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Talk at UC Berkeley on October 19: “Past Lives Present, Tense”

I am very excited to be giving a talk on my next book project, titled “Past Lives Present, Tense,” at UC Berkeley’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies on Monday, October 19th, 4-5:30, in the Doe Library. [link]

While my first book, Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, is not quite out yet (December), I’m looking forward to sharing my current ongoing work, receive feedback, and keep this new project moving forward.

Hope to see you there.

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.

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