1998 Student-Faculty Fellows: Kalamazoo College

Survey of Buddhist Practices and Tenets of Lay Women in the Metropolitan Area of Colombo

Mentor: Carol S. Anderson, Religion
Student: Karen Elizabeth Stoll, Anthropology, ’98

Project Abstract

There are three basic areas into which my research can be organized. First is the amount of variation in Buddhist practices among perceptions of the significance of ritual to Buddhist life. Second, it appears to be the case that women are far more involved in Buddhist rituals than are men. This is common claim, and my research indicates support for this finding. The third area that I examined regards the status of women within Buddhism. The majority of women I interviewed stated that they considered women to be equal to men within Buddhism, but then qualified that statement later on in my interviews. I believe this research was successful and at the same time I realized that there is a great deal more work to be done to gain a broader understanding of women’s roles within Sinhalese Buddhist life in Sri Lanka.

The projects that we undertook were rather different in nature, and there were varying degrees of success. Anderson was able to complete what she wanted to get done, although there are always more things that one wishes one could do. She found several manuscripts of the text she is working on, visited a number of temples in search of other manuscripts, and, as she half-expected, the manuscripts had long since disappeared. Nonetheless, the work had to be done and she was able to gather enough information to continue working on the project full time upon her return. She also had opportunity to do work in other areas, which was pleasantly unexpected. Stoll, too, accomplished most, but not all, of what she had planned to do.

Carol Anderson

The best thing about this trip from our point of view is that Stoll learned to love the country, the people, and the culture. She got to know it in such a way that distinguished her from other tourists – always a good thing – and by the time she left, was able to pick up on the nuances and the subtle aspects of life in Sri Lanka. The project needs to be written up but the work that we did was solid and, at times, provided unanticipated insights.

Karen Stoll

I was able to attend a number of religious celebrations and rituals myself, which was very helpful in gaining some more objective insights into the practices. There are some interesting discrepancies between what the women stated about their religious lives and what they actually do. On the whole however, I believe that this research was successful and, at the same time, that there is much more research to be done in order to gain a broader understanding of women’s roles within the Buddhist life in Sri Lanka.

At this stage, it is difficult to assess the trip beyond an initial “it was great!” Anderson returned at the end of August and Stoll returned a few days later, after spending some time in India.