Wednesday, October 05, 2011

What's a Modern Monotheist to Do?

The religious culture of Thailand is bewildering to a visitor.  Thais bow in respect (even while they are driving) to monks, spirit houses, temples, fertility shrines, ribbon-wrapped trees, and even collections of toy zebras along the highway (I've yet to figure out why).  They wear string tied around wrists that has been blessed by monks or relatives wishing them to be safe.  Similar string is looped around houses and even buildings like my condo, presumably as a form of protection, and often the string will have been connected to a monk preaching the teachings of the Buddha (buddhasasana) while holding a leaf-shaped screen in front of his face.  Lovers lay flowers on the altar of a Hindu diety at a shrine in front of Central World, one of Bangkok's biggest malls, to petition or thank the god for favors granted.  I've been told that only monks can achieve enlightenment and certainly not women (who are prevented by Thai clerics from becoming nuns). The faithful wear large amulets around their necks (sometimes huge collections of them) which are bought and sold like rare stamps at a market opposite one of the city's oldest monasteries.  Few meditate but most donate food, flowers, incense, candles and money to monks and at temples to make merit (tamboon) in hopes of a fortunate rebirth.

What's a trained monotheist to do?  I'm well-read (comparatively speaking) in the different world religions and am sufficiently versed in the wisdom of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn (not to mention Theosophy and numerous New Age writings).  I've studied Hindu philosophy, been to India, and even once lectured at UC Santa Cruz on the Bhagavad Gita.  A little book by Ram Dass taught me to meditate, and I've gone on retreats with Jack Kornfeld and Pema Chodron, among others.  Surely I should be capable of understanding Buddhism in Thailand.  Thus began my education in the lived tradition of faith, and my current attempt to write an academic paper for a conference in December at my university.

The old labels and methods of classification dont' work very well in Asia.  I'm now convinced that "religion," "Buddhism," "Hinduism" and even "Theravada Buddhism" are terms invented in the 19th and early 20th century by mostly Western scholars (with some eager assistance from Asians struggling with missionaries and colonial power) to construct doctrinaire world views suggested by Pali and Sanskrit texts.  The living traditions in Southeast Asia practiced by Asians were ignored or denigrated until they were reinvented and repackaged to conform with modern Western sensibilities and exported to America and Europe with great success.  Meanwhile, the unexpurgated local traditions continue, and, if recent reports are true, are flourishing and proliferating despite state (and intellectual) attempts at centralization and control.  The shopworn labels make it difficult to see the inextricable hybridity of culture and values because we want to identify the separate strands in a syncretistic amalgam ("this is Buddhism, this is animism, this is Brahmanism').

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  What I hope to show (and celebrate) in this dry, footnoted paper is the appealing diversity of "buddhisms," a cornucopia of old and new practices and interpretations that owe their impetus to the reported teachings of a perhaps mythical renunciant 2,500 years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Like the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin who celebrated the contrasting and polyphonic voices in Doestoevsky's writing, I hear the story told by the admirers of the Buddha's teachings as a glorious babel and want to imagine a "big tent" in which they can all reside.  This means resistance to the gatekeepers who wish to control entry, who claim to have found the only "pure" and "original" Buddhism as taught by its founder to his disciples.  Such origin stories are chimera which only serve purposes of control.

It may be impossible for a Westerner, growing up in countries where Church and State have long been rigorously separated, to understand a culture with no division between the sacred and the secular.  Japan, Thailand and other Asian polities had no words for "religion" until the Christian missionaries arrived, and in Japan the word used was "Christian" until other neologisms were devised.  Modernisation was accompanied by a disenchantment in the West whereby magic, superstition and the irrational were displaced by a whole raft of isms that fragmented dominant world views.  It has been assumed that the final victory of modernity would mean the end of religion, and certainly, now that the globe has been unified electronically and digitally, that should be the case.  But religion today, in all of its local and universal forms, seems stronger than ever.  Postmodernist thinkers are trying to explain this anomaly.

But I digress.  The objectives of academic analysis and the diffusion of cognitive dissonance conflict.  Attending dhamma talks and meditation retreats didn't help.  I began to think that meditation was the pastime of the idle well-off and did not help me to access the Thai religious world view.  Each night my wife bowed three times to the Triple Gem and said her prayers.  "What do you pray for," I asked.  "That everyone be happy," she said.  We keep a collection of icons on top of the bookshelf and refresh them every Wan Phra (monk's day) with flowers, water, and red soda.  The other morning we rose early and went to find a monk at the market where she bought two bags of congee and offered it to him for tamboon.  "Now I feel happy," she said afterwards.  When my friend Holly died, at the cremation ceremony I felt more curious than reverent about the ritual, and I suspect the other expats had similar feelings.  I don't know what the Thais felt, those certain of the fact of rebirth, but then, as now, I feel like an outsider.

Like most academics, I can't stop blabbering.  This was meant to be a trial run of my paper which must be completed by the 15th, but I've only managed to insert another paragraph after the first third of my outline (a very well delineated one, I think, but resistant to expansion).

So, let me make another stab at a summary.  There are many diverse buddhisms, unified only by reference to a founding figure and respect for a large collection of texts written at some distance after his death.  In the 19th century this hodgepodge was cobbled by Western translators and academics into a World Religion called Buddhism, a self-serving gesture we might call intellectual colonialism.  Asians collaborated, largely in order to be accepted as modern nations with a Religion to avoid conversion efforts and European land grabs.  Few spoke for the living followers of the Buddha who lived in a meaningful cosmos rather than in possession of membership in a hypothetical religion.

This situation persists today.  Most of the literature I've found in English is written by Westerners.  Some are beginning to recognize the enormous difference forced together under the label "Buddhism." Can they all really coexist under my imaginary "big tent"?  Should they?  I've said nothing here about the teachings of the Buddha, passed down over the centuries, that are so persuasive and compelling to so many of different stripes.  What fascinates me is the history of the creation and recreation of "Buddhism," its inculturation and reinterpretation, first in Asia and later across the world.  This invention has served to support state formations and national identities, and today participates in an out-of-control culture of consumerism where religions no less than religious objects are commodities.

And yet...  Here in Thailand, thinkers and researchers are discovering that the centralized Sangha bureaucracy, a product of 19th century reforms that nationalized Buddhism here as well as in Sri Lanka, has failed to prevent religious diversity at the local level.  Just as provincial Thais have been contesting politically the internal colonization of Bangkok, monks and laypeople are taking back their faith.  "Uniform or standard Buddhism is a thing of the past," declares Phra Paisal Visalo.  "Thai Buddhism is returning to diversity again."  Pattana Kitarsa, who has studied popular spirit cults and the profusion of deities on spirit shrines, writes that the "harmonious coexistence of deities from diverse religious traditions, ranging from Buddha to local and royal spirits, indicates a degree of transgression of the existing religious hierarchy and order." Two researchers studying "relocalization" of popular Buddhism, see that "at the local level many of the vital signs are quite strong" despite a crisis in the institution as a whole "beset by problems of scandal, corruption, commercialization and declining authority."  In a recent essay, Phra Anil Sakya concludes that, "With the onset of modernity and its profound social changes, surprisingly animistic expressions of Buddhism are flourishing and apparently on the increase."

This institution of Buddhism might be dying, but its successors in all their multiplicity are already here.  Vive le differance!

1 comment:

DiannaO said...

How wonderful, yet kind of an oxymoron that you are writing an 'objective' academic paper on something not at all capable of being captured in that way. "Thai Buddhism is returning to diversity again." Now, won't that drive everyone who likes neat little categories crazy! I hope (maybe even due to the internet) that this is infectious and blows open other religions too - makes them less tidy. Though with a centralized authority (the Pope in Catholicism), it is harder for the people to 'take back their religion' (mixed with paganism) and it has been longer under control than say Buddhism. Yet, the reality is that my beliefs and expressions are much different than my neighbors'. Maybe this is due to my study of and participating in non-catholic/non-christian practices "religion". I'm excited by your thoughts on this and look forward to hearing more as it develops (by the 15th!).