Friday, April 27, 2007

Why not making Buddhism part of the Thai constitution may actually make Buddhism stronger

Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand. By Kamala Tiyavanich. University of Hawaii Press, 1977, xxi + 410 pages, ISBN 0-8248-1781-8, U.S. $29.95. [Book Review]

The question of whether Buddhism should be made the official state religion of Thailand in the new constitution has been raging lately.

Before this time, Buddhism has not been the official state religion in the constitution, even though perhaps about 90% of Thais are Buddhist and the King is required to be Buddhist in the constitution.

The issue became political last week when Thaksin's satellite TV station rather opportunistically adopted the issue as its own for political purposes.

Perhaps slightly paradoxically, there are good reasons for those who want to see Buddhism thrive in the world not to have it written into the constitution as the state religion.

Relaxing state controls over religion, especially Buddhism, encourages local diversity. At the turn of the century (c. 1900) a lot of diversity in Buddhism in Isan and the north was wiped out by tight government regulation of the Buddhist religion as the above book on forest monks demonstrates.

Furthermore, when Buddhism becomes an appendage of Thai nationalism the future doesn't bode well for Buddhism as a world religion. How can a thinking person accept the universal applicability of a religion that exists in many countries from Burma to Sri Lanka to the west when it is tied to the vagaries of secular national politics in Thailand, something that can change rather rapidly as we've seen recently.

World reknown Thai Buddhist thinkers like Buddadhasa Bhikku and Sulak Sivaraksa (his website) seem to be critical of secular trends of nationalistic influence in Buddhism.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

John Strong on King Ashoka

Collection of readings on King Ashoka

This freely downloadable collection of readings on King Ashoka includes an article written by scholar of Buddhism John Strong entitled: Images of Aśoka: Some Indian and Sri Lankan Legends and their Development that discusses the legends associated with King Ashoka.

John Strong's The Buddha, a biography

John S. Strong. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001. xv + 203 pp. Illustrations, tables, Sanskrit glossary, bibliography, notes, index. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 1-85168-256-2. Reviewed by Jessica Main, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University. Published by H-Buddhism (September, 2003) [Book Review]

The approach of scholar John Strong's biography of the Buddha has broad applicability to pre-modern Southeast Asian history:
Strong begins with a concise description of the history of scholarship on the Buddha’s life that stretches from the late nineteenth century to the present. Then, he contrasts these academic portraits of the Buddha with "tales that have been remembered and revered, repeated and reformulated" (pp. 1-3) by practitioners of Buddhism throughout its history. Avoiding a strictly factual search for the "historical Buddha," Strong provides "a middle way between remythologizing and demythologizing, between myth-making and history-making" (p. 3). He discusses the human, contextual, and rooted parts of the Buddha’s life as well as the supernatural and mythical ones.
First, there are the visits by the Buddha to various localities that you often find in local chronicles (e.g. Tai state of Kengtung, Eastern Shan States). Second, there are the hagiographic accounts of Burmese kings in Burmese chronicles like U Kala's Mahayazawingyi. This includes descriptions of royal coronations (consecration, bhiseka) ceremonies that one finds in chronicle texts and religious inscriptions:
Next, Strong shows how the Buddha’s biography simultaneously reveals and reinforces the wider dimensions of Buddhist artistic production, ritual, doctrine, and history. In a series of brief sections, he describes the reciprocal relations that link the life story of the Buddha, the practice of pilgrimage, and the worship of relics Strong describes the ways in which sacred biography, art, and ritual reinforce each other.
Strong discusses rituals such as the water pouring ritual accompanies many important historical events in the Burmese chronicle such as Bayinnaung's reconquest of Pegu (Hanthawaddy, Hongsa) after the Mon rebellion of 1550 that deposed Tabinshweihti.

Strong also expands the notion of biography "beyond the one-life paradigm,"not unlike Yukio Mishima's trilogy, to previous lifes by including the Jataka tradition.

Tai Lue script manuscript (NIU)

Tai Lue manuscript for reading practice

Just spotted a Tai Lue script manuscript that could be used for reading practice.

Linguist John Hartmann of Northern Illinois University has put it online at his Tai Lue site together with a copy of his dissertation on the Tai Lue language.

I personally have many reasons to delve deeper into the Tai Lue script and language. 1) I've been wanting to have more meaningful conversations with my Ta Lue mother-in-law, 2) We have a lot of Tai Lue rock music videos with Tai Lue subtitles at home (long historical folk ballads too), 3) I also have a Tai Lue historical chronicle I want to read, 4) and a book of witty Tai Lue sayings and folk wisdom.

It appears that one can really kill three birds with one stone by learning how to read Tai Lue. The script is a lot like that of Tai Khuen and Tai Yuan (Lanna). Living in Chiang Rai delving deeper into Tai Yuan texts would be a logical thing to do, also the French scholar Anatole Roger Peltier has deposited a wonderful collection of Tai Khuen manuscripts in the Lanna Room (4th floor) of the Chiang Mai University's central library. My friend Peter Koret has probably delved into these. Must contact him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Upakhut , Upagupta - Saint and Spirit

Wonderful photographs of spirit and saint Upagupta or Upakhut at Australian National University's New Mandala blog which offers a short decription:
Upakhut is an important figure in local belief in many areas of Burma, northern Thailand and Laos. The stories of his origins are numerous. (For those interested, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta by John Strong has a wealth of detail.) In Sanskrit legend he is the son of a perfume maker and one of the early followers of the Buddha. In northern Thailand, many villagers believe that Upakhut is the son of the Buddha himself. Legend has it that he was conceived when a fish ate some of the Buddha’s semen when he washed his robe (or bathed) in a river. Upakhut was born and lives in a grand palace at the bottom of the ocean. One of his key roles is to provide protection on the occasion of major Buddhist festivals (poi luang) when he is taken from the river and installed in a temporary pavilion in the temple grounds.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Inka (pre-modern macro-) Economics

"A Network Analysis of Inka Roads, Administrative Centers, and Storage Facilities," by David Jenkins, University of Arizona, Ethnohistory 48.4 (2001) 655-687: .[Extract at Economist's View]

Been ruminating over this blog entry on macroeconomics in the ancient Incan (Inkan) state from Economist's View blogfor almost a week now.

It's like sitting down all by yourself at a banquet, there's a lot there to digest, so I'm going to digest it in serial blog entry fashion.

One might even argue that serial publishing in blogs could attack a subject in bite size increments better than a full blown paper does, a point pertinent to blogging and scholarship, perhaps.

Extract One:

Staple Finance and Wealth Finance

The Inka in the early fifteenth century were a chiefdom or perhaps an anomalous early state (Bauer 1992) of about twenty thousand people with a fairly simple social organization based on kinship ties and ruling hereditary chiefs. Initially their territory was limited, centered on what would become the city of Cuzco. Over the course of a hundred years, from about 1430 until the Spanish arrived in 1532, the Inka dramatically expanded their empire, incorporating by political maneuvering and outright conquest some eighty distinct polities into the Inka state. These conquered groups included other expansive empires, such as the highly socially stratified Chimu on the north coast, as well as small-scale states, chiefdoms, tribes, and autonomous communities scattered throughout the highlands.1

[This sounds a lot like the expansion of some states, especially the Burmese state, during roughly the same period, actually 1534-1581, versus the Inkan 1430-1532. The phrase "anomalous early state" indicates state-like features may have not been present. Will have to determine exactly what these are, since people have been using the notion of "state" in different ways for hundreds of years, something I address for Southeast Asian history in my recent paper. Of course, Peter Turchin at Cliodynamics has some great papers online that addresses the distinction between expansionary warfare and internal warfare (rebellion, revolt, uprising, insurgency), especially this paper.]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The laws of King Mangrai as myth or history? (Kirsch)

Thomas Kirsch review of: Wichienkeeo, Aroonrut and Gehan Wijeyewardene, translators and editors. The Laws of King Mangrai (Mangrayathammasart). The Wat Chang
Kham, Nan Manuscript from the Richard Davis collection. Canberra: Department of Anthropology, The Australian National University, 1986, in the Asian Folklore Studies, 1987, vol. 46 / 2 (Note: All back issues of this long-running journal appear to be online now)

This book review has a nice parry to a slightly dyspeptic Michael Vickery:
"In addition, the text might be examined for its historical contribution. In this regard, Wijeyewardene supports the caution urged recently by Vickery on the historical value of such documents. Vickery (1979: 170) sees them as a " confused mixture of fact and fancy due to people who were grossly ignorant of the facts of the past." Be that as it may, Vickery's comment suggests another perspective for these texts. If they are mixtures of fact and fancy, they might usefully be viewed from an anthropological framework: as "myth " rather than as "history." The Mangrai code, grounded in the heroic exploits of the founder King and in Buddhist dharma, evokes a Malinowskian " primeval reality " which provides a sanction and charter for the institutions of a dynamic Lanna Thai social order. Viewed as " myth," the text's facticity is irrelevant both from the perspective of the text producer and contemporary analysts. Thus, viewing this volume, we might profit from O'Connor's (1981: 224) suggestion that " law is a culturally constituted mode of analysis that projects an indigenous theory of society." As such, it must be studied symbolically as well as historically."
I would care to differ on one point though. If the text is viewed as myth, i.e. as intellectual history, there is still the issue of what age or era this intellectual history belonged to. Not to ask this question is to presuppose that Lanna's intellectual history was static and unchanging (continuity dominates all change) a big assumption which needs at least to be pulled apart and investigated in further depth. A recent paper by Grabowsky attempts to tackle this sort of intellectual history, when it enumerates and analyses the causes behind the fall of Chiang Mai to the Burmese (c. 1557) given in contemporaneous interpretations of events:
"Which were the deeper causes of Lan Na’s fall that were responsible for the loss of her independence? How far can these causes be dated back? Even the contemporaries gave no rational explanation in a modern sense. They saw first of all that it was the work of the spirits and demons in taking revenge for severe violation of ritual prescriptions (NT: khüt). But economic and ecological reasons were known as well, even if they were mostly mentioned as atypical incidents. A chronicle summarises the complex causes in eleven points ...Seven out of the eleven ... causes are related to violation of ritual regulations, but Cause 4 and Cause 10 cite the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources of the land as the causal factor. The drying up of the Huai Kaeo and other flowing waters hampered the drinking water supply of the town. Moreover, the unscrupulous cutting down of the trees in the forests (deforestation) in areas further away from Chiang Mai city had upset the ecological equilibrium in the plain of the Ping river and, perhaps, also have led to a reduction in rice production." (Grabowksy, 2004, pages 27-29)
The contents of the Lanna law books seems broadly similar to that of Burmese Dhammathats
"The first two sections relate to Mangrai, his accomplishments and the proclamation of his laws, " not contrary to dharma "..., thereby freeing his citizens from previously oppressive rule. ...Broadly, the initial part of the text... seems to be a circumstantial listing of offenses, varying conditions and appropriate punishments, mostly in the vernacular. The final part has a more didactic quality, consisting of parables illustrating pertinent principles and sprinkled with Pali terms."
Not exactly bedtime reading, the most memorable part of my brief perusal of a version of the Mangrai Dhammasat was a long list of different adulterous situations and the legal remedies for each:
"Issues of marriage, separation, divorce, inheritance and sexual behavior seem to be most numerous. Questions of theft, liability and homicide figure prominently. Civic responsibilities, proper official conduct, the status of slaves, ritual offenses, precedence and hierarchy, counterfeiting, trespass and negligence also occur. Fines appear to be the preferred form of punishment though banishment, mutilation and execution are allowed under proper circumstances."
Might be useful comparatively in the writing of social history as scholar of Burmese law Andrew Huxley suggests, particularly of the family:
"Overall, the code evokes an image of a social order grounded in Buddhist principles, hierarchically organized, but composed of individuals responsible for their actions, whose intentions and circumstances must be considered in determining the King's justice. The code is more one of restitution than of repressive sanctions."

Also check out in the same journal Anthony Walker's review of: Premchit, Sommai Amphay Dore. The Lan Na Twelve-Month Traditions. Chiang Mai: Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, 1992.


Grabowsky, Volker (2004). "The Northern Tai Polity of Lan Na (Babai-Dadian). Between the Late 13th to Mid-16th Centuries: Internal Dynamics and Relations with Her Neighbours, Asia Research Institute Working Paper, National University of Singapore, No. 17, January 2004. [Link]

O'Connor, Richard (1981) "Law as indigenous social theory: A Siamese Thai case," American Ethnologist 8: 223-237.

Vickery (1979) "The Lion Prince and related remarks on northern history," Journal of the Siam Society 67: 123-186.

The Northern Group Monthly Talks (Chiang Mai)

The monthly talks help by the Northern Group in Chiang Mai are Chiang Mai's principal intellectual fare. I've only attended one, by Niels Mulder, discoursing on his scandalous and unpublishable life as a young anthropologist in Bangkok during the 1960s.

The talks are held on the second Tuesday of each month at the Alliance Française across the street from the L'Ecole d'Extreme Orient in Chiang Mai. The history of group began way back in 1972 with the short-lived Northern Thai Society modeled along the lines of the Siam Society. The current group began in 1984. There are synopses of the talks in the Meeting Diary. There is a nice summary of the presentation on Champa by Michael Vickery:

"Introduction to the history and significance of Champa"

A talk by Michael Vickery

254th meeting - Tuesday 9th November 2004

Searchable Greek inscriptions library

An searchable online library of inscriptions that might serve as an example in some respects for a library of Burmese inscriptions. Part of the Cornell Greek Epigraphy Project. There are no online translation and glossary though.

AEFEK: Association d'Echanges et de Formation pour les Etudes Khmeres

Site highlights the great amount of research that is currently being written in the French language on Khmer history and culture. Extensive bibliographies and papers freely downloadable. Like most contemporary French work, unique in showing a deep respect and appreciation for the history and traditions of historical research, as opposed to obligatory undiscerning blanket criticism of scientific method and BEFEO research as "Orientalism" [Example]. Such an association for Khmer Studies, which concentrates on Ancient Khmer history rather than contemporary politics, would be nice for Burmese history also.


1. Inventories of Khmer manuscripts in French libraries [Link]

2. Lectures on Angkor and pre-Angkor (c. 1902-1930) [Link]

3. Bulletin de l'AEFEK (since 1999) [Link]

4. A page with biographies of Khmer scholars of Khmer [Link]

5. Links