In this article, I explore how Buddhist charity workers in Vietnam interpret rising cancer rates through understandings of karma. Rather than framing cancer as a primarily physical or medical phenomenon, volunteers state that cancer is a product of collective moral failure. Corruption in public food production is both caused by and perpetuates bad karma, which negatively impacts global existence. Conversely, charity work creates merit, which can improve collective karma and benefit all living beings. I argue that through such interpretations of karma, Buddhist volunteers understand their charity at cancer hospitals as an affective and ethical form of public health intervention.
The Affective Politics of Karma among Buddhist Cancer Charities in Vietnam
Sara Swenson is a PhD candidate in comparative religion at Syracuse University. Her dissertation research focuses on grassroots Buddhist charities in Vietnam. She examines the intersections of Vietnam’s current economic development and the booming popularity of public religious practices in Hồ Chí Minh City. Swenson expresses appreciation for the Buddhist charity volunteers who shared their time and stories for this article. She is also grateful to Christina Schwenkel, Gareth Fisher, Ann Grodzins Gold, M. Gail Hamner, and the anonymous reviewers who shared suggestions and feedback on earlier drafts. The material for this article was first presented at the 2019 European Association for Southeast Asian Studies Conference in Berlin, Germany. Swenson’s research has been supported by grants from the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies, awarded through the American Council of Learned Societies; a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad grant; and the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.
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Sara Swenson; The Affective Politics of Karma among Buddhist Cancer Charities in Vietnam. Journal of Vietnamese Studies 30 October 2020; 15 (4): 33–62. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/vs.2020.15.4.33
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