Tuesday, September 4, 2007

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.

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