Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper examines the recent collaborative effort between urban Buddhist institutions and the state to encourage individuals to donate their organs and dead bodies for medical services in late-socialist Vietnam. It investigates how urban Buddhist monastics and state officials critique long-standing Confucian traditions and mobilize Buddhist ethical discourses to reconfigure public conceptualization of the afterlife and of care and social responsibility. Such a collaborative effort, on the one hand, exemplifies the shifting of welfare provision from the state to family and society in post-economic reforms Vietnam, and on the other hand, signifies new developments in how Buddhist institutions figure prominently in national debates over care and public health. Drawing on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ho Chi Minh City, I elucidate how Buddhist monastics and state officials construe organ and body donation as exemplary acts of a new model of ethical citizenship and middle-class Buddhist subjectivity. Such a formulation relies on a radical re-articulation of beliefs in the afterlife and of Confucian notions of filial piety and ancestor worship. It urges individuals to sacrifice and care for strangers in need through bodily donations, while downplaying the Confucian emphasis on maintaining the wholeness of the physical body for familial ritual purposes. In examining the perspectives of monastics, state officials, and residents of the city, I argue that organ and body donation becomes a critical site where different cultural, political, and religious regimes come into tension, and where conceptualization and performance of care under market socialism are intensely debated.