Religion Research Blog

Mamma Bear by Sara Swenson

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

Two rainbow--striped lottery tickets on a wooden table

August 7, 2018

This morning, I went swimming and ate fried chicken with a woman everyone calls “Mama Bear.” I’ve known Mama Bear for three years now. I honestly don’t understand why Mama Bear talks to me, except that she’s kind. She’s only a handful of years older than me but carries herself with a lifetime of cool. She often shows up in slouchy jeans and a tilted trucker cap, with manicured eyebrows but no pedicure, which suggests that her beauty means business. She speaks her mind like it’s the law, yet commands her kingdom graciously. She’s one of the smartest people I know but won’t say clearly whether she holds a high school diploma. It also doesn’t matter. I don’t say that so much as an academic as a girl from rural Minnesota: the world could use a lot more people like Mama Bear.

The first night I met her, Mama Bear rescued me on the street outside a tattoo parlor at 4 a.m. My Vietnamese language classmate in the U.S. heard I was studying Buddhism in Vietnam and introduced me with her tattoo artist in Saigon over Facebook. It turned out he was part of a Buddhist charity organization and invited me to join their charity event for a day. I hadn’t slept most of the night for fear of missing my alarm, and had also taken every pill in my first-aid kit to force an armistice between my running nose and leaping stomach. Instead they combined forces to make me dizzy. I stumbled out of a taxi toward a crowd and wound up under Mama Bear’s arm on a bus. She wore a red baseball cap and ironical smile. I told her that men in America order lobsters to impress their girlfriends, and fell asleep in her lap. I never read an ethnography where a trained researcher fell asleep on her informant after making symbolic generalizations about seafood. Mama Bear clearly didn’t care. She took a selfie with me drooling on her and we laughed about it later.

That day, I hadn’t asked the right questions to prepare and wasn’t carrying enough cash. Mama Bear paid for my bus ticket. She bought milk for me to give to the orphans we met at what felt like a hundred monasteries. Later I learned it was only a dozen. At one orphanage we visited, the outside vendors had sold out their milk. I didn’t know what to do or offer. She pointed to a toddler in a corner.

“Just play with that kid,” she commanded. I am critical of other Americans who show up in developing countries to play with orphans for an hour, and leave taking more than we gave. But I played with that kid.

I finished preliminary fieldwork, came back to the USA, and stayed in touch with Mama Bear over Facebook. This year, we met up again. Not much had changed. We went out a lot. Did charity. Went swimming. Ate a fair amount of Texas Chicken. She continuously lectures me about my need for a better haircut and to quit being so fatalistic about romance. If I take better care of my beauty, she says, I’ll wind up with a good man, and maybe even a rich one, she jokes. It never hurts to be practical.

As I got more comfortable with my fieldwork interview process, I kept pestering Mama Bear to let me interview her. I meet a lot of people with good salaries who do charity. They amaze and inspire me because they could very well live their lives without noticing the poor, and still decide to care. Mama Bear, however, struggles to make ends meet. Yet more than anyone else, she introduces me with other charity organizers. She sends me news about street children in the middle of the night. Many people in difficult situations sell lottery tickets on the street to make some pittance of an income. There are only two people I’ve noticed to buy lottery tickets every time they’re offered: Mama Bear and the fruit vendor across the street from my apartment. When Mama Bear buys lottery tickets, she talks to the sellers respectfully, like an equal. When the sellers approach us, she never makes it feel like an interruption to our conversation. I don’t have that kind of command of self. She does. She has drawn it from the deepest well of herself.

Today after lunch, Mama Bear announced she was coming to my house to look over my “research documents.” Honestly, to let me interview her. I had all my questions for her in heart, but not on paper. We had never set a time to interview and mostly she’d laughed at my invitation. Yet here we were on her motorbike soaring toward my apartment while she lectured me about helmets and cancer and I warned her that I still didn’t have any good coffee at home. We stopped for coffee at a place I suggested. She told me that the coffee was too Korean for her but drank it anyway. I told her I didn’t have a clue what that meant.

We went back to my home and talked for five hours. I made a sweeping show of setting a microphone on the table and opening a ready-made document of interview questions that really had nothing to do with her. I joked that I was being professional. Fancy-like. Pulling out all the stops. She didn’t wait for me to finish pulling the stops out. She only reminded me to press “record” halfway through. She just sat down and talked. She talked the way a torch burns.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets because she once sold them. She isn’t a Buddhist, but drove to a monastery once to pray that the Bodhisattva of Compassion might kill her. She had two toddlers, a miscarriage, and was pregnant with her third child when she was driven out of her home. She had no job, no education, and nowhere to go. She sold lottery tickets at a table on the street because she was too pregnant to walk. As she described her story, she skipped over all the parts where she was alone, or how she wound up at the pagoda begging to die. Instead she concluded with a long soliloquy about love.

She said that now, she loves in order to set an example for her babies. She said she loves so that they will know what it means to love completely, with all one’s heart and energy. She wants to show them how to be a good person, so they can recognize other good people. She does charity to remind herself that some people have it even harder than she did. She doesn’t believe in karma because too often, other women talk about karma to justify the suffering they’ve come to bear. She doesn’t think about future lives, because, she says, this is the only life we know we have. We have to live it the best we can, while we can.

The light of the day fades and we slide off my couch. The ice in our takeout coffee cups melts on my floor. My interview questions go black on the computer screen. Mama Bear wraps an arm around my knees and cries on my living room floor. She doesn’t pause her story or wipe her tears. She just talks. Talks boldly. Talks the way she is. I cry when I see her crying. I suspect this is no longer an interview. There is nothing academic about it. It’s just pain. And courage.

 I don’t know how anyone goes where she’s been and returns.

Even as Mama Bear cries, and talks, and burns like a torch, she keeps asking if I understand everything she’s saying. Every word. I am honest about the words I do not know in Vietnamese. She writes them on a piece of clean white printer paper. There she is, crying and writing, still taking care of somebody else even while she’s falling to ash. I see why people call her Mama Bear.

Before I tried to be a religion scholar, I spent four months as an inner-city pastor. When I signed up, apparently nobody in power understood it was a church whose congregation was close to fifty percent homeless. The established middle-class congregation had absorbed its homeless ministry and made them family, without reporting the demographic change to anybody in leadership. When I arrived, I thought I’d be coping with the usual challenges of expanding attendance and church programming. I had no idea I’d be mopping up vomit, counseling the occasional drug addict, and joining hospital visits for homeless guys who may or may not have had both HIV and cancer.

I was a cocky 23-year-old and a perfectionist who rapidly determined I was in way over my head. I had grown up in rural Minnesota where there is no small share of poverty and violence. But it is a different thing to know a friends’ parents beat her in the silence of a country home than to pray with a man whose face has been knifed open on a public street corner, with nobody intervening. At least, I felt so at the time.

I asked authorities to relieve me of the position. They did. The church was closed within a year. I’ve always wondered if I could have done better. I started my PhD program trying to prove myself, thinking that, if anything, I could retreat among the books I’ve always loved in order to try and make the world a better place.

I retreated to my books, but found myself stepping through their back covers into an even bigger city, among new people who have suffered different kinds of hardships, but still known the same physical pains of violence and hunger. I don’t know how I keep ending up with good people who, I suspect, deserve better than I can offer. While I am no longer in a position to be a leader, counselor, or spiritual advisor, I am learning that perhaps the one thing I can do is try to amplify people’s stories. There are people like Mama Bear who have been to hell and back, and still take milk to orphanages. Her story is important.

Mama Bear buys lottery tickets. She takes her babies on vacation and buys them hamburgers even when she doesn’t know when she’ll get another paycheck. She has worked jobs where her bosses call her “it.” She has also worked for rich people who refer to her, kindly, as a guest rather than an employee. She can be foul mouthed and painfully honest and is exasperatingly picky about her coffee, but strives to recognize everyone around her as, “con nguoi,” people. She sees others as equally capable of her same depth of suffering, and therefore the same super-human love which eventually pulled her through.

Close to 9pm, we called it a day. Mama Bear went through my fridge and asked skeptically whether my milk tea bottles had gone bad yet. We went out for soup at a place that I regularly frequent. Mama Bear told me that the soup quality was terrible and then told me to watch out for taxi drivers who might try to rob me. Every time I went on a motorbike taxi, she commanded, I must send her a picture of the license plate. I told her I take motorbike taxis four times a day. Whatever, she said, send a picture. Then, as if completing the same train of thought, she described a news story about a motorbike taxi driver who had his throat cut by two passengers who wanted to steal his bike. He was only 26 she said. So young. The bike was only worth about $200. Compassion goes both ways.

It’s tempting to make Mama Bear into a hero or saint. I know that’s not my job. When I tried to describe her strength through trial to my dad, he said, “She’s a wounded healer.” Maybe that’s the term. This isn’t the kind of conversation I imagined trying to cram into a dissertation, partly because I know how much my own feelings are crowding into her story. What do you call religion when it winds its way into the darkest and brightest moment of a person’s story? The clearing of the moon from an eclipse?

I have a mounting stack of these things I’m calling “fieldnotes.” In some ways, they are a record of my time and research in Vietnam. In other ways, they are the piecemeal mementos of relationships that have come to represent so much more. I don’t know how I’ll balance the academic and personal functions of these documents someday. But I do know this: one would not be possible without the other.


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Sara Swenson

“Why Ask Why” Questions, and the Order of the Universe by Sara Swenson

A woman in a blue button shirt and straw hat down walks down a path. In front of her are a herd of water buffalo. Mountains silhouette the background.

A woman in a blue button shirt and straw hat down walks down a path. In front of her are a herd of water buffalo. Mountains silhouette the background.

July 12, 2018

We all piled out of a mini-bus at noon, on a day so hot the sky no longer looked blue. The other volunteers gathered around a river’s edge, pointing something out and chatting excitedly. I had just woken from a nap in the backseat and stumbled out under the sun’s glare, asking “What are we looking at?”

                No one understood me. I was tired, mumbling, and sure I had used the wrong word for “looking at.” I tried out a few others, asking, “What do we see? What are we watching? Are we admiring the view, right?” Finally, someone figured out why I was confused. She laughed brightly and said, “You should just ask ‘Why did we stop the bus!’” It was a much clearer question, but it wasn’t a question I had thought of asking.

I wanted to ask a “what” question. They told me to ask a “why” question.

                As a student research, and as a human being, I am learning to navigate all sorts of questions I hadn’t thought of asking. I am also learning to ask why I hadn’t thought of asking them. These “why ask why” kinds of questions lay right at the boundary of our perceptions of reality. I came into fieldwork thinking I would be learning things about other people. Most often I am surprised by what I learn about myself.

Because my dad is a protestant pastor, I grew up sensing, feeling, and seeing firsthand how religion provides existential meaning, community cohesion, and a shared framework for understanding the world. I learned to expect certain things as absolute reality – like the length of a natural life span, or the progression of linear time. This shared framework for understanding the world is called a “cosmology.” Through a “cosmology” we inherit ideas about time, power, purpose, and social order. Cosmologies provide us with our vocabularies for asking certain types of questions. Cosmologies influence everything from how we view niceness to how we think about daily activities. Cosmologies contain our “why ask why” kinds of questions.

Many people are influenced by religious cosmologies even without having a religious identity. For example, most people I know in the U.S. do not believe in reincarnation. Even the slang phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), relies on the idea that people are born and die following one long, linear progression of time. The cradle and the grave are like the beginning and end of a sentence, in which we must summarize ourselves under a 100-year word limit.

This idea, that we only have one life, is reinforced by hundreds of years of Christian influence on European and American cultures, teaching that this lifetime is our one opportunity to reconcile with God. In Vietnam, I have met a number of people who would not call themselves Buddhists, but they are still concerned about karma and believe in reincarnation. Here, Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian philosophies and practices have infused local cosmologies.

Through my fieldwork experiences, I am surprised to find all the ways my personal cosmology is shifting. I have not set out to adopt local religious practices into my worldview, but it’s also not possible to be not affected by daily conversations with Buddhists or not-quite Buddhists who still believe strongly in things like karma. To be sure, this does not remotely make me Vietnamese, and the ideas I’m picking up are also limited to my interpretation of ideas as I think I’ve heard them described.

 Here’s an example.

Many people I talk with in Ho Chi Minh City believe in a karmic “law of attraction.” Due to the influence of good and bad karma in past lives, certain inexplicable coincidences are credited to this larger web of fate. When I bump into people unexpectedly on the street, we greet each other by exclaiming we must have a “predestined affinity” to meet today. The more uncanny coincidences I encounter, the more likely I am to interpret significantly less surprising coincidences as semi-magical.

This is all to say, that when I set out to study Buddhism in Vietnam, I didn’t realize it would take me to the edges of things I have always taken for granted. The tectonic plates of multiple worldviews are rubbing against each other in my own perception of reality. I am being challenged to think about everything from death to the mundane differently. Every day is a slight shift in thought, feeling, behavior, and language, that rearranges the topography of my world. The “why” behind my “why ask why” questions is changing.

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Sara Swenson

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.

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Sara Swenson

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.

Emotional by Mallory Hennigar

At a function in Orissa responding to violence against women on May 1. At bottom left is an image of Dr. Ambedkar and at bottom right is an image of Savitribai Phule.

At a function in Orissa responding to violence against women on May 1. At bottom left is an image of Dr. Ambedkar and at bottom right is an image of Savitribai Phule.

May 11, 2018


As my time in India is coming to a close, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about emotions – mine and others’. Strangely, after so many months of joy, happiness, and contentment, and of course occasional bouts of anxiety and sadness, with the arrival of the over 100-degree days of summer I have begun to feel anger. In my head and in conversations with my American friends my reaction to this anger is to analyze it, to try to explain why I am feeling this way. The consensus seems to be that the heat and a bout of stomach problems certainly hasn’t helped my subconscious preparation to return home by emotionally separating from my life here. Whereas earlier people telling me I’m good was a matter of curiosity to me, as I wrote previously in this blog, now it riles me up. “You know you’re a good girl,” one boy told me after he criticized my performance at a program which was protesting violence against women and the lenient sentencing of rapists for which I was given less than five minutes to prepare to speak. “No, I don’t know,” I responded, “Honestly, I’m not interested in being a good girl.” I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentally linked my anger with my sense of my regional identity as a ‘Bostonian.’ While I was riding on a train from Odisha to Nagpur, packed in like a sardine but without any of my friends so therefore ‘alone’ in the Indian sense, I snapped at a woman who woke me up from a hard-won nap to offer me help. Part of me was ashamed for my aggressive response to a person seemingly concerned for my well-being. But in this moment another bigger part of me was proud of responding boldly in a situation where someone clearly thought I looked vulnerable, something that I immediately associated with my Boston-area upbringing.

Not surprisingly, my anger is met with confusion. Considering that I can barely understand why I’m running so hot these days, it is not a surprise that my Indian friends and interlocuters are even more baffled by my strange responses to seemingly innocuous conversation. One day while I was riding in a cab, the radio was turned to a love advice segment. The theme of the day was ‘anger management.’ Perfect, I smiled, internally mocking myself, exactly what I need. The DJ explained that anger management is very important within relationships, which can often end due to anger problems. He then turned to an anger management expert who offered the advice of wearing a silver ring on one’s index finger to cool hot tempers and also to surround one’s self in colors of gold