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Organizer: Sandra Cate, University of California, Berkeley
Chair: Eugenia Kaw, Princeton University
Discussant: Anne M. Blackburn, University of South Carolina
This panel offers a dialogue between religious studies scholars and anthropologists on the representations of Theravada Buddhism in local and translocal Southeast Asian communities. This dialogue concerns the processes through which communities receive, shape, reshape, and transmit scriptural traditions. These processes are characterized by diverse mechanisms: pedagogical style, media of transmission, institutional competition, transnational discourse, and individual interpretation. This takes place amidst global flows of people, and ideas; Buddhism has been characterized as one of those flows. In comparative settingsBurma, Thailand, London, and Cambodiawe investigate how these social practices in turn challenge and maintain the authority of Buddhism as a body of knowledge with continuing universal relevance for social change.
Lazarus examines the terms of engagement between the sangha with bio-medicine in contemporary Thailand showing how both institutions compete for the healing of AIDS sufferers. Cate examines the tensions between artists and monks at a Thai temple in London over control of Buddhist narratives. The artists reinterpret religious stories as "modern art" and "social critique" to appeal to multiple audiences. Kaw examines how meditating monks in Burma compete with state schools to regain social authority and attain international stature by teaching non-violence to lay students. Through subdued pedagogies, they aim to invoke critical thinking. Poethig investigates Maha Ghosanandas Dhammayietra as a post-socialist revival of Cambodian Buddhism which identifies itself within the transnational trend of "engaged Buddhism." Discussant Blackburn suggests possibilities for productive collaborations between ethnographers and historians of religion, which mediate divergences between text, discourse, and practice.
Buddhist versus Medical Care for AIDS in Northern Thailand
Margery Lazarus, University of California, San Francisco
The AIDS epidemic in Thailand illuminates a growing tension between Theravada Buddhist institutions and scientific biomedicine. In the competition for state resources and authority, the biomedical institutions exert remarkable success in framing appropriate means for ministering to suffering bodies. However, the failure of biomedical institutions to mobilize effective treatments for AIDS broadens the search for solutions to this social, medical, and moral crisis.
This paper will examine the performance of strategies of authoritytextual, spiritual, and technologicalemployed by monks, lay healers, and physicians, to care for people with AIDS. The intense social stigma inflected on those named as people with AIDS creates a dual epidemicof disease and of significationin which the socially mediated sources of suffering can be more socially disfiguring than the symptoms of HIV disease. The state public health system may provide limited treatment, but exposes people with AIDS to unwanted scrutiny and discrimination. For alternatives to stigmatizing medical care, some lay healers, monks, and meditation instructors provide AIDS treatments that address anxieties rather than maximize medical control.
Thai Buddhist monks, beset by sex scandals, have lost credibility in recent years to exert authority in the realm of moral sexual behavior, and have taken a relatively uninvolved stance towards AIDS intervention. At the same time, pressures to compete in global AIDS medicine have accelerated medical demands for AIDS experimental subjects. The commercial opportunities for miracle cures in the face of biomedical failure further intensify local competition between medicine and Buddhist practice.
From Buddhist Stories to Modern Art: Thai Temple Murals in Wimbledon
Sandra Cate, University of California, Berkeley
Scholars have attributed multiple functions to Thai Buddhist painting: devotional offering by artist and/or sponsor, visual aid to monastic preaching, decorative enhancement of religious space, and even (in genre scenes of everyday life) as entertainment. However intended, paintings do constitute a sitewith or without monastic mediationfor the transmission of Buddhist knowledge.
The contemporary Thai artists who painted murals at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, England in the late 1980s aimed to reinvent temple mural painting. In seeking contemporary relevance for a literateand often non-Buddhist audiencethese artists recast scenes from the lives of the Buddha as "art" and "social critique." They emphasize emotion, active visual engagement, and interpretive privilege over strict adherence to iconographic traditions. Their work created tensions and disparagement among monks and many Thai viewers. Scholars of historical painting often must rely on visual and epigraphic evidence for their analyses. This enthnographic case study attends to social processes, such as negotiations between artists, temple abbots, and sponsors that inform artists choices and strategies in the painting of Buddhist stories, shaping that evidence. This paper argues such tensions relate to those between educated, spiritually motivated middle-class Thais and a sangha increasingly embroiled in scandals of corruption and commercialism. Such tensions also derive from clashing epistemologies: local familiarity with religious stories versus international ideologies of art stressing individual creativity and artistic impact rather than visual narrative per se. As artists transform narratives into "art," how is Buddhist knowledge reconceived, and how is it received?
Buddhist Doctrine of Non-Violence in Burma: Differing Pedagogies, Diverse Effects
Eugenia Kaw, Princeton University
Scholars have shown how political monks in Burma have supported anti-government protests as during the independence movement and recently, against the military regime. Yet, in narrowing their studies to the political sphere of confrontations with the state, these same scholars have not been able to explore other arenas in which monks affect social change in Burma. This paper analyzes how meditating monks in Burma are regaining authority in education, authority that had been lost since state-schools slowly replaced monasteries as schools after British colonialism. While both school teachers and meditating monks teach non-violence to lay students (K10) in accordance with the states Buddhist Culture program, they do so with divergent pedagogical styles, goals, and effects. Although both aim to instill in youths non-violent mental states (non-anger/non-hate) by encouraging youths to respect parents, teachers, and other authority figures, school teachers often end up equating non-violence with passivity. They teach respect as an end in itself, as the first and final marker of Buddhist identity. Meditating monks, on the other hand, teach respect as only the first step toward achieving the higher Buddhist goals of wisdom and critical thinking. They produce Buddhist subjectivities that contrast with the states ideal: non-violent but assertive. Increasingly recognized by young people as the prime promoters of critical thinking and the sector in Burmese society most sought after by international disciples, meditating monks are regaining their role in Burma as an intellectual force for the countrys future.
Movable Peace: Engaging the Transnational in Cambodias Dhammayietra
Kathryn Poethig, California State University, Monterey Bay
The Dhammayietra is an annual peace walk in Cambodia that originated at the UN-monitored repatriation of Cambodians from border camps in Thailand in 1992 and has contributed towards the revival of Buddhism in post-socialist Cambodia. It situates itself within the discourse and practice of a "socially engaged Buddhism" that has gained visibility in Asian and American Buddhism in the last two decades. As an "engaged" interpretation of Buddhist doctrine, it represents a revival of Buddhism in post-socialist Cambodia that I will argue is only possible because of its transnational and interfaith formation. This refugee-produced transnational Buddhism requires two simultaneous moves in order to maintain its efficacy. Represented as a quintessential Khmer Buddhist response to Cambodias entrenched conflicts, it forges its discursive identity within the local space of the nation. But this local space is mobile. Maha Ghosanandas instruction to move "step by step" towards peace recoups dangerous mobilitythe massive relocations during the Khmer Rouge era, refugee flight, the danger of treading on land fed with minesand turns walking into a mindful act. It is this discursive move that loosens the Dhammayietras ties to the nation allowing it to slip across political and religious borders and ally itself with a broad and diverse network of interfaith peace groups that are its transnational public forum.