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Last Updated September 10, 2002

McAra, Sally A. (2000). "The Land of the Stupa and Sacred Puriri": Creating Buddhism in the Tararu Valley, New Zealand. Department of Anthropology. The University of Auckland; 133pp; 9 plates

Anthropological studies of religion have for a long time focussed on small-scale societies, the cultural Other of Western imaginings. In considering cross-cultural interactions resulting in syncretism or indigenisation of alien religions, recent studies have focussed on the unequal power relations between colonising and colonised peoples. Attempting to avoid portraying the colonised simply as victims, anthropologists have highlighted the ways that indigenous peoples appropriated the Christianity imposed on them, converting it into expressions of cultural resilience. By way of contrast, this work focuses on Westerners who seek to appropriate knowledge from an "Eastern" tradition in order to create an alternative society within their own region, highlighting the ways that the "West" is no more of a unitary whole than the Other. Members of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) draw on various cultural expressions to transform their property into what they call a "spiritual home". Their adoption of alien knowledge can be read as a critique of their wider socio-cultural situation, especially what they see as Western society's characteristic alienation from the Truth, and its consequent spiritual lacunae.

FWBO members deploy discourses of transformation and personal growth, a feature of parts of Western society concerned with the project of the self (Bell 1996, cf. Mellor 1991). Key individuals involved in this New Zealand case study consciously make use of narratives about what they call the "mythic dimension", and about the linked transformation of self, society and land. In particular, I investigate members' narratives about their transformative relationship with the land. I analyse these discourses and the FWBO's transformative project through a thematic focus on several key landmarks at Sudarshanaloka, as well as the place itself, to "think with" about their Buddhist project in general, and their specific relationship with the land. An old kauri log is a relic from a bygone era of destructive milling and mining, while an old puriri tree passes through several re-definitions, first as a Buddhist shrine and then as a "pagan" one. A devotional monument known as a "stupa" is seen to act as a bridge, enabling people to relate to the inconceivable Buddhist ideal of Enlightenment. In its central place in FWBO discourse, the stupa also highlights the ways in which members act to create a particularly New Zealand identity within the global FWBO movement.

In their use of both "native" FWBO and "alien" knowledge, they engage in a bricolagic creation of a Buddhist environment and community. Through these practices, members are inventing a Buddhist "sacred place" while creating themselves as a community.


Buddhism in New Zealand; Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO);
syncretism; material culture; place; stupas; Western Buddhism

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