Globalizing Buddhists from margins to center: mobile charisma in the Tzu Chi movement
Julia Huang’s (2009) multi-sited ethnography of the Buddhist Relief Tzu Chi Merit Society (Fojiao Ciji Gongdehui) is a study of flows, both centrifugal and centripetal, and how they are embodied through a globalizing Buddhist movement. Huang positions her study of the growth and expansion of Tzu Chi as an example of a process of deterritorialization where people, ideas, and institutions move out away from their previous confines in particular places and reterritorialization where they flow back to an original center or home as part of a new place-making experience. Huang argues persuasively that the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of Tzu Chi, an indigenously Taiwanese movement, represents the coming of age of Taiwan from a subject in the colonial projects of imperialist empires (Japan, China, the United States) to the center of new globalizing ethnoscape. Drawing on Weberian theories of charisma, Huang argues that the fluid movement of Tzu Chi from its headquarters in Hualian on Taiwan’s previously remote and inaccessible eastern coast out to its global branches and back again is driven by the embodied relationship between its leader, the Venerable Cheng Yen, and her followers. Like a queen at the center of a hive, Cheng Yen sends out her followers to perform her vision of a compassionate, this-worldly Buddhism. To renew their source of inspiration, these followers also travel to Hualian. Regardless of where the followers themselves reside, Tzu Chi headquarters represents a home and their journey a homecoming for it is here that their leader resides and from her that they draw their inspiration and identity as Tzu Chi members.
Gareth Fisher is Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. His research focuses on the revival of lay Buddhism in contemporary mainland China.