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East-Asian Buddhism in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BUDDHISMAFRICA (East-Asian Buddhism in Post-Apartheid South Africa)

Reporting period: 2018-06-01 to 2020-05-31

The research project BUDDHISMAFRICA was aimed to analyze the shape and scope of East Asian Buddhism in South Africa with a focus on the post-apartheid period. The theoretical framework for this research was developed against a background of expanding interest in globalization and culture at the international level, with an increasing amount of scholarship insisting on the dramatic changes in the communications media and transnational mobility and their effect on global exchanges of ideas and culture. The project was timely not only for this reason, but also because the study of Buddhism in the South African context was, and still is after about three years, a minor field, with publications on this topic mostly focusing on general views of Buddhism and its history in the country. Against this background, the research project envisioned three main research objectives: 1) The analysis of the trajectory of East Asian Buddhism in South Africa with a focus on the post-apartheid period (that is, since 1994), in order to determine the forms and extent of its hybridization at the organizational and individual level; 2) the investigation of the degree in which East Asian Buddhism has been able, or willing, to reach out to black people, and to provide them with maps to navigate, as well as deconstruct/subvert, race and cultural identity; and 3) the clarification of the impact of informal spiritualities related to East Asian Buddhism on the South African religious context, with attention on the extent to which Buddhist spirituality has been acknowledged as a religious “brand.”
By focusing on these research objectives, the project was aimed to shed light on issues that are very relevant for a better understanding of Buddhism overseas and minority religions in the South African context. In particular, it aimed to explore adaptations that might have been sought for by East Asian Buddhism to meet the needs of the South African socioeconomic fabric, with a specific focus on institutional practices and policies, rituals, and everyday practices of the members of the religious groups; if and in which ways Buddhist doctrinal interpretations of issues of social justice and human rights elaborated in East Asia and elsewhere (e.g. within the context of Engaged Buddhism) have been applied to the new context, and what kind of local adaptations they have undergone; the attitude of these Buddhist groups toward social inequalities that are still prominent in the country especially among previously segregated groups; the social welfare activities promoted by East Asian Buddhist groups and their impact upon the lives of South African disadvantaged groups; the legacy of past forms of social activism in present-day East Asian Buddhist groups; and the role of women in the doctrines, religious and social practices of these East Asian Buddhist religious groups, their attitudes toward LGBT communities, and the interplay of East Asian and local religious views of gender.
The research objectives have been addressed in five different phases: 1) preparatory work at Cardiff University; 2) first phase of fieldwork in South Africa; 3) mid-term review at Cardiff University; 4) second phase of fieldwork in South Africa; and 5) the thorough analysis of the fieldwork data at Cardiff University. The research results have shed light on the activities of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in South Africa, which a has been able to reach out to a significant number of black, and, to a lesser extent, Coloured and Indian/Asian members, thus contributing to the understanding of Buddhism’s interplay with a broader cross-section of post-apartheid South African society, and, secondarily, adding to the existing literature on this Buddhism-based Japanese new religious movement overseas. My analysis has focused on SGI South Africa’s main ritual, social, and missionary activities; its interplay with local religions; its attempts to establish a meaningful link with South African culture; and, finally, on the main themes emerging from the narratives of SGI’s South African members. Moreover, I have approached comparatively three major forms of East Asian Buddhism operating in the country: The Dharma Centre (Korean Sŏn), the aforementioned Soka Gakkai International (Nichiren Buddhism), and Foguangshan (Chinese Pure Land and Chan Buddhism). Besides providing a detailed analysis of these forms of East-Asian Buddhism in the country, through a comparative approach I tested the applicability of six themes that according to the authority in the study of Buddhism in Africa, Michel Clasquin-Johnson, underlie the development of the mainstream middle-class ‘Western Buddhism’ found in South Africa: lay practice, gender equality, adhesion to democratic principles, impact of Western psychology, social engagement, and creation of a nonsectarian tradition. In addition, I explored four more topics for the comparative study of Buddhism in South Africa: interactions with local religions, proselytization, hybridization, and the promise of worldly benefits.
The main research outputs of my research on East Asian Buddhism in South Africa are two articles currently under review by academic journals
Dessì, Ugo. “Soka Gakkai International in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” (under review).
Dessì, Ugo “Trajectories of East Asian Buddhism in South Africa: A Comparative Perspective.” (under review).
Moreover, the observations and theoretical/comparative reflections during this research have greatle contributed to a monograph that I published in 2019 with the Italian academic publisher Carocci:
Dessì, Ugo. Religioni e globalizzazione. Un’introduzione [Religions and Globalization: An Introduction]. Rome: Carocci editore, 2019.
I have disseminated the research results also through participation in several conferences and invited lectures in South Africa and the United Kingdom during the fellowship:
“Religions and Globalization.” Invited lecture, NIRC (Network of Italian Researchers in the Cape), Cape Town (October 11, 2019).
“Chinese and Japanese Buddhism in South Africa: A Comparative Approach.” Invited lecture, University of Cape Town (September 25, 2019).
“East-Asian Buddhism in South Africa: Some Preliminary Observations on Three Case Studies.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa (ASRSA), University of South Africa, Pretoria (September 4-5, 2019).
“Some observations on Foguangshan in South Africa.” Invited lecture at the Conference “Humanistic Buddhism,” Cardiff University (May 24-25, 2019).
My research has provided for the first time a detailed ethnographic account of Buddhist groups in South Africa, which adds to the small number of existing publications on this topic mostly focusing on general views of Buddhism and its history in the country. Another innovative aspect of my project is the way it has framed the research in terms of the broader study of globalization and culture. Moreover, with my research I have provided un unprecedented comparative study of Buddhism in South Africa. It is expected that all this will have a meaningful impact on the way the study of Buddhism in South Africa, and possibly Africa, will be conducted in the future, with more attention to qualitative research, fieldwork, interdisciplinary approaches and comparative agendas which are still underdeveloped in this subfield of studies.