What happens when two religions and two world views collide?
That was the question Victoria University graduate Hugh Kemp sought to answer via research that focused on how and why New Zealanders convert to Buddhism.
"Buddhism is gaining traction in New Zealand, so my interest was in what makes a New Zealander become a Buddhist and the variety of pathways they take as they journey towards, and embrace, Buddhism," says Mr Kemp.
As part of his PhD research, he also focused on the identity that convert Buddhists construct for themselves as New Zealanders.
Mr Kemp interviewed around 70 new Buddhists from all over New Zealand and attended 27 Buddhist events and gatherings. His interviews explored four factors of inter-relationships: practice and ritual, selfhood, belief and involvement.
"It was essentially a qualitative sociology project that tracked why New Zealanders take up the practice of Buddhism and how they continue to find meaning, chiefly in regular practice, ritual and involvement."
Although Mr Kemp says he was surprised that numbers of New Zealand converts hadn't increased as much as he'd expected, or as much as overseas trends indicated, Buddhism remained a popular religion here.
"It's down to a number of factors - the increasing profile of the Dalai Lama, New Zealand's closer ties with Asia and the fact that we're quite open to new religions and have a history in New Zealand of people experimenting with new religions."
Mr Kemp, who also has a Masters of Theology degree, says interviewees' stories were placed in a social-historical narrative of Arcadia.
"If New Zealand is Arcadia - clean, green, 100% pure and the ideal place to live - then it can be conceived of as a Buddhist Pure Land. Arcadia and the Pure Land come together in notions of 'home', offering a new imaginative order for Buddhist practitioners." Overall, he says his research indicates that new converts overwhelmingly believe New Zealand is a good place to practice Buddhism.
"Buddhists in New Zealand say they will continue to create their own identity and find a turangawaewae or place of identity in which to stand."
One of Mr Kemp's supervisors Professor Paul Morris says, "Dr Kemp's pioneering work, which is the first systematic study of New Zealanders who become Buddhist, tells us both about religion and spirituality in our country and the specific manifestations of Buddhism here." Mr Kemp graduates with a PhD in Religious Studies and is hoping to teach Religious or Asian Studies. His supervisors were Dr Rick Weiss and Professor Paul Morris.
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