse comes from the Intellectual motif, which is connected with the individual and very personal search for the understanding of the world with the help of literature and lectures going and/or attending religious programs. For my survey this motif for the religious conversion can be considered as the most significant one.

The second motif is the mystical experience that has power to change the worldview; the motif is strongly emotional. Other elements inducing religious conversion are defined as an Experimental motif - the potential candidate is slowly taught new cosmology and facts about the religion. The last but not unimportant is the Emotional motif, when the individual accepts a religion of a close person or a friend.

I am not looking for defining which of the above categories can be applied to the cases of the Czech Buddhist. What I am interested in is to observe how the idea of the non-irrational, of the religion, in Otto's terms - the idea of the holy, influenced the rational, particular, choice of accepting Buddhism as a worldview that the young couples in an European country teach to their children.

Based on my preliminary studies of the field (Cirklova: 2001 and 2004) I find necessary to combine the religious conversion theories with the theories about forming of new forms of individual identity, the process that is described as independent on religious beliefs. The above depicted Intellectual motif I found to be very close to the processes conferred below and I don't think it is possible to separate in this case the religious conversion from the process of the new individual identity forming. The members of the Czech Buddhist community rather than as a religious conversion see their affiliation to Buddhism as a form of a personal growth or an intellectual development.

Turner's (1969) theory of liminality and concept of communitas are recognized as an important process in creating of a new form identity. It can be seen also as a form of a rupture transformation. Turner points specially to the contrast between “state” and “transition” and marks three phases of the whole process. The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or groups either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions.

During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the person can be described as a form of alienation; it can be also understand as a period of seeking for a new identity. He or she passes through a cultural sphere that has few or none of the attributes of the past or of the coming state. In the third phase (re-aggregation or reincorporation), the passage is consummated. The individual is in a relatively stable state once again, but his either social status or self-understanding changed from previous one; new personal experiences shaped the newly acquired identity. Among the Buddhist group is the traveling and the direct experience with an Asian Buddhist culture often described as a form of liminal experience.

If I compare Turner's vision of identity as a process of transformation, Simmel ([1918] 1960: 33) saw it as a cumulative process, drift model, where: “Every present moment is determined by the entire previous course of our life; it is the result of all preceding moments.” Georg Simmel argues that life is a cumulative process and calls it: “life as more life”. A life experiences posses' dynamic quality in the stream of an individual's life, pushing on from one content to the next, according to Simmel. This is the basis for his claim that life is a process. The full story of a human life includes not only that I experienced this content, that I was led from this content to that, but also how I came to follow this road. Only when all these blanks are filled in, has, what makes the experience my experience, been specified, argues Simmel. This concept is supported by people, who describe that even prior to their adherence to Buddhism that they were not able to accept the concept of Christian heaven and hell. That somehow, they were always looking for different models of a faith but could not exactly articulate their needs until they somehow found solution in Buddhism.

I see important not to separate the concepts of religious conversion from the theories of the identity forming. Especially in the case where they are largely overlapping as Buddhism is by the Czech followers interpreted very subjectively - sometimes as a religion and sometimes rather as intellectual or cultural concept.

      3. Multiple Religious Belonging; the Bricolage

As I mentioned above, it is necessary the identify variety of rational and other motives involved in creating religious identities of now-days Europe. 

According to Cornille (2003:43) it is no longer exception when people define their religious affiliation as partly or fully Christian and Buddhist. This form of multiple religious belonging became one characteristic feature of our societies. The form of a such individual composition can be defined as a religious bricolage (Levi-Strauss). It is perceived as an individually composed patchwork of values and beliefs, both rational and improvisatory without hierarchical subordination of validity of the particular values.

Thumma (1991) brings evidence that also other, personal factors outside of the religious systems, are contemporarily added to the process of reconstruction of the personal identity (his case study is on reconstruction of religious identity among gay evangelical converts). He acknowledges the occurrence of various individual “alternation” of the particular religious tradition. Dobbelaere (1991) points out that the belief of each individual reflects and incorporates subjective experiences. Their point about the role of the subjectivity and of the individual agency in the process of forming of the religious identity in the Western societies I see as an important theoretical support of my research. Based on their studies, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the Western perception of religion changed radically in the course of the last century. Instead of accepting the doctrines and belief sets that are pronounced by the Church authorities “the mixing of inspiration of diverse religions” became a settled practice. Thumma (1991: 333) shows the practice of “accommodation of discrepant identities” and he understands it as a form of negotiation about ones identity.

And further, referring to Berger and Luckmann (1967) a dynamic process of socialization needs to be included. “Socialization is the process by which the self internalizes social meanings, reinterprets them, and in turn, responds back upon society” (Thumma: 1991:334). Following the suggested paradigm in my survey, I will focus on couples who are “socializing” their religious identity; who are the member of the Czech Buddhist centers, who transmit their religious believes back upon society through the education of their children. 

      4. Buddhism in European Reality

In the concluding part of the literature review I would like to outline the directions and trends in the academic discourse about the relationship between Buddhism and Western societies.

According to Amstutz (1998) since the sixteenth century encounter of Jesuit missionaries with the Japanese Buddhism, there is ongoing stream of comparison of the two religions. Baumann (1998:122) presents the “explosive growth” in the numbers documenting the affiliation to the Buddhism in the Western societies. His numbers are referring to the decade prior to the period I see relevant (because of the democratic changes in the 1990's) for a similar study conducted in Central Europe.

Using the calculations of H. C. Finney, Baumann summarizes that the most of the American Buddhist centers were founded during one decade (from 1970 to 1980). Following the same framework of the development the Australian Buddhists increased from 35,000 in 1981 to 140,000 people in 1991 that are organized in 167 societies. To illustrate the development in Europe Baumann presents the case of England and Germany. In Britain the number grew from seventy four in 1979 to 340 Buddhist institutions in 1997. In Germany in 1975 were located forty Buddhist groups or meditation centers. The number changed to four hundred in 1997. The given statistics support the outcome of the research of the EVSS about the various speeds of the changes and development in the Western value systems. Therefore the mapping of the development in Central Europe during 1990' can be considered as a relevant choice for this part of Europe.

Rothstein (1996: 195) of his empirical survey of the patterns of diffusion of the religious trends claims that the Buddhist religion (among the other) is “re-exported” through the Western countries. That the usual model of transformation is from the Asian country to the United States and only from there to European countries. His theory is also supported by the statistical data presented above. What Kinsley summarizes from Rawlinson (1997:1) is the aspect of “the West's appropriation of Eastern religious tradition through Westerners' direct participation in and leadership of these traditions.” The Eastern religion became modified and combined with the Western values and cultural heritage. Therefore as some scholars of religion suggest the Buddhism in Europe should be rather than the Eastern tradition studied as an element of the Western societies.

As Baumann (1998: 135) concludes in his article Buddhist teaching have proved to be highly adaptable and reflexive under new socio-cultural conditions. As the “essence of Buddhism presented as timeless and universal, will be transferred unchanged.” (Baumann 1998:122). The members of the communities are often arguing that the outcome of their religious affiliation is higher awareness to the ecological and social problems because Buddhism activated their “striving for insight across the stream of suffering.” (ibid: 135). Nakamura (1986: 18) sees the role of the developed self-awareness and positive attitude towards the world as important elements which are attracting Westerners toward Buddhism. This also corresponds with the process of secularization and decreasing role of the official Church authority in West (Tap: 12).

The same author also argues that the current “relatives” situation is also product of changes in the proportion in the awareness of the large concept of humankind and the world as a whole, in comparison with the decreased perception of the importance of the national society. The quoted speech of the Czech bishop is only the practical example of the theoretical concept Tapp outlined.
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