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From global peace icons like the Dalai Lama, to discourses of anti-materialism and medical studies of the benefits of meditation, Buddhism has garnered a reputation in global popular culture as a 'good' religion. Often, this shining image is couched in an imagining of Buddhism as an "ancient salve" for modern times, free from the degenerate violence, politics, and consumerism of contemporary (often Western) society. Inside academia, work on canonical texts similarly fixes 'true' Buddhism in a long-passed era and diminishes the centrality of transformations in understanding and practice.
For anthropologists, who are methodologically primed to resist reproducing orthodoxy, contemporary Buddhism thus presents a challenge. Some scholars explore divergences as sites of separation between faith and social processes; others, who assert the lived nature of contemporary religion, find themselves writing ethnographies of 'bad Buddhists' and 'bad Buddhism'.
This panel explores how historical imaginings of Buddhism intersect with contemporary ethnographic experience. We invite scholars working in all geographical regions to take points of disconnection between Buddhism's imagining, materiality and sociality as opportunities for re-thinking the anthropology of religion. Particularly, we ask them to consider how their work's engagement with Buddhism's consumerism, violence, or political engagement relates to a 'thing called Buddhism' in both academia and popular culture. How might we view these phenomena as a part of Buddhism, rather than responses to social pressures cloaked in religious symbolism, for efficacy, influence, and popular acceptance? Does speaking of multiple 'Buddhisms' help us? Or can a re-imagined anthropology offer an escape from 'bad Buddhism'?