Left Side, Right Heart: Ritual Negotiations on the Buddha’s Birthday

by Sara Swenson

"An image of the author lifting a metal dipper to the shoulder of a Buddha statue. The statue is about two feet tall and stands in the center of a raised ornamental garden at the entrance of a Buddhist auditorium hall. The statue platform is framed by a hanging trellis of pink flowers. Two other identical Buddha statues are visible on either side of the figure being bathed."

"An image of the author lifting a metal dipper to the shoulder of a Buddha statue. The statue is about two feet tall and stands in the center of a raised ornamental garden at the entrance of a Buddhist auditorium hall. The statue platform is framed by a hanging trellis of pink flowers. Two other identical Buddha statues are visible on either side of the figure being bathed."

June 6, 2018
  

The Buddha’s birthday celebration in Ho Chi Minh City started a week before the actual holiday. “Ngay Le Phat Dan” in Vietnam is also internationally known as Vesak, Buddha Day, and Buddha Purnima, among other names, and falls on different dates on different countries. I knew the pagodas I am involved with were planning rituals and activities, but I didn’t know where some of my lay friends (non-ordained Buddhists) would go to celebrate the holiday. I decided to post an inquiry on Facebook and received invitations to 21 different events. These included 5 lectures at monasteries, 7 Buddha bathing rituals, 4 charity drives, 3 lunches, a music concert, and a presentation of flowers.

Incidentally, when some of my Facebook friends saw posts and invitations from other strangers on my page, a few noted that I was going to monasteries they knew, or events they thought sounded interesting. We decided to go together and I made introductions along the way between old and new contacts. I’ve recently published a piece on the importance of social media in fieldwork and how these kinds of unexpected connections disrupt the idea of a bounded “field site.” Those with access to Bird Library can check out the article: “Mixed-Reality: Social Media as Ethnographic Method,” Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa 42, no. 1.

For my research, I work with a wide variety of charity groups, both lay and monastic, that already make the margins of my project difficult to define. Volunteer events dive in and out of various institutional settings like monasteries and hospitals. Sometimes monastics lead or host projects at their monasteries, but also rely on lay volunteers to help execute the work. Sometimes groups are run entirely by lay volunteers, but also use monasteries as bases to house charity offices, or to distribute goods during community events. Many volunteers also choose to work with multiple groups, making multiple charity groups incredible porous. During dozens of conversations I’ve heard that people get connected with new groups through curiosity, friendships, convenient timing, and, most often, social media.

I initially struggled with the idea that I was personally informing my fieldwork too much through social media. Even before my fieldwork technically started, my Facebook page became a site through which volunteers from different groups met each other and started to do charity projects together. I became a bee cross-pollinating the various groups I visited, introducing volunteers to new groups, while the same volunteers then introduced me to more groups. Was I helping to produce the very social trend I claimed to be studying? Obviously, yes. However I also realized I had to stop thinking of myself as an agent in driving the volunteer trend. Rather, the trend was happening by and through my research and social media connections, the same way it was happening across other volunteers’ personal pages. I am one node in a process that is much bigger than me. The best way to study this is by analyzing my own experience of becoming a node.

These are the thoughts that raced through my mind again as I introduced people who were inquiring about each other’s comments under my post or via Facebook Messenger. Social media brought together many gracious friends who helped me understand the holiday from diverse interpretations and experiences, and who also let me join in as they negotiated what to tell me about Vesak. I felt I got a richer understanding of the dynamic ways of explaining Vesak precisely because new faces were brought together in response to one post. These connections likely wouldn’t have happened organically… and yet I often hear that social media is just as infused with chance, grace, and fateful encounters as daily life, raising the question of whether anything really only happens “organically.”

In attending the myriad services, ceremonies, and projects I joined, I was also struck by how differently each person articulated the reasons for celebrating the Buddha’s birthday and how to perform the Buddha Bathing ritual. In general, most people agreed that the water should be poured over the Buddha’s left shoulder first… but after that, it seemed all options varied. Left shoulder, right shoulder, back? Head? No, just the shoulders. Should we also drink some of the water? What did this signify? Would the metaphysical efficacy of the ritual be undermined if we did it incorrectly… or was the whole point to purify one’s thoughts, so that the actions didn’t really matter? Some friends negotiated it both ways, shifting between the importance of philosophy and concerns about the metaphysical effects of actions.

Social media, and Buddhism, are both material networks of practices and beliefs that shape the lives of those who subscribe to them. These networks are, in turn, reshaped and affected by the participants who constitute them. One person, one service, one institution, or one research project can contain conflicting multitudes of interpretations, motivations, and activities at any given moment. Social media raises many new methodical concerns for participant confidentiality (for those who want privacy), yet also opens possibilities for these new connections, conversations, and generative tensions like those raised, unexpectedly, by the Vesak post. Generative tensions arise the way the tide, striking shore, leaps into waves that wouldn’t rise without stones. Seeking to understand social media as both “method for” and “product of” fieldwork is like turning analysis away from rocks versus water to consider the waves we make together.