[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Buddhism]: Hessler on Cohen, 'Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue May 28 11:23:48 MDT 2019

Best regards,
Andrew Stewart 

Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: May 28, 2019 at 1:22:35 PM EDT
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Buddhism]:  Hessler on Cohen, 'Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Paul T. Cohen, ed.  Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism.  Copenhagen  
> NIAS Press, 2017.  272 pp.  $27.00 (paper), ISBN 978-87-7694-195-6.
> Reviewed by Felix Hessler (Leibniz University Hannover / Mote Oo 
> Education, Yangon)
> Published on H-Buddhism (May, 2019)
> Commissioned by Thomas Borchert
> The collection of eight articles presented by Paul T. Cohen in 
> _Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism_ gives fascinating insights into 
> a strand of Theravāda Buddhism that has received little scholarly 
> attention until now. At the heart of contemporary Lanna Buddhism, 
> which is mainly practiced in the areas around Chiang Mai (Thailand), 
> the borderland of neighboring Myanmar and, to a lesser degree, in 
> Laos and southern China, lies the work of the _ton bun_ (person of 
> merit), charismatic holy monks.  Since many of these monks see 
> themselves in a lineage with the famous Khruba Siwichai (1878-1938) 
> and share several distinctive characteristics, some scholars speak of 
> a "khruba movement." Khruba translates as "venerated teacher." It is 
> not an official title given by governments or the sangha hierarchy, 
> but is given by local communities out of veneration. In the context 
> of Lanna Buddhism and the "khruba movement" it refers to _ton 
> bun--_monks who are believed to be holy and who share a number of 
> distinct qualities. According to Paul Cohen, one defining feature of 
> the khruba movement is the "paradoxical combination in this holy man 
> tradition of other-worldly asceticism and this-worldly activism" (p. 
> 1); the latter mainly being expressed through religious building 
> activities while the former refers to ascetic practices like constant 
> wandering, vegetarianism, eating only one meal a day, strict 
> meditation, and the associated attainment of supernatural powers. 
> Ferocious temple-building projects can be witnessed in many parts of 
> the Theravāda world. What is especially noteworthy about the ton 
> bun's building of temples and subsequent communities is that those 
> are framed in the broader narrative of the Lanna chronicles 
> (_tamnan_), which include legends about the Buddha's visits to the 
> Lanna region. These building projects thus transform spaces into 
> "Buddha-Lands" and thereby build new moral communities. Since most 
> followers belong to marginalized non-Tai minorities (or non-Bamar 
> minorities in Myanmar), this has social as well as political 
> implications. 
> The book thus not only serves as a good introduction to Lanna 
> Buddhism, but uses the latter as a focal point to contribute to 
> several broader scholarly arguments concerning such topics as: 
> sainthood and charisma, retraditionalization and modernity, 
> conceptualizations of the relationship between the spiritual and the 
> material as expressed in religious building activities, or the role 
> holy men play for ethnic minorities. Due to the variety of the 
> subjects covered, at times I was unable to see a unifying thread. 
> Nevertheless, this variety is one of the strengths of the book, 
> showing that the study of Lanna Buddhism is not only worthwhile in 
> itself but can add fruitful perspectives in these broader arguments. 
> In the following, I seek to shed some more light on these topics by 
> giving summaries of the eight articles and, in the process, hope to 
> fairly evaluate some of their strengths and weaknesses. 
> As many famous khrubas were disciples of Khruba Siwichai and some are 
> even believed to be his reincarnation, it makes sense that Kathrine 
> A. Bowie's article, "Khruba Siwichai. The Charismatic Saint and the 
> Northern Sangha" gives an introduction of this prototypical ton bun. 
> Siwichai lived in difficult times. At the beginning of the twentieth 
> century, the Thai state was in the process of strengthening its 
> stronghold in the northern provinces, and part of that was the 
> expansion of the influence of the Thammayut order. The northern 
> sangha was at that time fairly independent of the sangha of central 
> Siam/Thailand and Siwichai was a vocal opponent of the new policies. 
> His confrontational attitude led to his repeated incarcerations as "a 
> traitor to his religion and his king" (p. 29). His support among the 
> local populace, which was afflicted by famines and epidemics, grew, 
> giving rise to millenarian beliefs in Siwichai as the future Buddha 
> Ariya Metteya. While Bowie's chapter serves as a good introduction to 
> the sociopolitical context and the northern sangha out of which the 
> khruba movement grew, it falls somewhat short of portraying Siwichai 
> himself. We only hear about some highlights of his life and his 
> relationship to the northern sangha, but those could have been more 
> closely examined in conjunction with the analysis of the broader 
> context. Since many of the other khrubas covered in this book are 
> closely linked to Siwichai, this would have helped to better 
> illuminate Siwichai's function as a role model and how this 
> influences the works of modern ton bun. 
> The second chapter, Paul Cohen's "Charismatic Monks of Lanna and 
> Isan: A comparison," gives context from a different angle by means of 
> comparison. The lineage of Ajahn Man mediated through the works of 
> Ajahn Chah and several Western monks like Ajahn Sumedho or Thanissaro 
> Bhikkhu, seemingly became the "blueprint" for forest monks in the 
> eyes of Western practitioners. From a scholarly perspective, it also 
> received considerable attention in the writings of Tambiah, Taylor, 
> Keyes, and others. Drawing on these works, Cohen gives a concise 
> overview of the main similarities and differences and argues that 
> "the modern holy man tradition of Lanna is a form of Buddhist 
> revivalism and active utopianism, in contrast to the eremitical, 
> world-renouncing and 'mystical' arahant tradition of Achan Man" (p. 
> 59). Cohen explains the khrubas' works toward building an active 
> utopia (a concept he borrows from Zygmunt Baumann) as one of their 
> defining features: in this conception, an ideal society can only come 
> about through the collective efforts of many--it is not a prophesied 
> utopia but one that has to be actively built. Although monks in the 
> Achan Man lineage are not conceptualized as ton bun_,_ some of the 
> main differences between the two are increasingly weakened through 
> the influence of business elites on both lineages: in the past, the 
> Achan Man lineage was characterized through a lack of building 
> activities--that has changed and grandiose building projects are also 
> carried out by monks of this lineage. However, other distinctive 
> characteristics set the khruba movement clearly apart, especially the 
> active utopianism and the accompanying stylization of khrubas as 
> bodhisattas or even as the future Buddha who will reign over a 
> utopian community, and these are topics that other authors in the 
> book explore further. 
> Whereas the first two chapters give an introduction to the broader 
> context, the following parts go into more specific topics. In chapter 
> 3 "Partners in Power and Perfection: Khrubas, Construction, and _Khu 
> Barami_ in Chiang Rai, Thailand," Anthony Irwin introduces a 
> fascinating side topic. While all ton bun are believed to have 
> perfected _parami_ (the "10 perfections"), two famous monks in the 
> line of Siwichai, Khruba Kham La and Khruba Intha, are believed to be 
> _khu barami--_"a pair of entities that are united in the cultivation 
> of _parami_ over numerous rounds of rebirth" (p. 88). Khu barami is 
> an interesting example of how _kamma_ and kammic connections between 
> people are locally conceptualized. In the context of the book it 
> provides a broadened perspective on parami, an ideal central to both 
> the ton bun and ideals of righteous kingship in Southeast Asia, and 
> helps to underline its importance in the khruba movement. 
> In "Building Moral Communities in an Uncertain World: A Karen Lay 
> Buddhist Community in Northern Thailand" Mikael Gravers takes a 
> deeper look at Huai Tom, a Karen Buddhist community that was founded 
> by Khruba Wong. Gravers shows how local legends, rituals, and the 
> Buddhist cosmological imaginary get translated and embedded in a 
> modernized community, reflecting important points such as conversion 
> as a way to avoid poverty and community-building as a means of social 
> critique. The strength of Gravers's text lies in the depth of his 
> historical accounts and his anthropological observations. For 
> example, he gives a concise description of the history of Khruba 
> Wong's founding of Huai Tom and goes on to explain that "Wong and the 
> Karen constructed their own narrative related to the chronicles 
> (_tamnan_)" (p. 131), thus putting their religious building 
> activities, ritual, and especially beliefs about Khruba Wong (e.g., 
> that he is a bodhisattva) in the context of a wider cosmological 
> imaginary. In other parts of the text though, Gravers's writing lacks 
> this attention to context and detail and becomes generalizing. In the 
> subsection entitled "Moral Leadership, Royalty and Secular Power," he 
> tries to explain "the Karen's" uneasy relationship with the Thai 
> state and their perspective on the Thai Royal family and on Thaksin 
> Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who was deposed in a 2006 
> coup. The Huai Tom community is only mentioned sparsely in this 
> section and "the Karen" (or at least the Karen people living in 
> Thailand) are treated as a homogenous entity. 
> Furthermore, one of the theses Gravers puts forth is, in my opinion, 
> problematic in itself and becomes a major drawback in an article with 
> only little space to build an argument. Gravers explains that Huai 
> Tom "is an example of how the notions of _lokiya_ (the mundane and 
> material world) and _lokuttara_ (the spiritual and supra-mundane 
> world of Buddhism) are combined into a singular community of temples 
> and lay settlement" (p. 116) and later concludes that "a modern 
> imaginary of an ideal (utopian) world with a balance between _lokiya_ 
> (the mundane world) and _lokuttara_ (the spiritual, sacred world)" 
> (p. 142) is formed. This might be due to the reviewer's limited 
> knowledge, but I have not come across any examples of interpreting 
> _lokuttara_ in a spatialized framework in Theravāda contexts. The 
> text remains unclear if this is Khruba Wong's or the Huai Tom 
> community's usage of Pali terms, or Gravers's interpretation. Either 
> way, it is clearly at odds with the usage in the Pali Canon,[1] 
> because there lokuttara is not conceptualized as a "sacred world" but 
> as the supramundane which defies everything worldly. Thus, Gravers's 
> claim would require a complex line of argumentation, which he does 
> not deliver. 
> In the next chapter, "A Karen Charismatic Monk and Connectivity 
> across the Thai-Myanmar Borderland," Kwanchewan Buadaeng portrays U 
> Thuzana, a Karen monk from Myanmar whose activities span both sides 
> of the border. Using Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's concept of 
> assemblage and drawing on Gravers's earlier works, she aims to show 
> why different groups of people--Karen followers of khrubas in the 
> "Siwichai lineage," Karen migrant workers in Thailand, and wealthy 
> Thai business people--are attracted to U Thuzana's works and 
> teaching. The first group mainly follows U Thuzana because they 
> perceive him as a successor of former khrubas "who built moral 
> communities among the Karen in preparation for the coming of Ayya 
> Metteyya, the future Buddha and his utopia" (p. 157). Thus the 
> cosmological imaginary associated with U Thuzana is the main driving 
> force behind their worship. Followers among Karen migrant workers in 
> Thailand are often initially drawn to U Thuzana by his religious 
> building projects and the opportunity those create for making merit 
> in ways they are accustomed to. Besides that, the merit-making 
> rituals create a space to "feel at home" and "to connect with local 
> Thai people, and even develop closer relationships with their 
> employers who agree to have the events organized on their premises" 
> (pp. 158-59). Wealthy business people also seek to make merit by, for 
> example, financing building projects, but their involvement is also 
> "enhancing their own charisma and their charismatic authority over 
> their Karen workers." According to Buadaeng, these three groups form 
> an assemblage because their different forms of participation in the 
> monk's work support each other and help to expand U Thuzana's 
> network, both in Thailand as well as across the border.   
> Although this all connects well to Gravers's chapter and gives an 
> interesting perspective, her chapter is, at times, stuck in 
> descriptive accounts and remains thin on an analytical level. 
> Furthermore, her account lacks the critical approach needed to 
> provide a more balanced understanding of the subject. For example, 
> the relationship between U Thuzana and his followers among the Thai 
> business elite who employ Karen migrant workers should be reflected 
> on more critically: merit-making rituals create an additional layer 
> of dependency of the Karen migrant workers on their employers who 
> organize the rituals. This mutual merit-making creates a "kammic 
> bind" and the workers become obliged to their employers.[2] In 
> addition, the chapter does not address the implications of U 
> Thuzana's Buddhist missionary work among Karen who are predominantly 
> Christian, including the building of pagodas on church compounds.[3] 
> For decades, the former military junta supported Buddhist missionary 
> work among the ethnic minorities as a means to expand their scope of 
> control, a trend that seems to be continuing.[4] The most severe 
> shortcoming of Buadaeng's chapter is that it overlooks vital 
> information that should have drastically changed her treatment of the 
> subject: in recent years, U Thuzana has been accused of inflaming 
> interreligious tensions and seems to have strong ties to the infamous 
> MaBaTha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion).[5] 
> Different research questions might have revealed that Myaing Gyi Ngu, 
> a community seventy kilometers north of Hpa-An that was set up by U 
> Thuzana and functions as his base of action in Karen State, is a 
> self-declared Muslim-free zone.[6] While some of this would have 
> emerged after the chapter was written, it is also possible that these 
> connections of U Thuzana's were already visible. It is worth 
> considering how these affiliations change how we understand him as a 
> ton bun. 
> Sean Ashley's writing in chapter 6, "Khruba Holy Men and Dara'ang 
> Buddhism," takes a look at the ethnic group of the Dara'ang, who fled 
> the Shan States, Myanmar, to neighboring Thailand in the 1970s and 
> 1980s. Many Dara'ang are followers of Khruba Thueang, who resides 
> near Chiang Mai. Ashley describes their relationship in detail and in 
> this way explores the social implications of Buddhist revivalism and 
> devotion to the khruba movement among disadvantaged ethnic 
> minorities. The Dara'ang are in a difficult situation in Thailand, 
> both economically and socially: they often live in economically 
> disadvantaged rural areas in the highlands and prejudiced views of 
> them as uncivilized or prone to criminal behavior are common among 
> city-dwellers and other wealthier inhabitants of the lowlands. Social 
> stigma is furthermore formed through beliefs that ascribe droughts 
> and floods in the lowlands to the highlanders' methods of farming. 
> Khruba Thueang actively supports Dara'ang communities in Chiang Mai 
> province in holding Buddhist ceremonies while many Dara'ang in turn 
> help the khruba in his religious building endeavors. According to 
> Ashley, that helps them to regain a sense of identity and 
> inclusivity. The devotion to the monk furthermore creates strands of 
> millenarian beliefs that provide a counter-narrative against the 
> social stigma: some Dara'ang believe their lives to be improving 
> because of strict adherence to Buddhist virtue and the lowlanders' 
> situation to deteriorate due to a decline in Buddhist values. Drawing 
> from these observations, Ashley frames the charisma of the ton bun 
> monks in a very fruitful way by not taking the charismatic 
> personality into focus but the contexts in which charisma is enacted: 
> "Looked at in terms of crisis and revitalization, charisma appears 
> less a matter of extraordinary qualities possessed by certain 
> individuals than of extraordinary situations which position them in 
> such a way that they are able to speak to the needs and desires of 
> their addressees" (p. 186). 
> In chapter 7, "Khruba Bunchum: The Holy Man of the Twenty-First 
> Century and His Transnational and Diverse Community of Faith," Amporn 
> Jirattikorn reflects on Khruba Bunchum. Bunchum was born and ordained 
> in Thailand but spent many years in Shan State in Myanmar and became 
> increasingly popular among several ethnic minorities. That eventually 
> led Myanmar's then military government to take steps against him, and 
> his relocated to Thailand in 2004. Since then Bunchum has become 
> famous for various Buddhist building and renovation projects in the 
> Mekong borderlands and especially for a three-year solitary retreat 
> in a cave in northern Thailand, which ended in 2013. Amporn 
> Jirattikorn consciously does not focus on ethnic highlanders, 
> Buddhist revivalism or resistance against the state, because she 
> holds that the above categories are insufficient for analyzing 
> Bunchum: "The emergence of a diverse, transnational community of 
> faith that transcends the Thailand-Myanmar border today represents a 
> case of a changing religious environment and requires a different 
> framework of analysis" (p. 195). Instead, using Arjun Appadurai's 
> concept of imagination, she takes into account the use of social 
> media in the creation and circulation of meaning. This interesting 
> approach leads her to a conclusion that should spark further 
> discussion: "The phenomenon of Khruba Bunchum reveals that today 
> religion is no longer limited to a 'sacred' realm, traditionally 
> conceived, but has rather become a floating sign, in which a sacred 
> figure can be consumed, reconstructed and redefined by different 
> groups of followers" (p. 213). 
> Although I do not think that religion ever was "limited to a 'sacred' 
> realm" (rather following Talal Asad[7] and others who have pointed 
> out that the boundaries between "religious" and "secular" are fluid 
> and the two mutually constitute each other), I believe that 
> Jirattikorn's argument holds some merit. The consumption and 
> redefinition of religious topoi and symbols in visual media spheres 
> in regard to Buddhism in Southeast Asia is understudied and, in my 
> opinion, deserves further attention.[8] 
> The last chapter, "Millenarianism, Ethnicity and the State: Khruba 
> Bunchum Worship among the Lahu in Myanmar and Thailand," deals with 
> the famous Khruba Bunchum as well. Tatsuki Kataoka's account is 
> important, because he picks up crucial aspects that were 
> insufficiently addressed in the other chapters. First, he analyzes in 
> a practical way how Bunchum bypasses the institutionalized state 
> control of Theravāda Buddhism: the old pagodas that Bunchum rebuilds 
> do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Religious 
> Affairs, but of the Department of Arts. Furthermore, Bunchum, not 
> being closely affiliated to any temple, carries out most of his work 
> through a foundation  under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the 
> Interior. Second, and even more importantly, Kataoka critically 
> reviews the khruba's missionary work and its impetus. Bunchum, who is 
> according to Kataoka "seriously concerned with the rapid spread of 
> Christianity" (p. 240), becomes in a certain way an agent of the 
> state himself: "In a sense, what Bunchum is bringing about in the 
> highland communities is a kind of spontaneous propagation of Buddhism 
> in the hills, which both the Thai and Myanmar governments have 
> dreamed of for so long" (p. 241). The last chapter is also 
> meritorious for other reasons: Kataoka's sensible anthropological 
> reflections make for good reading and show how the Lahu's devotion to 
> Bunchum is embedded in their millenarian beliefs in a coming god, 
> merging him with a lineage of past saints and making him the current 
> reincarnation of their god. 
> _Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism_ is a recommendable source, 
> especially for religious studies scholars and anthropologists working 
> on Southeast Asia, the cultures and peoples of the highlands, and 
> (Theravāda) Buddhism. The book could have been even more rewarding 
> if the engaging anthropological descriptions would have gone hand in 
> hand with more analytical depth. Occasionally bridges could have been 
> built to scholarship on related topics in neighboring countries, 
> notably Myanmar: the work of scholars like Bénédicte Brac de la 
> Perrière or Thomas Patton on Weikza, Buddhist "wizards" whose 
> practices also relate to the coming of the future Buddha, to name one 
> similarity, or of Guillaume Rozenberg, who explores the relationship 
> of renunciation and power and also portrays monks who engage in 
> extensive building projects, comes to mind. A more critical outlook 
> on some of the monks portrayed and the structures in which they 
> operate would have been beneficial as well. Despite this, Paul T. 
> Cohen and the other contributors have created a fascinating book 
> about a truly fascinating field of study. The diverse chapters become 
> pieces of a mosaic that create in deepening circles important 
> perspectives on this complex topic. I hope it finds many readers. 
> Notes 
> [1]. Lokuttara means "supramundane" and refers to the (Buddhist) path 
> (_magga_) and its fruition (_phala_). For a short description see 
> Nyanatiloka, _Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and 
> Doctrines_ (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), 174. 
> [2]. For an exploration of how the former Burmese military government 
> used merit-making rituals to increase their acceptance among the 
> populace and as a form to control their subjects, see Juliane 
> Schober, "Buddhist Just Rule and Burmese National Culture: State 
> Patronage of the Chinese Tooth Relic in Myanma_," __History of 
> Religions _36, no. 3 (1997): 218-43. 
> [3]. See AFP, "Myanmar monk builds pagodas in church and Muslim 
> area," Mizzima: News from Myanmar (website), April 28, 2016, 
> http://www.mizzima.com/news-domestic/myanmar-monk-builds-pagodas-church-and-muslim-area. 
> [4]. See, for example, Juliane Schober, "The Theravāda Buddhist 
> Engagement with Modernity in Southeast Asia: Whither the Social 
> Paradigm of the Galactic Polity?" _Journal of Southeast Asian 
> Studies_ 26, no. 2 (1995): 307-25; 318. 
> [5]. See Justine Chambers, "Buddhist extremism, despite a clampdown, 
> spreads in Myanmar. Ethno-nationalist monks have resisted a state bid 
> to restrict their views and activities targeting Muslim and other 
> religious minorities," _Asia Times_, August 13, 2017, available at 
> https://www.asiatimes.com/2017/08/article/buddhist-extremism-despite-clampdown-spreads-myanmar/ 
> [6]. I obtained a (private) photo of a signboard at the entrance to 
> Myaing Gyi Ngu that states that Muslims (the signboard uses the word 
> "Kalar," which is a derogatory word for people of ethnically Indian 
> origin but is mostly used for Muslims) are denied permission to enter 
> this "Buddhist sanctuary" (_thathana myay_ in Burmese, which roughly 
> translates as _sāsana_ "earth/soil"). 
> [7]. See, for example, Talal Asad, _Genealogies of Religion: 
> Discipline and Reason of Power in Christianity and Islam _(Baltimore, 
> MD:_ _John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 27ff. 
> [8]. In her seminal work _Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and 
> American Popular Culture_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 
> Jane Naomi Iwamura analyzes how themes and figures of Buddhist and 
> Hindu religions become multimedially transformed, consumed, and hence 
> engrained in US popular culture. I am not aware of any extensive 
> works that take up a similar strand of analysis in regard to Buddhism 
> in Southeast Asia. 
> Citation: Felix Hessler. Review of Cohen, Paul T., ed., _Charismatic 
> Monks of Lanna Buddhism_. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53644
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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