While researchers writing on Buddhism in the West often—and correctly—distinguish between “ethnics” and “converts” as two different types of practitioners in Buddhist organizations in the West, there are also tensions “between those who value the traditional authority located within the lineage and those who value the rational authority located within the wider western culture,” writes John Stephen McKenzie in the current issue of Fieldwork in Religion (Vol. 7.1).
McKenzie researched the Rokpa International in Scotland, where ethnic Tibetans are few (mostly monastics), and identified five categories of Buddhists: “lineage-trained Tibetans” are ethnic Buddhist who lead the organization and are primary power holders; they derive high status from their position in the lineage and attempt to preserve tradition, while being willing to adjust to an extent varying among themselves. There are also, however, “lineage-trained Westerners,” some of whom have been ordained, enjoying a legitimacy derived from their degree of training, and association with famous teachers, knowledge of the tradition, but also status in secular society (e.g. holders of a PhD). Over time, recruitment procedures of those ordained have become stricter.
Some active converts are lay Buddhists, described by McKenzie as “Westerners in lineage-adapted training,” who come to rely strongly on a teacher more than on literature through their practice, and also strongly identify with the tradition and the organization; they may play an important role as volunteers and occupy minor influential positions. Then there are “Westerners adapting lineage training,” who mix their interest for Tibetan Buddhism with elements of other religions or alternative beliefs, from Christianity to New Age; they may be regulars, but remain eager to select and retain their independence in relation to the role of teachers.
With their greater commitment to Western cultural values, they can access neither higher teachings nor power positions, but their financial contribution to the organization may be important in some cases. Finally, there are “non-lineage trained spectators,” who visit centers without having an interest in becoming involved, but also provide a source of income to the organization, and in some cases may commit themselves at a later stage. McKenzie’s typology points to the utility of the sociological concepts of authority, power, and status for understanding the practice and development of Buddhism in the West.
It also helps to understand the role played by different types of participants and their interdependency.
(Fieldwork in Religion, Equinox Publishing, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S3 8AF, UK, http://www.equinoxpub.com/FIR)