As my first book (Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, from Columbia University Press), gets ready for its projected released in November of this year, I’ve been preparing two new book projects, a couple of articles, and getting ready two begin a brand new research project based on new fieldwork beginning this Summer. The book projects have been in the planning stages for some time, and the bulk of each is already written. But, now, they have working titles.
How To Do Things With Dead People.
Deathpower is a close examination of funerary practices in Contemporary Cambodia, which makes the argument that there is a powerful social power in the practices of legitimately caring for the dead. This book places that concept, deathpower, in the comparative perspective in which I actually developed it, and examines more fully the types of social practices and prestige that fall under the neologism ‘deathpower.’
Three primary case studies are used. The first case is that of political rituals at the Choeung Ek Memorial site in Cambodia, especially the “Day of Hate” on May 20, which I have attended off and on since 2002, and which has since grown into an enormously elaborate affair. The second case is that of the Concentration and Execution Camps in Auschwitz/Oświęcim, Poland, and the War of the Crosses. The final case study is that of the so-called ‘Kennewick Man,’ a 9,000 year old set of bones found in 1996 in Washington State that have pitted physical anthropologists and White Supremacist pagans against Native Americans and the US. Army Corps of Engineers. At stake is who gets to care for the remains, and on what basis.
Past Lives Present, Tense
There are few ethnographic studies of past-life memory today. Such accounts are more frequently found in sensationalist or religiously aspirational accounts. And yet, the assumption that individuals experience death and rebirth is a widely shared constant among most populations that identify as Buddhist in Southeast Asia. This book addresses the scholarly gap in our knowledge in three rebirth narratives collected from 2004-2008.
The first narrative involves a slight twist on the stereotype of Buddhist past life memory. Usually presented as the positive accomplishment of an ascetic, the awareness and knowledge of past lives is often even thought to be a precondition for Buddhist enlightenment. In this first narrative I discuss the case of a Buddhist lay-leader whom I got to know very well in 2005 and after. At the time he claimed to remember 1001 past lives, including an existence as the Cambodian Patriarch of the bulk of the Twentieth Century, Ven. Chuon Nath. He also claimed the existence of the birth of the ‘Buddha of the Future,’ Maitreya, in Cambodia. Later on he was at the center of a scandal in which he claimed to be Maitreya. The second narrative is of a young Cambodian woman whose past-life memory disturbed her parents, who took a series of actions intended to force her to forget the past life. This very usual response to the existence of past-life memory indicates that it is not always a good thing, or associated with ascetics. The third narrative is of a young woman whose past life memories were not only approved by the great patriarch named earlier, Ven. Chuon Nath, but who successfully put two family lines together as a consequence.
Throughout these narratives and my analysis of them, I discuss the ways in which they illuminate Buddhism and Cambodian culture, and challenge certain conventional views of these phenomena and their cultural meaning.