Western vs. Eastern Perspectives of Buddhism a a Solace in Chronic Illness: Evidence from an Ethnographic Study of Buddhist Nuns with a Chronic Illness

Tuesday, 23 July 2013: 10:45 AM

Sunny Wijesinghe, MS, MPH, RN
College of Nursing, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
Shihan Wijesinghe, BSc
London, England

Learning Objective 1: The audience will be able to identify 2 factors that are significant to Buddhist nunsí striving to keep their health to the best level possible.

Learning Objective 2: The audience will be able to identify 4 ways nurses can be a liaison to apply the findings to nursing education, practice, policy and research.


This research explored the role of Buddhist spiritual practice in the lives and health of Sri-Lankan Buddhist nuns living with a chronic illness. It was to fill the following knowledge gap as to how Buddhist practice, in its entirety, with its rituals and meditation, influenced coping in illness. In the context of finding solace in chronic illness spiritual practices based on Buddhist psychology such as mindfulness/vipassana, and mindfulness-based stress reduction have been studied in the West. These studies focus only on the aspect of meditation. Buddhism, as observed in Buddhist countries, includes a strong sense of Buddhist community, and a significant component of rituals.


This descriptive ethnography followed the iterative, and recursive linguistic approach of Spradley (1979, 1980). Thirty Sri Lankan Buddhist nuns with a chronic illness were selected through a snow-ball sampling strategy. Twenty secondary informants added input from the health care, lay Buddhist, and Buddhist-scholar perspectives. Participant observation and semi structured interviews were used to explore cultural domains, and clarify each domain with taxonomies.


The repeating cultural theme identified the role of Buddhist spiritual practice in nuns’ life as “managing responsibilities”. Responsibilities ranged from those to the Buddha, social circle, and toward maintaining the monastery/domicile. The role of spiritual practice in their health was mediated by the priority of their responsibility/ies and the strength of their social links.


 Regardless of up to what extent they practiced meditation, rituals or both, the strength of the purpose, and availability of social resources determined the nuns’ maintenance of health. Behaviors witnessed in this study resembled those in theories of Salutogenesis (Antonovsky,1979) and transcendence (Charmaz,1983). These findings have implications to nursing practice, education, research and policy in that nurses can be the first contact  to explore, identify, and inform where the chronically ill can find meaning (spiritual or otherwise) and social resources.