erikwdavis

Reading

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2007 at 8:45 pm

It’s been a while since my last reading post, mostly because I’m busy writing, and doing other things. But I’d still like to keep comin’ at you with my recent reads:

Bizot, F. 1981. Le don de soi-même : recherches sur le bouddhisme Khmer III. Paris: Paris : École française d’Extrême-Orient.

I’ve spent most of my reading time lately undertaking a very close re-examination of this work by one of the most famous Khmer Buddhologists, François Bizot. His recent novel The Gate is the reason for his more general fame, but it’s his foundational, careful, and rather idiosyncratic work on Khmer Buddhism which underpins his lasting and largely deserved scholarly reputation.

This book is vastly important for my own work: it deals with the rite of the Pansukula (Kh: បង្សុកូល). Bizot begins in a rather common-sensical location for the traditional study of Buddhism: texts. The word Pansukul seems to originally mean a cast-off or abandoned rag, which some monks vow to take and use as monastic robes. More specifically, it seems to have over time taken on the meaning of a shroud taken from a corpse or cemetary for monastic use. Bizot begins from here and attempts to answer important questions about the symbolism, ritual (and moral) import of the practice, etc.

His attention to the practices is careful. His research took place in the late 60s and early 70s, and apparently in a rather idiosyncratic region. It has been difficult for subsequent researchers, such as myself, to find replications of many of the ‘tantric’ initiatory practices he discusses in this and other works, though that is not necessarily a reason for doubting their veracity (and it must be admitted that such practices are not of great concern to me and my efforts were limited). He also undertakes a careful examination of a Khmer text related to some of these practices, and includes a photostat of the original along with his translation and wonderful photos.

Unfortunately, the reading feels ultimately somewhat misbegotten: the profoundly fertile examination, analysis, and questioning that Bizot does throughout the bulk of the work is largely subordinated to what is a longer and more controversial project in Bizot’s career – attempting to prove the existence of a strange and unorthodox ‘Tantric Buddhism’ in Cambodia. I have neither the knowledge nor expertise to deal with this question. Few do, in fact, and those who do have launched themselves into the fray, from Kate Crosby (who is generously sending me a copy of a review article she’s done on this issue, and whose fine work can also be seen here, if you have Springerlink access) to Peter Skilling, Heinz Bechert, and many others.

For myself, however, the question of institutional origin is of much less interest that the question of what makes the ritual meaningful and effective (interpret however you like) to those who continue to reproduce it. I must assume that the ritual contains no ‘essential’ and ‘unchanging’ meaning or magical efficacy with origins coterminal with its institutional origins. Therefore, the sectarian origin of the sect is of little interest to me, (since nobody in modern Cambodia of whom I’m aware claims lineal descent from the Abhayagirivihara-nikaya), though it may be important for others.

Still, this is an excellent book, and will remain useful for a wide range of students of Buddhism and Khmer culture. I’m currently writing a conference paper which will end up being a condensed version of most of Chapter Two of the dissertation, and which will involve a more thorough discussion of these issues. Keep watching for that.

Hyde, L. 1998. Trickster makes this world: mischief, myth, and art. New York: North Point Press.

My ‘fun’ book for the moment. I love Hyde’s writing. I must say that I find this book less convincing that his work on the Gift, despite its greater popularity. However, there are moments in this work of sheer brilliance. As I remarked to a more-learned friend than myself, it’s perhaps a mark of Hyde brilliance that even when you disagree with his conclusions, the reading of his work stimulates you to thoughts you might never have otherwise been able to think. Cheers, Mr. Hyde, wherever you may be.

Lopez, D. S., Jr. Editor. 2005. Critical terms for the study of Buddhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is a wonderful collection of essays. I wish that instead of a single book, we could create a periodical of this idea: “Critical Terms,” so that we might have not merely one wonderful entry on ‘ritual’ by Robert Sharf, but three or four, contesting and competing with one another (though really, I like Sharf’s take for the most part!). Reiko Ohnuma has a very good and clear entry on ‘Gift’, which draws almost exclusively on her excellent book. There’s much to love about each of the entries, but let me select just a few for special attention, beyond those mentioned above. Gustavo Benavides’ essay on ‘Economy’ is clear, forceful, unapologetic, and dead-on. It’s placement in front of Ohnuma’s essay on the Gift is also perfect, and Lopez deserves still more praise for the ordering of the essays. I was also taken with Jacqueline Stone’s essay on Death, which of course is important to me, and which I embarrassingly had not read! I was also very impressed (but not surprised to be impressed) by Timothy Brook’s fine essay on Institution. Finally, Janet Gyatso’s entry on Sex is tremendous, insightful, and equally unapologetic.

I am now debating whether to attempt to use this book in classes on Buddhism. I worry about the level, but think it might very well be manageable for undergraduates and would allow for a pleasant thematization, perhaps in conjunction with ethnographies.

  1. On the subject of Lopez’s book, I too am a fan. Carl Bielefieldt’s chapter on ‘Practice’ is a wonderful journey of an essay, and it never ceases to confuse me. I’ve read ‘Ritual’ several times, but it always brings up new thoughts for me. In an undergraduate class, we read Sharf’s fascinating article ‘Experience’ from Critical Terms for the study of Religion, and it seemed to work well as basis for discussion. I think the thematic division of Lopez’s book would work really well in the classroom. In a class on Buddhism, taking a single theme like “economy” for discussion allows students to get right to the heart of the contradictions, problems, and complexities of the topic, at least in the few times my instructors have taken that approach.

  2. Thanks, Trent. Sharf’s ‘experience’ essay is indeed a great one: I especially love the UFO abduction examples. Thanks also for the classroom suggestions. Shoudl I be lucky enough to teach another Buddhism class, I think I will definitely be taking a more thematic approach!

  3. [...] What makes this so strange is that the ritual that is being denied to the dead monk (who either committed suicide or was murdered) is the Pansukul – a ritual I have studied at length, which forms the centerpiece of a chapter of my forthcoming dissertation, and which has been the subject of full-length monographs by none other than the esteemed Khmer Buddhist-studies scholar François Bizot. This is not a politically sensitive ritual, nor even a ‘negotiable’ one. If funerary rites of any esteem at all are held – that is to say, if the body is ritualized at any level more than simply throwing it in a burning fire or hole without ceremony – the Pansukul is chanted at multiple points. The fact that this ritual is reportedly being denied to a monk from Kampuchea Krom who died in mysterious circumstances is difficult to interpret as anything more than a very obvious slap in the face, and perhaps a public warning to Khmer Krom in Cambodia to stop their political actions. [...]

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