Institute of Geography and Sustainability of the University of Lausanne
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Travel, meditation and self-transformation? An ethnography of Buddhist retreat tourism in the Indian Himalayas

Research fields Cultures and natures of tourism
Keywords Tourism
Spiritual Retreat Tourism
Funding Unil
Duration March 2016 >
Researchers Mourtazina Ellina (Doctoral student) [web] [email]
Picard David (Supervision)

This doctoral dissertation explores the phenomenon of so-called spiritual retreat tourism, which has expanded considerably since the 1980s. Through an anthropology inspired by phenomenological thought, this research is based on the ethnographic study of Buddhist retreat practices in the Indian Himalayas.

The sample is composed of people initially met during a Buddhist retreat at the Tushita Meditation Center located in the tourist resort of Dharamsala and part of the international network The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). The research is based on an ethnography of the retreats, a detailed analysis of lived experiences, interviews with 65 participants, and a longer-term follow-up and collection of the life stories of five people, which allows to deepen the analysis beyond the period of the retreats. Following the trajectories of these five participants, the survey was conducted in India during their tourism trips and in the context of their daily lives once they returned to their homes in France, Spain, and Switzerland. At the intersection of tourism and religion anthropologies, the study questions the discourses of self-transformation, the quest for meaning, and the logics of isolation that animate these participants with globalized lifestyles. This work shows how these dimensions are lived, appropriated, and negotiated through a sensitive and embodied experience both during and after the trip. Participant observation and the exploration of the life stories shows that the trajectories are multiple and depend on biographical characteristics, but are nevertheless part of quests for which it is possible to draw up broad typologies. This diversity of experiences is made possible by the social and moral frameworks prescribed by the Buddhist centers and by the different layers of interpretation with which modern Buddhism and its practices, the imaginary of the Himalayas and Tibet have been invested. The analysis identified three main patterns of action that guide these experiences. The entrepreneurial pattern: In these trajectories, the tourist takes on the role of a self-entrepreneur and the achievements of retreat become tools to optimize the different spheres of his or her existence. Here, the practice of a largely rationalized meditation takes precedence over the interest in Buddhist liturgy. The religious pattern: What is sought in these types of trajectories is to reconnect with a sense of sacredness and to infuse one’s existence with an all-encompassing meaning. In order to transform themselves and (re) shape the contours of their lives, participants do not ignore religious practices, but instead draw on them. The moral pattern: Finally, for some, the extra-ordinary experience of the retreats becomes a moment of ethical elaboration during which the retreatants (re) negotiate their own conceptions of how to be a good person.

the main gompa, Tushita Meditation Center, Dharamsala, India, 2018