The first survey of Buddhist institutions in a major American city—The Jivaka Project—is now publicly available. Focusing on the Greater Philadelphia area, the project records demographic, geographic, cultural, and sectarian information about 45 predominantly Asian-American Buddhist temples, meditation centers, and community centers. The data, along with a range of multimedia and other materials, are included on the open-access project website.
Among the project’s outputs are a series of short documentary films by Lan A. Li exploring different facets of the intersections between Buddhism and healthcare, and shot in exquisite detail at different locations around the city. Venues include Cambodian, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese temples, Korean and Taiwanese community centers, a Zen center, a school of Chinese medicine, and a major city hospital.
Taken together, the films and the accompanying information make the argument that Buddhism plays an important—though often unappreciated—role in the city’s healthcare landscape. While these facets of health and healing are rarely mentioned in mainstream media, they are regular parts of daily life for Philadelphia’s communities of Asian immigrants and refugees.
Visitors to the website can explore many different health-related practices emerging from the project. For example, respondents across the sectarian and ethnic spectrum reported involvement in a range of contemplative practices, including visualization of deities or protective energies that are said to align or purify the body, as well as mindfulness meditations that are widely understood to lower stress and create better conditions for harmony between mind and body.
However, meditation is not the only healing Buddhist practice to emerge in the survey. Temples of various kinds host elaborate communal ceremonies dedicated to health-related deities. In periodic ceremonies, ranging in frequency from weekly to annual, communities come together to pray to deities such as Avalokiteshvara and the Medicine Buddha to intercede in preserving health and overcoming illness. The most common form of ritual activity in these ceremonies is the chanting of scriptures and mantras, and many of the videos and database entries include audiovisual recordings of Philadelphia’s Buddhist soundscape.
Simpler rites and rituals performed on a personal level for purposes of purification and merit-making are conducted at virtually all temples. These are often arranged privately by individual members or families to overcome bouts of illness and other health-related misfortunes. These rituals often are similar to publicly performed communal rites, centering around prayer to popular deities. In a small number of cases, we were informed about ritual methods such as spirit channeling and exorcism that are normally secretive and not performed publicly.
Aside from specifically Buddhist therapies, a few temples in the area also practice a range of Asian medical traditions, including acupuncture, herbal remedies, cupping, scraping, and other therapies. While such activities may be informally conducted by members during off-peak times, the Won Institute in Glenside runs an English-language master’s degree program in Chinese medicine and an accompanying acupuncture clinic that is open to the public during regular business hours. At the Thai temple Wat Mongkolthepmunee, members told us about the benefits of medicinal foods served daily and at special events. Respondents specifically from East Asian Mahayana temples also shared frequent reports of the karmic and physical benefits of vegetarianism.
Respondents at several institutions noted the overall spiritual well-being that comes from regular Buddhist practice at home, including the physiological benefits of bowing repeatedly as a cardiovascular exercise. They also emphasized the psychological health and social cohesion that comes from attending communal meals and cultural activities at a temple. These aspects were specifically mentioned by Cambodian respondents as helping their communities overcome collective trauma experienced as a result of the Cambodian Civil War (1968–75), as well as by Japanese Americans as a response to the trauma of internment during World War Two.
Finally, many interviewees told us how their temples have teamed up with hospitals, healthcare clinics, and other organizations to offer clinics and other healthcare services for members. These efforts include, for example, the activities of Buddhist chaplains in local hospitals, translation and transportation services for temple members, and pop-up health clinics on temple grounds.
Such findings as these suggest that the intersections between Buddhism and healthcare are diverse and worthy of further study. The Jivaka Project is continuing to conduct followup interviews at temples in Philadelphia, and plans to expand to new cities. The films and project data publicly available online were funded by various grants at Penn State University. Members of the public are invited to participate in the project by viewing the films, browsing the “location finder,” and by sharing comments.
C. Pierce Salguero is an interdisciplinary humanities scholar interested in the role of Buddhism in the crosscultural exchange of medical ideas. He has a PhD in the history of medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and teaches Asian history, religion, and culture at Penn State University’s Abington College, located just outside Philadelphia. The major theme in his scholarship is the interplay between the global transmission and local reception of Buddhist knowledge of health, disease, and the body. He is the author of Buddhism & Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources (2017, Columbia University Press).