For the last few months I have been very busy with my new research project (see storyofstoryinsouthasia.wordpress.com) but today I finally found time to finish reading Justin McDaniel’s book The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand (Columbia University Press 2011). McDaniel uses the popular story of the monk Somdet To and the ghost Mae Nak to explore Thai Buddhist practice and identity. The book contains many individual nuggets, including descriptions of the offerings and practices surrounding the shrine of Mae Nak, and explorations of the amulet trade that includes Somdet To amongst its many images. But alongside the vibrant picture McDaniel paints of lived Thai practice, he argues forcefully for a new way of talking about Thai Buddhism.
As McDaniel notes, scholars of Theravada Buddhism have a bad habit of focussing on values such as impermanence, meditation, non-materiality and awakening, ignoring the many other values that interweave in local and regional “Theravada” cultures. He explores four in particular that appear to have strong currency in Thailand – security, heritage, graciousness and abundance. Because of this focus McDaniel’s book is intensely refreshing – in his own words (p.224) it is ‘a book about Thai Buddhism where the Buddha is not the protagonist; a book in which all those strange “local” cults, saints, relics, rituals, ghosts, magical practices, and miracle stories in Thailand are not seen as supporting actors or extras.’ As such it deserves a place on the reading list of any course about Theravada Buddhism, and will certainly be on mine.
McDaniel’s other larger thread is the idea of a ‘repertoire’. He suggests that it is helpful to think of Thai Buddhists as having their own repertoire of beliefs and practices, drawing on various influences and traditions around them. Thus we should not expect “Buddhists” to only think Buddhist thoughts, do Buddhist things and visit Buddhist sites. Rather an individual may read canonical texts, wear amulets of local monks, visit shrines to “Hindu” deities or “Mahayana” bodhisattvas and visit Mae Nak to ask her for the winning lottery numbers. The categories we impose on these aspects – Theravada, Mahayana, Hindu, urban, rural, folk, vernacular, even Buddhist – can obscure the individual contexts and repertoires. McDaniel advocates – and practices – an approach that takes these repertoires seriously, and does not analyse them away into tidy categories.