Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today

By Borchert, Thomas | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today


Borchert, Thomas, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Mediums, Monks and Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today. By Pattana Kitiarsa. Chiang Mai and Seattle: Silkworm Books and University of Washington Press, 2012. xxi + 170 pp.

Magic and related kinds of phenomena have long presented a problem in the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. In part this is because those studying Buddhism have had a tendency to privilege textual forms of Buddhism and, in particular, the imagined original Buddhist community which scholars among other actors have reconstructed from these very texts. These reconstructions were developed primarily in the late nineteenth century, and they are of course intimately related to various colonial projects (both pro- and anti-) widespread throughout Asia. While scholars have long understood that this is the case, the "Protestant presuppositions"--as the Sanskrit scholar Gregory Schopen (1991) puts it--remain with us. In this understanding "true" Buddhism is about self-cultivation and developing knowledge about the fundamentally illusory nature of the world; magic, the worship of spirits and gods, and similar phenomena have been seen as derivative, merely "cultural" and less important to understand. This perspective has, ironically, been common even in the anthropological study of Theravada Buddhist communities. While anthropologists have not always seen magic as lesser and derivative, they have often continued to view magic and cults as diametrically opposed to Buddhism. The problem has been, however, that these practices persist and remain intertwined with the practice of Buddhism. And so it remains necessary to continue to find better models for thinking about the religious sphere of the Buddhist worlds of Southeast Asia.

Pattana Kitiarsa's new book, Mediums, Monks and Amulets, does not so much create a new model for thinking about this challenge as it resurrects an older one with some updated glossing to provide a convincing sense of Thai Buddhism. The category of "popular Buddhism" that Pattana uses--a category long ago used by the important scholar of Thai culture, high and low, Phya Anuman Rajadhon--is not "folk Buddhism" but rather the

   large-scale, cross-social spectrum of beliefs and practices--
   incorporating the supernatural powers of spirits, deities and magic
   --that have emerged out of the interplay between animism,
   supematuralism, folk Brahmanism, the worship of Chinese deities and
   state-sponsored Theravada Buddhism, (p. 2)

It is distinct from the folk traditions in Pattana's reading in that it is "translocal, transreligio-cultural and transnational" (p. 2). In some ways, Pattana's theoretical model reads like the "lived religious traditions" which have become an important part of studying religion (and in particular popular Catholic traditions) in the United States. While Pattana is not drawing explicitly on that framework, he addresses the wider concern that the study of religion (whether in religious studies or anthropology) has taken on in seeking to understand the formulation of moral subjectivities in the context of modernization. Unfortunately, while Pattana identifies extremely important aspects of religiosity in Thailand and Southeast Asia more broadly, it is not clear to me that "popular Buddhism" does what he wants it to do. Like Justin McDaniel in his recent book The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (2011), Pattana is struggling to develop (or recuperate) a set of tools and vocabulary to explain contemporary Thai Buddhism in both clear and dynamic terms. However, also like McDaniel, it is not clear that he has effectively done so.

Nonetheless, this is a book that is well worth reading for some deeply valuable ethnographic framing. Pattana does two striking things here. …

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