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Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community

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The vihara or "dwelling place" is typically a space in Sri Lanka where Theravada Buddhist monks study Pali language texts and educate the next generation of monks. The content of these texts are known as the Buddha's Dhamma, which means
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  C. Walters, Univ. of Florida: Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community 1 [will create ice-breaker specific to conference]The vihara or “dwelling place” is typically a space in Sri Lanka where Theravada Buddhist monks study Pali language texts and educate the next generation of monks. The content of these texts are known as the Buddha’s Dhamma, which means the Buddha’s highest teachings. The study of Dhamma, which is revered as an entity in and of itself, is the primary purpose the vihara as a religious institution in Sri Lanka, and the concept of the vihara as a space in which to gather has been carried out of Sri Lanka by migrants and refugees and into the Diaspora where many find themselves today. However, in the Diaspora setting, this vihara or “dwelling place” becomes one shared by both the ordained and the laity in which textual study and cultural expression takes place. The most important purpose the vihara serves for the Diaspora community is the socialization of the second generation. My research explores the social dynamics of Sri Lankan youth who attend Dhamma Classes at the Florida Buddhist Vihara, located in Tampa Florida, on Sunday mornings. Here,they are taught about their religion and provided formulated responses by their community leaders. These responses are shared so that kids can better respond to their peers who pose questions to them about their ethnicity, culture, and religion. Their classmates are seen as identifying with mainstream American values of consumerism, competition, and individualism, and so the narratives imparted onto  C. Walters, Univ. of Florida: Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community 2 the second generation often attempt to disrupt these values by promoting idealized Sri Lankan values of simplicity, cooperation, and collectivism. This is made interesting by the fact that although they denounce materialism, oftentimes the reasons they migrate are due to material and financial betterment and opportunities. Additionally, the youth must actively employ these narratives in order to promote the positive assumptions of American society which are based on ethnic, cultural, and religious stereotypes about Indians and South Asians as  peaceful and more ‘spiritual.’ While I am cautious about drawing broader conclusions based on my own limited research, I believe there are common themes that reoccur in the South Asian Diaspora which are illustrated by the Tampa community with whom I work. Similar themes I will explore here have been discussed by South Asia scholars such as Martin Baumann, Vasudha Narayanan, Knut Jacobsen, and others, and it is their scholarship on South Asian Diaspora communities which heavily informs my own. I use the Tampa example as a way to provide a concrete example of the dialogue that takes place in Diaspora communities when they must confront their host culture and decide how they will respond to pressures of assimilation and accommodation. In order to more clearly illustrate the processes at work, I will first describe the way in which the Florida Buddhist Vihara organizes their Dhamma classes,  C. Walters, Univ. of Florida: Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community 3 followed by a brief description of the content being taught and the cultural and ethnic values embedded within this content. Lastly, I will draw conclusions based on reoccurring themes which suggest the ways in which Sri Lankan youths in Tampa respond to the host culture, namely US mainland culture, and how they themselves use these narratives to respond to their peers’ inquiries about their ethnicity, culture, and religion. ***As with most religious institutions, the education of the youth is of utmost importance, and to this end, community leaders work tirelessly in order to create conditions which are conducive to socializing the next generation. In the Diaspora,the necessity of this process is even more crucial if those values which are seen as essential to their community are going to survive. At the Florida Buddhist Vihara, there are approximately 80 school-age children in attendance during any given Dhamma class, and so the group is broken into four smaller manageable classes according to age and age-appropriate educational materials. The age groups roughly follow this scheme: the youngest group is comprised of three- to five- year-olds, the next age group is six- to ten- year-olds, and the third group is made up of children ages 11 to 14. These three younger groups of the four groups are all led by a Sri Lankan mother. Lastly, the fourth andeldest group is comprised of high school age students and is led by a college-age  C. Walters, Univ. of Florida: Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community 4 woman who is seen as close enough in age to her students to be approachable, but older enough to advise her students on correct religious interpretation. Though the classes are largely parent-led and parent-organized, the monks at the vihara help out the two older classes with any more specific questions they might have about meditation or Pali language texts. The content being taught in each of these age groups is intriguing, not only for my fellow religious studies scholars, but also for those interested in Diaspora studies, identity formation, or ethnic studies. It should not be surprising that the youngest age group, who have not yet confronted social pressures outside of their community, are occupied with Buddhist-themed coloring books, songs, and play-time with toys such as plush Buddha dolls. The second youngest age group, however, is at the age where they are  becoming aware of their status in the larger Tampa area as religious, racial, and ethnic minorities; thus, they read books and listen to Buddhist stories which contain moral lessons about the Buddha’s life, Buddhist values, and appropriate ways to behave socially as Sri Lankan Buddhists. They also have bi-weekly homework assignments based on their readings which address questions like  playground bullying and cooperating with their peers. Though the teacher seems unconscious of it, she is laying the foundation for identity formation for her  C. Walters, Univ. of Florida: Dhamma Classes in a Diaspora Sri Lankan Buddhist Community 5 students as they navigate their way socially among their peers, most of whom are not South Asian, let alone Sri Lankan. The second oldest group explores the foundations of Buddhist meditation and how to apply these skills in their daily lives. The main themes that reoccur in this class revolve around appropriately expressing anger, cultivating tranquility, notharming others, and [quote] ‘keeping happy.’ Periodically, the junior monk who resides at the vihara checks in with the class to ensure that all questions about meditation have been addressed. The high school age group reads primary texts in translation and discusses the more intellectual meanings and lessons to be derived from them. It is assumed that these students already have the foundation for controlling anger and desire through meditation, and so time is spent on more advanced religious material designed to make them informed adult Buddhists. Since I have spoken directly with the students in this age group, they made me aware of the fact that they feel there is a gap between what they discuss in class and the pressures they face from family and peers related to dating, academic performance, and their future careers. ***The discussion of Dhamma class content leads us directly into an analysis of how these values are constructed in a way that are based on notions of ethnicity and shared culture which actively work to both harmonize and disrupt assumptions
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