Monks and Magic: Revisiting a Classic Study of Religious Ceremonies in Thailand

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Monks and magic: Revisiting a classic study of religious ceremonies in Thailand By BAREND JAN TERWEIL Copenhagen: NIAS Press. 2012. Pp. 312, Maps, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index. doi:10.1017/S0022463413000246

The first edition of Barend Jan Terwiel's classic study of religious ceremonies in Thailand, Monks and Magic, was published in 1975, followed by second and third editions in 1979 and 1994. Terwiel's work was one of several anthropological studies of Thai village religion published in the 1960s and '70s, several of which he references and/or with which he takes issue, in particular, those by Stanley J. Tambiah and Howard K. Kaufman. Terweil's study, originally a 1971 doctoral dissertation for the Australian National University, is based on the author's 1967 fieldwork at Wat Sanchao, located five kilometres outside the provincial capital of Ratchaburi in Central Thailand. For the 2012 edition Terweil revisited Wat Sanchao in November 2010, which appears as a Postscript.

Monographs and essays on Southeast Asian village religion within the Buddhist ambit have addressed its multiple mix of diverse religious elements in various ways. For example, Melford Spiro's 1970 study of religion and society in Burma/Myanmar (Buddhism and society: A great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes, 2nd rev. ed., University of California Press, 1982) privileges Buddhism: two soteriological types (nibbanic, kammatic) and one non-soteriological (apotropaic). Others (e.g. Thomas A. Kitsch, 'Complexity in the Thai religious system,' JAS, 36, no. 2, Feb. 1977: 241-66) distinguish three distinctive, interwoven strands of village religion: Buddhist, Brahmanical, animistic. More recently Pattana Kitiarsa has challenged the often employed terminology of 'syncretism' and argues that 'hybridisation' more aptly encompasses the changes in Thai popular religion that have occurred under the impact of religious commodification and capitalist consumerism ('Beyond syncretism: Hybridization of popular religion in Thailand, JSEAS, 36, no. 3, Oct. 2005: 461-86). Terwiel interprets the complexity of Thai village religion as a syncretic (in contrast to 'compartmentalised') amalgam in which 'Buddhism has been transformed to suit the animistic worldview' (p. 5). He acknowledges the fundamental difference between the 'intellectual, elitist conception of Buddhism, and the rural, magico-animistic interpretation of Buddhism,' but contends that 'even those aspects of religion that the very heart of the Buddhist tradition [italics mine] are interpreted by both the farmer and the rural monk in their own characteristically magio-animistic manner' (p. 262). What stands as particularly distinctive about Terwiers interpretative perspective is his focus on the relationship of the religious practices and beliefs of Wat Sanchao villagers to 'the Buddhism of the canon'.

Following an introductory first chapter in which Terwiel traces historically his thematic perspective that Buddhism in the Thai village context 'has been cast in a magico-animistic mould' (p. 20) and a second chapter that describes the village setting, the fieldwork situation in which he conducted his research (that included a period as an ordained monk), and the author's focus on ritual as the performance of prescribed social activities and interrelated norms (p. 36), chapters three through seven then proceed according to a life-trajectory model from birth to death: Children and Religion; Adolescents, Amulets, and Tattooing; The First Period in the Sangha; Leaving the Order, Courtship and Marriage; Building a House. Preceding a chapter on Old Age, Death, and the Hereafter and final concluding remarks, chapters eight and nine address the relationship between The Precepts and Ritual and The Pursuit of Beneficial Karma. The Postscript added to the 2012 edition adds little substantive content, but does serve to highlight Terwiel's view that Thai village Buddhism reflects a 'local underlying Southeast Asian belief system' (p. …


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