Understanding boundaries through Buddhists’ construction of identities

Note: This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Di Di
Assistant Professsor of Sociology, Santa Clara University


People’s construction of religious identity involves establishing boundaries — a process within which they navigate their relationships with those who do not practice religion or practice other religions (Ammerman 2003). While discussions on religious tolerance cannot be separated from the mutual understanding of those affiliated with different faith communities, such understandings are often reflected in the articulation of religious identity.

In my research, I examine how Buddhists who affiliate with the same international Buddhist headquarters construct different identity boundaries according to the national context in which they live and practice their faith. Buddhists at Pagoda Temple, in China, construct a temple-specific identity, differentiating themselves not only from non-Buddhists but also from Buddhists not affiliated with their temple. In contrast, their counterparts in the U.S. perform a permissive Buddhist identity centered on the individual and minimize all symbolic boundaries (Di, 2018).[1]

My findings indicate that the way in which religious people construct symbolic boundaries depends on (1) how they embrace religion and (2) the majority/minority status (real or imagined) of their religion. While the majority/minority status of religion is constructed in complex historical, social, and cultural contexts, policies may help to create religiously plural societies — domestically, internationally, and globally. Policies may also create opportunities for people to explore other religions, leading to an understanding and appreciation of other faith traditions.

Different religious identities

Before my fieldwork, I expected that the religious identities of Buddhists at the two temples I observed would be similar since their practitioners recognize the same type of Buddhism, affiliate with the same international Buddhist headquarters, and even receive the same interpretation of Buddhism, usually in the words of the international headquarters’ founding master. To my surprise, however, the articulation of their Buddhist identities differed. For example, a Chinese Buddhist woman [2] at Pagoda Temple said: “Buddhists in our temple have a different level of understanding [from those in other temples]. I have asked myself why, but I don’t know. What I know is that we  understand and observe the [Buddhist] rules.” Her Buddhist identity is temple-specific, formed as a symbolic boundary between her type of Buddhism and the secular world—an inter- as well as intra-religious symbolic boundary.

This temple-specific Buddhist identity differs from that embodied and articulated by her counterpart at the U.S. temple, who reflected on her understanding of her Buddhist self as follows: “I think we should follow the Venerable Master who said we are all people on earth. We are all born and raised here. If you do not [make a difference], things will be easier. If you want to distinguish people, your perspective would be very narrow, right?” Unlike her peer practitioner in China, this practitioner minimizes all symbolic boundaries to her identity. In general, Buddhists at Pagoda construct symbolic boundaries not only to differentiate themselves from those who affiliate with other religious traditions but also from those who practice Buddhism outside Pagoda temple. Practitioners at Lotus, however, minimize boundaries to their Buddhist identities and integrate into the broader and often secular societies in which they live. Why, then, do Buddhists who practice the same type of Buddhism construct their religious identities so differently?

Different frameworks to embrace Buddhism

Buddhists at the two temples adopt quite different frameworks to embrace their religion. At Pagoda, they dutifully learn their religion, while at Lotus they critically explore other religions. I talked to a 60-year-old Buddhist woman at Pagoda Temple who referred to her approach to Buddhism as a learning process. “I started to learn how to behave and be a good person according to Buddhism after I came to Pagoda Temple. What I knew before were these secular rules in society. I did not know what the purpose of learning Buddhism is, how I should behave as a Buddhist, and how I should handle all these things in my life appropriately.”[3] As reflected in this narrative, her understanding of Buddhism comes primarily from the temple’s learning process; that is, Pagoda Buddhists learn Buddhism dutifully.

Her peer practitioners at Lotus, however, critically explore other religions. Many Lotus Buddhists with whom I spoke visited other faith communities, particularly Christian congregations, sought other interpretations of Buddhism online, and critically evaluated their faith by comparing their temple’s discourses with other religious views. For instance, a Buddhist[4] at Lotus reflected on his exploration of different religions: “If you go to a Christian congregation, you will find that when people pray, there is probably a band. It is much like a concert and very fancy. Christian sermons and prayers are very well constructed. Here is the distance (between Christian congregations and Buddhist temples).” This person is typical of many practitioners at Lotus, exploring other religions and comparing their discourses with those endorsed by his temple.

Temple cultures the majority/minority status of religion

Buddhist identities are also constructed on the temple-level culture — the linguistic and behavioral patterns that direct practitioners’ interactions within the temple. Although Pagoda and Lotus embody different types of temple culture, both are constructed on the majority/minority status of Buddhism in their respective contexts. Specifically, Pagoda embodies a strict temple culture, which means that practitioners have protocols for eating, greeting, and behaving that most practitioners endorse, while sanctioning others to ensure that “insiders” observe their behavioral and linguistic requirements. During my ethnographic observations, I was guided and corrected on how to eat, greet, and change my hairstyle to fit the temple culture.

Unlike Pagoda, Lotus embodies a permissive temple culture. Although there are similar linguistic and behavioral patterns at Lotus, they are usually recommended rather than required. I observed a monastic member ask a group of young practitioners to follow the behavioral greeting requirement—to place palms together and say “Auspicious Venerable” — but the young practitioners did not comply. They continued to say “Hello Venerable,” indicating a permissive culture continually constructed on mutual compromises between monastic members and practitioners.

Previous studies indicate that the permissiveness and strictness of faith community cultures may be constructed on the majority/minority status of religion in their respective countries (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003). Although the official ‘religion’ of China is atheism, (Yang 2011), Buddhism remains a major Chinese faith (Pew Research Center 2012). According to one survey, 18.2% of Chinese are affiliated with Buddhism (Pew Research Center 2012), and many others follow Buddhist practices as part of a cultural repertoire which they integrate into Chinese history and folk religions (Yang and Hu 2012). By embodying a strict temple culture, Pagoda differentiates itself from other seemingly similar Chinese Mahayana temples. However, in the U.S., Buddhism is a minority religion and ethnic Chinese Buddhists are a dual minority, (Pew Research Center 2012), which leads to a permissive temple culture at Lotus that minimizes differences with mainstream society.

Concluding thoughts

My research indicates that the construction of religious identity is conditioned by two elements: (1) the framework within which people embrace religion and (2) the majority/minority status of religion in their respective local and national contexts. I provide more detailed description on Buddhists’ religious identities in my article, “Paths of Enlightenment” (Di 2018). Pertinent to the discussions on religious tolerance, if we see the construction of religious identity as an important component in the promotion of mutual understanding among different faith traditions, policy endeavors may promote opportunities for people to explore and learn about faith traditions with which they are not familiar.

An important qualification is that the findings from this post are generated from a cross-sectional understanding of the experiences of Buddhists at two temples and may not be generalizable to people affiliated with other faith traditions in other local or national contexts. While the current study’s generalizability is limited, it nevertheless offers a detailed picture of the mechanisms through which people construct religious identity, and any policy implications that emerge are a first step to achieving mutual understanding among people who are affiliated with different faith traditions.



[1] Part of the findings in this post is published as “Paths of Enlightenment: Paths to Enlightenment: Constructing Buddhist Identities in Mainland China and the United States” on Sociology of Religion.

[2] Pagoda_040, Buddhist woman, 51 years old, observed February 21, 2016

[3] Pagoda_043, Buddhist woman, 60 years old, interviewed February 21, 2016

[4] Lotus_009, Buddhist man, 46 years old, interviewed June 5, 2016


Works cited

Ammerman, Nancy T. 2003. “Religious Identities and Religious Institutions.” In Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, edited by Michele Dillon, 207–27. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Di, Di. 2018. “Paths to Enlightenment: Constructing Buddhist Identities in Mainland China and the United States.” Sociology of Religion. 79(4):449-471.

Eliasoph, Nina, and Paul Lichterman. 2003. “Culture in Interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108 (4): 735–794.

Pew Research Center. 2012. “The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the Worlds’ Major Religious Groups as of 2010.” Retrieved August 2, 2019 (https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/)

Yang, Fenggang. 2011. Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. Oxford University Press.

Yang, Fenggang, and Anning Hu. 2012. “Mapping Chinese Folk Religion in Mainland China and Taiwan.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (3): 505–521.