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HeartwoodThe First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America$

Wendy Cadge

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780226088990

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226089010.001.0001

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(p.203) Appendix A Research Methods

(p.203) Appendix A Research Methods

University of Chicago Press

This research developed directly from time I spent in Kandy, Sri Lanka, between January and August 1999 with the support of a Fulbright fellowship. My host family in Sri Lanka held meditation classes in their home. It was by attending a few of these classes and visiting many Buddhist temples around the island that I began to wonder how Buddhism is understood and practiced by different people in their day-to-day lives. Thinking about what I knew of Buddhism in America, I wondered how Buddhism changed when it moved from Sri Lanka to the United States and how Sri Lankans and non-Asians in the United States understood and practiced it.

When I returned to the United States in the fall of 1999, I continued to think about these questions and more broadly about the relationship between how religions or ideas travel and how they are constructed and understood by people in new locations. Out of these questions, exploratory visits to Buddhist centers, and conversations with Asian and white Buddhist practitioners, the present project took shape. Early in my explorations, Donald Swearer, who is the Charles and Harriet Cox McDowell Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, invited me to visit War Mongkoltepmunee (War Phila), a Thai temple in the suburbs of Philadelphia, with his undergraduate class. This visit, combined with the opportunity to study Thai language at the University of Pennsylvania, the fact that many more Thai than Sri Lankan-born people live in the United States, and the little research that has been completed about Thai Buddhism in the United States, led me to examine a Thai rather than a Sri Lankan temple in this study.

Taan Čhaokuhn Rattanamēthē, the abbot of War Phila, gave me permission to do research at the temple in January 2000. Between January and August, I attended the temple occasionally and began to meet people. I completed one year of Thai language study in the summer of 2000 with Nongpoth Sternstein (p.204) at the University of Pennsylvania and a second year during the 2000–2001 academic year. From September 2000 through March 2001, I attended War Phila every Sunday and conducted participant observation at Thai language classes, meditation classes, and morning services that normally lasted from nine to three. While I washed dishes, helped to prepare food, and ate lunch, I spoke with people informally about the temple and about their lives. I also spent many Thursdays at the temple during this time with a group of twelve women who were responsible for preparing and serving lunch to the monks. I accompanied these women and several of the monks to restaurants and on shopping expeditions. I taught English to three of the monks for several months, and generally tried to be around the temple as often and in as many different settings as possible, introducing myself as a graduate student at Princeton University doing research about their temple to understand how people practice Buddhism in America.

After several months of participant observation, I began to interview lay people at War Phila to learn about how they came to the United States, how they came to the temple, and how they practice Buddhism, among other things. My interview guide (included here) lists the kinds of questions I asked. The interviews themselves were semistructured around these issues because I found that was the most effective way to gather information from respondents. I first interviewed a laywoman suggested by the abbot and then gathered a “snowball sample” by interviewing people she suggested and others I had met during my time at the temple that far. These interviews took place at the temple as well as in people's homes, workplaces, and restaurants and generally lasted from one to three hours. The interviews were conducted primarily in English with bits of Thai included now and then, and were taped and transcribed. Many of the people I met in the course of this research were not comfortable with this formal interviewing style, so I supplemented these twenty-five formal interviews with thirty informal interviews. The latter were not scheduled in advance and generally took place over lunch or while washing dishes at the temple. I asked respondents the same questions, but the approach was more relaxed and conversational. These informal interviews were not taped, but I wrote detailed notes immediately following each conversation and was able to reproduce most of the conversations almost verbatim. These formal and informal interviews were, in many cases, the beginnings of conversations between me and individuals at the temple that have continued to the present time. Combining interviews with participant observation over many months at War Phila was particularly valuable because it allowed me to observe people (p.205) in the temple context and then try to understand, through interviews, how they view themselves in that context.

I continued participant observation and interviews at War Phila from July through September 2001. I started to write this book in September 2001 and continued to go to the temple a few times each month for Sunday services. I attended almost all of the festivals the temple sponsored between September 2000 and September 2002. In addition to interviewing lay people at the temple, I spoke with each of the five monks who lived at the temple during that year. I also reviewed historic documents and newsletters related to the history and founding of the temple.

While it is impossible for me to know how people at War Phila viewed me, I felt that I was gradually welcomed as a kind of strange child. In the kitchen I was often referred to as lūk-farang, or non-Thai child, and was taught how to do everything from slicing pears the Thai way to selecting ripe pineapples, preparing food to present to the Buddha image, and washing the huge pots used during festivals. I learned the manners and norms that guide how people relate to one another at War Phila in the early months of research, often with a certain amount of embarrassment and laughter. Several months into the research, for example, I went to Nim's house on a Thursday afternoon with some of the women for makeovers after preparing lunch for the monks. As I sat in the living room watching Thai DVDs and chatting with a few of the women, Maha Supit, one of the monks at the temple, arrived with another woman after doing an errand. He came into the living room and sat on a chair, and I followed the women as they quickly moved to sit on the floor so their heads would be lower than his head, a convention when in the company of a Thai monk. After some time, my legs got stiff, and as I tried to quietly adjust my position the bottom of my foot pointed directly at Maha Supit. One of my Thai “mothers” slapped my leg, seemingly by instinct, and I pulled it back immediately. Amid a lot of laughter and my own red face, I learned that it is considered extremely rude to point your foot at a monk.

After several months of fieldwork, I began to exchange small gifts and favors with many of the people I met at War Phila and now consider many of them my friends. Before his death in March 2002, Taan Čhaokuhn Rattanamēthē, the abbot of War Phila, described me as “kohn thai,” or a Thai person, to a visitor to the temple, and a laywoman paid me a high compliment one day by asking, despite my light hair and skin, if my mother was Thai. I have continued to visit War Phila and am regularly in touch with several people I met there. On numerous occasions, I helped individuals and the temple generally with (p.206) different tasks, mostly related to college admissions, proofreading documents in English, and talking with non-Thai speaking visitors to the temple about Buddhism.

After beginning research at War Phila, I spoke with academics, Buddhist teachers, and practitioners about which Buddhist organization founded by non-Asians in the Theravada Buddhist tradition would allow for the best comparison with the temple. Everyone I spoke with agreed that the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) would be the ideal comparison and I wrote to Larry Rosenberg, the founding teacher there, in October 2000, inquiring about doing research at the center. He responded saying I could come if I agreed not to write during classes or conduct interviews inside the buildings at CIMC.Between April and June 2001, I lived in Watertown, Massachusetts, with Ruth Nelson and Margo McLoughlin, two women who are regularly involved with CIMC, while I conducted intensive research at CIMC. With the teacher's permission, I participated in two formal classes in addition to conducting participant observation at weekday morning and evening meditation sessions, Monday chanting sessions, Wednesday evening cleaning sessions and talks, Thursday retreats, cleaning and gardening days, and every other activity possible. I conducted participant observation at all of these activities, writing detailed field notes as soon as possible after each event.

After several weeks of participant observation at CIMC, I posted a sign on a bulletin board introducing myself and asked whether people would be willing to talk with me. The sign read “Greetings. I am a graduate student at Princeton University working on a dissertation about Buddhism in America. I am visiting CIMC for the next few months (April through June 2001) and am looking to talk with people about their experiences with insight meditation. I would like to talk to people with all levels of experience. If you are interested in being interviewed, I would be delighted to hear from you (and lunch or coffee is on me).” A few people I had not met contacted me after reading the sign, and many more I had already met mentioned the next time we talked that they would be willing to speak with me. Over the next two months I formally interviewed thirty-seven practitioners. I aimed to interview both women and men, people who have been involved with CIMC for longer and shorter periods of time, and people who are involved in different ways. I sought to ensure diversity by interviewing people who came to the center at different times, used the center in different ways, and seemed friendly with different groups of people. Among the thirty-seven people I interviewed, I made initial contact with them by means of the following: referral of another practitioner (8), Thursday retreats (7), suggestion of director Maddy Klyne (7), notice on bulletin board (p.207) (6), staff or resident at the center (5), Wednesday night talks (3), social event (1). Before completing the interviews, I asked Maddy Klyne to look over the list of people I had spoken with and suggest others who might bring different perspectives. She suggested seven additional people whom I interviewed shortly before completing this research. While much of the information I gathered at War Phila came through participant observation and informal interviews, much of the information I gathered at CIMC came through these thirty-seven formal interviews. As at War Phila, the interviews were based on a guide (included here) that listed the topics I wanted to cover. Interviews took place in parks, restaurants, coffee shops, and at people's homes and workplaces. Each interview lasted between thirty minutes and two hours, and there were several people I interviewed over several meetings. Each interview was taped and transcribed. I also interviewed the three teachers at the center.

In addition to conducting participant observation and interviewing practitioners at CIMC, I gathered information about the history of the center from old schedules, minutes from board meetings, and the tape library that includes more than 1,500 audiotapes. These tapes were made at almost every ceremony and talk from the time the center opened to the present. Tapes of Larry Rosenberg's visions of the center when it first opened, of Opening Day, and of the center's anniversaries since that time were extremely valuable, as were tapes of the talks the teachers gave at different points in the center's history. Magazines, newspapers, and newsletters from many other Buddhist organizations as well as hundreds of books in the library at CIMC were also valuable as I worked to piece together the history and development of Theravada Buddhism in America.

Practitioners at CIMC were extremely generous and willing to talk with me, and several specifically mentioned wanting to be part of how people understand Buddhist practice in America. Because I was participating in classes and meditation sessions, most assumed I was a meditator. Larry Rosenberg, himself a former field researcher, approached me early in this research to say that meditation is like participant observation: “It teaches you to pay attention to your own reactions and use your body like an instrument.” Believing that ethnographic research is ultimately about relationships, I built relationships throughout my fieldwork at CIMC by listening as well as speaking and answering questions about my own history and interest in Buddhism and meditation as appropriate. For example, when people asked if I was a Buddhist, I said no and explained how my interest in Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka. I have returned to CIMC numerous times since completing the formal research for this study and have developed friendships with several of the people I met there.

(p.208) Besides War Phula and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, I visited many other Theravada Buddhist centers across the country and talked with monks, teachers, and lay people in order to understand the history and breadth of Theravada Buddhism in America. The centers I visited, several of them more than once, include the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts; Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia; the Burmese Mahasatipatthana Meditation Center in Malden, Massachusetts; the Cambodian Triratanaram Temple in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts; Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; the Philadelphia Meditation Center in Haverford, Pennsylvania; Vajiradhammapadip Temple in Mount Vernon, New York; Vipassana Meditation Center Dhamma Dhara in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts; Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C.; War Boston Buddha Temple in Bedford, Massachusetts; War Thai Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, Maryland; and meditation classes in Reading Pennsylvania, led by monks from War Thai Washington, D.C.

Monks, teachers, and lay leaders I interviewed or corresponded with include Ajahn Amaro, Gloria Ambrosia (Taraniya), James Baraz, Ron Browning, Ven. Thubten Chodron, Ven. Maharagama Dhammasiri, Christina Feldman, Joseph Goldstein, Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Mahathera, Philip Jones, Joseph Kappel, Edwin Kelly, Frank Kilmer, Luke Matthews, Wes Nisker, Andrew Olendzki, Phra Rātchakittiwēthī, Mary Reinhard, Bart Sensening, Phra Arry Akincano Sriburatham, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Santikaro Bhikkhu, Phra Withētthammarangsī (Surasak Chīwīnanthō), and the monks at War Boston Buddha Temple and the Mahasatipatthana Meditation Center. With the assistance of Sidhorn Sangdhanoo, I also gathered information from all of the Thai temples in the United States (eighty-seven total). Sidhorn Sangdhanoo conducted telephone interviews lasting approximately one hour with the abbots of sixty of these temples to gather information about their history, programs, attendees, and future plans.1 The interview guide is included below. I also conducted a thorough review and content analysis of Buddhist publications, including Insight magazine published by the Insight Meditation Society; Tricycle: the Buddhist Review; Inquiring Mind; and newsletters from other organizations across the United States.

I defended my dissertation in July 2002 and gave several copies of the dissertation to the monks at War Phila and the teachers at CIMC. The monks and lay people at War Phila had a small celebration for me and, after I formally presented my dissertation to the monks, they asked me to make a speech. In addition to thanking all of the practitioners at the temple for their generosity, I encouraged them to read the dissertation, saying I was anxious to hear what (p.209) they thought and to incorporate their comments and suggestions into future versions of the manuscript. Similarly, I contacted all of the practitioners I interviewed at CIMC, made the dissertation available to them, and welcomed feedback. I was pleased to receive many helpful suggestions from the teachers, monks, and practitioners at both centers (as well as many other readers) and believe their responses to the dissertation made this a stronger book.

This research was approved by the Institutional Review Panel for Human Subjects of the University Research Board at Princeton University.

Wat Mongkoltepmunee Interview Guide


Where do you live?

How long have you lived there?

Where did you live before that? Where were you born?

Are you married? Do you have any children?

Where were you educated? Are you employed? Where?

Do you have other family members here in the States? Where are they?

How did you learn about this temple?

How long have you been coming to the temple?

How often do you come?

When do you come? Sundays? Weekdays?

Have you been to Buddhist temples other than War Mongkoltepmunee in the United States? Which ones?


Were you born as a Buddhist?

How did you learn about religion as a child?

How did your mother practice Buddhism?

How did your father practice Buddhism?

Did you have a to būchā (puja shelf/table) in your home?

If male, did you go to the temple as a young man to be a novice (buat nēn)? What temple? Why or why not?


Did your view on Buddhism change as you became an adult?

(p.210) What does being a Buddhist mean to you now?

How have you learned about Buddhism as an adult? Monks? Classes? Retreats? Books? Internet?

How would you summarize your religious beliefs, in a few sentences?

What do you do at home to practice Buddhism? Pray? Meditate?

Do you have any special religious objects in your house?

Do you ever read Buddhist texts? Suttas? Books in Thai? Books in English?

What would you say you get out of practicing Buddhism?

If meditates, what would you say you get out of meditation? What is the point of doing it?

How have you taught your children about Buddhism?

Have you learned about other religions?

Outside the Temple

In what ways, if any, does Buddhism enter into your daily life?

How do Buddhist teachings influence your work?

Have you ever talked about Buddhism at work?

How, if at all, has Buddhism influenced the way you handle your money?

Do you think about Buddhist teachings when you hear the news or learn about politics?


Do you think Buddhism teaches different things about women and men?

At the temple, do women and men practice Buddhism differently?


How do you practice Buddhism differently from relatives and friends in Thailand?

Do you think more farangs (non-Thais) in the United States are interested in Buddhism these days than in the past?

If yes, why do you think so many farangs are interested?


Is there anything we talked about that you would like to say more about?

If you were doing this research, are there questions you would want to ask?

(p.211) Do you have friends who might be willing to talk to me about some of the things we have been discussing?

Questions about kamma, merit, nibbana, precepts, and rebirth were asked throughout the interview.

Cambridge Insight Meditation Center Interview Guide


How did you come to the Cambridge area?

How did you come to CIMC?

How did you come to your practice of insight meditation?

How is your practice related to Buddhism? (Who introduced you to both? Who was the first meditator you met? First Buddhist? Why did you came to this practice?)

What was your religious or spiritual upbringing as a child and young adult?

Since you were introduced to meditation, how have you learned? (Classes, retreats, teachers, books, Internet, suttas, other centers—what people have been influential?)

Since you were introduced to Buddhism, how have you learned? (Classes, retreats, teachers, books, Internet, suttas, other centers—what people have been influential?)


How do you practice at home? (What kind of meditation do you do? Do you practice privately at home or with other people?)

Can you describe the area where you practice? (Is there an altar or other objects?)

How are you involved with CIMC? (Classes, retreats, other tasks—cleaning, cooking, etc.)

What would you say you get out of insight meditation/Buddhism? Why?

What would you say you get out of your involvement with CIMC? Why not just practice at home?

How do you identify religiously now? If Buddhist: What does it mean to identify as Buddhist? Did something happen to signify this change? If not Buddhist: Why do you not identify as Buddhist? How are you different from people who identify as Buddhist? Do you think at some point in the future you will identify as Buddhist?

(p.212) Do you practice other religions? Are you involved with other religious organizations?

Results of Practice

How have you changed or what seems different in your life since starting your practice? In your daily life? In your work (e.g., choice of career, practice at work, talk about at work)? Regarding money (e.g., what you buy, attitudes toward money, give money to charities)? Around politics (e.g., involvement in public life, current events, voting)?

What about your family—how do they respond to your practice?

If you have children, have you taught your children about Buddhism or meditation?


What does Buddhism teach about gender?

How is gender an issue at the center?

Have you come to think differently about yourself as a woman or a man through your practice?


Can you tell me about your thoughts and feelings about:








What other centers have you been to in the United States? Abroad?

Have you been to Asia? If yes, did that trip influence your practice?

Have you had any contact with Asian Buddhists in the United States?

What do you think about Tina Turner, Richard Gere, and others saying they are Buddhist?

(p.213) Did any of the things we talked about today make you think of something you would like to talk about further?


Where do you live?

How old are you?

Are you married or partnered?

Do you have children?

Are you employed? Where?

What is your education?

Do you socialize with people from CIMC?

Are there other people at CIMC whom it might be helpful for me to talk with?

Thai Buddhist Temples/Organizations in the United States

Contact Information





Web site(s)

What language are the Web sites in:

  1. 1. Leadership at present

    • How many monks?

    • Name of head monk?

    • How long has head monk been at the temple?

    • Name of monk spoken to:

    • Language interview is conducted in:

    • Date of phone call:


  1. 2. Year Started:

  2. 3. How started:

(p.214) Activities

Weekly and Monthly schedule:

  1. 4. Do you have chanting or meditation services every day at your temple? (If yes, when? what is chanted or what kind of meditation? How many people come on average? What language is the service in?)

  2. 5. Do people come to the temple on Sundays for a service? (If yes, when? What happens in that service? How many people come on average? What language is the service in?)

  3. 6. Do people come to the temple on Saturdays for a service? (If yes, when? What happens in that service? How many people come on average? What language is the service in?)2

  4. 7. Do you have Thai language classes at your temple?

  5. 8. Do you have English language classes at your temple?

  6. 9. Do you have Thai music or dance classes at your temple?

  7. 10. Do you have a Sunday school or Buddhist school for children at your temple? (If yes, what language is it in?)

  8. 11. Do you have a dhamma school or Buddhist school for adults at your temple? (If yes, what language is it in?)

  9. 12. Do you have meditation classes at your temple? (If yes, when? What kind of meditation? How many people come on average? What language are they taught in?)

  10. 13. Is your temple involved with other programs in your community? (If yes, what sorts of programs?)

  11. 14. At your temple, do monks perform services for people who died?

  12. 15. At your temple, do monks perform services for newborn babies?

  13. 16. Do monks at your temple perform or attend weddings?

  14. 17. What festivals are held each year at your temple?


  1. 18. Do you have any weekly or monthly publications?

  2. 19. If yes, what language are they in? How many people are on the mailing list?


  1. 20. What kind of building is your temple?

  2. 21. Do Asian people who are not Thai come to your temple? (If yes, what countries are these people from?)

  3. (p.215) 22. Do non-Asian people come to your temple? Do these people come with Asians or by themselves?

  4. 23. How many people would you estimate came to your temple last week?

  5. 24. How is your temple supported financially? Is it in debt?

Relationship With Other Buddhist Groups

  1. 25. Do you belong to the Council of Thai Bhikkhus or the Dhammayut Order?

  2. 26. Are you involved with any Buddhist groups in your area?

  3. 27. Do you have a special relationship with certain temples in Thailand?


  1. 28. What do you have in mind for the future of the temple?


(1.) See Cadge and Sangdhanoo 2002.