Wayward Distractions: Ornament, Emotion, Zombies and the Study of Buddhism in Thailand

Edwin Pietersma

This work is a treasure for any fan of McDaniel’s outstanding work on Thailand. A selection of ten articles published between 2000 and now, this first volume shows the diversity of his work and his efforts to challenge limiting understandings of Buddhism in Thailand. It is meant “to allow the messiness of history and society to be laid bare” (p. 6), and in that, McDaniel succeeds very well. 1 McDaniel acknowledges in his introduction the various authors that he is inspired by throughout his work, in particular here by the social anthropologist Stanley Tambiah and economic anthropologist Edward Van Roy (see p. 6-8). This does not mean that his work is uncritical, as the article of ‘Ethnicity and the Galactic Polity’ (2018) tries to argue against some of the concepts and arguments that both authors apply in researching Thailand (see also p. 56-73).

In the introduction, McDaniel offers a rather personal view of why he published this volume, stating that this book is a way for his papers to be more easily accessible.2  McDaniel notes that this work is only a first volume, focusing on three general approaches to the study of Thai Buddhism. The second volume, forthcoming in 2022, will specifically focus on textual and historical studies. The reason why they are not included in this book, or the criteria for the division, is not given, sadly enough.  Therefore, it is a selection of research over the past 28 years, hence they are not chosen on a particular theme or common argument. Instead, McDaniel describes these publications as side projects that turned into obsessions, hence the title Wayward Distractions.

He defines this book, in that sense, as a mess. Yet at the same time, one can find consistency in the selections. What is important for McDaniel in the study of Buddhism are “the surprising moments, the conflicted persons, the complex narratives, the vernacular architecture, the sumptuous art, and the generally non-canonical” (p. 3), with no method or theory being able to define all experiences related to Thailand and Thai Buddhism. Therefore, he tries to argue against any essentialist notions, whether it is Thainess (khwam ben thai), the forgottenness of specific communities such as nuns (maechi), or such notions argued by theory, especially the ‘cognitivist assumption’ presented by Clifford Geertz. Instead, he tries to argue for dependent co-arising, for the idea that sometimes something is just something for the sake of it, or that studying culture and religion is a priori messy and inconsistent. What makes this introduction the main strength of this volume is the strong theoretical discussion and concepts that his work argues against, as well as the overview it provides of some essential literature that every scholar on Thailand and Buddhism should have read. It, therefore, succeeds very early as an overview not merely of his work, but also of Thai studies for both beginners and experienced researchers.

The following nine articles that he presents, written from 2000 onwards, continue this legacy of the introduction rather well. There are not any criteria known to the public regarding why these articles are selected or listed in this particular order. McDaniel switches between articles written in 2000 and 2020, including one that it seems was not previously published. Most of the articles seem to be later works, in particular from 2010 onwards. The topics are incredibly diverse, and examples include the vernacular reinterpretation of Buddhist literature, the conceptual frameworks used in researching the history of Bangkok, discussion of marriage in the Jatakas, and how Buddhist nuns teach Pali in contemporary Thailand. In this selection lies a strength: namely, the diversity supports his point about the messiness of research. However, there is also a danger: it leaves the reader in a sense hungry for more, as some of the crucial notions in one article are rarely supported somewhere else. Also, these topics seem to contradict the focus of the forthcoming second volume, as this work will touch upon similar topics, raising questions about why they are not included in this volume.

When we look somewhat closer at these articles, we can identify some common themes. The first theme could be literary studies that focus on the (re-)interpretation of Buddhist texts and practices outside of their purely religious and textual context. An example is the second article, which discusses the influence of the vernacular language Khün on how Sujavanna Wua Luang interprets the Jatakas. The fourth article focuses on the interpretation of marriage as described in the Jataka. The fifth article focuses on the discrepancy between Buddhist texts and art, demonstrating how monastic art is not limited to Buddhist texts and the notion of performance deserves more attention. The seventh article focuses on how modern art exhibits Buddhism out of the monastic and ritual setting.

A second notion throughout the book is non-discursive communities and the ways such communities appreciate Thai Buddhism. To some extent, the previous articles focus on these notions as well, via art installations and interpretations of literature. However, the main difference with the other articles is that these papers focus explicitly on how communities interact with their environment. The third article, for example, discusses how we should interpret Bangkok and how scholars have interpreted it. This refers back to the introduction on the discussion of Tambiah, who argues for the notion of a mandala, and Van Roy, who argues for an ethnic understanding. However, as Van Roy also argues, it is a highly malleable social construct, and McDaniel shows how both notions are insufficient for explaining the diversity of communities that is the capital of Thailand. The sixth article discusses Thai sources for the study of Buddhist amulets. Researchers often perceive this as a materialist turn in modern Buddhism that holds negative effects on Thai Buddhism. However, McDaniel argues against this assumption and instead shows that material culture is integral to Buddhism and essential to the study of Thai Buddhism. He argues, correctly, that we need to take this material culture seriously, not as something that negatively “happens” to religion (p. 142). The eighth article argues against the perceived idea that there is little Hinduism in Thai Buddhism. Instead, he discusses the idea of hermits as to why Buddhism cannot be regarded separately from Hinduism and therefore is not “regulated to a distinct and separate part of social life” (p. 180), as is often argued by scholars. The ninth article discusses the idea of living dead in Thai Buddhism, and how their bodies are used in rituals for auspicious reasons. The last article focuses on the exclusion of nuns in Thai Buddhism. His discussion also reveals how crucial nuns are for the monastic order and how they are honored through their role in teaching Pali to monks. Therefore, these five articles show that there is no perceived essentialist notion of Buddhism in clear religious terms, but that instead Buddhism is as much shaped by culture as it has shaped culture.

In conclusion, this work by Justin McDaniel is an extremely helpful book for beginner and experienced scholars of Thai studies and Thai Buddhism. Perhaps, it provides an answer to what many scholars need from such research: that what research provides is always incomplete and messy in nature, and that we need to be more aware of this. It is, in his own words, an “apperceptive mode” (p. 15-16), where we need to abandon perceived notions. The risk, however, is that the random selection of articles without any perceived criteria can also lead to the feeling that the book remains incomplete. The articles are all strong individually but, as a book, leave the reader unsatisfied. Perhaps more of an interaction between the articles as outlined in the introduction could provide such an answer. Hopefully, the publication of the second volume will fill some of the gaps that this book leaves, but at the same time, will be the bundle of messiness that it deserves to be and should be.