Wednesday, January 25, 2017

'No Mud, No Lotus’: Experiencing Great Pines Monastery through Edward Soja’s Thirdspace.

Sara Swenson explores how concepts of Buddhist community are spatially configured among a diverse population at Great Pines Monastery (GPM). In this paper, she explores how GPM operates as several different simultaneous “sacred spaces” using Edward Soja’s theory of thirdspace. GPM’s proximity to Denver marks it as a uniquely urban sacred space, and how the space serves to reaffirm two distinct but shared community identities for its Vietnamese and English-speaking communities.

MLA citation format:
  Swenson, Sara
"'No Mud, No Lotus’: 
 Experiencing Great Pines Monastery through Edward Soja’s Thirdspace. "
Web blog post. Material Religions. 25 January 2017. Web. [date of access] 

Figure 1: Thich Hoa Binh introducing guest lecturing monk, Thich Lam Loi in the meditation hall. All three monks wear ceremonial robes to commemorate the special day. Photo enlarged to show altar donations. Note: all photographs used throughout this paper are credited to Great Pines Monastery and were taken with shared, circulating equipment among sangha members. Most photographs are available from GPM.

Inside Great Pines Monastery (GPM) After holding my tense meditative posture for over two hours – back upright, knees to the ground, thumbs pressed together to stabilize my hands into an attentive circle – my attention starts to fade. The guest lecturing monk has been talking steadily and animatedly for all 140 minutes of what was supposed to be a 30-minute question and answer session. My eyes drift around the room, even as I keep my head fixed toward the speaker. 

First, my eyes rise toward the enormous golden Buddha behind him. The ornate Buddha sits on a hand-build pine box, ornately carved to compensate for the simplicity of the mismatched wood. Oranges, flowers, pineapples, and candles circle the Buddha’s golden lotus dais. These gifts and offerings have come from the Vietnamese population at the monastery, in keeping with the Vietnamese-Buddhist tradition of giving Loc as offerings to the Buddha in exchange for blessings, merit, and cosmic intervention (figure 1) [I]. 

 The walls are decorated with framed pictures – gifts from the various sangha members that express their commitments to the many kinds of Buddhism practiced in this space. In one picture, a neon pink and gold Amitabha Buddha floats around swirling worshippers in the Pureland [II]. Another simple black frame contains an ink calligraphy with the phrase “Peace is Every Step,” addressing the Zen crowd. Across the wall from these two is a large, hand-painted script of the Heart Sutra. Elements of Zen, Theravada, Mahayana, and Pureland Buddhisms all share this space, these monastic leaders, and this crowd. Even these Buddhist traditions don’t keep clean boundaries: many of GPM’s visitors adopt beliefs and practices from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and beyond. 

Behind me, light filters in from the sliding glass doors of the living room. Five steps lead downstairs into the den, while another carpeted set of stairs disappears upstairs into the monks’ quarters. Another sliding door opens from the meditation hall into the kitchen. The wooden doors of a closet in the den hide stacks of meditation cushions. Chanting books fill the simple wooden bookcases by the stairs. 

Without the golden Buddha, dais, pictures, and meditation cushions, this would be no different than my grandmother’s own cozy, carpeted living room with fresh white walls. In fact, before Abbot Thich Hoa Binh bought the monastery, this was just another house in the suburbs. Now I am reminded – as my gaze fixes back on the lecturer still talking steadily – this is sacred space. Not just one sacred space, but many sacred spaces simultaneously. 

In his Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-And-Imagined Places, Edward Soja theorizes three spatial types from the writings of Henri Lefevre. These three spatial approaches are (1) perceived, (2) conceived, and (3) lived spaces (Soja, 1996, 66-67). 

To conceptualize these terms through the space of the monastery, I address each category with an illustration from GPM below. 

(1) Firstspace: perceived space is “materialized, socially produced, empirical” (66) and geographic or descriptive. The material, perceived space of the monastery indicates that it is a plain, suburban house with a floor plan, siding, and interior/exterior appearances that could be found in a suburban housing development anywhere in the United States. The architecture’s plain, material properties indicate a real estate classification of “suburban/single-family/house” (figure 2). The house becomes spatially signified as a Buddhist-construction through the presence of Buddhist decorations – the paintings, statues, books, and writings as objects, which are largely only visible from the inside. The only suggestion that this is anything other than a mountain home is a simple wooden sign with the monastery’s names in English and Vietnamese. 

Figure 2: Monastery, adapted suburban home (firstspace).

(2) Secondspace: conceived space is “conceptualized,” ideological space that operates on the level of designs and order (66-67). On the simplest level, the conceived space of GPM is that it is a Buddhist monastery. All the ideas that accompany both “Buddhism” and “monastery” converge on the suburban mountain home to transform it into a sacred space inhabited by ordained bodies. The ideological and ordered purpose of the temple grounds is to promote the three jewels of (1) Buddha (teacher and/or divine figure), (2) Dharma (teachings and/or “proper cosmological order”), and (3) Sangha (community). Complicating GPM as secondspace are the layers of ideas, plans, and expectations that overlay the monastery grounds. The different groups who use the space all have unique ideas about who the Buddha is; which of the sutras is most prominent or important; what the dharma is, where and how it is implemented; and who constitutes the sangha. Stirred among the soil from which these questions grow are different cultural backgrounds; dramatically varying concepts of self and body; and an array of broader beliefs about spirituality, religion, and practice. As such there is no single secondspace that ideologically configures GPM as a “Buddhist monastery.” How these competing, intertwining, and overlapping ideologies manage to share one material firstspace can be understood through Soja’s interpretation of thirdspace. 

(3) Thirdspace: Soja writes, “Lived social space, more than any other, is Lefebvre’s limitless Aleph, the space of all-inclusive simultaneities, perils as well as possibilities: the space of radical openness, the space of social struggle” (68). His metaphor of the “Aleph” derives Jorge Luis Borges’ short story by the same name [III]. Borges describes the Aleph as “the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending” (56). The thirdspace, or lived space, of GPM is the flowing and merging of mixed communities, ideas, expectations, and orders into the material space of the suburban-home-transformed. In this lived space, social struggle and many communities “each standing clear” converge to demonstrate both independence and interdependence. Throughout this article, I further explore GPM as lived space by describing the different groups and members who all make up the dynamic, layered thirdspace of the monastery grounds. 

The People: ‘“ALL’ Members of the Community” 

The third Saturday of the month is a special day, when public events at the monastery run from 5 a.m. until 4 p.m. This is the one day of the month when both Vietnamese and English-Speaking sangha members gather together to share the lived space of the monastery. To my left and behind me are a mix of twenty or so people who have all come to share this Day of Mindfulness together. 

Figure 3: Mr. Nguyen and Stacy meditating before the lecture. This photo especially highlights the differences in dress Vietnamese and English-speaking sangha members wear when visiting the monastery.

We are a broad mix in terms of our backgrounds. Several Vietnamese-immigrant business owners sit reverently in the last three rows. Some sit with their children, who often act as translators when the events or conversations switch to English. My 86-year-old friend Oanh sits with her daughter, Cara, who crouches on her knees to get a better look at our speaker. Across the room from them are Mrs. Phan and Mr. Nguyen. Mrs. Phan wears a pink and black suit jacket under her powder blue lay robe. She is famous for bringing in huge trays of delicious homemade food on days like today. I have never seen her without a carefully matched ensemble of gold jewelry. Mr. Nguyen is a successful restaurant owner who has helped to organize a number of landscaping and development projects around the monastery. He sits solemnly with perfect posture. 

Across the front and middle rows are the group members who self-identify as the “English-Speaking Sangha” (though the distinction is largely artificial: most of the Vietnamese sangha also speaks English). This term indicates the opaque but functioning divide between the Vietnamese immigrants and their children, who usually attend the monastery on Sundays – with ceremonies and practices conducted in Vietnamese; and the group of mostly American-citizen, mixed-ethnicity Buddhist converts, who visit for meditation and a Dharma teaching in English on Tuesdays. 

 I am from Minnesota and my former partner Luke (the one who first invited me to GPM) is from South Africa but has lived in Colorado for the last twenty years. Alex grew up in Florida but was born in Manila to Malaysian-Pilipino parents. Four other regulars I recognize are Laura, Mary, Jill, and Stacy, all of whom are mothers in their mid-50s who have doctorates but left academia to raise their children. Jill has just opened an order-only candy-making business out of her kitchen. Laura still adjuncts on occasion. 

Alex and his friend Jim are veterans of the Iraq War. Alex now lives at the monastery and helps out with photography, the website, and carpentry or construction work as needed. The abbot, Thich Hoa Binh (hereafter “Thay” meaning “teacher”) would like to see him become a novice, but Alex insists monastic life is not for him. His spiritual interests also aren’t strictly Buddhist: regularly in the midst of sangha meals, Alex will turn the conversation towards geographic energy vortexes, aliens, herbology, and the true origins of the pyramids. 

In the few minutes that my gaze has passed around the room, several differences in these groups is apparent: the Vietnamese practitioners are dressed in professional clothing. The women wear beautiful jewelry and have very carefully styled hair and makeup. Many wear their powder blue lay ceremonial robes. Today’s visiting speaker, Thich Lam Loi, a Theravada monk from Virginia, has been heralded for months as an exceptionally honorable guest who will be spending the next few days with us in an ongoing celebration of the New Year. Dressing up signifies respect for the speaker and the extra-sacred quality that the space takes on both with his presence and in the wake of the New Year’s celebration. 

The English-speaking group is here in jeans and yoga pants, with ponytails and wool socks, little makeup and no fine jewelry. Only Alex wears a blue lay robe, a practice he adopted after moving into the monastery. Their dress signifies that this is a relaxed, informal environment. The first time I came to a mindfulness Saturday, I had also been told to dress comfortably in something I could sit in for intermittent hours of hiking and meditation. 

Our different clothing indicate two obvious points of departure between the two groups’ approaches and expectations for the monastery: first, the different attitudes the groups have toward the purpose of time at the monastery (formal versus informal, official/ceremonial versus “spiritual”/relaxed). Second, the different expected activities that each group will perform throughout the day. Even as the main events of the day of mindfulness will all be shared, intermittent activities will be performed separately. For instance, while our group will do a “deep relaxation” meditation in another room this afternoon, the Vietnamese group will have a second dharma discussion. The Vietnamese group also had an additional chanting session in the morning, while the English-speaking group did a mindfulness hike around the frozen grounds. 

When we do come together our shared activities are made to mirror one another, though even these shared activities reveal a difference in the purpose and approaches of our practices. Many of the Vietnamese practitioners follow Pureland Buddhism, chanting devotions to Amitabha for rebirth in the Pureland after this life. The monks facilitate the chanting and ensure that the chants are performed properly. For many of the Vietnamese practitioners, these monks are born teachers whose good karmic rebirth as monks, superior merit, and ordination have enabled them to officiate the rituals. Through a complex metaphysics of karma, merit, and reincarnation, the texts, monks, and chants all generate real physical and cosmological effects in practitioners’ lives and lives to come. 

The English-speaking group also does chanting, but reads their chants out of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s songbook. This songbook frames the chants as teaching practices that help participants focus on mindfulness. The chants and songs are lay-led. Lay song leaders will often bring guitars, banjos, or ukuleles to add playful musical accompaniment. Correctives by the monks are welcome, but not regarded as essential for the chants to serve their function of helping participants bring themselves back to the present moment. Instead of serving a metaphysical purpose, the texts, words, and monastics serve symbolic or pedagogical purposes for the Zen practitioners. 

On this day of mindfulness, the sangha members shared songs and chanted together after lunch. While the exercise was meant to highlight our commonalities, in many ways, it highlighted our differences. The Vietnamese sangha chanted rapidly, uniformly, and solemnly, showing great care with the exercise and words. The English-speaking sangha sang several playful, childlike songs with the accompaniment of guitar. One song we sing is called “No Mud, No Lotus.” The lyrics indicate that there is no difference between sacred and non-sacred spaces or activities – that with mindfulness, everything becomes sacred. This view represents an ontological reality very different than other Buddhist cosmologies which propose that, while all spaces may treated sacredly, some definitely have better or worse karmic footprints. While both groups made an effort to participate in the others’ singing ritual, it was clear that language was not the only divide that marked these as distinctly different kinds of activities (figures 4 and 5). 

Figure 4: Vietnamese sangha members look on as English-speakers share a song about mindfulness with guitar accompaniment.

Figure 5: English-speakers follow along with a high-speed Vietnamese chant.

A similar divide generally breaks down around the purpose of dharma talks, like the one Thich Lam Loi is giving today. Many of the Vietnamese sangha are here for the good merit of being present for the talk. Thich Lam Loi’s words themselves are believed to deposit good merit on the ears and bodies of those within hearing range of the talk, even if they are in a language the listeners don’t understand well. Many of the English-speaking sangha are here to learn lessons about the sutras and Buddhist practices that they can then review and apply independent of the monastery. Thich Lam Loi navigates these different expectations for the talk by maintaining absolute control over the conversation. Rob – an elderly white man and retired professor who claims to have a long background in Japanese Zen – keeps raising his hand to ask questions and add points, but Thich Lam Loi ignores and talks over him. 

Instead of acknowledging the English-speaking sangha’s questions as he talks, Thich Lam Loi asks questions of his own and points to audience members to respond. He calls on me and I offer a ready response. He frowns and says “No!” pointing next to Cara. Cara fumbles for words, clearly surprised to have been called on. When she does respond, he signifies his approval with a curt nod and continues to lecture on the illusion of the senses. 

The different functions of the monks, activities, texts, and chants all mark different secondspace ideologies which operate independently and interdependently in the monastic thirdspace. The space itself takes on several completely different metaphysical realities at once. In one metaphysical cosmology, the grounds are karmically imbued. Coming to the monastery indicates a shifting engagement with Buddhist space that physically influences one’s karma. In the other metaphysical cosmology, the monastery is a teaching space that indicates no physical or metaphysical changes, except perhaps the psychological benefits gained from stress-reducing practices like meditation. 

Of course, these beliefs aren’t cleanly separated into dualistic spheres. Some of the English-speaking participants (who don’t necessarily identify as Buddhist) also believe the space radiates healing sacred energy. Some of the Vietnamese practitioners, especially second-generation children, are interested in the psychological and pedagogical aspects of Zen, or aren’t as convinced that chanting the texts without a simultaneously daily practical commitment to a Buddhist lifestyle will ensure rebirth in the Pureland. These differences exist in the range between the two poles I have described above. In the same way that these groups and ideologies are not cleanly divided, the space is not cleanly divided either.

Founder and Vision: 

This conglomerate of people, Buddhisms, expectations, and practices is all held together by Thay. As the founder and visionary for GPM, the front page of the website declares a sentiment he often repeats and reinforces through the monastery’s space and programming: “The monastery, under the guidance of Abbot Thich Hoa Binh, ‘cultivates many Buddhist traditions including Engaged Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in society) and Pureland, Zen, and meditation which are practiced mostly in the monastic setting.’ Programs at the monastery are for practitioners of all levels and cultural backgrounds.” Thay founded GPM in 2006, a year before graduating from Naropa University with a Master’s degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. The first twenty years of his life are a wild, tragic, and adventurous story, not unlike the immigration tales of other Vietnamese refugees in the room. He faced an extended and difficult move to the United States with his father and brother just following the Vietnam War at the age of nine. First, they fled to the Philippines as “boat people” – travelling for days, packed tightly in hiding on a simple fishing boat. His early years in the U.S. were spent living in several different states. He worked minimum-wage jobs while finishing high school and developing his Buddhist practice as a monastery apprentice. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology in California, curious about the connections between Buddhist practice and the healing of the human mind. Then he came to Colorado to further his Buddhist education and live the life of an ordained monk. According to his autobiographical statement, typed up by Alex and posted on GPM’s Facebook page, Thay declares that: 

“His goal at The Great Pines Monastery is to share the dharma with 'ALL' members of the community. Looking back at his life, Hoa Binh understands clearly that human suffering is pervasive and the stress of our daily lives debilitates our experience for joy, peace and happiness. His intent is to invite everyone to the monastery to have a place of refuge and a moment of stillness to return to one's own heart and mind. He has provided a beautiful place on the mountain for anyone and everyone to contemplate, practice and transform their emotional afflictions into harmony, joy and peace to heal their own wounds.” 

Through his own transnational journey, Thay understood that the diverse Buddhist communities he had encountered along the way were all best served by different aspects of Buddhism, depending on their cultural and familial backgrounds, personal needs, expectations, and cosmological orientations. As his own life bridged Vietnam and the United States, Thay set out to create a monastery that also bridged these countries and communities. Denver had a high population of Vietnamese immigrants, and Colorado already had several other monasteries and temples serving English-speaking populations of spiritual explorers… but not in Denver. So Thay raised funds to buy the house south of the city where he believed he could best serve many different urban Buddhist populations simultaneously. 

Location: “A Place of Refuge and a Moment of Stillness” 

GPM is located approximately 40 miles from downtown Denver, an easy 30-minute drive (figure 9). Participants come from downtown, around the suburbs, and from other urban areas like Boulder and Colorado Springs. While the monastery isn’t far from major centers of suburban life (there is a large shopping mall just ten minutes away), the mountains and forest create the quick illusion of distant retreat. Once a driver begins the trek up highway 285 the city disappears into a shimmering mass of light and metal below. The beautiful mountain pass ascends quickly through pine trees and around curving rocky bends. Amidst the surrounding elements of wilderness one feels a definite geographic break from the city, even though the landscape remains dotted by suburban homes and is divided by a well-maintained four-lane road. 

This geographic break was important to Thay’s design, as it marks a literal change of scenery from the “stress of our daily lives” to “a beautiful place on the mountain for anyone and everyone to contemplate, practice, and transform their emotional afflictions… a place of refuge” which offers “a moment of stillness.” The geographic distinction is made possible by GPM’s proximity to the city. The contrast and closeness of Denver make GPM a visible break from the highway and skyscrapers, all visible from the parking lot overlook. Thus the sacred stillness of GPM is in many ways an urban stillness: its existence is contingent upon the city. 

The city also operates as a contrasting “routine/mundane” to the “special/sacred” of GPM. Participants must make a conscious commitment to driving up the mountain to visit GPM. Monastery activities are all planned after usual business hours or on weekends, creating a temporal buffer between stressful/daily/routine city work hours and peaceful/evening/set-aside monastery time. 

For English-speaking sangha members, the monastery is a spiritual getaway where they can leave their usual identities behind along with their professional clothes, burp rags, make up, and brief cases. The group’s informal dress and playful, casual style reinforces the monastery as a space for casual relationships, exploration, and “non-judgment” (a word often circulated among self-reflecting English-speaking members). Many sangha members bring their dogs and potluck dishes or leftovers to the Dharma teaching on Tuesday nights. Very few bring their jobs or families into conversation – I had been visiting for several months before I heard much about the personal lives of attendees. Luke and I were the only ones who came as a pair – most attendees came independently, without spouses or children, though Laura, Jill, and Stacy occasionally carpooled as they all lived on the north side of the city. Mostly, we joked about our struggles with the practice or, especially when Alex entered the conversation, had broader existential conversations about morality, the Dharma, alien-deities, and the nature of the universe. Our rhetorical relationships reflected our expectations for the space: while we were all close and supportive as sangha-members, our friendships did not extend beyond the monastery grounds. GPM was our spiritual getaway from the usual communities and relationships that constituted our daily lives.

Alternatively, the Vietnamese sangha operated to reinforce and strengthen the Vietnamese community that was otherwise spread out through the city. While one neighborhood was home to many of the Vietnamese businesses, busy work schedules and school commitments (for their children) made GPM an important space for reinforcing the group’s community identity. The religious functions of GPM were just one way that the Vietnamese migrants sustained an important sense of culture and connection. GPM also became sacred grounds for sharing traditional foods, speaking Vietnamese, and honoring traditional social structures which might otherwise be disrupted by post-migration social or economic conditions [IV]. 

Figure 6: Kids playing on meditation cushions.

Vietnamese sangha members often came as whole families. In cases where children were grown as was the case with Cara and Anh, GPM became an important space for families to visit and reinforce sometimes separate, 

GPM was able to operate as a Vietnamese retreat from their otherwise largely integrated lives in the city precisely because of its urban proximity. The population of Vietnamese immigrants had first attracted Thay to buy in the area. The mostly middle-class sangha of business owners was also able to financially sustain the community because of their financial successes in the city (a similar fact for the equally urban middle-class English-speaking sangha). 

Comparing and contrasting these urbanities: the English-speaking sangha approached GPM as a sacred space for its relaxed removal from daily city life. They were attracted to the anonymity the space provided for breaking away from conventional behaviors and social roles (like, for Stacy and Jill: mothering). The Vietnamese sangha approached GPM as a sacred space for its ceremonial and community functions, as a place to reinforce cultural habits and practices. 

On special days like the third Saturday Day of Mindfulness, these two sanghas share the space and fulfill these personal and community functions simultaneously. The differences between the sanghas – like the contrasting reverential and relaxed or playful attitudes in dress and practice – are generally understood and respected as valuable aspects of the community as a whole. Thay’s translation and affirmation of both sanghas as essential parts of the same united Buddhist sangha no doubt helps to bridge this gap. 

Conclusion: Sacred Thirdspace? The Aleph as “Buddha Field” 

Through this paper, I have proposed a sacred dimension of Soja’s thirdspace through an exploration of GPM Buddhist monastery just south of Denver, Colorado. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize Soja’s Thirdspace in the layered sacrednesses of GPM is through the Buddhist concept of the “Buddha Field” [V]. In the Buddha field, multiple strains of Buddhism and many Buddhas exist together in a multi-dimensional realm. The Buddha-field fuses with this and other universes, but also transcends these immanent bounds. The Buddha-field is a sacredness that defies categories and, like thirdspace, encompasses innumerable possibilities and realities simultaneously. This fusion of thirdspace and Buddha-field converges at GPM. The sacred spaces of GPM intertwine many sacred possibilities, many metaphysical possibilities, and many ways of being and being Buddhist at once. It is Vietnam and Colorado, Zen and Pureland, representational and karmic space. GPM is also a distinctly urban sacred space that exists, perhaps ironically but absolutely contingently, just outside of the urban sphere. Understanding GPM as thirdspace is helpful for understanding the monastery as a layering of sacred spaces. At the same time, reading GPM through Thirdspace informs Soja’s conceptualization by adding a sacred, “ineffable,” Buddha-field dimension to the unbounded possibilities of thirdspace. 

End Notes: 

[I] For a thorough explanation of rituals around Vietnamese Buddhist spiritual offerings, I recommend Alexander Soucy’s. The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2009).   

[II] Concepts of the Pure Land or “Western Paradise” come from Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism dating to the 1st Century C.E. that is currently dominant in much of East Asia. In Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, beings (including humans, animals, and spirits) die and are reborn through cycles of reincarnation. Rebirths are moderated by one’s “karmic” status. “Karma” is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “effects” – one’s karmic balance is determined by a cause-and-effect correlation between one’s intentions, actions, and fate. For instance, someone who performs acts of kindness and generosity, with selfless intentions, will accumulate “merit” or “positive karma.” Someone with positive karma will be reborn into a life with fewer challenges and difficulties – in short, performing good deeds cosmically attracts good luck, good deeds, and favor from others. A desirable rebirth does not immediately lead to enlightenment or state of “nirvana” (signified through transcendence from these karmic cycles of death and rebirth); however, a life with less difficulties or higher status is often believed to ease one’s access to understanding Buddhist teachings, leading to enlightenment. Conversely, negative karma leads to more difficult future lives, diminishing one’s likelihood to attain enlightenment in a cosmic moral feedback loop. One realm into which beings with significant positive karma may be reborn is called the “Pure Land.” The Pure Land was created by a Buddha called “Amitabha Buddha.” Many believe that Amitabha Buddha can also offer karmic interventions on behalf of those who regularly chant or invoke his name or undertake certain meditative or visualization practices. Pure Land Buddhists who do not believe they are ready or capable of achieving enlightenment in this lifetime will undertake devotional practices to Amitabha Buddha with hopes of being reborn in the Pure Land, where all obstacles to enlightenment will be removed and where they will be rendered fully receptive to the Buddha’s teachings. A Pure Land rebirth is regarded as an almost-guaranteed gateway to Nirvana. Of course, there are diverse variations and interpretations of Pure Land teachings and practices across cultures where Pure Land Buddhism is popular. For more information see: Mark L. Blum’s The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyonen's Jodo Homon Genrusho (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). A succinct informal summary is also available here from BBC’s Religion forum.

[III] For a primary source, see: Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” in The Aleph and Other Tories: 1933-1969 (New York: Bantham Books, 1971), 3-17. 

[IV] For an exploration of the effects of migration to America on traditional Vietnamese social structures, especially family structures and gender roles, see: Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2011. 

[V] For an academic description of the Buddhafield I turn to Taigen Dan Leighton’s Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 58-59. Leighton discusses the Buddhafield as multiple, simultaneous realms in which Bodhisattvas practice, but also the bodies and teachings of all Buddhas in one metaphysical plane. 


Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph,” 3-17 in The Aleph and Other Tories: 1933-1969. New York: Bantham Books. 1971. 

Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2011. 

Leighton, Taigen Dan. Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2003. 

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Spaces. Cambridge: Blackwell. 1996. 

Swenson, Sara. “Saturday ‘Day of Mindfulness.’” Ethnographic Materials: Journal and Photographs. January, 2012. 

Soucy, Alexander. The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2009.  

“Pure Land Buddhism.” BBC: Religion. Last Updated 2 October 2002.

Blum, Mark L. The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyonen's Jodo Homon Genrusho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cultural Battlefields: Jhandi Flags and the Indo-Caribbean Fight for Recognition

Prea Persaud argues that "jhandis", triangular flags placed on bamboo and planted near homes and temples, are not just a religious symbol but an identity marker that indicates the presence of Indo-Caribbeans. Indo-Caribbeans use jhandis as both a proclamation of their faith as well as a way to combat what they view as attempts to erase their culture and history.

MLA citation format:
  Persaud, Prea
"Cultural Battlefields: Jhandi Flags and the Indo-Caribbean Fight for Recognition "
Web blog post. Material Religions. 27 November 2016. Web. [date of access] 

Fig. 1: Jhandi flags near the Temple in the Sea. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
Trinidad, like many Caribbean islands, is a vibrant mix of culture, flavors, and color. What makes this island unique, though, is its large population of Indo-Caribbeans. Descendants of laborers brought to the Caribbean through the indentured labor trade, Indo-Caribbeans are now the island’s largest ethnic group. Indo-Caribbeans have transformed Trinidad’s landscape and culture by building Hindu temples and mosques, infusing Indian flavors and spices into the cuisine, and creating new musical forms which combine Indian and African sounds. Adding to the color of the island are also multicolored triangular flags, called jhandi flags [i] which can often be spotted in the front yards of homes and by Hindu temples. The flags, which are inserted onto bamboo poles, are planted into the ground after Hindus complete their puja, a ritual prayer performed in homes or in temples. The flags represent various deities and are place in the ground as a symbol of the deity’s victory, or of good over evil. For Indo-Trinidadians, though, jhandi flags are more than just a religious symbol. They are a marker of an identity and a reminder to the larger community of the presence of both Indians and Hinduism on the island. For Indo-Trinidadians who worry about the erasure of their culture, the jhandi flags boldly state, “we are here and we are staying.” 

Historical Context
In 1797, Britain forcefully overtook Trinidad from the Spanish and gradually phased in English law and institutions. As the anti-slavery movement in Britain increased, pressure was put on the crown to end slavery leading to the gradual release of 20,000 slaves of African descent on the island (Vertovec, 43). Although the abolition of slavery was declared in 1834, slaves were required to work an “apprenticeship” period until 1840. At first, plantation owners capitalized on the newly freed Africans who settled or squatted on land near the plantations by providing them with high wages and offering benefits such as huts to rent. Colonialists were unhappy with the power the freed slaves now held and worked to reinsert their dominance by continuing their ill treatment of the workers. Eventually Afro-Caribbeans became rebellious, refusing to work under unfavorable conditions. By 1838, sugar production decreased and the industry was in crisis. Plantation workers cited the labor shortage as the main cause. As a result, a number of immigration plans were put into action in order to provide a steady and dependable supply of laborers. 

The most prominent and successful of these plans was one in which foreign laborers signed a contract to work for five, or in some cases ten, years on the plantations with a partly paid return passage when their contracts expired (43). Initially Chinese workers were brought to the Caribbean, but while they proved to be a hardworking and docile group, they were unsuited to the tropical heat and therefore undependable. The British then turned to India for their workforce. Although the costs associated with bringing Indian laborers were high, they were regarded as a cheaper and more controllable source of labor in the longer term than the freed Africans. The first Indians to arrive in the Caribbean were brought to Guyana in 1838, but it was not until 1845 that Indian indentured laborers were introduced to Trinidad (43-4). By 1917 over half a million Indians had been brought to the Caribbean with about 144,000 going to Trinidad between 1845 and 1920, the year the indentured labor system was abolished (Younger, 95). 

Once in Trinidad, Indians found themselves in conditions that were only marginally better than slavery: “wages were low, people were housed in barracks, sanitary conditions and health care were primitive, and there were few female migrants and no provision was made for East Indian cultural needs” (Tata and Evans, 26). Although Indians initially worked side by side with freed Africans, they were aware that their presence was not entirely welcomed by Afro-Caribbeans. Indentured labor was seen by the larger community as simply a new form of slavery and as such Indians replaced the ex-slaves’ position as the lowest of the classes. Anthropologist Viranjini Munasinghe notes that the freed African population resented not the plantation owners who created the system, but the Indians who came to represent the unjust structure (Munasinghe, 65). Afro-Caribbeans blamed Indians for their willingness to work for lower wages thereby stripping Afro-Caribbeans of their bargaining power with plantation owners. The tension between Afro-Trinidadians and Indians was soon extended to life outside the plantations. Munasinghe states that although “the initial causes of this friction [between Blacks and Indians] were economic, they soon took on a cultural meaning” as plantation owners exploited the hostility already evident between the two groups as a way to both drive labor competition and keep the masses divided (Munasinghe, 43). 

Provoking the animosity between these two groups served colonialists in more than one way. With anti-slavery sentiments still strong in Britain, colonialists were under pressure to prove that indentured labor was not simply slavery under a different name. As a result, the British government became more intimately involved in the recruitment and treatment of the laborers than they had been during slavery. In his article “West Indian Orientalism,” Amar Wahab writes: “Instead of the plantation being responsible for indentured labor, the crown was now responsible for the protection of immigrants to legitimize this new system of labor importation as one which not only cared for but improved the oriental subject in the New World – i.e. the plantation as a civilizing mechanism” (Wahab, 286). The result, therefore, was a double discourse in which colonialists needed to both justify indentured labor while at the same time keeping Indians in an inferior position and preventing the joining of Black and Indian forces on the estates. 

In their justification for indentured labor, colonialists emphasized the need for Indian workers through picturesques which highlighted the workers’ role in maintaining the plantation. Wahab explains that these picturesques illustrated the working bodies of Indians unlike pre-emancipation artwork which depicted slaves as “aesthetic subjects” and post-emancipation paintings in which the labor was absent “signaling the regression of black subjects who now had more control over their labor” (289). These picturesques naturalized Indian laborers, describing them positively, while also confining them to the space of the plantation, implicitly indicating their lack of mobility and their position as cultural “others” (295). Wahab argues that British West Indian discourse, rooted in assumptions that regarded Indians as irrational, “re-invented coolies on the plantations as industrious and in line with Victorian yardsticks of industry and rationality” (291). The plantations, then, were viewed as the disciplining mechanism through which the primitive, uncivilized Indian became moral and refined. 

Although stereotypes of the lazy Indian was abandoned in depictions of indentured workers on plantations, old notions about Indians as strange, different, and backwards remained dominant in the Caribbean. Hence even as colonialists argued that the plantation was key to the civilizing process, Indians were still denied New World status. As such Indians occupied an ambiguous position in the Caribbean – they were no longer seen as part of the Old World but neither were they fully accepted as part of the New World. Patricia Mohammad argues that “Whether real or imagined, such acts and ideas continue to shape a discourse that has persisted about the idolatry of Hinduism versus Christianity, and the difference of Indo-Caribbean versus Afro-Caribbean culture” (Mohammad, 59). As Indians became more politically powerful in places like Trinidad and Guyana, they would continue to draw boundaries around this same third, in-between space they occupied during colonialism. It is a strategic move on the part of Indo-Caribbeans, then, to remain a separate group even while continuing to shape the larger society in order to make a more prominent role for themselves. This move is motivated by the perception that the culture of Indo-Caribbeans is under attack and at risk of being wiped out. Here I want to give one key example with the Temple in the Sea. 

The Temple in the Sea was built in the 1930s by a single man, Sewdass Sadhu. The story, probably embellished over the years, is that Sewdass, an indentured laborer, tried several times to build a temple but each time the temple was destroyed because it was built on plantation land and he was thrown in jail. Finally, he piled up rocks into the sea and built the temple off the shore, claiming that no one could own the sea. The temple is now considered a national heritage site and is a popular tourist destination. Over the years, Indo-Caribbeans have used the site as a reminder of the history of indentured labor and the particular struggles Indians face both preserving their culture and rituals and finding a space for themselves in the greater community. In 1996, the temple was vandalized. The vandals smashed the deities within the temple and attempted to burn the broken pieces in the center of the altar. Indo-Trinidadian leaders argued that the destruction of the temple, despite being cited as a national symbol, demonstrated the prejudice that Indians continue to face in Trinidad. For Indo-Trinidadians, the vandalism was proof that Indians were still seen as “other” or “outsiders” irrespective of their history on the island and the contributions they have made to the nation. Mohammad argues that this “otherness” is both a label put onto Indians by the larger society and one that they embrace themselves. Fearing the erasure of their culture and religion, Indo-Trinidadians have worked to emphasize their “Indianness” and form a united community despite religious differences among Indians themselves. They identify as Trinidadians but highlight their hyphenated identities as a reminder of their ancestry and the history of indentured labor. This concern is a motivating factor in the creation of Hindu schools and organizations, the many temples that populate the Trinidadian landscape, and the fight for increased visibility of both “Indian” culture and Hinduism. 

Fig. 2: The Temple in the Sea. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.

Jhandi Flags
To increase the visibility of their community and culture, Indo-Trinidadians have engaged in what N. Jayaram refers to as “cultural contestations to challenge the African hegemony” (Jayaram, 130). These include the establishment of a national holiday for Indian Arrival Day and the refusal to accept the highest of national awards because they argued that its name, The Trinity Cross, referred specifically to Christianity. While less explicit than the narratives concerning those two specific cases, I would argue that the popularity of jhandi flags is yet another way Indo-Trinidadians have fought against the dominance of Afro-Caribbean culture and Christianity. 

Although jhandi-like flags can be spotted near temples in North India, where the majority of Indo-Trinidadians came from, the commonness of jhandis, especially its placement near homes, is unique to the Caribbean. As my informant Raj notes, during indentureship, jhandi flags were used as a type of the murti, statues that embody various forms of the Divine, because laborers had few murtis of their own. The practice of using the flag as a representation of the Divine, often the form of Hanuman, is cited by both Raj and Indrani Rampersad, a pandita or female priest, as connected to an incident in the sacred text of the Mahabharata where Hanuman states that he will be on the battlefield in the form of the flag (Rampersad, 57). Perhaps the notion of flags was appealing to indentured laborers, then, because they viewed their new homes in the Caribbean as a type of battlefield in which they were fighting against Christianity and Afro-Caribbean culture.

Fig. 3: A jhandi flag depicting Hanuman outside the Dattatreya Yoga Center, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.
Traditionally jhandis are placed in the yard of an individual during their home pujas. Home pujas are done on a yearly basis or for special occasions, such as a birthday celebration or graduation. In addition to the ingredients needed for the puja, which includes flowers and fruits, the devotee also obtains bamboo and the flags which can be bought at the local puja store. The cotton flags are usually plain in color but may also come with a picture of the deity to be placed on the flag itself. The various colors of the flags represent particular deities. A red flag, for example, is associated with either Hanuman or Durga. Finding the right bamboo, which must be freshly cut, is a bit trickier. The “right bamboo” should be straight and clean, and should have at least five joints or knots (62). Before cutting the bamboo, the devotee says a prayer in which they ask for permission to take the plant. Once the bamboo is brought to the site of worship, the pundit, a male priest, will sprinkle water on the bottom of the bamboo to purify it and adorn it with sindoor, a sacred red powder used in rituals and by married women, and chandan, sandalwood powder. The bamboo is then inserted onto the flag by the devotee. After the jhandi is readied, the devotees and the pundit go outside where a hole for the jhandi has been prepared. At the site, the pundit blesses the hole with milk, coins, and flowers before implanting the jhandi (63). While placing the jhandi into the ground, all the devotees must touch the bamboo and, as it is inserted into the hole, they all shout “Jai (name of the deity)” which proclaims the victory of the deity. Generally after the jhandi is place into the ground, it is not removed. There is some disagreement, however, about whether it should be removed or not once it is worn or damaged. While some have argued that removing the flag would be to desecrate it, Raj found the practice to be one of “over reverence.” He argued that the flag should be removed and “immersed back in the elements when it is no longer nice,” meaning torn or damaged. 

Fig. 4: Jhandi flags in front of a home, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.

Rampersad identifies the jhandi as an “axis mundi that symbolizes Mount Meru, the mythical center of the Earth” (64). She writes that the jhandi “locates the home as the center of everything. In one prayer for installing it as the main door of a new home, the performer of the ritual prayers says: ‘Here, in this space on Mother Earth, I construct this building which is like the center of the globe and which is the spring of prosperity and river of wealth.’” In addition to its religious and spiritual significance, though, jhandi flags are a source of pride for Indo-Caribbeans, a proclamation of their faith for all to see. Making sure it is seen by those who may pass by the home is especially important. Jewan, a man in his forties, states forcefully: “Why do we put up flags? You know how when people claim a land, they put up a flag, signaling it’s theirs? That’s what we do when we put up a flag! We let them know we are here.” Angie, an older woman, looks disgustedly at a couple who has decided to place their jhandis in the back of their house. “It’s as if they are ashamed,” Angie remarked, “Put it in the front! Where everyone can see!” Jhandi flags, then, are also about letting the general public know that a Hindu lives in that home. Driving down a road in Trinidad and seeing the flags placed proudly in front many homes is a constant reminder of the presence of Indo-Trinidadian Hindus.

Fig. 5: A picture of Ganga Ma on a jhandi flag near a home, Trinidad. Photo: Vasudha Narayanan.

The use of jhandis as a cultural weapon against the dominance of Christianity on the island can be clearly seen with the Petrotrin jhandi incident described by Selwyn Ryan in his aptly named book, The Jhandi and the Cross. In 1998, a jhandi had been placed by Indo-Trinidadians workers at the head office of Petrotrin, the state own oil company, as part of their Diwali celebrations. After Diwali, controversy arose as to whether the jhandi should be taken down or left alone. While some workers argued that the flag was inappropriate in a secular workplace, others claimed that it would be blasphemous to remove it (Ryan, xi). The leader of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, a prominent Hindu organization, argued that “once hoisted, the flag is never broken or pulled down” but other religious leaders asserted that the flag could be removed if appropriate prayers were said and it was replanted on temple grounds or thrown into the ocean (xi-xii). Disagreements over if and how jhandis could be removed, though, were only part of the issue. For the Maha Saba and its supporters, the root of the issue was political. Ryan includes the following newspaper excerpt from a Maha Saba spokesperson:
This simple flag of religious triumph of goodness over evil has sparked controversy. The jhandi, to most Hindus, is a powerful symbol, and is often placed in the front of the Hindu home. Across Trinidad, jhandis are to be found in every village and every street. It is a symbol that every Hindu in Trinidad can identify with, despite what organization they belong to. An affront to the jhandi at Petrotrin will be perceived as disrespect for all Hindus…the flag appears to symbolize more than its religious connotation; instead, it brings home the change in paradigm; this visible reminder that the corridors of power are no longer dominated by Afro-Christians has shaken the foundations of many individuals. (xii) 

Here the Maha Saba makes the bold claim that people are not offended because there is a religious object in a secular space, but because that object happens to be connected to Hinduism rather than Christianity. Ryan notes that the supporters of the Maha Saba’s position pointed to the Anglican Church, a Christian cemetery, and other Christian icons on Petrotrin’s grounds as evidence of this hypocrisy. If the jhandi had to be taken down, these other Christian symbols must also be removed. Supporters claimed that while Muslims and Hindus accepted these icons, Afro-Christians had rejected the jhandi because it forced them to acknowledge Hinduism. This statement simultaneous chastises opponents of the jhandi for being contradictory while at the same time boasting about the greater tolerance of Indo-Trinidadians. Ultimately, Petrotrin decided to leave the jhandi because they argued that it was bio-degradable and would disappear in time (xiii). The controversy over the Petrotrin case soon died down, but over the years the appropriateness of the jhandi in secular spaces like schools would continue to make headlines. Each time the argument in favor of the jhandi would note its importance for representing the Indo-Trinidadian community and the need for true religious pluralism. 

The jhandi as a symbol for Indo-Caribbeans has become so commonplace, its presence can also be seen in Indo-Caribbean communities in the United States where it has also made headlines. November last year, a man was caught burning forty jandhi flags in front of a home in Queens, New York. Queens is home to a large number of Indo-Caribbeans and it is not usual to see jhandis outside of homes, especially in the area known as “Little Guyana.” The incident was cited as a hate crime, a result of the growing prejudice Indians, regardless of their faith, have faced in the U.S. since the September 11th attacks (Reporter, “U.S. Hindus Report Jhandi-Burning in NY”). In the U.S. too, then, the continued use of jhandis is more than just religiously important. Like their early years in Trinidad, Indo-Caribbeans represent a minority group in the U.S. and struggle to maintain their culture while at the same time adjusting to their homes. Jhandis are a tangible object representing not just their faith but their Caribbean heritage. To see a jhandi in front of a home in the U.S. is to know that person is Hindu and likely Indo-Caribbean. The same symbol which has been used in the Caribbean for religious and political reasons now acts as an identity marker for the Indo-Caribbean community in their double diaspora. Like Hanuman taking the form of the flag so that he can be taken onto the battlefield, Indo-Caribbeans hold their jhandis proudly and defiantly, ready to combat those who seek to deny their culture and history and to claim their new homes. We are here, they say, and we are staying. 

Fig. 6: The remnants of jhandi flags washed up by the sea near the Temple in the Sea. Photo: Prea Persaud.

Works Cited
Jayaram, N. “The Politics of ‘Cultural Renaissance’ among Indo-Trinidadians” in Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora. Bhikhu Parekh, Gurharpal Singh, and Steven Vertovec, eds. Routledge, 2003. 

Mohammed, Patricia. “The Asian Other in the Caribbean.” Small Axe 13.2 (2009): 57–71. 

Munasinghe, Viranjini. Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2001. 

Rampersad, Indrandi. “Hinduism in the Caribbean” in Contemporary Hinduism. P. Pratap Kumar, ed. New York: Routledge, 2014. 

Reporter, W. H. N. “US Hindus Protest against Jhandi-Burning in NY.” World Hindu News. N.p., 8 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2016. 

Ryan, Sewlyn. The Jhandi and the Cross: The Clash of Cultures in Post-Creole Trinidad and Tobago. St. Augustine, Trinidad: Multimedia Production Centre, The University of the West Indies, 1999. 

Tata, Robert and Arthur S. Evans. "Racial Separation Versus Social Cohesion: The Case of Trinidad – Tobago." Revista Geografica. 104 (1989): 23-31. 

Vertovec, Steven. The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns. New York: Routledge, 2001. 

Wahab, Amar. “Mapping West Indian Orientalism: Race, Gender and Representations of Indentured Coolies in the Nineteenth-Century British West Indies.” Journal of Asian American Studies. 10:3 (October 2007): 283-311. 

Younger, Paul. New Homelands: Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji, and East Africa. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[i] The term “jhandi” refers to the combination of the flag and the bamboo, but Indo-Caribbeans will also say “jhandi flags” which emphasizes the importance of the flag. Indo-Guyanese will also use the term “jhandi” to refer to religious prayers held at a person’s home. 

[ii] The controversy over the Trinity Cross, which was the highest of the national awards in Trinidad, was the accusation that it was discriminatory against non-Christians because it used the symbol of the Christian cross. Although the name did not change, a more secular award replaced it as the highest of national awards. The Indian Arrival Day controversy stems from two factors: (1) the reason for the holiday and (2) the name of the holiday. Indo-Caribbeans argued that the day was needed to the recognize the history indentured labor but opponents claimed that making the day a national holiday would lead to other groups requesting their own day. When the holiday was declared in 1995 it was simply called “Arrival Day” which led Indo-Caribbean leaders, including Basdeo Pandey who would become the first Indian Prime Minister of Trinidad, to declare that the absence of the word “Indian” from the title demonstrated that the government was “ashamed” and “repulsed” by the term. When Pandey came into power that same year, he immediately changed the name from “Arrival Day” to “Indian Arrival Day.”