A Text-Mediated Buddhist Conglomerate and Its Practitioners: Using Institutional Ethnography to Explore Lay Followers' Religious Experience in Tzu-Chi

Monday, July 14, 2014: 4:45 PM
Room: Harbor Lounge B
Oral Presentation
Pei-Ru LIAO , Center for General Education, NPUST, Pingtung, Taiwan
The purpose of this paper is to use concepts of Institutional Ethnography (Smith, 2005) to explore the way in which texts coordinate lay followers’ religious activities in the Tzu-Chi Organisation (hereafter, Tzu-Chi), one of the largest and the most resourceful Buddhist civil organizations in contemporary Taiwan. Although it started as a small civil foundation with a few Bikkhunis and a dozen of lay female followers in the late 1970s, it has grown into an international religious “conglomerate” within half a century, and owns subsidiaries across charity services, educational institutions, medical centres, media industry, and so on. Offering a wide range of charity services and voluntary programs, Tzu-Chi organization transforms the way in which Taiwanese people think about and practice Buddhism. Scholars are aware of the thriving power and transformative structure of this organization. However, not enough debates have been devoted to a) the way in which lay followers, especially female participants, respond to this new form of religious organization, and b) interweaves the discussion with rapid socio-economic changes of 20th century Taiwan. Therefore, the researcher conducted 10 in-depth interviews on female volunteers of Tzu-Chi in order to find out the way in which the followers adapt Buddhist doctrines and practices through the organisation’s modern form. The research findings demonstrate that a) in a rapidly changing society, Tzu-Chi transforms Buddhist groups into a new form of religious organization that offers practices where housewives build up horizontal ties outside the private sphere; b) media texts such as the founding nun’s book publications, monthly magazines, TV dramas produced by its own TV network, and so on, as well as lay followers’ participations in the organisation’s volunteering activities help to consolidate and coordinate lay followers’ religious identities.