Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China

Article excerpt

Buddhist funeral cultures of southeast Asia and China. Edited by Paul Williams and patrice lad-wig. Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 296. [pounds sterling]60.

Innovative chefs have the ability to combine ingredients or styles of cooking from two or more regions. Great chefs can create a distinctive meal that harmoniously combines different ingredients, so that not only are different regional ingredients and styles present, but something entirely new emerges. The meal becomes more than a sum of its parts. This book is innovative and original, but is it "great"? It matters what your tastes are.

How is it innovative? There is no comprehensive study of Southeast Asian Buddhist funerary traditions. Considering that funerals are the most complex and popular ceremonies in the region, this gap in the scholarship is shocking. Recent works on Buddhist funerary traditions in Tibet and Japan have been well received. Several edited volumes or individual monographs have placed funerary cultures, the afterlife, and end-of-life concerns at the center of Buddhist Studies. The scholars contributing to the collection under review are highly qualified and for the large part have spent years in the field documenting the texts and rituals related to death and the end of life; they come from Asian. European, and North American scholarly traditions and several different disciplines and approaches. The articles are well written, generally full of great detail, and reflect considerable attention to both the textual and ethnographic evidence for contemporary funerary practices. The study of death in Buddhism has become, strange to say, quite popular among students and scholars. This book is both a result of this growing popularity and a good measure of how far the field has come.

The book is also innovative because it combines ingredients and approaches from two rarely compared regions. Usually subtitles designating regional scope in Buddhist Studies come in two varieties: "East Asian" or "South and Southeast Asian." Rarely do studies incorporate a comparison of China and Southeast Asia. There have been many books on the material, cultural, economic, and political roles the Chinese have played in Southeast Asia, but hardly any comparative religious or ritual studies. Although only four out of twelve chapters focus on China (a problem I will briefly discuss below), this is a great start to an unexplored field. This innovative approach is not surprising as the editors are respected experts in Chinese (Paul Williams) and Southeast Asian (Patrice Ladwig) Studies respectively. Furthermore, they come from different disciplines (intellectual history and religious studies on the one hand and anthropology on the other). They both worked at the University of Bristol, which has brought together some of the best European minds on Buddhist Studies over the past few years.

However, I find three problems with the volume as a whole, which I will treat before discussing some of the chapters individually. The problems do not diminish the importance of the individual chapters and are more a symptom of the format of the scholarly "collected volume" than an editorial failing.

First, despite the clearly written introduction and obvious efforts to draw unifying themes in this collection, this volume does not seem to be more than the sum of its ingredients. In the introduction Ladwig and Williams make several important general points: 1) the study of death and funerary cultures is largely not about the dead, but about the relationships among the living and the living-dead (ghosts and/or spirits of deceased ancestors): 2) the dead are still agents in rituals, narratives, and family lives; 3) death is also about birth and transition; 4) despite Buddhist emphasis on the concept of nonself/non-soul, there are many local concepts of soul-like things (phi, kwan, chi) in Southeast Asia and China. (This last point is seen especially well in the contribution by Alexandra de Mersan. …

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