[Buddha-l] REVIEW H-Net-- "Beyond Commercialism: A New Look at the Dhammakaya in Thailand"

JKirkpatrick jkirk at spro.net
Mon Aug 9 13:10:22 MDT 2010

X-posted from H-Asia August 9, 2010; orig. from H-Buddhism. 

Rachelle M. Scott. _Nirvana for Sale? Buddhism, Wealth, and the
Dhammakaya Temple in Contemporary Thailand_. Albany: SUNY Press,
2009. Illustrations. xiii + 242 pp. 
Reviewed by Justin T. McDaniel (University of Pennsylvania) 
Published on H-Buddhism (August, 2010) Commissioned by Thomas

Posted by Joanna K.:
Long article, long paragraphs. For the sake of easier reading,
I'm going to change the format to reduce some one-para. text, to
2 or 3 paras.  Some of the issues appearing here have surfaced on
this list, 
from time to time. I'll only excerpt here what I find most
provocative and hope for comments:

"...The greatest contribution to Thai and religious studies is
Scott's discussion of the relationship between wealth and
Buddhism. Allow me to reflect for a moment on the state of the
field in the study of Thai religion and wealth and then note why
Scotts book is so refreshing. The commodification of Buddhist
objects (like the Dhammakaya Buddha images and amulets) and
commercialization of Buddhism has generally been approached by
scholars as a reflection of a growing crisis in Thai Buddhism and
the rise of religious commercialism. 

There is a formidable literature on value/exchange and
commodification theory, including groundbreaking work by Annette
Weiner, _Inalienable Objects: The Paradox of Keeping-While-
Giving_ (1992), and Fred Myers, _The Empire of Things: Regimes of
Value and Material Culture_ (2001), as well as Arjun Appadurai's
well-known edited collection, The Social Lives of Things (1986).
However, this work is often ignored and commercialization is seen
by scholars of Thai Buddhism as connected to the growing
globalization of Thai culture (usually blamed on the West). Many
scholars, Thai and non-Thai, those Scott cites as well as those
she does not, and many amateur commentators on Internet blogs,
listservs, and chatgroups have lamented this commodification. 

Most of these critics have very little appreciation for the
history of Buddhist material culture and so are surprised by its
apparent growth now. Most studies in English or by elite, liberal
social critics are characterized by shock. These critics are
offended by the prices of amulets or new Buddha images, the
excessive trading, the prominent display, and the miracle
stories. They seem somewhat surprised by materialism in Buddhism,
as if it is a new phenomenon. Some studies express this shock in
a different way: They explain it away. They reduce amulets or
images to empty signifiers onto which those uneducated in
Buddhist doctrine place their lower-class frustrations, modern
anxieties, insecurities over the Islamic insurgency or the global
economic downturn, fears regarding health, and petty aspirations
for wealth (it is comfortably easy for elitist scholars born with
wealth to criticize the nonelite for wanting to be wealthy). They
relegate this display of wealth and the promotion of prosperity
to social scientific illustrations of globalization,
commercialization, or doomsday prophecies about the imminent end
of true Buddhist values or the deleterious effects of
Westernization. They argue that amulets and other magical
practices are tools of oppressors, fake science, or the sad
symbols of the poor trying to compete in a dangerous world. These
are studies that are both condescending and rife with
longing--longing for a Buddhism that is more in line with a
certain enlightened rationality and that eschews materiality in
favor of an undefined spirituality.

Here is where Scott's work is different. Although this is an
ethnographic study of the modern Dhammakaya movement, some of the
particular strengths of the book are when Scott turns toward the
past. For example, she notes that Thai Buddhist and Pali
literature either composed or popular in Thailand has long lauded
wealth. She notes the existence of setthi (wealthy person)
stories in premodern manuscript traditions; and the promotion of
Buddhist practice as wealth producing in northern Thai
chronicles, like the _Camadevivamsa_, the
_Jinakalamalipakaranam_, and the _Tamnan Doi Ang Salung_, as well
as popular jatakas and the _Traibhumikatha_ (pp. 29-30). She also
shows that for a majority of practicing Buddhists in South and
Southeast Asia, merit-making is central to their self-
understanding of Buddhist religiosity, as evidenced in the
vernacular literature and material culture of Theravada Buddhism
(pp. 92-93). 
Although I would have liked to have seen her make use of material
culture in her argument (i.e., show more examples of murals,
stories, and images that promote the connection between Buddhism
and wealth), unlike most scholars working on contemporary
Buddhism, Scott acknowledges the long-term existence of these
aspects of Thai Buddhist culture. I am hoping her book will
inspire more work on this subject. ..."

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