Crafting a Buddhist public: urban Buddhism and youth aspirations in late-socialist Vietnam
Nguyen, Dat Manh
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This dissertation examines the recent proliferation of Buddhist youth programs and of youth participation in Buddhism in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Drawing on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork from 2016 to 2019, as well as in-depth interviews with Buddhist monastics, lay Buddhist youth, and educators, the dissertation investigates the collaborative endeavors between monastics and youth to develop a new modernist and youth-oriented Buddhism in response to young people’s social and emotional needs under the influence of urbanization, late-socialist economic growth, and cultural globalization. The dissertation provides a case study of the Temple of Wisdom (a pseudonym), one of the most prominent Buddhist temples that has pioneered the creation of Buddhist youth programs. The dissertation is divided into three key ethnographic chapters that examine the central components of the youth-oriented Buddhism: the creation of a new lay Buddhist educational curriculum with the incorporation of innovative media technology and pedagogies; the popularization of mindfulness meditation; and the construction of ethical citizenship through Buddhist volunteering activities. In developing these programs, monastics and lay youth are constructing an emerging, middle-class Vietnamese Buddhist public. The study shows that participants in this Buddhist public reformulate what constitutes “Vietnamese” Buddhist piety and community by fashioning a new generation of self-reflexive, (aspirational) middle-class lay Buddhists who actively contribute to the growing influence of Buddhist practices and discourses in Vietnam’s emergent public ethics. In approaching the crafting of the Buddhist public as a collaboration between monastics and youth, my dissertation reconsiders the dichotomy between modernist/institutional and devotional/popular Buddhism in Vietnam. It contributes to scholarly conversations on public religion and secularism in late-socialist contexts by illuminating how Buddhist actors navigate the complex entanglements between Buddhist ethics and market socialism. The dissertation shows that such processes of ethical coordination not only reshape the role of Buddhism in public ideals of social well-being and national culture, but also impact Buddhist youth’s endeavors at ethical self-cultivation. By highlighting youth experiences, it demonstrates that religion is playing an increasingly important role in the lives of Vietnamese youth, as young Vietnamese draw on religious ethics in their striving towards socio-economic mobility and well-being.