Associate Professor, Religious Studies, Occidental College, Los Angeles
When Rubbish Makes Merit: Recycling and Repurposing Sacred Waste as Zung
In the Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist world, sacred objects (ten) become sacred through processes of consecration and through their function and location. When statues, prayer flags, amulets, and other objects age to the point where they are no longer recognizable or non-functional, or are removed from their original context and rediscovered, they are not simply disposed of. Instead, they are recycled and repurposed to create other objects. In this paper, I will explore specifically how older sacred objects are cut up, crushed, melted down, burnt, or mixed with other items to be used as zung, a filling for statues, prayer wheels and stupas that are essential to their consecration. Zung can be made up of a variety of different types of objects, such as printed mantra, amulets and images of Buddhas and dharma protectors, precious minerals, consecrated liquid, chinlap, sacred pills, relics, and most importantly for this paper, parts of old sacred objects including broken statues and torn books. This paper will outline how these old objects are recycled and prepared for re-purposing through processes of purification and re-consecration, thereby demonstrating that things as well as people can constitute part of the cycle of interdependent origination in Buddhist communities, and how ultimately, nothing sacred ever goes to waste.
Co-director CCBS and post.doc., University of Copenhagen
Something rotten in Shangri-La
In the Himalayan region of Ladakh in Northwest India, spiritual tourism and religious pilgrimage is big business. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir state government declared Buddhism to be the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of Ladakh and tourism as the main industry that supports the local economy besides government and army employment. Since Ladakh became accessible to tourists in 1974, the numbers of tourists visiting the region have increased dramatically which has put a considerable strain on the limited resources available in Leh; yet the biggest issue now facing the region is garbage- where and how should all this waste be disposed? While Ladakhis have not yet reached the point where they wish to reduce the number of tourists who spend their valuable time and money to visit the area, they are very aware of the need to develop sustainable tourism initiatives otherwise Ladakh will become yet another forgotten wasteland.
This paper takes a closer look at Buddhist monastic initiatives that forward environmentalist platforms, and how they tackle the issue of waste. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Ladakh since 2011, I take a closer look at the various ways in which Buddhist leaders address waste. While climate change and concerns about the environment have become a global rallying cry, Tibetan Buddhist leaders who have a strong presence in Ladakh have tapped into global discourse on climate change. However, how does this play out on the ground in local contexts? This paper shows how global discourse related to climate change and sustainability has penetrated local initiatives for dealing with waste, yet with a seemingly Buddhist twist.
Lecturer, SOAS University of London
What is thrown away with the doll? Rites of Disposal, Substitutions and the Psychic Life of Matter in Contemporary Japan
This paper investigates the “memorial services for dolls” (ningyō kuyō) as rites of disposal, that is, as an invented tradition that addresses issues of consumption, material excess, and waste. From the “Imperial Doll Hospital” of Nishiyama Tetsuji to the post-war increase of memorial services for dolls, the doll transforms from an innocuous toy to an educational instrument, a decorative item, a nationally coded objet d’art and an uncanny, haunted and haunting thing in the 90s. These changes in register reflect changing understandings of consumption and waste, but also require new ways of getting rid of things. Dolls in particular are difficult to dispose of because they mimick the human form and as possessions have complex relationships to their owners. This paper argues that rites of disposal enable their shift from inalienable and possibly dangerous possessions to a second life as antique, second-hand possession, and/or a source of recycling value. The argument is supported by ethnographic material drawn from temple and shrine rites, interviews with doll makers, collectors and owners, and fieldwork on fairs and flea markets in Japan and abroad.
PhD candidate, Anthropology, The University of Melbourne
Tombstones, altars, ash: In the ruins of Japanese Buddhist death rites
Shaped by sweeping demographic changes, intense urbanisation, and secularisation, contemporary Japanese death rites have radically transformed in recent decades, to become broadly more personal, modest, and economical. In particular, with the collapse of the patrilineal household structure and the temple-parishioner patronage system, the Buddhist model for securing a good death is no longer an achievable or indeed an attractive goal for many. This model is more than an imaginary, and the ‘death’ of modern death rites leaves concrete remains.
Located in the ruins left by a vanishing – but not completely vanished –socio-religious tradition (Ivy 1995), this paper considers the practical and affective burdens imposed by the material remnants of modern Japanese death rites, namely, ancestral tombstones, domestic Buddhist altars (butsudan), and cremains. Like other forms of sacred waste (like the human body), disposal of such items is complicated for practical and moral reasons. Often, it demands the performance of special rites (供養kuyō), which mirror those performed for the human dead. But these disposal methods impose further financial and social costs, and many are unwilling to pay. Based on extended ethnographic fieldwork in the Japanese funeral and Buddhist goods industries, this paper explores the generation of sacred waste from a multi-generational, ongoing process of ruination (Navaro-Yashin 2009; Stoler 2013). I explicate four strategies – veneration (kuyō), recycling, stockpiling, and dumping – deployed by people dealing with these ruins, and probe the sense of unease created by occupying a landscape of ruined tradition.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow, University of Copenhagen
Generosity’s limits? Discourses of virtue and excess in northeast Tibet
Since the turn of the millennium, an increase in disposable income among many Tibetans in northeast Tibet (Amdo/Qinghai) has been paralleled by an increase in religious giving. This has included a wave of new temple building in monasteries and villages, and escalating levels of expenditure on rituals and the sponsorship of monastic events. Supporting the Sangha and building temples are major forms of Buddhist generosity practice and thus virtuous action. Why then are some people critical of the extent and scale of contemporary projects and events, perceiving them to be excessive and wasteful? Are there limits to how many temples a community should build and how big a temple should be? Or to how much money a sponsor should offer to monks and how much food should be prepared for a ritual feast? Drawing on fieldwork carried out in monasteries and rural and urban households since 2008, I take a closer look at ideas about excess and waste in relation to contemporary generosity practices, the tensions they reveal between values of abundance and moderation, and the specific historical context in which these tensions have emerged.
Professor, Religious Studies and East Asian Studies, University of Waterloo
The Afterlives of Butsudan
Japanese temples throughout North America and Hawaii are stuffed with abandoned home altars (bustudan) and associated paraphernalia. Once the treasured possessions of Japanese-American/Canadian families, they are increasingly ejected from the home and face eventual cremation by over-burdened temples. The fates of butsudan point to multiple processes at work in evolving Japanese-North American Buddhism. As families, Buddhist institutions, and social patterns change, butsudan move from honoured, central aspects of home life into more problematic categories, and in some cases are looked upon as waste by new generations. Yet this waste still carries the tint of the sacred, such that this holy junk may meet one of any number of possible fates. Based on interviews with monks in Japanese-American/Canadian Buddhist denominations, primary and secondary documents, and examination of physical objects at Buddhist temples, this project explores those possible afterlives and their implications.
Professor of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Udom Sombun: Abundance and Distraction in the Practice of Buddhism in Thailand
How do we make sense of a the virtues of Buddhist non-attachment and impermanence when surrounded by hundreds of statues, flowers, incense sticks, golden plates, and decorative candles in an average Buddhist temple? This paper will look closely at a selected number of Southeast Asian monastic spaces to explore the value of abundance and excess and their local importance into promoting Buddhist values of graciousness, distraction, cacophony, tradition, and abundance. It will draw on theoretical questions in Affect and Material Cultural Studies and both historical/textual and ethnographic sources.
Research fellow, Anthropology, NYU Shanghai
The hidden force of things: potency, objects and waste in urban Mongolia
In Mongolia essential life forces that help to generate a family’s wealth and success can be hidden inside an animal or object. When a herding family sells a horse, a piece of its hair is often kept in case the essential life force of that key animal is crucial for the larger herd’s prosperity. Objects, likewise, can carry with them important energies that can help or harm a person depending on to whom they are passed and how they are treated. During the socialist period, religious objects were burned during the anti-religious purges of the 1930s. Those that remain from the presocialist period were hidden by families away from the prying eyes of the Politburo. There are now anxieties around the treatment of sacred or semi-sacred objects once they are no longer wanted by family members, and concerns about the spiritual ramifications of waste disposal in general.
This paper will look at how, in the postsocialist context of Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, objects can become infused with special meanings and anxieties. It will look in particular at the treatment of Buddhist religious objects and objects with Buddhist imagery printed upon them. It will examine how people’s treatment of religious objects relate to their relationships with Mongolian religious institutions and religious specialists more generally.
Associate Professor, Modern Tibetan Studies, University of Copenhagen
The wear and waste of Tibetan prayer wheels
My interest in waste conceptions and care related to Buddhist practice and consumption was sparked by the observation that Tibetans whom I visited in China, India, and Denmark did not discard of worn down and broken prayer wheels (Tib.: maṇi ‘khor lo). Like the garbage of everyday consumption, also prayer wheels were sorted and contained, but they were not exiled to marginal places. Instead, retired prayer wheels spent their afterlives inside peoples’ homes or in places considered pure and elevated. This paper explores the value, wear, and waste of prayer wheels with the purpose of initiating a discussion about ‘Buddhist waste.’ What can we learn about Buddhist material objects and waste from studying the afterlife of prayer wheel components? How can that knowledge push the concept of “sacred waste” (Stengs 2014)?