Buddhism and Gender
Thailand is a Theravada Buddhist country. To be Thai is to be Buddhist. These truisms persist despite the fact not all Thai are Buddhist; not all Buddhists by birth are Buddhist by practice; and Buddhist practice varies by class, region and ethnicity. But neither middle-class urban nor rural Thai are opting out of religion. Rather, they are selecting from wider options such as lay meditation, the asceticism of groups like Santi Asoke, or prosperity cults such as Dhammakaya. Buddhism must be front and center in a book about Thai gender because Buddhism matters to Thai people in many different ways, and is a key component of Thai identity. It has a profound impact not only because of its texts and rituals, but also because of the paradoxes emerging from the gaps between doctrine and everyday life. Gender is enmeshed in these paradoxical gaps.
There is no Buddhism that exists outside of local expressions of Buddhist practice, no texts except those produced by people – usually men – in particular times and places. Vitebsky reminds us that a knowledge which is timeless and spaceless is also useless (1993:109). Buddhist knowledge, because it is experientially based is not easily separated from context and locality. These assumptions separate ethnographic work on Buddhist societies from history of religions and theological perspectives on Buddhism. Thailand has a long tradition of anthropological work that deals directly with the problem of linking text-based practices with local interpretations of these practices (cf. Tambiah 1970, 1976, 1984; Keyes 1984, 1989; Kirsch 1982, 1985; Terweil 1975; O'Connor 1993; Tiyavanich 1997; J. Van Esterik 1977; P. Van Esterik 1982, 1986). But