Waiting For Maitreya: Of Gifting Statues, Hopeful Presents And The Future Tense In Fpmt'S Transnational Tibetan Buddhism

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In this multi-sited ethnography, I examine the controversial plans and practices of the Maitreya Project, which hopes to offer a multi-million dollar "gift" of the world's biggest statue to India. The Maitreya Project operates under the auspices of FPMT, a transnational Tibetan Buddhist group. My examination of holy objects in FPMT centers in India elucidates how taking the "social life of things" seriously sheds new light onto ritual and social performances of identity construction. During my research period, local Indian farmers in Kushinagar were vehemently protesting against the Maitreya Project; farmers argued that they will be disenfranchised by the state's application of eminent domain to acquire their farmlands for the statue. Thus, I also engage with the emergent grassroots movements and the dynamics of People's Struggles vis-à-vis the current era of rapid globalization and development in India. Writing a "cultural biography" of the giant statue of Maitreya, then, provides a unique opportunity to observe two communities engaging with their many histories and futures through the virtual body of a sacred object. I first investigate the central, albeit contested, place of the mammoth 500-foot Maitreya Project statue in the development of a transnational Tibetan Buddhist religious community almost exclusively comprised of Western and Asian converts as likely to hail from Switzerland as Singapore. Second, I trace the trajectories of my Buddhist informants' changing notions of hope and temporality regarding Maitreya himself, their future statue of the future Buddha, and their own karmic futures, especially as regards reformulations of Buddhist morals and ethics in the face of various unanticipated "karmic obstacles" to their desires (such as protests by local Indian farmers). Third, I endeavor to understand FPMT's practice of gifting holy objects - giant statues, microscopic relics, and other Buddhist bodies - in terms of both karmic exchanges and socio-economic development benefits, through a close examination of individual donations, ritual offerings, and "engaged," Buddhist humanitarian works. My work takes classic ritual, gift exchange, temporality, and development literatures in new directions by writing them through both Western academic discourses and Buddhist social theories, such as the Madhyamika framing of "emptiness."

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