Friday, September 21, 2007

Ecology and religion

Faith upon the earth - Religion and ecology
839 words
22 September 2007
The Economist
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2007. All rights reserved

Whether they like it or not, ecologists and clerics need each other

In many parts of the world, religious groups and environmental scientists are teaming up—albeit sometimes reluctantly

“THERE was a functioning bridge until 1470 AD,” says Praveen Togadia, a Hindu fundamentalist, smoothing out his dhoti. “Due to natural calamities, it was disturbed, and parts went into the sea.” To modern, secular eyes, at least, the “bridge” is a 30-mile (48km) chain of sandy shoals across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. But millions of Hindus see the shoals as physical proof of their beliefs. The Ramayana, a Hindu text, says a bridge was built by monkeys at the behest of a Hindu god, Ram—who duly crossed over to wrest his wife Sita from a Sri Lankan demon. The shoals are known in India as “Ram Setu”, or “Ram's Bridge”.

Now take a deep breath and consider the conflict over a plan by India's Congress-led government to dredge the strait for a shipping canal. While Hindus loathe the project on spiritual grounds, ecologists have different objections. At the junction of the deep, cold Indian Ocean and the shallow, temperate Arabian Sea, the strait is an ecological prize. So far, 377 endemic species have been found in nearby waters.

On this issue at least, the devoutly religious and the greens are on the same side. But the former, it seems, have more clout than the latter. On September 12th the government told the Supreme Court that the Ramayana was not proof of the existence of Lord Ram; and that science suggested the shoals were made by sedimentation, not monkeys. On the same day, the World Hindu Council, headed by Dr Togadia, staged protests across the country. On September 14th the government, at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, the (Catholic) leader of Congress, put the canal plan on hold: a setback for a government which wanted to save ships from a 24-hour loop round Sri Lanka. With elections due next year, Congress feared giving its Hindu foes in the Bharatiya Janata Party a new slogan.

India's greens have little love for their accidental allies. “I'm not protesting against this project for religious reasons but for environmental ones,” says Kushal Pal Singh Yadav, of the Centre for Science and the Environment, a Delhi think-tank.

In many other parts of the world, secular greens and religious people find themselves on the same side of public debates: sometimes hesitantly, sometimes tactically, and sometimes fired by a sense that they have deep things in common.

One more case from India: ornithologists who want to save three species of vulture (endangered because cattle carcasses are tainted by chemicals) see their best ally as the Parsees, who on religious grounds use vultures to dispose of human corpses.

In China, organised religion is much weaker and conservationists also feel more lonely. But Pan Yue, the best-known advocate of green concerns within the Chinese government, says ancient creeds, like Taoism, offer the best hope of making people treat the earth more kindly.

Other tie-ups between faith and ecology are less obvious. In Sweden, the national Lutheran Church, working with Japanese Shintos, recently held a multi-faith meeting on forestry. They agreed to set a new standard for the care of forests owned or managed by religious bodies—in other words, they said, 5% of the world's woods.

This month, representatives of many faiths, including a local Lutheran bishop and a shivering Buddhist monk (see above) gathered in Greenland to talk to scientists and ecologists. Patriarch Bartholomew, the senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, led his impressively robed guests in a silent supplication for the planet.

The terms of the transaction between faith and ecology vary a lot. In places like Scandinavia, where religion is weakish, a cleric who “goes green” may reach a wider audience; in countries like India, where faith is powerful, spiritual messages touch more hearts than secular ones do. That doesn't stop some environmental scientists from saying they are being hijacked by clerics in search of relevance. But Mary Evelyn Tucker, of America's Yale University, says secular greens badly need their spiritual allies: “Religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack.”

Martin Palmer, of the British-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, says faiths often have the clearest view of the social and economic aspects of an environmental problem. In Newfoundland, he notes, conservationists put curbs on cod fishing—and left the churches to care for families whose living was ruined.

Still, one selling point often used by the religious in their dialogue with science—the fact that faith encourages people to think long-term—may be a mixed blessing. The most pessimistic scientists say mankind has a decade at most to curb greenhouse gases and fend off disastrous global warming; that doesn't leave much time to settle the finer points of metaphysics.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Thai buddhism on the crossroad by Sanitsuda Ekachai

Keeping the Faith: Thai Buddhism at the Crossroads.(Book Review)
Taylor, Jim (American writer)
1839 words
1 April 2003
SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in SE Asia
ISSN: 0217-9520; Volume 18; Issue 1
Copyright 2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

By Sanitsuda Ekachai. Edited by Nick Wilgus. Bangkok: Post Books, 2002. 328 pp.

Sanitsuda Ekachai's new book is a collection of short, critical articles and commentaries on various aspects of contemporary Thai Buddhism, arranged under eight sub-headings with a short introduction. An appealing feature of this ensemble is that "other" voices are heard with reader-friendly and short, insightful comments over debates concerning the relevance and place of contemporary Thai Buddhism, especially monasticism.

The author uses few words and some broad brush strokes to construct some extraordinarily vivid frames of everyday religious life in Buddhist Thailand.

In reviewing a book such as this on Thai Buddhism, we need to ask ourselves what this religion is, which is not always lived in accordance with the texts that most Thais seem to follow and identify with to some extent. The imagination, itself a social fact, is important as a means of informing the way we think, feel and act, in this case in relation to religion. It also accounts for the many expressions of Thai Buddhism that we see around us. Perhaps also these days we need to venture outside the monasteries to experience living religion and what it means in the construction of everyday contemporary life in the villages, towns, and cities. Lest we forget, Thailand is still one of the few remaining Buddhist countries where the Arahant (self-accomplished "saint") ideal--and its liberating possibilities--remains alive and well in the collective imagination. Not so any longer for the wellspring of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, and doubtful in neighbouring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. It seems to me that many Thais are now asking the question: if these "acclaimed" exemplars or monastic teachers are still around, where are they to be found?

Modern Buddhists would seem to claim that what is needed these days is a system of standardization as a requirement for continued monastic registration. Imagine, if you will, a situation in this period of globalization where each monastery (and monks), like many businesses in Thailand, would carry an "ISO" classification engraved over the front gate; for those "good monasteries" able to show that they have adhered to "best-practice standards". But, more seriously, who would determine what is "best practice"--monks or laity?

As an expression of diversity, Thai monasticism, we are told, needs to recognize the contribution of monk-activists engaged in this world, in as much as it recognizes the normative spiritual achievement of the reclusive, disengaged meditative "Path" questers (to be found among the remaining forest enclaves). This is certainly a theological mute point. These modern activist-exemplars are to be found in urban monasteries, places of teaching and learning, various refuges, rural community centres, conservation sites, and hospices. Importantly, as the author says, while encouraging a worldly engagement we should not forget the all-important questions of monastic discipline.

In the past decade or so we have been overwhelmed by media accounts of serious monastic infringements, abuses of monastic privilege and power. These are the "other" images of Thai Buddhism that are not usually affixed to either glossy tourist brochures and postcards to send back home, or media representations, circulated and consumed widely through both print and electronic media (Thai and English). These images have not been favourable to defining a respectable "place" for Buddhism in modern Thai society. At this point we may ask ourselves, what, if anything, has gone wrong with Thai Buddhism in recent times? Or has the media had a greater influence than we realize? There is not much talk around about "good monks", as these persons are in any case hardly "newsworthy" (unless the reader believes there are no exemplary practising monks left any more--which I do not believe, and clearly neither does the author--though we may differ on what constitutes an "ideal" monk).

Sanitsuda Ekachai attempts to capture this complexity, while at the same time show us that there are "other" religious possibilities, mainly from the social interstices. At the same time the author shares the concerns of many educated Thais in suggesting that Thai Buddhism needs to be linked to the wider processes of democratic reform so that internal change can likewise occur in the Sangha (male and female monastic orders). The assumption is that Thai Buddhism is in a state of "crisis" needing serious structural attention and that little trust can be placed in the monastic elders who, we are told, are unaware of current social realities. The position throughout (in so far as it is possible to identify a consistent thread) starts on the premise that the forces of modernization in Thailand have destroyed the fundamental basis of tradition, especially cultural forms such as religion. This has led to a new materialistic and individuated society based on consumption.

Thais, it would appear, clearly like to go shopping instead of going to the monastery, or in a manner of speaking, the Buddha has been "relocated" in the shopping centres and arcades. Thus said, we need to be careful in assuming cultures are static, without any capacity to change through internal and external influences. Thai Buddhism has always been contested and changing (Is this not one of the fundamental tenants of Buddhism?) and, in going with historic flows, this has accounted for its continuities.

It is from global realities that Thailand struggles to find a new identity. It is from this scenario, as the author makes another important thematic point, that Theravada Buddhism in Thailand has re-established a new "relevance" for "modern Thai life and problems" (p. 10); a religion that is, contrary to contemporary images, "still alive and well in the Thai psyche" (p. 11).

The responses from the Sangha to the conditions of modernity have been mixed and not without tensions and contradictions involving various actors. Everyone, it seems, has something to say concerning "problems" over discipline, monastic training, and the maintenance of religious sanctity.

Many of the case studies in this book received media attention over the past decade or so due, in no small part, to the author herself writing on social issues for the Bangkok Post. The reader is taken through some depressing scenarios of monastic corruption and scandals on the one hand, and tales of hope and promise on the other. The compilation (even if the reader has already read some of these accounts penned by the author) gives a broad overview of a modern society in change, especially through the confused and traumatic social and economic crisis of the late 1990s. However, unfortunately, the events of 1997 were not clearly factored into the discussions and implications for Thai Buddhist practices.

Although "other" voices are heard in the text, the author also makes her own position clear, which is in support for the reform Dhamma heritage of the late modernist scholar-monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and, correspondingly, an active, engaged monastic order (male and female). This engaged "here-and-now" Buddhism (espoused by the well-known Sulak Sivaraksa) confronts contemporary concerns and issues (women's rights, environment and conservation, social equity, justice, and so forth), reaching out to a society clearly much in need of spiritual nourishment. The proviso is that these "concerned" monks keep to the disciplinary charter; though how they do this while being "engaged" and "this-worldly" (as they are encouraged to do so) is not fully addressed--as are the inherent contradictions in this proposition.

Monks gain respect and veneration precisely because of a ritual separation from society at large, where the temptations of ordinary life are minimized. Even Buddhadasa Bhikkhu--particularly popular among the Thai middle class--preferred a forest hermitage for his contemplation and scholastic pursuits.

The very problems confronting modern monks have been a blurring of spatial boundaries with the gradual attrition from the simple, distanced, reclusive life. In other words, the increasing worldliness of monks has created its own problems--as it did in the West among Protestant and Catholic clergy. There was even talk of whether Buddhist monks should be allowed to marry if they are going to be more engaged in the world.

In the matter of "keeping the faith", the modern-day problems are indeed complicated, but the solution is simple if we go back (forward?) to the essence of (timeless) dhamma practice. In the present "crisis" we need to understand the practical implications of the monastic discipline, and its limitations on worldly engagement. It is not possible to have it both ways. The Theravada monastic discipline is to ensure that being a monk, even these days, is unambiguous and without hindrance. It is in ambiguous situations that confusion arises.

For most ordinands, keeping the minutiae of the discipline is not easily done and disciplinary infractions occur with increasing frequency because monks, after all, are human. There are many Thais who have fallen into a crisis in "faith" over the condition of the contemporary Bhikkhu Sangha. Some even believe that most of the remaining good monastic teachers have now established branch monasteries outside the country, especially in the West, while one or two alleged monastic miscreants were forced to flee the country out the back door for fear of facing criminal proceedings. But, looking at the situation overall, these cases were few and far between. In regard to the question of women in Thai Buddhism, the author is most articulate: "It boils down to power: the male-dominated order wants to continue excluding women from entering and sharing monks' sphere of authority" (p. 287). It is not that the author is necessarily incorrect in her moral assessments--it is more a question of whether all concerns, even more conservative ones, have been adequately considered.

The progressive position is that if the Sangha's administrative structure (and its geriatric monk-administrators) is not in accordance with modern norms and values, it should be changed. After all, Thailand is rapidly changing. The same argument is heard over the necessity of providing secular education to monks to enable them to keep abreast with the informational world-in-change, especially information technology, though issuing bachelor's degrees to ambitious monks, or a new digital monastic order ("Cyber-Sangha") does not, in itself, ensure a "better fit" monastic order that is more able to respond to contemporary social needs than now.

There would be little to disagree about the subtext in the book, with its concerns for much-needed reform, which also seeks connection back to the untainted origins of the teachings. The book is about the concern in making "faith" work in the present; making the varieties of Thai Buddhism relevant and meaningful in today's world in order to "keep faith". Thai Buddhism, in a sense, may be at a "crossroads", but to my mind it all depends on perspectives, ways of seeing and understanding, and which particular road one is looking down.

Jim Taylor is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Adelaide, South Australia.

The journey of one buddhist nun

The journey of one Buddhist nun. (Book Reviews: Thailand).(Book Review) (book review)
Ashley Thompson
2488 words
1 February 2003
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 34; Issue 1
Copyright 2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved. COPYRIGHT 2003 Singapore University Press Pte Ltd.

The journey of one Buddhist nun

Sid Brown

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 180. Notes, Bibliography, Index.

The journey of one Buddhist nun gives an invaluable account of Thai Buddhism in practice. The account is invaluable -- beyond value, more valuable than any value -- not simply for its content but also because in some important way it is offered without the expectation of a return: Sid Brown's patent intent is to give without measure. The intention is that of one engaged in Buddhism and in life, in Buddhism today and, more specifically, in the life of a contemporary Thai Buddhist nun (maechi) named Wabi. The book is explicitly offered to a deceased brother, and implicitly to Maechi Wabi. We begin, then, with the sacral gravity of the gift -- a book offered to those who can not read it.

Yet the author's gift lies also in a remarkable capacity to measure her account. From an unbounded field of sources, ranging from the immense Pali canon to the immense life of Maechi Wabi, Brown has harvested and winnowed an extraordinary amount of material. With the essential that remains she tells a series of inter-related stories. These are, most importantly, the on-going stories of Meechi Wabi, of the institutionalisation of the Buddhist nunhood in Thailand and also a certain story of Sid Brown. Together, these stories engage numerous issues of interest to students of Buddhism and contemporary Southeast Asia, as well as to those seeking to explore questions of sexual difference and processes of globalisation.

The author's inaugural goal, as evidenced throughout the book by a sustained interlacing of canonical material with field observation and as stated in the Appendix, was to represent a living Buddhist tradition, 'textually defined but also, most assuredly, culturally defined and defining' (143). Interplay between Pali text and Thai practice is indeed well represented, at once in the words and actions of Maechi Wabi and other Thai Buddhists documented by Brown, and in the author's narrative trajectory as she brings her own textual knowledge to bear in interpreting experience. This approach posits a system of mobile exchange in which no single entity can be simply fixed, isolated, reduced and understood as such. Texts inform and explain practice as practice illuminates and motivates the use and production of texts. Similarly, the narrator frequently changes place with the narrated as Brown tells both her story and that of Wabi, including translations of Wabi's interpretations of her own and Sid Brown's stories. This approach, in a book meant not just to describe or analyse but in some sense to teach, is best exploited on the subject of meditation.

Meditation takes on increasing importance as The journey progresses. We follow the gradual amplification of Wabi's engagement in meditation, along with her and others' descriptions of increasingly intense meditation visions and experience. This attention to meditation reaches a climax at the book's centre (Chapter 6) in which the author pursues her own and Wabi's Buddhist interpretations of meditation experience. These interpretations are framed, more or less consciously, within the particular sociological, psychological and intellectual realms which the two protagonists -- Wabi and Brown -- inhabit. Still following Maechi Wabi, and as if coming down from the high point of meditative intensity, the narrative focus begins then to gradually shift to the life story of the Institute of Thai Maechi. In this way, the author takes us into the experience of meditation. We learn of the visions as recounted and analysed by the nuns themselves, and through the narrative staging, we ourselves undergo a sort of meditative experience. Comparisons made by Brown between the experience of reading and that of meditation, though somewhat problematic if only for their brevity, are in a sense performed by the narrative. This reading experience appropriately includes a sense of vacuity -- not necessarily that of meditation's most rarefied element but rather that of leaving such a state to re-enter the mundane world.

This is the world of the Institute responsible for administrating Thai Maechi and in which focus strays from meditation. In this institutional context, one wonders to what extent meditation, while supported as one of many activities (including classes on Buddhist doctrine, general education, sewing and flower arrangement), may in fact lose its focus. The paradox of teaching meditation -- and perhaps of any teaching at all -- is thus coupled with the dilemma of the institution. How can one relate knowledge of experience -- that is, knowledge of a specific experience and knowledge attainable only through singular personal experience? Yet meditation must be taught -- the dangers of unguided exploration, feared in many traditional Buddhist contexts, are made apparent by Maechi Wabi. How can an Authority authorise the most interior individual experience? Yet individual freedom is inseparable from, and strictly speaking inconceivable without, some form of institutional frame.

Although these issues are not explicitly addressed in a sustained manner, this book offers a detailed look at a very telling example: in the present socio-economic and cultural context, Thai women's freedom in such religious practice is highly dependent upon institutional support. It is in fact the first encounter with this inextricable paradox which triggers a formative crisis of faith for Maechi Wabi. It is doubt in the honesty of teaching -- in the very possibility of teaching honestly -- a doubt in the authority of authorities, which brings Wabi to nearly lose and then reconfirm her Buddhist faith.

Her story is like that of many contemporary Thai Buddhist nuns. Seeking refuge in the nunhood was seeking refuge from poverty and domestic abuse or unhappiness. But she is exemplary in another sense: rigorously compassionate, giving, hard-working, studious and calm, she is, in Brown's account, a model Buddhist nun. In cultivating such traits, Wabi has improved her lot in life, or rather reaped the merits sown in this and past lives. The explanation of Wabi's life is not, however, hermetically sealed within Buddhist doctrine. Brown shows Wabi's life to be not strictly of her own fashioning, but also largely affected by the course of contemporary history. Understanding the intricacies of this singular life within the context of both Thai nation-building trends and massive globalisation (and it should be noted that at least in the current state of affairs these two forces have contracted a manage de raison) requires extraordinary analytical agility, open to critiquing East and West, and capable of standing on pe rpetually shifting ground. Those points in The journey in which Sid Brown seems to lose her footing are precisely such points of translation: linguistic, cultural, intellectual, political translation. These are faults only insofar as, uncovered by the reader, they lay bare the chasms created when different worlds or continents meet.

The author's notably recurrent appeal to choice provides an intriguing demonstration of the complexities of the interpretive task at hand. The temple in which Wabi lives is said to be a 'community of choice' (104); Wabi is frequently said to have 'chosen' her path. The establishment of choices for Thai girls and women is lauded as a goal and accomplishment. The nun's alter-ego in this Thai women's history play is of course the prostitute. Both have left a difficult home for homelessness; they are of similar socio-economic origins. In Brown's narrative, however, an important distinction between the two lies in the question of choice: while the prostitute is forced into her vocation, the nun enters voluntarily. This attribution of choice to the nun is an explicit attempt to combat contemporary Thai preconceptions of the nun as a woman who, having lost in love, 'chose' the nunhood only out of desperation, not unlike the prostitute. More implicitly, the interpretation reflects a certain and steady spread of Ameri can political culture which promotes choice in stripping it of philosophical and political complexity. A more precise calculation of the degree of choice exercised by Wabi and other Thai nuns, or even by the Institute for Thai Maechi could be had, for example, by investigating the duplicity of karma as it masterfully conjugates determinism and its opposite, free will.

Like Wabi's multiple 'choices' made to enter the nunhood, the 'choice' to establish the Institute of Thai Maechi was a complex one. The Institute can be seen in many ways as itself born of prostitution. Steadily expanding and increasingly institutionalised sexual exploitation of poor girls and women in Thailand over the course of the twentieth century necessitated a concerted institutional effort to provide a viable alternative path for these vulnerable populations. Though not of course without roots in traditional culture, both institutions have been established as such in close conjunction with the unrelenting machine of globalisation. On the one hand, since the Vietnam War, Thailand has been exploited as an international prostitution playground. On the other, American feminism (and here I pose another question to Sid Brown: would many references to 'Western' not be more precisely construed as 'American' -- whether or not they come directly from American nationals?) directly incited Thai authorities to form alise female roles within Buddhist hierarchies. In both its working structures and its philosophy, the Institute owes much to Thai social and cultural complexes, of course, but also to Western-inspired forms of private organisation, grassroots resistance and good works. Though Brown delineates this Western influence, she leaves it more or less unanalysed. We are left with a number of vast and imprecise ideas, such as that of choice being what Thai nuns need or want or have.

American hegemony also makes itself felt in The journey's referential frame. The foreign case in hand is repeatedly illuminated by reference to contemporary American scholarship on a wide variety of issues, including but by no means limited to Buddhism. This shuttling between Thailand and America would seem to aim at isolating universal truths shared by all cultures, and to give an American public access to a distant subject. In the process, the most essential point -- i .e., the universality of truth, the very notion of truth as a fixed, self-sufficient concept -- remains unquestioned. See, for example, the observation (p. 73) that 'meditation removes the "bulwarks of ignorance" when we might otherwise actively refuse knowledge of truth'. The American referents, summoned in view of demonstrating the universality of the Thai Buddhist example, are, like the concept of choice, left unanalysed. In the name of laudable and indeed necessary ideals, difference is elided.

A certain nostalgia, even conservatism, enveloping the text at times is not without relation to this lack of analytical edge. Many readers would undoubtedly welcome sustained analysis of the structure of a feminist path like that of Wabi, explicitly based on emulation of the father who abandons the family; of the significance of sexual repression and expression within the Thai nunhood and so apparent in Wabi's life; of the significance of Catholicism within contemporary institutionalisation of the Thai nunhood. Those for whom sewing or flower arrangement classes (or the Vessantarajataka tales) have no place in feminism, and those who see danger in the unsounded naivete of American political culture at large, may particularly suffer from this absence. Brown's determination to celebrate the courage of those who obtain or make it possible to obtain high school diplomas at a late age, like those who demonstrate compassion when struck, tends to inhibit acknowledgement of irreducible complexity. 'Choices' made, con sciously or not, to winnow out certain details of Buddhist narrative parallel such analytical lacunae. Though we are told, for example, the story of the Buddha's disgust at the sight of revellers drooling in their sleep the day after, never are we told these revellers were women. Though we are told the story of Mahapajapati's long struggle with her son the Buddha to gain his authorisation for acceptance of women into the Buddhist order, never are we told the severe conditions under which authorisation was finally accorded. Sid Brown has told a compelling story; we should however remember to what extent this story is her own in the making.

As final note on language, this book is a vast translation. I would like to reiterate my admiration for the skill and care with which Wabi's life has been given to us. Here again, those points at which translation seems wanting reveal the impossibility of perfect exchange. Yet it is precisely here, where language resists facile translation, that careful analysis can best demonstrate how specific cultures articulate, in their own terms, universal truths. One of these points arises with the Pali/Thai term dhammata/thamata (p. 58-9). That this single word is spelled differently in its Pali and Thai forms leads, first, to confusion. Commentary in the text and the Appendix do not sufficiently clarify the issues at hand. Never are we told, for example, that Pali words are transliterated letter for letter while Thai is phonetically transcribed. Never is it made clear that Dhammata and thamata are virtually (etymologically at the very least) one and the same word. Relationships between Pali/Sanskrit and Southeast Asi an vernaculars, though relatively straightforward, are frequently difficult for Western students to grasp. This is largely due to an initial inability to envisage how one language could be written in any number of scripts. A more careful presentation of this situation would have facilitated reading this book and, more generally, conceiving Indian languages as cultural vehicles in Thai. The transliteration of the Thai form, dharrmata, gives in fact an interesting link to an extraTheravadin past: Thai 'suchness' retains reference to Sanskrit, most probably brought to Thai through Khmer. The uninformed reader is likely instead to understand there to be two related words which mean two different things: in Pali: 'suchness,' and in Thai: 'normal'. Understanding the semantically extensive use of thamata in Thai, be it in a secular or a religious context, gains from an understanding of the term's religious roots. The fact that these roots are not entirely cut in popular Thai usage allows Wabi to come to an intensely religious insight of the term. 'Normal' is in fact far too normal a translation for thamata.

It is, on the other hand, the informed reader who may wish for clarification of the translation 'heartmind'. While we learn the relatively irrelevant fact that 'food', is gap khao ('with rice') in Thai (p. 8), never are we given the original of 'heartmind', a key concept recurring throughout the book. Is this the Thai chai or a Pali 'equivalent'? These are of course details, but details which, carefully studied, could bring us that much closer to the 'heartmind' or the 'suchness' of Thai Buddhism -- to its specificity, there where it promises to communicate a universal.

Total number of pages for this article: 5 FULL TEXT Singapore University Press Pte Ltd.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A land where God is absent - Human society by Charles Taylor

A land where God is absent - Human society
By Charles Taylor.
961 words
8 September 2007
The Economist
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2007. All rights reserved

The Western world may believe that it has liberated itself from clerical power, but divinity just keeps on breaking in

IN MEDIEVAL Christendom it was almost impossible not to believe in a transcendent power that determined human destiny. In the modern West there are contexts where the absence of any such power is so deeply assumed that religious belief becomes almost impossible to articulate. When people from theistic cultures meet those who think in a “modern” way, it can be difficult for the two sides to communicate at all. Something even more impenetrable than a language barrier is at work.

The possibility of understanding reality without reference to God is often seen as one of the defining features of the modern era. It follows that an abiding theme of Western history is a weakening of religion's power, even in countries where people remain relatively pious. That, of course, is a huge over-simplification and Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, has devoted more than 800 pages to picking it apart—without completely denying it. The Western world's gradual movement towards something he calls “secularity” is what gives shape and meaning to his book.

Objections to the view that secularism has been Western history's driving force come easily enough. By some measures, the power of religion (including its power to inspire fanaticism and hatred) is rising again in the early years of the 21st century. Moreover, there have been periods (including most of America's modern history) when the formal practice of religion has been on the increase.

Understandably, then, one of Mr Taylor's keenest concerns is to show that man has not progressed down a simple, linear path from one mode of consciousness to another. Modernity, he argues, implies a huge range of possible ways of thinking, including many variations of theism and atheism.

It is also significant that theocracy is not monolithic either. Societies can be brutally theocratic in either or both of two senses. Sometimes worldly rulers draw on religious symbolism to enforce their authority, impress their subjects or legitimise war. Alternatively, “pure” clerical power can use its prerogatives (over sacraments like baptism or marriage or absolution) to exercise authority over everybody else, including worldly rulers. Neither kind of theocratic power can guarantee that its subjects are deeply religious in their personal consciousness; indeed the opposite is very often the case.

Working through Mr Taylor's careful but idiosyncratic prose (a mixture of colloquialisms, technical jargon and terms that he has invented or redefined), one finds big nuggets of insight, useful to almost anybody with an interest in the progress of human society. His book is not exactly a history of secularism; he is a philosopher, not a historian. The account does have a chronological element, but it is more a vast ideological anatomy of possible ways of thinking about the gradual onset of secularism as experienced in fields ranging from art to poetry to psychoanalysis.

Intricate as it is, there are certain threads that run through Mr Taylor's argument. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution made it possible to think about the material world without reference to any transcendent power. He calls this way of thinking the “immanent frame”. But this frame is not hermetically sealed. People's yearning for, or intuition of, some ultimate meaning continues to break through in many different ways. One sign of divinity “breaking in” is the transcendental experience which can still be undergone by rational, modern people; he cites several descriptions of such moments, including one by Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president.

Mr Taylor accepts that the “liberation” from clerical power (over thought and society) that occurred during the Enlightenment amounted to something real and legitimate. But he picks apart some crude versions of post-Enlightenment secularism. In some secularist accounts, he notes, religion is presented as an odd, temporary delusion into which mankind was unfortunate enough to fall for a brief moment. Once science had proved the falsehood of religious statements about the origins of the world, man could “revert” to a more “natural” way of thinking. Mr Taylor argues that a secular, scientific way of thinking is also a sort of existential choice, a particular moment in human development rather than a “natural” state of affairs.

Mr Taylor also lays bare the inconsistencies of some secular critiques of religion. Many modern thinkers have criticised Christianity as a faith of repressive, life-denying killjoys; they say that by holding up asceticism as the ultimate ideal, Christianity denies the value of existence as it is enjoyed by most ordinary people, including erotic love and family life. At the same time, a more Nietzschean critique is advanced, finding that Christianity rejects humanity's most extreme passions, including those that drive people to accomplish heroic deeds. Mr Taylor argues that the task of holding together the ideal, the passionate and everyday life is as much a difficulty for post-Enlightenment secularists as it is for Christians.

Mr Taylor's field of study is the Christian West, broadly speaking Europe and North America—and that is more than enough to fill his pages. But he would not have to look very far outside that world to find new answers to the religious problems that he so meticulously describes. How, for instance, can the pious affirm the sanctity of the human body while urging people to discipline their bodily desires? Eastern Christianity, which takes a less pessimistic view of human nature than Augustine or Aquinas did, has answers to such dilemmas; so has Buddhism. But to go down those routes would, at Mr Taylor's careful pace, require thousands more pages of intricately woven argument.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people by Du, Shanshan

Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people.(Book Review)
Du, Shanshan
857 words
1 June 2004
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 35; Issue 2
Copyright 2004 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people By ANTHONY R. WALKER New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing, 2003. pp. xxxi, 907. Maps, Figures, Plates, Bibliography, Notes, Index. DOI: 10.1017/S0022463404230181

As one of the most politically marginalised ethnic minorities living along both sides of the border between southwest China and several Southeast Asian countries, the Lahu people, along with their cultural traditions, have drawn little academic attention in either Chinese- or English-language literature. Resulting from intensive fieldwork and library research that spans 35 years, Anthony Walker's Merit and the millennium is a monumental work on Lahu religion. The extraordinary detail of its ethnographic descriptions, which some will treasure while others may debate, is further enriched by a large number of excellent illustrations and photographs. Complementarily, Walker's library research accesses archival material, historical sources, photographs and missionary reports on Lahu residents in several countries, giving admirable historical depth and comparative scope to this book. Contributing greatly to Lahu studies, this book will also become a valuable resource for specialists in Southeast Asia and religious studies in general.

The book has 11 chapters. Following two introductory chapters, Chapters 3 through 9 explore the religious ideas and ritual practices of the Lahu majority and Chapters 10 and 11 explore the cultural continuities and discontinuities among the Christian Lahu, who make up about 10 per cent of the population. Furthermore, while Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8 all focus on indigenous Lahu traditions, Chapters 6, 7 and 9 highlight the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. On the one hand, all four of the chapters on traditions emphasise non-Buddhist features of the Lahu region, exploring respectively indigenous ontology and worldviews, animist ritual practices, the pursuit of merits and blessings versus sorcery practices, and rituals concerning annual and life cycles. The three chapters on Buddhist influences respectively examine Mahayana Buddhism in Lahu history, the similarities shared by contemporary temple rituals across different Lahu regions and the critical role prophets played in Lahu millenarianism in both historical and contemporary contexts.

In addition to a comprehensive presentation of the complexity of religious ideas and practices across the different Lahu communities, this book also addresses several important theoretical issues in Lahu studies. Most importantly, Walker provides an insightful explanation for a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that is crucial to our understanding of Lahu culture and history. Specifically, although characterised as socially egalitarian and culturally autonomous in addition to being well known for their frequent armed resistance against various external powers, the Lahu have also drawn considerable interest for their spectacularly large-scale conversions to Christianity. Availing himself of several sociological theories on prophetic millenarianism, Walker argues that struggles for ethnic survival and cultural renewal have fused with mystic faith. The result has been that, while Lahu warriors faced the might of imperial China in addition to British and Burmese bullets (p. 546) with faith-based courage, there has been a massive zeal in embracing the Christian Messiah (p. 628). These analyses challenge, although only implicitly, the hegemony in most of the Chinese-language literature of Marxist-Leninist approaches to account for the large-scale Lahu resistance movements against local Dai officials and the imperial Chinese state.

Another major theoretical contribution of this book is the attempt to identify and explain the particularity of Lahu theism within the wider context of mainland Southeast Asia. Based on detailed comparative data on a large number of Lahu communities, Walker provides a fascinating illustration of how the Lahu across a wide expanse of regions and numerous countries all share, to a great extent, beliefs and rituals oriented towards the creator-divinity named Xeul Sha. The author also sharply and convincingly points out that, in contrast to similar creator-divinities among other Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples, the Lahu deity (Xeul Sha) is unique for being believed to be involved in and to determine the daily lives of human beings. After successfully identifying the traits of Mahayana Buddhism in many temple rituals revolving around Xeul Sha worship, the author traces the source of its uniqueness to the dramatic impact--especially through Lahu millenarian resistance movements (p. 628)--of the transcendental Buddhahood of Mahayana Buddhism (p. 161). However, it may be more accurate to state that Mahayana Buddhism greatly intensified, rather than determined, the significance of Xeul Sha in Lahu socio-religious life. After all, few Buddhist influences are identifiable in the encyclopaedia-like Lahu origin myths that revolve around Xeul Sha and lay the foundation for the Lahu worldview and rituals. Specifically, unlike temple rituals and despite their sporadic incorporation of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist components, household rituals are often not only oriented towards Xeul Sha, but also closely concordant with indigenous Lahu origin myths.

Notwithstanding the risk of some controversy, Walker's work will stimulate further scholarly explorations of the mystic fusion in Lahu culture of theism with animism, which are often considered two extremes in the continuum of religious beliefs across cultures.

Doubts are as old as faith and rationality by Jennifer Michael Hecht

BOOK REVIEW Doubts are as old as faith and rationality, and as vital
811 words
31 January 2004
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Copyright (c) 2004 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the introduction to Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht reveals a major reason why she decided to write a comprehensive chronicle of such a subject: "Once we see it as its own story, rather than as a mere collection of shadows on the history of belief, a whole new drama appears and new archetypes begin to come into focus."

Hecht, an assistant professor of history at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y., and an award-winning poet, brings uncommon intelligence, wit and sensitivity to bear in her discussion of this drama, and the book's subtitle offers an indication of its breadth and depth: "The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation From Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson."

In Hecht's view, the fundamental difference between believers and doubters resides in their responses to an existential truth.

"We live in a meaning rupture because we are human and the universe is not," she writes.

While believers seek comfort and consolation in this situation, doubters simply confront it and accept its implications. In Hecht's words, doubt "prizes [the] rigorous approach to truth above the delights of belief."

BELIEF AND DOUBT TOGETHER Hecht begins her historical survey with ancient doubters, and her discussions of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans constitute an overview of Greek philosophy. Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), in particular, emerges as a hero of doubt, and Hecht distills the essence of his wisdom as, "The world was not made by the gods and it was not made for us. We may enjoy it in peace."

Two millennia later, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson remarked, "I too am an Epicurean."

Like the magnificent Roman doubters Cicero, Lucretus, Pliny the Elder, Lucian and Marcus Aurelius, the Jews of ancient Alexandria developed a tradition of sly cosmopolitan doubt that persisted through such luminaries as Maimonides and Spinoza, and which continues in the present day. Hecht finds precedents for this current of Jewish skepticism in the Hebrew Bible, most notably in Job and Ecclesiastes.

Hecht conceives the relationship between belief and doubt as a subtle symbiosis in which each influences the other. This interaction is nowhere as evident - or as important - as in the genesis of Christianity. In reaction to the Greeks' rationalism, skepticism and secularism, Christianity based itself entirely on belief, and in the process changed the character of doubt.

Beginning with Jesus and Paul, Hecht traces this transformation, in which doubt is no longer "about getting to the bottom of what's real, but rather ... is all about actively trying to commit oneself to belief, and momentarily at least, failing." Hecht details this new inflection of doubt through an array of Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Kierkegaard.

The book also contains informative discussions of Muslim doubters, ancient and modern, as well as elaborations of the nontheistic and profoundly skeptical traditions of Cavraka in India and Buddhism in India, China and Japan. Hecht demonstrates that Zen Buddhism is among the most unrelentingly skeptical traditions in Asia, and she cites one of its most famous admonitions: "great doubt: great awakening; little doubt: little awakening; no doubt: no awakening."

A WHO'S WHO OF DOUBT Finally, Hecht traces doubt in the West from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution to the modern world, and in the process masterfully records the contributions to human knowledge and self-understanding of a wealth of brilliant and courageous personalities, many of whom endured brutal persecution at the hands of violent, credulous fools.

She mentions Michel Montaigne, Galileo, John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Sartre and Camus.

The history of American doubt is ably represented, as well, by such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain. And the book's final chapters will especially delight people who enjoy reading about well-deserved rebukes to ignorance and folly.

The experience of reading Doubt: A Historyis akin to drinking a glass of cool well water: Both clear the head and freshen the spirit. While there are many compelling reasons for recommending the book, in its conclusion, Hecht offers what is perhaps the most important: "Most crucially, the murderous tension surrounding fundamentalism right now demands that the history of doubt be understood, and that secularists, arguing for cosmopolitan tolerance, be deeply conversant with its history."

Robert Neralich has a doctorate in English and teaches Asian studies at Fayetteville High School. Write to him c/o Northwest Religion Editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, P.O. Box 5105, Springdale, Ark. 72765, or e-mail:

How the Buddha still speaks to a modern city by Dr Elizabeth Harris

ANALYSIS: How the Buddha still speaks to a modern city
By Dr Elizabeth Harris
774 words
5 September 2007
Birmingham Post
(c) 2007 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd

Today, in our series investigating 'What makes a Good City?', we look at the Buddhist and Muslim perspectives. Buddhism expert Dr Elizabeth Harris argues diversity is essential, while DrJabal Buaben, a lecturer on Islam at Birmingham University, states it depends on a morally principled society Buddhist Perspective

A city is a place of radical plurality - plurality of religion, belief, ethnicity, culture, economic status, political affiliation, sexuality and ability. How to manage this plurality is a major challenge for any city authority. For plurality can be explosive if awareness of difference is triggered by international events, perceived discrimination or resentment about unequal distribution of resources. Different words and phrases have been coined to describe the task of making a city harmonious: integration; cohesion; regeneration; renewal; capacity-building; gaining stakeholder confidence; co-responsibility; co-existence.

What can the insights of Buddhism offer to this? Buddhism as we know it today began in the 5th century BCE with a 29 year old, Sid-dhartha Gautama, leaving an aristocratic home in north-east India to become an itinerant religious searcher and then preacher. According to Buddhist practitioners, he became a Buddha - one who had awoken to the truth that upholds the cosmos - after six years of exploration. He taught this truth for about 40 years, forming around him a fourfold community of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns.

He died at an advanced age surrounded by loving disciples, having created a movement that was to spread throughout northern India, Central Asia and far beyond. Can what he taught speak to a modern city? Buddhists would say it can for two main reasons: the context of India in the 5th century BCE was not completely unlike the 21st century; the teaching of the Buddha transcends the particular and can speak to the human condition throughout time.

Buddhism was successful in India because it offered something for the whole of society. Not only did the Buddha call upon people to leave their families to follow him as celibate members of an Order, he also advised rulers and inspired many who remained deeply involved in family life. He did this against a backdrop of growing urbanization, economic change and a plethora of competing beliefs and ideologies.

Those who left their homes to follow him had to compete for lay patronage in a market-place of religious practices and political affiliations. It is also clear from the earliest Buddhist texts, the Therava da Buddhist Canon, that there was violence in the Buddha's India.

One stereotype of Buddhism is that it is about individual well-being and peace only. The texts challenge this. They are often about society.

The aristocratically-born Buddha is seen as an adviser to kings and political leaders, in times of war and conflict. References to torture methods, the consequences of war, communal conflict, criminality, patronage, poverty and privilege pepper the Canon. For instance, when speaking about the dangers of selfish craving in one discourse, the Buddha is recorded as saying:

"Again, with sensual pleasures as the causemen break into houses, plunder wealth, commit burglary, ambush highways, seduce others' wives and when they are caught, kings have many kinds of torture inflicted on them. The kings have them flogged with whips, beaten with canes, beaten with clubs; they have their hands cut off, their feet cut off, their ears and noses cut off "

At one level, this may seem a world away from 21st century Europe. There are no highwaymen on horseback or kings with a license to torture, at least not in England.

However, there are muggings, cases of anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and robberies, from mobile phones to personal identities. And torture has certainly not left the world scene. Buddhists would say that the teachings of the Buddha have as much to say to this situation as to the 5th century BCE.

A Buddhist code of conduct for a good city would stress courtesy, respect and willingness to engage in dialogue where differences between people become acrimonious.

The Buddha originally attracted followers by inviting them to come and see if his teachings worked; to see if they actually led to the decrease of suffering and greater harmony.

On the evidence we have, the Buddha was concerned about what worked, about what could be valued empirically. He sometimes avoided dogmatic statements because of this.

It is empirically obvious that a society will be more harmonious if people of different world-views or from different cultural backgrounds listen to one another with respect and courtesy; if people feel valued and affirmed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The evolution of Morality and Religion by Keith Green

The Evolution of Morality and Religion: A Biological Perspective.(Book Review)
Green, Keith
2653 words
1 September 2005
Religious Studies
ISSN: 0034-4125; Volume 41; Issue 3
Copyright 2005 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Donald M. Broom The Evolution of Morality and Religion: A Biological Perspective. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Pp. xi + 229. [pounds sterling]50.00 (Hbk), [pounds sterling]18.95 (Pbk). ISBN 0 521 82192 (Hbk), 0 521 52924 7 (Pbk).

In The Evolution of Religion and Morality, Donald Broom seeks to show that an evolutionary account of morality and religion is compatible with moral and religious truth-claims. His is an ambitious interdisciplinary endeavour which seeks to bring together the insights of evolutionary biology, ethics, theology, and the social scientific study of religions. His goal cuts against the grain of the common intuition that any evolutionary theory of morality and religion, or any genetic explanation for the human propensity to moral autonomy and piety, is reductionist as such. He argues, instead, that natural selection has selected the cognitive traits which predispose humans to moral autonomy and religiosity because these practices are conducive to survival and reproductive success.

Broom begins with the assumption that any more or less universal feature of culture must ultimately rest upon biocognitive attributes which have been selected because they contribute to species survival and reproductive success. As such, this book ventures into the choppy waters of evolutionary and genetic explanations of human behaviour--the stormy waters in which the likes of E. O. Wilson and others have so dramatically floundered. The other great challenge mounted by Broom is that of the interdisciplinary character of his project. Genuinely successful interdisciplinary scholarship manages not to short-change any of the disciplines whose insights it seeks to harvest.

Broom's study displays two strengths: his command of the scientific literature in genetics and evolutionary biology, and a willingness to challenge the deep reductionist presumption about any evolutionary account of morality and religion. The deficits of his project are: (1) the incipient assumption that demonstrating a contribution to reproductive success for any behaviour amounts to a moral justification of the explained behaviour; (2) dependence upon impressionistic accounts of morality and religion; and (3) an unpolished style and way of quoting and making attributions to other authors that make his line of reasoning and connections very hard to follow. The end result is a book in which one hopes the author's less convincing and sometimes even naive notions about religion and morality won't detract from the nobility of his as yet unrealized intellectual goal.

The outline of Broom's overall argument is laid out in his first chapter. Emergent moral and religious concepts and practices are part of the way in which the human brain controls human behaviour. Natural selection favours patterns of behaviour and behavioural control that conduce to reproductive success. Morality and religion (which are presumably cultural universals) constitute part of the brain's regimen of control for conscious, self-aware, and social animals such as humans. Human grouping is enabled behaviourally by what Broom ought to call moral autonomy and are reinforced by religious thought-forms. Broom specifically focuses upon protection of the young, more efficient mating, and the reduction in competition as evolutionarily critical benefits of human sociality made possible by uncoerced moral self-restraint. And so natural selection selects traits that engender a bent toward moral autonomy. Finally, and more naively: an evolutionary account of morality and/or religion 'does not devalue spirituality. It may well encourage people to be a part of a religion because they understand it and its benefits better' (29).

In subsequent chapters, Broom makes it clear, unsurprisingly, that the beneficial behaviours he believes morality and religion engender are essentially reciprocal altruism and other trust- and co-operation-engendering patterns of conduct, as well as care for the young and mate-guarding. So the second and third chapters propose a genetic foundation for these behaviours. Some of Broom's best ideas are in the third chapter, in his discussions of biological foundations--both at the genetic and neural levels--of different levels of awareness and consciousness. Broom acknowledges that even for humans, many beneficial behaviours are not intentional as such. Morality, however, is essentially a social system for controlling intentional actions and promoting trust- and co-operation-engendering traits of character for an animal species that must be social in order to flourish. Broom's appeal to parallels between kinds of animal behaviour and intentional human behaviour to demonstrate how these behaviours conduce to survival and reproductive success are generally illuminating.

Broom turns to morality and religion in chapters 4 to 5, in what must surely be accounted the weakest sections of his study. He defines both morality and religion in impressionistic ways that ignore whole traditions of scholarship that call into question his ways of defining each. The sad fact of the matter is that it is not even clear that the conceptions with which Broom is working are the ones most beneficial or intuitive for his project. It is exactly here that Broom fails to give us a convincing piece of genuinely interdisciplinary scholarship. Morality is treated flatly and unconvincingly as (1) a code of rational rules (2) that enjoin beneficial actions and prohibit or minimize harm. Broom shows no cognizance of the deep challenges to the notion that morality even essentially or most universally is following a code of rules, as opposed to, say, cultivating virtuous traits of character. Broom quotes with approval Aldo Leopold's assertion that 'a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise' (Broom (121) quoting Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.)

Broom's chief counsellor on matters of moral theory seems to be Richard Brandt, and Brandt's version of rule-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism of any kind assumes, of course, that a human can reliably make (and, therefore, ought to make) intentional choices that optimize human advantage overall, counting his interests as one among others. What seems to have attracted Broom to the Brandt brand of rule-utilitarianism is that it is a moral theory that focuses, like the trajectory of natural selection, on the optimization of advantage. The trouble is that Broom seems to have collapsed intentional and non-intentional ways in which human behaviour might redound to human advantage, reproductively and otherwise. Broom assumes that if following a particular rule optimizes chances of species survival and reproductive success that this fact justifies it as a moral rule.

Broom's code-of-rules conception of morality, and his naive consequentialism are hard to square at the theoretical level with his earlier claim (chapter 3.5) that it is through the emergence of a capacity for sympathy and altruistic and participatory emotions that humans acquire their evolutionarily significant bent toward altruism, co-operation, and trust. What is intentional about the intersubjective patterns of self-restraint is not well captured by the notion that humans reason their way by assessing optimal outcomes to the self-conscious adoption of rules of conduct. This makes about as much sense as the gathering-under-the-tree-to-sign caricature of social contract that is so appealing to every generation of undergraduates. It is more likely the case, as Adam Smith intuited, that the advantages of human co-operation, trust, and reciprocal altruism cannot rise to view until humans are already sufficiently evolved to exhibit moral autonomy and to enjoy other benefits of co-operation. Following Darwin, Broom has nothing to lose by admitting (following the model of Adam Smith) that natural selection functions like an invisible hand to reproductively reward predispositions to moral autonomy and sociality.

Philosophical confusion about moral justification becomes clearest in the five final sections of chapter 4, with a sweeping discussion about obligations, rights, evaluation, codes of sexual behaviour, conscience, etc. But not only are explanations and justification two different things, even Broom's explanations are not convincing. The weight given to mate-guarding, as well as disease-prevention in his discussion of codes of sexual behaviour make little sense of such rules, either as explanations or justification. This discussion is pervaded by a flat and conjectural use of the liberal 'harm-criterion'.

One needn't doubt that 'morality has a biological basis and has evolved'. I am convinced, though Broom didn't convince me (and probably won't succeed in convincing sceptical minds). But Broom declines to make the more powerful argument that the evolved character of human consciousness is that we are inescapably and deeply social animals, and it is the character of that sociality that is both evolutionarily accountable, and that thing about us which both requires and produces the socio-cultural phenomenon of morality--or of a capacity for moral autonomy.

Broom's discussion of religion, like his sweeping discussion of morality, lacks a critical sense of nuance. He seems, for example, unaware that his way of defining religion: 'a system of beliefs and rules which individuals revere and respond to in their lives and which is seen as emanating directly or indirectly from some intangible power' (164) is widely regarded as ethnocentric and inadequate as a characterization of religion, like the naive notion that all religions are 'faiths'. Only theocentric Western traditions vaguely answer to Broom's characterization. Broom's effort to accommodate non-theistic traditions such as forms of Buddhism or Confucianism to his definition of religion is strained. It is simply false that most religious traditions 'codify beliefs'. There is arguably a cosmogony--a most general sense of the character and order/disorder of the sum totality of things, and the place of humans and other living beings within it--implicit in everything that can be identified as 'religion'. But beliefs about 'the really real' entailed by it are less often made explicit and 'confessed' in a ritualized way as an institutional mark of a religious identity. It is simply false to equate religion, a religion, or religious identity with 'belief statements' and 'belief structures' in the absence of other fundamental components of religion.

The same must be said of the notion that religions evolve essentially to provide justification for morality. Goodness or rightness, as such, are most manifestly not 'a central issue for all religions' (173)--at least, if you aim to describe or identify any component or function of which the participants are aware. Nor is it at all obvious that religious practice always supports or makes more secure moral autonomy. The notion that 'morality is the core of religions' and that 'religion would have developed in order to provide a structure which encouraged the widespread observance of the moral code' (176) is simply not supported by evidence. This conjecture once again reflects Broom's uncritical assumption that a naive conception of religion as a 'belief structure' perhaps represents a scholarly consensus, or that those who support this view have convincingly responded to critics of it. Broom appreciates some of the challenges that can be raised to the notion that they do so. He attempts to anticipate these responses in the final two sections (6 and 7) of chapter 5. His response is (shockingly) the vague and unconvincing claim that religious practice improves welfare, together with the notion that religious believers and organizations should tone down the features of their confessional ethos that tend to promote exclusivism and violence--as if this could just be done as a matter of decision. The trouble is that Broom proceeds as though the tendencies and notions that engender exclusivism and intolerance are somehow always less central and definitive of those traditions than the presumably beneficial universal features. (See his list of ten recommendations, 192-193.)

Broom sometimes quotes other scholars whose language he appears not to understand, and so quotes them out of context. For example, on 177, he twice quotes passages from John H. Crook The Evolution of Human Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 185, 287, where the latter describes religious and ethical thought-systems as 'legitimizing' political institutions and socio-economic arrangements. In the ensuing paragraphs and section, it seems clear that Broom has simply read this term to mean 'support' or to provide a justification for something. But 'legitimation' is a critical term of art drawn from critical languages deriving from Marx's notion that religion and other thought-forms are ideologies which render the contrivance of oppressive social arrangements beyond challenge or criticism by representing them as part of a given order of reality. A closer reading of Crook's text leads me to conclude that this was how he was using the term as well. As such, Crook's quoted claims do not support Broom's claims about the origins and function of religion. Another baffling problem is Broom's assumption that religions as such are essentially theocentric, and that the idea of God is 'usable' (180). What follows for twenty more pages is a meandering discussion of religion in which it is alleged that the evolved presence and usefulness of the idea of God and other ideas Broom imagines are more or less universal features of religious belief are 'useful' in promoting reproductive success and survival, and so justified beliefs.

The book's final two chapters make further attempts to respond to a range of thinkers whose view, Broom thinks, are that morality, religion, and biology are inherently antithetical. He also articulates a social vision of religion and morality that mobilizes recognition of human connections to other species, and moral concern for them. One hardly encounters arguments here, and the claims are so general that they are hard to argue with. Broom's primary concern in chapter 6 settles upon those whom he regards as promulgators of the 'selfish-gene' notion. And his counter-argument advances little beyond an objection to the use of the word 'selfish' to describe genetic function in natural selection. Otherwise Broom relies, through quotation, upon Holmes Rolston's (Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)) argument against the 'selfish-gene' notion, and upon others by citation, to overcome the (as yet, unvanquished) idea that moral autonomy and 'religion' are anything other than irrelevant by-products in culture of human DNA's successful replication of itself.

The one genuinely fresh idea in the final two chapters of the book is the notion that we cannot characterize (what ought to be called) moral autonomy in such a way that we can meaningfully deny that it is an extension of observable animal behaviours in other species. The general idea here, and one which runs directly counter to Broom's characterization of morality, is that to the degree that a capacity for empathy is a capacity found in other species, the most fundamental and motivationally salient ingredient of moral autonomy is present. The specific form of 'morality' as a cultural product among humans reflects the character of human self-consciousness, and the cognitive necessity for generating linguistically communicable concepts. Interesting, though hardly a new idea--but we do not really find a sustained argument for it in Broom.

Broom needs to return to the drawing board, and to do so with the aid of collaborators from ethics and religious studies. There is something to be said for sweeping and radically challenging programmes of conceptual revision and vision. And it is not unreasonable to think that interdisciplinary scholarship might impel them. But it isn't surprising that the most interesting and compelling moments in Broom's endeavour are those informed by his disciplinary expertise. As it stands, Broom's work is of interest to scholars primarily for its courage--his willingness to entertain a still radical seeming notion that ascertaining the biocognitive, evolutionary sources for moral autonomy and 'the religious' does not explain it away. This extends to his closing reflection that moral autonomy as such may not radically demarcate humans biologically.


East Tennessee State University

COPYRIGHT 2005 Cambridge University Press

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present by Wacker Monika

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present
Wacker, Monika
2853 words
1 July 2005
Asian Folklore Studies
Volume 64; Issue 2; ISSN: 03852342
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present RUCH, BARBARA, General Editor. Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, NO. 43. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2002. Ixxviii + 706 pages. Map, plates, list of characters, selected bibliography, index. Cloth US$69.00; ISBN 1-929280-15-7.

WHEN SCHOLARS of Religious Studies talk about Buddhism the focus is usually on Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Japan. Traditionally they concentrate on monks and doctrines. A fairly comprehensive bibliography listing the scarce literature in Western languages on women in Buddhism can be found in Barbara Ruch's monumental reader, Engendering Faith, one of the publications under review.

While conducting research for my PhD thesis in Japan, I heard of a friend staying at a convent in Kyoto during her research there. From my perspective, the nuns themselves were invisible in modern Japanese society. I clearly recall my astonishment, while on Taketomi Island in the Yaeyama Archipelago of the Ryukyu Islands in the first half of the 19905, when I learned that the Buddhist temple on that island was inhabited by a nun and her husband, a monk. While he ran the local museum she was not to be seen in public.

On the other hand, there is quite a tradition of research of women involved with Shinto and Japanese folk religion. My own studies clearly revealed that women had played an important role in religion even as late as the twentieth century in Okinawa (WACKER 2001). Nevertheless, I still did not suspect nuns of earlier times to have had as a great impact on Japanese Buddhism as the monumental volume edited by Barbara Ruch demonstrates.

In this short article I will first take up the epoch-making volume by Barbara Ruch together with the catalogues of two exhibits that took place in 2003 in direct relation with this volume-one held in Kyoto entitled "Art by Buddhist Nuns," the other held in Nara entitled "Women and Buddhism." Then I will discuss two publications by modern Buddhist nuns and lay women. The latter publications approach the topic of "Women in Buddhism" from a socio-religious point of view.


The publication of this reader is the first in a series of projects of the Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies (IMJS) of Columbia University, New York, headed by the editor, Professor Emerita Barbara Ruch. A specialist on medieval Japanese literature and cultural history, she is also the director of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project. The prologue of the volume reveals some initial findings of this project. In the year 2000 the IMJS opened a small branch office in Kyoto, which serves as a base for the work with Imperial Buddhist Convents in the area and the Restoration of Convent Treasures Projects, which are funded by the World Heritage Foundation. In 2002 the Center for the Study of Women, Buddhism, and Culture, which serves as an archive for microfilm and research materials on convent culture, was opened in Kyoto. It is also a meeting place for Buddhist nuns from Southeast Asia, Taiwan, the People's Republic of China, Korea, and Japan, as well as a resource center for graduate students from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As such it also is the location for public lectures, exhibitions, and programs related to the culture of convents (IMJS report 2000/12). All this happened just in time to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the IMJS and the tenth installment of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project in October 2003. But let us now turn to the book itself.

This volume is the outcome of a unique collaboration between Japanese and North American scholars. It brings together the results of long-term research by two study groups that first held a meeting in 1989. The Japanese study group, led by Nishiguchi and Osumi, had already published four volumes of essays (OSUMI, NISHIGUCHI 1989) of which ten were selected, translated, and adapted for this reader. The North American study group added ten more essays to make up a veritable treasure trove of new information in English, capable of dissolving any prejudice against the religious practice of nuns and lay women in medieval Japan.

The contributors as well as the translators are briefly introduced in the appendix. It is a truly interdisciplinary work spanning from social history, history of religions, and art of medieval Japan to archaeology (Nicole Fabricand-Person) and literature (Marian Ury, and most of the translators with the exception of Philip Yampolsky). Only one author (Nagata Mizu) is a Buddhologist. It is also a highly egalitarian project: The contributors and the translators are of both sexes, and the deep insights of professors emeriti as well as the brilliant and fresh views from young promising scholars are bound up into one volume.

The volume is well-structured, starting off with a three-page table of contents, notes to the reader, remarks on transliteration, and pronunciation, which is especially important for readers not familiar with Japanese language. Chronological tables and a map of Japan delineate the historical and regional setting for the following chapters. In the appendix the scholar of Japanese studies finds a very useful and extensive list of characters for names and terms used throughout, a selected bibliography containing mostly but not only literature in Japanese. A thirty-odd-page index finishes off the more than seven hundred pages of this volume.

The main body of the volume is made up of twenty chapters in five sections according to their focus. Section I, "Women in Early Chinese and Japanese Buddhism," by Chikusa Masaaki, starts out with Buddhist nun communities in China. The other two chapters are about court women and Buddhism in Japan from the seventh to ninth centuries (Hongo Masatsugu), and Empress Komyo and the development in state Buddhism (Mikoshiba Daisuke). This certainly leaves the impression that early Buddhism was mainly focused on an aristocratic elite. However, one must take into consideration the dearth of material on the lives of the lower classes in general, and especially the non-tangible aspects of culture that hinder their study. This data illustrates how aristocratic women acted independently of the men in both their natal and marital families and had great political influence.

There are also very basic questions that need to be answered: Who is considered a nun? How and why do women become nuns? How are they portrayed in literature? The chapters of Section II, "Nuns and Nunneries," offer some answers looking at the various forms of tonsure (Katsuura Noriko), the procedures of ordination (Paul Groner), convents or living quarters being converted into a temple (Ushiyama Yoshiyuki), widowhood (Ushiyama, Martin Collcutt) and divorce (Anne Dutton, Diana E. Wright) as points in life when women decide to dedicate at least some time if not the rest of their lives to practicing Buddhism.

The two chapters of Section IV, "Deities and Icons," take their starting point in iconography but both also relate to female believers and sponsors by taking a look at the context in which such art might be produced by a female artist and/or a female sponsor. (Fabricand-Person, Hank Classman). Readers interested in more visual signs of Buddhist nuns' faith can refer to the catalogues of the two exhibitions I mentioned, which will be introduced in some detail later on.

The Section V is dedicated to "Faith and Practice," with a strong focus on death (Nishiguchi Juno) and the hereafter (Obara Hitoshi, Susan Matisoff, Endo Hajime, and Ruch). Both recipients of rituals and practitioners are-at least in part-women. Endo's essay also is the only one that focuses explicitly on nonaristocratic women, or rather couples. His study looks at the True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shin Shu) founded in the Kamakura era. It is well known that during this period, the introduction of faith as a main element sufficient for salvation made possible the spread of Buddhist teachings to the masses. Ruch's essay shows that women at that time were active proselytizers who aimed their sermons especially toward women and taught them the promises of the Lotus Sutra.

As a whole the volumes articles teach the reader one main message: Even in medieval Buddhism Japanese women never were reduced to being mere passive recipients of teachings. Throughout medieval history Japanese women could maintain important roles in religion and society: They were the first to go abroad to study Buddhism in Korea (Osumi), and they were active proselytizers (Ruch section v). Through patronizing temples they helped to bequeath a truely rich material culture as can still be witnessed nowadays. The Lotus Sutra, and more precisely the Devadatta chapter, promises Buddhahood to women (Nagata) and its influence on Japanese women penetrates the whole volume: Besides Yoshida's essay on the Devadatta Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it is also mentioned by Osumi, Chikusa, Mikoshiba, Groner, Katsuura, Ury, Nagata, Classman, Nishiguchi, and Obara. Wives and daughters played important socio-religious roles in their True Pure Land Congregations (Endo). Nishiguchi demonstrates that after death one's sex was considered irrelevant as women, especially mothers of monks, were interred within the holy precincts that they could not enter while alive. This, too, is a sign of medieval Japan being a basically egalitarian society in which social power was evenly distributed among the sexes. Neither political and military power wielded by men nor religious and political power of (aristocratic) women dominated the other sex. Taking the vows and tonsure was always done through the will of women, most often in early childhood, or after being widowed. Yet it could also be used as a means to sever marital ties during the husband's lifetime (Dutton, Wright) After all, both male and female powers not only coexisted but enhanced each other. The means may be different but the tendency is similar to what I found in the Kingdom of Ryukyu as late as the nineteenth century before it was annexed to mainland Japan to become the modern prefecture of Okinawa. While men were prominent in politics and scholarship, women were important social and religious leaders with respect to practicing faith (WACKER 2001).

I am not the only one who considers this reader to be epoch-making: This is the first time such findings of Japanese and Western (American and Canadian) scholars are published together, and thus the volume makes a fine introduction into the matter. Haruko Wakabayashi "strongly recommends [it] to scholars of all fields related to premodern Japan" (WAKABAYASHI 2005; 204). Ford is a little more critical of the work because he feels it lacks a concluding essay that sums up the implications of the studies presented in this volume for methodology, thus providing an outlook on further investigation into the field (FORD 2004, 452). However, as the editor, Ruch, already gives a detailed introduction into the chapters that make up the main body of the volume, this seems needless. Actually, in an interdisciplinary collaboration such as this, discussion of traditional methodologies used in the various disciplines might very well have distracted the authors from their goal: To publish their findings in a field of studies neglected so far.


The same year Engendering Faith was published, there were two exhibitions of works of art by Buddhist nuns. "Art by Buddhist Nuns: Treasures from the Imperial Convents of Japan" was held in April in Kyoto at the Nomura Art Museum. As the subtitle suggests, this exhibition is closely linked to the imperial Buddhist Convent Research and Restoration project, which in turn is conducted by the Medieval Japanese Studies Institute at the University of Michigan (MJSI) headed by Ruch. Due to limited space it was a small exhibition, but the catalogue was put together with much care. As it also serves as an anniversary publication to commemorate the thirty-fifth of the MJSI and the first of the Center for the Study of Women, Buddhism, and Culture, it is bilingual, with English following the Japanese text.

The titles of the exhibits are listed in English, but for detailed explanations again the reader has to go to the explanatory section in Japanese. So while the Kyoto catalogue is clearly dedicated to both readers of English and Japanese, the Nara catalogue provides only a short introduction to those not able to read Japanese. This is a pity, as valuable information is only available to the specialist in the field.


The first volume, which was published in 1999, was the first document of discussions on the role of women in Buddhism between women and men across the borders of the various Buddhist schools. Imai Masaharu, professor at Tsukuba University who specializes in the medieval history of Buddhism explains the subtitle of the book. "Nyozegamon," which can be translated as "Such I heard," is taken from the first words of each sutra. Therefore, "onnatachi no nyozegamon" [such women heard] reflects the purpose of both these publications: To make known to the public how women understand the Buddhist teachings and how they propose to reform Buddhism. The goal of volume 1 is to take stock: How do nuns and lay women live within the various schools, what are the restrictions they encounter, and where do they feel discriminated against?

The prologue by Kawahashi Noriko explains a little more about the discrimination against wives of priests. Chapter 1 is entitled "Women in the Scriptures" and comprises two theoretical essays: Nagata Mizu explores Shakamuni's view of women. His fellow Buddhologist Tsuruoka Ei puts the misogynist view in Japanese Buddhism into the context of the late Kamakura era, the age of mappo.

The main sections of this book are made up of very personal accounts of how women experience Buddhism in their everyday lives. Chapter II comprises three essays on women in history and doctrine as seen from the point of view of women. Chapter III explores the position of women in the congregation and the system, and mainly discusses nuns. Chapter IV reports on the situation of women in the temples where they call for a gender-equal Buddhism. The last section, "In search of a revival of Buddhism," records a discussion between five members of the two study groups.

So while Buddhist nuns and lay women of medieval times spoke though their writings and art work of hope and devotion, modern Buddhist women in Japan add their words of hope and devotion free of complaint on their situations. These two volumes are important material from within the Buddhist world and make good reading for a scholar interested in how Buddhist women live and think about their lives nowadays.


The studies taken up in this essay show vividly how interest in the subject of women in Buddhism has risen in the past two to three decades in both Japan and the Western world. It is definitely not just a pet subject of feminist scholars, as the sizeable number of male contributors, scholars and monks alike, represented in all the studies demonstrates. As Buddhism is mainly an Asiatic religion, it is only natural that discussion on the joys and woes of living a life in faith in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries began in an Asian country such as Japan and was first published in Japanese only. The narration of modern Buddhist women on their experience makes good material for further studies by Western scholars of comparative religious studies or Japanese social studies in general.

A symposium on "Constructing Gender in Religious Symbolic Systems," scheduled to take place in Zurich in May 2006, indicates that interest in the rest of the academic world in the lives and practice of female Buddhists has been stimulated. These volumes are the first on a new shelf in one's library that could be labeled "Women in Buddhism through the Ages." We should now be on the lookout for more publications about women in other Buddhist countries, and for similar ones on women in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, and so on.

WACKER, Monika

2001 Onarigami. Holy Woman in the Kingdom of Ryukyu: A Pacific Culture with Chinese Influences. In Ryukyu in World History, ed. Kreiner, Josef, ed, 41-67. Bier'sche Verlagsanstalt, Bonn.


2005 Book Review: "Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan," edited by Barbara Ruch. The Journal of Asian Studies 64: 202-204.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography listing the scarce literature in Western languages on women in Buddhism can be found in Barbara Ruch's monumental reader, Engendering Faith, one of the publications under review. A specialist on medieval Japanese literature and cultural history, she is also the director of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project. The narration of modern Buddhist women on their experience makes good material for further studies by Western scholars of comparative religious studies or Japanese social studies in general.

Ideas: a history from fire to Freud by Peter Watson

Lost in thought: thanks to academic specialisation, the history of ideas is not a flourishing discipline. Most English-speaking philosophers know little of their own intellectual traditions, let alone non-western ones. John Gray applauds a study that avoids the usual parochialism.(books)(Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud)(Book Review)
Gray, John
1362 words
30 May 2005
New Statesman
ISSN: 1364-7431; Volume 134; Issue 4742
Copyright 2005 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Ideas: a history from fire to Freud

Peter Watson

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 822pp, [pounds sterling]30

The history of ideas has a history of its own, and it is not long. Peter Watson believes the first person to conceive of intellectual history may have been Francis Bacon, which places the birth of the subject in the late 16th century. In Greece and China more than 2,000 years ago, there were sceptics who doubted whether the categories of human thought could correctly represent the world, but the recognition that these categories change significantly over time is distinctly modern. Thanks to thinkers such as Vico and Herder, Hegel and Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault, the notion that ideas have a history is an integral part of the way we think today, and it surfaces incongruously in unlikely places. Thinkers of the right may rant against moral relativism and look back with nostalgia to a time when basic concepts seemed fixed for ever, but these days the right is committed to a militant belief in progress--and so to accepting that seemingly permanent features of the conceptual landscape may turn out to be no more than a phase in history.

Given the importance of the history of ideas to the way we understand ourselves, you might expect it to be a flourishing discipline, but that is far from the case. As Isaiah Berlin used to say, it is an orphan subject. Ever sceptical of abstraction, historians complain that it slips easily into loose generalisation. For philosophers, who tend to assume that questions asked hundreds or even thousands of years ago about knowledge and the good life are essentially the same as the ones we ask today, it is irrelevant. Very few economists know anything much about the history of their discipline, and the same is true of many social scientists. At a time of grinding academic specialisation, intellectual history seems a faintly dilettantish, semi-literary activity, and the incentive structures that surround a university career do not encourage its practice. More fundamentally, the history of ideas is a casualty of the growth of knowledge. Anyone who aspires to study it on anything other than a miniaturist scale needs to know a great deal about a wide range of subjects--in many of which knowledge is increasing almost by the day.


In these circumstances, a universal history of ideas seems an impossibly daunting project. Yet in Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, Watson gives us an astonishing overview of human intellectual development which covers everything from the emergence of language to the discovery of the unconscious, including the idea of the factory and the invention of America, the eclipse of the idea of the soul in 19th-century materialism and the continuing elusiveness of the self. In a book of such vast scope, a reader could easily get lost, but the narrative has a powerful momentum. Watson holds to a consistently naturalistic philosophy in which humanity is seen as an animal species developing in the material world. For him, human thought develops as much in response to changes in the natural environment--such as shifts in climate and the appearance of new diseases--as from any internal dynamism of its own. This overarching perspective informs and unifies the book, and the result is a masterpiece of historical writing.

Watson's sympathy for naturalism enables him to spot some crucial and neglected turns in the history of thought. Nowadays, naturalistic philosophies are usually connected with those Enlightenment beliefs which hold that humanity progresses through the use of reason. Watson notes, however, that Spinoza, a pivotal thinker who may well have had a greater role in shaping the early Enlightenment than better-known figures such as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, took a different view. He never imagined that human life as a whole could be rational, and in a lovely passage quoted by Watson he wrote: "Men are not conditioned to live by reason alone, but by instinct. So they are no more bound to live by the dictates of an enlightened mind than a cat is bound to live by the laws of nature of a lion."


In Spinoza's view, the capacity for rational inquiry may be what distinguishes human beings from other animals, but it is not the force that drives their lives--like other animal species, humans are moved by the energy of desire. This view reappeared in the 20th century in the work of Sigmund Freud, who took the further step of recognising that much of human mental life is unconscious. In conjunction with later work in cognitive science showing that there are many vitally important mental processes to which we can never consciously gain access, Spinoza's naturalism has helped shape a view of human beings that is different from the one we inherit from classical Greek philosophy and from most Enlightenment thinkers.

One of the curiosities of intellectual life is the persistent neglect by philosophers of non-western traditions. No doubt this is partly ignorance on their part. Beyond a smattering of Plato and Aristotle and a few scraps from the British empiricists, most English-speaking philosophers know practically nothing of their own intellectual traditions, and no one would expect them to have any acquaintance with the larger intellectual inheritance of mankind. A more fundamental reason may be the view of the human subject found in some non-western philosophies. The ideas of personal identity and free will we inherit from Christianity have often been questioned, but they continue to mould the way we think, and any view of human life from which they are altogether absent remains unfamiliar and troubling. Watson is refreshingly free from the cultural parochialism that still disables so much western thought. Ranging freely across time and space, his survey includes some enlightening vignettes of Chinese and Indian thought, and he gives a useful account of Vedic traditions in which human individuality is regarded as an illusion. For those who want something more engaging than the dreary Plato-to-Nato narrative that dominates conventional histories of ideas, this wide range of reference will be invaluable.

Inevitably there are gaps in Watson's account. His treatment of Buddhist philosophy is cursory--a surprising omission, given his naturalistic viewpoint. He concludes with some interesting thoughts on the failure of scientific research to find anything resembling the human self, as understood in western traditions. He asks whether the very idea of an "inner self" may not be misconceived, and concludes: "Looking 'in', we have found nothing--nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive--because there is nothing to find."

This conclusion is also mine, but it was anticipated more than 2,000 years ago in the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or no-soul. The thoroughgoing rejection of any idea of the soul was one of the ideas through which Buddhism distinguished itself from orthodox Vedic traditions, which also viewed personal identity as an illusion but affirmed an impersonal world soul: an idea that Buddhists have always rejected. For them, human beings are like other natural processes, in that they are devoid of substance and have no inherent identity.

The view of the human subject suggested by recent scientific research seems less strange when one notes how closely it resembles this ancient Buddhist view. Modern science seems to be replicating an account of the insubstantiality of the person that has been central to other intellectual traditions for millennia. It is an interesting comment on prevailing ideas of intellectual progress that one should be able to find such remarkable affinities between some of humanity's oldest and newest ideas.

Constituting communities: Theravada Buddhism and the religious cultures of South and Southeast Asia by John Clifford Holt (editor et al.)

Constituting communities: Theravada Buddhism and the religious cultures of South and Southeast Asia.(Book Review)
Rozenberg, Guillaume
2195 words
1 February 2005
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 36; Issue 1
Copyright 2005 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Constituting communities: Theravada Buddhism and the religious cultures of South and Southeast Asia. Edited by JOHN CLIFFORD HOLT, JACOB N. KINNARD, JONATHAN S. WALTERS. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Pp. 224. Index. DOI: 10.1017/S0022463405220076

This collection, composed of an introduction and ten individual chapters, could equally well have been titled Revisiting Theravada Buddhism. It can in effect be read at two levels. As the actual title and the introduction indicate, its varied contents address the issue of what are the Buddhist elements and principles at work in the making of social communities in South and Southeast Asia and how they function. The theme of 'constituting communities' is, it must be said, a loose organising thread for the contributions to the book: the word 'communities' refers in the articles to various kinds of entities, and it rarely appears at the forefront of the authors' perspective. In other words, the question underlying the book may be put in even more general terms: how does Theravada Buddhism work as a medium for representing, organising and changing the world? To answer this question, the authors draw their insights mainly from the reading of textual sources, be they doctrinal, historical or contemporary. In spite of the subtitle suggesting a wide geographical scope, the focus of the chapters dealing with historical or contemporary aspects of Theravadin societies is mostly on Sri Lankan religious culture. Burmese, Cambodian, Lao and Thai religious cultures are not at the core of any of the chapters. Still, as some of the contributors themselves suggest, the questions raised and the interpretations put forward from the reading of texts or the observation of the Sri Lankan contexts could often be fruitfully transposed to the study of the history and religious cultures of Southeast Asian Theravadin communities.

Therefore and secondly, the book can also be seen as a major contribution to the study of Theravada Buddhism at large. Each of the chapters revolves around one or more core issues in the field of Theravada Studies: karma, merit and its transfer, kingship, sainthood, religious reform, localisation of imported monastic lineages, monastic authority, ways of spreading the Buddhist religion and the cult of the Buddha. In each case, the book renews our understanding of these issues by revealing aspects usually overlooked in the existing scholarship.

In the opening chapter, entitled 'Communal karma and karmic community in Theravada Buddhist history', Jonathan S. Walters calls for a change of focus in the analysis of the notion of karma. He argues that it has mainly been considered in its individual dimension, whereas the ways it links individuals and forges community bonds have been neglected, with the remarkable but far from satisfactory exception of James P. McDermott's work. Karma is not only an individual's stock of meritorious and demeritorious actions accomplished throughout one's successive existences and influencing one's becoming, it is also a collective making and something which bears collective results. Coining the term 'sociokarma' to stress these collective dimensions, Walters proceeds to offer a typology of seven kinds of sociokarma. Thus individuals such as the Buddha and his entourage may encounter each other and be linked one way or another through existence after existence because of the dynamics of their karmic interactions, a phenomenon which the author labels the 'co-transmigration of social units'. Also, social institutions may be endowed with a kind of karma: they may be reborn with the same organisation (but not necessarily with the same individuals) at different times.

In 'Towards a theory of Buddhist queenship. The legend of Asandhimitta', John S. Strong suggests that thinking about Buddhist kingship, a much-studied institution, requires attention to Buddhist queenship, a much-disregarded institution. He examines the various dimensions in the personality and role of one of Asoka's queens, Asandhimitta, as it is described in three ancient sources from Southeast Asia. His analysis simultaneously shows what makes a genuine Buddhist queen according to these sources (merit-making in past and present lives, ability to manage the kingdom in the place of the king, conspicuous subordination to her husband's authority and spiritual accomplishment), and demonstrates the kind of mutually supportive though hierarchical relationship that exists between the king and the queen, so that the paradigmatic Asokan kingship could not be fully instantiated without the queen's contribution.

The two subsequent essays deal with the ways a Buddhist saint may act in the world to save people. In 'Beggars can be choosers. Mahakassapa as a selective eater of offerings', Liz Wilson emphasises how the relationship of gift-giving between a holy figure such as Mahakassapa and lay people entails a mechanism of 'transfer of demerit'. Mahakassapa is well known for choosing to take gifts of food from especially destitute people. In consuming this food or accepting what is an impure gift, Wilson explains, the saint consumes a part of the donor's bad karma and allows him or her to obtain a better rebirth. Throughout the chapter the author compares this mechanism with the principle of the Vedic sacrifice.

This is specifically the argument of Julie Gifford in 'The insight guide to Hell. Mahamoggallana and Theravada Buddhist cosmology', namely that the Buddhist saint, far from being solely the kind of world renouncer typically embodied in the figure of the forest monk, is also and correlatively a world saviour. In fact, it is the accomplishment of the saint in the solitary practice of forest meditation that allows him to work towards others' salvation. Gifford expands upon the case of Mahamoggallana, a disciple of the Buddha famous for his supernatural powers. These powers notably make possible his travels to different planes of existence of the Buddhist cosmology: deva (heavens) and peta (ghosts, hells). He subsequently reports to the Buddha and to lay people about his encounters with the inhabitants of these planes and relates the karmic paths that led them there. This is a way the compassionate saint may teach the community of his devotees and guide them towards right action.

The next three chapters move from a concern for doctrinal or ideological patterns to an emphasis on historical patterns. In 'When the Buddha sued Visnu', Jacob N. Kinnard investigates how from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1950s, the internal divisions and external frontiers of the community constituted around the site of Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha's Enlightenment, evolved dramatically. Focusing on a few significant events and characters, Kinnard sheds light on how Hindus, Buddhists, the Indian nationalist movement, colonial justice and the Western conceptions of Asian religions all interacted throughout the period in the complex and tense making of this community. The author's historical approach allows him to suggest that Victor Turner's notion of communitas is not fully adequate to give account of what happens around such a pilgrimage site.

John Clifford Holt's 'Minister of Defense? The Visnu controversy in contemporary Sri Lanka' attempts to explain why the cult of Visnu, widespread in Sri Lankan religious culture as the deity is considered a defender of the Buddhist religion and of the country, has recently been under fierce attack by some members of society. Dwelling at length on the discourse of a foremost critic of this cult, a highly mediatic monk named Soma, the author argues that the call for religious reform through the exclusion of what has often been termed popular practices originates less in a concern for the preservation of an unachievable purity of the Buddhist religion than in a reaction of fear by some members of the Sinhalese community, especially urban middle-class people, who see the presence of Hindu Tamils on the island as a threat to the national Buddhist identity. Ethnic conflict is at the roots of religious reform, while religious reform also nurtures ethnic conflict.

While Holt's chapter gives a bleak account of a dynamic of closure and exclusion within Sri Lankan society, Anne M. Blackburn's essay on 'Localizing lineage. Importing higher ordination in Theravadin South and Southeast Asia' describes how the same society was able to incorporate successfully a foreign tradition of higher ordination coming from Ayutthaya in 1753, at a time when there were no longer any fully ordained monks in Sri Lanka. She discusses the factors that made this importation a success and the steps taken by its supporters to transform a foreign cultural product into a local tradition. She concludes by suggesting how her model of localisation may offer new insights on some episodes in the history of Southeast Asian Buddhism.

The last three chapters deal with some of the ways the Buddhist religion may spread and take root in a community: preaching, religious booklets and the visual cult of the Buddha. In 'Preacher as a poet. Poetic preaching as a monastic strategy in constituting Buddhist communities in modern Sri Lanka and Thailand', Mahinda Degalle depicts the rise and characteristics of a style of preaching known as 'poetic preaching' (kavi bana) in modern Sri Lanka. The distinctive feature of this mode of preaching lies in the use of verse language and musical tone to give a Buddhist sermon. It renders the sermon far more appealing to the audience and has thus constituted an effective technique for spreading the Buddha's words, particularly in rural areas. Degalle compares the Sri Lankan founder of this kind of preaching, the monk Gunaratana (1914-1989), with the Thai monk Phayom Kalayano (b. 1949), whose lively style and concern for social matters, especially the behaviour of the younger generation, have also made him a most famous preacher. The author stresses the resistance both figures met in their endeavour, since monastic discipline forbids the use of poetry for preaching. He links such resistance to tensions inherent in the structure of national Buddhisms, notably between those seeing Buddhism as a normative tradition to be preserved as it is and those favouring an evolutional and adjustable Buddhism. True, Degalle concludes, were the Buddha here to give his opinion, he might reject poetic preaching, but it nevertheless fits with a modern context and is an indispensable tool in spreading the Master's words.

In examining the contents of a handbook of Buddhism which has contributed significantly to shaping the religious culture of generations of Sri Lankan Buddhists in the twentieth century, Carol S. Anderson's chapter, "'For those who are ignorant". A study of the Bauddha Adahilla', illustrates another of the ways the Buddhist religion spreads. Anderson emphasises that the main impression the handbook left on its numerous readers concerns the idea of the Buddha as the greatest superman in the world and not of the view of a great rational thinker; such a representation notably implies that the ritual cult of the Buddha has a protective effectiveness. This leads the author, among other things, to question the nature of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which has generally been equated with a move towards 'Protestant Buddhism'. Was the true driving force of this revival, she asks, an intellectual re-examination of the Buddhist doctrine or the reformulation of the ritual worshipping of the Buddha?

The final chapter by James R. Egge, 'Interpretive strategies for seeing the body of the Buddha', discusses successively two types of material: some canonical texts depicting the extraordinary physical characteristics of the Buddha through his encounters with some disciples, and some early stupa reliefs which include such non-figurative elements as trees, wheels, thrones, etc., representing the Buddha. Egge is asking what the body of the Buddha may mean to the one who sees it, and how it may be seen when the Master has physically disappeared from the world. The Buddha's body and its markers appear from both sets of materials as signifying either his mundane or his supramundane greatness, his status as superman or his status as one Awakened; both are sometimes articulated in a single representation. Inspired by Charles Pierce's terminology, the author distinguishes symbolic and iconic modes of representation. The former uses signs as conventions to evoke the essential qualities of the Buddha, while the latter works through an 'immediate' display of his Buddhahood; the former grounds belief, while the latter arouses devotion. Egge suggests that a shift took place from the one to the other around the first century BCE.

It is no wonder that this stimulating book, written with great clarity and insight, is dedicated to Frank K. Reynolds. Reynolds' work and teaching at the University of Chicago have deeply marked and renewed the study of Theravada Buddhism from the early 1970s onwards, his influence being especially formative for the constitution of the field of Theravada Studies in America. Most of the contributors to the book, all of whom are his former or current students, now teach in American academic institutions. The book thus also offers an image of the current state of Theravada Studies in America; in reading it, one can only be truly optimistic about the future of the field.