“Bodu Bala Sena insists Lanka not multiracial” Report by Easwaran Rutnam (Colombo Gazette)

The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) says Sri Lanka is not a multiracial or multi-religious country but a Sinhala Budhist country.

Speaking at the Bodu Bala Sena convention in Panadura this evening, the venerable Medagoda Abayathissa thero urged the Sinhalese to protect the nation and not let other races or religions to take over.

The monk also urged Sinhalese families to have at least 5-6 children so that the Sinhalese Buddhist population grows in order to protect the Sinhala race and Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Via http://colombogazette.com/2013/03/24/bbs-insists-lanka-not-multiracial/

source: Colombo Gazette

Book Review: Patrick Grant’s “Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” Reviewed by David Buck

We republish here a review of Patrick Grant’s “Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka” that was written by David Buck and which appeared on H-Genocide (May, 2011).

Use of Buddhism for Ethnic Conflict

In Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Patrick Grant examines the impact of three Sinhala Buddhist writers on the Buddhist reform movement during the independence and postcolonial periods in Sri Lankan history. Grant’s focus is on what happens when religion, in this case Buddhism, is used not for its liberating vision, but to reaffirm prejudices and further conflicts. While there have been numerous similar conflicts throughout the late twentieth century, Grant hopes to make the lesser-known political conflict in Sri Lanka accessible to Western readers and succeeds admirably in doing so. Grant examines how religious traditions have been mobilized in ethnonationalistic conflict, using the role played by Buddhism in the Sri Lankan conflict as an example. In an effort to explain this conflict, Grant proposes the concept of “regressive inversion,” which is “what happens when a universally liberating religious vision is re-deployed to supercharge the passions associated with loyalty to a group” (p. x). During a moment of “regressive inversion,” he explains, there is a return to an exclusionary identity (something that the religion is supposed to transcend) simultaneous with an inversion of those religious values that rely on the idea of transcendence.

Although Grant is dealing with topics unfamiliar to nonspecialists, he makes the concepts easily understandable. To help with this, Grant divides his book into two parts. Part 1 provides a framework for understanding Buddhism in relation to both his concept of regressive inversion and Sri Lankan history. Part 2 focuses on the conflict in Sri Lanka through the lens of three Sri Lankan Buddhists who were active during the period surrounding independence from Britain in 1948. Overall, Grant sets out to emphasize the role that language plays in this conflict. He does note that other factors are also important, but it is language that holds a special place in his explanation.

Part 1, “Reading Buddhism,” consists of two chapters that focus on how Buddhism and regressive inversion interact and how the Buddha dealt with the apparent contradiction between his liberating vision and the Vedic hierarchical tradition. In chapter 1, “Vedic Tradition and the Buddha: How to Say the Unsayable,” Grant begins with an account of the main teachings of Theravada Buddhism with special attention to the Pali Canon, a collection of Pali language texts considered to be the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. To set up his discussion, he uses what Thomas M. Greene terms the “disjunctive view” of language to mean language that frees people and the “conjunctive view” to mean language that engages people. Grant argues that the Buddha in the Pali Canon negotiated the middle space between these two uses of language “with great skill,” and the dialogical example Grant “provides in doing so remains basic to the meaning and practice of compassion, the heart of his message” (p. 6). While the Buddha was able to walk this line, Grant is concerned with the fact that others fail to grasp the need to find a balance in the relationship between disjunctive and conjunctive language.

Grant focuses on the Pali Canon and how the Buddha deals with the relationship between a transcendent universalism and its cultural antecedents in chapter 2, “Buddhism: The Art of the Detached Agonist.” He starts by providing an overview of the life and teachings of Gotama Buddha. Readers can easily follow Grant’s discussion of the central teachings; he provides a solid basis for those who are not familiar with them. He follows this overview with an explanation of how the discourses deal with the use and abuse of language. He describes how the Buddha employs a variety of strategies to deal with interlocutors. Grant concludes this part of the book by asserting that “the Discourses especially insist on how central such a dialogue [one committed to the middle way] is to the promulgation of an authentic and vital Buddhism” (p. 42). Furthermore, he puts forth the idea that it is the failing to understand this that has led to “regressive inversion,” which is the focus of the rest of the book.

In part 2, “Reading Sri Lanka,” Grant examines how this Buddhist framework informed, or failed to inform, modern thinkers in Sri Lanka. He focuses the writings of three key figures in Sri Lankan nationalism–Anagarika Dharmapala, Walpola Rahula, and J. R. Jayewardene–who addressed Buddhism and politics in the years surrounding Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain. These three pushed for a revival of their vision of pure Buddhism, which Grant argues supports the concept of regressive inversion. He illustrates how these figures made connections between Buddhism and politics.

Before he begins his examination of the writers, Grant starts by giving an assessment of Sri Lanka’s historic Buddhist chronicle tradition in chapter 3, “Sri Lanka: Buddhist Self Representation and the Genesis of the Modern Conflict.” He starts by explaining the Mahavamsa, “Great Genealogy,” from the sixth century, which provides the connection between the monarchs and Buddhism. Grant argues that this historic tie influences the revivalists’ idea that the pure Buddhism, along with the return of the Sinhalas, will help Sri Lankan nationalism. Following this discussion of religious ideology, Grant provides a brief survey of major events in Sri Lanka from the 1600s until the late 1900s. He uses this to set up the backdrop for how “undiscerned prejudice can override principle despite good intentions” (p. 65).

In chapter 4, “Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhism, Science, and the Crisis of Historical Imagination,” Grant discusses how Dharmapala began to the make the links between the Buddhist revival and the Sri Lankan nationalist movement. In this chapter, Grant’s main point is to provide evidence that Dharmapala’s reliance on science caused a misestimation of the “powerful exclusionist element in his own thinking, which in fact prevented him from promoting the tolerance, compassion, and universalism which he admired” (p. 67). Grant provides an overview of Dharmapala’s early life and his path to becoming a reformer. In the end, Grant argues that Dharmapala exhibits regressive inversion because he used science as a vehicle to recreate an exclusivism that was in fact the antithesis of Buddhist teachings.

In chapter 5, “Alpola Rahula and Gamini Salgado: Buddhism, Dialogue, and the Political Imaginary,” Grant examines how Rahula’s writings were seemingly incongruent–a scholarly understanding of Buddhism and nonviolence and an espousal of militant nationalism. Once again, Grant provides an overview of the life of the writer he is examining to help explain the effort at reform later in life. Rahula arrived at the argument that the principle of relativity worked well with theMahavamsa, based on little regard he had for traditional Buddhist practices. Grant uses Gamini Salgado’s The True Paradise (1997), a Sri Lankan author’s stories about childhood, as a counterexample to Rahula’s The Heritage of the Bhikkhu (2003). Salgodo focused on daily life and Buddhism’s place within it. By contrast, Rahula concentrated on the issue of colonialism and subverted his own scholarly understanding of Buddhism.

In chapter 6, “J. R. Jaywardene: Playing with Fire,” Grant explores how as prime minister, Jaywardene’s policies helped to further the violence and disorder he had sought to end. Grant argues that it was Jaywardene’s promotion of Sinhala Buddhist cultural nationalism that led to conflict. After reviewing Jaywardene’s rise to power, Grant explains how he hoped to use Buddhism, the Mahavamsa, and the development and restoration of Buddhist artifacts and buildings to end the ethnic conflict. In the end, Grant sees Jaywardene’s failure as tied to his promotion of regressive inversion.

With this book Grant wants to show “how seductive is the process whereby the liberating vision of a great religion is re-deployed to confirm prejudices that the religion itself expressly offers to transcend” (p. 115). Overall, Grant does a solid job of making this point in a manner that is accessible to most readers. However, Grant’s concept of regressive inversion could have been more clearly developed and integrated into the work more fully. At the outset, the reader is led to believe that the concept will play a vital role in the book. However, it is largely absent from part 2. At the end of each chapter, Grant makes passing reference to regressive inversion, but it would have been helpful if it had been more closely woven into the analysis throughout the book.

Overall, the book is a solid introduction to Buddhism and its relationship with the conflict in Sri Lanka during the twentieth century. This work will be especially beneficial to scholars looking at the intersection of religion and politics in times of crisis. It also will be a useful text in courses in religion, history, sociology, and conflict. Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka provides a useful lens that could be used to examine similar conflicts around the globe.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.

Patrick Grant. Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. xiv + 146 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-9353-3.

Citation: David Buck. Review of Grant, Patrick, Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. H-Genocide, H-Net Reviews. May, 2011.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29716

source: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29716

Book Review: John Clifford Holt’s “Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture” Reviewed by Marybeth White

We republish here a review of John Clifford Holt’s “Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture” that was written by Marybeth White  and which appeared on H-Buddhism (November, 2011).

Lao Buddhism has been considered a blending of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animistic traditions. This synthesis has been predominantly understood and analyzed by Western scholars through the lens of Buddhism. Recently, historians Grant Evans and Martin Stuart-Fox have purported that the Lao government has utilized the dominant Buddhist tradition to instill propaganda and foster a rationalized form of Buddhism resulting in its subsuming the phi (spirits)John Clifford Holt in his new book on the Buddhist traditions of Laos questions this interpretation, conceding that this buddhacization process is occurring in Isan, an area that became part of Northeast Thailand when the French designated the Mekong River as the border between Thailand and Laos. But drawing on the previous work of Stanley Tambiah, one of Holt’s mentors, as well as others, such as Frank LeBar and Adrienne Suddard, he proposes that it is through the categories of the phi that “Lao Buddhism is understood in its uniquely Lao manner” (p. 45). He reports that the phi cults are alive and thriving because the hierarchy of the spirit world is connected to shared narratives of protection and the “powers of place” that have not been eradicated, in spite of previous efforts by the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) government (p. 164). Moreover, he argues that the very ontology of the spirit world is understood as distinct from that of this world or the six Buddhist realms. The crux of Holt’s argument is that in Laos it is through the lens of the spirit cults that the Triple Gem not only is considered a powerful protective element but also is a protective element. Holt suggests that most Lao have not intellectualized the dharma. Consequently an entity such as a stupa (or a monk) is not an object “of meditation” but rather “an active force” (p. 253). In this way the Lao Buddhist tradition is “inspirited,” by the phi resulting in a mutually informing and transforming relationship rather than a synthesis.

The book consists of five chapters. The first analyzes Lao Buddhism and culture through the “prisms of the indigenous ontology of the spirit cults” (p. 61). Holt grounds his use of the spirit cults as the basis of his analysis within Lao history. Chapter 2 continues a historical analysis of Lao religious and political life and the cultural impact of numerous other groups who have overtly or covertly been involved in governing Laos: the Thai, French, Japanese, Americans, and Vietnamese. The third chapter concludes the historical perspective of a postrevolutionary Laos and explains how the phi cults and Buddhist sangha (the Buddhist community) have been affected. The first three chapters draw heavily on the research of such scholars as Georges Coedes, Georges Condominas, Frank Reynolds, Marcello Zago, Charles Archaimbault, Pierre-Bernard Lafont, and Ing-Britt Trankell, in addition to the work of Arthur Dommen, Geoffrey Gunn, Martin Stuart-Fox, Grant Evans, Soren Ivarsson, and Vatthana Pholsena, who provide some analysis of religion in Laos. Moreover, because of cultural similarities, Holt has also included research from Northeast Thailand (Isan) and Chiang Mai by such scholars as Tambiah, Charles Keyes, Leedom Lefferts, and Justin McDaniel. Finally, Holt utilizes Patrice Ladwig’s research on Lao stupas to demonstrate that current understandings of Lao Buddhism exist through the lens of the spirit world.

Chapter 4 examines the field research data that Holt collected in his seven months in Laos between June 2006 and June 2007. The chapter provides new research and understandings into the effects of globalization and the UNESCO designation of Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site. Previous efforts by the LPDR government to eradicate spirit cults appear to be in a state of reversal as government published tourist literature takes an instrumentalist perspective that embraces the phi cults as “quintessentially Lao” in order to capitalize on its uniqueness with tourists (p. 235). Holt demonstrates how the tourist industry results in the commoditization of the monks. Thorough literary and historical overviews weave the contextual frame for Holt’s field research and interviews in Luang Prabang. His interviews with novices, aged ten to twenty, provide important documentation of the experiences of primarily rural youth who come to Luang Prabang to study Buddhism and perform traditional rituals for tourists. Holt’s final chapter analyzes how the phi cults remain prominent, through the “power of a place,” even though economic and political power structures have been significantly altered over the past thirty years.

Covered in the volume are the Lao Buddhist celebrations of Pi Mai (New Year) and Boun Phravet (the festival containing the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka) held in Luang Prabang. There are also appendixes containing additional information on the Lao rendition of the Ramayana and the Cult of Khwan (vital essence).

While this volume provides crucial research into the dialectical relationship between the world of the phi and Buddhism, there is one challenge with the manuscript. Chapter 4’s presentation of the field research and interviews from Luang Prabang sits uncomfortably within the rest of this well-written and documented text. It is not clear at the conclusion of the text what its purpose serves. Perhaps it is to literally ground Holt’s observations within the contours of Laos. But more likely it is what remains unspoken that the reader must actively unpack. At the conclusion of the book, Holt draws on examples from Tambiah and Kamala Tiyavanich to elucidate how the actions of a monk can be perceived from both Buddhist soteriological and pragmatic spirit cult perspectives. He notes that monks are thought to be embodiments of the dharma but also an active force of protection (“buddhacization” and “inspiriting” respectively). Is there a connection between Holt’s final thoughts and the “unmonk-like” behavior and commoditization of the novice monks who “perform” rituals for the tourists in Luang Prabang? Clarification is required to fully illuminate and locate Holt’s field research within the rest of the text.

There are other issues that weaken an otherwise fine text. The book is somewhat limited in its geographical focus, particularly in the latter half of the study. Expansion of Holt’s research to include the other two traditional centers of power within Laos, the Vientiane area in central Laos and the province of Champassak in the South, would have provided a more rounded study of the phi cults throughout the country of Laos, and allowed the opportunity to assess the “inspiriting” of Buddhism that Holt observes in the Luang Prabang area. Holt makes little mention of the large numbers of Lao Loum that live outside the national borders of Laos in Thailand, France, the United States, Canada, and Australia, as his focus is on the current state of Buddhism within Laos. However, with enormous amounts of funds being sent “home” to Laos from the diaspora communities living around the globe–communities that for the most part left Laos prior to government attempts to rationalize Buddhism–it does beg the question to what extent “ethnic Lao” from outside Laos have an impact on the religious culture and understandings within Laos, currently as well as in the future. Is this process of inspiriting one that carries on outside of Laos? The inclusion of a glossary of Pali and Lao terms would have been a good addition for those without training in these languages. Finally, while Holt does acknowledge the lack of standardized script and diacritics for the Lao language, it would have assisted the reader to have a single spelling of a specific term, designated in square brackets for quoted sources that utilize other spellings.

This text fills a gap in the literature concerning Lao Buddhism. Since the LPDR’s change of governance in 1975, few sources on Lao Buddhism have been published. Consequently, the arrival of this text is a welcomed addition to an area of scholarship that is under-researched. Holt’s area of expertise is Sinhalese Buddhism. His more recent publications include the coedited Constituting Communities: Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia (2003), to which he contributes an essay, and The Buddhist Vishnu (2004), both of which investigate the sociopolitical contexts of contemporary Sri Lanka that shape religious understanding and meaning. Holt approaches Buddhism within the context of Laos utilizing a comparative stance that draws on his knowledge of the Theravada lineage found in Sri Lanka and its relationship with a more anthropomorphized spirit world than he suggests is found in Laos.

This book will be of particular interest for those studying Lao Buddhism, either within diaspora communities or Laos itself, as it will provide a current analysis of how Lao Buddhism is responding to the political and social environment of today’s LPDR government. Holt’s work will also be an informative piece for scholars who are researching lived religious traditions within a “secular” globalized world as it provides a case study demonstrating how the spirit-based tradition of Lao Buddhism is responding to Luang Prabang’s designation as a UNESCO heritage site and consequently its engagement with a vastly increased tourist market.

John Clifford Holt. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009. 368 pp. $58.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3327-5.

source: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=26093

call for applications to the Theravada Civilizations Project Dissertation Workshop, March, 2013

The Theravada Civilizations Project announces:

A Dissertation Workshop

To be held at Arizona State University, Tempe/Phoenix, Arizona, March 6, 2013

DEADLINE for proposals: November 30th, 2012.
The Theravada Civilizations Project is pleased to announce plans for an intensive dissertation workshop, which will be held in conjunction with the international meeting of the Theravada Civilizations Project in March 2013 in Arizona.

Theravada Buddhism is practiced throughout the world with over 150 million practitioners settled primarily in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, and Thailand. The South and Southeast Asian diaspora communities as well as the rise in global interest in vipassana meditation has led to the growth of Theravada Buddhism in the Americas, Australia, Japan, and Europe. The scholarly study of Theravada Buddhism began with the scrutiny of Pali literature, but now covers many disciplines including literature, ethics, anthropology, philology, philosophy, history, cultural studies, political science, urban studies, and art and material culture.

The Theravada Civilizations Project  is comprised of scholars from Arizona State University, Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Harvard University, the University of Leeds, the University of London,  the University of Louisville, Missouri State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, the University of Vermont, the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin, and in consultation with scholars from a range of other Asian, Australian, and European institutions.  A description of the larger project can be found in Juliane Schober and Steven Collins, “The Theravāda Civilizations Project: future directions in the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia,” in The Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 13 (1), May 2012. Since project members and other scholars in the field are based at many different locations, graduate students preparing their dissertations often do not have the opportunity to present and gain detailed feedback on their work from several experts in the field.

This workshop is intended to bring together doctoral students and/or post-doctoral academics in the humanities and social sciences who are (1) developing dissertation proposals or are in early phases of research, dissertation writing, or revising dissertations for publications; and who are (2) engaging some aspects of Theravada classical and/or vernacular literature and/or researching aspects of Theravada history and cultural practice among South or Southeast Asian communities.

The workshop will be limited to 6 doctoral students and/or post doctoral academics, ideally from a broad array of disciplines and working on a wide variety of materials in a variety of time periods on themes related to Theravada traditions and communities in Southeast Asia.  It will provide a day of intense discussion, presentation, and close review of dissertation proposals, outlines, and/or draft review on March 6, 2013.

Priority will be given to doctoral candidates at North American universities.

The Theravada Civilizations Project will be able to provide 1,000 US dollars in support for participants to help cover travel and accommodation. Meals will be provided at the workshop. Students needing additional funds to attend the workshop are encouraged to approach their home institutions for support.

Applicants need not have advanced to candidacy but must have at least drafted a dissertation research proposal to apply. Applications are also welcome from doctoral students in the early phases of writing their dissertations.Applications consist of two items only:

(1) A current Curriculum Vitae, and

(2) A dissertation proposal, or a statement of the specific issues being addressed, the intellectual approach, and the materials being studied. Neither the proposal nor statement should exceed 10 double-spaced pages in length.

Application materials must reach Ashley Thompson at a.c.thompson@leeds.ac.uk no later than November 30, 2012. Workshop participants will be selected on the basis of the submitted projects, the potential for useful exchanges among them, and a concern to include a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, intellectual traditions, and regions. Applicants will be notified in early January 2013. For further information about the workshop, or eligibility, please contact Dr. Thompson at the above email address.

source: AISLS

Book Review: Prapod Assavavirulhakarn’s “The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia” Reviewed by Daniel Veidlinger

We republish here a review of Prapod Assavavirulhakarn’s “The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia” that was written by Daniel Veidlinger  and which appeared on H-Buddhism (December, 2011).

A Passage from India: The Coming of Buddhism to Southeast Asia

In this important publication, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn addresses several key questions that have dogged the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia for many years, such as the precise nature of Buddhism in the first millennium and the relationship of Buddhism to the indigenous religions. He presents a general religious history of Southeast Asia and places Buddhism in the context of both indigenous religions and the Indian cultural formations that influenced the development of the region. Based upon the inscriptional record, he emphasizes that Theravāda Buddhism was present in the western part of Southeast Asia alongside the earliest forms of Buddhism and did not come only in the eleventh century after the reforms in Sri Lanka that unified the Saṅghas there. The author writes that the merit of the book may lie “not in discovering something new but in searching and becoming more perplexed” (p. xi), and accordingly he proceeds to open up a great number of avenues of inquiry into the kinds of Buddhist schools that came to Southeast Asia and exactly how and when they arrived. Some of these avenues he convincingly suggests might not be answerable in the current or foreseeable state of our knowledge.

The book provides a wide-ranging overview of what is known about the contours of Southeast Asian history and locates Buddhism within its social and political context during a period of more than a thousand years. As such, its seven chapters and 194 pages of text are necessarily thin on detail but that is not a weakness, because adequate evidence is marshaled for most of the points that are made, and the interested reader is directed to the relevant, more detailed works on the history of the region, upon which the author draws. He does not undertake a large amount of original research, relying mainly on published inscriptions, general histories, traditional chronicles in Pali as well as vernacular Thai, accounts of premodern Chinese travelers, archeological reports, and other sources that are impressive and comprehensive, but also fairly standard for the historiography of the region.

At several places in the book, Prapod asserts that he is overthrowing the dominant theory that Theravāda Buddhism came to the region only during the eleventh century, but in the last few decades this theory has already lost some strength. Here, the book does suffer from the fact that it is based upon the author’s UC Berkeley dissertation that was completed twenty years ago. I was a little surprised to find no references to the two most important works about the roots of Buddhism in the region that have come out since his dissertation was completed, namely Robert Brown’s The Dvāravatī Wheels of the Law and the Indianization of South East Asia(1996) and Michael Aung-Thwin’s The Mists of Rāmañña (2005), both of which also problematize older narratives.

The audience for the book should be quite wide, encompassing those with a general interest in Buddhism or Asian history. It is written using very accessible language for the non-specialist, is refreshingly devoid of jargon, and does not go into the kind of minutiae that might scare off the more casual reader. However, a serious shortcoming is that there are numerous crucially important Pali and Sanskrit passages cited from inscriptions or other texts that remain untranslated, both in the body of the book and in the notes. This fact greatly reduces the potential audience for what is otherwise a book that could appeal to a more general readership interested in the history of this important but understudied region.

The introduction begins with a considered reflection on the meaning of the terms “Southeast Asia” and “Buddhism,” and clarifies that

the focus will be on the areas of Southeast Asia that were most influenced by Buddhist culture, namely what is modern-day Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It also provides a succinct explanation of the confusing differences within Buddhist sectarian nomenclature. For example, “Theravāda” is a term that is remarkably undefined considering how often it is used. It is sometimes equated with the Sanskrit Sthaviravāda, which may connote all of the early non-Mahāyāna schools aside from Mahāsaṃghika, and other times with the particular school derived from Sri Lanka. The author also highlights the uncertainty about the exact relationship between different languages, such as Sanskrit, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, and Pāli, with the different schools of Buddhism. As the author shows later in the book, this issue has very profound consequences, for it is not uncommon for scholars to attribute a text or inscription to one school or another based solely on linguistic evidence. To be clear, he therefore calls the religious system that can be derived from the Pali canon “Theravāda” and distinguishes it from ideas or practices that might be found in Pali inscriptions but whose source cannot be definitively traced to the canon as we now have it. These he refers to as “Pali Buddhism.”

There is a fair bit of attention paid in the book to Indianization, which Prapod describes as “a process of cultural relations between India and Southeast Asia” (p. 11), and the book importantly emphasizes that this involved the acculturation of Brahmanical, Sanskritic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. In fact, he sees Buddhism as part of a package of Indian ideas that took root in Southeast Asia, rather than as an abstract religion, which is a fruitful way to frame the phenomenon. He does remind us that Indianization was not a uniform process but took different shapes and adapted to the local cultures in different ways. He sets up a bit of a straw man in saying that “it is pointless to try to determine an exact moment Southeast Asia became ‘Indianized’” (p. 13) because I do not think that any serious scholar can be accused of trying to do such a thing. It is certain that large numbers of Indians never invaded and forced their culture upon the local inhabitants after some great battle that can be located in time, but rather it was taken up enthusiastically by certain local groups and spread in that manner. While these “Indianized” states were not ruled by Indian princes, they coalesced around key ideas such as Dharmic kingship, Indian notions of jurisprudence, and the use of Indic writing. Indian ideas, such as these, he reminds us, could just as easily have been imported by Southeast Asian traders who went to India as by Indians who went to Southeast Asia, and the possibility that both of these factors were at work here must be considered.

Chapter 2 deals with the cultures of the region prior to the coming of Indian religions. This chapter is convincing, but it should be noted that because there is little direct historical evidence attesting to their nature, it is of necessity highly speculative. These cultures were the ground upon which the Indian religions were seeded, and therefore still influence the practices of a contemporary Southeast Asian “Buddhist.” The best way to think of the complex interaction between the native and Indian beliefs, according to Prapod, is as a system where each culture influenced the development of the other. The book looks at the earliest archaeological evidence from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, examining what we can learn about their religious beliefs from the implements and bodily positioning evident at burial sites. The author speculates that the powers believed to lie within sīmā stones in Thailand that demarcate the monastic boundaries might derive from an early Megalithic earth cult (p. 30) and that ancestor worship was probably common as well, based upon evidence of structures that were built above the graves. A number of speculations rely upon extrapolating backwards from practices that are still current, a strategy that suffers from the possibility that the culture of the early Common Era was in fact very different. In looking at the myths and legends that are peculiar to Southeast Asia, the author himself rightly points out that those that are not Indic in origin are not necessarily pre-Indianization. Some creation myths are clearly of indigenous origin, and others are derived from Buddhist cosmogonic tales, but whether the indigenous ones arose before or after Indian influence started to be felt, is, ultimately, unknown and probably unknowable. He also focuses on the pervasive concept of spirits, known in Thailand as phī and in Burma as nat, and looks at how Indian conceptions of devas and devatās were incorporated into this existing system, as well as how the Buddhist term viññāna has been used to refer to the consciousness that leaves the body of the deceased.

Chapter 3 deals with the very thorny problem of the introduction of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, which Prapod points out consisted of a number of different kinds of Buddhism all taking root at one point or another. The traditional Buddhist account holds that King Asoka sent two missionaries, Soṇa and Uttara, to a place called Suvarṇabhūmi, which is located somewhere in Southeast Asia, but there is no independent confirmation of this event, nor is it known exactly where this place is. Prapod surveys the rather extensive literature on this topic and concludes that Suvarṇabhūmi refers not to a specific polity but to the general area east of the Bengal region of India. As to the traditional attribution of traders as the main vessels of Indianization by the academic community, the author also points out that this could not be the whole story because it is unlikely that traders would have been familiar with the high Sanskritic culture that came to the region along with the other cultural ideas. There is little doubt that Indian merchants brought the Buddhist and Hindu traditions and cults with them along with other aspects of culture as they sailed along the trade routes, starting probably with the Malay Peninsula and then expanding to Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. Buddhism had an advantage over Hinduism because as is well known, there was a restriction on overseas travel upon Brahmans. This did not stop them from traveling in this way eventually, of course, but may have favored the spread of Buddhism through the merchants and later through missionary monks who would likely have accompanied traders on their routes. Prapod emphasizes that conversion of a region to Buddhism would not have occurred overnight but would have been the result of a fairly long process of acculturation and certainly would involve at minimum the establishment of a Saṅgha with the ability to perform the appropriate rites and rituals.

Prapod argues against the idea that it took until the fifth century for some form of Buddhism to first reach the area. He says that although the earliest iconographic evidence consists of Buddha images in the Amarāvatī style dating from this period, since regional differences can already be seen in the statuary from Vietnam, Thailand, and Java, the style must have been introduced even earlier. He also points to the Dharmacakras from Dvāravatī which he believes “represent a very old tradition that was implanted in the area no later than the fourth century CE” (p. 67). Some more evidence to support this date would have been helpful, for it seems a little early to this reviewer. There are some seals that mention the Saṅgha from the second century CE, so by this period at the latest, at least some Buddhists must have been present in the region. Buddhism of some kind, argues the author, was probably introduced both from India and Sri Lanka, with southern India playing a particularly significant role.

Chapter 4 details the features of Southeast Asian Buddhism prior to the eleventh century, which Prapod derives from Pāli, Sanskrit and vernacular inscriptions, archeological remains, statuary, and reliefs. A number of inscriptions contain canonical and extra-canonical quotations that would have been accepted by all the Buddhist groups, so unfortunately this cannot tell us much about the kind of Buddhism that was found in the region at the time. In Dvāravatī and Cambodia, the quotation inscriptions are in Pāli, but in Java they are in Sanskrit, and in the Pyu areas they are usually in Pāli but some Sanskrit examples have been found. The chapter contains a fairly detailed list of the various quotation inscriptions from these regions but the author warns us to be careful about associating them with one or another school of Buddhism, as has often been done based upon the linguistic evidence alone, for languages very similar to Pāli were used by other Hīnayāna sects, and Sanskrit was used by groups other than Mahāyāna, such as Sarvāstivāda and even possibly the Theravādin Abhayagiri Vihāra. Some Pyu gold plate inscriptions that are in Pāli and contain excerpts from the Abhidhamma, however, can definitely be associated with the Theravāda school. Prapod here provides the first evidence that Theravāda Buddhism specifically from Sri Lanka must have arrived in Thailand prior to the eleventh century. An inscription dated between the eighth and ninth centuries contains non-canonical verses from the Telakaṭāhagāthā that was composed in Sri Lanka. He also cites inscriptions showing that Mahāyāna and especially Yogācāra were known amongst the Khmer in the early eleventh century. He concludes from this study of the archeological remains that “Theravāda was the main sect in the Pyu and Dvāravatī cultures, and that Mahāyāna was dominant in the Khmer areas and the archipelago“ (p. 105), adding as well that Brahmanical traditions are attested more in the record from this latter area. It is important to note that he does not rule out the presence of other sects in all these regions either.

An important theme of the book with regard to this subject is that the specific sectarian affiliations of the different early Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia are unlikely ever to be known. Indeed, Prapod questions whether it is really all that important to know them, for the majority of the Buddhist community would probably not have cared much or in some cases even known with which sect of the religion they were involved. Monks sometimes lived in the same monasteries and lay support was given to members of different sects even by the same person. He reminds us that even today, most Buddhists in the region do not think of themselves as “Theravāda” Buddhists but rather simply as supporters of the Buddha’s Sāsana (teachings). They include in their practice ideas from a variety of different Buddhist sects from the Hīnayāna as well as the Mahāyāna traditions. They also include many practices that are not derived from Buddhism at all, such as the worship of local spirits.

Chapter 5 deals with the nature of religion in the region, with a focus on the ways that indigenous and Indian religions adapted to each other. Rather than assimilation or syncretism, the author says it is best to see the religious landscape as one in which different traditions existed alongside each other and interacted in complicated and symbiotic ways. Likewise, he also cautions against seeing the Indian traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Brahmanism as hermetically sealed entities but rather as part of a greater Indian cultural system that was introduced into Southeast Asia. “People perceived religion as the institution in which to place their trust, with all religions being regarded as auspicious, and which could be applied to different situations in everyday life…. The idea that one professes to belong to a single religion is foreign to the Southeast Asian mind, which sees no need to synthesize multiple beliefs into one exclusive belief” (p. 147). As can be seen from comparing the Upanishads with the early Pāli texts, Prapod suggests that they were really grappling with very much the same kind of philosophical ideas, and later developed practices–yoga, bhakti, tantra–that reflected each other as well. The division of this package of Indian beliefs into strictly delineated religions, as well as the attempt to tease out the indigenous beliefs, may not entirely be a product of Western ways of thinking about religion, as the author appears to suggest, but it is certainly not terribly constructive when applied to the Southeast Asian situation. More properly, the different systems had spheres in which they were operative to varying degrees; for example, Buddhism provided the moral context and merit-making framework for most people, and Brahmanism was used for rituals connected with governance and kingship.

Chapter 6 looks at the shape of what is called Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia and commences by questioning the idea forwarded most famously by Melford Spiro that normative Buddhism has no concern for worldly matters but rather focuses exclusively on salvation. Therefore, the propitiation of divinities is not central to the religion. In contrast, Prapod points out that Buddhists not only venerate the Buddha and his images, but they have worshipped the spirits and practiced supernaturalism since the time of the early canonical texts. Regardless of what is found in the canon, the author insists that popular practice is as central to the construction of Buddhism as are the texts. This is a very loaded issue but is also, it seems to me, a “pseudo-problem,” as Prapod might call it (p. 154), whose resolution lies simply in defining what counts as Buddhism in the context of any particular scholarly study being undertaken on the subject. He also criticizes Stanley Tambiah for creating “pseudo-problems” through the construction of a dichotomy between native and Buddhist concepts such as the paahm/maukhwan, who is an expert in local spirit rites, and the bhikkhu, or Buddhist monk (pp.154-155). He cautions furthermore against dividing Buddhism into an elite and popular mode, when the merit-making rites performed by the king are almost identical to those performed by simple villagers.

A crucial point made in the book that the author himself would likely admit is not supported strongly enough is that “Aniruddha was not converted to Theravāda via contact with Ceylon, but instead, through the Pyu or Mon cultures of lower Burma” (p. 162). This is unattested by any really reliable, non-ideological, contemporary evidence either way, as Michael Aung-Thwin has demonstrated in The Mists of Rāmañña (2005). The Burmese tradition as found in the Sāsanavaṃsa holds that he got the texts either from the Pyu or the Mon people, depending on which portion one reads, but a Thai tradition as recorded in the Jinakālamālī does say that he got them directly from Sri Lanka, which Prapod strangely omits in his detailed discussion of this issue. Exactly what happened under Aniruddha may be one of the unknowable issues in Southeast Asian history.

Prapod also studies the history of Buddhism at Sukhothai (1238-1438 CE) and comes to the conclusion that Buddhism was known in the area already before the time of Ramkhamhaeng (1279 CE) because the king mentions the Saṅgha in his inscriptions, but does not mention Theravāda specifically in any context, either as having arrived recently or as having been present for a long time. What is clear is that there are very few, if any, discernable differences from the historical record in the region between the Buddhism before and after the eleventh century. Merit-making practices, the social position of monks, and the texts that are still extant in inscriptions–all of these appear to be very similar, and there is certainly no explicit reference in contemporary records to a new form of “Theravāda” Buddhism arriving. Scholars have probably “conflated the history of a nation with the history of religion” (p. 172). Since the Thai and Burmese nations are often conceived in nationalist historiography as having their roots during this period, it has worked well to posit that a new form of Buddhism was established at this time as well, thus allowing king and creed to arise anew together. The book under review, however, successfully demonstrates that this is not supported by the evidence.

The author concludes that most Southeast Asian Buddhists just think of themselves as Buddhist, rather than as belonging to one school or another, and most probably would not be able to recite the Four Noble Truths, much less explain subtle distinctions between different forms of Buddhism. “The study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia cannot be fruitful if doctrinal differences are overemphasized. Neither can its development be understood by imposing the dichotomy of ‘Great’ and ‘Little’ traditions, nor by positing tensions between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ levels of belief or practice. These dichotomies do not accurately reflect the actual beliefs of the people” (p. 179). The idea of Theravāda, he says, has had little cache amongst the common followers of the religion and should properly be understood as referring to a specific ordination tradition within which some monks were ordained. Sri Lanka was not the source of the Buddhist religion itself for most of these regions in the second millennium, but rather was the source of a specific ordination tradition, around which the religion itself continued to exist. According to Prapod, the only place where Theravāda as a set of doctrines, practices, and ordination lineages can be said to have been formally introduced in this period was Cambodia, which was primarily Mahāyāna until the weakening of the Khmer empire in the thirteenth century.

This is a wide-ranging, clearly written, and convincingly argued book that deserves to be read by all scholars interested in the history of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. It sums up much of the work that has been done about the early history of Buddhism in the region and as such sets a new baseline from which future discussions should rightly commence.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.

Citation: Daniel Veidlinger. Review of Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2011.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34818

source: H-Buddhism (December, 2011)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.