Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Buddhism Without Buddha

When I first visited Thailand almost eight years ago, I thought I understood Buddhism fairly well.  After all, I'd read a ton of books about Asian religions, had been a student of Zen and Vipassana Buddhism and a meditator for over 20 years, and I carried The Dhammapada (translated by Eknath Easwaran) and Karen Armstrong's biography of the Buddha in my backpack.  But I was sorely mistaken.  And now, after having lived in Bangkok for nearly five years, I feel I know less about the religion Thais practice than I did when I first arrived.

In the photo above, a devotee is paying homage to an image of Mae Nak, the legendary mother who became a murderous ghost but who is still honored for the love and faithfulness she showed to her husband and child.  The shrine to Mae Nak is at Wat Mahabut, a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Bangkok near where she might have lived.  The temple is always crowded, but the Buddha image there is less popular.  At left, behind Wat Srisudaram where I teach, is a giant statue of Somdet To, a 19th century monk who is famous for his magical powers, which included convincing Mae Nak to stop haunting and killing villagers and retire permanently to the land of the dead.  While Somdet To may be currently the most popular of Thailand's monk saints, the images and photos of other monks known for their healing and protective powers are on view everywhere.  Statues and paintings of Thailand's kings, from the 16th century's Naresuan to the present Rama IX, are objects of devotion in many temples.  Buddha seems to be outnumbered on the ubiquitous shrines outside houses and office buildings by icons of Brahma and Ganesha, and numerous sacred trees wrapped with colored ribbons, not to mention the white string you see around people's wrists and even whole buildings, give evidence that pre-Buddhist animism along with Hinduism is alive and well in the Land of Smiles.  What's going on here?

Justin McDaniel has chosen to focus on Mae Nak and Somdet To in his fascinating new book, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand.  An associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the former Catholic altar boy has studied Buddhism in Laos and Thailand for over a dozen years and even spent time as a monk.  He also taught Pali and Sanskrit at my university.  His challenging book does more than just account for the Thai cultural practices that are deemed religious by most outside observers.  It provides a critique of all religious scholarship that looks at texts and institutions to the exclusion of what people actually do.  He deconstructs favored dichotomies, such as those of urban and forest monks, "engaged Buddhists" and the conservative Sangha Council (each of whom wants to return to an imagined purity of the distant past), textural and popular Buddhism, and modernizers upset by the commercialization of Buddhism.  By the time McDaniel is finished, you'll begin to suspect that "buddhism" is about as real as a unicorn.

"I hope," the scholar writes, "to offer a study that makes describing Thai Buddhism in any general way an exercise in hesitation." While intending to look closely at individuals, texts, biographies and images, he admits in the conclusion to having made "somewhat nervous forays into the realm of general statements." These include speculations such as: "There is no core of Thai Buddhism," perhaps normative Theravada "is actually not found anywhere outside of textbooks," and  "modern Thai Buddhism isn't even a subject."  He questions "the very usefulness of metacategories like Buddhism, Brahmanism, animism, local, translocal, Indic, Chinese, Thai, and the like."  Despite attempts, even at my university, to define and create a world Buddhism, McDaniel thinks there "has never been a purely translocal or nonlocal Buddhist sect or school of thought."  And this goes especially for attempts to control local diversity by a centralizing Thai authority.

In the introduction to his book, McDaniel announces his intention "to take individual Buddhist agents seriously and listen to the cacophony of their voices."  And he concludes that Thai Buddhism, "when not studied solely through institutions, doctrines, codes, and the canon...may indeed seem messy."  Like most scholars, he began looking for the "true" story of Somdet To and Mae Nak, only to discover a "history of ambivalence" where "having multiple and conflicting voices adds both to the prestige and intrigue" of his subjects' legends.   Many Thais, he learned, are "comfortable with ambiguity."  To understand individual events, agents and objects rather than systems or religions, McDaniel developed a "pragmatic sociological study of cultural repertoires."  A repertoire he defines as including the "words, stock explanations, objects, and images that a social actor can 'draw' upon while engaged in meaning-making 'on the ground' in the context of interacting with others." This helped him examine what Thai Buddhists do rather than attempt to determine what they believe.

In addition to an Introduction and a Conclusion, there are four sections in The Lovelorn Ghost: 1.  Monks and Kings (people), 2. Texts and Magic (texts), 3. Rituals and Liturgies (actions), and 4. Art and Objects (material culture).  The first chapter covers the stories about Somdet To and Mae Nak, and he notes that the monk remains popular today "in part because he is a mystery."  One curious aspect about these figures and the devotion towards them is that they exhibit little of the qualities affirmed in most dhamma teaching, in particular, nonattachment and impermanence.  They are "buddhist" primarily because their stories have been incorporated into the narrative accepted by mainstream Thai Buddhists.  In chapter 2, McDaniel argues that the primary feature unifying elite and folk Buddhism is "the so-called esoteric traditions and texts" rather than any Vinaya-based orthodoxy that Western writers think is the hallmark of Thai Buddhism.  "Magic may be bad science," he observes.  "It might be inefficient health care.  However, does that make it bad religion?"

In chapter 3, McDaniel examines the "cacophony of liturgical traditions" and finds that there is no one way of defining a Thai Buddhist ritual or liturgy.  As a monk, he learned to bless houses and cars.  "There is no national, standardized Buddhist ritual calendar," he writes, "and there is no standard national Buddhist liturgy."  Thai Buddhism looks less and less like a form of Vatican-controlled Roman Catholicism.  The variety of shrines throughout Thailand, he says, "reflects a lack of concern with religious boundaries."   Shrines," he notices, "are not permanent monuments but stages vibrating with a subtly shifting yet ever-growing numbers of characters and props." McDaniel says that Thai Buddhism is "resistant to orthodoxic and centralizing tendencies, even though it presents itself (and has been so designated by foreign scholars) as normative, traditional, and exceedingly well behaved."
Thais can alternately use the liturgies and rituals to protect their bank accounts, settle their anxious minds, fulfill familial obligations, realize enlightenment, impress their neighbors, assuage their guilt, relax, or protect themselves from being hit by a bus.
While people, texts and rituals in Thai Buddhism have been thoroughly studied (if not fully understood), McDaniel argues that the "history and creativity of Thai Buddhist material culture have largely been ignored." In chapter 4, he writes that "Thai Buddhist repertoires are, in large part, material and sensual...Beliefs are articulated through objects" which have been overlooked in most studies of religion.  Even art historians remove images "(through photography or physical movement to museums or shops) from this ritual context and are seen as objets d'art."  He has particularly heavy criticism for those who lament "the commercializing of religion, the creation of an 'occult economy' or the materialistic corruption of spirituality." McDaniel sees material objects "as something cherished by Buddhists that ought not to be ignored, reduced or lamented," and he also see them as "expanding the study of Thai religion beyond Theravada Buddhism."  It's impossible to know where culture ends and "religion" begins.
Religious themes are often absent in murals painted on the inside of Buddhist monastic buildings! This would be like seeing murals of individual and disconnected episodes of Shakespeare's King Lear mixed with disconnected scenes from Beowulf or the Iliad inside a Catholic cathedral.
"Why is consistency of orthodoxy seen as ideal?" he asks, a not entirely rhetorical question for the legions of scholars of religious studies among whom McDaniel is now a heretic. But he takes seriously the religious diversity and individual agency in Thailand, and, to do this, he has written "a book about Thai Buddhism where the Buddha is not the protagonist."  This may perhaps bring him more criticism from his academic tribe than any description of unorthodox monks and ghosts, magical texts, localized rituals and material (even commercial) objects of which he writes.  He is one among a growing number of writers who are deconstructing the idea of a monolithic Buddhism, traditional or modern.  They deny that there is any one textural standard against which a sect's purity can be measured.  Like McDaniel, they see all "buddhisms" as local (what he writes about in Thailand could be researched in Japan, Korea or Tibet). This will be unsettling to the legions of Western Buddhists who think they've found the Holy Grail (if only the superstitious accretions can be purged)!

McDaniel's observations seem familiar to me now that I think of Thailand as my home.  Although the world of spirits, from whom I may need protection via merit-making rituals and the wearing of amulets, is not yet one I inhabit comfortably, I choose to respect the practices of my neighbors rather than treat them condescendingly as "superstitions."  I do believe the world is a far stranger place than it seems to our blinkered eyes.  I have long been dissatisfied with the metacategories and boundaries of religious scholarship, and the holier-than-thou attitude I sometimes encounter among Buddhists of different stripes.  Growing up in America, I was taught that religion is a matter of propositional belief based on sanctified texts, and that you can be religious (or spiritual) without doing much of anything (and that includes moral behavior).  That the transactions between humans and the mystery of the universe might involve something more physical, and even mundane, is a tantalizing prospect.

1 comment:

rich.1 said...

Ive followed your journey with interest Dr Will from American catholic to Bkk catholic churches through theological discussions of buddhism to your 'what's it all about' philosophising. I value your insights and look forward to more. Do you have theological discussions with Nan I wonder?