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Buddhism in Britain, Part One: Encountering British Buddhists through sociology and ethnography

From the creation of Buddhist Studies in colonial India to mindfulness meditation in Liverpool, “Buddhism in Britain” is a four-part series that brings the expertise of Dr. Caroline Starkey to a discussion about the encounter between Buddhism and British converts. Caroline is a sociologist of religion and associate professor of Religion and Society at the University of Leeds.

In this introductory piece, we take a look at Caroline’s ethnographic world and how her interests have shaped her present scholarship. Then the next three entries will address the British imperial encounter with Buddhist Asia, the Chinese Buddhist experience in the context of the formal end of the British Empire with the Hong Kong handover, and Britain’s place in contemporary Buddhist trends, from secular mindfulness to class-based issues that affect British Buddhists today.

Buddhica Britannica

Mention the discipline of Buddhist Studies, and the mind tends to conjure images of philologists agonizing over the root cognate of a single word or passage, archaeologists travelling around historical Buddhist regions, or digitizing artifacts and texts with cutting-edge technology at the British Library—this final aspect of Buddhist or Silk Road Studies being particularly prominent with all the milestones achieved by the International Dunhuang Programme at the BL. But there is a critical component of Buddhist Studies that is getting overdue attention and respect: talking to the living communities that constitute the sangha today, including in the West.

There is a significant historical interface between the United Kingdom and Buddhism, especially in the context of empire, the creation of Buddhist Studies itself, and the long legacy of postcolonialism. These components are important parts of understanding Buddhism and modernity, and the Buddhist diffusion’s 21st-century role in post-industrial, late-stage capitalist society.

Dr. Caroline Starkey. From the University of Leeds

As a scholar of sociology and communities at the University of Leeds, Dr. Caroline Starkey is particularly well-positioned to discuss the history and present context of Buddhists in Britain. As a sociologist, Starkey’s work is inherently interdisciplinary, with an interest in not just practicing communities but also the Chinese diaspora in Britain, women, and other marginal communities. She has published numerous academic articles on gender and ordination matters in contemporary British Buddhism, with a sympathetic but rigorous eye on narratives of British converts and their experience of religious belonging in the UK today. She conducted the first national survey of Buddhist and Jain buildings in England. And in 2019, she published with Routledge Women in British Buddhism: Commitment, Connection, Community.

Being inside and outside simultaneously

Starkey is a trustee of her local Buddhist organization, a Tibetan practice center, although she feels closer to the Theravada practices of meditation and mindfulness. She has faced the same question that many academics in Buddhist Studies have to answer: is there any separating her religious, Buddhist identity from that of her professional, scholar identity? She would be inclined to say no, since “bracketing oneself out” of one’s own horizons is itself based on a set of cultural and academic assumptions rather than transcending such limitations.

“It’s not actually possible for me to do so—or at least, it’s not authentic,” she says. “And that’s fine if you are willing to investigate how that pans out for you as a scholar and as a practitioner. There will always be tensions, particularly because you have to do quite a bit of work for yourself when it comes to figuring out what your skin in the game is.” And sometimes, even independent-minded and critical scholars—especially ethnographers and sociologists—end up befriending people, often those that they talk to for their research, and earn trust and take pride in said trust, so Starkey concedes that sometimes it does feel like there is an instinct to protect something or someone. “I always want to make sure when I’m doing research that people know I’m a researcher. Sometimes such transparency is really hard. You must negotiate on a project-to-project basis.”

Starkey has intimate knowledge of being an insider, and it has its advantages, especially when it comes to access. “It has been long discussed, and it’s a really productive discussion, especially since it has been so influential in studies like feminist theory. But it has also been called an overused binary and she agrees insofar that there is always room for more nuance, more layers to the story. Starkey herself has been “inside” and “outside” at different times in her life and career.

Women in British Buddhism: Commitment, Connection, Community. From Routledge

“I was born in Manila and grew up all around Asia, and I spent a lot of time travelling in Thailand, where my father still lives. I lived in Hong Kong and Singapore. I grew up surrounded by Buddhist and Daoist practices as ‘public’ practice, and I particularly loved cleaning shrines and the ‘common’ face of this practice. This wasn’t superstitious for me, as it is commonly criticized. It was real,” she recalls. Her attraction to the hungry ghost ceremony and the idea of appeasing the gods and appropriating the spirits accentuates her lifelong attraction to the supernatural. “I remember the first Buddhist funeral I went to. It was so loud, mournful, and ritualized, and I loved it. I’m still very attracted to spirit-oriented practices.”

She came back to Cambridge when she was 17 and began exploring Buddhism in her early twenties. Part of it, she says, was a desire to get back to the religion that surrounded her in childhood. But Buddhism was so “meditation-based” that she almost felt something akin to culture shock. “I nearly had never conceived of Buddhism as being centered on that since that was just now how I’d experienced it in Asia! It was much more about ‘doing’ and dana. And importantly, it was more individual-focused. And I’m not very good at meditation, either, though I try!”   

The rank and file

Starkey was “transplanted” from Asian spaces that she considered home into a Britain where the Buddhism practiced initially felt as foreign as it might for any newly immigrated Asian. “This is where the scholar and person are one and the same, observing something yet part of it. I find the classification of Buddhism in this country to be often class-based and intellectually-based. Of course, these categories are and should be fluid, but there is a pervasive yet heavily flawed distinction between ‘proper’ Buddhism and ‘folk’ Buddhism.” Many scholars agree that this binary is heavily problematic—and we will explore how this distinction came to be historically.

Starkey is fundamentally interested in what the “ordinary” people do, and she uses that word in a complimentary, favorable way. “In my 2019 book, I look at women who have taken ordination, but I wasn’t interested in well-known people. I have never really been like that, because they can write their own stories anyway, and others are happy to tell their tales. I’m really interested in the ‘rank and file’ people that might never be known in the history books but make Buddhism work and function. I know this because I’m an ordinary Buddhist, and as a trustee of a Buddhist group we’re just scrabbling around trying to make it work.”

The Battersea Park Peace Pagoda. From Wikimedia Commons

When looking at the present context of spirituality in Great Britain, Starkey has to work with broad terms—like “secularization,” or “religion” itself—and believes that there needs to be a balance between discussing general trends and getting specific about what we mean by certain words. “My perspective will always be partial, but most sociologists believe that we’re in an era where the majority population is moving away from established religion, in particular the Church of England. But I don’t think the search for meaning and asking the big questions has gone away at all. I have a broad definition of what religion might be. What’s interesting to me in terms of Buddhism is that in the early days of converts post-sixties, people were interested in forming organizations. This might have had something to do with class or accumulating social capital, but in any case, people wanted to join homegrown groups like Triratna, or bring in external organizations from Asia.”

Spaces like temples, centers, and monasteries, which Caroline has studied extensively, were very much part of this trend. “There’s a kind of planting yourself on the cultural scene. But either in the post-Internet or post-COVID period, we can access Buddhist teachings at the touch of a smartphone screen. I’ve attended a Tibetan initiation online on the other side of the world, and our center gained a community that was not based in the UK. So the sangha has broadened even as fewer people are coming in physically to our center. What was once all about the space or institution is now about a distrust of institutions, that has to do with individualization in Western culture. When you have the Internet and COVID and then you have these communities and practices, mediated online, I think something quite interesting is happening to Buddhism in Britain: the loosening of institutional power to more individualized searches for meaning.”

As things are shifting in technologically and socially profound ways, this exploratory series with Starkey is all about tracing these changes from a somewhat comfortable, pinpointable beginning to the current era. In the next entry we will start with what so much of our modern world remains a legacy of: empire and tea.  

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View: The International Dunhuang Programme and Digital Tech as the Guardian of Ancient Heritage
Nurturing the Roots of the Thai Forest Lineage in Britain: A Short Conversation with Ajahn Sucitto
The Man Who Brought Buddhism to Great Britain: Allan Bennett

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