Theravada is one of the three main branches of Buddhism. In Asia it is practiced widely in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. This fascinating ethnography opens a window onto two communities of Theravada Buddhists in contemporary America: one outside Philadelphia that is composed largely of Thai immigrants and one outside Boston that consists mainly of white converts.
Wendy Cadge first provides a historical overview of Theravada Buddhism and considers its specific origins here in the United States. She then brings her findings to bear on issues of personal identity, immigration, cultural assimilation, and the nature of religion in everyday life. Her work is the first systematic comparison of the ways in which immigrant and convert Buddhists understand, practice, and adapt the Buddhist tradition in America. The men and women whom Cadge meets and observes speak directly to us in this work, both in their personal testimonials and as they meditate, pray, and practice Buddhism.
Creative and insightful, Heartwood will be of enormous value to sociologists of religion and anyone wishing to understand the rise of Buddhism in the Western world.
Cadge, assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, presents a carefully considered ethnography examining "how Buddhism arrived in the United States and is... adapting" to its new context.Specifically, she focuses on Theravada Buddhism, the branch practiced in such Southeast Asian countries as Thailand and Sri Lanka. She begins with an overview of the history of Theravada Buddhism and its establishment in the U.S. by both Asian immigrants and separately American-born converts who had studied in Asia. She spends the bulk of the book focusing on Wat Phila, a Thai temple near Philadelphia founded and attended by native Thais, and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC), founded and attended primarily by white Americans. Drawing on extensive field work, Cadge compares and contrasts gender roles in each center, how each center creates identity as a community and how, despite common roots, each defines the "heartwood," or core of being Buddhist, differently. (Wat Phila consciously emphasizes the centrality of ritual, while CIMC consciously de-emphasizes it.) Although Cadge's descriptions of Wat Phila's and CIMC's practices and people are often detailed and her theses are clearly articulated, her approach is academic (the project began as her doctoral dissertation). The result is an informative study that will appeal more to the scholarly set than to rank-and-file Buddhist practitioners.