The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

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The lovelorn ghost and the magical monk: Practicing Buddhism in modern Thailand

By JUSTIN THOMAS MCDANIEL

New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Pp. 384. Halftones, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Justin McDaniel, already a winner of the prestigious Harry Bender Prize for Best First Book in Southeast Asian Studies (see Gathering leaves and lifting words; Histories of monastic education in Laos and Thailand, University of Washington Press, 2008), has now produced a second very different kind of book that clearly solidifies his position at the forefront of Thai and Lao Buddhist studies.

This new book includes seven distinct but well-integrated components. The first is McDaniel's story of his own personal ethnographic practice and discovery (a story which he describes as one of surprising experiences leading to 'unexpected consequences').

The second component is his focus on aspects of the history and character of 'modern Thai Buddhism' that have been largely either ignored or disparaged by Western-trained scholars. He makes a convincing case that these aspects of Thai Buddhist life have been and remain 'mainstream' phenomena that involve rich and poor, urbanites and villagers, the highly educated and the less educated, monks and the laity.

The third is his astute decision to focus attention on two closely interacting 'figures' who have played/are playing crucial roles in the religious life of modern Thai Buddhists--one a mid-nineteenth-century 'magical monk' (Somdet To), whom he identifies as a (perhaps the) dominant locus of Buddhist interest in modern Thailand; the other a closely related 'lovelorn ghost' whose very traditional story has become a framework for important components in contemporary Buddhist practice on the one hand and Buddhist-oriented popular cinema on the other.

The fourth component is his insistence on the importance of local Thai histories, traditions, and practices that need to be identified and interpreted in specifically local terms. In this connection he develops a strong critique of the kind of scholarship that interprets Thai Buddhism as a 'syncretic' amalgam that includes 'Buddhist, Brahmanic, and indigenous components). And, especially in that context, he highlights the crucial importance of a growing corpus of excellent studies written in the Thai language by Thai scholars that have been (and are being) ignored by most scholars trained in the Western tradition of Buddhist scholarship.

The fifth component is his ongoing argument that the tradition of Buddhist practice on which he is focusing constitutes a 'mainstream' element that does not focus on 'other worldly' (lokottara) ideals or concerns. …