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Situating Themselves in the Pure Land of Humanistic Buddhism on Earth - A Study of Chinese American Religiosity at Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California


This dissertation aims to isolate some of the basic study frameworks of describing and understanding how ‘religion’ is currently practiced by many Chinese Americans in the United States. I rely on insights into Chinese American religiosity gained through ethnographic field research and participant observation at Hsi Lai Temple (HLT) in Southern California, a Chinese Buddhist monastery established in late 1980s by the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order headquartered in Taiwan. The resulting work provides a variety of practical frameworks for scholars to examine how religion is woven into the fabric of the Chinese American community at large, and how Humanistic Buddhism, which has been highlighted as a modern formation of Chinese Buddhism to serve and benefit the living in this world here and now, shapes and structures individuals’ daily lives.

This dissertation concludes that HLT offers a themed “hyperreality” environment for raising followers of Humanistic Buddhism among the Chinese American community in Southern California. In the process of making people believe in Humanistic Buddhism, HLT fabricates its own world of credibility by utilizing a broad and deep reservoir of Chinese religio-cultural matters as the source to facilitate the construction of a ritualized mechanism deployed on HLT ground with the blueprint of the Pure Land of Humanistic Buddhism in the present. By bodily situating themselves in the HLT world, Chinese American visitors become religious in the traditional sense of Chinese Buddhism. The evidence from studying traditional Chinese religio-cultural frameworks of the HLT spatial organization and ritualized activity programs and the psychological state of lay visitors at HLT in this research demonstrates that the Chinese spiritual elements of their inherited religious traditions in symbolic forms and meanings are explicitly displayed to, rather than purposefully withheld from, the general public in reinventing people’s religiousness in American society. Studying these religious experiences and mentalities provides an insightful opportunity for understanding how Chinese Americans in the twentieth-first century are developing identities and moral guidance in their daily lives in the United States.

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