Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity 1138192740, 9781138192744

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Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity
 1138192740, 9781138192744

Table of contents :
List of figures
List of contributors
PART I Theravāda as a historical construct
1 Theravāda Buddhist civilizations and their modern formations
2 Periodizing Theravāda history: where to start?
3 The impact of the science–religion bifurcation on the landscape of modern Theravāda meditation
Local cultures and Buddhist vernaculars in colonial modernity
4 Buddhist religious culture and processes of modernization in
Sri Lanka
5 Buddhist communities of belonging in early-twentieth-century
6 What Theravāda does: thoughts on a term from the perspective
of the study of post-colonial Nepal
Theravāda Buddhist practices in the contemporary world
7 The rhetoric of authenticity: modernity and “true Buddhism”
in Sri Lanka
8 Portrait of the artist as a Buddhist man
9 “Conscripts” of Chinese modernity? Transformations of
Theravāda Buddhism in southwest China in the reform era

Citation preview

Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity

Although recent scholarship has shown that the term ‘Theravāda’ in the familiar modern sense is a nineteenth- and twentieth-century construct, it is now used to refer to the more than 150 million people around the world who practice that form of Buddhism. Buddhist practices such as meditation, amulets, and merit making rituals have always been inseparable from the social formations that give rise to them, their authorizing discourses and the hegemonic relations they create. This book is composed of chapters written by established scholars in Buddhist studies who represent diverse disciplinary approaches from art history, religious studies, history and ethnography. It explores the historical forces, both external to and within the tradition of Theravāda Buddhism and discusses how modern forms of Buddhist practice have emerged in South and Southeast Asia, in case studies from Nepal to Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia and Southwest China. Specific studies contextualize general trends and draw on practices, institutions, and communities that have been identified with this civilizational tradition throughout its extensive history and across a highly diverse cultural geography. This book foreground diverse responses among Theravādins to the encroaching challenges of modern life ways, communications, and political organizations, and will be of interest to scholars of Asian Religion, Buddhism and South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Juliane Schober is Professor for Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Asian Research at Arizona State University, US. Steven Collins is Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, US.

Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism

Edited by Stephen C. Berkwitz, Missouri State University, USA

Founding Editors: Charles S. Prebish, Utah State University, USA and Damien Keown, Goldsmith’s College, London University, UK

Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism is a comprehensive study of the Buddhist tradition. The series explores this complex and extensive tradition from a variety of perspectives, using a range of different methodologies. The series is diverse in its focus, including historical, philological, cultural, and sociological investigations into the manifold features and expressions of Buddhism worldwide. It also presents works of constructive and reflective analysis, including the role of Buddhist thought and scholarship in a contemporary, critical context and in the light of current social issues. The series is expansive and imaginative in scope, spanning more than two and a half millennia of Buddhist history. It is receptive to all research works that are of significance and interest to the broader field of Buddhist Studies. Editorial Advisory Board: James A. Benn, McMaster University, Canada; Jinhua Chen, The University of British Columbia, Canada; Rupert Gethin, University of Bristol, UK; Peter Harvey, University of Sunderland, UK; Sallie King, James Madison University, USA; Anne Klein, Rice University, USA; Lori Meeks, University of Southern California, USA; Ulrich Pagel, School of Oriental and African Studies, UK; John Powers, Australian National University, Australia; Juliane Schober, Arizona State University, USA; Vesna A. Wallace, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA; Michael Zimmermann, University of Hamburg, Germany A full list of titles in the series is available at: Recently published titles include: Early Buddhist Meditation The Four Jhânas as the Actualization of Insight Keren Arbel Birth in Buddhism The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom Amy Paris Langenberg

The following titles are published in association with the Theravāda Civilizations Project. The project supports collaborative exchanges among scholars based in the US, Canada, Britain, and Southeast Asia with the aim to undertake a thematic study of Theravāda civilizations in South and Southeast Asia. Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity Edited by Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity Edited by Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

First published 2018 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2018 selection and editorial matter, Juliane Schober and Steven Collins; individual chapters, the contributors

The right of Juliane Schober and Steven Collins to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Schober, Juliane, editor. | Collins, Steven, 1951- editor. Title: Theravāda Buddhist encounters with modernity / edited by Juliane Schober and Steven Collins. Description: New York : Routledge, 2017. | Series: Routledge critical studies in Buddhism | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2017023112| ISBN 9781138192744 (hardback) | ISBN 9781315637600 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Theravāda Buddhism. | Theravāda Buddhism--Social aspects. Classification: LCC BQ7185 .T49 2017 | DDC 294.3/9109--dc23 LC record available at ISBN: 978-1-138-19274-4 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-63760-0 (ebk) Typeset in Times New Roman by FiSH Books Ltd, Enfield


List of figures List of contributors Acknowledgements PART I

Theravāda as a historical construct 1 2 3

Theravāda Buddhist civilizations and their modern formations




The impact of the science–religion bifurcation on the landscape of modern Theravāda meditation



Local cultures and Buddhist vernaculars in colonial modernity Buddhist religious culture and processes of modernization in Sri Lanka




Periodizing Theravāda history: where to start?




vii viii ix

Buddhist communities of belonging in early-twentieth-century Cambodia


47 49


vi 6


What Theravāda does: thoughts on a term from the perspective of the study of post-colonial Nepal



Theravāda Buddhist practices in the contemporary world 7

The rhetoric of authenticity: modernity and “true Buddhism” in Sri Lanka


8 9


101 103

Portrait of the artist as a Buddhist man


“Conscripts” of Chinese modernity? Transformations of Theravāda Buddhism in southwest China in the reform era


Bibliography Index

150 167




8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7

Self-portrait of the artist Thit Buaphan, and companion: “The Whisper” Self-portrait of Thit Buaphan as identified by D. Wyatt Crying women, from three temples: Wat Nong Bua, Wat Phumin, and Wat Buak Khrok Luang, Chiang Mai Duck in flight, Wat Phumin Person in doorway, Wat Phumin “People entering a city,” according to the legend accompanying the panel on the vihāra wall, Wat Phumin Warfare, Wat Phumin

123 124 129 130 131 133 133


Stephen C. Berkwitz, Missouri State University, USA. Thomas Borchert, University of Vermont, USA. Steven Collins, University of Chicago, USA.

Kate Crosby, King’s College, University of London, UK. Christoph Emmrich, University of Toronto, Canada. Anne Hansen, University of Wisconsin, USA. John Clifford Holt, Bowdoin College, USA.

Juliane Schober, Arizona State University, USA.

Ashley Thompson, SOAS, University of London, UK.


Over the course of nearly a decade, the contributors to the Theravāda Civilizations Project have engaged questions about the transregional, interdisciplinary and discursive articulations of Theravāda Buddhist cultures, mainly in South and Southeast Asia. Our project began in 2009 when we first convened for a conference, supported by Arizona State University, on Theravāda Buddhist encounters with modernity. The essays presented in this collection developed from these initial conversations and we plan to edit two additional volumes on the Life of the Buddha and similar conceptual frames underlying textual and social formations of Theravāda civilizations. Along the way, the Theravāda Civilizations Project has benefited from generous contributions by participants, foundations and institutions. What initially began as a conversation among twelve scholars grew to a group of twenty-one participants in the project: Anne Blackburn, Stephen C. Berkwitz, Thomas Borchert, Katherine Bowie, Steven Collins, Jason Carbine, Kate Crosby, Nancy Eberhardt, Christoph Emmrich, Louis Gabaude, Charles Hallisey, Anne Hansen, John Holt, Charles Keyes, Jacques Leider, Justin McDaniel, Patrick Pranke, Jeffrey Samuels, Juliane Schober, Donald Swearer, and Ashley Thompson. We gratefully acknowledge two awards from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Asia Responsive Grants and Special Initiatives, directed by Helena Kolenda. This support was instrumental to developing our intellectual agenda and the initiatives that followed from it. The annual conferences of the Theravāda Civilizations Project involved intensive discussions across regional and disciplinary boundaries. As we were probing comparisons, archives, and methods, we also built new vocabularies and transformed our individual approaches into a collective discourse, while rethinking the assumptions upon which to construct our knowledge of Theravāda civilizations. Our explorations were enriched by nearly thirty dissertation and post-doctoral projects presented in the course of five workshops that the support of the Henry Luce Foundation allowed us to sponsor. We hope that these initiatives will continue to foster conversations on Theravāda histories, practices and social formations. Our meetings have also been sponsored by institutions in Asia, Europe and North America. Initially, the Project was organized by Juliane Schober at Arizona State University (2009) and then by Steven Collins at the University of Chicago (2010).



Subsequent meetings were supported by the Universities of Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania, the École française d’Extrême-Orient in Chiang Mai, the School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College in London, Missouri State University, and the Robert Ho Foundation. In order to bring the transdisciplinary study of Theravāda civilizations to a broader community of scholars, the Theravāda Civilizations Project initiated a professional group, the Theravāda Studies Group (TSG). Affiliated with the Association for Asian Studies, the TSG provides an academic forum on the study of Theravāda Buddhist traditions through comparative and scholarly exchanges among social scientists and humanists. This organization seeks to expand academic networks, especially among younger scholars, through annual meetings and through its website (http://theravā that provides a forum for discussion and information on research, teaching, bibliographies and audio-visual resources. We are grateful for the insights by the anonymous reviewers and our editors at Routledge. Since the inception of this collection and through its various drafts, Stephen C. Berkwitz’s comments helped shape this collection in countless ways. Dorothea Schaefter, acquisitions editor at Routledge, has patiently accommodated our drawn out process, while Lily Brown and her team were very attentive to all the details involved with moving the collection into print. Since its inception, the Theravada Civilizations Project truly has become a collaborative endeavor by a scholarly community. Throughout, we benefitted from the generous inspiration and support our colleagues, interlocutors, friends and family and we wish to thank them all for their numerous contributions. Phoenix and Chicago May 2017

Part I

Theravāda as a historical construct


Theravāda Buddhist civilizations and their modern formations

Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

Today, more than 150 million people around the world practice Theravāda Buddhism, from Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Southwestern China to Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, among Dalits in India, and throughout diaspora networks in Europe, North America, and Australia. Buddhist practices such as merit making rituals have always been inseparable from the social formations that give rise to them, their authorizing discourses and the hegemonic relations they create. Traditionally, kings acted as patrons of Buddhist institutions and their power was understood as a reflection of moral practice (karma). Merit gained from sponsoring rituals was seen not only in future rewards, but also constructed the fabric of social and political relationships, particularly in traditional contexts. The social formations classical Buddhist kingdoms produced profoundly influenced this tradition in creating what Foucault described as dispositif, which is occasionally translated as ‘apparatus.’ He described his use of the term in the following way:

What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.1

In tracing the formative processes of a Theravāda dispositif, we need to be attuned to the role of the Pali imaginaire as a lingua franca across time and social space, to the transmission, translation and interface with ethnic vernaculars and to the interactions of the Pali literature with various forms of cultural repertoires, performances, literacy, authorship and discursive authority. Pāli Buddhist textual traditions continue to influence the development of vernacular literatures and local practices in what are now the modern nation-states of mainland Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. They contribute to a cultural discourse through which Theravāda practices continue to be imagined among Buddhist communities and take on local and modern articulations in the rapidly changing contexts of globalization and digital mediation. In some ways, the similarities today among


Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

Theravāda practices across time and space are more surprising than the spread of a literary imaginaire among an educated, multi-lingual elite in precolonial times. To consider how debates about modern Theravāda Buddhism are authorized, the chapters in this collection explore some of the ways in which Theravāda Buddhist civilizations have encountered modernity. Like all modern projects, this undertaking has a history.

The study of Theravāda Buddhist civilizations

Since 2009, a group of initially twelve scholars (now twenty-one) has been engaged in study of Theravāda Buddhism as a civilizational force across South and Southeast Asia. The Theravāda Civilizations Project, a scholarly collaboration supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, facilitates an on-going interaction among these scholars that is multi-lingual, multi-sited and comparative. It is the kind of project that can only be undertaken by a group of scholars, whose productivity is far greater than the sum of its individual contributions. Through its sustained deliberations, the group2 has generated unique synergies and has come to understand each other’s work in ever more compelling ways. Our collaboration has opened up new spaces for asking particular research questions and, as we probed disciplinary boundaries and pushed thematic comparisons across regions, cultures, history and media, our conversations have also critically interrogated received scholarship on Theravāda traditions. The goal of our Project was not to compile a dictionary of Theravāda Buddhism or map all its local articulations. Nor did we set out to reify some vision of a pure Theravāda world. This recognition also intervenes against disciplinary approaches that attribute exceptional authority to some sources by asserting that “in my village, this practice …” or, similarly, that “The Buddha said in my favorite sutta …” Understanding texts and other narratives as integral to a living literary imaginaire allowed us to revise our understanding of the role of the Saṅgha as gatekeepers of the Buddhist teachings (dhamma). Instead, we wanted to describe what diverse practices in different places and times might have in common, while asserting, from the start, the fact that there are continuities and differences, inflected by local histories, diverse practices and vernacular languages that together give rise to specific Theravāda social formations.3 Because thematic research is inherently interdisciplinary, comparative and multisited, our collaborations also changed how we construct Theravāda studies and frame inquires, indeed, how the study of Theravāda defines its subject. In the course of the project, we came to rethink scholarly approaches to the field of Theravāda studies and its subject, Theravāda practices—both of which are undergoing major transitions. Our project thus came to engage several trajectories, involving, on the one hand, a collaboration of scholars drawn from multiple disciplines, the humanities and social sciences, including history, anthropology, ethnography and studies of Pali and vernacular literatures; and on the other, searching for new ways to explain local and cultural diversity in the Theravāda repertoire, a concept Justin McDaniel (2011) employs, following Ann Swidler (1986).

Theravāda Buddhist civilizations  5

Looking back, it seems that we started the Project with far greater certainty about what constitutes ‘Theravāda’ than many of us might assert today. Moving away from essentializing notions as ‘the original word of the Buddha’ found in the Pali ‘canon’ we came to see that various evolving traditions are construed by communities to be the pristine teachings of the Buddha. Little of what we call today Theravāda Buddhism was likely part of the ‘Doctrines of the Elders’ or ‘original Buddhism.’ If, as Steven Collins reminds us in Chapter 2, we know little about the history of Buddhism prior to Aśoka, we must concede that a Theravādin understanding of Buddhism during its formative period is constructed primarily in mythic terms. An important focus of our work was rooted in the effort to historicize what Foucault referred to by the word dispositif, namely those genealogies and traces of civilization that allow us to map out “the particular and historically imbedded inclinations in the normative network of social reality … the history of government, [and] the articulation and examination of our contemporary and historical and social reality.” Foucault states that the dispositif stands for “precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements.”4 Important conceptual questions about how to define the subject of Theravāda studies emerged from these considerations. How we can move from the universal to the local and how can we move from individual narratives to social and intellectual formations that shaped communities and civilizations? Generalizing from an individual life story to broader cultural trends often requires extensive study of contexts to be compelling. How do we avoid the dangers of extrapolating too much from particular narratives, individual lives, or from textual debates? What can be compared across Theravāda civilizations and how can we describe those phenomena as they are refracted in individual lives? These questions forced us to explore interdisciplinary collaborations to extract new readings of our textual, ethnographic and aesthetic sources. As project participants worked to rethink the subject of our study—Theravāda—across national, linguistic, ethnic and social boundaries, we also wanted to make explicit how themes in the Pali imaginaire come to be articulated locally. As our initial perspectives changed, new concerns emerged about translation, about readings of text and context, shifts between Pali and vernacular languages, and about the construction of meaning and its social relevance. By tracing genealogies of practice and disciplines in Buddhist lives, we uncovered a new vocabulary that is cognizant of the range of Theravāda articulations across cultures, histories, and literary imaginaires. Given that theorizing links between Theravāda practice, text and history is wrought with complexities, we worked to develop a new language to capture shared premises to re-think how and what we study. We are preparing to publish future volumes on the life of the Buddha and on themes in the study of Theravāda civilizations.

The Pali imaginaire: texts and civilization

Talal Asad reminds us that religious ideas and practices are inseparable from the social context in which they emerge.5 Religion is, after all, a product of human imagination. By the same token, Buddhist discourse and practice draw upon the


Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

repertoire of the Pali imaginaire—about cultural narratives recounted in emic terms like Buddha, bhāvanā, nibbāna, dhātu, kusala, dāna, sāsana, Saṅgha, paramparā, vaṃsa and so on—to create cultural meaning in particular social formations and hegemonies. For the purposes of this Project, ‘civilization’ denotes not an essentialized classic model of refinement, but rather the generative iterations of open-ended Pali discourses, practices, disciplines and sensibilities to construct a meaningful reality across a multiethnic, social and historical geography. The study of Theravāda Civilizations encompasses a literary tradition in Pali that Steven Collins has termed the Pāli imaginaire that embodies literatures and histories that are much older than the term ‘Theravāda’ itself. It inspired particular forms of civilization, hegemonic kingdoms, religious institutions, practices and aesthetics for more than a millennium. Indeed, Benedict Anderson singled out Pāli is one of the languages that exemplifies a trans-local imagining of regional communities prior to the advent of print capitalism and modern nationalism.6 As we trace these genealogies of knowledge, practice and sensibilities through time and space, we come to historicize the dispositif, those traces and technologies that form enduring formations and institutions. Our discussions have focused on core themes, such as conceptions of the Buddhist world (sāsana) and history (vaṃsa) and we compare such Theravādin iterations across different cultural and historical contexts. Indeed, to trace and account for family resemblances can be more vexing than acknowledging variations in practice and discourse. Through these discourses, sentimentalities, practices and social formations Theravādins construct an understanding of sāsana that profoundly shapes the world that they inhabit—socially, intellectually and culturally—where the Buddha’s presence is venerated and where past, present and future events are encompassed by a Buddhist framework of meaning. This is, after all, how the ‘really real’ is constituted through semiotic ideologies.7 Sāsana

Ritual and ethical practices such as gifting (dāna) and giving one’s self though ordination are central tropes in the social reality Theravādins conceive of as sāsana.8 Etymologically the term means to ‘order,’ ‘instruct,’ ’teach,’ and the word can simply mean ‘a message.’ It can refer to a body of ideas (and texts) which claim to convey the Buddha’s teaching outside of any historical or material embodiment; in grammatical literature non-Buddhist grammarians (sadda–satta–vidū) are contrasted with those ‘of the Teaching (sāsanika). It can also refer to just such a thing: monks and nuns ‘go forth’ into the Saṅgha (sāsane pabbajjanti), it is a bounded entity with an inside and an outside (locative case sāsane, ‘in the sāsana,’ and the term bahīra, ‘ouside’; on more than one occasion when a monastery is founded it is said that the roots of the Teacher’s Institution have gone down (into the earth) (Buddhasāsanassa mūlāni otiṇṇāni). It continues its existence in time, as an ideology and through relics: the nirvana of the relics (when a Buddha finally disappears from space and time) is simultaneous with the disappearance of the sāsana (sāsana–antaradhāna).


Theravāda Buddhist civilizations  7

This Theravādin understanding of time linking events and locations creates a particular historical consciousness expressed in chronicles (vaṃsa) and related genealogies of the Buddhist dispensation. Vaṃsa literature is found throughout Theravādin civilizations and comprises a genre of chronicles that usually follow a similar often structure, whether they are composed in Pali or in vernacular languages. Often beginning eons ago with Gotama Buddha’s aspiration to Buddhahood as the ascetic Sumedha under the then-Buddha Dīpaṅkara, or with the time of Gotama Buddha, they establish genealogies that link specific places, monastic lineages, reigns and sources of merit like Buddha images and pagodas to the wider Buddhist world. They convey particular Theravādin views of history and epistemologies in or derived from the Pali imaginaire, and project a specifically Theravādin causality to understanding the events of the past. The nineteenth-century Burmese chronicle sāsanavaṃsa, for instance, traces history from the time of Buddha to that of the Burmese kings, thus creating a narrative frame to explain the presence of his teachings in Burma and, by the same reasoning, making Burma part of the Buddhist world. Other chronicles recount royal and monastic lineages or the highly canonized biographies of foundational individuals. Royal and local chronicles often describe the hegemonic fields of merit of their patrons and affirm their patron’s charisma, authenticity and authority. Contemporary scholarship recognizes local difference, cultural inflections and historical particulars which are recorded in dynastic chronicles by describing the triumphal narratives and patronage of righteous kings. Such literature illustrates the creative process of linking emblematic events in those narratives and locations with the lives and the places that have been celebrated by the presence of the Buddha. “The interpretation of history,” Berkwitz writes, “by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, is conditioned by the country’s collection of historical writings (vaṃsa) and archeological sites that jointly speak to a past shaped by Buddhist kings and monks for a largely Buddhist public.”9

Practices and technologies: disciplines of self

Theravāda civilizations, of course, contain aspirations as well as facts and ideas, of which the most central is the ideal of the practice of the Middle Way (majjhimā paṭipadā), which refers to a restrained form of asceticism which is imagined to lead to Enlightenment (bodhi) and to final nirvana at the death of the enlightened person. It involves centrally techniques of meditation, set in the context of rituals and ordination into in the ascetic community of the Saṅgha. Such practices have an internal aspect (ajjhattika, [directed] ‘toward oneself’) in which the ultimate goal is to realize the apparently (but only apparently) paradoxical truth that there is no continuing, permanent self in human beings (or any other life-form), just a conditioned process of mental and physical events. They are also conveyed in the external physical and social habitus of monks indicative of in their mental training: in the studied decorum of folding of monastic robes, in the measured


Juliane Schober and Steven Collins

movements of monks and nuns that reveal their meditation training, in the rehearsed chanting of memorized texts, and in the practiced protocols of veneration shown to sources of Buddhist merit like monastic elders, relics or Buddha images. These practices require complex civilizations to sustain, both practically and ideologically, the privileged status of ascetics, while such technologies for disciplining oneself also continually shape anew, through their historical dispositifs, the knowledge structures of a civilization. The attainment of nirvana therefore constitutes an authoritative social status that is central to the practice of any particular Theravāda civilization and epistemology.

Modern formations

In a recent collection, Skilling et al. (2012) queried “How Theravāda is Theravāda?” and asserted that the designation of this particular form of Buddhism as ‘Theravāda’ was itself a construction of modernity. They also asked to what extent contemporary Theravāda practices constitute responses to uniquely modern conditions. The contributors to this volume recognize the limitations of the term “Theravāda” as a modern historical construct, taken as referring to what some would call a ‘religion,’ but they also recognize, for example, that the term was used in Burmese vaṃsa literature to designate a group of lineages prior to British colonial rule in Burma. As Emmrich shows in his chapter, in Nepal the idea of ‘Theravāda’ has assumed different meanings at different moments of time and circumscribes a discursive field with particular practices that shape sentiments and dispositions, institutions, authority and hegemonies of merit making. Contemporary forms of Buddhist modernity in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia are inflected in ways that are specific to the historical and cultural contexts from which they emerged and thus have imposed limits on our attempts to describe Theravāda modernity in generalizing terms. This is due in part to ethnic diversity within Theravāda civilizations, but also to the fragmented character of the social and intellectual condition of modernity that, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, “is a qualitative, not a chronological category.”10 Modern Theravāda formations emerged in response to competing and especially secular bodies of knowledge, scientific technologies, globalizing networks and novel social practices. Most Theravādins came to experience modernity under the political domination of European colonialism. The conditions of modernity profoundly affected traditional lifeways within the Theravāda sāsana, its social relationships and material conditions. Monks and kings in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and elsewhere in the Theravāda world enacted far-reaching institutional reforms and formulated modern Buddhist ethics, as Anne Hansen has shown in her book How To Behave (2007). In early twentieth century Burma and Sri Lanka, transgressions of monastic discipline formed the plot of provocative novels that depicted monastic individuals as narrative subjects and illustrated profound disenchantment with the modern colonial way of living. They profoundly questioned the relevance in modern social contexts of monastic conduct as these were codified in the Vinaya.

Theravāda Buddhist civilizations  9

Although Theravāda modernities have been constituted in relation to encroaching networks from the Occident, the conditions of Buddhist modernity, its formations and challenges, are fundamentally different than the Judeo-Christian framework of modernity, as illustrated by Charles Taylor, Talal Asad and others. They demonstrate regional differentiation, employ different networks, technologies and knowledge formations. The chapters in this volume trace historically unique engagements with modern conditions in the Theravāda world, many of which emerged in response to the colonial rule and technological modernization. Critiquing the notion of an “acultural” understanding of modernity as the natural outcome of progress towards which all cultures progress, Crosby draws the reader’s attention to emergent Buddhist technologies of the mind, such as vipassanā, that conform with a western epistemology of mind over body, science over religion, and the colonial claim of supremacy over the physical world. That shift in Buddhist meditation practices, as a Theravāda response to colonial government, popularized vipassanā meditation in the late nineteenth century and displaced earlier forms of meditation practices, captured by the term borān, in which technologies of ritual and habitus achieve a transformation of the self that combines a somatic or bodily experience with mental or spiritual attainments. Crosby asserts here—and argues persuasively in her book (2014a)—that the decline of borān and concurrent popularization of vipassanā can be traced throughout the Theravāda worlds of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. “Buddhists were also seeing the devastation of European warfare in moral terms,” she writes, looking towards Buddhist institutions and practices to stem their disenchantment with the modernity in which they saw the moral decline of the sāsana. These responses to colonial hegemonies and forms of knowledge triggered reform movements and entailed the demise of important traditional forms of authority. The practice of borān, and the physical transformation of self and body, had been pre-colonial practices for overcoming saṃsāra that were now replaced by technologies of the mind, like vipassanā, that were more compatible with western views of modern progress. The French sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour reminds us that the work of modernity proceeds through translation and purification.11 While translation allows for the creation of hybrid cultural forms, purification divides humans and things into separate ontological zones in order to define modern human agency. Such reforms in Theravāda centralized the administration of the Saṅgha through a bureaucratic hierarchy and sought to standardize monastic education, texts, and disciplined behavior. They demythologized traditional cosmological forms of Buddhist practice, but continued to embrace the ritual patterns of exchange based on an economy of merit. They laid the foundation for modern Buddhist institutions and practices that were sanctioned by the modern state and the institutions it supports. In the course of Buddhist reforms since the eighteenth century, the work of purification has constituted an internal response to a growing colonial presence in Southeast Asia. Modernizing Buddhist reforms were initiated in the Buddhist polities of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia by Buddhist kings (dhammarāja) who governed in accordance with the Ten Rules of Good


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Governance (dasa rājadhammā) and the Universal Buddhist Law (dhamma). While these reforms affected many areas of life within the Buddhist polity, they were conducted within a Buddhist worldview and ideology and Buddhist practices and institutions, which became eventually themselves the object of rationalizing and centralizing reforms. Scholars of Theravāda have characterized this type of Buddhist modernity as “state Buddhism.” Modern states in Buddhist South and Southeast Asia typically include in their administration a ministry of Buddhist affairs that also oversees internal divisions dedicated to other religious traditions. These governmentalities accomplish multiple objectives that allow the state to uphold a modern and yet at least quasi-Buddhist authority. While harnessing the populist appeal of religious charisma to support the work of the state, ministries of religious affairs generally play a key role in articulating state sanctioned interpretations of modern political ideologies like democracy, socialism, or communism, and social movements like environmentalism or civil or human rights in light of majority religions like Buddhism. At the same time, such administrative offices manage the state’s relation to minority groups and their regimens of truth derived from Islam, Christianity or Hindu ideals. Mostly significantly, such ministries largely foreclose from public discourse what is often seen to be the universally recognized scourge of modernity, namely secularism, that continues to be associated with the unethical use of coercive power. In Sri Lanka, where religions are tolerated that do not inhibit the expression of individual freedoms or the workings of a pluralistic government, “the doctrine of secularism functions to demarcate what comprises acceptable and authentic religion in the public sphere.”12 The most problematic encounter of Theravāda civilizations with western ideologies centers on the idea of a secular power to govern society and the ethical values of secularism it conveys. Theravādin vernaculars by and large do not entail an emic term for the idea of the secular. Instead, secularism, as Berkwitz points out is often seen as the government’s ability to accommodate multiple religions in the public space.13 Increasingly, Buddhist anxiety about secularism and the perceived threat to the sāsana by religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Southern Thailand has compelled Buddhists to respond to a perceived need to defend their Buddhist values. This recent iteration of Buddhist nationalism “represents a reaction of the marginalization of religious interests and Buddhist monks in cultural and political spaces.”14 Buddhist modernism also emerged out of diverse articulations that sought to synthesize Buddhist practices and sensibilities with modern political ideologies. David McMahan defined Buddhist modernism as constituted by those “forms of Buddhism that have emerged out of an engagement with the dominant cultural and intellectual forces of modernity.”15 Examples here include the Burmese Buddhist Way to Socialism that projected a utopian vision linking economic development to the spiritual attainments of the nation and other forms of Buddhist nationalism. Arguably, an even more prominent example of Buddhist modernism is found in the spread and promotion of mediation as a universal form of practice.

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As Patrick Pranke and others have observed, the modern rise of Insight (vipassanā) meditation can be dated back as far as the beginning of the eighteenth century.16 Since the late nineteenth century it has become a widespread innovation for lay practitioners and the epitome of Buddhist modernism and cosmopolitanism. Its widely popular and varied forms of practice became disembedded from the cultural contexts of their production and appropriated by the spirituality of other religious and secular communities to such a degree that western audiences often associate Buddhist practice first and foremost with meditation, seeking to confirm ancient Buddhist wisdom through science and rationalism. Diverse forms of Buddhist modernism in the contemporary Theravāda world now extend to a global, multi-ethnic and multi-sited diaspora, digitized modes of communication and virtual realities that shape emergent Theravāda formations. Additional responses to modern transformations comprise changes in monastic education curricula, in the rise of lay authority through lay meditation, in the changing roles of women in Buddhist orders and even in the commodification of some modern Buddhist practices. “The modern discourse on Buddhist meditation explicitly acknowledges external authorities outside of the Buddhist tradition (e.g. science), while freely mixing elements from various Buddhist texts and cultures according to individual preference.”17 While as contributors to this volume we recognize the many additional forms of Buddhist modernism that have emerged through globalization, mediatization, commodification and romanticization of Buddhist modernisms among diaspora communities and others, we have chosen to remain focused on their articulations in those regions in Asia where Theravāda remains a dominant civilizing force.

Contributions to this volume

The chapters in this volume consider selective attitudes, habits, and practices as these are articulated in modern Buddhist reforms, institutions and roles and in the interactions of modern Buddhists with economic, social and political patters of circulation. They delineate the parameters of comparison of modern Theravāda Buddhist practices, rituals and institutions. The chapters presented in this collection developed from the group’s initial meeting in 2009, exploring how Theravāda knowledge, habitus and practice encounter modernity in ways specific to this tradition and yet differently from the western notions of progress. Following this introductory chapter, the two other chapters in Part I open new inquiries for readers by engaging the most far-reaching perspectives. Collins (Chapter 2) argues that much of what we presume to know about early Theravāda history is simply mythological imagination for which we lack historical evidence. His chapter interrogates how scholars have defined periods in Buddhist history and its migration from India to Sri Lanka and eventually Southeast Asia. This history has commonly been divided into an early period about which, Collins argues, we know little with any historical reliability; an extended medieval period, lasting from Aśoka’s reign during which the Pali imaginaire and its practices of self emerged with distinctly characteristic liturgies, icons, monastic


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lineages, and royal court culture; to the modern period marked by a gradual globalization of Asia, starting in the sixteenth century, one that introduces an epistemological shift towards western scientific rationalism and concurrent pragmatic challenges to the Buddhist world posed by western colonial regimes. Underscoring that “we cannot have any historically certain, or even reliable knowledge of what early Buddhism was”, Collins concludes that many of our scholarly presumptions about early Buddhism have been detrimental to the study of Buddhism itself. Only during the post-Aśokan (i.e. after the third century BCE), medieval period can we begin to discern unique forms of entextualized knowledge that constitute Buddhist history. Theravāda as a distinct form of practice and imagination begins to be articulated nearly seven centuries later in the work of Buddhaghosa, particularly in the Visuddhimagga (the Path of Purification) and his contemporaries in the fifth century CE. It is in this moment that Collins locates an emerging Pali imaginaire that informs Theravāda civilizations. Responding to Peter Skilling’s question, “How Theravāda is Theravāda?,” Collins urges us to treat Theravāda as a retrospective term in modern historiography. Collins reminds us that much of what we thought we knew about early Theravāda revealed itself as a mixture of Buddhist teleology and western orientalism. Instead of imagining the past, he urges us to begin our inquiry into Theravāda by focusing on the practice and knowledge formations of the present. In lieu of constructing a chronology of modernization, he proposes to examine how the conditions of modernity become manifest in Theravāda civilizations. Conditions of Buddhist modernity, its formations and challenges differ from the Judeo-Christian framework and its ideological underpinnings of progress that are often invoked to explain global modernity. The encounters of Theravāda civilizations with modernity exhibit regional variations, different epistemologies, networks, knowledge formations and technologies. Theravāda encounters with modernity, as Kate Crosby (Chapter 3) points out, have transformed and even marginalized traditional modes of knowing and practice, producing modern Buddhist responses such as vipassanā meditation to the scientific rationalism that was introduced to the region through colonizing networks. Crosby challenges the idea of an “acultural” modernity as an inevitable stage of progress in all cultures as a view of modernity that posits inevitable progress and harkens back to an evolutionary model of progress common to nineteenth-century social theory known for its claim to western superiority. She argues in her chapter that traditional Theravāda modes of knowing and practice, such as borān meditation, were marginalized in this encounter with a scientific view of modern progress that emanated from the west. Crosby’s study of the suppression of traditional meditation reminds us that successful Buddhist reforms also silence, disempower or marginalize those whose alleged use of magic is said to subvert righteous fields of merit and power. The chapters in Part II of this collection focus on the formation of local Buddhist vernaculars in response to their encounters with colonial modernity. Arguing that religion responds to social change because its practices are always historically contextualized by individual actors and by larger social entities, John

Theravāda Buddhist civilizations  13

Clifford Holt’s contribution (Chapter 4) takes up the question of how the processes of modernization have changed Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. He addresses specifically the salient politics of ethnicity and religion and observes that perceived poverty is a still more powerful motivation for rallying election victories, throwing doubt on the common assertion that religious difference is the primary cause for communal violence as, for instance, in the events of July 1983 in Sri Lanka when militant Buddhists enacted a pogrom against religious minorities, especially Tamils. Rather, Holt cogently argues that modern technologies make it possible for religious identity to be used in a hegemonic discourse in order to achieve political ends. He further underscores that modern technologies, from printing to digital media, have reconfigured the discourse about religious identity and its politicization. Certainly, modern technologies have transformed cultural access to venerated spaces and created new mobilities by which people go on pilgrimage. Such new forms of mediation have opened up much of religious practice and expression to commodification and reconfigured the dynamics of urban, middle class Buddhists in the contemporary world, rendering the postcolonial realities of Sri Lanka more complex. How will modern Buddhist practice be transformed by the growing influence of religious identity and how far have modernist reforms forever altered Buddhist practices? What do these facts forebode for Buddhist practice in the future and what kind of leadership, if any, might be expect from the saṅgha? Apart from a growing disillusionment with militant forms of religion, what are we to make of religion’s prescriptive claims to guide ethical action, rather than respond to their social realities? Anne Hansen (Chapter 5) encourages the reader to consider a historiographical approach that shifts the analysis away from macro-units such as nation-states and such large-scale imagined communities. Instead, she calls for us to focus on how Theravāda history is constituted through interpersonal networks, communities of belonging and biographies of teachers and mentors. Such a shift in analytic focus will not only help us to discern how such personal networks and communities of belonging embody central Theravādin ethical values and emotions. From this focus emerges a different understanding of how Buddhists view themselves and their history by revealing local historical memories of saṅgha and sāsana. Hansen notes that the term Theravāda only gained currency among Khmer intellectuals during the 1960s, was associated with a foreign project like the sixth Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Phom Penh, and articulated a French colonial and orientalist project of identifying Theravāda Buddhism with little bearing on how most Khmer saw “Khmer religion (sāsana) in relation to ancient Indian Buddhism and to other ‘world religions.’” In following this line of argument, Hansen presents Theravāda as the cumulative cultural history of individualistic networks, authorized by lineages and ritual merit making, that constitute particular ways in which sāsana in ancient India is constructed and linked to contemporary Theravādin communities of belonging in Cambodia. In his fascinating, detailed but wide-ranging study of the term ‘Theravāda’ in twentieth-century Nepal and in scholarship on it, Christoph Emmrich (Chapter 6)


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starts from the assertion that “From the very beginning of their history in Nepal, Theravāda and modernity have been inextricably connected. To speak of Theravāda in Nepal is to speak of the modern, of the new, the interrupted, the deteriorated, or the improved.” He traces the inception and development of the movement which has characterized itself as ‘Theravāda’ since the 1920s, “in terms of what it allows and precludes,” showing how significant has been women’s participation in the modern movement, many of whom (like many monks) trained in Burma. In Nepal clearly, and also elsewhere, the development of modern, and modernist, Theravāda has been tightly intertwined with ethnic and political issues. He offers an intriguing and thought-provoking example of the modern Theravādin appropriation of a much older ritual, an old Vajrayāna Newar menarche ritual where a teenage girl was placed into seclusion with dietary confinement to a sunlight- and men-proof room for eleven days in the company of a sexually predatory domestic spirit with an concluding ritual encounter with the sun god. The new version is a less ‘Hindu,’ less ‘magical’ coming-of-age ritual, which “has as its aim the health, education, and empowerment of the girl child for a modernizing society,” Emmrich write in this volume. There are more complications and subtleties in regard to this modern, or modernizing, ritual than can be gone into here, but it is a telling example of what Hansen calls for in arguing for smaller-scale studies which delve below the level of the nation-state. This latter focus is also present throughout Emmrich’s account, as is a rigorous and incisive consideration of the term ‘Theravāda’ as both an emic and etic category. The chapters in Part III of the collection focus on the ways in which contemporary Theravāda cultures have come to view modern Buddhist practices in relation to the past. They present views from Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Southern China to illustrate particular readings of religious authenticity from a Theravāda perspective. Stephen C. Berkwitz (Chapter 7) takes up contemporary readings of a Theravāda Buddhist rhetoric of authenticity in Sri Lanka, where the call to protect the Buddha’s sāsana has initiated debates about what constitutes ‘true’ Buddhism amidst pressures within and outside of the tradition.18 These pressures started, of course, with the confrontation with colonial government but continue today with international media, and such phenomena as young Sri Lankan women going to work as domestic servants in the Gulf States. What they bring back is not merely money but experience of a wholly new life-world. Evoking Talal Asad’s discussion of global flows,19 “Sinhala Buddhists,” Berkwitz writes “find themselves exposed to a variety of cultural and religious forms, originating both near and far, but easily transmitted by means of travel, technology, global capital, media, and ideologies that move ceaselessly across the globe.”20 In contrast to the previous Sinhalese imagination of “a historical past that revolves largely around Buddhist symbols and practices, the view of modernity is one whereby Buddhism is increasingly susceptible to being undermined and uprooted by competing traditions and authorities.”21 The Sri Lankan constitution of 1972 “affirms religious freedom for all Sri Lankans” but specifies that Buddhism should enjoy the “foremost place” as the religion of the majority of the population. He observes that “Sri Lankan Buddhists are often inclined to authenticate their religion with reference

Theravāda Buddhist civilizations  15

to a Theravāda historical consciousness that locates its basis and its “truths” in traditions set out by the Buddha in canonical Pāli texts (Tipiṭaka).”22 Ashley Thompson (Chapter 8) takes as her departure what she sees as the erroneous gaze of what Taylor called the ‘acultural’ form of modernism, where modernity is the same everywhere, the result of an evolutionary or at least historical progress whose consummation is the modern West. Such a view of modernity Thompson sees in the work of David Wyatt, in his reading of paintings of the artist Thit Huaphan at Wat Phumin and Wat Nong Bua in the northern Thai province of Nan. Wyatt identifies things he can compare to (so-called) western modernity—such as a painting mistakenly assumed to be a self-portrait by the artist—to identify and celebrate the Thai artist as a Western-style artistic genius, on the model of the (modern) Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Instead, Thompson asks us to “interrogate the frames defining ‘history,’ at once in ‘our’ and ‘other’ traditions,” requiring us to employ new types of materials and modes of analysis that do not presume to incorporate “the ‘local’ into the singular global order.” In particular, she identifies in the west a certain view of the self at work, for example in self-portraits, which is inappropriate to the Buddhist view of non-self. Certainly we (the editors) hope that this contribution, and others, will make evident the existence in the Theravāda of what Eisenstadt (2000) called “multiple modernities.” Thomas Borchert’s contribution (Chapter 9) examines how the modern construction of a Theravāda identity in Yunnan in Southwestern China captures multiple ambiguities and serves to negotiate difference for ethnic minorities wedged between Southeast Asia and China. Like Emmrich, he shows that “Theravāda” is a category that can be, in fact usually is used strategically. His chapter describes how strategically identifying as Theravādin allows the Dai-lue of Yunnan to distinguish themselves from their Han Chinese Buddhist neighbors, while implicitly contesting the Chinese colonial presence in Sipsongpannā, the traditional name of this borderlands region. This has led to the formation of two distinctly modern Buddhist institutions: first, a centralized monastic organization, the Buddhist Association that emerged since the 1980s and second, education projects that include teaching English at monasteries in the region. Concurrent with the Dai-lue Saṅgha’s effort to organize previously disparate monks under the umbrella of the Buddhist Association, this body now also has been formally integrated into administrative structures of the Chinese state and its Buddhist organizations. This concluding chapter shows explicitly, what is perhaps more implicit in other chapters, the significance of institutions of education, throughout the period of modernity and especially now, in the twenty-first century. The editors and contributors to this volume hope that it will help start a new phase in the consideration of Theravāda (given, indeed, the limitations of this term in doing civilizational history) and modernity, one which goes beyond the kind of simplistic views and terminology as, for instance, ‘Protestant Buddhism’ that gloss this encounter as a uniform and uni-directional set of developments. Authors were given entire freedom to use and define both ‘Theravāda’ and ‘modernity’ in whatever way they wished, so there will be no single conclusion


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or ‘take-away’ point about the volume as a whole. Instead, we hope the collection will further new conversations about how Theravāda civilizations, as well as other kinds of Buddhist formations, articulate civilizational ‘dispositifs’ throughout their unfolding histories.

Notes 1 2

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Foucault (1980: 194). Participants have mastered the study of many Buddhist languages, including Sanskrit, Pali and vernacular languages such as Sinhala, Burmese, Thai, and Khmer. Several of them have produced annotated translations of Buddhist texts. All employ historical methods and social theories in their research. They lived and traveled extensively in Asia where they continue to conduct research and ethnographic fieldwork. For detail, see Schober and Collins (2012). Foucault (1980: 194). Asad (1993: 27–54). Anderson (1991: 12–13). Hefner (2010); Keane (2007: 18, 79). In the third volume of this series, Steven Collins and Patrick Pranke will study this term in depth in premodern Pali texts and in eighteenth- to twenty-first-century Burma. Berkwitz (this volume, page 104). Adorno (1978: 218). Latour (1993: 10, 11). Berkwitz (this volume, page 105). Berkwitz (this volume, page 103 ff). Berkwitz (this volume, page 105). McMahan (2012: 8). Pranke (2010: 453ff.). Berkwitz (this volume, page 106). Berkwitz (this volume, page 105). Asad (1993: 33–37). Berkwitz (this volume, page 112). Berkwitz (this volume, page 104). Berkwitz (this volume, page 106).


Periodizing Theravāda history

Where to start? Steven Collins

In this chapter I describe what I will call the main modules in the spread of what we now call ‘Theravāda’ from India and Sri Lanka across Southeast Asia, from the latter centuries BC, when the process presumably began (though we cannot prove this), till the early centuries of the second millennium AD, when the beginnings of the modern cultural pattern start to emerge; then I will discuss three periods of Theravāda history, and what kind of historiography I think is possible in relation to them. What I will have to say will be controversial, and intentionally so. The issues are many and the perspective is large. There will be much room for disagreement and discussion. Briefly, the three periods are: •

early, pre-Aśokan Buddhism, that is from whenever it was that ‘the Buddha’ lived (if indeed there was such a person) until the third century BC; the ‘extended Middle Ages,’ (to borrow a term from Jacques LeGoff 1) from the third century BC till the beginnings of the process of modernization;2 and modernization itself, in which one key element of my argument will be to separate globalization—a process which I see beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing in the contemporary world—from the age of political colonialism, which in Buddhist South and Southeast Asia was restricted to the period roughly from the early or middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries.3 Both the concept and the facts of post-colonialism are also viable and of continuing significance.4

If the term ‘Theravāda’ in its current descriptive sense is, as has been argued recently5 a modern invention, what can be the point of using it now? First, modern Buddhists (or at least some of them—it would be very useful to have contemporary ethnographic evidence on this) use the word; and second, common sense suggests that it would be quixotic for scholars to attempt to prevent the use of such a now standard term: as Peter Skilling puts it, “I do not propose that we abandon the use of the term Theravāda—that would be absurd—but I do suggest that we do our best to understand its historical context, and that we keep it in rein.”6 It is necessarily retrospective, a term of art in modern historiography. When we use the term of any premodern time and place what we mean is


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Socio-cultural contexts, now evidenced in inscriptions especially, in which Pali language was prized and used as performatively efficacious, in such things as liturgies, mantras, protection texts, inscriptional stanzas: for example the ye dhammā formula, the iti pi so gāthā, namo buddhāya, Abhidhamma lists, etc. This is fundamental: but I am talking here of a language and not yet a literature. If Pali is present, in any form, then one can, retrospectively and a priori, speak of ‘Theravåda Buddhism’; but of course this is not to deny the ubiquitous use of vernaculars which form part of the same genealogy, and not to deny that the role of Pali may have been very different in different times and places. Images of the Buddha and some monks, in certain recognizable styles, and relics, and practices of venerating both, in some cases with accompanying or subsequently-written histories (vaṃsa-s) Certain monastic lineages, usually sponsored by local power-holders (kings), and often in Southeast Asia called the Sīhala-saṅgha or Sīhala-pakkha, and conversely in Ceylon from the eighteenth century the Siyam (Siamese) Nikāya. This relationship between lineages and kings offers instances and patterns of what Leslie Gunawardana happily referred to as an “antagonistic symbiosis”7 between holders of ideological power and holders of militarypolitical power (this has been called the ‘legitimation’ of kingship, a term I find no longer valuable8). Sometimes in this process individual monks had what one might call a starring role, and we might think of them as premodern ‘celebrities’ (a term which might also, for slightly different reasons, be used of certain Buddha-images). A rhetorical orientation to the literature of the Pali Canon (the tipiṭaka) as a regulatory idea/ideal—though the entirety of the actual texts so designated would not, indeed, or at least very infrequently, be found together in any one time and place. Among elites, what I have called the Pali imaginaire, as a potential data bank;9 but note that there were rarely many texts outside specialist libraries, and Pali texts always co-existed with other texts, in Sanskrit and in vernaculars.

something, or some things, which can be seen, or argued, to be genealogically related to what we now call ‘Theravāda.’ What might such things be? What follows is a list of things which spread, separately and together, from India to Sri Lanka in the last centuries BC, and thence (mostly—there were other routes) to Southeast Asia, starting from at least the fourth and fifth centuries AD, reaching roughly modern distribution, or basis of it, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, given in order of historical importance as I see it. These things might be thought of as modules, and the kind of historiography I am recommending could be called modular history: some or all of these things were present in what is now called the spread of Theravāda, but it is an empirical issue which were significant, and how far they were so, in any given time and place. We will probably never know.

2 3

4 5



Periodizing Theravāda history  19

The availability of a heterogeneous set of practices of the self, forms of asceticism—I am referring here not to self-mortification but to using askēsis in the sense of training, ‘spiritual exercises’10—as oriented by (though not uniquely aimed at) the goal of nirvana, as both the (alleged) individual achievement and (more easily verified) the social status of the so-called enlightened man or woman. There is another tradition (or more likely traditions) which we have only recently come to know about, and exploration of which remains an urgent desideratum on the scholarly agenda: what has been variously, and inadequately, called ‘tantric Theravāda,’ or the tradition(s) of practice called variously yogāvacara, kammaṭṭhāna, or most recently by Kate Crosby as borān kammaṭṭhāna.11 This refers to a variety of practices of meditation, rumination and texts, which, for example, deal with syllables of Pali mantras and their visualized implantation in different parts of the human body and of Buddha-images.

It is important that Pali (the language, the Canon, the imaginaire, practices of the self, etc.) never existed alone: it always co-existed with vernaculars, often with Sanskrit: there has never been a civilization in which only Pali was valued as a prestige language. The spread of both language and literature was empirically varied: for example, in Cambodia between perhaps as early as the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries it is, I think, a still open question whether at any time we are looking at a ‘Theravāda civilization’ rather than at a civilization with some Theravāda components. In thinking of the spread of (what we now call) Theravāda we might think of the spread of both sounds and silences: the sounds of texts read out loud (performed), of chanting, protection and other mantras, sermons, etc.; and the silences of texts and inscriptions as mute objects, often worshipped not performed, lighting incense and candles, venerating Buddha-images (usually done in silence), practices of the self (= ‘meditation’), etc., almost all but not quite all of these latter are silent practices of the mind, ‘spiritual exercises’). Selecting any one of these modules, or group of them as ‘early’ Buddhism is an act of personal choice and preference. We cannot have any historically certain, or even reliable, knowledge of what early Buddhism was. Any and every of the modules I have here described could have been present in ‘early,’ pre-Aśokan Buddhism. The idea that ‘Buddhism’ was originally a set of ascetic practices and ideas which only later and gradually ‘accommodated’ itself to ‘society’ (a view very influentially held by Max Weber) has been in my view very detrimental to the study of Buddhism, in many ways. Any picture of ‘early’ Buddhism, which can only be extracted from texts composed and redacted centuries after that time, will tend inevitably to see actually-existing Buddhism as some kind of degeneration from an ideal: hence so many books and courses on Buddhism (unlike, I think, other religions) are patterned in terms of ‘theory’ and ‘practice,’ and the guiding principle of enquiry becomes to understand the divergence of the latter from the former. I think we should reverse the procedure: start from actually-existing


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Buddhist practice(s) and see the production of theory, and the practices of the self it accompanies, as just one kind of Buddhist practice: a product of the Buddhist tradition not its origin. (More on this at the end of the chapter.) As is well-known, the actual manuscripts from which modern editions of both Pali and vernacular texts are made almost all date only from recent centuries. Perhaps the existence of different recensions throughout Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, which do roughly agree save for mostly minor points, might reassure us that we can date the texts earlier than the extant manuscripts of them. But how early? I think we can go back only as far as what the English monk and scholar Ñāṇamoli called ‘the committee called Buddhaghosa,’12 usually dated (though not without uncertainty13) to the fourth or fifth centuries AD, and to his successor Dhammapāla (dated, also uncertainly, to the fifth or sixth centuries AD). It is a common phenomenon worldwide that a ‘Canon’ is only finally fixed when the process of writing commentaries on it begins: commentaries create the Canon they comment on.14 Of course comparative work with other versions, in Gandhārī, Tibetan, Chinese and (where they exist) Sanskrit, can help. They do suggest—as the exciting recent discoveries in Gandhārī show very clearly—that while we can be sure that ‘canonical’ collections other than the Pali existed, the picture they all draw of what some people now call ‘Mainstream Buddhism’ (somewhat unfortunately, in my view) is in general a consistent one. But is this picture, however consistent, comprehensive? Can we assume that if something is not discussed in extant texts it did not exist? No, we can’t, for the obvious reason that people didn’t record in texts absolutely everything that was in their world. The process of entextualization15 is always and necessarily selective. Entextualization is a long word for a simple idea: of the billions of verbal utterances and written documents produced every day by human beings, there are only a very few which are preserved as memorable in established oral and/or written texts. A good example of the process is that of proverbs: presumably someone somewhere said ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ or ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ for the first time, but these short utterances have become texts, remembered and transmitted (usually orally) as objects to be referred to. Civilization requires a class of clerics to preserve forms of entextualized tradition, oral and/or written, which have meaning and value in themselves as ‘traditional.’ What they preserve is always selected for the clerics’ own interests and purposes. There is precious little non-textual evidence on which historians can draw for pre-Aśokan Buddhism, apart from some archeology which does establish the importance of cities in the centuries in which ‘early Buddhism’ seems to have been located; and sociological speculation based on such evidence, along with what is said about cities in Pali texts, can be used to paint a general picture of the sociology of early Buddhism, as the title of a useful book has it.16 But the general problem applies here also: sometimes people entextualize things because they do in fact exist around them, and the pleasure of the text is the recognition of the familiar; but equally often people entextualize what does not exist, and the pleasure of the text is the encounter with the unfamiliar. In the case of any given text, one can never know which is the case.

Periodizing Theravāda history  21

There is a further problem with modern historians using so-called ‘early’ Pali texts selectively: some things we simply cannot believe. Take for instance, the existence of gods and spirits: they are ubiquitous in Pali texts, regularly interacting with the Buddha and his monks and nuns, receiving sermons from them, and so on. A modern empiricist historian cannot countenance the possibility that such supernatural beings actually existed: but then what most people do is ignore the existence of the gods in the texts but nonetheless take what, for example, the Buddha is depicted as telling them as being reliably ‘the (historical) Buddha’s Word.’ But if people can make up the existence of supernaturals for the Buddha to talk to they can also make up what he said to them. The usual rationalizing enthusiasm of such scholarship is strikingly evident in a recent question Richard Gombrich asks, and in the answer he gives. In his book What the Buddha Thought, he asks, quite seriously, “So did the Buddha privately, in his heart of hearts, ‘believe in’ gods or ghosts? I doubt that we can ever know. Maybe he was so true to his own principles that he thought it pointless to ask himself the question.”17 The idea that a modern scholar can ask what a legendary figure (who we cannot be certain actually existed) thought ‘in his heart of hearts’ is, in my view, a final reductio ad absurdum of the entire ‘early Buddhism’ mania. Let us, as historians, remain more sober, less pathological. My second period dates from the time of Emperor Aśoka, whose inscriptions are certainly historical. But what do they tell us? What actually happened? What did Aśoka want people to think was happening? We can’t know in detail. Although Aśoka and his inscriptions are quoted repeatedly in histories, usually from out-of-date and/or popularizing translations,18 in fact their study is extremely difficult, and we can have no precise and indisputable picture of what he intended to say.19 Nonetheless, with Aśoka Buddhism enters history for the first time. This is obviously not a place to try to summarize that history: there are many secondary sources which make the best of the evidence we have.20 That evidence comes often from inscriptions (though one can just as easily tell lies on stone than in texts), but mainly, inevitably, from Buddhism’s own histories of itself, with all the problems of interpretation that texts of such provenance bring. We must rely on them, for example, if we are to attempt event-history (histoire événementielle). But there are other ways of doing history: delineating structures and predicaments of the longue durée, for example—what are the characteristics of premodern, preindustrial societies which condition the forms and functions what we now call ‘Theravāda’ could fulfil?21 In the interests of space I will offer a brief sketch of one type of such an approach,22 a longue durée generalization about the relationship between Pali texts and their guardians as holders of ideological power in relation to kings and others as holders of military-political power, two kinds of over-lapping but not identical elites. The picture is derived mostly not from the specificity of the South and Southeast Asian evidence but from a general picture of premodern, agrarian civilizations. One such set of generalizations is as follows. Although the transition from the conditions of hunter-gatherer and/or nomadic societies to settled agricultural life must have been gradual, and there is no agreed narrative of it, most theorists concur


Steven Collins

on the main features of the agrarian stage. Food, obviously, now requires co-ordinated and co-operative agriculture; and people living in settled abodes require new forms of conflict-resolution (less politely called ‘violence’23). Society is organized in increasingly large-scale groupings, passing through family societies, local groups with or without leaders termed Big Men, chiefdoms, to agrarian states as regional and trans-regional polities, kingdoms and empires. In South and Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, socio-political formations oscillated back and forth over this continuum (it being an ‘evolutionary’ sequence only in ideal-typical terms). At the largest end of the spectrum are found rulers called in Pali ‘Wheel-turning Kings’ (cakkavattis). The political form of agrarian States is constituted by some mixture of routinized and bureaucratized military and political power. Defining features of the State include: a monopoly over the means of violence in a given area, taxation, the right, or at least the capacity to draft corvée labor and an army, the enforcement of some form of articulated law, and some ideology which justifies or legitimizes the social status quo. The agrarian stage of world history, and the societies and States within it, are sometimes called ‘tributary.’ ‘Tribute’ here refers to food, goods, services and eventually cash extracted by a ruling elite from peasant-cultivators and herdsmen, directly by military or political means, and indirectly by means of ideologies which normalize and so justify the extraction process. (In the Theravāda case this is most obviously through the idea of karma, which amongst other things justifies social hierarchy.) Society, hitherto egalitarian, is split into two main groups or classes, the tribute-givers and the tribute-takers. Tributary relations vary along what Eric Wolf calls “a continuum of power distributions”:

It is possible to envisage two polar situations: one in which power is concentrated strongly in the hands of a ruling elite standing at the apex of the power system; and another in which power is held largely by local overlords and rule at the apex is fragile and weak.24

These two situations correspond to what have been called the Asiatic and Feudal modes of production respectively. Oscillation between strong/centralized and weak/diffused power—but with a long-term linear trend toward centralization— was characteristic of the socio-political circumstances of Theravåda Buddhist ideology throughout its premodern history. O. W. Wolters influentially named the system of premodern Southeast Asian kingship the maṇḍala system:25 by this he meant, it seems, a system of client kings surrounding a central power-holder. But this is a feature, it seems to me, of any premodern situation. An army can carry on its back food and water for only a small number of miles; thereafter it has to extract these things from the surrounding population. This can be done by sheer force, but a stable military-political environment cannot be secured that way. This can only be done by a system of alliances and clientships: and such a system is held together not only by mutual self-interest but also by a dominant ideology distributed among the ruling, tribute-taking class. So far the analysis has divided agrarian society into two classes: peasant tribute-givers and elite tribute-takers. But when the latter category is divided into

Periodizing Theravāda history  23

two one has a tripartite structure of workers (production), warriors/kings (coercion) and clerics (cognition).26 When the category of clerics is divided into two, the ordinary (ritual functionaries) and the virtuoso (ascetic salvation-seekers), one has an elite triumvirate of kings, ‘priests’ and ascetics. In the Buddhist case, the ordinary-ritualist clerical hierarchy is not so much an explicitly proclaimed discursive artifact as the ensemble of attitudes and behaviors which led, for example, at the upper end of the social hierarchy, to aristocratic members of the monkhood presiding over the coronations of kings, adding a transcendentalist gloss to the mundane display of power; and at lower levels to their being employed to chant protection verses at weddings, house-buildings, and the like, and to assist in the transfer of merit to dead relatives. Relations between the three groups were such that each one could, from the top of its own hierarchy, look down on the others; but also any two could gang up on the third. Both kinds of cleric could oppose kings, for example, from the institutional position of the monkhood, which as the ‘field of merit’ for the laity had a higher soteriological status than kings, condemned as they were to actual or potential violence, even for the maintenance of everyday social order. Ascetics, with the king as supporter, could oppose ordinary monks from the point of view of the radical renouncer, claiming that monks should introject and live Buddhist ideology rather than merely exist as institutional emblems of it. Kings and ordinary-ritualists could oppose ascetic virtuosos, looking from the point of view of established social hierarchy down on potentially wayward and undisciplined ‘wandering (forest) monks.’ Pali texts can be found, at all periods, which reflect these three viewpoints; sometimes more than one of them at the same time.27 It is, of course, impossible and pointless to try to fix a starting date for the third period, that of modernization. This period, for which we have increasingly large amounts of evidence suited to modern historiography (travelers’ tales, colonial and nation-state bureaucracies, newspapers, etc.), is a process rather than an event or set of events. I think the process begins before political colonialism, and indeed would have occurred without it. The need to confront modernity should be located not or at least not primarily (neither chronologically nor conceptually) in the economic-political threat of colonialism, but in the objective epistemological superiority of the knowledge-practices of western modernity which came earlier. ‘The West’ represented, among the elite who could know and concern themselves with such matters, an epistemological-pragmatic challenge, based on the clear, experienced superiority of modern western knowledges. It took Christianity centuries to lose the battle against science—Asians had less time. By this I mean, inter alia: • •

science, medical and otherwise, and military technology, both of which were visibly superior to traditional Asian practices of health, production, and warfare; the notion of the spherical earth as a basis for global travel, and the eventual world-wide acceptance of the sun-centered planetary system, which together disproved pre-scientific cosmologies, Christian as well as Buddhist;

24 • •

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modern-bureaucratic modes of governance and political-economic recordkeeping (e.g. double-entry book-keeping); and a truly globalized economic/political context of merchant capitalism, which was different from premodern trans-local trade networks, and from the premodern ‘cosmopolitanisms,’ which had certainly existed in both South and Southeast Asia.

Islam was known to Buddhists, in both the Bay of Bengal (including Arakan) and the insular (and to a lesser extent, mainland) Southeast Asian systems; so Christian missionaries were nothing new—but Islam didn’t bring modernity with it, as Christianity did. Historians of both premodern and modern periods have often drawn a parallel between the spread and modern development of Theravāda in mainland Southeast Asia and Islam on the islands. Both were and are trans-local, patriarchal, textcentered and bureaucratic ‘high cultures’ which sit on top of oral, polytheistic localisms; the latter often had a high percentage of female practitioners. In the modern period text-centeredness, not in itself exclusivist, has given way to exclusivist scripturalisms.28 Anne Blackburn, Michael Charney and Patrick Pranke have shown, in relation to Sri Lanka and Burma, that the text-centeredness and Insight (vipassanā) meditation movement, which have often been alleged to be products of the colonial encounter in fact began in the eighteenth century, before political colonialism.29 It would be an interesting ‘comparative Theravāda’ exercise to juxtapose accounts of the colonial ending of indigenous royalty, which seems to have been different, and to have had different effects, in different places. When the king of Kandy in Sri Lanka was deposed in 1815 his territory was not island-wide, and the event seems not to have engendered the same level of cultural anxiety as did the British annexing of Lower Burma in 1852, and then especially the ceremonial dethroning of king Thibaw of Upper Burma in 1885.30 The fact of taking the king to India and his throne to the Calcutta museum was a striking instantiation of the colonial historicism which saw indigenous royal systems as a thing of the past, or at best mere ceremonialism in modern times. In French Cambodia and Laos the royal families were allowed to continue, but largely as ceremonial: it was the French who collected the taxes. In Thailand the Chakkri dynasty has been, and at the time of this writing still is, a crucial component of Thai modernization.31 Just as the Buddhist confrontation with modern scientific knowledge pre-dated colonialism and would have occurred without it, so too many aspects of modern nationalism are independent of colonialism, however much the historical facts of colonialism are entwined with the history of modern nations. These aspects concern what has been called the seriality of nationalism,32 the fact that the nationstate form seems to require certain things of every nation, regardless of historical specificity. The growth of nation-states and national consciousness was and is a world-wide inter-national phenomenon. Perhaps historians of nationalism will argue that it existed in north-western Europe before it started to occur elsewhere; but I think that by the time the process affected South and Southeast Asia each

Periodizing Theravāda history  25

‘nation’ was seen as part of a single inter-national system, which was conceived as covering the entire earth. There became, as now, no part of the earth which lay outside the nation-state system: whatever border-disputes there were, the theory was that everywhere was part of some nation, actually or potentially. Whenever some group of people (usually with some kind of ethnic consciousness) have wanted or now want to see themselves as a nation, they need to get hold of a list of things which—crucially—every other nation has, or will have (not necessarily in this order): a history, a geo-body, an army, an educational system, a flag, a national anthem, a Royal Family (if one is to hand), and latterly such things as delegates to the UN, Olympic athletes, entrants to Miss Universe, etc. And as nations have amassed their versions of each in the list of things a nation must have, one question which has always arisen, given the European model and colonialist assumptions, is the separation of Church and State. Thus however much religious traditions were co-opted into the project of nation-building, as Buddhism certainly was everywhere, the western secular-constitutional model always and everywhere provided a jurisprudential-organizational backdrop which modernizing versions of the old maṇḍala-states had to incorporate, somehow, and hadn’t known before.33 And precisely in so far as the constituent elements of a modern nation are shared, then a nation may have a slot marked ‘national (though never quite ‘established’) religion’ in the list but it must be neutral as to content: a religion, but only contingently, historically this or that one. One thing colonialism seems to have provided (as well as direct models for emulation) was a clearly-delineable other to fight against. Producing a national identity is always easier: one can render less visible internal-local oppositions when one has an external elephant in the room everyone can see. I will end with a quote from Benedict Anderson’s deservedly influential book on modern nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. As a prelude to the discussion of nationalism, he describes what he sees as the larger-scale social formations preceding modern nationalism: Few things are more impressive than the vast territorial stretch of the Ummah Islam from Morocco to the Sulu archipelago, of Christendom from Paraguay to Japan, of the Buddhist World from Sri Lanka to the Korean peninsula. The great sacral cultures … incorporated conceptions of immense communities … [and] were imaginable largely through the medium of a sacred language and a written script … All the great classical communities conceived of themselves as cosmically central, through the medium of a sacred language linked to a superterrestrial order of power. Accordingly, the stretch of written Latin, Pali, Arabic or Chinese was, in theory, unlimited. (In fact, the deader the written language—the farther it was from speech—the better: in principle everyone has access to a pure world of signs.).34

I am not citing this to take a cheap shot at a rightly famous and influential work of scholarship, but to point out that almost everything he says, as a description of Buddhism and Pali, is wrong. One major task on the scholarly agenda is to


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continue Anderson’s reflections on the historical processes which preceded modern nationalism with a more empirically accurate account of what premodern civilizational communities were, if indeed they were communities: perhaps better said groups of inter-related communities. ***

So, where should we start? Not, I strongly suggest, from the first period: we know, and will always know, far too little to produce more than evaluative and prejudicial fantasies. I suggest that we start from the third period, the one in which we live and in which ethnography and recent history based on adequate (or less inadequate) documentation are possible. In moving back through time and with decreasing amounts of evidence available we must pay special attention to the transition from the second to the third periods: one might say, to the process of modernization, in which Theravāda Buddhism has encountered modernity.


I would like to thank Juliane Schober for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

See Legoff (1988: 18–23). The ‘extended Middle Ages’ in Europe, he suggests, lasted until the nineteenth century, for it was only then that the conditions of industrial society, along with the mass education it requires, were full instantiated. I find it better to speak of ‘modernization’ than ‘modernity,’ since one is speaking of historical processes and not fixed temporal periods, though I shall sometimes use the latter term. Of course Europeans controlled some places earlier, notably the Portuguese and Dutch in Sri Lanka, and the French in what they called Indochina. But the large-scale political colonialism of the British and French started later. It is often said that Thailand escaped—perhaps as the result of deliberate policies by the centralizing, nationalizing Bangkok elite—the predations of colonialism; but recent scholarship has wanted to see this as a kind of ‘internal colonialism’ such that we are now in something like a post-colonial period: see Harrison and Jackson (2010). Skilling (2009a); Skilling et al. (2012). Skilling (2009a: 80). Gunawardana (1978). Here, briefly, are my reasons: first, the concept seems to presuppose that militarypolitical power comes to exist, and then, as it were, has to look around for ideological support; second, likewise, it is as if the ideologies of ‘legitimation’ pre-exist occasions for their use in supporting some military-political power. But in the historical process both military-political and ideological power evolve together: any trans-local political formation is dependent on an elite ideology, shared by a central power-holder and client-kings, to function, and any ideology must have military-political support to become of civilizational significance. Third, and most importantly, the very practice of ‘legitimation’ contains the potential for de-legitimation: if ideological power is to bring anything to militarypolitical power which the latter does not already have then that must be because ideological power has access to some socially-important values and aspirations of

Periodizing Theravāda history  27


10 11

12 13 14 15 16 17 18

19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

its own, which can always potentially be used to de-legitimate kings and others in a game of one-up-manship. I have argued this general case at length in chapter 6 of Collins (1998). See Collins (1998). For a useful critique of this idea see Skilling (2012), from whom (ibid.: 345–346) I have borrowed the concept of an imaginaire as a databank. I am alluding here to the work of Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault; see, for example, Hadot (2002) and Foucault (2005). For early overviews in English see Cousins (1997), and now Crosby et al. (2012) and Crosby (2013, 2014a). The earlier works in French include, inter alia, Bizot (1993), an account which over-exaggerates the significance of these practices and ideas, Bizot (2000: 511–528), Bizot and LaGirarde (1996), and Bizot and von Hinüber (1994). Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu (1972: 235). Kieffer-Pülz (1992: 163–167). Collins (1998). “Entextualization” was originated by Silverstein and Urban (1996); I have found useful the discussion of it in Barber (2007). Bailey and Mabbett (2004). Gombrich (2009: 73; scare quotes in original; cf. ibid.: 164). Scholars usually refer to two classic studies, by Hultzsch (1925), Bloch (1950) and Sircar (1957). Many rely on the popular version produced for University of Chicago undergraduate students by Nikam and McKeon (1959). There are other popular versions, although I doubt their authors have the philological expertise to deal with the original inscriptions. A full modern re-assessment of the inscriptions would need to go back and re-read the physical objects themselves, to re-constitute the texts: what we have is the result of early conjectures, many of which may well be in need of revision. See, for many examples, K. R. Norman, “Buddhism and Aśoka,” in Norman (2004) and the many articles on the inscriptions in Norman’s Collected Papers (1990–2007). The most useful studies, for me, are Skilling (2009b) and Assavavirulkahan (2010). A brilliant example of this kind of historical scholarship is Crone (2015). This draws on the General Introduction to Collins (1998). See Gellner (1998). Wolf (1982: 80). Wolters (1999); see also Hagesteijn (1989). Gellner (1998). A very fine comparative study in this regard of Theravāda and Medieval Catholicism is Silber (1995). On scripturalist Islam see Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1971). It has been applied to Theravāda by Tambiah (1976) and Bond (1988). I think that this application is very fruitful, but less so when it is generalized to refer to the pre-modem period, as both Tambiah and Bond do. In Theravāda countries, as in the Islam of Indonesia and Morocco described by Geertz, it is most helpful to use the term to refer to a religious attitude arising as a reaction to a wide range of phenomena in the experience of colonialism and modernity: the downgrading of localized supernaturalism, the cultural prestige and practical power of western science, the centralization and bureaucratization of power, the establishment of a “secular” educational system, printing presses, and the resulting value placed on literacy. The search for indigenous resources to combat foreign dominance led, amongst other things, to an emphasis on the noble ideals of the early texts: their teachings are abstract and universal as opposed to localized, “rational” and “ethical” as opposed to magical, and fit better with the placing of cultural and political authority in the institutions of bureaucracy and education than do the personalized spiritual interactions of localism. This concatenation of phenomena is, of course, specific to the modem world; and the comparative insight which can be gained from using Geertz’s

28 29 30 31

32 33 34

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term to describe the Buddhist case seems to me to be lost when it is generalized to become an overall category applicable to all historical periods. See Blackburn (2001), Charney (2006) and Pranke (2010). This has led to a theme unique to modern Burma: the idea that laity have come to take on the role, structurally and in practice, of the king: see Jordt (2007). The two most important kings in this regard have been Rama V, Chulalongkorn, in the 19th century and the contemporary Rama IX, Bhumibol. For the latter and the connection between Rama IX and the modern cult of Rama V see Handley (2006) and Stengs (2009). What will happen to Thai royalty when Bhumibol dies, at the time of writing, is an open and crucial question. See Benedict Anderson’s “Nationalism, Identity and the Logic of Seriality” in Anderson (1998). Andrew Huxley wrote, very usefully, of indigenous traditions of jurisprudence on Southeast Asia, and specifically in Burma (see, for example, Huxley 1996, 1997). Anderson (1991: 12–13).


The impact of the science–religion bifurcation on the landscape of modern Theravāda meditation

Kate Crosby

The acultural understanding of modernity has its roots in ideas of Progress promulgated as part of the European colonial narrative of the nineteenth century. The success of Europe’s military campaigns in Asia informed Social Darwinism, and led to an assumption that Europe’s technologies surpassed those of Asia in nonmilitary fields also. As a result, in the colonial period, a range of technologies found in Asia were ignored, marginalized or actively suppressed. Several of these technologies resonated with the techniques employed in traditional Theravāda meditation to transform the ordinary mortal to an enlightened being. With the disappearance of its sister technologies in society at large, traditional meditation became marginalized and deselected, particularly at moments of reform. Meanwhile, a new take on meditation, Vipassanā, popularized in Burma from the nineteenth century onwards, successfully negotiated the psyche–physis divide and the colonial worldview’s claims to supremacy in the physical realm. Claiming a scientific and rational basis, it went on to receive global acceptance in a reversal of Western attitudes to Buddhist technologies of the mind, while the somatic aspects of earlier meditation practices were forgotten.


In his paper “Two Theories of Modernity” (1995), Charles Taylor defines the ‘acultural’ understanding of modernity as the understanding that our current modernity is a natural outcome towards which all cultures progress. This commonly held view, often unchallenged and implicit, is heir to nineteenthcentury Western views on ‘Progress,’ which, when informing colonial attitudes and policy, had far-reaching repercussions in colonized territories. Assumptions were made that European success in military campaigns in Asia, benefitting from more advanced military technology, signified that Europe was further progressed both in other technologies and in culture more broadly. These assumptions ensured an ignorance of a range of Asian technologies and resulted in their suppression, despite some of them being more developed than in Europe. Some of these more advanced technologies are now recognized as such: when subsequently rediscovered some of them led to major developments of the current modernity rooted in the West and now found globally. Examples of such


Kate Crosby

technologies, developed in Asia more than a millennium before they reached Europe, are plastic surgery, the intranasal delivery of pharmaceuticals, and generative grammar, the last of which has had a significant impact on computing. A type of the first example, rhinoplasty, was initially taken up by Europeans before colonial attitudes hardened in the nineteenth century. In the second and third cases, the assumption that Europe was more advanced in all fields caused regression not progress, and led to retrograde technology. Such examples as these make clear the importance of understanding the alternative view of modernity posed by Taylor, the ‘cultural’ understanding (i.e. that the current modernity in a particular place is a culturally specific creation). These three specific technologies that I have identified as examples were demonstrably less advanced in more ‘progressed’ Europe in the nineteenth century than in Asia. Their subsequent history illustrates well the potential dangers of an assumption that progress is acultural and unidirectional. An array of other technologies was also ignored, sidelined or actively suppressed in Asia during the European colonial period. Some of those marginalized technologies will have gone undocumented before disappearing without trace, others will now seem outdated or obsolete, and there may be those still continuing, as yet unobserved by a wider audience. Some are preserved to a certain extent in the realm of religion. Indeed, some had their origins there. For within the “constellation of background understandings”1 that constitutes the Western-derived understanding of modernity lies another nineteenth century ‘achievement’ of Progress, the bifurcation of religion and ‘science’ along the lines of psyche and physis, with only the latter, the physical realm (even if that now includes consciousness), as a valid object of technological endeavor. An awareness that for centuries soteriological goals of religion were dominant forces in driving forward the development of technology is often missing in the acultural understanding of modernity. Here I shall examine the example of one such technology, meditation, in one subculture, Theravāda Buddhism, within Southeast Asia. The ultimate goal of meditation in Theravāda Buddhism is to lead the practitioner from ordinary mortality in the realm of saṃsāra to the state of an enlightened being, to the experience of the deathless state of Nibbāna. Like other technologies, it has multiple applications, but at its core is the quest to develop practices that deliver a somatic realization—an experience in our given bodies—of the qualities of enlightenment or spiritual attainment. A relatively modern meditation practice, Mindfulness (Vipassanā) uses the observation of bodily experience and various forms of consciousness to develop a fundamental awareness of the three characteristics of all saṃsāric existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), lack of an enduring self (anattā) and impermanence (anicca). The question of how such awareness physically transforms the individual and leads to the lack of rebirth in the realm of saṃsāra is a thorny one. In the applications of Mindfulness to non-religious ends the question may not arise: the benefits sought only address this-life problems. In the applications of Mindfulness within a religious context, the question may be circumvented through reference to the metaphysical questions that are not to be answered: the foolish

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questions of a man shot in the eye with a poisoned arrow who seeks to understand the origins and all components of the arrow rather than allowing himself appropriate medical attention. Throughout history, however, Buddhism has sought to address this question of radical transformation and pursued the technologies that might facilitate this. To induce transformation, the form of Theravāda meditation that as late as the nineteenth century, prior to the rise of Vipassanā, dominated much of the Theravāda world harnessed techniques found in the other dominant technologies of the time. Among these were generative grammar and intranasal delivery, two of the technologies whose superiority in Asia was not initially recognized under European colonialism. During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this ‘old’ (boran Khmer, Thai) meditation method became obsolete, driven to near-extinction. The process of its suppression and deselection parallels the fate of the technologies with shared techniques, such as traditional medicine, and happened at the same time that the new, or newly adapted, form of meditation, Burmese Mindfulness (Vipassanā) emerged. This latter form of meditation so successfully circumvented the colonial psyche–physis bifurcation that it went on to influence modern culture in much of the world. Below we look in more detail at some of the processes that led to this development.

The science–religion bifurcation in the West

The science–religion divide in the West is well illustrated by the First Vatican Council and the subsequent responses to it. Convoked in 1868 by Pope Pius IX, Vatican I famously approved papal infallibility as a dogma. It also confirmed as dogma the infallibility of revelation in the form of the Old and New Testaments. The Council sought to halt the increasing influence of relativist forms of Christianity such as Deism, which saw God as separate from the natural world and not seeking to govern it. Coming to the fore during the Age of Reason, such relativist forms of Christianity accommodated the possibility of establishing new knowledge about the material world without risk of heresy. They built on the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body that underpinned scientific enquiry at the time. Materiality physis, unlike spirit psyche, was measurable, alterable and redefinable. Consequently, the Bible was increasingly seen as a metaphorical rather than literal basis of knowledge. In offering so dogmatic a resistance to this trend, Vatican I provided material for critics of the Catholic Church, who characterized it as an enemy of ‘Progress.’ The term Progress encapsulated perceived improvements in science and society. In the fallout from Vatican I the trial of Galileo by the Catholic Church in 1633 became the perpetual emblem of the opposition between religion and progress.2 An account of it forms the opening of the first popular work on the religionscience divide, the best-selling History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by the influential Anglo-American Protestant writer John William Draper (1811–1882), published in 1874. The book won Draper a place alongside Galileo on the Index Expurgatorius, the Catholic Church’s list of banned books.3 He


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propounded that knowledge of the Divine—like that of the material world—was not circumscribed by biblical revelation but could similarly progress. He wrote of an underlying religious truth that had been differently formulated over different periods and in different religions and that could be further uncovered. This view was also promoted by such groups as The Theosophical Society, founded a year later, in 1875. Like the theosophists of the time, Draper marshalled other religions as allies, including Buddhism. “The active intellect is God. In one of its forms… this idea was developed by Chakia Monni [Śākyamuni, the Buddha], in India, in a most masterly manner, and embodied in the vast practical system of Buddhism.”4

Western attitudes to Buddhism at the end of the nineteenth century

Draper’s positive appreciation of the philosophy of ‘Chakia Monni’ reflected one side of a polarity in popular attitudes towards Buddhism at the time. On the one hand, the Buddha was admired for his perceived stoic lifestyle and rationality. On the other hand, Buddhists themselves, first the objects of European wars of commerce and expansion and then subjects of European colonialism, were portrayed as backward and in need of Europe’s intervention, whether military or benign. Translations of Buddhist texts had become increasingly available, allowing outsiders to opine on this polarity as if it reflected objective evidence. “Buddhism, as he taught it, is not the religion of the five hundred millions who are said to reverence his shrines,” wrote the Countess of Jersey in 1894.5 In the second half of the nineteenth century, Buddhism was not new to Europe: accounts of Buddhist monks and their habits had found their way into European travelogues as early as the thirteenth century.6 William of Rubruck had traveled to Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, in 1253–1255. His travelogue was translated into English at the end of the nineteenth century by Draper’s junior contemporary, the orientalist and American diplomat William Woodville Rockhill, who had himself published an award-winning travelogue of the region.7 William of Rubruck appears to describe Buddhist monks in the following passage:8 The priests of the idols … all wear wide saffron-colored cowls. There are also among them, as I gathered, some hermits who live in the forest and mountains and who are wonderful by their lives and austerity … have sacred books in Syrian, but they do not know the language, so they chant like those monks among us who do not know grammar … They are all simoniacs, for they administer no sacrament gratis.9

There is interesting continuity in the European observations of Buddhism on the ground between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, but a marked alteration in how such observations were construed. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the parallels with aspects of Catholicism were seen through the lens of

The science–religion bifurcation  33

Protestant and secularist anti-Catholicism. They were no longer signs of commonality but reasons to dismiss current practice and practitioners. The emerging orientalist study of early Buddhist texts privileged a Buddhism of the European imagination, an atheistic philosophy with an entirely human founder. Where core presuppositions of Buddhism such as rebirth were not actively dismissed, they were reinterpreted. Meanwhile, the British colonial identification of Protestant Christianity as the religion of science and industry, coupled with the nexus of views that came to be termed Social Darwinism (below), justified missionizing, conversion and colonialism itself. For example, here is a Sri Lankan scholar of Pali and convert to Christianity showing how such rhetoric came to be accepted by some of the colonized: “with the growth of intelligence [through mission schools in Ceylon], and the increase of scientific knowledge, the Singhalese will, ere long, perceive the errors of Buddhism; and … adopt the religion of the Bible.”10 Europeans such as Draper and Asians such as d’Alwis were participating in a view of Progress that saw the transition of cultures into modernity as a discarding of values and beliefs disproven by the objective establishment of facts through empirical science. While Draper and d’Alwis were writing at a point where Protestant Christianity still represented scientific thinking, where the possibility of discarding God entirely was still a radical development, their view of Progress as unidirectional was widespread and contributed to Taylor’s ‘acultural’ understanding of modernity that remains pervasive to this day. We shall return to the impact of these assumptions on Buddhism below, but first let us remind ourselves of the context in which it was possible for such views to develop.

The scientific and moral lens of the latter half of the nineteenth century

While the pacifism and apparent other-worldliness of the Buddha’s teaching were admired by some Westerners, they were at the same time blamed for the inadequate levels of aggression shown by Buddhists, and touted as an explanation for Buddhists’ now subject status in colonial territories.11 Europeans and local Christian converts drew such conclusions about Buddhism against a backdrop of Europe’s devastating military involvement in the Buddhist heartland throughout the nineteenth century, which saw the Opium and the Anglo-Burmese wars, and the conquest of the Sri Lankan interior. They informed a sense of European superiority, which in turn justified further European intervention. These trends were taken as confirmation of the prevailing theories of Social Darwinism, which built on the hugely influential work of Charles Darwin (1809–1882; On the Origin of Species 1859) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903; Principles of Biology 1864). Warfare was seen as a process of Darwin’s ‘natural selection,’ the deaths of victims of colonial expansion as the inevitable collateral of Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest.’ With God’s creation now seen less through the narrative of the Garden of Eden and more through that of Progress, the transformation wrought on


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conquered territories and peoples was argued for as morally justified, part of God’s will. This alternative theory of morality, in which the suffering and less fortunate needed to be left to perish, overturning previous Christian ethics, saw its origins in the writings of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). Warfare was justified as a necessary precursor to the social and scientific Progress brought by Europeans. After its defeat by Burma in 1767, Siam (henceforth Thailand) shifted its capital from Ayutthaya to the area of modern-day Bangkok and came to eclipse Burma as the region’s dominant power. The rise of Thailand, aided by its economic policies and centralized integration, was in part due to its successful importation of military know-how and equipment from the West, exploiting the large capacity of the new capital’s harbor. Thailand progressively introduced western military equipment further inland12 and also mediated the introduction of other aspects of European technology, science and culture into the broader region. Sometimes this was in competition with the dominant European powers, Britain and France, and sometimes in advance of them, but always integrated with aspects of Thai culture and presented as evidence of Thai superiority. During the period of Theravāda reforms and quests to reinvigorate Buddhism in the region in response to encroaching European colonialism, Thailand also displaced Burma as a potential source of religious stability. This transition is attested in the letters of Sinhalese monks, searching for the authority of a Buddhist king after the British conquest of the Sri Lankan interior.13 As British and French colonialism advanced, Thailand alone among the nations of the region retained the authority of a powerful Buddhist kingship. Buddhists were also seeing the devastation of European warfare in moral terms: they saw it and the subsequent changes in economy and governance as evidence of the dissolution that marks the decline of the sāsana, the Buddhist religion. They looked to Buddhist kingship, morality and spiritual practice to stem the decline. In Burma, in the absence of a king and following failures in external diplomacy, the Buddhist response became more inward-looking with an emphasis on spiritual practice at the level of the individual in the form of studying Buddhist doctrine and practicing freshly formulated forms of meditation. This emphasis would later ensure Burma’s position of influence in the Buddhist revival in periods following the Second World War and Independence. Westerners’ attribution of other-worldliness to Buddhism and Buddhists was in part associated with meditation. This was in contrast to indigenous attitudes in the region, where meditation had been associated with physical and even military power. While withdrawal from society might allow one to focus on developing meditative techniques, and reflect one’s interest in personal mastery rather than the engagement with the external realm, nonetheless increasing internal mastery over saṃsāra was directly linked with mastery of the external realm. This can be seen in the association of altered mental states with an ability to traverse the universe, and of one’s ability to manipulate the kasiṇa on one’s dominion over the corresponding expanse of the material realm found in such representatives of Theravāda orthodoxy as the Pali canon and the Visuddhimagga.

The science–religion bifurcation  35

In spite of textual evidence for the expected effects of meditation and the interest of the newly emerging orientalist scholars in such texts, colonial scholars eschewed treating meditation as an object of scientific enquiry during this period. Even though they observed the centrality of meditation in Pali literature, its validity and relevance were dismissed. R. S. Copleston, Bishop of Colombo, wrote in his bestselling work on Buddhism,

There are, it is true, many passages, especially among those that deal with meditation or with supernatural attainments, which entirely leave behind all that is human, natural, probable, all that is genial or attractive, and sail away into a region of empty abstraction, which it would be flattery to call a cloudland.14

Dismissing the possible validity of a technology in which the West had developed little expertise was one of the consequences of Social Darwinism and of the acultural view of Progress, namely that Europe’s military successes were evidence of an advanced state of evolution in all realms.15 Another factor underlying the lack of colonial engagement with meditation was the dichotomy of mind and body in the science of the period. From a European perspective, meditation fell into the arena of the psyche, the study of which in Europe was in its infancy. Moreover, authority in meditation could not be acquired through textual study: anyone who wished to gain further understanding of it had to step out of the colonial hierarchy and seek instruction from a native practitioner. Just as colonial explorers in search of medical knowledge mainly tracked down pharmaceutical ingredients but now rarely considered studying under native medical practitioners, so textual scholars sought to acquire and harness classical texts, but rarely considered accepting that canon as a higher authority than their own cultural canon or placing themselves in a subordinate position to the living tradition. Racial boundaries were hardening and the few who did participate at the appropriate level to acquire knowledge through the tradition itself were regarded with suspicion.16 Textual scholars such as T. W. Rhys Davids who did attempt to tackle meditation material in the manuscripts that they edited acknowledged the weakness of Western understanding of the subject.17 The various dualisms at play here, of psyche and physis, of medical practitioner and pharmaceutical agent, may also have compounded with a religious dualism, of practitioner and god. This last dualism led to radically different understandings of contemplative practice in the two religious traditions. While Christian mysticism looked to an experience of the divine other, just as Western medicine increasingly looked to external pharmaceutical cures, Buddhist practices focused on ‘mysteries’ from within. Thus the fundamental religious framework barred Westerners from being able to imagine, even, what such practices had to offer. It would take the radical overturning of these underlying frameworks in the aftermath of the Second World War and the American/Vietnam War to enable Westerners to engage fully and publicly with aspects of the technology of transformation applied in Buddhist meditation.


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Meditation within Buddhist responses to colonialism

The lack of concern and expertise regarding psyche on the part of the West during the colonial period, contrasting with the capitulation of swathes of Asia to European dominance in matters of physis, left the way clear for a Buddhist response that capitalized on a claim to superiority in the science of the psyche, i.e. ‘mind culture.’ This, however, was just one factor contributing to the emphasis on meditation, which previously had been a minority occupation, in the revival and reform of Buddhism woven into the anti-colonial movements of the Theravāda region. Reform in Theravāda was not new. It had occurred at previous points of cosmological and political crisis throughout Buddhism’s history in the region reflecting the perpetual anxiety about the decline of the sāsana.18 According to the Pali canon, the sāsana’s demise would, at the level of society, usher in apocalyptic warfare, disease and acute social disruption. At the level of the individual, it would interrupt for thousands of years and innumerable lifetimes the connection with a historical Buddha and so the hope of personal liberation. Historically, rulers had responded to such crises with measures to restore order, including in the Buddhist sphere. The sponsoring of the rehearsal and reproduction of canonical and commentarial texts and an emphasis on correct monastic conduct in accordance with vinaya regulations, to ensure the perpetuation of the sāsana, were two key measures that characterized earlier reforms. The removal by the British of the Buddhist kings of Burma and Sri Lanka created a new, much closer relationship between the Sangha and the laity. The Sangha now depended much more closely on the laity for patronage and became more subject to its scrutiny, while the laity looked to the Sangha for leadership and a response to external threat.19 Monks who could establish their scholarly and spiritual credentials stood to gain in the rivalry between different Sangha groups. The lack of a Buddhist king to ensure the maintenance of the sāsana also led to an emphasis on the personal responsibility of lay people as individuals in the maintenance of practice. This consisted of an increased emphasis on lay responsibility for providing patronage as well as a new emphasis on their duty to take on practices formerly associated primarily with monks. Thus we see increased emphases on both a clear monastic-lay divide and on lay people themselves personally engaging in activities previously associated with monastics or with senior members of society preparing for their next lives.20 The second of these responses included increased lay engagement in study, experimentations with lay celibacy and preaching, and—especially in Burma—meditation. The fear of the sāsana fading, the need for monks to establish their spiritual credentials in a period of fluid patronage, and the emphasis placed on personal responsibility following the collapse of the pre-existing patronage structures all contributed to an emphasis on meditation in modern reform. These three factors were additional to the physis-psyche divide in the newly hegemonic European culture. The meditation techniques that were developed in Burma, Thailand and to a lesser extent Sri Lanka during this period do not appear to have been based on extant living traditions.21 Rather they were reconstructions of textual accounts

The science–religion bifurcation  37

newly invoked for the contemporary climate and conditions. Although these forms represented new developments, they were based on evidence in part laid down millennia previously and as such they came to characterize the neotraditional modern Theravāda at the centers of response to colonial dominance. They thereby displaced pre-existing meditation practices of longer heritage, even though the latter had been maintained by teaching lineages unbroken for several centuries. Here I shall refer to these older practices using the Khmer/Thai word boran (Pali purāṇa), ‘former, ancient,’ as they came to be described to distinguish them from the new developments. In the eighteenth century the boran method of meditation had formed part of the revival and reform of Buddhism in Sri Lanka through the introduction from Ayutthaya, the Thai capital, alongside a fresh ordination lineage and a replenishment of texts (Crosby, Skilton and Gunasena 2012). However, the reforms that subsequently took place in the region during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries drew on new, mainly Vipassanā forms of meditation, not the boran methods. The selection of the new forms over the old in the Buddhist resurgence directly relates to their respective resonance or dissonance with the increasingly hegemonic European worldview of the nineteenth century and the way it influenced text-based reform. Here we shall focus on how the new methods and boran methods of meditation differed in such a way that Vipassanā successfully circumvented and then aligned itself with the hegemonic European worldview, while the boran methods became deselected. The new forms of meditation took as their key authority the canonical texts, along with their commentaries, especially the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the most detailed exposition of meditation practices in the Pali canon. Two treatises, the fifth-century Visuddhimagga and the twelfth century Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, also became increasingly important, providing succinct systematizations of the understanding the universe and personal liberation, the branch of Theravāda learning called Abhidhamma. In this turn to texts, there was a conjunction—an elective affinity—between the Western orientalists and indigenous reformers. Both emphasized canonical and select commentarial texts as those with primary authority in the construction of Buddhism. The new methods of meditation also sidelined the ‘supernatural’ aspects traditionally associated with meditation: interaction with supernatural beings, the acquisition of supernatural powers and physical transformation. Such beliefs did not disappear but were deemphasized in public discourse at the center and deemed unnecessary, even unhelpful in making progress towards enlightenment.22 In the context of colonialism, there were two advantages of this sidelining of meditative powers relating to cosmology and the physical realm. The first was that it sidestepped the undeniable superiority of the new foreign powers in at the least the military arena of the physical realm. The second was that it circumvented the implications of the new cosmology that colonialism brought with it, that of the heliocentric model of the universe derived from Copernicus through Galileo.23 There were other advantages, related to local monastic politics, in adopting this stance. This period of upheaval, in disrupting existing Sangha hierarchies,


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facilitated the rise of new players. Such players needed to avoid accusations of having made false claims to supernatural powers. This is the fourth of the pārājika ‘expulsion’ offenses, the breaking of which leads to defrocking. An accusation relating to pārājika offenses could be levelled at a monk whose rise to popularity was regarded as a threat by rival hierarchies from within the Theravāda fold. Focusing only on the vipassanā, ‘liberating insight,’ outcomes of meditation, rather than the samatha, ‘pacifying’ outcomes with their attendant supernatural powers, reduced the risk of accusations of having broken the fourth pārājika. Key players in the development or patronage of these new meditation traditions, such as Mongkut in Thailand and lowland non-Siyam Nikāya monks in Sri Lanka, were often themselves in search of power to wield against existing hierarchies. Therefore, like Western scholars of Buddhism at the time, they avoided acknowledging—and at times actively rejected—the authority of the more established hierarchies which, at that time, happened also to be responsible for maintaining the boran meditation methods. Those aspiring to attain credentials independent of existing hierarchies needed methods that were not owned by those older traditions, through which they could claim independent and fresh authority, which at the same time could not be undermined by the new rival authority of the Europeans. Finally, there was a sense of urgency to achieve spiritual liberation before the link to the sāsana of Gotama Buddha became irrevocably broken, one which inspired the search for a shortcut.24 This desire for a shortcut was compounded by the new roles of both monks and lay people. There were competing demands on the time of monastics. They were involved not only in spiritual and religious activities, but also in social and political work as a result of their new relationship with both lay people and political authority in the absence of a king. This was similarly true for lay people now that they were increasingly involved in the spiritual realm as actors and not just as patrons and audience. Those fearing the breaking of the link to the sāsana of Gotama Buddha and looking to meditation as a solution aimed to fine-tune meditation practices that could lead to salvific results in the here and now. They focused on methods which were aimed at achieving ‘insight’ (vipassanā), and which were also demonstrably true to prescriptions for meditation dictated by the Buddha in the Canon and by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga. In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century such text-inspired, vipassanā-oriented meditation developments were found in Burma, led by the Ledi and Mingun Jatawun Sayadaws (1846–1923, 1868–1955); in Thailand among the meditating monks of the newly established Thammayutika Nikāya loyal to its founder and now King, Mongkut; and in Sri Lanka among members of the reformist Rāmañña Nikāya.

Marginalization of the Somatic

In parallel with the de-emphasis of the material advantages of meditation and traditional understandings of the physical world, little attention was paid in the new traditions to the transformation of practitioner’s body through meditation.

The science–religion bifurcation  39

Rather, the body was emphasized as a tool for meditation, not as the subject for transformation. This was in contrast with traditional practices, which paid attention to the physical transformation of the body achievable through meditation. Indeed, physical transformation was a key part to the boran understanding of how the practices ensured one overcame saṃsāra. With an understanding of the possible physical transformations, meditation techniques could be applied to a range of goals additional to spiritual attainments. Such applications included medical treatment (e.g. by applying the purificatory experiences of meditation internally to resolve imbalances in the dosa ‘humours’25) or as a form of physical defense (e.g. by applying the transformative methods to the production of yantras or tattoos that ensured the body was impenetrable to weapons; and engagement with the realms of the traditional cosmology to which meditation gave access). In Burma, from the end of the nineteenth century, we see a bifurcation emerging between non-somatic and somatic practices, parallel to the science–religion divide.26 On the one hand, vipassanā-oriented meditation was promoted at the centers of power, while practices aimed at physical transformation and protection, practices that came to be termed weikza (Pali vijjā), were to be found at the margins, where they were sometimes implicated in attempts to bring down holders of political power.27 The hegemony of Western sciences and technologies at the political center prompted a search for concordance between the indigenous and Western worldviews. While it was not until the 1920s that Western medical practice began to compete successfully enough to displace traditional medicine at the region’s centers of power, it had begun to influence the thinking of the intelligentsia at court much earlier.28 The Burmese minister Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883), a connoisseur of western learning, repeatedly made comparisons between the anatomy of Abhidhamma and that of Western medicine in his ‘Meditation on the Body‘ (Kāyānupassanā) written in 1875, in which he sought to demonstrate that the Abhidhamma worldview was confirmed by Western science. Hpo Hlaing acted as mentor to Ledi Sayadaw, the key figure in the popularization of Vipassanā, and influenced both Ledi’s approach to learning and his accessible style of writing.29 Hpo Hlaing’s search for correlations between Western science and Theravāda worldviews and practices also influenced Ledi’s writing, and would continue to inform the discourse about Vipassanā, influencing its later uptake and discourse globally to the present day. From the seventeenth century onwards in Europe the definition of the term ‘science’ had narrowed such that it no longer referred to disciplines of knowledge in general or those that could be ascertained through philosophy or reasoning, but only to forms of knowledge that were based on the ‘scientific method.’ It was now restricted to “systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”30 The new forms of meditation promulgated by Ledi and others, shorn of their ‘supernatural’ elements, thus reflected two aspects of the reaction to Western hegemony: the redefinition of ‘science’ in terms of scientific method and, in contrast to acknowledgement of Western superiority in matters of the material world, the Eastern claim to


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superiority in the science of the mind. The newly constricted conception of science, along with the newly emphasized role of the laity in Burma, saw the promotion of vipassanā meditation as mind-science. Previously two key outcomes of meditation, samatha which brought with it control not only over one’s own mind but over the physical universe, and vipassanā, which brought salvific insight into the nature of fundamental reality, had both been seen as valid and complementary aspects of meditation practice. Ledi Sayadaw taught that vipassanā-inducing practices could and should be practiced without the attendant and in some texts prerequisite samatha-inducing practices. Previously vipassanā had described only an outcome of meditation, but now it was the name an entire method itself. Echoing the Western scientific psyche–physis divide, Ledi’s distinction between vipassanā and samatha circumvented the issue of empirical measurement, and needed take no account of Western supremacy in military and, by now, economic fields. Since then Vipassanā has been taken up in the West, especially since the 1970s. The claims that it has a rational and scientific basis have been tested and some of its benefits affirmed by empirical studies in the realm of cognitive and social sciences. By the end of the twentieth century, scientific studies of Vipassanā, now routinely translated by the English term ‘Mindfulness,’ had proliferated exponentially.31 It was increasingly assessed and applied as a technology applicable beyond the religious sphere, and Buddhism’s long tradition of expertise in ‘mindscience’ has been recognized in the most recent re-tellings of the history of Religion and Science. Evidence for an increased focus on meditation predates the Buddhist world’s concerted responses to Western colonialism in the late nineteenth century. However the nature of the boran meditation supported in pre-nineteenth-century Thailand and Sri Lanka, like Burmese weikza, reflects a radically different understanding of how to bring about personal and salvific transformation, an understanding that predates and so does not imagine the radical divide between physis and psyche, between mundane and supramundane, between science and religion. The methods employed to bring about transformation in boran meditation are also found in other technologies of transformation native to South and Southeast Asian culture prior to European hegemony, scientific endeavors that were either displaced by the European counterparts that sought to address similar concerns or simply disregarded as no longer valuable. These areas of scientific or technological endeavor included grammar, traditional chemistry and medicine, specifically pharmaceutical delivery and obstetrics. How does boran meditation relate to these other technologies? Boran meditation involves the incorporation of the elements of the path to Buddhahood into the body. This is done by taking the eidetic experiences of meditation—those described in canonical and commentarial texts that became the authority for modern Vipassanā—and drawing them into the body along the pathways of ayurvedic medicine into the ‘womb’ of the practitioner. The visual and attendant physical experiences of meditation are drawn into the body through the intranasal cavity, just as is done in ayurvedic medicine, particularly to supply medicine to

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the fetus or embryo in the womb. Thus the meditation is done using the pharmaceutical delivery method of ayurvedic obstetrics and a Buddha is developed within the practitioner just as a baby is developed within the womb of a mother, using the identical treatment-delivery pathways. In order to pervade the body such that the desired qualities replace the gross properties of base body of the practitioner, the process of drawing the qualities into the body is done repeatedly, the repetitions enhancing the purification of the practitioner’s body to become closer to that of the enlightened being. This use of repetition is found in traditional chemistry as the means for purifying mercury. This parallel with alchemy is also found in Śaiva tantra, as has been explained in detail by Gordon White.32 To deal with the processes of substituting the material of the body with the eidetic qualities being drawn into the body, and to be able to refer to these qualities as entities that can be visualized and manipulated in the correct combinations and places, traditional meditation drew on another technology of transformation: generative grammar. Generative grammar allowed for the transformation of language from base elements (dhātu, often translated as ‘roots,’ in the grammatical context) through the addition of suffixes that trigger substitution, in the manner of subroutines in computer programming. The focus on substitution in grammar (a focus that also led to the development of zero as a place-holder33) was shared by ayurvedic surgery, pharmacy and alchemy, such that all of these technologies shared a concern with measuring the exact proportions of combinations of pharmaceutical or chemical substances. This concern required the development of group theory mathematics—the study of combinations and permutations. Abhidhamma, in analysing how causality worked through analyzing the process and nature of the combination of elements of reality, was also concerned with such mathematics. And so when we look at boran meditation, we see a number of technologies of transformation, all of which rely on specific understandings of the processes of substitution and the attendant mathematics of combinations and permutations. What is interesting to note is that several of these technologies, although ignored by nineteenth century Western observers, offer—as I noted at the outset— excellent examples that could have been used to disprove the theory of unidirectional Progress that formed the background worldview that led to their marginalization and suppression. The intranasal method of delivering pharmaceuticals, developed in Ayurveda in the first millennium CE, was lost in the competition between local medical systems and colonial medical systems in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.34 It was only in the 1980s that its potential usefulness came to be appreciated: its ability to evade the destruction of pharmaceuticals in the gut, its avoiding the risk of infection when using intravenous delivery and the way it bypasses the blood-brain barrier when treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s (a major concern in a rapidly ageing society).35 Generative grammar developed in the first millennium BCE in order to ensure the potency of religious practices using sacred language, was millennia ahead of Western developments in this area. When in the 1950s generative grammar came to be applied in the West (rather than studied as a component of oriental languages), it


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contributed to—among other things—the development of computer programming language. Group theory mathematics, again a development from the first millennium CE in South Asia, and seen in Buddhism as early as in the Paṭṭhāna, the seventh book of the Theravāda Abhidhamma Piṭaka, made its appearance rather late in northern Europe, although prior to the period under discussion. When a developed form of it was introduced in around the sixteenth century it led to major changes in northern European science and culture. Finally, Abhidhamma itself contains analyses of conditionality concerning the relationship between mind and matter and the interrelationship between ethics and mental states, which still have no parallel in the West. Is this because the conditionality of Abhidhamma cannot be applied in a way verifiable by scientific method? Or simply because its potential applications have yet to be uncovered and recognized? Thus boran meditation bears witness to a number of technologies of transformation that were not recognized and either ignored or—in the case of ayurvedic medicine—actively suppressed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These same technologies include more developed states of knowledge reached by the West only centuries after their application in South and Southeast Asia. As these technologies were replaced by Western technologies with greater credence in the age of European military dominance, the boran meditation which drew on them came to be deselected, especially at moments of reform. This process was accentuated by the successful response of Thailand to colonialism through its adoption of Western technology to its own ends. The royal family played a leading role in this and, as the sole Buddhist royal family to retain its autonomy in the region, influenced the nature of reform among Buddhists in search of royal patronage and authority throughout Theravāda. The process of a traditional technology being supplanted by a western one is easiest to document in the case of medicine, in particular that of protection against viruses. For a century, from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, western doctors competed with indigenous doctors in the area of smallpox prevention. Intranasal delivery was one traditional method. The pulverized scab from a survivor was inhaled through the nostrils to bring on a weaker strain of the disease and hence inoculate against the deadly strain of smallpox. It circumvented a number of the problems with which those importing Jenner’s vaccination struggled.36 In the 1910s and 1920s, eventual success at developing reliable vaccination in the region coupled with Thailand’s adoption of Western medicine, in part for political reasons, in part in response to a devastating smallpox epidemic, led to the displacement of indigenous, ayurveda-based medical systems from the political centers of Thailand and Indochina. In Thailand, traditional medicine was banned by King Vajiravudh, removing it not only as a model, but also as a means of income for practitioners of boran meditation who earned their living from the application of meditation and its related technologies to a range of practical purposes. While the ban did not last for long, it had its effect, and we can map a direct correlation between the uptake of Western medicine and the disappearance of boran meditation in the region. So while it is King Mongkut who is most often associated with the reform of Buddhism, the actions of his

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grandson Vajiravudh in a different sphere of technology may have had a greater direct impact on the disappearance of boran practices. In French territories to the east a similar pattern can be documented following the setting up of the Institut Pasteur in Saigon, when vaccination was made compulsory.37 However, unlike those of Thailand, which had undergone a long period of centralization, the rural areas in Cochinchina remained inaccessible and Western medicine was confined to the urban centers. Despite changes in medicine and other technologies, and despite active suppression of boran traditions in Indochina by reformist Buddhists supported by Thailand or the French, a consequence of the confinement of western medicine to the urban centers was that thriving traditions of boran meditation could still be found in the regions of former Indochina that were at the periphery of the new centers of political power right up until the 1970s. While European colonialism, the religion-science bifurcation, and the view of Progress as unidirectional all contributed to the decimation of boran meditation, a new divide was to wipe it out in its remaining strongholds from the 1970s onwards. The rural regions that preserved boran meditation happened also to be those regions that first succumbed to the Marxist revolutions of the second half of the twentieth century, to the devastation of Buddhism. Even though Buddhism re-emerged two decades later once the resulting wars came to an end, the practice traditions had been severely disrupted. In the case of boran meditation, some elderly teachers had begun to teach again by the early 1990s, particularly in rural areas where its practice was intimately related to death rituals and the agricultural cycle.38 However, by this time, with the globalization of Mindfulness that had taken place in the interim, the more accessible Vipassanā practices were also available in the regions emerging from Marxist revolutions. Not requiring the close one-to-one teacher-student relationship, nor the costly offerings or lengthy initiations and training required in boran meditation, and sitting as well as it did with the new hegemonic worldview in relation to other technologies, Vipassanā offered many advantages and has become the practice of choice for those seeking to undertake the personal transformation that Buddhism was now seen to offer. Meanwhile, no longer affirmed through parallel technologies elsewhere in the broader culture, boran practice, after a temporary rekindling, moved closer to extinction. Today it continues in only a few temples in Cambodia and Thailand, and even there is now mostly divorced from its more physical practices, while a simplified version of it has thrived, promoted by the neotraditionalist Dhammakaya movement of Thailand.39


I would like to thank Steven Collins and Juliane Schober for the founding of the Theravada Civilizations Project and the organization of multiple iterations of its workshops. For this article, I am particularly grateful to their proposal of Charles Taylor’s “Two Theories of Modernity” article (1995), which greatly helped my thinking in this complex subject.


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Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21



24 25 26 27

28 29

Taylor (1995: 24). E.g. Dixon (2008: 1, 16). Barker (1886: 275–376). Draper (1874: 138). Cited Almond (1988: 39). Cox (2013a: 69–77). Rockhill (1894); Hippisley (1915: 370). Cox (2013a: 70–71). Rockhill (1900: 157–159), cited Cox (2013a: 70–71). d’Alwis (1883: 34). Almond (1988: 40). Lieberman (2003: 309–310). Blackburn (2010: e.g. 147). Copleston (1892). On Darwin’s views of colonialism and its impact on this thinking, see Barta (2005). Cox (2013a). Rhys Davids (1981 [1896]: VI–VII). Frasch (2012). Crosby (2013: 109). Bond (1988: e.g. 46). In some cases, practitioners were developing methods directly from texts and their own conceptions of meditation. However, in others it was also important to downplay any connection with the past, to avoiding acknowledging the lineage by which one had been influenced. Thus the forest monks of the ‘reform’ Thammayut sect in Thailand downplayed influence from Mahanikay precursors, the founder of the ‘vijjā dhammakāya’ tradition of Wat Paknam and the later Dhammakaya network of temples downplayed the influence of temples such as Wat Rajasittharam where he had studied, and monks within the Rāmañña Nikāya in Sri Lanka did not claim influence from either the meditators at Sagaing or those within the boran traditions from Siam in Sri Lanka, though they may have had contact with both. For an example of the way in which the ongoing belief in such supernatural powers is manifested, while at the same time subordinated, see Seeger’s on the nun Mae Chi Kaew and the meditation monk Ajan Mahabua (Seeger 2010: 571). Ledi Sayadaw classified the range of practices along a spectrum, with Vipassanā as supramundane and above the other ‘sciences’ (Pranke 2014: 20). On the differing adoption of the heliocentric models at the courts of Burma and Siam, see Charney (2006: 170–173). Charney’s account highlights the issue of introducing a distinction between religious and scientific texts (ibid.: 172). On the Buddhist response to the heliocentric model in late eighteenth-century Japan, see Lopez (2008: 48). The same anxiety led to an alternative approach in weikza, which sought out methods to extend the present life indefinitely with a view to meeting the next Buddha on his appearance (Rozenberg 2010: 66). See below, as well as Mettanando (1999) and Choompolpaisal and Skilton (2017). Pranke (2014); Schober (2014). It is not currently known whether the practices here termed ‘boran’ were present in Burma. To some extent the somatic aspects of boran practice find parallels in Burmese weikza, although this is not to say that they are directly related. Both weikza and Vipassanā movements were involved in contesting the authority of the British in the colonial period, albeit in different ways. Naono (2009: 85). Braun (2013: 22–23, 32–32, 83).

30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39

The science–religion bifurcation  45

OED s.v. ‘scientific method.’ Sun (2014: figures 1–3). White (1984). Crosby (2013: 80). Naono (2009). Crosby (2013: 24ff., 98). Naono (2009: 16ff.). Ovesen and Trankell (2010: 27). Crosby (2013: 105). Crosby (2013: ch. 4). It is interesting to observe that other changes in Theravāda that developed in response to the hegemony in the West have not been so enduring. See, e.g., under the influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Ashin Ukkaṭṭha’s teaching that one could not be reborn as a lower animal after rebirth as a human, identified as heretical and suppressed by the State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee in 1981 (see Crosby and Ashin 2016, 2017). The case is currently the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Ashin Janaka, King’s College, London.

Part II

Local cultures and Buddhist vernaculars in colonial modernity


Buddhist religious culture and processes of modernization in Sri Lanka

John Clifford Holt

In this chapter, I explore how certain aspects of modernization are changing Buddhist religious culture within the recent Sri Lankan social experience. My approach is guided by the theoretical assumption that religion is simultaneously a personal and social experience. Whether a personally apprehended or socially conditioned experience, religion is always historically contextualized. When understood as a socially conditioned experience that is historically contextualized, religion also needs to be understood as a force, in turn, that inflects the structures and ethos of society-at-large. That is, the relationship between religion and society is reflexive in nature. It follows from this that basic changes in society are often reflected in the dynamics, focus and quality of religious practices. Given dramatic changes in Sri Lankan society that have occurred during the post-colonial era, it is not surprising that the character and forms of religious expression are also changing dramatically in tandem. Studies of the relationship between religion and social change in modern Sri Lanka identify several emergent patterns of affected religious practice. George Bond analyzed the emergence of several noteworthy trajectories, including: 1 2 3 4

a more lay-oriented and individualistically inclined “Protestant Buddhism” that is illustrated paradigmatically in the spirit of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings collated as Return to Righteousness; the political “neo-traditionalism” of the 1950s Buddha Jayanthi period that emerged politically with the success of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s 1956 national election campaign that was actively supported in no small way by legions of motivated Buddhist monks; the increasing practice of Burmese-styled vipassana meditation among the laity accompanied by the establishment of lay meditation centers throughout Sinhala regions; and socio-ethical programs aimed at economic development in rural areas of the country (especially, for example, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement founded by A. T. Ariyaratna).1

In addition to Bond’s far-reaching study, Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere observed the manner in which population migration and intensified


John Clifford Holt

urbanization have not only abetted the emergence of “Protestant Buddhism,” but also fostered some newly incorporated Buddhist rituals (such as marriage rites and bodhi puja) for the laity and numerous and variegated cults of “spirit religion” or huniyam in urban Colombo.2 While both of these studies offer insights into the manner in which religious transformations occur in response to social change, the sweep of religious change occurring throughout Sinhala society includes many other dimensions as well. In this essay, I will explore briefly two other changing dimensions of religion affected by processes of modernization. The first of these is how religion has been understood within the dynamics of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, or the civil war that raged between the early 1980s and 2009. The second is the profound impact of technological change upon the nature and ethos of Buddhist ritual culture. What continues to transpire within these two dimensions (religion in relation to the politics of ethnicity and in relation to technology) of the modernizing process will have profound impact on how Buddhist religious culture is articulated in the twenty-first century. In the conclusion of the essay, I will also comment on some other trends likely to be of significance in the future.

The politics of ethnicity and religion

Although religion has been one of the determinant factors in the formation of ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, its importance in originating ethnic alienation and conflict has been over-determined by many and that, given the high profile religion received in the popular press and in scholarly literature regarding the causes of Sri Lanka’s turmoil, the culpability of religion in generating ethnic conflict needs to be re-examined and perhaps de-emphasized. Overemphasis upon the role of religion in this regard has misdirected attention away from the more fundamental economic problems at hand. Having said this, there is little doubt that vitriolic and patriotic rhetoric from militant segments of the Buddhist community (monastic and lay) and some religiously-targeted actions of violence by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), definitely aggravated tense relations between Tamil and Sinhala communities. Moreover, the reactionary forces on the Buddhist side of the divide deleteriously affected the escalating conflict by defining the war in ethnic and religious terms. Despite these obfuscations, deep-seated causes of ethnic alienation (not to be confused with ethnic identity per se) that gave rise to militant aggressions on both sides were preponderantly economic and linguistic in kind, rather than simply religious in nature. On the Sinhala side, Buddhist discourse periodically became a post hoc idiom for articulating the rationalization of violence. In this vein, the war became a necessity to protect the country for the sake of the survival of religion. On the Tamil side, however, Tamil aggressions were never rationalized within the context of being either a Hindu or a Christian cause. In what follows, I will try to explain why I think the religion card, especially Buddhism, has been overplayed in understanding Sri Lanka’s conflict, despite the escalating Buddhist rhetoric articulated by some militant leaders of the sangha.

Buddhist religious culture in Sri Lanka  51

Since the mid-1950s, and thus shortly after independence from British colonial rule, when the Western educated, Christian-raised and low country elite politician S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike3 opportunistically raised the political stakes of ethnic identity in Sri Lanka by advocating to the majority masses of Sinhalese Buddhist voters a platform of instating “Sinhala only” as the sole official national language of the country and “restoring Buddhism to its rightful place,” tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities erupted sporadically, simmered and then spectacularly exploded (especially in the early 1980s) before degenerating into what amounted to a protracted civil war that militarily concluded three decades later in May, 2009. The mounting number of violent deaths beginning in 1983 with a public pogrom against Tamil people living in predominantly Sinhala regions of the country, the 1993 assassination of the president of the country, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and before that many other import government officials and politicians, the continuous disintegration of what was at one time a socially segmented yet relatively stable and somewhat ethnically cross-fertilized society, the deterioration and distortion of an economy already in a state of transitional development, the resulting increased diaspora or “brain drain” of talented Sri Lankan expatriates as refugees or seekers of political asylum throughout the world, etc., motivated an avalanche of academic studies from a variety of disciplinary perspectives aimed at ferreting out the root causes and tragic significance of “the ethnic conflict” in modern Sri Lanka.4 The academic analysis of ethnicity in Sri Lanka has rightly revolved around a discussion of how language5 and religion are the two most powerful factors that create ethnic identity. These were, of course, precisely the very aspects of ethnicity that Bandaranaike appealed to when, caught up in the short-sightedness of seeking election as the country’s prime minister in 1956, he unwittingly unleashed what was to become an uncontrollable force of modern historic proportions for post-colonial Sri Lanka. By appealing to the Sinhala ethnic sentiment of the majority masses, he also managed to alienate and to frighten the Tamil community. Sinhala ethnic consciousness and identity, despite extensive acculturation of Hindu and European Christian elements over many centuries by the Sinhala Buddhist community,6 has a protracted history in the island’s politics, but perhaps Buddhism had never been so consciously manipulated before in the political life of the country until the 1950s. That Buddhism could become such a lightning rod symbol of post-independence Sinhala political power is quite understandable historically, given the preferential treatment enjoyed by Christianity and the suppressive measures suffered by Buddhists under British colonial rule. While language and religion are no doubt important contributing factors to the formation of ethnic identity, the factors giving rise to ethnic consciousness or ethnic identity (language and religion) need not be regarded as the same factors giving rise to ethnic alienation. The tragedy of recent ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has been born of the social fact that both communities have developed the perception that they are economically disadvantaged in relation to one another. Both seem to be mired, in terms of social psychology, in a “minority complex” with regard to their perceived economic opportunities.


John Clifford Holt

From the Sinhala perspective, the Sinhalese are a small but ancient people with a language spoken only by about 12 or 13 million people (within the context of more than 1.4 billion people in the South Asian subcontinent), most of whom practice a religion (Theravada Buddhism) that became extinct in most parts of India by the thirteenth century. They understand themselves as proud survivors of history, having resisted the major religious, political and cultural trajectories that earlier spread throughout the Indian subcontinent in the form of a resurgent bhakti (devotional) Hinduism and a conquering Sunni Islam (Mughal India). From their point of view, a mostly rural agrarian population suffered relegation to a subservient status during 450 years of European colonialism by the Portuguese (1505–1658), Dutch (1658–1796) and British (1796–1948). What tends to be emphasized about the Sinhala experience during the British period is that a two thousand year old line of kingship (which patronized the Buddhist religion) was disestablished, that vast tracks of land (much of it endowed to temples) were alienated from traditional uses and turned into tea, rubber and coconut plantations benefiting the colonizers, that Buddhism was first “betrayed” by the British (who had originally promised to protect it in the Kandyan Convention of 1815) and then abused by Protestant Christian missionaries, while the language (Sinhala) was wholly neglected at the expense of English. Rightly or wrongly, and most importantly, there is a perception that the British privileged the Tamil minority by affording them a disproportionate share of educational opportunities, such that the Tamil minority, especially from the Jaffna peninsula, came to dominate the colonial civil service and the professions of education, law and medicine, as well as business. In the mid-1950s and 1960s, the majority Sinhalese asserted their new democratically derived power, on the basis of their demographic predominance, by instituting a series of reforms aimed at elevating Buddhism and Sinhala language to a special national status, while redressing perceived inequities in the educational and government bureaucratic systems through the establishment of quotas. They also launched ambitious colonization schemes, some in regions of the country that had been inhabited previously by Tamil-speaking people. From the point of view shared by many Tamil people, the Sinhala agenda for the post-colonial political economy amounted to a severe disenfranchisement of basic civil rights by depriving them of unfettered use of their Tamil language, equal opportunity on the basis of merit to secure education at the tertiary levels, and discrimination by Sinhala-dominated governments in securing fundamental economic opportunities. With regard to Tamil alienation, even G. H. Peiris, a respected Sri Lankan academician also known for his pro-Sinhala sympathies, has well-described how the situation was brought about in the following terms: The increasing politicization of administrative processes and what it has meant in respect of the disbursement of benefits of development among the people appear to have had an even more profound impact upon ethnic relations in Sri Lanka, especially on the increasing alienation of the Sri Lankan Tamils from the economic mainstreams of the country … [A]lmost throughout the period after independence, the Sri Lankan Tamils have been in

Buddhist religious culture in Sri Lanka  53

‘opposition’ which, in turn, meant that their interest and aspirations … have not been adequately represented in the vital day to day affairs of government. Though some of the frequently articulated Tamil claims seem to lack substance and objectivity, it cannot be denied that, especially since the early 1970s, the working of the political system in respect of economic affairs placed them permanently in the position of a disadvantaged segment of the electorate. To some extent the emergence of a militant separatists movement among them can be attributed to this phenomenon.7

The first signs of violent resistance by Tamil militant youth seeing no way out of the Tamil predicament economically began to surface in the 1970s, but then mushroomed spectacularly following the 1983 ethnic riots, when thousands of Tamils living in predominantly southern Sinhala regions of the island were systematically attacked and many murdered, while their homes and businesses were looted and torched during a week of mayhem that has become known infamously as “Black July.” Over the next three decades, four sustained periods of civil war followed (and countless numbers of violent atrocities or terrorist attacks from both sides ensued) further scarring ethnic relations. Economic rivalry needs to be understood as the most aggravating root cause, not only between Sinhalese and Tamils, but between the various classes of both ethnic communities as well. Lower class masses within each community have continued to feel alienated or disenfranchised from the status quo of the political economy. Two very serious yet unsuccessful violent attempts at revolution that were led by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) in 1971 and in 1988–1990 graphically illustrate this case on the Sinhala side. On the Tamil side, it is well known that the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came from lower castes who chafed at the traditional economic dominance of the landowning vellalar caste on the Jaffna peninsula in the north. The economic problem, therefore, spans both ethnic and class division in modern Sri Lanka. While religion and especially language are important aspects of ethnicity and function as powerful political rallying cries that guarantee votes in popular elections, perceived economic deprivation produces a still more powerful emotion. In neither Sinhala nor Tamil revolutionary contexts (JVP or LTTE) has Buddhism or Hinduism played a significant role in either the formation of ideology or in the claims of special identity. To illustrate and further frame the pivotal importance of the economic factor in creating alienation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities and in order to press my case for de-emphasizing the religious factor as a key cause of the ethnic conflict, I digress to describe a personal experience. During the last week of July 1983, one day after riots had erupted throughout the neighborhoods of Colombo on the Sunday evening following the aborted funerals of thirteen Sinhalese government soldiers who had been blown up by a land mine allegedly planted by Tamil revolutionaries in the Jaffna peninsula the week before, I arrived in Sri Lanka to begin a two year stint of teaching and research. On my way from the airport to Colombo city, I could see, in all directions, plumes of smoke


John Clifford Holt

steaming skyward from burning factories, stores and houses (which I learned later were owned by Colombo Tamils). Backtracking on major thoroughfares in order to reach Negombo in search of safer environs, I observed a scene that, in hindsight, was important for how I eventually came to understand the other bewildering events that occurred during the rest of a week that was filled with killing and arson throughout the Sinhalese regions of the island. While nearing the strip of beach hotels in Negombo, I observed a group of young men who were throwing stones at one of the hotels, tentatively breaking into its premises, retreating, and then stoning it again. About a half an hour later, the hotel under siege had been set ablaze, its occupants and employees sent fleeing on to the beach or into the road while the gang of young men who had been throwing stones set about finishing off their work. I was but one of several people who simply stood paralyzed and watched as the hotel was looted and almost totally destroyed by fire. As I mentioned at the outset, most academicians and journalists emphasized specifically how the politicization of religion and language are the deep-seated reasons giving rise to Sri Lanka’s continuing pattern of communal violence over the past 40 years and have cited, as I have also done in the opening paragraphs of this specific discussion, the pivotal Bandaranaike election campaign of 1956 filled with rhetoric about language and religion, a campaign that has fundamentally changed the political landscape of the island ever since. Furthermore, especially in Europe and America, the spectacular July, 1983, week of violence was initially reported or typified by journalists and later often confirmed wrongly by some Western academicians (almost all of whom were not in Sri Lanka at the time) as a “Sinhalese Buddhist/Tamil Hindu conflict.” Western media reports of armed conflicts between the Sri Lankan military forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam almost always included a reference to the fact that the Sinhalese are Buddhists and that the Tamils are Hindu. In the academic context, it is still often asked whether or not the Buddhist religion itself, a religion known throughout Asia and the rest of the world for its teachings of peace, has not been betrayed by Sinhalese adherents, not only in the context of 1983, but more generally in the period leading up to and following political independence from Britain.8 Buddhist militancy has certainly been on the rise during this time of heightened ethnic consciousness and certainly contributed to the problem by sharpening the delineated lines of ethnic identity. But one has to ask, is it really accurate to portray the ethnic conflict resulting in violence as the result of a religious dispute between Hindus and Buddhists? Was the defense of Buddhism a genuine underlying cause of violence in 1983 or, in general, for the ethnic conflict per se? Some Buddhist monks may have helped to inflame communalist passions. Some (a very notable Buddhist monk, Ven. Walpola Rahula, for instance) were so bold in published statements as to justify political violence in what is argued as a defense of the religion.9 In this particular instance, it can be said that the teachings, and especially the monastic discipline of the Buddha canonized in the Vinayapitaka, were seriously misconstrued or tragically perverted. Students of Buddhist thought with even a cursory understanding of the philosophical foundations of Buddhist ethics or a basic awareness of the manner in which village Buddhists “essentialize” the

Buddhist religious culture in Sri Lanka  55

practice of Buddhism as fundamentally a matter not of killing,10 should object to such a blatant distortion whenever it appears in whatever guise. “Militant Buddhism,” it should be understood, is but a militant response to the more general condition of militancy in contemporary Sinhala society. But it cannot be philosophically attributed to either the substance of Buddhist ethics, of the ethos of village Buddhism. It is created by the politically (not religiously) inspired. An over-emphasized and sometimes misplaced assumption in many of the scholarly attempts to sort out reasons for the 1983 conflagration has been that the perpetrators of the violence were all Buddhists and that the victims were all Hindu or Christian. Such a religious characterization of the participants is also thoroughly misleading. Furthermore, because popularized Buddhist sentiments (i.e., the Mahavamsa’s dhammadipa legacy that the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka are destined to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity) were (unfortunately) expressed by some misguided Buddhist zealots to rationalize or to explain away the crimes committed in July 1983, the case against Buddhism has proceeded apace. Certainly it is the case that language, traditional mythic and ritualistic religious patterns, and specifically and assiduously asserted religious identity, have all contributed to a heightening consciousness of ethnic identity among Sinhalese Buddhists, especially since many post-independence politician in Sri Lanka have often pandered to language and religion as the distinctive features of Sinhala ethnicity. But it does not follow that these critical elements contributing to ethnic identity are the direct causes for ethnic violence of the type characterizing the 1983 pogrom, nor the essence of the conflict per se between these two ethnic communities since the 1950s. Let me return to the incident that I witnessed on that scorching Monday in the last week of July 1983, to more fully illustrate my point. Those young men who looted and burned that Negombo hotel, owned and operated by Tamils, were not the kind of organized (by Sinhalese chauvinistic sections of the government) intruding thugs who, on the following day I saw arriving in lorries to begin torching Tamil shops in upcountry Peradeniya and Kandy. Rather, they were locals known to the employees and proprietors of the nearby hotel where I was staying. And, I was told that they were nominal Christians. No doubt they were. That, of course, was not surprising, given that Negombo, the venue of this incident, remains ninety per cent Christian to this day. My point here, obviously, is not to blame Christians or Christianity for the communal violence I witnessed. Nor is it to argue that most of the perpetrators of violence in 1983 were not, in fact, nominal Buddhists. Instead, what I am trying to point out is that religion did not have much, if anything, to do with the immediate problem at hand. In this case specifically, and I now would assert in general, the violence of “ethnic conflict” was born of economic rivalry between communities who identify themselves ethnically primarily on the basis of language and only secondarily by religious affiliation. In Sri Lanka, being a Christian does not exclude one from being either Sinhalese or Tamil. Linguistic affinity is far more crucial in this regard. (This fact was cruelly born out during the 1983 violence in the method used by some groups


John Clifford Holt

of Sinhalese thugs who stopped public and private buses to discriminate between Sinhalese and Tamil passengers.) But while language, and to a much lesser extent religion, are definitive for ethnic identity, they need not be identified as the primary causes of violence and ethnic alienation. Indeed, genuine religious sentiment across Sri Lanka’s religious communities remains one of the recognized hopes for addressing the various dimensions of continuing ethnic problem today in post-civil-war Sri Lanka, even though the ethnic split is currently so profound that the Roman Catholic Church has ruptured organizationally along Sinhalese and Tamil lines. The immediate causes of the 1983 riots were at first emotional in nature. Violence (Tamil militant violence against Sinhalese soldiers) itself incited the passions for Sinhalese violence of the revengeful sort against Tamils in the south. While language and religion foster ethnic identity, aggressive violent provocation generated even greater ethnic violence, but the primary underlying causes of ethnic alienation setting the table for violence were (and remain) economic. Those terrible events that occurred in that week in 1983, in turn, had the effect (as almost an example of karmic retribution) of refueling the determination of Tamil militant groups to strike back with vengeance, in equally despicable ways, in the years that followed.

Technology and the transformation of Buddhist religious culture

This second part of this essay is concerned with the other process of modernization noted in the introduction. Historians of religions are aware that fundamental technological innovations, as well as sea changes in politics, can produce profound affects upon the nature of religious practice and culture. The invention of the printing press, for instance, made a dramatic impact upon the religious culture of Christianity during the birth of Protestantism in sixteenth-century northern Europe. At the same time that Luther and Calvin were articulating and advocating forms of religiosity based upon personal, unmediated, non-ritualized, and non-priestly apprehensions of the sacred, the printing press was making it possible for the laity to read the Bible outside the context of specifically religious ritual occasions and to contemplate individualized or private understandings of its spiritual meaning independent of mediated priestly interpretation. The proliferation of printing presses in the nineteenth century gave birth to a similar type of revolution in the Buddhist religious culture of Sri Lanka.11 Today, in the pages of virtually every issue of every daily newspaper published in Sri Lanka, English or Sinhala alike, it is possible to find an article written about the meaning of Buddhist teachings by some pious layman. This section will examine some of the other ways in which the appropriation of technological advances have profoundly affected the nature of religious experience and Buddhist religious culture in contemporary Sri Lanka. In a seminal article that eventually inspired a series of writings on “Protestant Buddhism,” Obeyesekere wrote about the manner in which colossal Buddha

Buddhist religious culture in Sri Lanka  57

images have been constructed along public thoroughfares in contemporary urban Sri Lanka.12 His main point was that Buddhism was in the process of being dragged “out of the monastery and into the market place,” that Buddhism was increasingly becoming a matter of public, lay and political discourse, rather than a spiritual sphere of social life marked off from or set apart from secular society by conventions of sacred space and sacred time. Since Obeyesekere made this observation, the pace of the “commodification” of Buddhism has accelerated much further in Sri Lanka. This process is seen not only in the manner in which Buddhism has been continuously and consciously incorporated into the political life of the country as a powerful constituent symbol of resurgent ethnic identity, but in a variety of other ways as well, these perhaps less intentional but significant in more than symbolic ways nonetheless. The number of monks receiving a secular education in public universities is a salient case in point. The number of Buddhist viharayas in urban Colombo with attached technical training institutes is another. The reorientation of Buddhism, I would argue, is fostered in part by technological change. With regard to what has happened to the image of Buddha in ritual context, who can deny that the public “persona” of the Buddha has not undergone a dramatic transformation since the proliferation of electrical power in Sinhalese society? Spectacular designs of “electric Buddhas” adorn the tops of pandals constructed in urban areas during the Poson or Vesak celebrations each year in the months of June and May respectively. Far from expressing the qualities of gentility, serenity, wisdom and compassion (the religious values aesthetically articulated in centuries of traditional Buddha images ensconced within temples), these electrified behemoths render the Buddha image as a symbol of power and pomposity, a landmark blazing into the night seemingly signaling that the time for partying and revelry is definitely on. Religion need not always be a dour affair, but pulsating spectacles of the Buddha splashing a multi-colored luminescence into the night literally convey a very different sense of “enlightenment.” Perhaps overly illuminated and gaudily ornamented nativity scenes at Christmas reflect the same commercial and communal impulse to commercialize the sacred not only in Sri Lanka, but wherever popular cultural expressions are given an unbridled free reign to transcend traditional conventions of aesthetico-religious sensibility within the context of more traditional symbolic and ritual form. As electricity has made possible the appearance of “the electric Buddha,” newly emergent modern expressive cultural forms actually seem to change the meaning of the symbol. If form follows function, if the symbol is often understood to stand for itself, then the question can be raised about whether the electric symbolization of the Buddha doesn’t somehow change what the image means in the contemporary social context. In this context, the Buddha image is clearly and literally an articulation of power. Turning to another example of how technology abets the process of transforming Buddhists religious culture, spectacular advances during the last 50 years in transportation technology have made a profound impact on the religious culture of traditional sacred places and pilgrimage destinations. The pilgrimages to


John Clifford Holt

Kataragama or Sri Pada, for example, are no longer arduous physical experiences of asceticism requiring days and weeks to complete. They can be reached easily from any part of the island within a day’s drive by car or bus. Here, the effect of advancing technology has been at least twofold: on the one hand, more and more people visit these sacred sites each year, a phenomena that on the surface has led some scholars to suggest that Sri Lanka is experiencing an upsurge in the popularity of deity veneration and vow-taking; on the other hand, it also suggests that “pilgrimages” to places like Kataragama have become part and parcel of a good holiday outing for family and friends, an event to be combined by the middle class perhaps with a concurrent visit to see the elephants at nearby Yala National Park. Modern transportation has made possible a recreational aspect to ritual activity. Technological advances in transportation have led to the domestication of ritual pilgrimage and accelerated the process by which popularized sacred sites now represent potential and realized venues for concerted commercialization and patriotism. The commercial exploitation of sacred sites in Sri Lanka seems no more apparent now than at the sites under control of the offices of the so called “Cultural Triangle,” a project initially and well-intentionally funded in part by UNESCO, but now one that has grown into a government backed business that has taken on a life of its own. Commercialization has replaced preservation as the bottom line. As jet planes have made Sri Lanka a popular destination for European tourists in times when ethnic and class conflicts were not making headlines in the West, the “Cultural Triangle” has made the artistic, architectural, archaeological, and religious artifacts of Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Kandy and Anuradhapura “user friendly” for visiting foreign tourists, but for a price that often exceeds by as much as an astounding 80 times the normal price of admission for Sri Lankan residents. The presence of hordes of European tourists being hawked unmercifully by tourist touts alters an atmosphere formerly conducive to spiritual exercises, or at least peaceful contemplation. Places at one time regarded as sacred have now been transformed into profitable international tourist attractions and politically significant national landmarks. The efforts of the “Cultural Triangle” are not far from producing a social experience similar to what the Government of Indonesia has wrought at Borobudur in Java where crowds of European and Muslim tourists daily enjoy their sandwiches, soft drinks and cigarettes on top of perhaps what is perhaps the most extraordinary Buddhist monument and pilgrimage site replete with the most exquisite Buddha images ever constructed. There is an even more poignant example to consider in this regard. Technological advances in sound amplification have also produced a fundamental change in the religious experience of some Buddhist rituals. For those who have experienced the peace of mind produced from hearing the sonorous chants of Pali gathas within pirit ceremonies, the distorted amplification of these chants through micro-phonic transmission are aurally antithetical to the affect produced by the natural version. Moreover, the changed character of this ritual, one that was formerly celebrated within the fairly intimate confines of an intimate attendant group of people, to one in which an entire neighborhood or small town wittingly or unwittingly must participate aurally, perfectly illustrates the larger

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point of this second section of the essay: that technology has been a profound factor in the increasing transformation of Buddhist religious culture. Or to put the matter in another way, the social culture of Buddhist ritual is being increasingly publicized, its contexts no longer constituted by sacred space or sacred time. Both sacred space and sacred time are in the process of becoming a public and political experience.

Future ramifications of modernization

What is the prognosis for Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka during the twenty-first century? It will certainly depend upon the modernizing and post-modernizing forces affecting social change within the various sectors of Sinhala society and the manner in which Buddhists of various persuasions choose to respond to those changes. In previous studies, I argued that new religious forms are incorporated into the Sinhala Buddhist tradition not only because they are understood to be immediately efficacious in assuaging the problem of dukkha, but because they can be rationalized or situated within phases of the soteriological path of Theravada and thus related to its telos.13 That argument, however, was derived from detailed historical “macro analyses” of how elements of Mahayana and Hinduism had been assimilated into Sri Lanka’s Theravada tradition over a period covering some thirteen centuries of religious change. Further, it was attributed to the inclusive propensity or ethos of traditional Sinhala Buddhism, a Buddhism whose structures now largely exist chiefly within the parameters of an enduring and conservative village context. The changes addressed in this essay have been chiefly concerned with the dynamics affecting urbanized and middle class Buddhists in contemporary times. I am not sure that these changes having to do with ethnicity and technology can be so readily incorporated and rationalized in the same way. During the twenty-first century, the social and cultural gap between the urban and rural segments of Sinhalese society may continue to widen. As a result of this increasing gap and a continuation of recent trends, more of the kind of developments identified and analyzed by Gombrich and Obeyesekere within the context of Colombo religious life (e.g., an acceleration and proliferation of forms of “spirit religion”) will have a significant impact on how Buddhists practice Buddhism. The net result, therefore, is likely to be an increasing influence of supernaturalism in the lives of many Buddhists on the one hand, and a further politicization of religion on the other. If this does occur, the question is whether or not the traditional inclusive ethos of Theravada tradition is elastic or creative enough to accommodate these pressures well into the future. In the past, Buddhism has been a kind of glue to the various dimensions of Sinhala culture and society, an ideological foundation for many of its social and cultural institutions. But with the appearance of so many diverse pressures from various segments of Sinhala society, one wonders if the middle path of the Buddha can retain its foundational legitimizing function without suffering too many distortions in the process.


John Clifford Holt

Another issue worthy of note in this context is reform. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, those Buddhists following the persuasions of such people like the Anagarika Dharmapala have articulated an ethos not so much of inclusivity, but rather of exclusivity, an ethos that seems to have been building greater momentum in recent years. In his studies of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during the early 1980s, Martin Southwold repeatedly drew attention to a tension existing between urbanized middle class Buddhist “modernists” on the one hand and village Buddhists on the other. The “modernists” advocate a “true Buddhism” drawn from a doctrinal understanding of the Pali canon translated into English and are severely critical of what they regard as “accretions” that have “corrupted” village Buddhism, a Buddhism that “modernists” regard as medieval and unenlightened.14 This “modernist” attitude of exclusivity carries with it the possibility of future reform, but the irony here is that while reform movements generally carry out their task with the idea that they are seeking to re-establish the original form of Buddhism, in fact, in this instance, “modernist” reformers of the future may well engage in a process whereby they will succeed in eradicating traditional and rural practices of Buddhism many believe to be its most ancient articulations. Serious motivations for reform of the sangha may possibly lead to an ecclesiastical umbrella, or supra-organization to oversee the disciplinary problems of the sangha, though stiff resistance to this possibility is sure to be offered. But given the powerful propensity to bureaucratically centralize public institutions in Sri Lanka recently, the day may not be far when the sangha is fully centralized as well. Urban Sri Lanka, and to a not much a lesser extent village Sri Lanka, are now bombarded by international influence owing not only to the spectacular growth of telecommunication since 1979 when television was first introduced, but owing as well to the opening of Sri Lanka’s markets within the context of a globalizing world economy. The temple is no longer the center of communication linking the translocal world to the local. In village contexts, it is very common to hear the view that a smaller percentage of youth these days are inclined to embrace a religious worldview as seriously on a personal level as have previous generations. Moreover, there are others, rightfully critical of the non-traditional social and economic behavior of some monks, who wonder whether or not a smaller percentage of the sangha actually embrace a religious worldview as well! In any case, if Sri Lanka’s experience follows the patterns characteristic of other Asian cultures, especially those in East Asia, the importance of Buddhism as an ideological foundation for Sinhala culture and society, or as the substance of a viable modern personal worldview, may further recede. In this essay I have tried to indicate some of the ways in which religion is affected by and responds to processes of social change. On the negative side of religious change, there is already some evidence to suggest a growing disillusionment with Buddhist militancy created by the politically driven, the commercialization of sacred places, and the materialism and this-worldly behavior of some members of sangha. Historically, when the laity became sufficiently disillusioned, monastic reforms were undertaken. Something of that

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order may occur in this next century as well. It will depend on lay initiative. On the positive side, if better-educated monks are able to relate the teachings and practice of the Buddha to the ever changing processes and perspectives of the modern and post-modern world that people in Sri Lanka inevitably and increasingly engage, they might prove to be the kind of spiritual exemplars that the contemporary world will always need. That is, if the teachings and practices of the Buddha can produce a positive effect on social change, and not only respond to social change, we might expect a reaffirmation of Theravada well into the twenty-first century.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6

7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Bond (1988). Gombrich and Obeyesekere (1988). Cogent analyses of Bandaranaike’s rise to power can be found in Howard Wriggins (1960); R. N. Kearney (1967); K. M. de Silva (1981: 510–524); and James Manor (1989). Among the many, if certainly not the most provocative analyses of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict to date, are Jonathan Spencer (1990); K. M. de Silva (1986); Chelvadurai Manogaran (1987); Bruce Kapferer (1988); S. J. Tambiah (1986); K. M. de Silva et al. (1988); and Michael Roberts (1994). The best source for exploring the issue of how language has been politicized in late medieval and contemporary Sri Lanka is K. N.O. Dharmadasa (1992). Another excellent discussion, this one focused on the last 50 years from the 1940s, can be found in K. M. de Silva (1993: 275–305). For an account and analysis of religious acculturation among the Sinhalese, see Holt (1991), especially the first chapter. Peiris (1993: 68), emphasis added. Tambiah (1992). Tambiah (1992: 23–28). On this specific point, see Southwold (1983). See Malalgoda (1976: 188–248). Obeyesekere (1972: 58–78). See my Buddha in the Crown (Holt 1991: vii) and The Buddhist Visnu (Holt 2004). See Southwold (1982).


Buddhist communities of belonging in early-twentiethcentury Cambodia

Anne Hansen

Preaḥ Posīlo Uk-Ḍī, the long-time abbot of Wat Gagar in Kampong Cham province in Cambodia, died in 1965 of stomach cancer, surrounded by his students and supporters. Following his death, the commemorative volume sponsored by the wat’s festival committee for distribution at his cremation included a Dhamma reflection called “A Buddhist Method of Being a Friend” enumerating the “four aspects of care in friendship.”1 Uk-Ḍī’s students who compiled the volume explained that they chose this theme because their teacher Uk-Ḍī was a man who above all else taught them Buddhist ideals of care and kindliness. He imparted his teachings not through preaching or coercion but by embodying these ideals; in their words, he generated love because he loved others. The Dhamma reflection explains the Buddhist method of being a friend with this analogy: “imagine you are standing in front of a large highly polished mirror. As you gaze into the mirror, what must you do if you want to see a smiling reflection gaze back at you?” Readers are then led through various imaginary exercises in which they are asked to face the mirror and alternate between threatening, cajoling and finally crying and pleading with the reflection in an effort to get it to smile. As the reader is meant to recognize, none of these methods yield the desired result. Ha! Clearly, the solution is extremely simple. Just crack a quick grin and the reflection will immediately smile back at you! ….The Buddhist method of being a friend necessitates that we turn inward first, to acutely examine ourselves and gain self-knowledge and self-mastery, which will enable us to make ourselves into sites for loving others. Then, when others come to love us, they will want to become smiling reflections because they already see that smile emanating from us.2

The analogy of Uk-Ḍī’s students provides an opening snapshot of how Buddhists have thought relationally about each other, especially with respect to key teacherstudent relationships that shaped self-definition and collective and individual affiliations within monastic contexts. The simile of the mirror could also be extended into an analogy about the ways in which scholars of Buddhism have ascribed self-definition to Buddhist subjects. Theorizing our own categories or expressions in front of a highly polished mirror only permits us to see ourselves.

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Since the publication of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, a great deal of scholarly energy has been devoted to understanding colonial nationalism and post-colonial national identities in the wake of the book’s analysis of the historical development of print capitalism and the rise of the modern nation-state.3 While certainly not exhausted, I think it is fair to say that this project is winding down.4 Whether because so much has already been written or because the global and electronic transitions in our post-modern age are causing us to rethink the primacy and endurance of both print and the nation-state, new questions are shifting us away from analytical categories such as “nation,” “modernity” and especially “identity,” categories that Frederick Cooper has argued have become overdetermined. Of all of these categories, “identity” is the most nebulous. In Colonialism in Question, Cooper comments that although “identity” is “a key term in the vernacular idiom of contemporary politics, and social analysis must take account of this fact,” this does not require us to use “identity” as a category of analysis or to conceptualize identities as something that all people have, seek, construct, and negotiate. Conceptualizing all affinities and affiliations, all forms of belonging, all experiences of commonality, connectedness, and cohesion, all self-understandings and self-identifications in the idiom of identity saddles us with a blunt, flat, undifferentiated vocabulary.5

How can we think about Buddhist history in a new frame that is attentive not only to the ways in which Buddhists have discussed their self-understandings but that also generates appropriate analytical categories for catching the textures and nuances of what they find important about the collectivities they have created? Peter Skilling and others have recently observed that scholarly analyses of Buddhist communities using unexamined terms such as “Theravāda” have unwittingly contributed to the reification of a misleading historical record while simultaneously covering up ways in which Buddhists have understood and categorized themselves.6 One possibility for repositioning ourselves analytically and moving away from the overdetermined vocabulary of “identity” (along with the well-trod examination of imagining the collective identity of the nation) among Buddhist groups is to take a closer look at how Buddhists themselves have described their “affinities and affiliations” in relational terms. Part of this repositioning, I would argue, involves shifting the focus and scale of study from schools and national sanghas to individuals in order to scrutinize the kinds of social bonds they create and name, as well as the affective expressions that surround those connections.7 Two prominent categories of relationship have emerged from my reading of Khmer historical writings: samnāk’ and kalyāṇa-mitt. Samnāk’ is a term used to designate the lineage group gathered around a particular teacher, while a kalyāṇamitt is a spiritually beneficial friend such as one’s monastic preceptor. These categories provide a window into Buddhist communities of belonging, as well as the ideas, values, practices, and affective and aesthetic modes and styles needed


Anne Hansen

to support these connections. Anthropologists have demonstrated that emotions are not only culturally constructed but also culturally aestheticized, so that the experience and communication of emotions such as love or affection or reverence involve distinctive expectations about how they should be expressed.8 My investigation draws on a turn toward relational questions evident in a wide spectrum of recent scholarly works on religions. Jeffrey Samuel’s Attaching the Heart examines the aesthetics of ideal monkhood and the emotional bonds that configure monastic recruitment and relationships with lay families, while Amy HolmesTagchungdarpa’s The Social Life of Tibetan Biography focuses on how religious biography creates networks of relationship and authority. Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam and Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth both demonstrate how unseen worlds can be brought into view through examining peoples’ understandings of their significant relationships.9 All of these authors view religion through the lens of complex networks of relationships—between spirits, ghosts and humans, people and saints, family members, and within communities such as the Buddhist sangha. As Orsi argues, this relational perspective not only frees us from making value judgments about the validity or veracity of different religious practices, it also more clearly reveals the ways in which people draw on, construct and change their religious worlds.10 One advantage of making relationship the focus of study is that it allows individuals to emerge more vividly in the historical record. In larger-scale studies that focus on constructions of states or institutions, provincial monks like Uk-Ḍī rarely come to our attention since they did not leave behind great written works, guide reform movements or orchestrate strategic policies. Yet the real day-to-day life of Buddhism (and other real lives as well) are made up of many Uk-Ḍīs— who train novices, raise funds for construction, and meet with local temple committees to organize the annual cycle of festivals and merit-making ceremonies. Focusing on relationships affords a closer perspective on individual perception, motivations and agency while still also helping us understand the structures of the collectivities to which they belong. Furthermore, by examining what holds networks of individuals together, we also learn something about how those collectivities feel—the affective experience of being part of a particular community of belonging.11 In the Buddhist case, another benefit of focusing on relationship networks as an analytical framework is that it moves us away from historically awkward identity monikers such as ‘Theravāda Buddhism’ since it is not at all clear that Buddhists have used this term for thinking about and referring to themselves. Skilling confesses in his introduction to How Theravāda is Theravāda? that the “very idea of ‘Theravāda Buddhism’ as a category troubles me, especially in the light of the ease with which the category has been accepted as unproblematic….”12 For Skilling and other contributors to this provocative volume, the anachronistic use of “Theravāda” before it was commonly used by Theravādins to refer to themselves is as nonsensical as proposing to examine “nationalism” before the rise of the nation state. For example, Todd Perreira observes that recent histories of American Buddhism by prominent scholars of religion have confused

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matters through their references to representatives of “Theravāda Buddhism” at the World Parliament of Religions in 1873 (and earlier contexts) in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that the term was ever used by these very representatives.13 The task that Skilling charges us with is to examine the “complex of historical movements” within what has now come to be called the Theravāda world, to “see how they define and refer to themselves…and others, both Buddhist nikāyas and other religions.”14 Replying to Skilling, Anne Blackburn uncovers historically descriptive and specific notions of how Theravādins have understood themselves by examining sources such as lineage accounts, ordination histories and religious building projects. Her examination has yielded a “wider repertoire of terms” by which Buddhist collectivities have referred to themselves—besides theravāda and theravaṃsa—to “claim or report monastic inheritance, belonging, and affiliation.”15 My purpose in this chapter is both to follow Blackburn’s method of examining documents that reveal local “historical memories of saṅgha and sāsanā”16 and to appraise her contention that careful attention to these kinds of sources may reveal a new more differentiated analytic vocabulary for understanding how Buddhist monks and laypeople have understood themselves. My research utilizes two main types of historical writing produced in Cambodia from the 1920s to the early 1960s to examine how they reflect on collective and individual forms of Buddhist affinities and affiliations. Sources for understanding Khmer perspectives on collective history, often referred to in their titles as pravatti or “histories,” include scholarly histories, chronologies, nikāya [sect] and monastery histories, and prasnā primers that take the form of questions and answers about different aspects of Buddhism and religion. Individual life histories or biographies, called jīvapravatti or therapravatti, reveal person-oriented and smaller-scale views of self-definition and expressions of belonging. Drawing on my survey of these sources, I turn first to the question of how Khmer Buddhists described themselves collectively as belonging to Buddhist history, suggesting that “Theravāda” does not commonly appear as a category of Buddhist self-identification. Second, I move to examining descriptors of affiliation embedded in accounts of teacherstudent relationships from cremation volumes. In these latter sources, Buddhist writers describe communities of belonging revolving around aspirations about generosity and friendship. The change of scale from collective to individual descriptions of affiliation, I argue, not only uncovers specific historical insights into how Buddhists have conceived of themselves, but also gives us insight into Buddhist affective and ethical ideas about care and friendship, concerns that are little-studied in historical scholarship on Buddhism but that are in tune with wider scholarly conversations about the nature and experience of networks.17

Theravāda and sāsanā

The first half of the twentieth century was in general a period of “religionmaking” in Cambodia and elsewhere, with Buddhist intellectuals beginning to write about religion comparatively. Alicia Turner’s meticulous study of the


Anne Hansen

emergence of notions of “sāsanā” in colonial Burma shows the extent to which understandings of “religion” were shaped by the distinctive historical particularities of different local contexts. Buddhists in Cambodia, like those in Burma, employed the term “sāsanā” to refer to “religion.”18 While Khmer Buddhist writers of the 1920s to 1960s were beginning to articulate a shared conception of Buddhism as a comparative religion, their discussions paid scant attention to sectarian affiliations within Buddhism. In particular, as Skilling and others have argued with respect to other Buddhist contexts, in contradistinction to the ubiquitous identification today of Cambodian Buddhists as “Theravādins,” the term only rarely appeared in Khmer Buddhist publications before the mid 1960s.19 The few sources that do reference the term are not overtly concerned with Buddhist sectarianism. Rather, Buddhist intellectuals of the period were far more interested in situating Khmer “religion” or sāsanā in relation to ancient Indian Buddhism and as comparable to other “world religions.” Historical writing about Buddhism became important in the 1920s in Cambodia in the wake of a Buddhist reform movement that sought to clarify authentic Buddhist praxis. Reformers drew lines between contemporary sangha rules of discipline to ancient Indian Buddhism in order to authorize their interpretations of key aspects of monastic practice such as how to properly fold and wear a monk’s robe. At the same time, Buddhist monk-scholars were collaborating with French Indologists on the creation of new Buddhist educational institutions. The first printed history of Buddhism in the protectorate was Indologist Louis Finot’s Le Bouddhisme: son origine, son évolution. Finot’s history, which became something of a prototype for subsequent scientific studies of Buddhist history that referenced archeological evidence for early Buddhism, was translated in 1926 by Juṃ-M”au, a librarian at the Royal Library, for the Buddhist periodical Kambujasuriyā and subsequently printed as a separate volume (in Khmer) by the Royal Library in 1929.20 Finot devoted the majority of his attention to early Buddhism and the Aśokan reign, with the “divergence” of the Mahāyāna from the Hinayāna discussed briefly at the end of one chapter, while treating “Hinayāna” as a continuation of early Buddhist doctrine.21 After the publication of Finot’s work, Kambujasuriyā published other articles on Buddhist history in India in much the same vein, by Khmer and foreign scholars. In the early 1930s, the periodical serialized a lengthy historical treatise on Buddhism, Sāsanā Pravatti [History of the Religion], written by Khmer monk and intellectual Mahā Bidūr Krasem, who explained that his aim in writing the history was to show ancient India as a “meeting place of various religious ideologies” as well as to explicate the “history of Kampuchea very clearly.”22 Bidūr Krasem asserted that it was essential for Cambodians to perceive the direct line of transmission between ancient Buddhists and contemporary Khmer Buddhism in order to understand their own history. Other Kambujasuriyā articles from this period featured photos or translations into Khmer about visits to Buddhist sites in India as well as Indological essays such as Georges Bonneau’s “The Manner in Which the Buddha was Worshiped in India.”23 These articles contributed to the project of drawing lines of connection between Buddhism in contemporary Cambodia and

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the origins of the sāsanā in ancient India—rather than examining Buddhist sectarianism. A 1930 speech on Buddhist history given by Juṃ-Mau (Finot’s translator) suggests that even the educated readers of Kambujasuriyā were not all that familiar with the terms and categories of Buddhist sectarianism such as “Theravāda.” Addressing an audience composed of French dignitaries and Khmer Sangha members, Juṃ-Mau explained that there are “two different types of Buddhism: Mahāyāna and Hinayāna.” He goes on to identify the Mahāyāna as the “northern sect,” which might also be referred to as the “Āchāryavāda.” The Hinayāna, which “spread to some Indian races, and the Khmer, Siamese, Lao, and Burmese races… is the doctrine [sāsanā] that we still uphold today,” whose scriptures were composed in Pali. This doctrine, Juṃ-M”au states, “strictly adheres to the original law without any changes or alterations or loosening [of interpretation] along the way.” Besides “Dakkhiṇanikāy,” or southern sect, Juṃ-Mau concluded, “we refer to ourselves as the Theravāda,” which means “doctrine of the Lord Theras.”24 The fact that Juṃ-Mau had to carefully define all of these terms in his Khmer language address indicates that they were not in wide enough usage for him to assume that even this educated audience would be able to understand them. By mid-century, Khmer Buddhist writers and intellectuals had begun to address the place of the Buddhist sāsanā relative to other world religions. Historical “question and answer” (prasnā) primers from the early 1950s exhaustively treated the keywords “religion” [sāsanā] and “Buddhism” [buddhsāsanā] but make no reference to “Theravāda” or other categories of Buddhist affiliation. Several of these primers pose a distinction between Buddhism and bāhirasāsanā, “external” or “supplicant religions,” in which adherents rely on and must supplicate sources outside themselves for help.25 Religion for Citizens, published in 1951, makes brief work of its comparisons between Buddhism and other world religions, concluding that “Buddhism is a religion with a higher value” because other religions fail to teach the path to nirvana.26 Written in the years leading up to Khmer independence in 1954, the book casts Buddhism not only as the state religion, but also as a source of national unity: “a moral path, a support, a refuge uniting nearly all of us….”27 Following Khmer independence, books, pamphlets and brochures prepared for the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism in 1956 to 1957 sketched out the long history of Buddhism while making no references whatsoever to “Theravāda.” Rather, they highlighted the populace of Cambodia as people living at the midpoint of the Buddhist era when the Dhamma was still strong and in continuity with the past history of the sāsanā.28 Frequent references to “yoeṅ khmaer” or “we Cambodians” reflected the unifying efforts and nationalistic tone of the immediate post-independence period. It was not until the 1960s that passing mention of “Theravāda” began to appear in Khmer Buddhist histories associated with the development of the World Fellowship of Buddhists [WFB], a new international organization that adopted the term to refer to Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.29 Two widely circulating histories of Buddhism in Cambodia published that same year


Anne Hansen

were apparently timed to coincide with the Sixth Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Phnom Penh. A Short History of Buddhism in Cambodia (in English and Khmer) was composed by Samdec Braḥ Bodhivaṅs Huot Tāt specifically for the WFB conference, while B”āṅ Khāt’’s lengthier Pravatti buddhsāsanā nav prates khmaer [The History of Buddhism in Cambodia] was likely motivated by the same occasion, originally published in Khmer and aimed at a domestic audience. In his history, Huot Tāt’s prime concern seems to have been establishing the antiquity of Khmer Buddhism, dating it back to the Aśokan missions to Suvaṇṇabhūmi. Yet he notes:

In this long span of time, kings, elites and citizens of Kambujā have not followed one particular form of Buddhism. During some periods, they have been Theravādins, at others Mahāyānists and at still others, Brahmanists. Thus, as a result, Buddhism has been subject to continuous change, depending on the power and influence of its adherents, which in turn has depended on the particular period of history.

What is most “striking,” in Huot Tāt’s view, was the extent to which Buddhism in Cambodia “has endured up until the present time. Because its essence is maintained, even when its means of support have sometimes been diminished, it has never dwindled to nothing….” The essence, Huot Tāt maintained, depended on the purity, belief and respect of its adherents, whether they were kings or ordinary citizens.30 B”āṅ Khāt’’s history glosses over the schools of Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism, concentrating instead on the history of the Khmer peoples’ faithfulness to Buddhism and its embrace of pacifism and political neutrality even in the face of “the terrible progress of atomic science.”31 Both Huot Tāt’s and B”āṅ Khāt’’s histories foreground the endurance and spiritual depth of Khmer Buddhism as well as its potential benefits to human society. In both texts, historical consciousness is a means of defining themselves within the present and future world orders. These representative histories suggest that while situating Khmer Buddhism historically in a lineage with ancient Buddhism in India was an important preoccupation of Buddhist intellectuals in early twentieth century Cambodia, Buddhist writers did not often employ “Theravāda” or other sectarian terms as collective categories of historical affiliation or self-definition. As lines were being drawn demarcating different “religions,” Buddhists, like others in the colonial world, were engaged in understanding themselves as belonging to the lineage of a historically significant and ancient tradition that was comparable to other religions.

Communities of care

While collective histories such as those discussed above were a staple feature of Buddhist publishing written by and largely directed at intellectuals, a far more common and prolific genre of history-writing from the same period were short, relatively inexpensive commemorative cremation volumes or jīvapravatti, “life

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histories” or “biographies,” which had a wider circulation among the general public and which took a different, more individualized approach to self-definition and affiliation.32 Since the volumes were normally authored by monastic students or relatives of the deceased (usually but not always a monk), they communicated the kind of intimate knowledge of another person that could only be expressed by people who have lived and worked together in close quarters for long periods of time. The communities of belonging to which they referred were often described as samnāk’, a word that usually means “dwelling” or “to visit, stay or dwell,” but which used idiomatically, can mean being “under the care of” someone. In these sources, samnāk’ designates the close group of students crystallized around a particular teacher. The jīvapravatti thus serve as another source for studying how Buddhists constructed categories of affiliation and self-definition at the individual level. They seem to me to map out an intimate landscape of communities of belonging defined by lineage and patronage ties, gift-giving, friendship and other shared aspirations, values and aesthetics about care. Most Khmer cremation volumes follow a similar format. Besides basic biographical information such as family and place of birth, dates of ordination, preceptors, and educational highlights, they also detail the major merit-making attainments of the deceased (such as religious building) along with the time and circumstances of his (or in rarer cases, her) death. Many jīvapravatti offer elaborate descriptions of the exact circumstances of death of the monk-teacher being commemorated that emphasize his spiritual attainments or the ways in which his death paralleled the death of the Buddha; in more than one biography, a teacher who knows he is dying gathers his students around to remind them that all things that arise must cease, just as the Buddha exhorts his disciples in the scriptural Mahāparinibbāṇa-sutta that gives an account of his death.33 In the biography of Preaḥ Posīlo Uk-Ḍī in Kampong Cham, discussed above, his monastic students and lay disciples gathered at his deathbed reported that: At the time of his death, something astonishing occurred that should be remembered and passed down. It seems that [Venerable Uk-Ḍī] died with satisampajañña, “mindfulness and consciousness.” When he was almost at the point of death, he suddenly raised his arms upward as if making a sign to ask what time it was. When those gathered around him answered that it was shortly after 12:00 noon, he lowered his arms and died at that moment. Oh, the mighty power of Maccurāja [the god of death]!

Uk-Ḍī’s death, like his life, the story implies, was lived in full awareness and discipline. Physically weakened by a stomach cancer, he was still able to meet death unafraid and with full consciousness of what was happening to him. His followers saw the raised arms at noon as a final gesture to them, at once signaling their teacher’s authority and purity as well as recalling for them his teachings on how to live good lives through cultivating satisampajañña. That the mode of death was consonant with the life was a theme recalled in various other death accounts. For example, recollecting the moment of monk intellectual Preaḥ


Anne Hansen

Uttamamunī Uṃ-Sūr’s death at age 59 in Phnom Penh, his biographer noted, “he passed away in a quiet and well-disciplined manner … His death accurately reflected and gave expression to the disposition of tranquility and quietness that characterized his being in all respects.”34 Biographical accounts of inspiring figures such as Uk-Ḍī and Uṃ-Sūr delineate communities of belonging united by shared aspirations toward self-mastery, satisampajañña, compassion, and generosity. This latter aim is particularly emphasized in many cremation volumes as something to be cultivated in oneself in order to make merit on behalf of the deceased. Functioning within a larger “economy of merit” in which merit-making had clear social, economic, and political ramifications as well as religious value, giving gifts to the sangha served as a significant form of self-definition, evidenced by the elaboration of various categories of gift-givers.35 A cremation volume for Upāsikā [Laywoman] Sā-Dẏn celebrates her renowned generosity with the publication of Dhamma commentary composed by her monk-teacher, Bhikkhu Hat-Chak Tikkaññaṇo, who describes the two types of people “who are hardest to find in the world”: those who “care for others first” and those who “receive that care and recognize the kindness that has been offered by reciprocating with kindness in return.” These two groups, Hat-Chak explains, are known in Pali as pubbakārin, “benefactors” or “those who give gifts first” without expectation of acknowledgement, and kataññū katavedin, “those who repay goodness done to them.”36 Although hard to find, these types of individuals can sometimes be located in the relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, and king and subjects. In Hat-Chak’s own case, he writes, Upāsikā Sā-Dẏn was his benefactor who gave gifts with no expectation of return, and he was the kataññū katavedin who recognized her kindness with gratitude. He was reciprocating her gifts through the Dhamma teaching contained in her cremation volume, making merit on her behalf. Hat-Chak goes on to elaborate the categories of pubbakārin and kataññu katavedin in the context of different relationships. With respect to the relationship between teachers and students, he explains that religious teachers are integrally involved in developing both the rule and practice of law, and thus essential to the social processes that keep people from harming each other and promote societal solidarity. Teachers performed an important social function in relation to the larger community of the nation, a social unit structured by the ideology and practice of law, by helping to articulate, educate and enforce legal and moral codes and practices: Without exception, all countries possess teachers who proselytize religion, thereby preserving and protecting the nation through education, assisting the process of transforming ignorant and uneducated persons into ariyajan or “noble persons,” since religion is a storehouse of education, right and morality with the aim of creating law and order. This holds true for all nations.37

Within this context, Hat-Chak continues, the role of religious teachers is to teach people how to distinguish between “what is true and false, between good and evil,

Belonging in early-20th-century Cambodia  71

and also to enable them to strive for the goal of being resolute.” But the best teachers, in Hat-Chak’s view, created communities in which their followers could progress spiritually and learn how to free themselves and others from suffering. This was an aim common to all beings, not just Khmer Buddhists.38 Hat-Chak’s explanation of teachers and students as pubbakārin and kataññu katavedin, which we should note as self-generated Buddhist categories of affiliation, help us to understand how aspirations concerning generosity and care could hold together groups of monks and their disciples.

Teachers in general are not rare, but the ones who are difficult to find in this world are those astonishing teachers who possess great compassion toward each and every class of being in the three levels of existence, desiring only for them to meet with happiness, devoting themselves to proselytizing what will lead [all beings] to rebirth in the human and deva worlds, and to breaking free from dukkha [suffering] in the rounds of rebirth, just as the Fully Enlightened Buddha who is the Foremost Teacher has done. These teachers are called true pubbakārins and they are indeed difficult to find in the world. Those disciples who hear and believe and follow their example with respect to the Dhamma-vinaya will experience growing happiness and attain the fruits of the Path according to their own levels of spiritual development. Those students who recognize and understand merit, and who respect and perform acts of worship toward Buddhism according to their circumstances, reciprocating according to their circumstances, those disciples are called kataññū katavedin.39

What was especially unusual about pubbakārins, in Hat-Chak’s estimation, was that they were able to offer gifts of care and support “first”—without being asked — like Upāsikā Sā-Dẏn had done. “Whether or not the act of care is performed publicly makes no difference” to the true pubbakārin, Hat-Chak stipulates.40 While this ability to perform unstinting acts of generosity “first” was rare, individuals could also aspire to receive care gratefully and reciprocate it in whatever way was possible. Hat-Chak himself describes being uncertain initially about how to reciprocate Sā-Dẏn’s gifts until he realized that giving a gift of Dhamma was a way to return her kindness and create benefit for her in return. Hat-Chak’s discussion of his relationship with his student and patron Sā-Dẏn begins to show us how aspirations about generosity create and unify a web of reciprocal care. But the cremation volume account of Sā-Dẏn also offers evidence that moves beyond the aspirational. In its descriptions of the chediya erected by her community to inter and honor her remains and the declaration of truth about her generosity offered by her sons and daughters in order to ensure she would “not become separated forever from her loved ones in a foreign rebirth,” the volume also documents how the roles of pubbakārin and kataññu katavedin were enacted ritually and socially. The merit-making ceremony that Bhikkhu Hat-Chak organized for Sā-Dẏn gathered together at least 400 people, all of whom received copies of the commemorative volume containing his sermon. Novice Lāṅ-Sukh


Anne Hansen

assisted with typing the manuscript and other unnamed individuals erected the chediya and assisted with preparations for the solemn festivities.41 In other words, the value of cremation volumes as historical records is that they do not simply expound on ethical “ideals” that may or may not have been followed, but they also demonstrate how actual historical people formed communities and enacted shared values and aspirations on behalf of each other. Producing all of these acts and objects—the truth declaration, the chediya, the cremation volume, and the cremation ceremony—necessitated interactions among a network of people united by their relationships to either Sā-Dẏn and/or Hat-Chak and a shared aspiration of making merit on her behalf. While “samnāk’” designates the loose networks shaped by lineage and giftgiving described above, a second quite different and even more individualized articulation of belonging apparent in cremation volumes is friendship, especially the kind of friendship couched as kalyāṇa-mitt. The Khmer word kalyāṇa-mitt is often translated as “intimate friend” but the term with its Pali roots is even more multivalent than this translation implies, referring to a Dhamma teacher, a preceptor, a spiritual friend or guide, someone who keeps one on the Path, someone who is religiously inspiring and even morally superior to oneself. As Susanne Mrozik has suggested of the Sanskrit kalyāṇa-mitra, it might also be translated as “beautiful friend,” which perhaps better captures the larger spiritual and affective cadences and aesthetic sensibilities implied in writings by Khmer Buddhists about this category of friendship.42 Accounts of kalyāṇa-mitt are almost always drawn in a highly emotive register, alternating between lamentation, soaring praise and intense gratitude and remembrance. Some of the earliest jīvapravatti to be published commemorated the death of an influential reformist teacher, Mahāvimaladhamm Thoṅ, in 1927. A lay disciple who shared Thoṅ’s monastic preceptor and who had lived and studied together with Thoṅ when they were young novices explained how and why he regarded Thoṅ as his kalyāṇa-mitt: As for the heart and mind of this man, it was always good, always ready to do what was right, a loving friend and a student unsurpassed by others. From the time of his ordination and throughout the rest of his life, he always acted in accordance with the Dhamma and with the Vinaya. This monk was my kalyāṇa-mitt, meaning a friend who is virtuous and good, one who is worthy of the highest esteem. As long as he lived, right up to the very end [of his life], no matter what he was doing, he always made a special effort to seek me out, to care for me and to guard my actions.43

Stylistically, the descriptions of kalyāṇa-mitt relationships in cremation volumes often seem intended to evoke recollections of the relationship between the Buddha and his close disciples. In writing about Mahāvimaladhamm Thoṅ’s death, the monk Uṃ-Sūr, who served as Thoṅ’s personal secretary, casts himself in the role of the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda, describing the death of his teacher in an account that closely follows the narrative outline of the death of the Buddha

Belonging in early-20th-century Cambodia  73

found in the Mahāparinibbāṇa-sutta. Like Ānanda, Uṃ-Sūr was despondent and shocked by his teacher’s rapid decline; Thoṅ (echoing the Buddha) gently rebuked him and reframed his impending death as a lesson about impermanence. “Even with all of his students gathered around him, praying for him and nursing him, Thoṅ failed to recover,” Uṃ-Sūr recounts. Thoṅ (like the Buddha) spent the remaining weeks of his life advising his students to practice self-purification and exhorting them to dedicate themselves to the the illumination of society through teaching the Dhamma.44 Just as the biography of the Buddha served as a model of virtue, the purpose of writing a jīvapravatti of Thoṅ, Uṃ-Sūr wrote, was to inspire “people many years from now to recognize his accomplishments….” Disseminating the biography helped to fulfill his promise to his teacher to make Buddhism more “resplendent” and to pay back his debt of gratitude to this kalyāṇa-mitt.45 Descriptions of the ritual activities surrounding Thoṅ’s death suggest that sharing a teacher also created created strong friendship bonds between his group of students. Chuon Nath began his biography of Thoṅ as follows: Venerable Mahāvimaladhamm Thoṅ … was my teacher and I was his student. He performed countless good deeds on my behalf and offered innumerable summaries [of Dhamma for my benefit]. For this reason, I want to use this occasion to explain in detail about the activities we students performed in acknowledgement of this debt, from the beginning of his illness until the time of his death.

Chuon Nath explained that almost all of Thoṅ’s students, monks and former monks, gathered together as soon as it became apparent Thoṅ was gravely ill. All of them “were deeply absorbed in attending to his illness and sparing no effort. They shared an attitude of deep commitment, respect and perseverance. Throughout this time there was not a single person who was indifferent.”46 The account continues with its description of the group clustered around their kalyāṇa-mitt, making every kind of self-sacrificial effort to sustain his life and then together mourning their collective loss when he died. The twelve biographical accounts of Thoṅ included in the 1927 commemorative edition of Kambujasuriya dedicated to him, as well as several later separately published jīvapravatti single out Thoṅ’s accomplishments as a kalyāṇa-mitt. While Thoṅ was a “pubbakārin” for his students, and they owed him a reciprocal debt of gratitude, he was also more than that. The friendship—even among students who had left monastic life—represented a form of care that had longlasting physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions, the kind of bonds that caused people to drop all of their normal daily activities in a time of crisis to gather around their dying loved one. The trope of friendship remained wellentrenched in Buddhist biographical writing throughout this entire period. When Uṃ-Sūr later died, his samnāk’ mate Lvī-Em wrote a tribute to him as his kalyāṇa-mitt, and as late as 1970, My Kalyāṇamitt, Huot Tāt’s well-known jīvapravatti offered an account of his life-long friendship with Chuon Nath,


Anne Hansen

describing him as an intimate “virtuous friend” who also served as a spiritual mentor.47


This chapter has argued that Buddhist expressions of historical consciousness and self-description have been understood by terms other than “Theravāda,” and that by paying attention to the terms of relationships we find in various historical sources, new categories of Buddhist self-definition come into focus that foreground student-teacher relationships and map out notions of care. Let me point to two last historiographical possibilities that a relational analytical frame opens up for studying Buddhist self-understanding and affiliation. It enables us to consider affect as historical evidence for self-definition and possibly to see that part of the aim of the jīvapravatti is to extend the relationship networks they construct to include later readers like us. Khmer jīvapravatti tend to share a similar aesthetic sensibility about expressing emotional connections. The emotive style of Thoṅ’s students describing their anguish during the last days of his life as well as his many inspiring virtues are similar to those expressed by Uk-Ḍī’s students, who described their teacher as “a thera endowed with a wealth of admirable virtues that his students and followers and all who adhere to the Dhamma” wanted to emulate, including “careful and conscientious” behavior according to the Dhamma-vinaya, a guarding of his sense-doors, speech that was “harmonious, sweet, humble, and modest,” strong leadership, authority in teaching, endurance, impartiality and broadmindedness. Uk-Ḍī’s students lamented,

we will never again see his face or hear his teachings, but we will always continue to visualize him as a model of goodness and recall the teachings for which he was so widely known. His group of monastic students together with our [lay] relatives far and wide feel regret, grief, sorrow, and melancholy at the loss of this great monk whose example is so splendid and praiseworthy. Even though we understand clearly that all beings who are born must die, and that this is the normal course of things that no being can escape, even so, we cannot rid ourselves of our regret, grief and sorrow because we feel the loss of one who was always showing kindness to others, including us, so acutely.48

While extolling the virtues of the deceased may be a nearly universal cultural convention, my point in calling our attention to the aesthetic conventions involved in writing jīvapravatti is that they allow us to see the particular affective modes and styles that undergird Buddhist communities of belonging. As the above examples suggest, jīvapravatti may not only have reflected perceptions of relationships but also shaped them. The emotive style of writing contributed to the definition of communities of belonging such as the samnāk’ around a teacher by creating a shared public record and history of appropriate emotions. Students learned to be unstintingly lyrical in praise of their teachers’ good qualities and the

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gifts they had bestowed through the public performance of merit-making and commemorative rituals and the circulation of jīvapravatti. It should be evident from this discussion that in the Khmer case, the qualities of gratitude, generosity, kindness, awareness, and self-discipline were aims or markers for the definition of Buddhist individuals and communities. To belong to a community in a meaningful sense seems to have necessitated aspiring to some of these same aims and to treasure friends and teachers who modeled these qualities. The other purpose implied in the emotive, confessional style of the jīvapravatti was that of inspiring others with the example of the deceased, reaching beyond the immediate physical community to unknown or future readers who might also want to “remember and pass down” the persons and qualities they were recalling. Looking at individual and inter-communal networks and relationships allows us a different, more close-up perspective on Buddhist history than we gain from large scale examinations of groups or sects. This is not to say that our scholarly notion of the “Theravāda” should be scrapped; it is a useful organizing category and has come into wider usage among Buddhists since the mid-twentieth century. But if we only think about Buddhist self-definition with broad sectarian, ethnic and national monikers we may overlook efforts by historical Buddhists like the students of Uk-Ḍī to build connections among themselves and with others, such as their contemporary readers as well as later students and scholars of Buddhist history. And if we ignore the relational and emotive dimensions of their writing, we miss rich historical evidence about how their communities of belonging were constructed and maintained. Historiographically, this perspective marks a sharp departure from approaching Buddhist history as though it were a mirror for reflecting our own interests and analytical categories. Instead, it allows us to be surprised both by the familiarity and strangeness of human ways of relating and feeling, something we can understand through our own experiences of participating in complex networks and relationships. Nowhere in Uk-Ḍī’s cremation volume did his students identify him as a “Theravāda” Buddhist. That label was not very important within Cambodian monastic communities of this period. Rather, they wanted him to be known and remembered as a kindly person who radiated good-heartedness toward others.

Notes 1

2 3 4


Yin-Yīs’run Sujāto (2508 [1966]: 1–33). Uk-Ḍī (1878–1965) was a provincial abbot who spent most of his monastic career at Wat Gagar, a Mahānikāy monastery until 1894, when it became affiliated with the Dhammayut sect after one of its monks returned from a period of study at Wat Bovoroniwes in Bangkok where he was strongly influenced by Thai reformism. Uk-Ḍī remained at Wat Gagar for most of his career, leaving only long enough to study Thai proficiently enough to translate scriptures. Yin-Yīs’run Sujāto (2508 [1966]: 2–4). Anderson (1991). This is an enterprise to which I have contributed; this chapter is in part an attempt to rethink analytical categories I have relied on in the past (Hansen 2004). Cooper (2005: 60).

76 6 7

8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

28 29 30 31


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Skilling (2012). Three recent studies that exemplify the individual scale approach within Theravāda studies are Blackburn (2010), McDaniel (2011) and Braun (2013). Lutz (1988). Samuels (2010); Holmes-Tagchungdarpa (2014); Kwon (2008); Orsi (2005). Orsi (2005: 3, 6–7, 146–204). Bradley (2016). Skilling (2012: xxi). Perreira (2012: 498–504). Skilling (2009a: 61). Blackburn (2012: 275). Blackburn (2012: 276). Besides the volumes mentioned above, see for example the excellent discussions of networks and network as a dominant metaphor of our current time period in Cooke and Lawrence (2005). Turner (2014). This was not a wholly systematic study, but I was able to examine a range of different kinds of sources: cremation volumes, monastic biographies, histories of Buddhism, ethical writings, several Buddhist sermons, and two monastery histories. After reading through these sources, my initial impression was confirmed; the term was not often employed as a form of self-definition, nor was it widely defined or discussed as a historical category by Khmer Buddhists except in the exceptions noted. In addition to sources discussed and cited elsewhere in this chapter see: Finot (1929, 1957); Jā Yū (1956); Wat Padumavati Rājavararama (1957); Ministry of Religious Affairs (1961); B”āṅ Khāt’ (2504 [1961], 2514 [1970]); Vidyālăy (2504 [1961]); Kusumārām (1967); Yoeurn-Chhoeum (n.d.). The history was composed in French but originally published in the Khmer version. As far as I can determine, the French version was not published until 1957. Finot (1926: 275). “Hinayāna” is defined by Finot (in Juṃ-M”au’s translation) as “small vehicle,” “original Buddhism” and “srāvakayāna,” with the explanation that the term “small vehicle” was coined by the splinter group that formed the Mahāyāna. Bidūr Krasem (1933: 161). Bonneau (1936); Hocart (1927); Mahābodhi Society (1935); Khemararaṇsi (1940). Juṃ-Mau (1930). Dhan’-Vān’ (2496 [1953]) and Thăch-Ṇāṅ (2494 [1951]). Thăch-Ṇāṅ (2494 [1951]: 15). Thăch-Ṇāṅ (2494 [1951]: ii). Thăch-Ṇāṅ mentions the “Hinayāna” in his one page historical summary of Buddhism in Cambodia. Jā Yū (1956); Wat Padumavati Rājavararama (1957). The international group, initiated in 1950 by G. P. Malalasekera in Colombo, included Buddhist clergy and laypeople from a variety of sects and countries. Perreira (2012: 450–452); Freiberger (2001: 59–60). Huot Tāt (1970: 1–4). For biographical information on Huot Tāt [Huot Tath] (1891– 1975), a Mahānikāy Buddhist scholar, modernist reformer and Supreme Patriarch from 1969 until his apparent execution in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge, see Hansen 2007. B”āṅ Khāt’ (1970: 22). B”āṅ Khāt’ (1910–1975) was a well-known Buddhist monk and intellectual. Commemorative typically of deceased monks, first appeared in the Buddhist periodical Kambujasuriya beginning in 1926. Later, following the style of Thai cremation volumes, the jīvapravatti were expanded to contain scriptural excerpts, compilations or commentaries and published as individual volumes, usually with small print runs of 1000 or less, to be distributed at cremation ceremonies for merit-making purposes. The Dhamma excerpt included in the biography might be a favorite of the deceased

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33 34 35 36

37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48

or was seen to represent his or her spiritual attainments or admirable character traits in some way. For some examples, see accounts of the death of Braḥ Vimaladhamm Thoṅ included in the Kambujasuriyā volume (1927.2) commemorating him, recently edited and republished by Sin Suvaṇṇani (2012). Several of these accounts are referenced below. Cāp-Bin (1940). Schober (1995: 311; 2011: 3, 19–20); Cate (2003: 19–22 and 168, n8). Hat-Chak (1958: 1–3). The text elaborates the Dullabha Sutta, although Hat-Chak’s Dhammakathā does not explicitly reference it. He explains that he wrote the Dhammakathā in the course of his university studies; it was broadcast on national radio in 1954. This is the only surviving work by Hat-Chak that I have been able to locate, and I have been unable to find biographical data about him. No dates are offered for the deceased lay woman, Upāsikā Sā-Dẏn, whose generosity is commemorated in this cremation volume but she appears to have died close to the time of the volume’s publication in 1958. Hat-Chak (1958: 13–14). Writing in the 1950s, Hat-Chak invokes the rhetoric of national unity common to Buddhist sources from this period. Hat-Chak (1958: 14–15). Hat-Chak (1958: 1). Hat-Chak (1958: iii–v). Collins (1987: 51–55); Mrozik (2007: 32–34). Kaṅ (1927: 194–195). For more biographical information on Thoṅ (1862–1927), UṃSūr (1881–1939) and Chuon Nath (1883–1969), all of whom belonged to the modernist reform faction of the Mahānikāy order, see Hansen (2007). Uṃ-Sūr (1927: 99–102). Uṃ-Sūr (1927: 89). Chuon Nath (1927: 117–119). Huot Tāt (1993). Wat Pabhāvatyārām Gaṇàkammakarpuṇy (2508 [1966]: i).


What Theravāda does

Thoughts on a term from the perspective of the study of post-colonial Nepal Christoph Emmrich

From the very beginning of their history in Nepal, Theravāda and modernity have been inextricably connected. To speak of Theravāda in Nepal is to speak of the modern, of the new, the interrupted, the deteriorated, or the improved. Reversely, the modern, particularly in the scholarly understanding of Buddhism in Nepal, has been primarily conceptualized from the perspective of a Buddhist modernism going back to the colonial encounter, when a certain new understanding and selfunderstanding of Theravāda is taken to have emerged. The questions I try to ask in this chapter and the directions they point in are attempts to open the discussion to a more recent reconsideration of the implications the deployment of the terms “Theravāda” and “modern” have had, more generally in the study of Buddhism and more specifically in the study of Buddhism in Nepal. How can we understand Nepalese Buddhism’s modernity under the conditions of a revision of the role European and North American modernity played in defining Buddhism, which has taken place in the study of the latter in South and Southeast Asia over the last oneand-a-half decades? Answering that question involves taking into account the possibility of modernity, or certain developments taken as markers of modernity, in Asian Buddhism before colonialism.1 It also involves taking into account a modernity that has, in Asia and over the last decades, transformed and complicated the terminological parameters that help constitute the term modern, such as its distinction from “the medieval,” “the premodern,” “the traditional,” to name just a few, and the binaries produced thereby, or recent historical differentiations of modernity itself.2 An increased sensibility for the pragmatics of the term “modern” has contributed towards the undermining of modernity’s self-understanding as being based on a shared semantics, suggesting a more historically specific relocation of the modern in its ongoing transformations3 as well as its more diffuse and historically precarious reconceptualization in terms of “the contemporary.’4 Similarly, “Theravāda,” the key term of Buddhist Nepalese modernity, may be interrogated in terms of what it allows and precludes. What happens to our understanding of Buddhism as it has existed in Nepal over the last one hundred years when parts of it are called Theravāda, thus opening up historical depths and continuities that go far beyond what has happened in Nepal since the twentieth century? What impact does the understanding of what has come to be called Theravāda outside of Nepal have on what happens in Nepal and what we as

What Theravāda does: post-colonial Nepal  79

academically informed scholars or readers or what Buddhist practitioners or activists, or all of the above, make of it? In that sense, the questions asked in this chapter are part of an attempt to contribute towards the debate on the more recent history of Buddhism in Nepal by further exploring the modern and the Buddhist, in both its aging and dated and always reconstituted forms, within the Nepalese vernacular.


The emergence of Theravāda in Nepal5 began in the Bengal of the 1920s with the activist work of a Newar commerce student Jagat Man Vaidya, better known as Dharmāditya Dharmācārya (Dharmaditya Dharmacharyya,6 1902–1963), from the Buddhist Shakya (Śākya) caste. First in Calcutta and starting 1935 in the Kathmandu Valley, following the Sri Lankan reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla’s example and primarily aiming at the traditionally Vajrayānist Newar communities, Dharmācārya, promoted a stronger monastic orientation of the householder and, with Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhism as models, initiated the establishment of a monastic community of celibate men as an alternative to the forms of monastic life prevalent among the Newars. Both efforts were accompanied by an agenda advocating the public use and official recognition of the Newar language in Nepal. The early phase of Theravāda activism was hence marked by an emergence of Newar cultural nationalism fed by transnational religious and political flows that were aimed at changing Newar Buddhist society and claiming a greater role for that community within the Nepalese nation state. The other key claim, first formulated at this incipient stage and transmitted from Dharmapala to Dharmācārya, echoing the former’s instrumentalisation of the Mahābodhi Temple, was that of Nepal as the birthplace of the Buddha, and hence, in the modernist equation, of “true” Buddhism, soon to be equated with Theravāda. This vision of Buddhism presented the narrative of a glorious past, breakdown, loss, and degeneration, setting the stage for a glorious historical return from centuries of exile. Dharmāditya Dharmācārya’s agenda was opposed by the Nepalese state’s general resistance to dissent from within and toward influences from south of the border that would challenge the Shah monarchy’s grip on society enforced by various institutions and practices associated with Hindu kingship. In 1930 the first two Nepalese monks of Theravāda lineage, Mahaprajñā (Mahapragya, 1901– 1979) and Prajñānanda (Pragyananda, 1900–1993), arrived in Nepal, having been ordained by Candramaṇi (Chandramani, 1876–1972), the resident Burmese monk in Kushinagara, in what was then British India. The 1930s saw the first Nepalese women join, Dhammapālī, Sanghapālī, Ratnapālī, and Dharmācārī (Dharmachari, 1898–1978), the latter destined to dominate the Nepalese scene for the next three decades, all from high caste families, who established a female lineage of tenprecept holders. The first three were given their robes also by Candramani, while the latter travelled to Arakan in British Burma. All four eventually settled down in the Kathmandu Valley, facing not only enormous state repression, but also gender discrimination within the struggling Theravāda community.


Christoph Emmrich

Historically, an important factor in the formation of a Nepalese Theravāda, identified by Sarah LeVine and David Gellner,7 is that the early members of the community had highly diverse exposures to non-Newar Buddhist ritual, language, and doctrine and a highly heterogeneous range of ordination lineages, even from within Sri Lanka, Burma, or India, which were often additionally mediated by a Tibetan Buddhist interface. In contrast to the historical situation in Eastern Bangladesh, where Burmese Theravāda has played a decisive historical role for at least the last two of centuries, the absence of one specific dominant, let alone orthodox form of Theravāda Buddhism in Nepal, particularly among the men had, as a result, a high diversity among the emerging communities and facilitated a relatively low-conflict soft impact vis-à-vis the older forms of Newar Buddhism. That is somewhat different with the women, who have from the very beginning and until very recently been consistently trained in Burma in more or less the same lineages and have thus acted as a much more homogenous and uniform group. A wave of repression in the 1940s saw many Theravādin monastics go into exile, only to return invigorated after the Nepalese government revised its stance towards them, repositioning itself in view of the new geopolitical situation in view of the withdrawal of the British and the formation of newly independent nation states south of the Himalayas. With many activities, particularly publishing, still continued from Kalimpong in India, under the leadership of the monk Amṛtānanda (Amritananda, 1918–1990), the Dharmodaya Sabhā, the Buddhist Society of Nepal, was founded in exile when, a relic and a Bodhi tree sapling were brought to Nepal from Sri Lanka by the Singhalese scholar Mahāthera Nārada in 1947, formally establishing ritual and institutional ties, eventually leading to the establishment of the All-Nepal Bhikṣu-Mahāsaṅgha. A tentative rapprochement between the Theravādins and the Nepalese monarchy in the early 1950s, carrying with it the hope of a new role for Buddhism in a modernizing state, common to contemporaneous movements in several postcolonial South Asian countries, was nipped in the bud by a newly emerging political Hinduism as the state ideology of a reinvigorated, yet retrenched monarchy, threatened by democratic and secularizing forces within and beyond its borders. The state’s eagerness to criminalize any activity perceived of as proselytizing among Hindu religious communities increasingly led Newar Theravādins to successfully reach out to other Nepalese communities located predominantly outside the Kathmandu Valley, such as the Gurung, Magar, or Tamang, vaguely associated with Buddhism. Historically, this has led to a further differentiation of the Nepalese Theravāda community, from its early urban Newar elite beginnings to a situation that sees a circulation of monastics and laypeople from various communities move to the Kathmandu Valley, from there to the big Theravāda centres abroad, and eventually back or on to smaller localities throughout rural Nepal. Beginning in the 1960s, it has been the women under the leadership of prominent leaders such as Dhammadinnā (b. 1939) and particularly Dhammavatī (b. 1925),8 both from well-off, high-caste Buddhist families, who have been in the forefront of promoting Nepalese Theravāda as a social and educational force and forging ties

What Theravāda does: post-colonial Nepal  81

with the vibrant international community of nuns, Western scholars, and activists promoting social justice and the political empowerment of girl children and women of all ages. Moving into offering education and other social services in areas of rural Nepal neglected by the government was a development spearheaded mainly by female Theravāda monastics since the 1960s. Thanks to the chronic need for such initiatives right up to the present, the success in this sector has consistently helped build the Theravādins’ reputation throughout the country. With state sponsorship of Nepalese Theravāda remaining elusive until the present day, it is from the 1950s onwards that Theravādins turned to the wealthy Nepalese social groups they themselves belong to for economic and political support, so much so that Nepalese Theravāda sponsorship remains almost exclusively in private hands. In the past decades patronage ties have extended far beyond the boundaries of the Kathmandu Valley to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, nowadays including the far-flung diasporic communities from New Zealand to the North American West Coast. The establishment of meditation centres as a new form of religious institution run by Theravādins, in the last couple of decades, catering increasingly to not only to Buddhists, but also to Hindus, and others, including an emerging, if struggling, middle class, has further changed the role the Theravāda community plays. This is particularly so since the fall of the monarchy and the rethinking of the role of Hinduism, and consequentially Buddhism, in defining Nepalese society. Arguably one of the most impressive text projects of an emerging Nepalese Theravāda is the ongoing Pali-Newar Tipiṭaka translation, almost single-handedly conducted by Duṇḍa Bahādur Vajrācārya (Dunda Bahadur Bajracharya), a Lalitpur-based trader in precious metals. Following a pledge to his mother,9 Dunda Bahadur has continued the work of Bhikṣu Amritānanda Nāyaka Thera, one of the pioneers of Nepalese Theravāda, who translated the Dhammapada into Newar in 1942.10 Programmatically, the Nepalese translation initiatives were initiated through the eight-point call published in the Dharmodaya Sabhā Journal in Kalimpong in 1950, demanding to “publish translations of Canonical texts as well as other books on Buddhism in Nepali and Newari [Nepal Bhasha].”11 Duṇḍa Bahādur’s choice of Newar, and not Nepali, as the target language, as well as the typesetting of several translations in the ornamental rañjanā script used in North India, Nepal, and Tibet, historically reserved for sacred texts and ornamental lettering, make this project one which is grounded within a modernism that is distinctly ethnic and located within a larger linguistic-nationalist project in which Buddhism plays a key role. This stands in contrast to the use of Nepali in Nepalese Theravāda once it moves outside of the Newar community,12 within, but particularly beyond the Valley, such as in school projects in the Tarai, but also when reaching into the Newar middle class, where Newar language competence, particularly in written Newar (not to speak of its literary register), is tenuous at best. Genres that a literary history of the tradition would need to focus on are compilations of paritta texts,13 song anthologies,14 the textbook,15 as well as the rich textual production surrounding the history of Theravāda in Nepal. Closely


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connected to the latter is the memorial and auto-bio-hagiographical genre, celebrating prominent Nepalese Buddhists, their struggles and their achievements. Most prominent are autobiographies, biographies, and appraisals of leaders such as Bhikṣus Aśvaghoṣ (b. 1926),16 Amṛtānanda,17 Dharmāditya Dharmācārya,18 Mahāprajñā,19 Prajñānanda,20 the lay patron Maniharṣa Jyoti (1917–1993),21 and Anāgārikās Dharmaśīlā22 and Dhammavatī,23 to name just a few. One of the most popular books to emerge out of the hagiographical genre is a 1963 biography dealing with Dhammavatī’s youth by the Burmese author Ra Ve Thun” (Rawe Htun, 1924–2003), also known by his monastic name Tilokasāra, titled Thami chit (Samī” khyac’, “Beloved Daughter”).24 It narrates her early interest in Buddhism of Burmese provenance and the flight of the teenager from her Lalitpur home through Northeast India into Burma in her quest for freedom and learning. The popularity of its translation into Newar by Bhikṣu Jñānapūrṇik (also Jānapuṇṇik, or Gyanapurnik, b. 1939) as Yaḥmha mhyāy in 196725 was only topped by the further translation of Jñānapūrṇik’s version into Nepali as Snehī chorī by Dhammavatī’s brother Motikāji Śākya in 1990,26 who augmented the text with his own reminiscences and turned it into inspirational classic for a much larger, Nepali-reading public.27 Apart from being a gripping, well-told story, it represents a unique example of blending Theravāda-inspired literary worlds, celebrating a truly Nepalese Pali-speaking heroine whose modernizing power cannot be held back by any adversary forces, be they family, borders, jungles, police, or languages, and who returns to her home country to fight the conditions she had to overcome in the first place.28 Certainly, the establishment of libraries with focus on Pali, Sri Lankan, Southeast Asian, and modernist Indian Buddhism, either by communities or individuals, represent a major community effort in a country, which prides itself on being one of the riches depositories of mainly Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist texts. The Viśva Śānti Pustakālaya (Vishwa Shanti Pustakalaya) is a Lalitpur lending library founded in 1990 with primarily the Buddhist youth with a traditional Newar Buddhist background in mind.29 The Vīr Pūrṇa Pustak Saṃgarālaya (Bir Purna Pustak Sangarahalaya), is another Lalitpur library with a different kind of genealogy: it grew out of the personal collection of Pūrṇa Bahādur Vajrācārya (Purna Bahadur Bajracharya), the late father of the above-mentioned translator Dunda Bahadur who is currently curating it. Though its holdings too cover Buddhism in Nepal more generally, Pūrṇa Bahadur’s and his son’s interest in Pali-related publications, including texts in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Burmese and Thai, and Dunda Bahadur’s monumental translation project give it a decidedly Theravāda profile. Historically, both translation projects and libraries emerged out of the creation of circles for the study of Buddhism, which provided authors, audience, and readership. Following the founding of the Nepal Young Men’s Buddhist Association in 1970, in 1971 the anāgārikās, with the support of Bhikṣu Aśvaghoṣ, founded the Bauddha Adhyāyan Goṣṭhi, the Buddhist Study Guild, where texts were published, presented, shared, and discussed, including translations by Anāgārikā Dhammavatī from the Pali and the Burmese into Newar and Nepali, as well as, starting 1972, the influential journal Dharmakīrti.30

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In spite of these successes in the building of institutions, these Buddhists have had a history of extreme ambivalence regarding the Hindu monarchy and Rana prime-ministerial rule before that. These historical moments may represent to various protagonists of an emergent Theravāda both the good old days of law and order, dating back to the 1950s and, at various moments, a Hindu establishment either benignly patronizing, like the late King Birendra, or out to contain traditional and prevent modernizing Buddhists, such as the Rana prime ministers or, more recently, benignly neglecting both, such as the eventually deposed King Gyanendra. These ambivalences and narratives are shared with traditional Newar Buddhists, but transformed by the Theravādins’ new role in the current efforts to refashion Nepal as a secular nation state ideally representative of all ethnic groups and religions. Theravādins have been much more active in moving into if not the corridors of power, at least into the adjacent waiting rooms. At the main former royal state procession Indrajatra in 2013, the caretaker government’s head had a Nepalese bhikṣu stand next to him on the balcony from which the king used to receive the blessings of the Royal Kumari. In the same year, the Maoists had two ordained MPs, one Tamang and one Newar, the prominent Bhikṣu Ānanda, a temporary lecturer at Tribhuvan University with a Sri Lankan “Royal Pandit Degree in Oriental Studies,”31 and the government publicizes this as an example of its willingness to support religious diversity, particularly to do away with the representations of the “Hindu Kingdom.” Theravāda Buddhists turn out to be not only politically more outspoken and declaredly modernist, but also more undefined in terms of local communities, caste and ritual involvement with the monarchy and thus more easily deployable by the new forces who want to make a statement in refashioning Nepal as a secular state, which implies at least symbolically bolstering Buddhist institutions to balance the influence of Hindu ones. With most Theravāda leaders being Newars, it is a strategy to bring in the Newars without having to involve the highly fragmented and fractious traditional or modernized Newar monastic leaders who tend to be sceptical of Maoist, or, more generally, an ethnically perceived Indo-Parbatiyā rule. More recent recruitments from outside the Newar community has made it possible to bring in an even more diverse range of individuals and groups. Though concretely Theravāda institutions so far may not have profited much from this political association, still it is through them that discontent and demands, also regarding traditional Newar Buddhism, are usually articulated in the public sphere and on the national level. This means that in turn Theravāda elites are being pulled into a discourse of national responsibility which mirrors that of their self-proclaimed goal of uniting the Buddhists of the nation of Nepal by ignoring their internal differences and competing with the Hindus, particularly in establishing educational institutions outside the Valley and offering meditation and preaching events attended increasingly also by Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, or Smārta, members of the middle class. Active within a predominantly Hindu society, Theravāda Buddhists become catalysts for changes of the nation state from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic.


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The temporary, yet consequential disturbance of the study of South Asian religion caused by claims about the constructed nature of Hinduism and, more generally, world religions two decades or so ago32 certainly did not fail to stir scholars of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It prompted them to ask in which way and since when the term “Theravāda” may have been used the way it is used today and what its usages may mean for the representation of those writers and speakers who have been identifying themselves, their communities, or their field of research through this term. This article, together with the collection of which it is a part, is a continuation of that critical conversation and a contribution to a critical assessment of how critical that deconstructive critique has been able to be. The crisis that the deconstructivist critique claimed to have identified was the historical moment of a shift towards a use of Theravāda that would create the momentum for a desired historical force able to tie together individuals, lineages, doctrines, literatures, languages, and communities which had previously been only loosely affiliated, could unite and be united in qualitatively new and effectively modernist ways. More dramatically, it claimed to have revealed that what was old, uniform, stable, and authoritative was actually recent, disjoint, precarious, and pragmatic. The usefulness of such a critique appeared at least twofold. On the one hand, it offered a discourse-analytical tool to give some new credibility to a paradigm that already seemed to be on its way out: the modern-premodern divide, with the interest in the modern clearly outweighing that in the premodern. On the other hand, it at the very least yanked at the rug under the feet of those who would be interested in claiming relative historical continuity and homogeneity for certain forms of Buddhism perceived to be prevalent in South and Southeast Asia in order to maintain the authority and legitimacy of religio-political regimes throughout the region, including the justification of concomitant forms of scholarship. Reversely, it allowed to be revealed as potentially strategic and hegemonic those usages of the term “Theravāda” that would help claim continuity with the supposedly premodern and, at the same time, permitted a greater appreciation of those movements that would deploy the term “Theravāda” to replace older forms of Buddhism by newer and more emphatically modern ones, in short, to identify both the reactionary and the progressive elements of Buddhist movements over the last two centuries. The degree, however, to which this project is equally relevant for the understanding of what has happened in Buddhist communities over the last two centuries, hinges on the meaning, function, and significance of the term “Theravāda” in the discourses analyzed. The project’s critical potential exhausts itself in at least three cases: when the history of the term’s supposedly modern meaning reaches back far beyond the perceived modern-premodern divide, when the significance given by those communities to that term fails to live up to the significance discourse analysis attributes to it, and when communities that identify as Theravāda are still emergent and primarily anti-hegemonic. I believe that the recent history of those Buddhist communities in Nepal for whom the term “Theravāda” has some relevance helps address at

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least two of these three cases mentioned. That history is one of many possible horizons at which we may perceive the limits of the scope of the project of deconstructing the term “Theravāda.’ That Theravāda is recent, disjoint, precarious, and pragmatic, as the deconstructivist would claim, is unlikely to be of any surprise to either activists or scholars involved in what has been called, for whichever purpose, Theravāda Buddhism in Nepal. Indeed, if one takes the more recent history of Nepalese Buddhism, it would take a considerable hermeneutic effort to imagine how it could be otherwise (i.e. how Theravāda could in any way be imagined as divorced from the ongoing preoccupation with the new and its joining, constructing, building, to use the title of the foundational monograph by Sarah LeVine and David Gellner, with the project of “rebuilding Buddhism”33). How much does a deconstructive investigation into the agendas, strategies, and practices of “construction work” achieve? Or, more neutrally put, what does it do, in a ambience where the acquaintance with the term itself, even among the elites, is barely three generations old, where it is tentatively used for self-designation by minority Buddhist communities within larger and historically older Buddhist communities that are themselves embedded amongst equally old, influential, and populous Hindu communities? What does the term and its deconstruction do to close the circle, within a global Buddhist and academic community, where the awareness of the existence of Theravāda in Nepal is only beginning to take root? In short and more generally: under which conditions, how, and why should one deconstruct emergence? As previous section on emergence shows, three generations of self-identified Theravāda activists are enough history to work with. LeVine’s and Gellner’s monograph, without which there would be no such field as the academic study of Nepalese Theravāda, and which was preceded by Ria Kloppenborg’s pioneering article,34 Bechert’s report on revival,35 and Jens-Uwe Hartmann’s insightful study on ordination practices,36 was accompanied and followed by pathbreaking work on Theravāda among communities other than the Newars by Chiara Letizia and on the Goenka vipassanā centers and the Nepalese middle class by Lauren Leve.37 One may add the recent contributions by Gellner,38 Letizia,39 LeVine,40 and myself,41 published in the volume Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, all four portraying Nepali modernists dealing in one or the other way with Theravāda. Nepal Theravāda Studies have already gone a long way. In effect, it is not the fact that there is so little to potentially be deconstructed or that putative genealogies may reach less far back than suspected that seems to take the edge out of the deconstruction project when applied to Nepal.42 I would claim that not because there is too little history, but because the little there is, is so dense and is still so powerfully emerging, than the quaintly subversive power of voicing yet another suspicion of construction against it, is at least matched, if not overridden, by the power that the self-awareness and reflexivity of a still emerging movement produces. All the more so, one that has not yet reached or, at best, is only about to reach the stage in which the latest generation may split off to reconnect with its own imagined origins. I believe it is both the heterogeneity and successive renewal of its emergence—from the fight against a Hindu monarchy that no


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longer is, to the flirtatious winks from some of the new ruling groups; a genderdifferentiated succession of waves that saw the pioneering men of the early years being outdone by women in the second half of the twentieth century; the idioms, locales, and anxieties shared with the traditional Newar Buddhists and Nepalese Tibetans—that is keeping the “Theravāda movement,” as LeVine and Gellner have called it, young and changing. This has made it difficult for the label Theravāda to stick in the first place and for it to be the key towards clearing up a perceived misunderstanding or recuperating an imaginary loss. There should be no doubt that constructing happens both in the already-established and in the still-emerging, and terms and names, particularly self-designating ones, need to be interrogated as to their genealogies, the hiding of which may have been the very purpose of their coinage. To be sure, I am not advocating a grace period of deconstruction for whatever may be still-emerging until it may have gained enough influence or done enough damage to warrant intervention. However, there are ongoing historical strands of resistance and emergence, where the subversive power of questioning such a term, which may be used in religious studies textbooks, on academic panels, or in instances of inter-religious dialogue, comes close to losing not only its force when confronted with much more imposing forces, including those that prohibit the use of certain terms, but its purpose and legitimacy, when applied to the idioms formed in the fight against social injustice and the building of a more equal society. I am thinking of nationalist feminism in the struggle against colonialism in the first half of the twentieth century,43 the Indian Dalit movement since the middle of the century,44 the current Maoist struggle in large parts of India and Nepal,45 or the resistance to the Armed Forces Act in Indian Northeast, to name just a few. Deconstructing Kumari Jayawardena’s feminism, B. R. Ambedkar’s Buddhism, Prachanda’s Maoism, Irom Sharmila’s non-violent struggle, or Anagārikā Dhammāvatī’s Nepalese Theravāda may be projects worth considering, but, in doing so, it is as if one were to deconstruct deconstruction, or, in the worst case, resist resistance. Yet, I think the issue is even more complicated: what makes deconstructing Nepalese Theravāda so difficult is less its own subversive momentum than its creative, constructive, while still dissenting impetus. This latter is yet too unfinished, too undecided, too tentative, too experimental, and, in some of its more progressive aims, too much in need of other forms or support and critique, for legitimately attempting at teaching it to distrust a name that it occasionally gives itself or, even more often, by which academic discourse refers to it. If deconstruction of Theravāda in Nepal may achieve anything, it would be to discover that what has been constant in its Nepalese history is both its attempt at establishment as well as its failure to finally do so. Just as projections of decadence and dissolution have accompanied the study of traditional Newar Buddhism right up to the present and have repeatedly been proven wrong, so the advent and takeover of Newar Buddhist society by Theravāda has been repeatedly prognosticated and yet has to materialize. Deconstruction, in this case, may us to help understand and find yet unarticulated reasons for why a movement may, for a considerable historical period, remain suspended in that liminal state between inception and establishment.

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Resarch too, I think, has played an important role. Seen from the perspective of the history of the academic study of Theravāda in Nepal, it may be important to add that both the emergence of the movement and the emergence of its study, as represented by LeVine and Gellner’s book, fell into a time in which the older origin- and authority-centred ways of doing research on Theravāda had already undergone a crisis big enough to allow for an appreciation of and an interest in forms of Theravāda only emerging in the twentieth century in the first place. As new forms of Buddhism and its study emerged with their own prehistories, yet concomitantly, in the colonial encounter, more recently emerging forms both of Asian Buddhism and its study may have come to be formed in a comparable process of joint emergence with a more self-critical, self-reflexive, insistently tentative and purposefully unfinished project. Kloppenborg’s and Heinz Bechert’s work, as well as Hartmann’s, are important examples of an early trend from within the traditional, indologically oriented lineages within Buddhist Studies to complement Pali philology by extending research to more recent forms of South Asian Theravāda. The philological interest in contemporary textual production has remained tentative. In effect, it has been the anthropologists who have been participating more fully in studying more recent forms of emergence, particularly in Nepal. It is therefore not surprising that the textual side of that emergence remains dramatically understudied and we know very little about the Theravāda literature of Nepal, on which more below, which has been emerging since more than a century. Terminological constructions may or may not be independent of the actual use of the term “Theravāda” and its non-usage may speak another language. Indeed, it may be crucial for our understanding of what has been happening in Nepal since the early twentieth century that the term itself, after being rather prominent in the early phase of the movement’s history in Nepal right up to the 1950s,46 has been in recent decades, in diverse contexts such as sermons, leaflets, handbooks, or even podium discussions, used less and less prominentely by Nepalese nuns, monks and laypeople, or by their Burmese missionarizing counterparts in Nepal, having been replaced by “śāsana,” or “buddhadhamma.” This is by itself nothing noteworthy and is common practice outside Nepal as well. Here, nuns with a mixed Newar or Gurung and Burmese or Thai religious background may find it useful or irrelevant to use certain self-denoting terms depending on the people they are speaking to or about and depending on the aims they pursue. They thereby enable themselves to successfully pursue the agenda of including and speaking for those other groups or for groups, like women and the youth, within those very groups. Historically, the early stress of Theravāda could be seen as indicative of an agenda pursued by the pioneers that was more directly aimed at having an impact on Newar Buddhist society, possibly even to formulate an alternative to the Tibetan Buddhist option. David Gellner’s early work on Buddhism among the Newars in the 1980s and early 1990s draws a picture in which the Theravādin’s avoidance of the designation Theravādin and use of “Buddhist” instead, was still directed at Newars engaging in Tantric ritual, suggesting that those were not Buddhists at all.47 In contrast, the more recent preoccupation, not


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with fellow Buddhists and their supposedly sectarian degenerate ways, but with Buddhism’s Hindu other, which Letizia’s work has drawn our attention to,48 may have further taken the punch out of the term “Theravāda.” Methodically, regarding modernity, I would call for a diversification of our attention to include not just the routine and strategic use of the term Theravāda, but also the practices involving its unwitting, casual, or cautious, as well as its more obviously strategic avoidance. Conversely, I am interested in asking whether what happened in Nepal over the course of the half century—at least since Burma and more recently Thailand49 have replaced Sri Lanka as a key Theravāda interface in the second half of the twentieth century—may not be described as a process of, to stick to the constructive-analytic terminology, repression, and displacement of what the term Theravāda could have stood for, what Buddhism could have been, or done, but never managed to be or do in a country like Burma, and, for that matter, Nepal. For both Burmese missionaries and mostly female Newar students of Burmese Buddhism, there has been the traumatic historical experience of what the religiously defined nation state and hence a nationalistically defined Theravāda, in Burma by the conflation with the state, in Nepal by its negation by and through the state,50 had done to religious life. This religious life, hence, could find its place only outside the borders of the nation state: for Burmese monks in their training of Nepalese students in Burma and their mission in Nepal;51 for young Newar women in their journeys to Burma and the establishment of women’s communities in Nepal on a scale unprecedented in contemporary continental South Asia.52 Here I am thinking along the lines of suggestions made by the anthropologist Valentina Napolitano regarding the re-emergence of the repressed, both gendered and ethnicized, and the experimenting with solutions, unimaginable in their country of origin, by diasporic Mexican Catholic communities in Rome.53 Napolitano speaks of an “Atlantic Return” of post-colonial Catholicism re-missionarizing a secularized Europe, in which both lay and monastic women, through projects of care and education, bring back the “human” side of colonial Christianity both from and to Catholic communities on either side of the Atlantic that are both troubled, in historically divergent ways, by anxieties about ethnicity, gender, the nation, social justice, and religion. The discourse of Nepalese Buddhist reformers of Sri Lankan or Burmese inspiration right up to the current generation of nuns has, too, been about bringing back Buddhism to where it allegedly came from— the country of the Buddha’s birthplace—hence transporting all the baggage of privileged access to the origins of the Triple Gem, both modernist and premodern, that the term Theravāda, whether it is used or not, carries with it. It is in that vein that already in 1950 the early activist Bhikṣu Dharmālok had asked, trying to assess the heritage and the opportunities Theravāda Buddhism represented for Buddhism in Nepal: “What did the Theravāda śāsana not provide, what is still necessary?” (“Theravādi śāsanaṃ chu mabila? chu māni?”).54 As in Napolitano’s case, the “return of the gift” of mission, holds the promise to empower Nepalese women as much as it holds them firmly within the structures, particularly instructional and health-oriented ones, of a gendered division of labor.

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More generally, however, if Theravāda and the uses of this term help us grasp anything in the Nepalese scenario, then, maybe, it is to help us identify that nebulous and ephemeral interface between the encounters and the choices of certain people in Kathmandu and Lalitpur, on the one side, and others in Yangon and Mawlamyine, on the other. This is an interface in which such far-fetched solutions as allowing problems to be articulated by displacing them, or by letting someone else there solve them for you, appear possible, and where there is the promise that “Buddhism” can be indeed “constructed” or “rebuilt” and where construction is indeed a promise and not a predicament. Yet, this may reduce the term Theravāda to a highly contingent historical function, as the displacement referred to here is only one of many features of religious diaspora, transfer, and travel and is of only limited import to the larger processes at work on either side of the journey. The questions asked and the examples given in the preceding passages are warranted in view of the situation of Theravāda in Nepal, which appears so different from that in other Asian nation states with longer histories and stronger institutions. Its emerging status makes it necessary, in my eyes to tentatively qualify its features in contrast to what it “still” is and what it may “yet” to become. Nepalese Theravāda is—still—very young, having entered the country only in its modernist form and—still—very much bears the stamp of and institutional debt towards the diverse countries of its transactional inspiration. Literary practices involving canon, exegesis, grammar training, or examination do not seem to be— yet—of any greater significance. Its centers of training, spiritual authorities, and, most of all, sources of funding—still—lie largely outside the national borders. It—still—plays no or hardly any role in contributing to the formation of a Nepalese national cultural identity, though, as Letizia has shown, it has played a major role in developing ethnic identities among Tharus and Magars in opposition to a nationalist ideology and power groups associated with Hinduism. It enjoys no—or, if at all, a very weak—endorsement by the political elites. It struggles to define its position vis-à-vis the dominant religion, Hinduism and other forms of Buddhism. In spite of all this, it is exactly in the still small, nevertheless growing significance of Theravada in these very fields that the most exciting developments are ongoing and are to be expected in the future. In my eyes, the two most interesting factors, however, are gender, on the one hand, and Buddhist sectarianism and ecumenism, on the other. It is women monastics and women lay activists who have brought about the most substantial and sustained recent changes. And it is with historically older and currently—still—economically and politically more powerful forms of Buddhism that they and their fellow men compete. The study of Nepalese Theravāda suggests that there are good reasons for getting rid of the idea of a unified Theravāda bloc. At the very least, we should make a difference between Theravāda in Nepal and including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, where Theravada in the form it is found today does not date back before the ninteenth century and where its emergence is connected to a specific historical kind of modernity, on the one hand, and those parts of continental Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, where Theravāda has been present


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and Theravāda communities have been in exchange with each other since at least the sixteenth century, that is, before and after the colonial encounter. One question is whether one should rather not read the development of Theravāda in Nepal (and Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam) as driven by a tendency towards establishing models and features that are shared by the “older” Theravāda countries (nation states, regions, localities, communities, ordination lines) of export. In which way does the transfer of a certain form of Theravāda at the historical point and modernized under shared historical conditions make for a whole new “generation” of Theravādas independently from its individual contexts of export? How much does it help to understand earlier transfers of whatever one might want to call the forms of Buddhism transferred into and out of the older locations of Theravāda historically before the Nepalese transaction? And how much could new solutions, found to accommodate Theravāda in these new home countries, not so much broaden, but question how the dominant categories developed on the basis of the “old” Theravāda countries come to define what Theravāda may be? How could such questioning help break up the misleading homogeneity of the “bloc” in yet another way by questioning the—still—dominant models derived from it? To which extent are the “new” Theravādas derived from those models and how much are they up to something entirely new? To what extent are the “new” Theravādas not just about managing to establish supposedly old texts, practices, and institutions in “new” contexts, but also help us understand in a new way both the context within which they are being successful and that context from which they are or claim to be “derived’? I should stress, however, that such an approach is not dictated by specifically Nepalese conditions. The Nepalese case merely shown most clearly that it is the historical specificity of the kinds of Buddhism dispensed and dispersed in a specific society at a specific point in time that distinguishes Buddhism across the horizons of its dissemination and marks the opportunities and limitations of its further development in a specific place. I would propose is to go beyond the potentially impoverishing function of the term Theravāda with its concomitant and unproductive binary of unity and diversity.55 Rather, I would prefer to try to understand how historical interventions through the export and import of developments in old places to new places create new futures, but also make it necessary to create new pasts, to invent genealogies or to come to terms with historical debts, as it is the nature of these interventions that connects and disconnects parts of what may be at times conveniently identified as Theravāda. In short, I would propose to move away from mapping and towards defining the relationship between the simultaneity and non-simultaneity of and between that which appears old and new in what decides, refuses, or neglects to call itself Theravāda.


Just as the study of Nepalese Theravāda seems to place us at a point in history when the drama of deconstruction appears less dramatic, in a similar fashion Theravāda in Nepal, with its ambiguous multiple colonial heritage, makes

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questions such as whether Nepalese modernity is either a European or an Asian phenomenon or how to periodize it, very hard to answer. There are good reasons for current Nepalese Maoist discourse to claim that the colonial period effectively only ended in 2006 with the end of the Shah monarchy.56 In 1951 the dynasty had returned to political power in a state that, though outside the British Raj, like Thailand,57 had, over the last two hundred years, effectively replicated, internalized, and applied the colonial model to representation, administration, jurisprudence, the military, and intra-montane Himalayan hegemony, in short, to most of what is needed for the creation of a nation state. That makes it particularly difficult to draw clear lines between a historical before and after or a qualitative or paradigmatic shift suggested by the terms “coloniality,” “modernity” or “the contemporary.” The fact that Theravāda has been aligned so closely with whatever modernity may stand for in twentieth-century Nepal further complicates the attempt to clearly differentiate colonial or pre- and post-colonial phases, between “the traditional” and “the modern.’ Theravāda activists, who have been traditionally Newars, but, as mentioned, have for about two decades begun to include a considerable number of other communities,58 see what they do as part of a larger effort. Such effort should, it is claimed, supplant what is deplorable about “traditional” Nepalese, which usually means traditional “Newar” Buddhism. The interaction of activists and practitioners (lay and monastic) produces composite results. A particularly prominent example is the case of a coming of age ritual for teenagers, a monastic novitiation called ṛṣiṇī, named after the Sanskrit term for a female ṛṣi or seer, offered by a Newar Theravāda network since the 1960s, which is supposed to supplant an old Vajrayāna Newar menarche ritual, called bārhā tayegu, or “placing into seclusion,”59 involving dietary confinement to a sunlight- and men-proof room for eleven days in the company of a sexually predatory domestic spirit with an concluding ritual encounter with the sun god. The discussion of this ritual among activists and their followers has come with accusations of a negligible Buddhist content, collusion with Hindu religious practice, lack of educational purpose, casteism, and plain cruelty. Some of the commentary that goes with it stresses that the new practice of ṛṣiṇī does away with the ideological ritual imprint of marriage carried by the dominant Newar coming-of-age rituals for girl children and, instead of embodying auspiciousness and domestic virtues, has as its aim the health, education, and empowerment of the girl child for a modernizing society. It is located in a monastery or meditation center, not at home, the ritual specialists are nuns, not female relatives, and the stress is on discipline and doctrine, not on dalliance and décor, at least in the eyes of the activists. At the conclusion of the retreat, however, the mothers and grandmothers of the girls re-inject the Newar marriage idiom into the final stages of the practice when they pick them up, dress them up as brides, and conclude the event with a visit to the local Gaṇeśa shrine, just like in the menarche ritual the retreat was meant to replace. While this is tacitly tolerated and even approved of by the female monastics, some lay and monastic activists see in it and endangerment of their efforts towards ritual innovation. Newly designed modernist Theravāda practices are


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performed and redesigned by the performers to create continuities, which the advocates of modernity wish to disrupt, thus creating a balance, in which the transformative power of modernity is matched by the equally modernist reaction to it. In the modernist dialectics of action and reaction, the health and hygiene of the girl child’s body60 is one of the fields in which key conflicts within Nepalese Theravāda communities in their positioning vis-à-vis older forms of Newar Buddhism are carried out. The depiction of new practices as being health- and education-oriented, hence modern, is part of an ongoing process within the Newar community of critically reviewing its own traditions in the light of the importance these modernist values hold for them. Practices connected with the old or the new, hardly ever explicitly identified as and opposed in terms of Theravāda or Vajrayāna, except in apologetics by specialists, are more usually weighed, discussed, tried out, partially accepted and partially reconfigured. In turn, traditional Newar Buddhists, such as Dharma Ratna,61 portrayed by Gellner in Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, modernize while remaining within that given set of practices, being very much aware of the activities of modernist Theravādins and of Tibetan Buddhists and reformulating what they see in the language of the Śravakayāna model they hold as the many faces of their self-consciously composite identity.62 It is in that sense that Gellner draws a line between Buddhists that are either (italics in the original) “modernizing” or “aggressively modernist.”63 While the latter, like the Nepalese Goenka vipassanā activists, aim at a comprehensive transformation of the subject,64 it looks like the former follow internal necessities of modernization and find within their “tradition” “traditional” forms to formulate a modernized version of dominant or neglected practices. These involve schools to train Vajrācāryas in liturgy, such as the Vajrācārya Adhāyan Samiti, the Association for the Study of Vajrācāryas, at Nyakhacukha in Lalitpur, the deployment of academic forms of scholarship and participation in academic institutions of higher education, new caste-specific forms of sponsorship and global networking, or a re-evaluation of the monastery as focal point for innovation. Even more interestingly, Newars seem to compartmentalize and functionalize Newar Vajrayāna and Theravāda by developing multiple personal and institutional affiliations, analogous to the opportunities offered by Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the Kathmandu Valley for centuries, thereby satisfying certain ritual, sacramental, and more localized needs in Newar Vajrayāna and adopting a more socially engaged, politicized, and internationalized role in Theravāda by developing newly refined tools to effect very specific changes in very diverse contexts. The question of how modern Theravāda modernism really is can be reformulated, replacing the reactionary skepticism that nothing has actually changed from the premodern, with the (not so new) awareness that it is the modern which in the first place unleashes the premodern by producing tradition, relegating both the modern and the premodern to being new, useful, and historically very successful kinds of claims. What the Nepalese modern or contemporary may be in the first place, particularly from the Nepalese’s own perspective, is something that requires further

What Theravāda does: post-colonial Nepal  93

investigation and I will conclude this chapter by merely trying to point in certain directions. The term, used in Nepali, borrowed by Newar, but in all likelihood inherited from discussions south of the border in Hindi, is ādhunik. Derived from Sanskrit ādhunika, “of the now,” in turn derived from “now,’65 also found in Pali, the Nepali adjective ādhunik66 has been shaped by the semantic field created by the intertwined British-Indian conflicts and conversations in Hindi and English on colony and nation, preservation and development, education and emancipation, caste and class, historical past and utopian future. The antonym is Nepali purāṇo, Newar pulāṃ, or Hindi purāṇ, which shows that ādhunik is not merely “new,” for that would be Hindi naī, Nepali nayā, nava, or Newar nhigu. Correspondingly, purāṇo is not merely “old,” but “long-standing,” “reaching far back in time,” referring to transmissional continuity, co-associating all the respect and circumspection that comes with the authority of the hoary. Ādhunik is closely connected to another key Nepali term, used also in Newar, bikās, corresponding to Hindi vikās, “progress,” “development,” which suggests political, social, scientific, ideological transformation as improvement involving rationality and is often contrasted with andhabiśvās, Hindi andhaviśvās, “blind faith” or “superstition.” In the title of an article on the prominent Nepalese Bhikṣu Prajñānanda the author R. B. Bandhya calls his subject “ādhunik pravartak,” “modernizer,” literally “modern innovator,” where it is clear that the modern is a period linked to crucial historical events tied to the impact of Buddhism, and obviously a very specific kind of Buddhism, on Nepalese society. With Nepali Theravādins it also echoes dhammacakra pravartan, the Pali–Sanskrit–Nepali term for the Buddha’s setting in motion of the wheel of dharma. Here Buddhism is not only conceived of and reread, but “rebuilt” as modern. He who is setting in motion and innovating is modern in the first place and for the first time, in and under Buddhist terms and as Buddhist. Setting in motion and innovating is happening under the conditions of the modern. But it is in the grounding of the modern in Buddhist language that the distinction between the modern and its other begins to fray. As dhamma, ādhunik can be old and new at the same time. The modernist discourse surrounding ādhunik as bikās or progress is however also in Nepal always accompanied by the equally modernist discourse that what may be bikās for some may be bikṛti, Hindi vikṛti, “a change for the worse” for others.67 The Newar writer B. A. Kanaka Dweep discusses the recent developments regarding Buddhism in Nepal, asking “In how good [or] bad shape is Buddhism?” (“bauddha dharma guli bhiṅa guli śyāna?”).68 This is where the other meaning of ādhunik becomes relevant as that which is adequate to the historical, social now, which is the right thing to be and to do “now,” that which is timely. Just as the English modern, ādhunik too is a relative term the referent of which is being continuously updated, with the updating process being a way to articulate disagreement and contestation. The complexity of the term stems from the fact that, as Barker, Harms, and Lindquist point out, what exactly can be called ādhunik, or tan samai or hiện đại in Thai or Vietnamese, respectively,69 is an issue of constant debate in those very societies in which the term holds critical importance. In that sense, ādhunik certainly also covers the spectrum from “trendy,”


Christoph Emmrich

“fashionable” to “up-to-date.” The Nepali term ādhunik gīt refers to the pop song that is both novel, fresh, surprising, and reflective of the hope and liberation that the new, post-monarchy times promise to bring, as it is subject to new media, changing trends, and commercialization, in contrast to the traditional, often rural, non-commercialized songs the older generations used to sing. As the work by Anna Stirr on the songs in post-monarchy “New Nepal”70 has shown, the debate on what is new and what is good about the new is as heated in the Nepalese music scene as it has been among the social activists of Theravāda inspiration dealing with what is best for the Newar girl child. LeVine and Gellner’s use of the term “modern” is definition-oriented and comes with the identification of features that they call modern and use to qualify Nepalese Theravāda as modern or as strongly influenced by “Buddhist modernism.” LeVine and Gellner, building and expanding on Heinz Bechert’s early definition,71 list a range of factors that account for Nepalese Theravāda’s modernity: a self-understanding of Buddhism as being “not Hinduism” in the sense of perceiving Hinduism as a unified phenomenon against which to define Buddhism, the promotion of “revivalism” in the sense of having expectations towards the laity derived from how monasticism, particularly an imagined “original” model, is perceived, the pursuit of “socio-religious reform” on the basis of a compatibility with Western natural sciences, and finally an ideology of “ethnonationalism,” which views Buddhism as the prerogative of a particular community, otherwise defined by language, culture, mentality, physiology, and a perceived current historical situation of political oppression and social disadvantage.72 LeVine and Gellner contrast those with factors that they call (with the quotation marks being their own) “traditional,” and which they see as being from the very beginning part and parcel of Buddhist modernism as they define it, thus clearly marking Nepalese Theravāda too. More importantly, LeVine and Gellner identify the modern in the development of Buddhism, including Nepalese Theravāda as connected to “the rise of Western scholarship on Buddhism, rising levels of Western-style education in Asia, and easier, and intensified, contact between Buddhists from different Asian countries,” and more specifically with the historical role of Anagārika Dharmapāla, who, as we have seen, was crucial for the establishment of a modernist Nepalese lineage.73 Most importantly, LeVine and Gellner identify gender, education, and caste as the key arenas in which Nepalese Theravādins have seen themselves at the forefront of political change in the country. Operating with a strong concept of modernity as key term in a study focusing on religiously driven political activism, it is not surprising that LeVine’s and Gellner’s work stands in stark contrast to the other relatively recent and innovative work on Nepalese modernity. Mark Liechty’s monograph on what it means to be “suitably modern” in early 1990s Kathmandu74 identifies primarily class, youth, and consumption, as well as the anxieties associated with these three complexes as the key factors of Nepalese modernity. His work stops short of discussing or deploying definitions or to explicitly engaging with questions that have dominated modernity debates such as periodization, the historical and the

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universal, or location and transfer. Gellner himself criticizes both Liechty’s omission of religion and his focus on consumption rather than on production.75 The reluctance to assess how religion too may contribute towards making the individual Nepalese middleclass member “suitably modern” and the risk of overstating the superseding of caste by class clearly delimit the scale on which Liechty’s work contributes towards understanding urban Nepalese modernity. His work may, in fact, commit the fallacy LeVine’s and Gellner’s work so powerfully counters, namely to suggest that Nepalese modernity best be understood in terms of disenchantment and secularization. However, resisting the deployment of a strong understanding of modernity may also offer certain advantages. The most striking one is that it may leave space for the fact that what modernity actually means in the Nepalese context at certain points in time and for certain individuals and groups may be much less clear than LeVine’s and Gellner’s complex, yet straight-forward definition seems to suggest. Liechty’s examples themselves indicate that performance and representation may help reveal certain unarticulated aspects of modernity, which activists with their programs and agendas, their associations and institutions may not. From the methodological point of view, I would maintain that a weak understanding of modernity, like Liechty’s, may allow to pay more attention to the fact that there is likely to have been disagreement of what was modern at various points of time in the history of Theravāda emergence in Nepal and that even what one disagreed about changed over time, and also that in modernity—maybe not only in modernity, but certainly through modernity— not only the political and the religious, but also politics and fashion, classroom and marketplace, production and consumption, the enduring and the fleeting are inextricably linked. The changing nature of the modern in the academic discussion becomes visible if one looks at the more recent attempts at clarifying the term in an edited volume presenting “figures of Southeast Asian modernity,” profiles of individuals representative of a further inflected understanding of modernity that ranges somewhere between the strong and the weak.76 Joshua Barker, Eric Harms, and Johan Lindquist start with what they call “more generalizable features” of modernity “associated with the expansion of capitalism, the waxing and waning influence of the nation state, the development of and challenge to particular forms of rationality associated with the rise of science and technology, and the transformation of the self” and proceed to include what may be “transcending classic elements of modernity,” i.e. “the increased … porosity of national borders, the development of transnationalism and flexible citizenship, the advent of instantaneous technology, and the critique of universalism in the face of increasing global connections.”77 Without necessarily featuring in LeVine’s and Gellner’s definition of Buddhist modernism, many of the elements of post-classic modernity listed by Barker, Harms, and Lindquist are clearly visible in LeVine’s and Gellner’s analysis as it progresses through its chapters, to include more recent developments that have markedly increased in the decade following the publication of their book. Barker, Harms, and Lindquist, however, move elsewhere when, following Faisal Devji’s positions in Landscapes of Jihad,78 they diagnose a breakdown of both


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traditional and modern forms of authority in the contemporary world, questioning the usefulness of the distinction between tradition and modernity upheld by authors who look at classic modernity for models.79 Similar to Liechty, they are not very interested in terminology. Similar to LeVine and Gellner, they are strongly interested in discourse. What they share with both is the individual, or “the figure,” as empirical source.80 In contrast to both, they relocate the modern as part of the discourses they set out to study and either replace it with or redefine it as the “contemporary” that they believe better suits their leading question of “what is at stake in Southeast Asia today.” In that sense, modernity is “a temporary placeholder of the constellation of forces that define the contemporary moment in at least one region of the world.”81 If LeVine’s and Gellner’s modern had as its starting point a strong sense of history that was developed through the definition of Asian modernity as responding to Western models, including the opposition of modern and tradition, Barker’s, Harms’, and Lindquist’s contemporary comes with greater sensitivity for the mediatic, the negotiation of border-crossings, and allows one to take a more immediate perspective from within regional Asia. The only risk I sense in their stress of the contemporary is that it seems to come with a weakened interest in the means by which to provide this fleeting temporal entity with the concreteness of historical retrospection and a historical rationale for why it is at all important to understand “what is at stake … today.” Though, for all the reasons outlined in this chapter, it seems hardly possible to work on the kind of historiography for Nepalese Theravāda that Juliane Schober has presented for Burma, from the precolonial to the contemporary,82 I believe that in writing the history of the premodern within the modern and the modern beyond the modern in Nepal we should envisage the kind of longue durée project on Burmese modernity and religion Schober has pursued in her work. Schober starts with regional social, particularly religious and political, formations that get carried over into colonial and later postcolonial forms, with every transfer happening at enormous costs, until what has been preserved gets thoroughly transfigured by and yet helps to illuminate both the baggage and the opportunities of the most recent forms of modernity. Her approach takes the colonial modern seriously as that which irreversibly changes Asian Buddhist and Theravāda history, yet contextualizes that specific modern moment within those modern developments that precede and follow or are only peripherally touched by it. Nepalese Theravāda’s modern pasts certainly lie elsewhere in Asia and yet it is a yet-to-be-explored Nepalese modernity that predates the arrival of Theravāda and that cannot be reduced merely to Rana self-colonizing, which may have formed Nepalese Theravāda as much. Similarly, following Schober, these pasts need to be connected with the contemporary modern, in which the historical weight of the colonial impact tends to be outbalanced by the breakdown of the distinctions of tradition and modern, West and East, elite and popular, the fleeting and the enduring, the prescribed and the improvised, and thus of the earlier conceptions of modernity itself. Theravāda as a term used in and for Buddhism in Nepal is likely to have done very different things at different times. At times what

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it used to do may be done very well without the term itself. It is certainly there to stay in one way or the other. How it will remain connected to whatever may be understood as modernity is something that has to be observed more closely for the present and in times to come. The challenge for a future study of Theravāda in Nepal that may profit from the methodologies and achievements of the authors discussed above, would be to write a history that locates itself amongst the Nepalese and their conversations in various idioms, in various places, over various points of time, with a particular attention towards what is achieved by the use of Theravāda idioms and by whom, in order to create what one may call the modern or the contemporary as cipher for the new, understood as a better future in the present.


My thanks go, first and foremost, to Steven Collins and Juliane Schober for putting together this volume and inspiring, encouraging, and supporting me to think and write about the issues raised in this chapter. My gratitude extends to all the members of the Theravāda Civilizations group, old and new, without whose comments during our joint discussions this chapter would have been much poorer. I further thank my colleagues and friends Chiara Letizia and Valentina Napolitano for their comments and advice and for allowing me to tentatively follow their directions and modestly build upon some of their work. I would particularly like to thank David Gellner for reading and critiquing an earlier version of this chapter, which is, first and foremost, an engagement with the groundbreaking work Sarah LeVine and he have done. Finally, I would like to thank Srilata Raman for her constant advice, crucial comments, and our shared ongoing conversation.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5

Blackburn (2001, 2010); Charney (2006); Hansen (2007). Davis (2008). Schober (1995, 2006, 2011); McDaniel (2006, 2011). Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014). For the most detailed account of the history of Theravāda in Nepal, to which this brief historical overview that follows and many of the arguments made this chapter are indebted, see LeVine and Gellner (2005). 6 Throughout this chapter, for the most prominent persons, I give the academic Romanized name of the Devanāgarī or Burmese spelling first, followed by the vernacular Romanization often found in Anglophone publications in brackets. 7 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 56, 132). 8 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 76–83); LeVine (2016). 9 Anon (2011). For a sample of some of the project’s translations online see (both sites accessed last October 3, 2013). 10 Amṛtānanda (1997). 11 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 55). 12 For example in the collection of life crisis rites Bauddha saṃgraha paddhati. bhāg 1.

98 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31


33 34 35 36 37 38 39

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Rūpandehī: Nepāl magar bauddha sevā samāj, jillā samiti, VS 2060, designed for use within the Magar community. Examples for popular Nepalese Theravāda ritual texts are the Mahāparitrān, a paritta liturgy in Pali with a gloss in Newar by Sudarśan Bhikṣu (Sudarshan Bhikshu) (Sudarśan 1982) and a later Pali edition by Bhikṣu Prajñānanda Mahāsthavira (Prajñānanda 1990). Most prominently the Jñānmālā by Bhikṣus Dharmālok and Amṛtānanda (Dharmālok and Amṛtānanda 1950 [1937]). A well-known and much-used publication that includes liturgical and narrative sections designed for teaching during retreats for girl children introduced by Anagārikā Dhammavatī and her followers (see below) is Dhammavatī (1999), and, building upon the earlier model, Dhākhvā (2004). Aśvaghoṣ (2000), translated into English as Aśvaghoṣ (2003). Bajracharya (1992). Śākya (1998); Tulādhar (2001). Mahāprajñā (1983). Bandya (1975); Sudarśan (1995). Vajācārya (1995). Gubhāju (1989). Tulādhar (1999). Ra Ve Thun” (1963). Ra Ve Thvaṃ (1969). Ra Ve Thvaṃ (1990). I have been working on a comparative translation of the three versions (Burmese, Newar, and Nepali), accompanied by an introductory essay on the texts, its authors, its main literary figure, and its implications for Theravāda trans-literary practice Apart from the “Beloved Daughter” texts, another example of Burmese-Nepalese literary crossover is the Newar memoir of the closest friend and collaborator of Dhammavatī’s, Anāgārikā Guṇavatī, a Burmese thilashin, who spent several decades in Nepal (Guṇavati 1987). LeVine and Gellner (2005: 231–233). LeVine and Gellner (2005: 87). See WikiLeaks (2007). The political affiliation of Nepalese Theravāda leaders is nothing unusual: Bhikṣu Aśvaghoṣ (LeVine and Gellner 2005: 293) was a nominee of the Communist Part of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and sympathies for the Buddhist cause are, reportedly, also found among communist politicians, such as with Jhalanāth Khanāl (Jhala Nath Khanal), CPN (UML) Prime Minister in 2011, and Ravī Lakṣmī Citrakār (Rabi Laxmi Chitrakar), his wife. Anagārikā Dhammavatī is, in the views of some, aligned with the Nepali Congress, though she also recommends one should keep a general distance from politics (personal communications by David Gellner, April 8, 2016). I am thinking of the deconstructivist literature on Hinduism in particular, such as von Stietencron (1989, 2001), Lorenzen (1999), King (1999), and religion in general, such as Masuzawa (2005), to name only four authors. On the Theravāda side I am referring to the recent milestone volume edited by Skilling, Carbine, Cicuzza, and Pakdeekham (2012) and the contributions therein towards the Begriffsgeschichte of “Theravāda” in particular. LeVine and Gellner (2005). Kloppenborg (1977). Bechert (1992). Hartmann (1996). Leve (2002, in press); Letizia (2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2014). Gellner (2016: 50–53). Letizia (2016: 88–91).

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40 LeVine (2016: 62–65). 41 Emmrich (2016: 86–88). 42 Letizia (2006: 69–78), for example, has shown that the genealogical expectations and efforts vis-à-vis Theravāda stand at the very center of a reorientation towards Buddhism among the Nepalese ethnic groups of the Tharu and Magar. 43 Ikeya (2011). 44 Geetha and Rajadurai (1998) and Omvedt (1976), to name only two. 45 Lecomte-Tilouine (2009). 46 E.g. Dharmālok (1950); Hṛdaya (1950). 47 Gellner (1992: 323–324). 48 Letizia (2006). 49 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 139). 50 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 24–55). 51 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 212–213). 52 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 74–98). 53 Napolitano (2008: esp. 107–108), as well as Napolitano (2013). For a recent larger contextualization of the arguments brought forward in the latter study, see Napolitano (2016). 54 Dharmālok (1950). In the same volume of the modernist Buddhist journal Dharmodaya in which Dharmālok’s article was published, the Newar tongue’s most important poet of the twentieth century, Cittadhar Hṛdaya (Chittadhar Hridaya, 1906– 1982) phrased his question similarly: “What has the Theravāda śāsana given us? What are we in need of?” (“Theravādi śāsanaṃ jhita chu bila? chu mālā cvanā?”; Hṛdaya 1950). 55 In terms of getting rid of blocs, there may be good reasons to doubt whether it even makes sense to speak of units such as “Indonesia” or “Malaysia,” or, for that matter, even “Nepal,” when talking about Theravāda. Southwest China, eastern Bangladesh, and the Mekong Delta, for example, are areas where both the problem of the role of the nation state and Theravāda as well as the question of “old” vs. “new” Theravādas take on even greater levels of complexity than what I am able to address here. The way the nation state and borders are used in practices that relativize their reach in the Theravāda context have been most recently best addressed, in my eyes, in Borchert (2005) and Borchert (2017). 56 Four years ago the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’ claimed that Nepal was still in a “semi-colonial, semi-feudal, and neo-colonial” situation. See Jha (2012). 57 Winichakul (1994). 58 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 140–141); Letizia (2007a: 51–66). 59 Hartmann (1996); Kunreuther (1994); Emmrich (2014, forthcoming). 60 Comaroff and Comaroff (1992: 69–91). 61 Gellner (2016: 50–53). 62 LeVine and Gellner (2005: 241–267). 63 Gellner (2016: 53; italics in the original). 64 Leve (2017). 65 While Böhtlingk and Roth (1990), s.v. ādhunika, give “jetzig,” literally “now-ish,” “pertaining to now,” Apte (1957–1958), s.v. ādhunika, actually gives “new, modern, of recent origin.” 66 The word does not feature in Turner’s A Comparative and Etymological Dictionary of the Nepali Language (Turner 1965). 67 Stirr (2008: 30). 68 Kanaka Dweep (2001). For a discussion of this particularly outspoken champion of Nepalese Theravāda and critic of Hinduism and Vajrayāna, see LeVine and Gellner (2005: 282–283). 69 Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014: 14).

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Stirr (2008, 2010). Bechert (1984: 276; 1994: 255–256). LeVine and Gellner (2005: 9–11). LeVine and Gellner (2005: 2). Liechty (2003). LeVine and Gellner (2005: 284); see also ibid.: 341, note 16; and Gellner (2004). Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014). Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014: 12). Devji (2005). McMahan’s work on the genealogy of Anglophone global North American Buddhist modernism is a good example of an approach that operates with such a distinction of tradition and modernity. It attempts to soften the binary by mobilizing a host of Buddhist figures to constitute “a widely variegated continuum … between the two extremes” (McMahan 2008: 59), but stops short of explaining how both terms genealogically constitute each other. With modernity oscillating between saving, dismantling, and inventing a tradition that, equally and paradigmatically modern, refuses to be saved, dismantled, or invented, both terms, when used jointly, risk losing both their authority and critical value in so far as they represent interchangeable claims in the struggle of which side is ahead in the game. 80 One may argue that “the figure” and “the contemporary” define each other, and that the figure implies the same kind of condensation and formalization of the historical that the contemporary aims to achieve. For the “contemporary” interest in “the figure,” also in the study of Buddhism, see Samuels, McDaniel, and Rowe (2016). 81 Barker, Harms, and Lindquist (2014: 14). 82 Schober (1995, 2006, 2011).

Part III

Theravāda Buddhist practices in the contemporary world


The rhetoric of authenticity

Modernity and “true Buddhism” in Sri Lanka Stephen C. Berkwitz

Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka is founded upon a conservative ethos and a historicist orientation that celebrates its long and well-documented history in the island. Sri Lankan Buddhist identity is constructed out of textual accounts highlighting when the teachings and institutions (sāsana) founded by the Buddha were brought to the island in the third century BCE by Ven. Mahinda, when various relics of the Buddha were established in shrines throughout the country, when Buddhist kings patronized the Sangha and periodically sponsored purifications of its monastics, and when the teachings of the Buddha were written down and preserved in the form of the Pāli Canon (tipiṭaka) and its commentaries (aṭṭhakathā). Accordingly, common opinion in the island holds that Sri Lanka is the place where the purest form of Buddhism is found, and Sinhala Buddhists are those who are responsible for preserving the original forms of Buddhist thought and practice.1 This emphasis on practicing and protecting the authentic Dispensation (sāsana) of the Buddha has given rise to numerous efforts to identify what constitutes “True Buddhism” in order to sustain it amidst pressures to change from within and outside the tradition.

The predicaments of modernity

Despite the rhetorical and practical efforts made to preserve an authentic form of the Buddha’s religion (i.e. the “Theravāda”) in Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhists often respond in novel ways to the pressures and opportunities of the modern world. Buddhist encounters with modernity in Sri Lanka are conditioned by the totality of political, economic, cultural, and technological changes to the world since the seventeenth century. Theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Arjun Appadurai, and Zygmunt Bauman describe modernity in different ways, but they agree upon its discontinuous, disjunctive, and disintegrative nature that marks modernity off from the eras that preceded it.2 Traditions and identities are less fixed and less dependent upon circumscribed cultural spheres rooted in local communities. Instead, modernity compels people to reflexively shape their identities amid a diversity of options and possibilities through the interplay of the local and global.3 Sinhala Buddhists, like other global citizens, find themselves exposed to a variety of cultural and religious forms, originating both near and far but easily


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transmitted by means of travel, technology, global capital, media, and ideologies that move ceaselessly across the globe.4 We might say as a result of this ambivalent position that many Sinhala Buddhists inhabit both the past and the present at the same time. Their encounters with modernity sharpen the impressions and appeal of the Theravāda tradition, making the past seem more distinct and religiously inflected when compared with a present wherein religious differences are drawn more clearly and religious values compete with secular ones. The interpretation of history by Buddhists in Sri Lanka is conditioned by the country’s collection of historical writings (vaṃsas) and archaeological sites that jointly speak to a past shaped by Buddhist kings and monks for a largely Buddhist public. Works like the Mahāvaṃsa, composed around the early sixth century CE, describe how Buddhist actors—including the Buddha—took steps to establish relic shrines and monasteries in support of the Buddha’s sāsana in the island. Non-Buddhist rivals may have come and gone, but they do not appear to have disrupted the practice of Buddhism in Sri Lanka for very long. In contrast to this image of a historical past that revolves largely around Buddhist symbols and practices, the view of modernity is one whereby Buddhism is increasingly susceptible to being undermined and uprooted by competing traditions and authorities. Evidence of the modern reinterpretation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is seen in the government’s efforts to recognize the legitimacy of different religions while reserving special privileges for “Buddhism”—understood although not always specified as “Theravāda.” The Sri Lankan Government operates a Ministry of Buddha Sāsana and Religious Affairs that contains separate departments for Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian groups. There are public holidays set aside for each of the four major religions in the island. Meanwhile, public school students are required to study a religion of their choice from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. Significantly, Buddhism is given special recognition and privileges as the official state religion, based upon an article from the 1972 Constitution that affirms religious freedom for all Sri Lankans but specifies that Buddhism should enjoy the “foremost place” as the religion of the majority. Currently, Article 9 in Chapter II of the Sri Lankan Constitution certified in 1978 states: The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights [to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice].

This legal act affirms what many Sinhala Buddhists accept as a matter of fact: namely, that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist state that preserves the authentic form of the religion founded by the Buddha and prophesied by him to flourish in the island.5 The identity of Sri Lanka as a modern, democratic republic, however, requires that it adopt certain secular ideals such as respecting religious freedom. Its governing principles are “secular” in the sense of Talal Asad’s definition of those

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concepts, practices, and sensibilities that uphold the freedom and responsibility of the sovereign self over against constraints of that self by religious discourses.6 As such, the rise of the secular in Sri Lanka and throughout much of the Theravāda world tends to privatize religion, removing or marginalizing it from the public sphere of governance. For Sinhala Buddhists, the ascendancy of the secular, which began with British colonial rule, effectively relativized religious discourse and institutions. Buddhism became one among several religions in Sri Lanka, despite the adherence of a majority of the population and its constitutional privilege. Indeed, the doctrine of secularism functions to demarcate what comprises acceptable and authentic religion in the public sphere.7 Religions that do not inhibit the expression of individual freedoms or the functions of pluralistic government are officially permitted.8 Even in Sri Lanka where public displays of Buddhist practice and symbols flourish, the secular creation of a private sphere has rendered Buddhism into a matter of personal conscience and individual choice. Ironically, the effectiveness with which secular ideologies have marginalized Buddhism in governance may be measured by the reassertion of religion in the public sphere. Buddhist nationalism, a conspicuous phenomenon in Sri Lanka since the late nineteenth century, represents a reaction to the marginalization of religious interests and Buddhist monks in cultural and political spheres. Through the writings and sermons of activist monks like the late Ven. Walpola Rāhula (1907–1997), a notion was propagated that Sinhala Buddhist monks were once actively involved in politics to safeguard the religion and the country, but they lost this status later when their traditional roles were usurped by British governors and schools.9 Rāhula and other nationalist-minded monks advocated for the return of Buddhist monks to political affairs and social service on behalf of religion and country. Following Rāhula’s lead, there have since been others in the Sangha that have sought to assert their influence in the public sphere, shaping government policy and the symbolic representation of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nation.10 Partly due to the state’s commitment to secular, democratic governance and a multi-religious society, many modern Sinhala Buddhists have felt compelled to reassert Buddhist values and identity in the public and political spheres. This is one of the key predicaments of Theravāda Buddhism’s encounter with modernity. Sinhala Buddhists find themselves seeking to practice and preserve a tradition that has more rivals to its authority than ever. Traditions like Theravāda Buddhism compete with numerous other forms of knowledge and social practice that were extended across the globe first by European colonialism and more recently by the expansive forces of globalization. Theravāda teachings and practices are now inevitably measured against systems of knowledge located outside of the tradition.11 The value of Buddhist meditation, for instance, can be demonstrated by scientific studies confirming its effects on the brain.12 The justification of Buddhist forms in terms of science or other authoritative forms of knowledge is an example of how key elements of the religion become disembedded from their traditional contexts. For Giddens, the disembedding of local practices and ideas from their original contexts means that forms of action and knowledge that were once taken for granted are now evaluated in terms of


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globalized abstract systems.13 The truth or validity of Buddhist practices and ideas are more contestable in modernity, as numerous other alternatives exist to explain one’s existence and to structure social life. The popularity of meditation in many modern forms of Buddhism is attributable to the fact that is has been disembedded from traditional contexts and is increasingly taught outside of monasteries among laypersons for medical and emotional reasons, rather than for religious purposes such as obtaining nirvana or fortunate rebirths.14 The modern discourse on Buddhist meditation explicitly acknowledges external authorities outside of the Buddhist tradition (e.g. science), while freely mixing elements from various Buddhist texts and cultures according to individual preference. While the practice of Buddhist meditation may be the clearest example of the disembedding of local traditions and their reinsertion amid translocal flows of cultural and ideological expressions, it is certainly not unique. The Theravāda encounter with modernity in Sri Lanka began with colonial intrusions of competing religious ideas and institutional forms into the island by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Starting with Portuguese sponsored missions in the sixteenth century and proceeding up to the present, Christian evangelists who give witness to their faith have sharpened religious boundaries in Sri Lanka. Many missionaries, motivated by the aim to spread the Gospel, learned enough about Buddhism to point out its alleged moral failings and to contrast it with the “True Faith.” Subsequently, early western scholars across the Theravāda world began to conduct research on the religion as part of the colonial quest for knowledge. Their efforts mainly centered on collecting, classifying, and translating Buddhist texts to recover the “pristine teachings” of the Buddha and the historical foundations of his tradition.15 Motivated in part by the scrutiny of Buddhism by outsiders, whether suspicious or sympathetic, Sri Lankan Buddhists were effectively challenged to define and defend the truths of their religion. Comparisons and analyses of Buddhist traditions in translocal, often nonnative terms continues up to the present with the globalization of religious, political, economic, cultural, and technological forms. As a result, Buddhist practices and ideas in Sri Lanka are exposed to rival ones to a degree that exceeds premodern encounters with other peoples and religions. Knowledge is commonly derived from multiple sources and authorities, not all of which are local or traditional. This situation makes appeals to allegedly authentic forms of the Buddha’s religion all the more compelling and attractive for Sinhala Buddhists seeking to distinguish and highlight the truths of their tradition. Indeed, Sri Lankan Buddhists are often inclined to authenticate their religion with reference to a Theravāda historical consciousness that locates its basis and its “truths” on traditions set out by the Buddha in canonical Pāli texts (Tipiṭaka).

The truths of Theravāda

Despite the distinctive features of Sri Lankan Theravāda Buddhism in modernity, we should not conclude that it is simply the product of a clear rupture with the past. Its modern construction as the authentic form of the Buddha’s Dharma has

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many historical antecedents. Numerous debates between monastic orders date back to the early presence of the religion in India, wherein accounts of monastic councils often portray divisions in the Sangha taking place over doctrinal or disciplinary disputes. In time, a lineage called “Theravāda,” modeled after the ancient elder-monks (sthaviras) who were the original disciples of the Buddha, took shape in southern India and Sri Lanka. The term “Theravāda” was associated in premodern history mainly with monks who subscribed to a body of tradition and opinion linked to the original disciples of the Buddha in ancient India.16 Theravāda was thus conceptually tied to the teachings laid down during the legendary First Buddhist Council held shortly after the Buddha’s death, where liberated monks (arahants) are said to have recited the Buddha’s discourses in the Pāli language.17 Theravāda thus was associated with ideas of authenticity and originality, but not with a broad religious system consisting of monastics and laypersons who identified themselves as “Theravāda Buddhists.” It was primarily a monastic designation embraced by monks from the Mahāvihāra order in Sri Lanka. The Mahāvihāra monks asserted the orthodoxy of their teachings and practice by writing down an authoritative collection of canonical and commentarial Pāli texts, and then using this body of literature to denounce Buddhist sects that used different texts.18 There are signs that Buddhist groups in ancient Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) had internal debates over the authenticity of their respective disciplinary practices and textual interpretations. In time, likely due to royal support and the persuasiveness of their arguments, the Mahāvihāra order that promulgated the “Theravāda” view became accepted as the most authentic form of Buddhism in the island. Its conservative and historicist orientation would carry the day during several monastic purifications and reforms held in Sri Lanka, as witnessed by the numerous collections of Katikāvata regulations for monastic conduct that appeared following such purifications to illustrate the conduct for monks to follow.19 The preaching and copying of texts associated with the Theravāda helped to establish the parameters for proper Buddhist practice, especially for monks, in Sri Lanka. In the modern age, Theravāda Buddhism has been expanded in Sri Lanka to comprise the sum total of authentic Buddhist teachings and practices derived from Pāli canonical texts for laypeople and monastics. The modern notion of “Theravāda” as the original form of Buddhism with which all adherents may identify is largely the product of the convergence between scholarly and nationalist discourses in the twentieth century. The writings of Orientalists like T. W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg along with Buddhists like Rāhula and Ven. Ananda Metteya depicted the religion of the Buddha as found in Pāli texts and Sri Lanka to be the most authentic form of the tradition.20 At the very time that Theravāda was being reconceived as the original form of Buddhism, the idea of “Buddhism” as a world religion comparable to Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam was also taking form. Scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries combined the ethnographic accounts of earlier missionaries and travelers with the newly made translations of Buddhist scriptures to construct a picture of an essential form of Buddhism that existed in the past and developed into a diverse


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array of modern manifestations and corruptions of the religion across Asia.21 Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka and peninsular Southeast Asia was subsequently contrasted with Mahāyāna Buddhism in North and East Asia, while jointly they formed a transnational religious tradition that was held to contain many analogous features with other world religions. Sharing the same categories with other forms of Buddhism and other religions, Theravāda in Sri Lanka was transformed into a tradition in which global ideas about “Buddhism” and “religion” became locally inflected. The writings of Rhys Davids, among other scholars, became particularly important for confirming the authenticity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. As a civil servant employed in what was then called “Ceylon,” Rhys Davids studied Pāli and became acquainted with Buddhist monks and teachings. His later writings and lectures on Buddhism presented the religion as found in Ceylon as the more original, authentic form of the tradition. Having examined both Pāli and Sanskrit Buddhist works, he concluded that the Pāli scriptures were the more reliable and complete sources for understanding what was taught by the Buddha and his disciples.22 Rhys Davids helped to establish the view that held the Buddhism based on the Pāli Canon was the original, unadulterated form, in contrast to the “Northern” or Mahāyāna tradition that he held to be debased by absurd and miraculous legends.23 He promoted the idea that the “Southern” Buddhism as found in Ceylon, Siam, and Burma expressed the primitive, humanistic foundations of the religion. This idea was embraced not only by other scholars but also found acceptance among Sinhala Buddhists, since it resonated with what their Theravāda tradition had long asserted. Another key advocate for the authenticity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was the lay Buddhist leader Anagārika Dharmapāla, who worked earnestly to reform and revitalize the “Noble Dhamma” of the Buddha in the island. Reacting to the marginalization of the Sangha during Sri Lanka’s long colonial period, Dharmapāla promoted a notion of true and proper Buddhism that celebrated the ethical and psychological roots of the religion as found in the Pāli scriptures.24 For Dharmapāla, the sublime truths of Buddhism distinguish it from the errors of other doctrines and religions, while showing the early scientific insights that the Buddha realized long before any westerner.25 While advocating that monks should play a leading role in returning the religion of the Buddha to a central place in the island, he encouraged laypeople to abandon superstitious rituals and infuse their daily lives with Buddhist precepts and values. Dharmapāla’s positing of true Buddhism involved, ironically enough, replicating the same kinds of critiques of Sinhala Buddhist practice that western scholars and missionaries made.26 Sinhala Buddhists, they argued, had strayed from the tradition’s original foundations as found in their ancient scriptures. Dharmapāla simply advocated more strongly than others that Sinhala Buddhists return to their Pāli canonical works to rediscover the tradition’s universal truths and put them into practice.27 Following Dharmapāla, numerous Buddhist writers and preachers have endeavored to identify what constitutes “True Buddhism” or the “True Dharma” in efforts to authenticate a particular vision of religion and society. Encounters

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with modernity have made this rhetoric of authenticity even more salient, since there exists now multiple, competing assertions on what constitutes Buddhism and the “truth.” Two brief case studies may be used to illustrate the tendency in which modern Sinhala Buddhists seek to identify their views and practices with “True Buddhism” or “Pure Buddhism.” As a response to the encounter with modernity, where local traditions become disembedded and revised in accordance with global forms of thought and practice (which, in turn, become locally inflected), we find efforts to identify what really counts as “Buddhist” in contrast with that which should not have that label.28 The focus here on the rhetoric of “True Buddhism” expressed by Ven. Gangodawila Soma (1948–2003) and Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnānānanda (b. 1961), two influential monks at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Sri Lanka, sheds light on how contemporary responses to modernity often involve laying claims as to what constitutes truth and tradition in Theravāda Buddhism.

Identifying “true Buddhism”

As charismatic monks renowned for their moral discipline and preaching skills, Soma and Gnānānanda have acquired large numbers of followers inside Sri Lanka and across the world among the Sinhala diaspora community.29 Although Soma passed away in 2003, he remains a popular and influential religious figure, whose writings and ideas live on in books, videos, and in much of the discourse of Buddhist nationalism that is vocalized by so-called “political monks.”30 Gnānānanda, meanwhile, is the founder of a fast-growing Buddhist order with branch temples and lay devotees across Sri Lanka and in several foreign countries. These two monks are associated with distinctly different interests.31 Soma extolled the preservation of Sinhala culture by injecting Buddhist morality into political and public life, whereas Gnānānanda promotes an apolitical strippeddown version of religious practice based on scriptural study and meditation. Nevertheless, both monks have described and based their respective agendas in terms of returning to “True” or “Pure” Buddhism. Soma became a popular, if somewhat controversial, Buddhist preacher in Sri Lanka around the turn of the twenty-first century. Ordained within a monastic lineage connected with the reform-minded Vajirārāma Temple in Colombo, Soma resided and studied at the branch temple called Bhikshu Madhyasthānaya in suburban Maharagama. Through his association with this temple and a period of time spent as a wandering forest monk in the jungles of Sri Lanka, Soma acquired a reputation for being exceptionally committed to monastic discipline and very learned in the Dharma. Following a period in the early 1990s when he established two temples in Australia and preached to Sinhala Buddhist immigrants, he returned to Sri Lanka where his fame and popularity grew rapidly. Through the skillful use of television, radio, and newspapers, Soma began to promote his views on Buddhism to the Sinhala community. His skill in preaching combined with his willingness to criticize the immorality of politicians and the ignorance of ordinary Buddhists attracted people’s attention and a great deal of esteem.32


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A key element of Soma’s message to Sinhala Buddhists was to convince them to abandon “false views” and “wicked conduct” while embracing the True Dharma. He frequently referred to leading people from darkness to the light of the true teachings of the Buddha. The rhetoric he employed drew clear distinctions between truth and falsehood for the sake of admonishing people about what is actually a part of Buddhism. He frequently criticized popular religious practices that were “external” to the Dharma. One target for his denunciations was the worship of Hindu deities for the sake of gaining worldly benefits—a popular practice among many Sinhala Buddhists. In an early work, Soma argued that those who claim to be “Buddhist” realize that seeking assistance from external forces to obtain worldly comforts falls outside of the truth of the Buddha’s Dharma.33 From this perspective, making offerings and vows to gods contradict what the Buddha taught about moral restraint and self-reliance. He denounced how Hindu gods were creeping into “Pure Buddhism” (nirmala budu samaya) and destroying it.34 By making this argument, Soma was not only critiquing a popular ritual practice among Sinhala Buddhists, but he was also advancing an authoritative claim about what counts and does not count for “Buddhism” in the modern world. Throughout his short career as a renowned and outspoken monk, Soma argued that the false views and wicked conduct of Sinhala Buddhists lead to the destruction of the religion and the nation, as well as the experience of suffering and negative rebirths. By advocating the “pure” teachings of the Buddha, Soma sought to reverse cultural and religious decline in the island.35 He lamented the sorry state of Buddhist observance, which he connected to a rise in crime, violence, alcoholism, and other moral vices. Soma further claimed that many Sinhala Buddhists in contemporary society are “Buddhist” only in name, as they seek goals other than nirvana by making appeals to gods for worldly comforts.36 He wrote that despite the fact that 69 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, less than 10% can be considered “True Buddhists” who practice the religion as it was taught by the Buddha.37 By Soma’s definition, “True Buddhists” are those that develop confidence in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, while adhering closely to the Five Moral Precepts and Noble Eightfold Path. Since many Sinhalas, however, steal, drink alcohol, seek out illicit sex, and commit other crimes on the one hand, while performing rituals to obtain blessings from gods and miracles from Buddha-rays on the other, Soma consistently argued that few people practice the “pure” form of the religion. Part of the blame, he maintained, goes to those businessmen who seek to profit from the commercialization of religion in Sri Lanka. Shrines built for deities were added to Buddhist temples, he claimed, so that business interests could earn money from the poor, misguided Buddhists who would make offerings to improve their health and fortune.38 In this sense commercial interests contribute to the corruption of the Buddhist religion, because people believe that they can attain worldly comforts by petitioning gods rather than observing righteous Buddhist conduct that yields good karmic fruits. For Soma, the Buddha’s Dispensation is founded upon moral precepts and the Buddha’s

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teachings. To the degree that people ignore or distort what he describes as “True” or “Pure” Buddhism, individuals and society as a whole will fall into woeful states. One way that Soma distinguished what Buddhism is from what it isn’t was to contrast the Dharma (dahama) with “religion” (āgama). The former comprises the true teachings of the Buddha contained in canonical Pāli texts and perceived directly through correct practice. The latter refers to traditions such as Hinduism, Christianity, and Mahāyāna Buddhism that are simply passed down through the generations. In Soma’s view, only the Buddha’s Dharma is equipped to show people how to alleviate suffering. The Dharma teaches people how to develop wisdom on their own, which is said to be different from religions based on a groundless faith in deities.39 A common mistake that people make, according to Soma, is to believe that external divine powers can release them from suffering. Such is the reason behind people praying to gods and making offerings for assistance. When Sinhala Buddhists participate in these devotional acts, Soma claimed they are corrupting the Buddha’s Dharma and obscuring moral discipline and the development of wisdom. Since True Buddhism does not rely on faith in gods, Soma reasoned, it should not be considered a “religion” like Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, he distinguished the Buddha’s Dharma, which is said to be true, from religions like Hinduism and Mahāyāna Buddhism, both of which he blames for introducing the notions of gods and their worship into the practice of Sinhala Theravāda Buddhists.40 Pointing to the development of certain bodhisattva cults like that of Nātha in Sri Lanka, Soma argued that many Sinhala Buddhists have accepted Mahāyāna practices, which destroy the “True Dharma” with false views and unrighteousness.41 The “fundamental Buddhist Dharma” (mūlika budu dahama), which derives from the Theravāda, rejects the belief in miraculous powers such as chanting mantras in favor of knowing the meaning of texts and understanding truth through one’s analytical powers.42 Soma’s discourse on what Buddhism actually comprises formed a key basis for his critiques of contemporary Sinhala politics and religion. By identifying what he took to be “Pure” or “True” Buddhism, Soma advanced a distinctly modern vision of tradition that builds upon—yet ultimately rejects—the global others of transnational institutions like the World Bank and religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Mahāyāna Buddhism. For this influential monk, the encounter with modernity has brought numerous threats to Theravāda Buddhism and the people who adhere to it. The introduction of rival beliefs and practices from across the globe caused Soma to clearly define the parameters of True Buddhism and admonish people to observe it. This religious critique of the flawed practices of Sinhala Buddhists supplemented his political critique in support of nationalist causes such as protecting the integrity of the nation-state and maintaining the cultural dominance of the majority Sinhala population. Soma’s vision of True Buddhism is derived from Theravāda sources, although he rarely used the term “Theravāda” in his Sinhala writings.43 Gnānānanda, for his part, promotes a rhetoric of authenticity that resembles certain aspects of Soma’s discourse and evokes the authority of the Theravāda. He


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founded a new monastic lineage in 1999 called Mahamevnāwa (Pāli: Mahāmeghavana) after the legendary monastery founded by Ven. Mahinda when Buddhism was introduced into the island in the third century BCE. Gnānānanda was originally born into a Catholic family, but biographies about this monk claim that his birth inspired his parents to become Buddhist and to raise their son in this religion. After becoming a monk in his teens, he entered the traditional monastic educational system but soon left the university in search of a more direct path to realizing the True Dharma in the exact way that the Buddha had taught it.44 After spending time as an ascetic in the Himalayas—in imitation of the Buddha, Gnānānanda returned to Sri Lanka and began studying the suttas of the Buddha directly. Having gained a realization of the Dharma, he founded the Mahamevnāwa monastery as a forest hermitage. In the span of just over ten years, it has grown quickly with over 40 affiliate monasteries across Sri Lanka and nearly a dozen temples abroad. Unlike Soma, however, Gnānānanda has avoided making political statements and has even criticized the entry of Buddhist monks into Sri Lanka’s Parliament. Despite his largely apolitical stance, Gnānānanda has also made repeated efforts to identify and promote True Buddhism. In doing so, this monk has staked out a position on what counts as Buddhism in modern society. His Mahamevnāwa order claims to focus on teaching the original words of the Buddha as found in the canonical Pāli suttas, and then strives to practice the precepts and meditate in order to realize nirvana like the Buddha. This reformist stance is not wholly new, but it represents a rational response to the challenges presented by the diversity of religious forms and systems of knowledge ushered in by modernity. His stress on the authentic teachings of the Buddha allows his community to base its practices on the recognized authority of the Dhamma and Vinaya as found in Pāli texts. The more innovative features of Gnānānanda’s movement—such as its “Shraddha TV” television channel and YouTube videos of sermons and Pāli language classes, or the translation of Pāli suttas and protective verses (paritta) into simple forms of the Sinhala language—are legitimated as creative methods for disseminating the Buddha’s original words. The focus on True Buddhism by Gnānānanda serves to orient this monk’s teachings to a modern audience in Sri Lanka and across the globe. Like Soma did a decade earlier, Gnānānanda emphasizes how much of contemporary Buddhist practice is misguided and based on false understandings of what the Buddha actually taught. He argues that practices such as hanging banners that express one’s wishes for purity or worshipping external forces will not lead people to purify their minds and develop a clear understanding of life.45 Therefore, tying banners around Bodhi trees to dispel the negative fruits of karma is ineffective next to the study of the Buddha’s own teachings and the practice of the path to morality and liberation that he outlined. The correct path for people to follow, and the one promoted by the Mahamevnāwa monasteries, stresses developing an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the system of Dependent Co-origination (paṭicca-samuppāda). For instance, Gnānānanda has argued that knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, which were revealed by the

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Buddha, is the way to perceive truth and become free from suffering.46 Every sermon preached by the Buddha, he claims, is based on an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.47 Elsewhere, this monk has asserted that paṭicca-samuppāda is the real Dharma and should be investigated by people to develop their insight and to become virtuous persons (satpuruṣa).48 The implication here is that there are other types of so-called “Buddhist” practice that revolve around false views of what was taught by the Buddha. Although Gnānānanda likewise does not use the term “Theravāda” very much in his writings, it appears implicitly when he identifies True Buddhism with that which is found in the Pāli Canon. For instance, he laments the historical decline of Gautama Buddha’s sāsana, when in the late medieval period of Sri Lankan history “Mahāyāna influences” arrived from India and led people to aspire to become Buddhas and to see the future Maitreya Buddha.49 This presumed departure from the Buddha’s teaching entailed a rejection of the truths of what may otherwise be called “Theravāda,” but to what for Gnānānanda is simply the true understanding of the Dharma as preached by the Buddha. According to him, this authentic teaching has been made accessible again through the translation and circulation of the Buddha’s discourses in the modern age. The program of Mahamevnāwa is in large part directed toward bringing Sinhala Buddhists toward an authentic understanding and practice of the Buddha’s Dharma. Gnānānanda has maintained that he was able to learn the True Dharma by studying the Pāli suttas directly, and thus other people may similarly arrive at knowledge of the truths discovered and taught by the Buddha.50 The Buddha, he affirms, taught a way to develop knowledge, not just to believe what others say, and thus they should use their eyes, ears, and other sense perceptions to develop their understanding of existence.51 And yet, although in theory everyone has the capacity to understand the truth, in practice relatively few people have done so. Like Soma, Gnānānanda affirms that “True Buddhism” is relatively hard to find, even in Sri Lanka. Most people overlook what the Buddha actually taught and seek worldly benefits and comforts by other means. He critiques people in western countries who meditate only for mundane, immediate results, when the Buddha taught it for understanding the basis of life and attaining nirvana.52 The modern disembedding of meditation into a modern, secular lifestyle for peace of mind is a trend with which Gnānānanda clearly disagrees. He emphasizes that True Buddhism is based on what the Buddha originally taught and for the reasons that he taught it. Other religions of the world, in Gnānānanda’s view, do not explain morality, concentration, wisdom, and liberation as fully as the Buddha has done.53 What one discovers by examining the discourse of modern Theravāda monks like Soma and Gnānānanda is that a high premium is often placed on teaching and practicing the true form of Buddhism. This rhetoric of authenticity has a much older history in premodern accounts of events that affirm the special role that Sri Lankan Buddhists have played in preserving the Dharma after the Buddha passed away into parinirvāṇa. Buddhist vaṃsas composed in Pāli and Sinhala beginning around the fifth century CE record how the Buddha’s Dispensation was conveyed


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to Sri Lanka through the introduction of monastic lineages and the establishment of shrines containing relics of the Buddha. These works also allude to the Mahāvihāra’s rejection and marginalization of non-Theravāda texts and those who subscribe to them.54 Texts produced locally depict a long history of associating Buddhism in Sri Lanka with the original Dharma and Dispensation of the Buddha. It is worth noting, moreover, that the notion of “True Buddhism” is contestable and open to different interpretations. Soma and Gnānānanda, among many others, present distinct views of what counts for Buddhism in response to various modern influences and experiences. This fact, however, does not make their views “modernist.” While the allure of associating Buddhism with scientific thought remains as strong in contemporary Sri Lanka, it remains the case that not all forms of modern Buddhism look alike.55 Soma and Gnānānanda both make the necessary appeals to science when talking about Buddhism, but neither one has demythologized the tradition in the way that many Western Buddhists have done. Whereas some Buddhists in the West question the reality of rebirth and stress the experiences of meditation over holding metaphysical positions, proponents of “True Buddhism” in Asian communities rarely take such stances.56 For them, truth is found primarily in ancient Buddhist texts linked to the Buddha. This means that accounts of marvels demonstrated by the Buddha such as emitting multicolored rays and taming charging elephants still matter as accounts that are both edifying and historically accurate.57 Buddhist ethical practice still matters because to violate the tradition’s moral precepts could lead to rebirth in hell or as a hungry ghost (peta).58 The existence of heavenly beings called devas is accepted, but believing that they can actually bestow blessings on you is criticized for going against canonical teachings. As long as one subscribes to the worldview and admonitions of the Pāli suttas, one can be reasonably assured to be adhering to “True Buddhism.” When monks like Soma and Gnānānanda present their views about True Buddhism or the Pure Dharma, they are contributing to debates over what it means to be Buddhist in the modern age. Efforts by Sinhala Buddhists to redefine Buddhist identity in a manner that broadly encompasses both monastics and laypersons who reside in a cosmopolitan world illustrate a distinctive response to modernity. Although the term “Theravāda” is widely known in modern Sri Lanka, it is less widely used, even by monks and laypersons who would otherwise claim affiliation to it. In a local context, the Pāli canonical works and the practices of morality and meditation described therein represent the authentic Buddhism taught by the Buddha. It could be labeled “Theravāda,” but Sinhala Buddhists seem inclined simply to refer to “Buddhism,” “Dharma” and “sāsana” as originally envisioned and transmitted down through history. The term “Theravāda” is meaningful chiefly in comparative and historical frameworks, wherein one assesses Buddhism in Sri Lanka next to Buddhist traditions outside the island. This point helps us to understand why the modern concept of Theravāda figures so little in the writings of Soma and Gnānānanda. Although all

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contemporary Sinhala Buddhists learn and are aware of the term, it seemingly has purchase only in certain contexts. It is useful for locating Sri Lanka within the wider Buddhist world, but it does not offer much in the way of defining how people see themselves and relate to the Buddha. In this sense, the rhetoric of “True Buddhism” may be more effective for constructing a notion of authenticity and value among modern Sri Lankan practitioners. Such rhetoric, which takes Theravāda as its implicit starting point, seeks to distinguish truths from falsehoods in order to establish a clearer identity and role for “Buddhism” as a singular tradition in the modern world. For Buddhists who wish to know that their practice is correct and effective, what matters most is the knowledge that they adhere to a form of Buddhism that is true and pure, a form discovered and disseminated by the Buddha to a lineage of Theravāda monks that continues down to the present. Monks who can speak to these concerns offer a message that resonates with people who may otherwise be unsure of what counts for truth in a globalized world with its bewildering array of ideas and identities. Modernity has thus made the rhetoric of authenticity relevant again for Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Berkwitz (2006: 45–46). See Giddens (1990: 4), Appadurai (1996: 32–33), Bauman (2000: 14). Giddens (1991: 5). Appadurai refers to these nexuses of global cultural flows as (a) “ethnoscapes,” (b) “mediacapes,” (c) “technoscapes,” (d) “financescapes,” and (e) “ideoscapes” to highlight the fluid, irregular shapes they can take. See Appadurai (1996: 33–37). Berkwitz (2008a: 205–206). Asad (2003: 15–16). Abeysekara (2004: 983). It must be said, however, that the government’s recognition of Islam and Christianity has not prevented some Buddhist opponents from protesting—sometimes violently— their presence in the island. Seneviratne (1999: 175–180). Ven. Gangodawila Soma is a notable example of a monk who sought to insert Buddhist values into the governance of the country while suggesting that monks ought to play a larger role in shaping public life. The political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Sinhala Heritage), which was formed by monks in 2004, has aspired to promote Buddhist interests through parliamentary legislation and public speeches. More recently, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) formed in 2012 as a movement seeking to protect Buddhism by reducing—sometimes violently—the influence of Muslims and Christians in the country. Cf. Giddens (1990: 38). Berkwitz (2008b: 89). Giddens (1991: 18). McMahan (2008: 185). Schober (2012: 14). Gethin (2012: 28–29). Skilling (2009a: 64–65). Collins (1991: 101–102). See, for example, Ratnapala (1971).


Stephen C. Berkwitz

20 Perreira (2012: 450–452, 484–486, 549–552). 21 Cf. Masuzawa (2005: 125–126). Masuzawa’s argument focuses chiefly on the textual invention of Buddhism by scholars and tends to downplay the earlier contributions of Catholic missionaries in Asia. 22 Perreira (2012: 485). 23 Perreira (2012: 496). Cf. Snodgrass (2007: 192). 24 Seneviratne (1999: 37–40). 25 Dharmapala (1991: 33–34). 26 See, for example, Scott (1994: 144); and Harris (2006: 136–138). 27 Dharmapala (1991: 151). Even before Dharmapāla, other Buddhists also emphasized the centrality of the tradition’s Pāli texts. In the eighteenth century, Ven. Väliviṭa Saraṇaṃkara made the study and production of Pāli texts central to his vision of monastic educational reform. See Blackburn (2001: 91–95). 28 Ananda Abeysekara (2002: 174–175) has described how Buddhists in Sri Lanka seek to identify an authentic Buddhist tradition by making authoritative claims about the identity of Buddhism, tradition, and truth at specific, contingent times and places. 29 For the sake of brevity, but not out of disrespect, I have decided to forego the use of honorific titles for monks in this section. 30 The best study of “political monks” remains Seneviratne (1999), although numerous other books and essays have appeared about the politicization of the Sangha in twentieth–century Sri Lanka. On the connection between Soma and the JHU, see Berkwitz (2008b: 102–103) and Deegalle (2004: 88–93). 31 Despite the divergence between Soma and Gnānānanda on political monks, the latter’s television channel Shraddha TV uploaded a video tribute to Soma on their YouTube channel on December 13, 2014 to mark his death anniversary. Their respective followers on Facebook are also prone to share certain videos and other materials on social media, which suggests some sort of affinity between them. 32 Berkwitz (2008b: 85–86). 33 Soma (1997: 22). 34 Soma (2000: 16). 35 Berkwitz (2008b: 77). 36 Soma (1997: 21). 37 Soma (2001: 88). 38 Soma (2001: 73). 39 Soma (2002: 64–65). 40 Soma (2002: 65–66). 41 Soma (2002: 66–67). 42 Soma (2001: 41–42). 43 One exception is in an essay by Soma on the alleged division of the Sangha into “sects” (nikāya), which occurred among early Theravāda monks. Soma argues, however, that this is no longer relevant for Sri Lanka, since all monks follow the same Vinaya there. See Munasinghe (2001: 110). 44 Gnānānanda (2012b: 120). 45 Gnānānanda (2011: 23). 46 Gnānānanda (2011: 36). 47 Gnānānanda (2010: 16). 48 Gnānānanda (2012a: 87). 49 Gnānānanda (2010: 201). 50 Gnānānanda, (2012b: i). 51 Gnānānanda (2011: 26). Cf. Gnānānanda (2010: 16), where he contrasts the development of understanding in Buddhism from the mere holding of opinions in other traditions. 52 Gnānānanda (2012a: 125). 53 Gnānānanda (2012a: 125–126).

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54 See, for example, Geiger (2001 [1912]: 36.110–113); and also Geiger (1953: 78.20– 27). 55 McMahan (2012: 173). 56 See, for example, Batchelor (1997). 57 Gnānānanda (2010: 13–14). 58 Gnānānanda (2013: 16–17).


Portrait of the artist as a Buddhist man

Ashley Thompson

In the opening chapter of Reading Thai Murals David Wyatt gives a telescopic account of the universal function of religious murals. He cites Christian imagery as his lead example. The scope of these remarks quickly broadens to encompass the universal function of visual display. The lead example here is his own office, “decorated with two reproductions of Midwestern American paintings, a photograph of Wat Mahathat, etc.” “Most of us have such things on our walls,” he writes, “either about the events of our lives or about values we hold dear.”1 Wyatt’s rhetorical strategy aims to meet a double objective. First, it should enable the reader, whom Wyatt assumes to identify with Judeo-Christian culture, to access his Thai Buddhist material. Second, the supposed functional equivalence of imagery across a diversity of cultural traditions and historical periods grounds Wyatt’s subsequent argument for equivalence in value. The remainder of the opening section highlights the danger of eliding “different” and “inferior” when one’s own cultural values are presumed universal, and points up the value, precisely, of other cultural values. Reading Thai Murals comprises a particularly stark example of a now familiar approach, whose necessity and pitfalls continue to be elucidated. Jacques Derrida’s famous 1966 Johns Hopkins lecture, taken retrospectively to have inaugurated the work of deconstruction, constituted, among other things, an analysis of the modern scholarly imperative to maintain an interpretive balance between sameness (universality) and difference (cultural specificity) in view of promoting respect of the Other. While the imperative gained widespread currency in the post-colonial period, Derrida situates its historical roots in the advent of anthropology and structural linguistics, disciplines born at once in conjunction with and as reactions against European imperialism. Yet Derrida’s historical analysis explicitly interrogates the salience of historical analysis in this context. In the first instance, if colonialism carried the seed of its own deconstruction, the post-colonial will have always already been colonial. The two cannot be definitively disentangled. This observation does not however warrant abandoning attempts to do so. Tracking structuralism’s ultimate foreclosure of the arrival of an “event”— the unknown, the unforeseen, the unfamiliar—in the very name of a brotherhood of man, Derrida seeks to make critical room for the potentially radically Other, as for history as such. Difference should neither be reduced nor erected as

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opposition; it should receive hospitality. Yet, he insists, no matter how hard the ethnographer-in-us tries—and, again, she must try—she cannot simply step outside of her frame in order to see the Other in his. Already in 1966 Derrida drove the predicament home: the necessity and virtual impossibility of gauging one’s own historico-cultural frame of analysis escapes historical contingency. In order to work towards the progress promised by the post-colonial, deconstruction demanded, and continues to demand, critical (self-)analysis of the irrevocably compromised subject position of s/he who purports to see, or to see from within an other subject position. I am hardly the first to call for renewed attention to deconstruction’s crucial intervention into these debates which remain at the heart of anthropological and Area Studies practices. James Clifford’s 1980 review of Edward Said’s Orientalism2 is still today exemplary in this regard. Citing “Structure, Sign and Play” and evoking the Derridian différance, Clifford moves to close his reading of Orientalism with a methodological appeal:

It is high time that cultural and social totalities are subjected to the kind of radical questioning that textual ensembles have undergone in recent critical practice. Said’s attack on essences and oppositional distinctions is here very much to the point. But collectively constituted difference is not necessarily static or positionally dichotomous in the manner of Orientalism as Said describes it … It may be true that the culture concept has served its time … But however [it] is finally transcended, it should, I think, be replaced by some set of relations that preserves the concept’s differential and relativist functions and that avoids the positing of cosmopolitan essences and human common denominators.3

Nearly half a century on, we can remain blind to our own blindness. When left outside the author’s field of vision, the frame of the framing establishes particular interpretive limitations which can hinder the realization of stated objectives. As Henry Ginsburg noted well before me in a brief 2005 review of Reading Thai Murals, “Wyatt views the murals from a cultural and aesthetic cocoon quite distant from the content of the paintings themselves.”4 My reading follows on from Ginsburg’s in probing those dimensions of Wyatt’s “cocoon” which prevent him most, in my view, from seeing the paintings themselves. Broadly speaking, I will argue that in the very name of equality Wyatt’s text reduces difference, unwittingly taking the modern West as the standard by which universality is defined. In more precise terms, his reading of a collection of late nineteenth-century northern Thai Buddhist mural paintings is effectively framed by a series of assumptions regarding modernity, modern art and the modern artist anchored in a celebration of subjectivity integral to dominant perceptions of Euro-American modernity and, I will argue, at odds to some degree with paradigms of subjectivity at work in the modern Buddhist art in question. I see the culmination of Wyatt’s misperception to lie in his vision of the nineteenth-century Thai mural artist’s “self-portraits” on the temple walls. While I can


Ashley Thompson

only embrace the deconstructive approach to critical scholarly self-analysis as a necessary first step towards reading art not produced within the confines of EuroAmerican modernity, ultimately I see Buddhist positions on subject-position to demand a certain methodological progress which would strive to account for a shift in perspectives grounded in Self/Other relations to one in which the self is thought in relation to the “non-self,” a relation which escapes the binary opposition from the get-go. In the Self/Other paradigm the two terms are separated from and bound to each other through mutual negation amounting to affirmation: Self ≠ Other. The one enables the other in their very standoff. Like a double negative, the self/non-self paradigm does not obey the logic of the binary. In the uneven equation self ≠ nonself, the non-self refutes the existence of the Self on the latter’s own terms. One of the core teachings of Theravāda Buddhism is the “non-self.” Now, what the non-self means, and how it functions as an idea in the social realm even when posited as located outside the social, is open to interpretation in Buddhist texts and practices in the first instance, and has provoked extensive critical scholarly consideration.5 For my purposes here, the non-self is an ideal which affects embodied experience of selves and collectivities in profound and subtle ways within Theravādin cultures. In doctrine, ritual, and discursive and artistic representation, Theravādin Buddhists are encouraged to embrace, explore and understand the notion of the self as illusory, if not to veritably realize that understanding in daily practice. This is a context in which subjectivity is ideally constructed through a rejection thereof. In socio-historical terms there is of course no single “Theravādin Buddhist.” Experiences of this ideal, even as they are related through canonical representations, are conditioned by multiple factors such as gender, historical time, education, geographical setting and economic frameworks. While the ideal of the non-self may not be explicitly articulated as such in art produced within any given Theravādin cultural context, including that produced within and on temple walls, I will argue that its effects on artistic practice remain. The distinction between conventional and ultimate reality made within Theravādin intellectual contexts is germane here. Theravādin temple murals tell stories. They function within the conventional social realm, where laypeople and monastics mingle. The stories evolve in the conventional realm, where people, animals, ghosts, monarchs and gods are shown to be operating in a more or less tangible reality. But they inevitably reference that ultimate reality which refutes the existence of the conventional on its own terms. The exploration of the non-self which Buddha’s story, Buddha images and more than two thousand years of textual and ritual practice can be said to represent cannot not affect—or effect—Buddhist subjectivities in the real, conventional world, or in that world as it is depicted on Theravādin temple walls. In Charles Taylor’s terminology, Reading Thai Murals exemplifies the “acultural” approach by which a tabula rasa is made of different cultural outlooks as “modernity” is read from within the unseen cultural blinders of Western modernity and implicitly posited as the teleological end any culture will have reached through a process of rationalization. The acultural thrives on the embrace of “modern identity,” Taylor’s portmanteau term for “those (largely implicit)

Portrait of the artist as a Buddhist man  121

understandings of human agency”6 is key to the rise and definition of Western modernity and frequently abstracted from this specific historico-cultural context to be assimilated with “modernity” at large. “Modern identity,” I will argue, is the vanishing point for Wyatt, that is the invisible point from which the late nineteenth-century northern Thai Buddhist murals are critically encompassed and measured. Both aesthetic and moral, Wyatt’s appreciation of the paintings is inextricably bound to the ways in which the art is made to measure up against the unarticulated modern Western standard, and is paradoxically dependent upon the erasure of a certain Thai Buddhist specificity. With minor adjustments we could transpose T. J. Clark’s summary characterization of Meyer Schapiro’s decisive comments on early Impressionism as “the painting of modern life:” “The art of Manet and his followers had a distinct ‘moral aspect,’ visible above all in the way it dovetailed an account of visual truth with one of social freedom.”7 In Wyatt’s eyes the (modern Thai) artist is an ideal agent constituted and evinced through the painterly demonstration of exceptional powers of critical observation and technical capacity to accurately render nature; this newfound truth-to-nature participates in a social critique by which individual social freedom is at once demanded and affirmed. This perspective so thoroughly determines Wyatt’s own that he fails to see it: such is the power of (this) perspective that the subjective, historico-culturally determined vision appears perfectly natural. The modern invention of the term “Theravāda,” and the rationalization of complex phenomena the invention aimed to orchestrate, are products of a certain official Buddhist and academic embrace of “modern identity” as glossed above.8 One can only wield the term as I have just done, seamlessly and indiscriminately, to signal a distinct non-Western cultural entity, thanks to the very colonial encounter founding Wyatt’s own object and frame of study. There is a place for essentialism within “Theravāda Buddhism”—a foundational one at that. But it has little place in gauging artistic sensibilities at work in late nineteenth-century northern Thai temple murals. The murals in question, I will argue, may show signs of encounter with Western modernity, but they do not evince a wholesale adoption thereof—either in the form or mimicry or in that of the self-conscious fabrication of a “Theravādin Buddhist” identity. They are neither incommensurate with the dominant discourse on modernity, nor assimilated with it.

Wyatt’s portrait of the artist

One of Wyatt’s chief objectives in Reading Thai Murals is to identify the “Thai artist.” Wyatt makes a nearly theoretical claim in seeking to demonstrate the applicability of the term “artist” to the category of the traditional Thai mural painter. This claim both drives and is underpinned by a more or less historically grounded attempt to identify the late nineteenth-early twentieth-century Northern Thai temple mural painter Thit Buaphan as an exemplary “artist,” and to restore this artist’s rightful place in the historical record. I will look first at the question of the person of Thit Buaphan, before turning to the larger definition of the “artist” at work in Wyatt’s study.


Ashley Thompson

Figure 8.1 shows a fragment of the mural paintings from the vihāra (worship hall) of Wat Phumin, Nan Province. Wyatt presents this fragment as a self-portrait of the artist Thit Buaphan. Local tradition holds that the monk painter Thit Buaphan painted the vihāra (worship hall) murals at Wat Nong Bua, also in Nan province, in the late nineteenth century.9 Wyatt draws from a variety of materials to demonstrate that, after completion of the work at Wat Nong Bua, Thit Buaphan worked under royal commission to paint and/or oversee the collective painting of Wat Phumin’s vihāra murals. Wyatt’s use of this fragment is representative of an exceedingly speculative use of the source material throughout the book. In the body of Wyatt’s text, the identification of the male figure in this painted fragment as a self-portrait of the artist is attributed to the fact that “local tradition insists that the artist drew himself”;10 the legend accompanying the image in Wyatt’s book reads more boldly “Thit Buaphan and companion. Wat Phumin, Nan.”11 effacing the legendary basis of this identification. The large size of these two figures relative to others peopling the temple murals does single the couple out from the rest to some degree. Yet there is nothing in the image itself indicating the male figure to be an artist. Nor does any text accompanying the painted fragment on the temple wall support such a claim. In fact, an accompanying painted text identifies the couple as “Pu Man Ya Man,” or “Burmese Grandfather, Burmese Grandmother;” whereas the famous painter is reputed to have belonged to the Lao Phuan ethnic group. The image of the couple has become something of a local identity marker and tourist draw. This does not appear, however to be because it depicts Thit Buaphan with a companion. The contemporary fame and interpretive frame of the image no doubt derives from the attribution of the Wat Phumin mural paintings at large to Thit Buaphan, but pivots around questions of sexual mores: is this a courting couple, and so with erotic evocations, or a married couple, by nature (it is said) eliminating the possibility of the erotic?12 Another “self-portrait,” this time from Wat Nong Bua, is cited in a footnote.13 One can only assume this is the image labelled a self-portrait of Thit Buaphan on the facing page, though Wyatt does not make the connection explicit. The positive identification of the artist here is also problematic. The textual reference is grounded in a letter to Wyatt from David Engel of the University of Buffalo Law School, recounting a conversation Engel once had with an elderly caretaker of Wat Nong Bua. The old man recounted that his grandfather, who had not actually known Thit Buaphan, recounted that the legendary artist had “painted a self-portrait on the lower right side of the … wall behind the main altar.” According to Wyatt according to Engel, “a descriptive sign … at the entryway of Wat Nòng Bua identifies the artist as “Thit Buaphan.’”14 However, Wyatt additionally notes that he did not see the descriptive sign in question when himself visiting Wat Nong Bua. The cited excerpts of Engel’s letter do not make clear if the descriptive sign he recollects was located at the entry to the monastery itself (i.e. not the vihāra), or rather, if it was situated on an interior vihāra wall in such a way as to serve as a legend for the painted figure. The former is nonetheless the more probable interpretation, and might suggest the sign to be recent. There is no accompanying text apparent in the painted fragment today in any case. And again,

Figure 8.1 Self-portrait of the artist Thit Buaphan, and companion, as identified by D. Wyatt. The caption, “Burmese Grandfather, Burmese Grandmother,” in Lanna script is barely discernible here, above the couple’s heads. This image has become a sort of local identity marker. In popular promotional materials it is called “The Whisper.” See Wyatt (2004: 23, fig. 12). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015


Ashley Thompson

Figure 8.2 Self-portrait of Thit Buaphan as identified by D. Wyatt. This painting has suffered water damage in recent years. For a clearer image, see Wyatt (2004: 17, fig. 9). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015

there is nothing in the painted image itself indicating the figure to be an artist as such. In a book on the murals at both temples, artist Winai Prabripoo cites local legend on this image: it is the bird on the reclining man’s shoulder which is singled out as an identifying marker of the artist, known for his bird imagery.15 What is first of import for my purposes here is that the identification of the artist’s self-portrait is more than tenuous, irredeemably so, I believe, in the case of Wat Phumin; and that David Wyatt, an established historian, goes to great lengths, drawing from legend and second-hand accounts, to locate the selfportrait. One might take this sleight of hand by which legend becomes fact as testimony to Wyatt’s commitment to prying open the discipline of history in order to take in source material often considered without historical value. This is surely one aspect of the gesture. Despite the fact that Thai historical records have not maintained the artist’s identity; despite the fact that Thit Buaphan did not sign his name to the œuvre, or to the male figures singled out by the historian as having been singled out by tradition, Wyatt prioritizes identifying the hand and the person of Thit Buaphan. One can appreciate the gesture of writing into history those who have been written out of history by virtue of the renowned historical rigidities of the discipline. Where writing fails the scholar, oral tradition and imagery provide the stuff of history, and of a more socially inclusive history at

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that. At the same time, the historian’s gesture of inclusion obscures a crucial aspect of the history at hand: namely, the absence of the artist’s personal identity. Once again, I am suggesting nothing new: we must write those lost to history into history, but, at the same time, we must interrogate the frames defining “history,” at once in “our” and “other” traditions. In addition to, and in conjunction with incorporating new types of source materials, we need to develop modes of analysis which grow also out of the very materials analysed. Failing to do so participates in the wholesale incorporation of any “local” into the singular global order. A clear set of assumptions underpin Wyatt’s effective definition of the “artist” as “true artist” throughout the book. These include agency, heightened capacity for intellectual production, skill in observing reality and capturing beauty. Wyatt acknowledges the collective nature of Thai temple mural painting, but diminishes the importance of this phenomenon. It is the “genius” of an individual artist which allows for the definition of an artist as such, and which allows for the production of true art. He acknowledges that few Thai temple mural artists sign their work, but posits this as a socio-political failing: the individuality of the artist is, he argues, wrongfully suppressed in the socio-professional relationship with the art patron.16 In Wyatt’s view, the artist feels that he (or she, he suggests) should sign the work. It is the denial of this right by the patron which can drive the artist to discreet affirmation of personal identity in painting, in the positive form of the self-portrait or the negative form of more or less thinly disguised critical portrayal of the patron. The self-portrait takes on a crucial role in this view of true artistic production. The self-portrait substitutes for the signature while beating the signature at its own game. For an artist, again in this view, the self-portrait constitutes the marker of individuality par excellence. With the painted self-portrait singularity is proven not in name, but in the very medium to which a claim to mastery is made—and simultaneously proven. This gesture of self-affirmation in a context of social repression thereof attests to the artist as critical thinker, and to art as a privileged means of critical social intervention. As I have noted above, Wyatt goes to great lengths to identify self-portraits of Thit Buaphan. He goes so far as to transform legend into fact, and in the case of Wat Phumin to ignore a historical text: the writing on the wall, as it were. The fact that such legends abound (in the case of Wat Nong Bua) is certainly of import in understanding modern Thai social views of the artist, as well as modern temple mural painting as a site of socio-political critique. But analysis of this interpretive tradition is a very different proposition from that made by Wyatt, in which legend is taken as fact at face value, so to speak. The portrait, with its fine European pedigree clearly evidenced in an unbroken line of professionalized artistic production, art theory and history since the Renaissance, lies at the heart of this vision of the artist in which individuality and self-consciousness are interrogated, formed, and celebrated. The practice of portraiture, as understood by Wyatt in this book, is inseparable from the intellectual, social, political and art history of Western Europe. Art historian Shearer West writes:


Ashley Thompson

the Renaissance in western Europe was a period of increased self-consciousness, in which concepts of unique individual identity began to be verbalized. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these considerations were enhanced by the rapid development of the genres of biography and autobiography, and by increasingly articulated ideas about character and personality. This historical trajectory encompasses the flourishing of portraiture as in important artistic practice and cultural commodity. In many non-European cultures, this probing of the nature of the individual is either non-existent or has not developed in the same way.17

Theravāda Buddhism is thoroughly devoted to probing the nature of the individual, but, indeed, not in the same way. The (Western) portrait is a

work of art that represents a unique individual … While a portrait can be concerned with likeness as contained in a person’s physical features, it can also represent the subject’s social position or ‘inner life,’ such as their character or virtues. A portrait can be subject to social or artistic conventions that construct the sitter as a type of their time; it can also probe the uniqueness of an individual in the way that sets the sitter apart from his or her context.18

The Renaissance-born portrait sees the innermost in the outermost of an individual. The portrait painter’s own unique self-consciousness is consolidated in the painting process and revealed in the outcome. The self-portrait plays a crucial role in Western art history. It is even the crux of the matter:

there were significant changes in the status of the artist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, inspired by the advent of academies and art theory that emphasized the intellectual qualities of artistic production over mechanical ones. At a time when conceptions of the artist’s role were changing, the selfportrait proved one means for an artist to reinforce and enhance this new idea of his or her worth.19

In the self-portrait the artist shows himself to be at once thinking-painting and thinking-painted subject. He is no object, as even the passivity of the sitter is wiped away with the painterly brush. The self-portrait is a performative embodiment of the artist’s hyperbolic individuality constituted through the critical activity of painting. The self-portrait is more than “a transparent account of artistic personality.”20 It represents the work of art as distinct from that of artisanry in the former’s critical consciousness of representation itself. Self-examination in this context is part and parcel of practical, experimental reflection on the making of art. The self-portrait is the ideal vehicle for exploring the limits of one’s own frame of vision. In the (making of) the self-portrait, the artist sees himself as other. The mirror—as in Lacan’s account of infantile development—enables the process by which the Self is constituted through awareness of itself as Other. Seeing oneself as such is at the same time seeing the medium of representation.

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The viewer of the self-portrait, on the other hand, steps into the shoes of the artist gazing out at him; when his gaze is engaged by that of the painted figure, the viewer sees from the double perspective of painter and painted figure, and so sees perspective itself. In such, the self-portrait is a Derridean ideal.21 For David Wyatt it is also the ideal means for seeing his painter—so ideal that he imagines something other than what is there. The portrait does exist in Theravādin Buddhist artistic traditions, but the social, political, and intellectual histories in which it long participated prior to encounters with Western portraiture from the colonial period on differ significantly from that so clearly defined in Europe and dominating art historical discourse. Vidya Dehejia describes the conceptual framework governing the production of early Indian portraiture: “portrait images were always sculpted to bear a greater resemblance to images of the gods than to their actual [human royal or saintly] counterparts.”22 This framework maintains for much early Southeast Asian imagery and inflects later Theravādin production in fundamental ways.23 Key to the long history in which modern Southeast Asian Theravādin imagery sits are shifts from idealized to naturalistic portraits. Subtle shifts are seen, for example, in the Khmer realm at the advent of Mahayana Buddhism as state religion in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries; more vivid shifts are seen across the Theravādin world with the establishment and spread of European power, technologies and cultural constructs. There are points of exchange between these traditions, in both theoretical and historical terms. Crucially, I would argue, Theravādin portraiture invariably has to do with sovereignty, in its association with monarchy or saintliness. There is an argument for comparative analysis of Buddhist portraiture up against portraiture of the Renaissance tradition, though as Dehejia points out, the two might be read as mirror images rather than one and the same. Theravādin temple murals show narratives with distinct individual legendary characters; at times these can be assimilated, pictorially or in popular interpretation, with individual historical figures. The link to the classical ‘portrait-statue,’ where the Buddha image is named after the king, for example, or to the portrait of a monk foreseeing arahantship (saintliness) or Buddhahood, is apparent. The same can be said of donor portraits integrated into narrative murals commissioned by the donors depicted. By the act of commissioning the work the donors have effectively and literally been painted into the grand Buddhist narrative; they are thereby that much closer to Buddha—if not Buddhahood itself. Depiction of mundane individual subjectivity (neither monarchs nor monks nor the elite) in Theravādin mural art, where social and ethnic profiling abounds, is a different matter. Witness the “Burmese Grandfather and Grandmother” of Wat Phumin. Given in particular the pedigree of the discipline of (art) history itself, the onus is on the historian of Theravādin Buddhist art to decipher points of divergence. Most to the point for my purposes here is that, as far as I am aware, the selfportrait as understood by Wyatt does not appear in any Theravādin context prior to the introduction of Western painting and photography. It is entirely possible that the man with the bird at Wat Nong Bua is the painter Thit Buaphan as local legend has it. But there is no apparent reason to infuse the image in question with


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the ideological baggage of the “self-portrait” celebrated by Wyatt. We can be sure that wherever and whenever the self-portrait first appears in a Theravādin temple compound it operates at some remove from the Western frameworks described above; or at some remove from the imagery characteristic of temple surroundings. The work that remains to be done in this field would enable us to transcend or at least complicate notions of the modern-yet-traditional Theravādin mural artist-as-artisan without however formulating his work as the equivalent of the modern Western artist whose overriding concern with painterly signature takes quintessential form in the self-portrait. It would take up the working hypothesis Dehejia posits in conclusion to her “On the Very Idea of the Portrait:” “it may be necessary to reexamine, even redefine, the philosophic concept of the individual self” which dominates understandings of portraiture at large, by turning a closer eye to Indian concepts of the (non)self.24 She continues with the example of Buddhism:

The Buddha, for instance, is believed to have assumed 550 different bodies […] Finally born as chieftain Siddhartha, he severed all bonds and achieved salvation; he discarded the body, never again to be confined in bodily form. Perhaps it is not so strange, after all, that the reproduction of physiognomic likeness held little significance in a society which believed that the physical features of the present birth would be replaced by a new set of bodily features in the next birth and that the ultimate state of salvation is the self unencumbered by a body. Furthermore, Indian religious systems upheld the suppression of the ego; figures with visual specificity may well have been seen as catering to that very quality of egoism they sought to destroy.25

Verisimilitude does have a place in Theravādin temple imagery, as does the anthropomorphic representation of (im)personality—most notably in the image of Buddha “himself.” Any consideration of the portrait or, even more so, the selfportrait, demands close consideration of the historical and cultural context in which it appears. If “every self-portrait is a dialogue with the ego,”26 if “all selfportraiture involves the … othering of the self,”27 what might be the role and place of the self-portrait arising within or introduced to a context in which the Self is not ideally constructed in relation to the Other, but is rather ideally (de)constructed through doctrinal, ritual and narrative explorations of the nonself? I will turn now to brief consideration of related points in Wyatt’s book before returning to the images identified by Wyatt as self-portraits of Thit Buaphan.

Wyatt’s artist’s technique

Wyatt evokes two artistic techniques throughout the book. The first, observation of nature, is distinctly valued over the latter, the copying of another image. The latter technique is identified in explanation of a limited number of images from Wat Phumin which he speculates to have been copied from Victorian magazines

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brought back to Nan by a local monk who had visited England in the late nineteenth century. The former technique is cited throughout the text as testimony to “artistic genius.” Figures 8.3–8.5 are from a series of images cited as demonstration of Thit Buaphan’s genius. “The main point to be made here,” Wyatt writes after consideration of these images, “is the genius of the artist, who frequently puzzles the viewer with puzzles and conundrums.” The artist, he is saying, is the locus of thought, who in turn incites thought in the viewer. What strikes most about the crying women images, which come from three different temples, is their similarity. Wyatt acknowledges that “they seem rather stereotypical in their rendering of the posture of tears.”28 But it is their uniqueness which moves him to include them in his analysis: “These figures are worth commenting here because it is relatively rare for crying people to be pictured in mural paintings.” My point in citing Wyatt on this point is not to challenge the veracity of this claim, but rather to highlight how his concern with the identification of individuality overrides consideration of the more patent aesthetic of codified repetition. He continues: “(I recall examining these figures very closely,




Figure 8.3 Crying women, from three temples: (a) Wat Nong Bua; (b) Wat Buak Khrok Luang, Chiang Mai; (c) Wat Phumin. See Wyatt (2004: 29, fig. 14). Source: photographs by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015


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Figure 8.4 Duck in flight, Wat Phumin. See Wyatt (2004: 30, fig. 15). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015

and noting that I could actually see tears rolling down their cheeks. The photographs, however, do not show these).”29 In other words, it is despite their codified sameness that Wyatt sees naturalistic individuality. That these images evoke tears in the viewing eye is not surprising. This is the work of gestural codification. Yet this technique of evoking emotion through repetition is significantly different from that of observation, with which Wyatt is (over)determined to associate these crying women. For Wyatt the bird-in-flight image attests to Thit Buaphan’s exemplary capacity for observing nature: the bird’s landing movements are dissected and presented in a freeze-frame sequence. Any naturalism here must also be considered from within a larger framework of formal repetition. Types of episodic narrative development in early Buddhist art described by Vidya Dehejia and characteristic of much modern Theravādin mural painting, in which a single figure in different postures, clothing or settings may be repeated within a single panel or non-linear sequence to convey different episodes or different moments in a single episode, might be seen to have been harnessed here to observational practice.30 Wyatt is particularly taken with the last image (Figure 8.5): “[The image of the figure in the doorway] has always struck me as being like some painting of the twentieth-century Mexican artist, Diego Rivera.”31 Resemblance to the aesthetic of one of the great representatives of twentieth-century Western modernism is fundamental to Wyatt’s citation of this image as evidence of Thai artistic genius.

Figure 8.5 Person in doorway, Wat Phumin. See Wyatt (2004: 31, fig. 16). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015


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Another factor informing Wyatt’s value judgment is the puzzle he finds; the image challenges Wyatt’s thought. Wyatt is not sure who the figure is, or what the larger scene represents. The presence of individuals not clearly identifiable within established Buddhist narrative demonstrate, to Wyatt, artistic genius. The artist is shown, through these thus deemed original figures, to observe society and interpret history. The artist is an agent par excellence, a genius on the model of Diego Rivera. He depicts human agents, true “actors” rather than “dramatis personae” in Geertzian terms. The standard of Western modernism serves to define a universal notion of artistic genius, also, then, found in the person of Thit Buaphan. Wyatt sets these two images (Figures 8.6 and 8.7) against each other. The first, of men entering a city, is cited as an example of typical traditional Thai scenes of warfare, which do not focus on homicide. This, he advances in the language of America’s twenty-first century imperialism, is because traditional artists were not “embedded” with the troops. That is, Thai temple artists, before Thit Buaphan, did not paint warfare from actual observation. The second scene, entitled “Warfare” by Wyatt, is, in his words “rare,” “uncommon” and “unusual”32 for the fact that it shows “what warfare was really like. Part of the genius of the artist [he writes] is that he was able to show warfare in such an unforgettable manner.”33 The rifles are actually being shot, the horse is panicked, there is blood, and one man is blown apart. What strikes in the first image is the visual alliteration. The men look alike. The heads are aligned in repeating motifs. Their facial features, hairstyles and postures differ only insignificantly. I am surprised that Wyatt did not compare the second image to Picasso’s Guernica, the iconic Western modernist image of war with its tragically wounded horsehead and dismembered people, an image intended indeed to render the horror of war unforgettable. With the four soldiers shooting their four long rifles across the horizontal plane, visual alliteration is the organizing principle of Thit Buaphan’s warfare image. The rifle lines are repeated in the legs and arms of the dismembered soldier. But there is chaos in this order. The riflemen are calm, in formation, undifferentiated, eyes focused through the gun sights; only the horse eyes the exploding bodies above the firing line. What catches Wyatt’s attention is what he sees to be Thit Buaphan’s disruption of the traditional insistence on sameness at the expense of difference. It is individual suffering which is shown when the artist is “embedded with the troops.” And it is this rendering of the individual which drives home the reality of war, making it— at once war and the image—“unforgettable.” Stock imagery and visual alliteration might be said to do nothing of the sort. The characters in such traditional imagery, he regrets, are not true actors, true individuals but dramatis personae—what we might call the faceless rank and file. But is there a Bruegellike critique of the indifference of the riflemen here? And might our sensitive horse take inspiration from the paradigmatic embodiment of aggrieved loyalty, Siddhartha’s Kanthaka, the oft-depicted faithful equine companion who weeps when his master bids him to return to the palace alone as the future Buddha abandons the trappings of sovereignty to set off in search of an alternative mode and understanding of existence.

Figure 8.6 “People entering a city,” according to the legend accompanying the panel on the vihāra wall, Wat Phumin. See Wyatt (2004: 56, fig. 45). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015

Figure 8.7 Warfare, Wat Phumin. See Wyatt (2004: 57, fig. 46). Source: photograph by Oranuch Somprasit, 2015


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Insofar as it evidences a particular sort of observation of nature, this image could be seen to embody at least some of the dimensions of modernity as defined by Wyatt in the mural assemblage in question. The crux of the matter remains nonetheless ambiguous. For Wyatt, we see in the image a revelation of the artist’s sensitivity to individual subjectivity. The depiction of the moment of death in warfare in the modernist paradigm is concomitant with the epiphany of the singularity of the life at that moment lost. Yet this image is, after all, on a Buddhist temple wall. The modern northern Thai Buddhist temple is a place of life, of course, and a place where painted narratives of Buddha’s lives mingle with others of the daily lives of real characters. The modern Northern Thai Buddhist temple is also a site dedicated to cultivating detachment from individuality; where the sight of death is routinely wielded to trigger insight not into the singularity of life, but, to the contrary, into the very lack of an enduring self the “individual” is only falsely perceived to embody. The two levels of experience of the sight of death mundane pain and lamentation on the one hand, and transcendence thereof on the other - co-exist to some degree, the latter formulated and learned in direct response to the former. The implication that this image demonstrates the artist’s attainment of a superior, (modernist) understanding of the value of the human subject serves to obscure the more complex dimensions of Buddhist examination and experiences of subjectivity through representation of death.

The Theravādin self-portrait

Wyatt’s research does allow us to affirm that in the late twentieth century local residents identified self-portraits of nineteenth-century mural painter Thit Buaphan at Wat Nong Bua. If local legend derives from fact, we can situate the artist’s self-portrait in the late nineteenth-century; if it does not, we can situate it otherwise with audience reception at some subsequent moment. Insofar as traditional Theravādin narrative technique—in texts, art and performance—can be said to foreground the transposition and juxtaposition of the stories of the cosmopolitan religio-cultural complex (primarily the historical Buddha’s life story, jātaka tales, but also legends favored in select milieu such as that of Phra Malai in Thai contexts) with the socio-political settings of real local life, either of these propositions for the effective moment of production of Thit Buaphan’s selfportrait is viable. In chronological terms, Thit Buaphan’s self-portraits are by all means modern. But does this in any way mean they share something with that self-portrait which has been a powerful sign and driver of “modernity” within Western art histories? The Wat Nong Bua image shows a man reclining on his side with a relaxed demeanor; The Wat Phumin image shows a man standing slightly behind a woman, with his left hand on her right shoulder, and right hand raised toward his mouth as if he is whispering to her. These could represent the same male figure, but they are both generic enough in style and different enough in composition to disallow any confirmation of such an assertion. The fact that, despite the textual evidence to the contrary, Wyatt was able to identify the Wat Phumin ‘Burmese

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Grandfather’ as the same man portrayed at Wat Nong Bua is testimony to the relative non-individuality of the latter, which may nonetheless be a self-portrait, signed by the bird. The Thit Buaphan images in question are embedded in the mural narratives not entirely unlike some of the earliest Renaissance self-portraits such as those of Ghiberti in his fifteenth century Florentine Baptistery doors. Like the Ghiberti figures, they do demonstrate a certain self-consciousness of the artist—be it, in the Thai case perhaps, one attributed to the artist in the process of reception. But the Thit Buaphan figures do not convey the intense reflection of the work of art marking, for example, what is understood to be Van Eyck’s fifteenth-century self-portrait reflected in a mirror under a Latin inscription reading “Van Eyck was here” in The Arnolfini Marriage, or Velázquez’ image of himself painting inside his seventeenth-century Las Meninas—two paintings which continue to inform interpretation and production of the Western(ized) selfportrait today. No Self/Other dichotomy arises in Thit Buaphan’s self-portraits, which neither place the viewer in the artist’s shoes via the artist’s painted gaze, nor make the artist stand out from a continuous social narrative. Our sense of the person of Thit Buaphan from the one likely self-portrait at Wat Nong Bua is no deeper than that of the other figures peopling the local scenes of his murals like actors playing conventionally established roles. This is at a great remove from Rembrandt’s self-portraits of the artist as this or that character, in which the singularity of the character adopted simultaneously conveys the singularity of the artist, and is the privileged vehicle for artistic experimentation. Crucially, however, if Thit Buaphan’s self-portrait does not rely on or evoke the artist’s Selfconstructing mirror of the Western self-portrait in any way, neither can we say that it conveys any self-conscious reflection on specifically Buddhist formulations of subjectivity. They are an effect and a driver, nonetheless—and this is more crucial—of the embodied experience of selves and collectivities irrevocably grounded in the ideal of the non-self. In a context in which subjectivity is ideally constructed through a rejection thereof, the privileged aesthetic is one of repetition, substitutability and transposition. A certain affirmation of individuality can be a means to an end, which is also, ideally, an end of individuality. The self/non-self relation is not a face-off on the model of—or in the reverse image of—the Self/Other. Accordingly, the artist does not look in the mirror to situate social commentary. There is no driving necessity to see oneself-as-other, to see oneself in one’s own frame in order to see outside of the frame. There is no urgency to seek a means of opening the horizon in view of offering true hospitality to the unknown when the contours of the Self are not ideally established but are rather ideally effaced. The modernity of Thit Buaphan’s murals might be said to lie in the time of their production, which accounts for their inclusion of foreign figures and, perhaps, a certain turn to naturalism. Their Theravādin modernity might be seen to lie in their non-self-conscious adherence to traditional cultural schemas at that moment in time.


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Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

10 11 12

13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33

Wyatt (2004: 1–3). Said (1978). Clifford (1980: 222). Wyatt (2004: 2). Collins (1982). Taylor (1995: 27–28). Clark (1996: 3). Perreira (2012). Wyatt (2004: 2); Derrida (1978). The source Wyatt cites for this identification, taken to be historical fact, is No na Paknam (1986: 29). See also Wyatt (1993). Wyatt (2004: 24). Wyatt (2004: 23). I am indebted to Oranuch Somprasit for her verification of these questions in situ, and for her guidance in identifying local source materials on the murals. Her own interviews with locals at Wat Nong Bua evidenced an oral histories of Thit Buaphan’s Lao Phuan heritage. On the sexualized interpretation of “The Whisper,” see Prabripoo (2014: 53) and Wimonkrasaem (2014: 47). These apparently opposed interpretations, of local eroticism or sexual propriety both function within a broader national frame whereby the Lanna local is defined through perception of its women in particular and of modes of sexual interaction. These questions suggest another possible path for research on the materials gathered here, including Wyatt’s work; one might investigate associations between the characterization of Thit Buaphan as a true genius, a veritable modern if not even modernist artist, and perception of the sexual prowess of the male figures singled out as self-portraits. My thanks also go to Thanavi Chotpradit, who kindly sent me recent photographs of the painting, including documentation of damage to the face of the male figure in late 2015. Wyatt (2004: 17, n. 1). Wyatt (2004: 17, n. 1). Prabripoo (2014: 6). West (2004: ch. 2, entitled “The Patron decides”). West (2004: 17). West (2004: 21). West (2004: 164). West (2004: 163). See West (2004: 165) and Derrida (1993). Dehejia (1998: 41). For consideration of the question of the portrait over a range of relevant historical settings, see Cœdès (1960); Poshyananda (1992); Sharf (1993–1994); Berger (2003); Thompson (2003, 2008); Stratton (2004: 315–338); Stengs (2009); Morris (2009); Lefèvre (2011); Wolfarth (2014a, 2014b). Dehejia (1998: 47). Dehejia (1998: 47). West (2004: 182, citing E. Billeter). West (2004: 185). Wyatt (2004: 28). Wyatt (2004: 28). See Dehejia (1990); Boisselier (1976); Green (2013: 159–192). Wyatt (2004: 31). Wyatt (2004: 56). Wyatt (2004: 58).


“Conscripts” of Chinese modernity?

Transformations of Theravāda Buddhism in southwest China in the reform era Thomas Borchert

In the summer of 2009, I was in a suburb of Kunming visiting the Buddhist Institute of Yunnan (Yunnan Foxueyuan; YBI), the first “official” Buddhist Institute in Yunnan province.1 I was there doing follow-up research on monastic education among the Dai-lue, a minority of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the YBI was outside of their home region of Sipsongpannā, lay and monastic Dai-lue Buddhists have been important figures in developing and running the YBI. When I arrived at the campus, however, I was surprised to find that these monks and lay Buddhists were not focused on the work of the YBI, but were rather engaged with developing a proposal for a new college level program for Theravāda monks of China. My colleagues working on this proposal were all Dai-lue, lay and monastic, and working both at the YBI and at the Buddhist Association of Yunnan (YBA). As they were explaining to me the proposal and the application process, one of them referred to the proposed school, in English, as a “Chinese Theravāda Buddhist University” (CTBU).2 I found this a striking moment for at least two different reasons. First, in twenty months of fieldwork between 2001 and 2009, this was the first time I could recall anyone in Sipsongpannā using the word “Theravāda,” in either Dailue or English. When I had asked, they had used a variety of Chinese terms to delineate the Buddhism of the Dai-lue, but not “Theravāda.” I was also struck by the context of the reference. What was the reason for it to be framed in this way? Was my colleague’s reference to Theravāda accidental here? What was he really referring to? Was it an off-the-cuff reference, tied up with the fact that we were speaking English, or was there something more behind it? Why hadn’t I heard the word before when working with and among the Dai-lue? Did this represent a shift, a turn in the Buddhist community of Sipsongpannā? Was this the result of modernization within the region more broadly, or a conscious effort on the part of Dai-lue Buddhists to locate themselves as “modern” Theravādins? Although my colleague did not invoke modernity here, in answering these questions, we are forced to deal with the problems of modern forms of Theravāda. I begin this chapter with the assumption that regardless of the age of the practices, lineages and texts that Theravāda Buddhists use, what we call “Theravāda Buddhism” is intimately tied up with the processes of modernity. The idea of


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religion and Buddhism have developed in specific ways over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the colonization of Asia and in the development of nation-states in the region. Buddhist institutions and practices have been transformed as a part of these processes, by both the imposition of Western models of religion, and the appropriation of these models by Buddhist actors. This engagement with modernist and modernizing discourses is sometimes referred to as Buddhist modernism. The idea of “Theravāda” as a form of Buddhism located primarily in Southeast Asia, and in relation to the other forms of Buddhism (Mahāyāna and Tibetan) is a product of these discussions and negotiations, though Theravāda communities are only partially the product of these processes. Indeed, there is often a tension between what Buddhist modernists describe as the “proper forms” of Theravāda, and what the Theravāda communities may actually practice or how they may understand their place in the world. For example, when scholars have spoken about Theravāda forms of Buddhist modernism, they have focused on several different trends as examples of these: a focus on the original words of the Buddha, and the argument that these words reveal a rational philosophical form, devoid of superstition; an emphasis on the laity; an emphasis on meditation and the development of monastic forms for women. Elsewhere, I have argued that when scholars have made these observations, that they have relied on looking at the developments of the Sangha primarily in Sri Lanka and Burma (and to a lesser extent in Thailand), but that these forms are not generally present among the Buddhists in contemporary Sipsongpannā.3 Rather than seeing Sipsongpannā as lacking in modernity, however, I suggested that the forms of Buddhism that emerged there were different in large part because it was the result of Chinese colonialism, and not British colonialism. That is, state governance regimes—the way in which a particular government seeks to define and govern religious actors and communities—condition in profound ways the possibilities for the practice of religion in a particular place. These regimes seek to determine what counts as legitimate forms of religiosity, and locate these forms either implicitly or explicitly in the imagination of the nation. Moreover, translocal conceptions of Buddhism exist in tandem and in tension with local and state forms, and that there is a tension between them which creates the forms Buddhism takes in a particular context. In the model I am describing here, it is not always clear how a specific community, labeled externally as “Theravāda” understands and locates itself in these broader processes. This is part of why I found my colleague’s invocation of a “Chinese Theravāda Buddhist University” to be a problem to think about and explain. How and why are they using “Theravāda”? Is it the result of a greater identification of Sipsongpannā into a translocal understanding of Theravāda Buddhism? To answer this, I want to look at three different sets of partially related sets of materials. First, I want to examine how “Theravāda Buddhism” is understood within China and by the Chinese state, and also by the Dai-lue. Second, I want to examine institutional shifts that have taken place within the Theravāda forms of China as a result of the Chinese governance structures. Finally, I want to examine shifts in the Buddhist educational projects of the

“Conscripts” of Chinese modernity? 139

Dai-lue over the last twenty years. What comes out of this are two different suggestions. First, that “Theravāda” is a category that can be used strategically. Second, that it is precisely the tension between the governance regimes and the transnational conceptions of the religion that opens the space for this strategic use of “Theravāda.”

Situating Sipsongpannā and the Dai-lue

While this chapter is focused on making sense of modern forms of (Theravāda) Buddhism in Sipsongpannā, it is necessary to situate this place and the people here. In part this is because it is a fairly obscure region, and not one of the nationstates that one normally thinks about when considering Theravāda Buddhism. In part, though it is because Sipsongpannā is a place with a long history that has shaped the conditions for the practice of religion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.4 Of central importance here, Sipsongpannā is a border area, and has been for centuries. In the current era of nation-states, it is a part of China, on its Southwest border with Myanmar and Laos. Historically, Sipsongpannā was a small kingdom that was tributary to both Chinese empires and Southeast Asian kingdoms, particularly those of Burma. The region is filled with a variety of upland and lowland peoples, and until the late 1950s, it was ruled by the Lue, a Tai group. The region had been deeded to China in the late nineteenth century when the French and British carved up the region, but it was only after 1953 that it really began to be fully incorporated into the Chinese political economy. While tributary to Chinese and Burmese kingdoms, it was also a fairly autonomous region, at least over the long term, because of distance and disease.5 There are three aspects of “being Lue” that I want to highlight here. First, the Lue are a Tai group, meaning that they are part of an ethno-linguistic group that goes from Assam to Vietnam, and from Yunnan province in China down to Malaysia. While Lue society has certainly changed over the last century, they speak a dialect that is close to that spoken in northern Thailand, Laos and the Shan States of Myanmar. Moreover, the Lue have for centuries been involved in relationships with other Tai (Lue and otherwise) communities in mainland Southeast Asia. While the networks have morphed with the development of clear(er) boundaries over the last century, they persist and remain important. Second, and in tension with these ties with Southeast Asia, the Dai-lue are Chinese citizens. They have been subject to a variety of modernization projects as well as the various changes of the Chinese revolution, in particular having their religious practice first violently proscribed during the Cultural Revolution (1966– 1976), and then permitted again from the start of the Reform Era in 1979. They have also been classified by the Chinese state as part of the Daizu (the “Dai nationality or people”), one of 56 nationalities (minzu) in China and an ethnic minority. Being an ethnic minority gives them some privileges under the current regime, such as the ability to have two children rather than one, but it also means that they are seen as having a lower civilizational status, vis à vis the majority ethnicity, the Han. As a result of this lesser civilizational status, the Dai-lue have


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been subject to developmental and modernizing projects of the Chinese state.6 Indeed, an important part of what it means to be a modern minority in China is to be recognized as being “backward” (luohou). Third, like other Tai communities, but unlike their co-nationals, the Dai-lue practice Theravāda Buddhism. Until quite recently, most Dai-lue men were ordained and learned what it meant to be a proper Dai-lue adult and community member inside the monastery before marrying. Buddhism came to the region from Northern Thailand,7 and while the Sangha is independent, links to mainland Southeast Asian Buddhists were vital for rebuilding the Sangha in the 1980s and remain strong.

Theravāda Buddhism and “normal religions” in China

In the eyes of the Chinese state, and the academic complex that has produced knowledge about the Dai-lue, the Dai-lue are a Buddhist minority. This means that in public statements about the Dai-lue, one is very likely to hear that they are “a nationality of which the entire group practices Buddhism.”8 Part of what this means is that Buddhism is intimately tied up in official ways of thinking about the Dai-lue. If we were to flip the formulation around, and examine the official account of Theravāda Buddhism, we would find two things: one is that Theravāda is only partially “legible” to the Chinese state (in the sense of Scott9); two that to the degree it is legible, Theravāda Buddhism is considered to be an ethnic phenomena. To make sense of the first point, it is necessary first to understand the conditions of religion in modern China. While there have been religious and ethnic phenomena in China for millennia, they are distinctly “modern” categories (and indeed under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), modernist categories). The term “religion” (zongjiao 宗教) is a neologism in China, dating to the end of the twentieth century. As one of a collection of concepts and categories that Chinese governments and modernizers imported from Japan, “zongjiao” was an important part of the modernization process. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese scholars, politicians and religious actors argued over what the proper role of religion was to be in the life of the nation, creating new organizations that were to govern religious actors and activities.10 One of the central issues that people argued over was whether religion was inherently backwards, or whether a modern nation in fact required a religion at its ideological core. The leaders of the PRC tended to subscribe to the first position, and in fact during key points in the first three decades of the PRC, they sought to minimize or even abolish religion as a drag on the effort to develop a modern, communist nation. Exemplary of this was the Cultural Revolution, during which religion was abolished as one of the “Four Olds.” Even when after the practice of religion was allowed again at the start of the 1980s, the CCP’s assumption was that as the nation modernized, religion would die away. In the context of this Reform Era thinking, the CCP has a constrained notion of what constitutes religion, recognizing only Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, Christianity and Catholicism as religions in China. This does not mean that there

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are no other religions in the world, but these are the ones that the Chinese government has recognized as being practiced by the masses (in the Marxist sense) of Chinese citizens. These are referred to as “normal religions” (zhengchang zongjiao 正常宗教), and placed in opposition to “superstition” (mixin 迷信) and sometimes “evil cults” (xiejiao 邪教). The legitimacy of “normal religions” is generally recognized by the CCP, as is the constitutional freedom of religious belief, though practice can be highly regulated.11 While the CCP tends to seek to naturalize its categories, they should be seen as highly political, and directed at controlling the practice of religion. The division of Christianity into two religions also helps us understand how the state views Buddhism. Christianity has been divided by the Chinese government primarily for two reasons. First, these forms of Christianity have very different institutional structures and leadership systems, as well as differences in theology. Second, they were brought to China by different colonial powers. While Buddhism was not brought to China by colonizing powers, given the distinctions between different forms of Buddhism, it is not unreasonable that it could have been categorized as at least two different religions in the same way that Christianity was. However, in official documents at least, Buddhism is not discussed as being a multiple entity—indeed “Theravāda” is not mentioned in official documents that discuss different religions.12 We see this unity differently way in the way Chinese scholars depict Theravāda Buddhism. A key aspect of how Theravāda is portrayed within Buddhist modernism is that it harkens back to the original form of Buddhism. However, within contemporary Chinese scholarship on Theravāda, “the original form of Buddhism” trope is never articulated. Rather, Theravāda is understood in ethnic and geographical terms. We see this first of all in who discusses Theravāda Buddhism in China. It is primarily ethnographers who are interested in the Dailue of Sipsongpannā, or alternatively scholars of Buddhism who focus on Yunnan. Scholars of Buddhism in China tend to ignore Theravāda Buddhism, because the Dai-lue are such a small group, relatively speaking.13 Second, the primary emphasis on describing Theravāda in this scholarship downplays the philosophical and highlights geographic, linguistic or ethnographic aspects. Many of the discussions of Buddhism in Sipsongpannā, short or long, highlight the fact that this Buddhism came from the South from the lands of mainland Southeast Asia (usually listed).14 Or the discussion of the Buddhism of the region is framed not in transnational terms, but solely in relation to the ethnographic history of the Dai-lue.15 Third, while the term “Theravāda” is not unknown to scholars of Buddhism in China, the primary term for referring to the Buddhism of the Dai-lue is “Southern.”16 Indeed, even in the document that my colleagues were working on when they applied to start what was referred to in English as the “Chinese Theravāda Buddhist College,” they did not use the Chinese term “Theravāda.” Instead, the language used within the proposal is of “Southern Buddhism” and not “Theravāda.”17 On its surface, this may seem like a minor point. When they speak amongst themselves in their own language, the Dai-lue rarely refer to their Buddhism as anything other than the “teachings of the Buddha” (pha-puttha-sāsanā), and to


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a certain extent all that they are doing in utilizing the term “Southern Buddhism,” is to use the language that is recognizable to the Chinese government. Indeed, one might suggest that these names are simply reflective of conversations and discourse communities. However, this ignores the degree to which the effect of the names used serves to emphasize the unity of the Buddhism in China and naturalize the Buddhism of Sipsongpannā as a part of Chinese Buddhism. While Chinese scholars of the Dai-lue or Chinese Buddhism understand that there is a difference between the Buddhism of the Dai-lue and the Buddhism of most other Chinese Buddhists (i.e. that it is “Southern” and not “Northern”), the effect of this difference is erased in that they are all Chinese. When speaking back with or back to the state, the Dai-lue echo their membership within Chinese Buddhism.

Modern institutional formations of the Dai-lue Sangha

If the previous section focused on how Theravāda Buddhism is imagined within the intellectual and ideological framework of modern China, in this section, I want to discuss how this is institutionalized and the consequences of that institutionalization on the Buddhist life of the Dai-lue over the last thirty years.18 There are two changes in particular that I will highlight here: the incorporation of the Dai-lue into the Buddhist Association of China and the centralization of the Sangha in Sipsongpannā itself. Prior to the twentieth century (indeed probably prior to the 1980s), the Sangha of Sipsongpannā was highly decentralized. Although the region had a king (cao phaendin) who presumably ruled the entire kingdom, evidence suggests that in general the cao phaendin was a less than absolute ruler. Undoubtedly of the fortyfour generations of cao phaendin, some were powerful and efficient. However, Ann Maxwell Hill has argued that the region tended to be ruled by committee rather than by absolute rule.19 This decentralized condition extended to the Sangha as a whole. While Buddhism may have been central to the maintenance of the political system as a whole,20 the cao phaendin’s court does not seem to have had direct control over individual temples. There was a sangha-rāja according to Chinese sources,21 but his ability to affect actual control outside of his immediate sphere of influence in Jing Hong was not great. Since the end of the Maoist era in 1976, there has been a substantial centralization of Buddhism in Sipsongpannā, primarily through the development of the Buddhist Association (BA) in the region. Nationally, the BA is part of the governing structure of the PRC. It is a “mass organization,” and technically outside of the state, but it serves the purpose of being a liaison between the state and religious actors. In this function, it has at least two roles which can be in tension with one another: it needs to communicate state laws and policies to religious actors (and sometimes participate in enforcement); and it needs to represent the interests of those religious actors to the state (all the formally recognized religions in China have these mass organizations). How they fulfil these roles and relations between local Sanghas and governments varies quite a bit.22

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Within Sipsongpannā, an effective BA structure has only developed since the 1980s.23 The BA’s organizational structures mirrors in some ways the political structure of China, with national and provincial offices on down to city offices. In Sipsongpannā, there is a prefectural office, a Jing Hong office, and three offices for the three counties of the region. This organization masks the fact that three of these five offices are run out of the same temple, Wat Pājie, and that the same group of monks are the officers for all of the offices of the BA in Sipsongpannā. In addition, they have close relationships with the Buddhist Association of Yunnan, whose vice-president is a former Dai-lue monk from Sipsongpannā and the Minority Religious Affairs Bureau, the state division responsible for regulating religious actors, where a former teacher at Wat Pājie was the officer in charge of Buddhism in the region. While one might take from this that the BA is something of a façade in Sipsongpannā, in fact the BA structure has proved remarkably effective for this group of monks to access state resources; this in turn has led to a centralization of authority within the autonomous prefecture. The BA of Sipsongpannā is the first Buddhist institution to actually have reach and responsibility across the region. For example, in the late 1990s the BA established disciplinary rules that were put up in all temples across the region, something that probably could not have been done while a cao phaendin ruled the region. The BA has also translated or transliterated materials gathered from Thailand or the Shan States that it has spread to temples throughout the region. Its ability to do this is in part a result of authority provided by ties to the Chinese state, in part from money and resources provided by the provincial BA (which provided money for computer equipment and to defray printing costs). Some of the BA’s authority in Sipsongpannā also comes from more traditional markers of authority, such as educational attainments and time in robes. The upshot of this is that this centralization has proved effective because it is a combination of modern state and traditional authority structures.24 Another material way in which the BA has changed Buddhism in Sipsongpannā is that it has provided a mechanism for making the Dai-lue Chinese Buddhists. I suggested above that Theravāda Buddhism was not a category that the state talks about in most official documents. This is less true of Chinese Buddhist institutions. Several times during the year the Dai-lue officers of the BA are required to travel out of Sipsongpannā to attend meetings where they learn about the new policies that they need to communicate to Buddhists. In addition to this official function, these meetings have an additional effect of embedding the leadership of the Sangha of Sipsongpannā into Chinese Buddhist networks. They do this in part by recognizing the equivalence of Theravāda Buddhism in China through multi-tradition chanting to begin sessions, or by making the Dai-lue officers of the BA (and in particular the head of the Sangha) part of international delegations. This in turn leads to development opportunities (such as the educational ones discussed in the next section). While I would argue the monks of Sipsongpannā have maintained connections to Theravāda Sanghas in Southeast Asia, this required participation in the BA has fostered vital relationships between the Sipsongpannā monks and those of their co-nationals.


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Pursuing Buddhist education

The consequences of these connections is important to considering the third aspect of Chinese and Buddhist modernity among the Dai-lue that I want to consider here: educational projects. In the three decades since the return of religion to Sipsongpannā, there have been several different trajectories of educational projects that Dai-lue monks have been involved with. The first of these (1980–2000) was the reconstruction of “traditional” forms of education, and the development of a Dhamma school. While these projects have been focused on (re)developing local forms of education, they have also depended on transnational resources from Thailand and the Shan states, in terms of curriculum, personnel and educational models. The second trajectory (1999 to the present) has been a move towards Chinese Buddhist education and has relied heavily on the connections described at the end of the previous section. These connections have allowed the (Theravāda) monks of Sipsongpannā go to Buddhist institutes, sponsored by wealthy Chinese Buddhists, in Shanghai, Xiamen and Kunming. In these Buddhist institutes, they usually study a Mahāyāna curriculum, as well as secular courses (such as Chinese history and math). The third trajectory, which has been emerging over the last few years has been more explicitly internationalist, and developed in the context of the growth of Buddhism as a transnational and globalized religion. Buddhist colleges and secondary schools in Southeast Asia have provided opportunities for Dai-lue monks to continue their studies in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Singapore. While these educational projects have different relationships to discourses of modernity and practices of modernization, there are several aspects to them which are indicative of the conditions of Buddhist modernity in general. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss fully these conditions, but at a minimum I would suggest it implies notions of secularity with religion being a matter of choice at least in part, a world that assumes the nation-state as the primary form of political organization and that “Buddhism” is a conceptually unified object that can be identified as a world religion. First of all, the educational projects of the Dai-lue suggest that “Buddhist education” takes place in a context deeply shaped by national identity and institutions. Scholarship on Buddhist education from a generation ago argued that the state colonized or domesticated Buddhist institutions.25 While this is true in some ways, the point I want to make here is slightly more subtle; it is that the imagined community of the nation is also productive for religious networks. The obvious example here is that as the Dai-lue have been incorporated into the Chinese Buddhist world, this has opened up the networks that they can access, in particular for educational opportunities. These opportunities have emerged principally in the context of the Buddhist Association, but there have been other opportunities as well. In 2011, the Religious Affairs Bureau of Yunnan began a program oriented to get religious leaders of ethnic minorities university degrees. This included sending several Dai-lue monks to Yunnan University. Moreover, many of the international opportunities of the last few decade (in Sri Lanka and

“Conscripts” of Chinese modernity? 145

Singapore, for example) have come through invitations not to the Sangha in Sipsongpannā, but to the Buddhist Association. In other words, they emerge through channels that are shaped by the nation-state system. The point is not that the state is trying to domesticate the Sangha (which it has worked to do too), but that modern nation-state categories and systems allow opportunities for Dai-lue monks to pursue an advanced education. At the same time, the educational trajectories of the Dai-lue indicate a decreased importance of sectarian frameworks, and an increase in the global idea of Buddhism. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Dai-lue monks went to the Shan States and Northern Thailand for an education, they went on their own, following kinship and ethnic networks that while shaped by modern borders and nationstate politics, predated these shifts. In doing so, they were participating in the maintenance of lineages of “Theravāda” Buddhism in the upper Mekong region. However, in the last decade, they have traveled to colleges or Buddhist Institutes in major Chinese cities and Singapore. Officially, they are learning Mahāyāna Buddhism in these places, though the actual curriculum is often messier. At the Buddhist College of Singapore, for example, there is a deeply complicated mixture of what we might normally think of as Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism. In a class I observed, students were using a text book by Damien Keown to talk about Buddhist ethics, and the Chinese language program is accredited by Mahā-Chulalongkorn University from Thailand. I do not mean to suggest that this place is only Mahāyāna on the surface and really Theravāda underneath; the situation is more complicated. The BCS was established in order to train monks to propagate Chinese Buddhism in English, and this is at least partly out of a concern that Chinese Buddhism was losing out in a global competition for influence to other forms of Buddhism.26 Other Buddhist schools have famous advocates who communicate and publish in English, such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh; Chinese Buddhism does not. The BCS hopes to ensure that there are cohorts of Chinese Buddhists who can spread the Chinese version of the Dharma in English. Ironically, even though the materials that they have to teach Buddhism in English are primarily not from Chinese Buddhism, most of the students and teachers that I interviewed informed me that the differences in Buddhism are not important at the level that the students were studying. Indeed, when I have talked to Dai-lue and Han Chinese monks about their boundary crossing education, they are happy primarily to have the opportunity to study Buddhism in more advanced places.27 There is one final point to highlight here about educational peregrinations that the Dai-lue have pursued. They are marked by a certain degree of entrepreneurialism. The Dai-lue are in a fairly unique position because of accidents of history. They are Chinese citizens, but they live on a border and have had long-standing ties to non-Chinese polities. They are minorities which in the framework of the PRC puts them in a “lower civilizational” status, but they are also part of a unique type of Buddhist in China. Their status as minorities, and as minority Buddhists, and their ties to Tai communities outside of China provides them with a potential set of resources that one might not expect from a relatively poor community in


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southwest China. Moreover, the senior monks of the region are clearly aware of this: they foster networks with Chinese and Southeast Asian monks and politicians; they accept offers of Buddhist charity to educate their younger monks; and when they find that an opportunity does not go the way they want it, they shift priorities.28 There is nothing particularly “modern” about this. Buddhists, like most other people, have been pursuing opportunities that are available to them for a long time. What is different about these pursuits though is that their opportunities and constraints are shaped in no small measure by the modern categories of the nation-state.


During fieldwork in Sipsongpannā, I taught English at the Dhamma School at Wat Pājie for approximately ten months. A week or two before I left the region, I ran into one of the young monks in the class. He was older than most of the other students who were novices, but because he had dropped out of the public school in fourth grade, he was not a particularly good English student. As a result, he was often the butt of light-hearted teasing from his classmates (though to be honest he gave as good as he got). We were chatting about my plans, when all of a sudden I realized he was criticizing me for leaving. What right did I have to leave, he said, when I was their teacher and they would not have the opportunity to have another native speaker come and work with them? This was not about me or my fabulous ability to teach; it was rather about structural inequalities that would (and did) allow me to travel, to get visas easily, to study in China when these monks could not leave. I made my excuses, but I had no good way of answering him. In the last section, I discussed the opportunities that Chinese and Asian modernities have opened up for Dai-lue monks, but it is just as important to remember that modern social and state forms constrain as well as open possibilities. The Dai-lue have a unique set of attributes as Buddhists that they have been able to maximize in some ways to pursue the ends that they find important; but they have also been dealt a fairly bad hand in some ways. They do not have the ability to cross borders at will, they have had to learn a language that many of them did not grow up speaking, their homeland is being developed willy-nilly by colonizers (though it is important to note that this is my term, not theirs to describe Chinese control of the region), and they have to tread carefully lest they raise the baleful eye of the Chinese security apparatus. Theirs is by no means the worst hand possible but it is not strong. They would probably not be listed among the “winners” of modernity. Yet it is would be a mistake to see them as the losers either, and it is in this context that we can begin to get at a better understanding of what my informants were doing in trying to develop the CTBU described above, and also why they described it as “Theravāda.” Education is a resource that the government allows them to develop, and being a unique kind of Buddhist opens doors for them that they might not otherwise have. That is, “Theravāda” in this context is less a

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statement about lineage or quality of Buddhism than it is about an ability to access resources. It might be presumed I am implying these monks and lay Buddhists are not sincere in their Buddhism and that they are simply using to access resources, but this is not the case. Rather, these monks are “conscripts of [Chinese] modernity;”29 they are forced to act within the constraints of the categories and institutions that define the world in which they find themselves.

Notes 1

This chapter is based primarily on short research trips of 1–6 weeks that I have taken to the PRC and Thailand in 2007, 2009 and 2011, but those trips in turn relied on the extended fieldwork I did in Sipsongpannā between 2001 and 2002. 2 Although my colleague referred to the proposed school as the “Chinese Theravada Buddhist University,” the proposed name of the school was the “Chinese College of Pali Buddhism” (中国高级巴利语佛学院). My information about their proposal came from a PowerPoint document that they prepared to pitch the school, and not from the formal proposal that was sent to the Religious Affairs Bureau of Yunnan. I think that officers of the Yunnan Buddhist Association for sharing this document with me. 3 Borchert (2008). 4 Indeed, this is part of what makes Sipsongpannā of interest when thinking about what Theravāda Buddhism is in the contemporary moment. It has a very different experience of colonialism than do other Theravāda polities, and its incorporation into the nation-state systems is also different. In other words, Sipsongpannā is a useful place from which to question the verities of the study of Theravāda Buddhism. 5 Malaria made it difficult for Chinese armies to remain garrisoned in Sipsongpannā. Giersch (2006) has referred to the border regions of Yunnan both as a “Tai crescent” because it was controlled by minor Tai kingdoms and communities and also as a “middle ground” because it was a region that could not be fully controlled over a long period by any one political entity. It was in this context of vacuum by great powers that the cao phandin was the most powerful among relatively weak, or perhaps localized rulers (see also Hill 1998). 6 To be clear, the ethnicity project of the Chinese state is profoundly modernist and scientistic. Keyes (2002) discusses the modern efforts by Asian states to categorize “the people” on putatively scientific grounds. On the “civilizational projects” of the Chinese state, see Harrell (1995). On the ways that minorities have been depicted in official media outlets, see Hoddie and Lou (2009). 7 Kang (2009: 12–13). 8 Scholarship and official documents are fairly clear and consistent in the ways that they depict this. For example, in the preface of Zheng and Tao (1995), on the Dai-lue, they states, “The Daizu are a people who practice rice-paddy agriculture as their primary form of planting, they have their own language, script and the entire nationality believes in Buddhism” (全民信仰佛教, emphasis added). 9 Scott (1999). 10 On the translation of categories into China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries see Liu (1995). On the development of “religion” specifically, see van der Veer (2014). On the governance of “religion” during the Nationalist period, see Nedostup (2010). 11 Some of these constraints are laid out in “Document 19: The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period” (translated in MacInnis 1989), a text put out by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the beginning of the Reform era which spelled out the “proper” role of religion in China after the Cultural Revolution. It should be noted that scholars of religion



13 14 15 16

17 18 19

20 21

22 23

24 25 26 27

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in contemporary China tend to have strong disagreements over whether to see these constraints as stronger or weaker. Much of the answer it seems depends on what religion they specialize in and what part of the country. Yang (2006) has suggested that the best way to think this is in terms of regulatory restraints on different types of religious phenomena. The clearest example of this is “Document 19” (see previous note), where Buddhism is discussed regularly, but never differentiated. There is one mention of “Lamaism,” in a section dealing with minorities, but neither “Theravāda” nor its synonyms such as “Southern Buddhism,” are categories deployed by official documents. See also the “White Paper” from the late 1990s. For some examples of ethnological work, see Li (1983: 113) or Zhao and Wu (1997: 391, 392). For Buddhism or religious studies, see Wang (2001: 367) or Yang (1994: 75–96). See the works cited in the previous footnote. Wang (2001: 368–375) discusses the history of the Dai-lue, and the local kings who ruled the region for about a thousand years before discussing any of the philosophical or sociological aspects of Theravāda. Unsurprisingly, the situation is a bit more complicated than this. Chinese ethnographers (cited above) tend to use the term “Hinayana” rather than “Theravāda,” and Religion or Buddhism scholars are more likely to use “Southern Theravāda” or “Southern.” In any event, “Theravāda” seems to rarely be used without “Southern,” the pejorative aspect of “Hinayana” is essentially glossed over, and none of these discussions ever refer to “Southern Buddhism” as the original form. This was from a PowerPoint document that was used in the application process, not in the documents actually submitted to the Yunnan government. I thank the officers of the Yunnan Buddhist Association for sharing this document with me. For a Similar usage see, Tao (2004: 6). The material from this section draws from Borchert (2010b). There the argument is less about modernization than it is about colonialism, but to the degree that it makes sense to think about Sipsongpannā as having been colonized by the PRC, the modernized and colonial conditions are one and the same. Hill (1998). Some indirect evidence of this: of the city-states that Jing Hong seemed to be in regular competition with, such as Chiang Tung and Chiang Mai, Jing Hong was clearly the weakest in the long durée, suggesting the state itself was not very strong. See Mangrai (2002). Further, people regularly talk about the lack of a standard form of written or spoken Dai-lue, which again suggests a fairly weak state. As Chinese scholars have pointed out. See for example Ma (1988). Li (1983, vol 2). It is worth pointing out that the research for these volumes was done in the 1950s, prior to the decimation of the Sangha in the Cultural Revolution. This model is derived from Ashiwa and Wank (2009). The essays in this volume demonstrate the diverse ways that religious actors and the Chinese state interact. See, e.g., Chau (2009). Kang (2009: 22–23) reports that the BA was established in Sipsongpannā in 1963, abolished in 1966 at the start of Cultural Revolution, and then reestablished in 1980. Ji (2008) has argued that state policies have ironically created in the national BA an institution that is centralized enough and powerful enough to negotiate with the government, a point which I have elaborated on with regard to Sipsongpannā (Borchert 2010a). For example, see Reynolds (1972). Personal communication, Buddhist College of Singapore, March 2010. For an official statement of the goals of the college, see the statement of Ven. Kwang Sheng, the founder of the BCS, at Personal communication, Singapore, May 2010; personal communication, Sipsongpanna, 2011. It is worth comparing this to a survey from Sri Lanka Nathan

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Katz (1988: 145) reported on from the early 1980s in which 3/5 of the Sinhala monks said the Mahāyāna was not an authentic form of Buddhism. 28 I pursue some of these points in Borchert (2017). 29 Scott (2004: 8–9).


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Abhidhamma 18, 42 Adorno, Theodor 8 Anderson, Benedict 25–6, 63 Ariyaratna, A. T. 49 Appadurai, Arjun 103 Asad, Talal 9, 104–5 Aśoka 12–13, 17, 20, 21

Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D 49, 51 B”āṅ Khāt 68 Bauman, Zygmunt 103 biographies 13 Blackburn, Anne 65 Bond, George 49 borān (meditation) 9, 37, 38–40, 42–3 Buddhaghosa 20, 31 Buddha-images 19, 56–7 Buddhist education 144–6

Chakkri dynasty (Thailand) 25, 38, 42–3 Christianity 24, 31–3, 51, 104, 106 Chuon Nath 73–4 Clifford, James 119 Cooper, Frederick 63 Copleston, Bishop 35 Chakkri dynasty (Thailand) 25, 38, 42–3 cremation volumes 62, 65, 68–75 Dai-Lue 132–46 Dambula 58 dāna (gifting) 6 deconstructivism, 84–6 Dehejia, Vidya 127–8 Derrida, Jacques 118–19, 127 Dharmapāla, Anāgārika 49, 60, 79, 108 disciplines (practices) of Self 7, 19 entextualization 20 ethnicity 13, 50–6

Foucault, Michel (dispositif) 3, 5 Finot, Louis 66 friendship 62, 73–4

Gangodawila Soma 109–11, 113–15 Giddens, Anthony 103, 105 Ginsburg, Henry 119 Gombrich, Richard 21, 49–50, 59 governmentality 10 gratitude 70 Gunawardana, Leslie 18 Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Amy 64 Huot-Tāt 68, 73–4

Kalyāṇa-mitt (friend) 63, 72 Kambujasuriyā 66–7 Kandy 58 Kataragama 57–8 kings 9–10, 23, 35 Kiribathgoda Gnānānanda 109, 113–15 Kwon, Heonik 64 Lacan, Jacques 126 Latour, Bruno 9 LeGoff, Jacques 17

Mahāvaṃsa 55 Mahāvimaladhamm Thoṅ 72–3 Malthus, Thomas 34 McMahan, David 10 menarche ritual (in Nepal) 91–2 Muslims (Islam) 10, 24, 104

Ñāṇamoli 20 nationalism 24–5 networks 13 nikāya (sect) 65 nuns 6, 8, 21, 81, 87, 88, 91



Obeyesekere, Gananath 49–50, 56–7 Orsi, Robert 64

Pali imaginaire 3–6, 11, 18 Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) 12, 37, 38 Peiris, G. H. 52 Picasso’s Guernica 132 (jīva) pravatti ([life-] history) 65, 67, 69, 72–5 Polunnaruwa 58 Premadasa, Ranasinghe 51 Rahula, Walpola 54, 105 Rivera, Diego 15, 132 Rhys Davids, T.W. 36

saṅgha (Monastic Order) 13, 65 samatha (pacifying, calming) 38–40 samnāk’ (lineage group) 63, 68, 72 Samuel, Jeffrey, 64 Sanskrit 19 sāsana (teaching, institution) 6, 8, 10, 14, 34, 36, 38, 65–8, 103–4, 113–14 Sayadaw, Ledi 39 science 24, 29–43 secularism 10, 95 Sinhala (people) 49–61 Sipsongpannā 137–9, 141, 142–6 Skilling, Peter 8, 17, 63, 64 Swidler, Anne 4

Tamils 13, 50–6 Taylor, Charles 9, 15, 29, 120–1 technology 56–61 Theosophical Society 32 Theravāda civilization(s) 4–5, 10, 12, 19; definition of 8, 17–18, 64–8, 74–5, 78–97, 107, 114, 121, 137–8; range of practice 3, 81, 89–90 Tit Buaphan 121–5, 127, 129–30, 132, 134–5 tourists (European) 58 Uk-Ḍī 62, 64, 69–70, 74–5

Van Eyck 135 vaṃsa (historical texts) 6, 7 Vajrayāna 14 Velásquez 135 vipassanā (Insight Meditation) 9, 11, 12, 38, 29–31, 37–43

Wat Phumin (Thailand) 122, 124–5, 127–8, 129–34 Weber, Max 19 weizka 40 West, Shearer 125–6 White, Gordon 41 William of Rubruck 32 Wolters, O. W. 23 World Fellowship of Buddhists 14 Wyatt, David 15, 118–35