Postgraduate students

Masoumeh Rahmani BA Hons, PhD

Drifting Through Samsara: Tacit Conversion and Disengagement in Goenka’s Vipassana Movement in New Zealand

The field of religious conversion and disengagement is mostly composed of studies that focus on traditions with an explicit moment of conversion and correspondingly an explicit demarcated exit. As a result, movements that reject associations with religion and maintain blurred religious/secular boundaries have received little attention from the abovementioned field. The present research addresses this gap in the literature. It explores disengagement in the context where conversion was taken for granted in the first place.

The research is embedded within an interpretive framework and is informed by reflexive ethnography and narrative analysis. Data collection took place over twenty months and involved seventeen days of fieldwork at S. N. Goenka’s official Vipassana meditation centre in New Zealand and in-depth interviews with twenty-six former and current Vipassana meditators, including three longitudinal interviews. The collected materials were analysed through a dynamic combination of thematic and structural narrative analysis, paying attention both to the content and the performance of the narrative.

This thesis adopts a linguistic approach to conversion and explores disengagement narratives and trajectories in the same light. I trace the linguistic changes associated with the process of conversion and increased commitment, and use these markers to outline disengagement pathways: (1) pragmatic leaving, (2) disaffiliation, and (3) deconversion. Pragmatic leavers refer to individuals who disengaged prior to developing a commitment. I argue that the language of pragmatic leavers is characterised by pragmatisms, dualistic discourse, and ambivalence and their post-disengagement seekership involves gravitation towards practices with easily accomplished goals. Disaffiliates and deconverts are individuals who disengaged after years of intense commitment to the movement. I illustrate that one of the distinguishing features of disaffiliation narratives is self-doubt resulting from the movement’s ambiguous discourse regarding progress. In general, however, the themes and characteristics of both disaffiliation and deconversion fit the contours of exit from other traditions.

The findings of this research also question the etiquette of participant recruitment in conversion studies. I argue that a great deal of scholarship on conversion has been limited by taking the informants’ rejection of categories such as religion, conversion, and Buddhism. I demonstrate that such an approach fails to encompass the tonalities of conversion in light of increasing aversion to labels and in contexts where spirituality prevails the category of religion. In this thesis, I introduce the term tacit conversion to describe a form of conversion that is unacknowledged. This term refers to a process whereby the adoption of the movement’s language paradoxically conceals conversion. It explains circumstances where there is a disconnect between non-religious self-identification and representation of selves that are constructed and interpreted within a particular religious language.

Sara's thesis has been accepted for inclusion on the Division of Humanities's list of exceptional theses.

See also Pāho, the Humanities Research blog, for more about Sara's work.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Will Sweetman, Associate Professor Ben Schonthal, and Professor Ruth Fitzgerald

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme