Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blurring the educational lines? Material religion in the undergraduate classroom

Francis Stewart explores the pedagogical possibilities of teaching material religions as a way of differently engaging with the concept “religion.” Using her experiences in a recent undergraduate course at the University of Stirling, Stewart argues that an embodied, sensory-based approach to material religions helps students approach theoretical and methodological tenets in different, nuanced, more embodied ways, ultimately yielding a context in which, for students and professors alike, the classroom can come to function as a sacred space. 

MLA citation format:
  Stewart, Francis
 "Blurring the educational lines? Material religion in the undergraduate classroom"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 19 March 2017. Web. [date of access]

Socrates said that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel [i]. This is a very visceral, materially grounded view of the purpose of education and learning. An approach of filling a vessel implies that the students are empty and purposeless until supplied with knowledge by the more learned scholar and that there is only so much they are capable of taking on. A kindling of a flame, however, takes the view that the raw material – the passion, the thirst for knowledge – is already present and the role of the educator is to spark it off and help it grow until it can sustain itself. It removes the limits of knowledge and instead opts for an approach that continues to consume, to grow and to strip away the unhelpful or unnecessary. The Socratic method is one in which a teacher, by asking leading questions, guides students to discovery. It is a dialectical method that employs critical inquiry to undermine the plausibility of widely-held doctrine [ii]. The Socratic method is one that is often employed in the classrooms of higher education, but increasingly, it seems for the purpose of filling a vessel rather than kindling a flame, except in those few students we see as somehow arbitrarily exceptional. This blog posting is asking if we can use material religion not just to engage with the very concept of ‘religion’ (amongst others) but as a means of re-orientating ourselves and our pedagogies. 
It is therefore important to reflect briefly upon what is meant in this posting by both pedagogy and material religion. I arrived at higher education via a career in teaching religious studies in UK high schools (in the UK a high school runs from the age of 11 to 18). I had, therefore, been trained to think about pedagogy from a range of perspectives and developed my own approach based on a synthesis of the theories of Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky who both argue that education should have a dialectical relationship that is articulated in praxis [iii]. Building upon both, I would argue that learning / educational pedagogy is a socially constructed process that relies upon an informed and informative collaborative experience that results in both the educator and the student learning something. In constructing a recent religion course at the University of Stirling I deliberately set it up so that space was created for both the students and I to reflect on what we were learning from each other, to ensure that I was made as vulnerable as them in what I revealed about myself and how I engage with the material objects. When the students devised activities for their peers I took part in them and wrote a reflection for them in the same way they had to reflect on their work for me. I also gave the students ownership of what was made public on Twitter from their work. They would as a cohort select which images they wanted to be placed on Twitter and would then excitedly tell me the following week who had responded, what had been commented. They were never more pleased than when Brent Plate commented or liked their work. 
Material religion is something that had been embedded within my own research and writings, but had only marginally been an element of my teaching until I created this course, an honours level undergraduate course entitled ‘Religion, Theology and Postmodernity.’ It was intended to focus on an understanding of contemporary postmodern culture in regards to its relationship with the divine, the sacred and the ineffable. It explored different ways in which individuals and groups have either embraced or reacted to the post-modern ideology of religious, moral, cultural and political pluralism. An emphasis was placed on material religion as a means of understanding the relationship between religion and postmodernity.
As someone who conducts insider participant research on punk and anarchy subcultures I had focused on the embodied nature of tattoos, clothing, dancing, flyers, fanzines and protests but had limited my teaching on them to words and pictures. However I had grown increasingly frustrated at the limitation of academia in its slavish devotion to ‘the word’, only sometimes supplemented by an image. As someone who is severely dyslexic words are something that both enchant and frustrate, but ultimately remain outside of my natural grasp. In attending the material religion panels at the 2015 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting I was presented with maps, artefacts, websites that one could zoom in on and retrieve video clips, soundscapes, photographs and people telling their own stories. I immediately latched onto this as a way to break the focus on the written word as the dominant educational tool. I looked further into the field and saw the potential within it for widening access and connecting classroom education with the everyday world in a new way, but also noted that nothing was written on how to do so. Therefore this blog posting is offered as a way of moving the field in that direction, in broadening how we teach such a vital subject, as a way of showing the limitless possibilities of educational praxis even in tightly controlled environments and institutions.

Figure 1: Some of the students taking the material religion course at the University of Stirling, Spring Semester 2016. Here they are making their own symbol using air drying clay.

As educators we spend hours deciding what we are going to teach, what we want students to know, to be able to do and how we can quantify those hours – especially with the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework, conceived, implemented and monitored by the UK government and linked to funding allowance) now being developed in the UK. Seldom do we perhaps give any thought to the material space we are working in when we educate, beyond the concerns of enough seats (or students), technology working and so on. Literature on the undergraduate classroom refers to the classroom in relation to the activities or power relations with it, not to the actual space, furniture and walls [iv]. The classroom or lecture theatre is just the space we inhabit for that period of time. Is it the same for our students? When I was asked to create an honours level course at the University of Stirling I began by asking the students what the classroom itself meant to them. These were some of the replies:

It is somewhere I feel a little giddy entering, as it is where things usually come together.” Scott

It is my refuge, my place away from everything else and yet it doesn’t exclude the everyday. I feel my body relax as I sit in the seats and I love the feeling when I get my notebook out and open it on the desk.” Kayla

I like the weight of the door as you push it to go in, it’s an effort but it takes you somewhere. You get to enter something full of possibility.” Arden [v]

Of course there were also the expected comments of ‘it’s where you learn’. However it is interesting to note the type of language that some of the students were using, it could be argued to be ‘religious’ in nature. Their answers tie in with what Brent Plate notes about the nature of being ½: that we seek to unite our wholeness to make ourselves complete, through the senses and through our interaction with the world around us [vi]. That is, I would argue, what these students are doing within the classroom, which raised an interesting question: could a course be designed that took into account their view of the classroom as either a liminal or a potentially sacred space? And how should it be taught? The reminder of this blog focuses on the resultant material religion course that was created and taught on the basis of trying to answer that question. It will include photos, assessment notes and quotes from students.

First though, a brief note on the classroom context and student demographics. At Stirling honours level courses are optional and so tend to be groups between 10 and 30 students taught in teaching labs rather than lecture theatres. The lecturer can determine the shape of the tables but not the remainder of the layout of the room (the screens, projectors and speakers are all fixed to the walls or ceilings). This course had 14 students signed up to take it as an option module and a further 3 students auditing it. The students were a range of backgrounds including UK, EU, American and Canadian and ranged in age from 20 to their early 60s. Religion is not offered as a single honours degree so all the students combine it with another subject. Within this cohort it was predominantly education (this is the most popular combination at Stirling, with most students then going on to pursue a career in state education) followed by philosophy, English literature, sociology and history.

The course
Practically speaking, the course was twelve weeks, with three hours per week teaching time. One of those hours was dedicated to a practical sense-based approach. The other two hours (on a different day) were a more traditional class that engaged with key texts, theory and case studies. The purpose of the one hour practical approach was full sensory engagement so students were not allowed to take notes or engage in typical ‘student’ classroom behaviour. They were also encouraged to have their phones, tablets and other devices that they felt were a key part of themselves on and to use them to record video or take photographs of what they were doing, live tweet their activities, or Instagram it. The practise of coming in and taking notebooks and pens out was so ingrained that they automatically did this for a number of weeks and had to be reminded to put them away. Ultimately three students requested to keep them on their desk but not use them as seeing them there made them feel more secure.
For the first six weeks each class focused on a different sense following Plate’s book. Not only did they have to engage with the material in the book, they had to interact with objects such as drums, incense, crosses and bread. The main activity was always one in which they had to make something from the materials provided that related in some way to the theme of the class. This included painting stones, making their own drums, incense, and a symbol from air-drying clay and creating a meal to share with each other. They were then asked to send me a picture of it – the choice was theirs in regards to how they framed the object. Often they would wait until they got home and think very carefully about the placement of it. When they sent the photograph as part of their assessment they had to write a paragraph on why they made what they did, why they made the decorative choices they did and what the object reflected or came to symbolise for them.

Figure 2: “I wanted to make a modern day ying and yang for my symbol. We get so twisted and contorted by what we think we need, by what we try to learn and understand that we often forget that it all comes back to connection. Maybe with another person, or a god, or just ourselves.” Mike
Figure 3: “Sound is amazing, I hadn’t realised how much it connects us with everything. I wanted my picture to show how much we stop noticing the music of nature because we stick phones in our faces and are constantly bombarding our minds.” Lindsay

Again the language became revealing, they began connecting the practical materiality with some of the theory we were engaged with and discussing, but they also began to express their own experiences of sacrality within the classroom itself. The classroom as a space starts to become sacred for some of the students, moving it from a passive learning environment to one with access to potential life transformations and interactions. What became particularly interesting was by half way through the course, the room itself was a part of this experience. As students completed their activities they would talk to one another about how the desk felt, why they did or did not want to sit in the chair while they worked or where they wanted to display their work. It was not just about the activities, it was the classroom itself that began to be a part of the learning experience. 

Figure 4: “I get it. I finally get it. This is what you meant when you taught us about Foucault’s self-care. It makes sense now. In selecting what I wanted to smell, I had to think about what memories I wanted to trigger. Making a decision like that’s about knowing what you need to help you cope in a world that just sees you in certain ways (sorry I forget how you said Foucault described them). I choose cinnamon and star anise because my Nan baked with them and lavender was her favourite smell. I am really missing her right now. I thought the smoke might rise up to her.” Shannon

This was perhaps the most obvious in the activity that involved the students painting stones I had brought from my homeland of Northern Ireland. They spoke of how they felt the stones didn’t want to be sitting on the desk; the tables were too cold and unyielding for the stones. They wanted to hold them in their hands as they painted. The stones were taken from an ancient forest called Carnfunock (Carn meaning a mound of stones and Funnock derived from Feannog meaning scalded crow – birds were worshipped by pre-Christian Irish) which is believed to be an important site of sidhe for the fae (the entrance space to the other world for the fairies). I explained this to the students and explored with them the significance of stones in the Irish pre-Christian world and belief, including their practise of elaborate decoration. The students were then asked to take a stone and hold it, turn it in their hands and allow it to become theirs. They were supplied with paints to decorate their stones.

Figure 5: Stone pained by Emma, who selected a circular pattern to reflect her own connection with Ireland (where it was a sacred symbol) and her interest in the study of negation.

The students took a long time to select their stones, and began to talk to one another about how the stones were choosing them, not the other way around. One student put her stone back as she wanted a larger one to paint on, but then kept going back to where her original stone was sitting. When I asked her what was wrong she said her stone was calling to her and she felt guilty about putting it back. In the end she asked if she could have both stones, the one that had initially been selected and the one she had painted. They became very attached to their stones and a number confessed to placing them by their beds to help them sleep, or by their books to help them study for their exams. One student told of how she held her stone in her hand and talked to it.

Figure 6: “I created this pattern because it represents what I have learnt on this course so far. It has taken me on twists and turns, places I never thought about before. Sometimes they are just dead ends, or I just don’t understand them. But sometimes, it opens up and makes it all really clear. When I was painting the stone, I was thinking about smudging ceremonies I saw back home and how they have been commercialized like we read in Carrette & King.” Arden

The last five weeks of the course saw ownership of the hour being entirely handed over to the students. They selected groups to work in at the beginning and each group was given one of the five senses to focus on. They had to use Plate’s book as a starting point but could take their approach any direction they wanted. As a group they had to create a learning experience for the rest of the class. The class then contributed to the awarding of the grade for that group by awarding them marks out of ten and writing a paragraph (max) on why they awarded them. The students leading the class had to write a short reflection piece on their experience which they were graded individually on.

Again the activities revealed just how much of a sacred space the classroom itself had become. The group focusing on sight created a range of activities but the aspect that the remainder of the class noted on their feedback marks was when one of the students revealed to the other that he was colour blind and this had denied him his long desired dream of being a pilot in the Air Force. A number of the students thought this brave and pondered if he would have told such a story if the room they were in was not so “special”, “sacred”, “private” or “transformative”.

The student focusing on smell gave everyone a piece of material soaked in frankincense oil and asked them to close their eyes while they were listening to her story that explained why she choose that smell. She told them:

I could picture his large thumb making a cross with the oil on my forehead. The smell of the oil mixed with his usual smell of body odour that I grew to love. From then on I associated frankincense oil with hospitals and healing. Just looking at the bottle in that moment gave me such a feeling of happiness in memory. I wanted to share that with the class. We all carry our own memories and experiences, they make us different and unique, but we can all share them through our senses.” Kayla
Figure 7: Arden beginning preparation of her eco-world activity and Kayla’s frankincense soaked cloth.

 Her partner in the group had created an activity whereby the class had to create a miniature eco-world based on naturally occurring materials found around the campus. She explained that she wanted them to do this because as an exchange student facing leaving Scotland in a few weeks it was the smells that would remain with her the longest, and which brought her back into her happiest memories of her year in Scotland. She explained that for her the smell of Scotland, especially from her walks in the forests and mountains, had helped her to find a spiritual core and connection with the land and she wanted to bring that into the classroom which she had come to think of as “my church, my sacred space on campus.” Arden.

Figure 8: Rebecca’s completed minature eco-world, made under the instruction of Arden.
Their final class was something they were not allowed to know until they entered the room. On the syllabus the information provided for that date simply stated: Can you keep a secret, well so can I.

When the day arrived I had blocked out all of the windows in the room so that they had to step into the unknown. As we waited outside for all the class to arrive the students began talking about how uncomfortable and nervous they were feeling. I asked them why and was told that by keeping it secret and setting it up without them they felt worried that the room had been violated, that maybe the space would be too different so that they couldn’t connect with it in the same way.


What they entered into was a room-size labyrinth with the various things they had used and made throughout the course placed on it. This video is a very short clip of them starting to go round it. They were not told to, but they choose to do it in silence. After they had completed the labyrinth, again without being prompted they sat down next to the object that meant the most to them and began to talk to one another about why it mattered, what it taught them and so on.

Figure 9: Discussing which objects mattered to them and why.

Following the completion of the labyrinth I revealed that their final activity was to be a shared meal in which they had to serve the person behind them, not themselves. As they sat with one another and ate cake, Irish bread and fruit they began to talk about what the course had taught them, what they had enjoyed, what they didn’t like and to share memories and past experiences with one another.

With such strict guidelines, standard exam formats and structured essays it’s occurred to me that nothing is more daunting that academic freedom! The material religion course has been daunting in its own way forcing me to reflect on religion in a physical way. I choose sounds, it was an easy choice. While in the classroom doing the activity the room seemed to transcend the physical action. It became incredibly communal in a communion sense but I can’t explain why.” Mhairi

The impact of the course

All too often as educators we focus on the impact of what we are teaching our students and forget about the impact it can have on us. In undertaking the construction and delivery of this course I was struck not just by its impact on my research, but on how I thought about teaching more generally. I began to see the material world, and the study of material religion as a part of that, as a key factor in the building of relationships both between staff and students but also between varying disciplines. At Stirling we have a range of students that choose to take religion modules for their third choice (first and second year students have to undertake three modules in three different subjects per semester to ensure a breadth of learning), many of whom have not studied religion before. As a department focused on critical religion, asking them to think about and deconstruct the category of religion and its attendant links to power can prove a stumbling block, especially in regards to the language we use. This course has taught me that there is a new way to build a bridge over that language and enable the sports scientist, the marine biologist, the accountant and the computer programmer to see the real links between their chosen modules through a material religion approach.

Placing myself into a position of a visible teacher, as a learner I gathered invaluable insight into what my students experience in classrooms. It taught me how individual perception impacts upon learning and reinforced my belief that there is no one correct way to learn. So why do we so often teach as if there is? Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designs to meet the needs of all students. This course has taught me that material religion can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do. It brought into sharp focus how much transformational teaching relies upon factors outwith of knowledge, such as motivation, emotion, and interdependence. I have now made a concerted effort to include what I have learnt in other, non material religion courses I have since developed or taught at Stirling. No longer do I try to force myself to wrestle with the unwieldy word as a dominant, now it sits as complimentary with all the other senses.

Some concluding thoughts
Alison Jasper notes that there has been “a retrenchment into narrower forms of identification and an increased suspicion of difference in the context of educational policy in the UK – especially in relation to ‘Religious Education’. The adoption of standardized management protocols – ‘managerialism’ – across most if not all policy contexts including public educational spaces reduces spaces for encountering or addressing genuine difference and for discovering something new and different” [vii].

Education has become ever more increasingly stripped of space for exploration, for discovering the new and the different as Jasper notes. Too often those who are not on the classroom floor are viewing the purpose of it as the filling of a vessel, leaving no space for the kindling of fires. Our students come to us with a passion for religion (variously understood), a desire to explore the unknown areas, the genuine differences that exist within ritual, sacred texts, differing ideologies and praxis, and the place of religion in all the different aspects of our contemporary world.

I would have very much enjoyed learning this way throughout my university experience and not just in my final year.” Lindsey
Material Religion was a great aspect of the course and the interactive classes were the most engaging class I have ever taken part in.” Rebecca
The comments immediately above demonstrate that teaching material religion through a practical sense-based approach can help to ensure that spaces are available for encountering and addressing differences, discovering something new and being remade as a space. If we are willing to engage with the possibility of the undergraduate classroom as a sacred space we are perhaps better able to engage in the kindling of a lifetime’s fire for the subject of ‘religion’.
For me, the classroom is my sanctuary, my safe space and where I am challenged and made uncomfortable in a good way, usually. Everything is solid and yet only so because we make it that way. The classroom is the site of therapy and sacrality for me.” Emma

Figure 10: Students working with one another to guess the objects that are covered, focusing on sight and demonstrating trust in Lindsay as it was her activity.

In the spirit of sharing experiences that this blog post is offered, so the syllabus for the course is also offered. If you want a copy of the complete syllabus to use however you wish, you are welcome to it. The only stipulation is that you acknowledge both myself as the creator of it and the University of Stirling as the legal owner.

Endnotes and References

i. Hugh C. Benson, Socratic Wisdom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

ii. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 53.

iii. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Continuum, 2005); Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986, 2012).

iv. For examples, see Attila Szabo and Nigel Hastings, “Using IT in the undergraduateclassroom: should we replace the blackboard with PowerPoint?,” Computers & Education 35 (2000): 175-187, accessed 9 March 2017; Carol E. Kasworm, “Adult Meaning Making in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Chicago, IL, March 1997), accessed 9 March 2017; David Morse and France Jutras, “ImplementingConcept-based Learning in a Large Undergraduate Classroom,” Life Sciences Education 7:2 (2008): 243-53, accessed 9 March 2017.

v. All students have given permission for their first name to be used with their quotes and for their images to be used in the photographs and video clip.

vi. S. Brent Plate, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to its Senses (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).
vii. Alison Jasper, “RE/TRS is a girl’s subject,” Feminist Theology 24:1 (2015): 69 – 78.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

'No Mud, No Lotus’: Experiencing Great Pines Monastery through Edward Soja’s Thirdspace.

Sara Swenson explores how concepts of Buddhist community are spatially configured among a diverse population at Great Pines Monastery (GPM). In this paper, she explores how GPM operates as several different simultaneous “sacred spaces” using Edward Soja’s theory of thirdspace. GPM’s proximity to Denver marks it as a uniquely urban sacred space, and how the space serves to reaffirm two distinct but shared community identities for its Vietnamese and English-speaking communities.

MLA citation format:
  Swenson, Sara
"'No Mud, No Lotus’: 
 Experiencing Great Pines Monastery through Edward Soja’s Thirdspace. "
Web blog post. Material Religions. 25 January 2017. Web. [date of access] 

Figure 1: Thich Hoa Binh introducing guest lecturing monk, Thich Lam Loi in the meditation hall. All three monks wear ceremonial robes to commemorate the special day. Photo enlarged to show altar donations. Note: all photographs used throughout this paper are credited to Great Pines Monastery and were taken with shared, circulating equipment among sangha members. Most photographs are available from GPM.

Inside Great Pines Monastery (GPM) After holding my tense meditative posture for over two hours – back upright, knees to the ground, thumbs pressed together to stabilize my hands into an attentive circle – my attention starts to fade. The guest lecturing monk has been talking steadily and animatedly for all 140 minutes of what was supposed to be a 30-minute question and answer session. My eyes drift around the room, even as I keep my head fixed toward the speaker. 

First, my eyes rise toward the enormous golden Buddha behind him. The ornate Buddha sits on a hand-build pine box, ornately carved to compensate for the simplicity of the mismatched wood. Oranges, flowers, pineapples, and candles circle the Buddha’s golden lotus dais. These gifts and offerings have come from the Vietnamese population at the monastery, in keeping with the Vietnamese-Buddhist tradition of giving Loc as offerings to the Buddha in exchange for blessings, merit, and cosmic intervention (figure 1) [I]. 

 The walls are decorated with framed pictures – gifts from the various sangha members that express their commitments to the many kinds of Buddhism practiced in this space. In one picture, a neon pink and gold Amitabha Buddha floats around swirling worshippers in the Pureland [II]. Another simple black frame contains an ink calligraphy with the phrase “Peace is Every Step,” addressing the Zen crowd. Across the wall from these two is a large, hand-painted script of the Heart Sutra. Elements of Zen, Theravada, Mahayana, and Pureland Buddhisms all share this space, these monastic leaders, and this crowd. Even these Buddhist traditions don’t keep clean boundaries: many of GPM’s visitors adopt beliefs and practices from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and beyond. 

Behind me, light filters in from the sliding glass doors of the living room. Five steps lead downstairs into the den, while another carpeted set of stairs disappears upstairs into the monks’ quarters. Another sliding door opens from the meditation hall into the kitchen. The wooden doors of a closet in the den hide stacks of meditation cushions. Chanting books fill the simple wooden bookcases by the stairs. 

Without the golden Buddha, dais, pictures, and meditation cushions, this would be no different than my grandmother’s own cozy, carpeted living room with fresh white walls. In fact, before Abbot Thich Hoa Binh bought the monastery, this was just another house in the suburbs. Now I am reminded – as my gaze fixes back on the lecturer still talking steadily – this is sacred space. Not just one sacred space, but many sacred spaces simultaneously. 

In his Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-And-Imagined Places, Edward Soja theorizes three spatial types from the writings of Henri Lefevre. These three spatial approaches are (1) perceived, (2) conceived, and (3) lived spaces (Soja, 1996, 66-67). 

To conceptualize these terms through the space of the monastery, I address each category with an illustration from GPM below. 

(1) Firstspace: perceived space is “materialized, socially produced, empirical” (66) and geographic or descriptive. The material, perceived space of the monastery indicates that it is a plain, suburban house with a floor plan, siding, and interior/exterior appearances that could be found in a suburban housing development anywhere in the United States. The architecture’s plain, material properties indicate a real estate classification of “suburban/single-family/house” (figure 2). The house becomes spatially signified as a Buddhist-construction through the presence of Buddhist decorations – the paintings, statues, books, and writings as objects, which are largely only visible from the inside. The only suggestion that this is anything other than a mountain home is a simple wooden sign with the monastery’s names in English and Vietnamese. 

Figure 2: Monastery, adapted suburban home (firstspace).

(2) Secondspace: conceived space is “conceptualized,” ideological space that operates on the level of designs and order (66-67). On the simplest level, the conceived space of GPM is that it is a Buddhist monastery. All the ideas that accompany both “Buddhism” and “monastery” converge on the suburban mountain home to transform it into a sacred space inhabited by ordained bodies. The ideological and ordered purpose of the temple grounds is to promote the three jewels of (1) Buddha (teacher and/or divine figure), (2) Dharma (teachings and/or “proper cosmological order”), and (3) Sangha (community). Complicating GPM as secondspace are the layers of ideas, plans, and expectations that overlay the monastery grounds. The different groups who use the space all have unique ideas about who the Buddha is; which of the sutras is most prominent or important; what the dharma is, where and how it is implemented; and who constitutes the sangha. Stirred among the soil from which these questions grow are different cultural backgrounds; dramatically varying concepts of self and body; and an array of broader beliefs about spirituality, religion, and practice. As such there is no single secondspace that ideologically configures GPM as a “Buddhist monastery.” How these competing, intertwining, and overlapping ideologies manage to share one material firstspace can be understood through Soja’s interpretation of thirdspace. 

(3) Thirdspace: Soja writes, “Lived social space, more than any other, is Lefebvre’s limitless Aleph, the space of all-inclusive simultaneities, perils as well as possibilities: the space of radical openness, the space of social struggle” (68). His metaphor of the “Aleph” derives Jorge Luis Borges’ short story by the same name [III]. Borges describes the Aleph as “the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending” (56). The thirdspace, or lived space, of GPM is the flowing and merging of mixed communities, ideas, expectations, and orders into the material space of the suburban-home-transformed. In this lived space, social struggle and many communities “each standing clear” converge to demonstrate both independence and interdependence. Throughout this article, I further explore GPM as lived space by describing the different groups and members who all make up the dynamic, layered thirdspace of the monastery grounds. 

The People: ‘“ALL’ Members of the Community” 

The third Saturday of the month is a special day, when public events at the monastery run from 5 a.m. until 4 p.m. This is the one day of the month when both Vietnamese and English-Speaking sangha members gather together to share the lived space of the monastery. To my left and behind me are a mix of twenty or so people who have all come to share this Day of Mindfulness together. 

Figure 3: Mr. Nguyen and Stacy meditating before the lecture. This photo especially highlights the differences in dress Vietnamese and English-speaking sangha members wear when visiting the monastery.

We are a broad mix in terms of our backgrounds. Several Vietnamese-immigrant business owners sit reverently in the last three rows. Some sit with their children, who often act as translators when the events or conversations switch to English. My 86-year-old friend Oanh sits with her daughter, Cara, who crouches on her knees to get a better look at our speaker. Across the room from them are Mrs. Phan and Mr. Nguyen. Mrs. Phan wears a pink and black suit jacket under her powder blue lay robe. She is famous for bringing in huge trays of delicious homemade food on days like today. I have never seen her without a carefully matched ensemble of gold jewelry. Mr. Nguyen is a successful restaurant owner who has helped to organize a number of landscaping and development projects around the monastery. He sits solemnly with perfect posture. 

Across the front and middle rows are the group members who self-identify as the “English-Speaking Sangha” (though the distinction is largely artificial: most of the Vietnamese sangha also speaks English). This term indicates the opaque but functioning divide between the Vietnamese immigrants and their children, who usually attend the monastery on Sundays – with ceremonies and practices conducted in Vietnamese; and the group of mostly American-citizen, mixed-ethnicity Buddhist converts, who visit for meditation and a Dharma teaching in English on Tuesdays. 

 I am from Minnesota and my former partner Luke (the one who first invited me to GPM) is from South Africa but has lived in Colorado for the last twenty years. Alex grew up in Florida but was born in Manila to Malaysian-Pilipino parents. Four other regulars I recognize are Laura, Mary, Jill, and Stacy, all of whom are mothers in their mid-50s who have doctorates but left academia to raise their children. Jill has just opened an order-only candy-making business out of her kitchen. Laura still adjuncts on occasion. 

Alex and his friend Jim are veterans of the Iraq War. Alex now lives at the monastery and helps out with photography, the website, and carpentry or construction work as needed. The abbot, Thich Hoa Binh (hereafter “Thay” meaning “teacher”) would like to see him become a novice, but Alex insists monastic life is not for him. His spiritual interests also aren’t strictly Buddhist: regularly in the midst of sangha meals, Alex will turn the conversation towards geographic energy vortexes, aliens, herbology, and the true origins of the pyramids. 

In the few minutes that my gaze has passed around the room, several differences in these groups is apparent: the Vietnamese practitioners are dressed in professional clothing. The women wear beautiful jewelry and have very carefully styled hair and makeup. Many wear their powder blue lay ceremonial robes. Today’s visiting speaker, Thich Lam Loi, a Theravada monk from Virginia, has been heralded for months as an exceptionally honorable guest who will be spending the next few days with us in an ongoing celebration of the New Year. Dressing up signifies respect for the speaker and the extra-sacred quality that the space takes on both with his presence and in the wake of the New Year’s celebration. 

The English-speaking group is here in jeans and yoga pants, with ponytails and wool socks, little makeup and no fine jewelry. Only Alex wears a blue lay robe, a practice he adopted after moving into the monastery. Their dress signifies that this is a relaxed, informal environment. The first time I came to a mindfulness Saturday, I had also been told to dress comfortably in something I could sit in for intermittent hours of hiking and meditation. 

Our different clothing indicate two obvious points of departure between the two groups’ approaches and expectations for the monastery: first, the different attitudes the groups have toward the purpose of time at the monastery (formal versus informal, official/ceremonial versus “spiritual”/relaxed). Second, the different expected activities that each group will perform throughout the day. Even as the main events of the day of mindfulness will all be shared, intermittent activities will be performed separately. For instance, while our group will do a “deep relaxation” meditation in another room this afternoon, the Vietnamese group will have a second dharma discussion. The Vietnamese group also had an additional chanting session in the morning, while the English-speaking group did a mindfulness hike around the frozen grounds. 

When we do come together our shared activities are made to mirror one another, though even these shared activities reveal a difference in the purpose and approaches of our practices. Many of the Vietnamese practitioners follow Pureland Buddhism, chanting devotions to Amitabha for rebirth in the Pureland after this life. The monks facilitate the chanting and ensure that the chants are performed properly. For many of the Vietnamese practitioners, these monks are born teachers whose good karmic rebirth as monks, superior merit, and ordination have enabled them to officiate the rituals. Through a complex metaphysics of karma, merit, and reincarnation, the texts, monks, and chants all generate real physical and cosmological effects in practitioners’ lives and lives to come. 

The English-speaking group also does chanting, but reads their chants out of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s songbook. This songbook frames the chants as teaching practices that help participants focus on mindfulness. The chants and songs are lay-led. Lay song leaders will often bring guitars, banjos, or ukuleles to add playful musical accompaniment. Correctives by the monks are welcome, but not regarded as essential for the chants to serve their function of helping participants bring themselves back to the present moment. Instead of serving a metaphysical purpose, the texts, words, and monastics serve symbolic or pedagogical purposes for the Zen practitioners. 

On this day of mindfulness, the sangha members shared songs and chanted together after lunch. While the exercise was meant to highlight our commonalities, in many ways, it highlighted our differences. The Vietnamese sangha chanted rapidly, uniformly, and solemnly, showing great care with the exercise and words. The English-speaking sangha sang several playful, childlike songs with the accompaniment of guitar. One song we sing is called “No Mud, No Lotus.” The lyrics indicate that there is no difference between sacred and non-sacred spaces or activities – that with mindfulness, everything becomes sacred. This view represents an ontological reality very different than other Buddhist cosmologies which propose that, while all spaces may treated sacredly, some definitely have better or worse karmic footprints. While both groups made an effort to participate in the others’ singing ritual, it was clear that language was not the only divide that marked these as distinctly different kinds of activities (figures 4 and 5). 

Figure 4: Vietnamese sangha members look on as English-speakers share a song about mindfulness with guitar accompaniment.

Figure 5: English-speakers follow along with a high-speed Vietnamese chant.

A similar divide generally breaks down around the purpose of dharma talks, like the one Thich Lam Loi is giving today. Many of the Vietnamese sangha are here for the good merit of being present for the talk. Thich Lam Loi’s words themselves are believed to deposit good merit on the ears and bodies of those within hearing range of the talk, even if they are in a language the listeners don’t understand well. Many of the English-speaking sangha are here to learn lessons about the sutras and Buddhist practices that they can then review and apply independent of the monastery. Thich Lam Loi navigates these different expectations for the talk by maintaining absolute control over the conversation. Rob – an elderly white man and retired professor who claims to have a long background in Japanese Zen – keeps raising his hand to ask questions and add points, but Thich Lam Loi ignores and talks over him. 

Instead of acknowledging the English-speaking sangha’s questions as he talks, Thich Lam Loi asks questions of his own and points to audience members to respond. He calls on me and I offer a ready response. He frowns and says “No!” pointing next to Cara. Cara fumbles for words, clearly surprised to have been called on. When she does respond, he signifies his approval with a curt nod and continues to lecture on the illusion of the senses. 

The different functions of the monks, activities, texts, and chants all mark different secondspace ideologies which operate independently and interdependently in the monastic thirdspace. The space itself takes on several completely different metaphysical realities at once. In one metaphysical cosmology, the grounds are karmically imbued. Coming to the monastery indicates a shifting engagement with Buddhist space that physically influences one’s karma. In the other metaphysical cosmology, the monastery is a teaching space that indicates no physical or metaphysical changes, except perhaps the psychological benefits gained from stress-reducing practices like meditation. 

Of course, these beliefs aren’t cleanly separated into dualistic spheres. Some of the English-speaking participants (who don’t necessarily identify as Buddhist) also believe the space radiates healing sacred energy. Some of the Vietnamese practitioners, especially second-generation children, are interested in the psychological and pedagogical aspects of Zen, or aren’t as convinced that chanting the texts without a simultaneously daily practical commitment to a Buddhist lifestyle will ensure rebirth in the Pureland. These differences exist in the range between the two poles I have described above. In the same way that these groups and ideologies are not cleanly divided, the space is not cleanly divided either.

Founder and Vision: 

This conglomerate of people, Buddhisms, expectations, and practices is all held together by Thay. As the founder and visionary for GPM, the front page of the website declares a sentiment he often repeats and reinforces through the monastery’s space and programming: “The monastery, under the guidance of Abbot Thich Hoa Binh, ‘cultivates many Buddhist traditions including Engaged Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in society) and Pureland, Zen, and meditation which are practiced mostly in the monastic setting.’ Programs at the monastery are for practitioners of all levels and cultural backgrounds.” Thay founded GPM in 2006, a year before graduating from Naropa University with a Master’s degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. The first twenty years of his life are a wild, tragic, and adventurous story, not unlike the immigration tales of other Vietnamese refugees in the room. He faced an extended and difficult move to the United States with his father and brother just following the Vietnam War at the age of nine. First, they fled to the Philippines as “boat people” – travelling for days, packed tightly in hiding on a simple fishing boat. His early years in the U.S. were spent living in several different states. He worked minimum-wage jobs while finishing high school and developing his Buddhist practice as a monastery apprentice. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology in California, curious about the connections between Buddhist practice and the healing of the human mind. Then he came to Colorado to further his Buddhist education and live the life of an ordained monk. According to his autobiographical statement, typed up by Alex and posted on GPM’s Facebook page, Thay declares that: 

“His goal at The Great Pines Monastery is to share the dharma with 'ALL' members of the community. Looking back at his life, Hoa Binh understands clearly that human suffering is pervasive and the stress of our daily lives debilitates our experience for joy, peace and happiness. His intent is to invite everyone to the monastery to have a place of refuge and a moment of stillness to return to one's own heart and mind. He has provided a beautiful place on the mountain for anyone and everyone to contemplate, practice and transform their emotional afflictions into harmony, joy and peace to heal their own wounds.” 

Through his own transnational journey, Thay understood that the diverse Buddhist communities he had encountered along the way were all best served by different aspects of Buddhism, depending on their cultural and familial backgrounds, personal needs, expectations, and cosmological orientations. As his own life bridged Vietnam and the United States, Thay set out to create a monastery that also bridged these countries and communities. Denver had a high population of Vietnamese immigrants, and Colorado already had several other monasteries and temples serving English-speaking populations of spiritual explorers… but not in Denver. So Thay raised funds to buy the house south of the city where he believed he could best serve many different urban Buddhist populations simultaneously. 

Location: “A Place of Refuge and a Moment of Stillness” 

GPM is located approximately 40 miles from downtown Denver, an easy 30-minute drive (figure 9). Participants come from downtown, around the suburbs, and from other urban areas like Boulder and Colorado Springs. While the monastery isn’t far from major centers of suburban life (there is a large shopping mall just ten minutes away), the mountains and forest create the quick illusion of distant retreat. Once a driver begins the trek up highway 285 the city disappears into a shimmering mass of light and metal below. The beautiful mountain pass ascends quickly through pine trees and around curving rocky bends. Amidst the surrounding elements of wilderness one feels a definite geographic break from the city, even though the landscape remains dotted by suburban homes and is divided by a well-maintained four-lane road. 

This geographic break was important to Thay’s design, as it marks a literal change of scenery from the “stress of our daily lives” to “a beautiful place on the mountain for anyone and everyone to contemplate, practice, and transform their emotional afflictions… a place of refuge” which offers “a moment of stillness.” The geographic distinction is made possible by GPM’s proximity to the city. The contrast and closeness of Denver make GPM a visible break from the highway and skyscrapers, all visible from the parking lot overlook. Thus the sacred stillness of GPM is in many ways an urban stillness: its existence is contingent upon the city. 

The city also operates as a contrasting “routine/mundane” to the “special/sacred” of GPM. Participants must make a conscious commitment to driving up the mountain to visit GPM. Monastery activities are all planned after usual business hours or on weekends, creating a temporal buffer between stressful/daily/routine city work hours and peaceful/evening/set-aside monastery time. 

For English-speaking sangha members, the monastery is a spiritual getaway where they can leave their usual identities behind along with their professional clothes, burp rags, make up, and brief cases. The group’s informal dress and playful, casual style reinforces the monastery as a space for casual relationships, exploration, and “non-judgment” (a word often circulated among self-reflecting English-speaking members). Many sangha members bring their dogs and potluck dishes or leftovers to the Dharma teaching on Tuesday nights. Very few bring their jobs or families into conversation – I had been visiting for several months before I heard much about the personal lives of attendees. Luke and I were the only ones who came as a pair – most attendees came independently, without spouses or children, though Laura, Jill, and Stacy occasionally carpooled as they all lived on the north side of the city. Mostly, we joked about our struggles with the practice or, especially when Alex entered the conversation, had broader existential conversations about morality, the Dharma, alien-deities, and the nature of the universe. Our rhetorical relationships reflected our expectations for the space: while we were all close and supportive as sangha-members, our friendships did not extend beyond the monastery grounds. GPM was our spiritual getaway from the usual communities and relationships that constituted our daily lives.

Alternatively, the Vietnamese sangha operated to reinforce and strengthen the Vietnamese community that was otherwise spread out through the city. While one neighborhood was home to many of the Vietnamese businesses, busy work schedules and school commitments (for their children) made GPM an important space for reinforcing the group’s community identity. The religious functions of GPM were just one way that the Vietnamese migrants sustained an important sense of culture and connection. GPM also became sacred grounds for sharing traditional foods, speaking Vietnamese, and honoring traditional social structures which might otherwise be disrupted by post-migration social or economic conditions [IV]. 

Figure 6: Kids playing on meditation cushions.

Vietnamese sangha members often came as whole families. In cases where children were grown as was the case with Cara and Anh, GPM became an important space for families to visit and reinforce sometimes separate, 

GPM was able to operate as a Vietnamese retreat from their otherwise largely integrated lives in the city precisely because of its urban proximity. The population of Vietnamese immigrants had first attracted Thay to buy in the area. The mostly middle-class sangha of business owners was also able to financially sustain the community because of their financial successes in the city (a similar fact for the equally urban middle-class English-speaking sangha). 

Comparing and contrasting these urbanities: the English-speaking sangha approached GPM as a sacred space for its relaxed removal from daily city life. They were attracted to the anonymity the space provided for breaking away from conventional behaviors and social roles (like, for Stacy and Jill: mothering). The Vietnamese sangha approached GPM as a sacred space for its ceremonial and community functions, as a place to reinforce cultural habits and practices. 

On special days like the third Saturday Day of Mindfulness, these two sanghas share the space and fulfill these personal and community functions simultaneously. The differences between the sanghas – like the contrasting reverential and relaxed or playful attitudes in dress and practice – are generally understood and respected as valuable aspects of the community as a whole. Thay’s translation and affirmation of both sanghas as essential parts of the same united Buddhist sangha no doubt helps to bridge this gap. 

Conclusion: Sacred Thirdspace? The Aleph as “Buddha Field” 

Through this paper, I have proposed a sacred dimension of Soja’s thirdspace through an exploration of GPM Buddhist monastery just south of Denver, Colorado. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize Soja’s Thirdspace in the layered sacrednesses of GPM is through the Buddhist concept of the “Buddha Field” [V]. In the Buddha field, multiple strains of Buddhism and many Buddhas exist together in a multi-dimensional realm. The Buddha-field fuses with this and other universes, but also transcends these immanent bounds. The Buddha-field is a sacredness that defies categories and, like thirdspace, encompasses innumerable possibilities and realities simultaneously. This fusion of thirdspace and Buddha-field converges at GPM. The sacred spaces of GPM intertwine many sacred possibilities, many metaphysical possibilities, and many ways of being and being Buddhist at once. It is Vietnam and Colorado, Zen and Pureland, representational and karmic space. GPM is also a distinctly urban sacred space that exists, perhaps ironically but absolutely contingently, just outside of the urban sphere. Understanding GPM as thirdspace is helpful for understanding the monastery as a layering of sacred spaces. At the same time, reading GPM through Thirdspace informs Soja’s conceptualization by adding a sacred, “ineffable,” Buddha-field dimension to the unbounded possibilities of thirdspace. 

End Notes: 

[I] For a thorough explanation of rituals around Vietnamese Buddhist spiritual offerings, I recommend Alexander Soucy’s. The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2009).   

[II] Concepts of the Pure Land or “Western Paradise” come from Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism dating to the 1st Century C.E. that is currently dominant in much of East Asia. In Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, beings (including humans, animals, and spirits) die and are reborn through cycles of reincarnation. Rebirths are moderated by one’s “karmic” status. “Karma” is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “effects” – one’s karmic balance is determined by a cause-and-effect correlation between one’s intentions, actions, and fate. For instance, someone who performs acts of kindness and generosity, with selfless intentions, will accumulate “merit” or “positive karma.” Someone with positive karma will be reborn into a life with fewer challenges and difficulties – in short, performing good deeds cosmically attracts good luck, good deeds, and favor from others. A desirable rebirth does not immediately lead to enlightenment or state of “nirvana” (signified through transcendence from these karmic cycles of death and rebirth); however, a life with less difficulties or higher status is often believed to ease one’s access to understanding Buddhist teachings, leading to enlightenment. Conversely, negative karma leads to more difficult future lives, diminishing one’s likelihood to attain enlightenment in a cosmic moral feedback loop. One realm into which beings with significant positive karma may be reborn is called the “Pure Land.” The Pure Land was created by a Buddha called “Amitabha Buddha.” Many believe that Amitabha Buddha can also offer karmic interventions on behalf of those who regularly chant or invoke his name or undertake certain meditative or visualization practices. Pure Land Buddhists who do not believe they are ready or capable of achieving enlightenment in this lifetime will undertake devotional practices to Amitabha Buddha with hopes of being reborn in the Pure Land, where all obstacles to enlightenment will be removed and where they will be rendered fully receptive to the Buddha’s teachings. A Pure Land rebirth is regarded as an almost-guaranteed gateway to Nirvana. Of course, there are diverse variations and interpretations of Pure Land teachings and practices across cultures where Pure Land Buddhism is popular. For more information see: Mark L. Blum’s The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyonen's Jodo Homon Genrusho (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). A succinct informal summary is also available here from BBC’s Religion forum.

[III] For a primary source, see: Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” in The Aleph and Other Tories: 1933-1969 (New York: Bantham Books, 1971), 3-17. 

[IV] For an exploration of the effects of migration to America on traditional Vietnamese social structures, especially family structures and gender roles, see: Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2011. 

[V] For an academic description of the Buddhafield I turn to Taigen Dan Leighton’s Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 58-59. Leighton discusses the Buddhafield as multiple, simultaneous realms in which Bodhisattvas practice, but also the bodies and teachings of all Buddhas in one metaphysical plane. 


Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph,” 3-17 in The Aleph and Other Tories: 1933-1969. New York: Bantham Books. 1971. 

Lieu, Nhi T. The American Dream in Vietnamese. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2011. 

Leighton, Taigen Dan. Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2003. 

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Spaces. Cambridge: Blackwell. 1996. 

Swenson, Sara. “Saturday ‘Day of Mindfulness.’” Ethnographic Materials: Journal and Photographs. January, 2012. 

Soucy, Alexander. The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2009.  

“Pure Land Buddhism.” BBC: Religion. Last Updated 2 October 2002.

Blum, Mark L. The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyonen's Jodo Homon Genrusho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.