Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Taking Up the Practice: Conversion and Buddhist Identity in New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-09, 00:05 authored by Kemp, Hugh P

In a similar fashion to other Western nations, Buddhism is gaining traction in New Zealand. This thesis seeks to answer the question "why do New Zealanders convert to Buddhism?" Implicit within the question is "how do New Zealanders become Buddhists?" My chief concern however, is to address the subsequent question "what identity do convert-Buddhists construct for themselves as New Zealanders?" Employing qualitative sociological methodologies (formal and informal interview with participant observation) I demonstrate a variety of pathways New Zealanders take as they journey towards and embrace Buddhism. While initially using the word "conversion", I demonstrate that this is not a word (or concept) with which the interviewees easily identify. Rather, "taking up the practice" is a more readily accepted conceptual field of the transformation one undertakes from being "not-Buddhist" to becoming "Buddhist". Using methodology informed by narrative analysis, I conceptualize the content of interviews around four factors informed by Weltanschauung - worldview - and explore their inter-relationships: practice/ritual (PR), selfhood (SH), belief (BL) and involvement (IN). I demonstrate that having "taken up the practice of Buddhism" interviewees continued to find meaning chiefly in practice/ritual and involvement. I then locate the interviewees' auto-narratives within a larger socio-historical narrative, that of Arcadia. I take a position on Arcadia, arguing that it is not only a seedbed for a clearly recognizable myth that shapes New Zealand worldview, but it also serves to be fertile socio-cultural soil into which Buddhism is readily planted. The Buddhist practitioners whom I interviewed, in the main, believed New Zealand to be a "good place to practise Buddhism". I explore this notion by drawing on Arcadian images, and by identifying four socio-cultural locales where Buddhism can be seen to be taking on parochial New Zealand characteristics.One articulate interviewee has envisaged New Zealand as a Buddhist Pure Land. I develop the potential of this idea, arguing that the notion of the ideal society, embedded within Arcadia and the Pure Land offer to practitioner-Buddhists a "home" in New Zealand landscapes and social context. In the use of arguments informed by the field of semiotics, I appropriate the current international marketing slogan of "100% Pure" New Zealand, to conceptualise that Buddhist practitioners may indeed seek to create a "100% Pure Land". It is in a new "imaginative order" that practitioner Buddhists in New Zealand will continue to create their own identity and find a turangawaewae, a place of identity in which to stand.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Religious Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Weiss, Rick; Morris, Paul