The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia

Reviewed by Peter Skilling

The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol.117 No.3 (July-Sep 1997)

COPYRIGHT 1997 American Oriental Society

            The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia is divided into three chapters. 
            The first, "The Popular Tradition: Inclusive Syncretism," describes 
            "ideal action"; a number of rituals, ceremonies, and festivals, such 
            as Kathina, the consecration of a Buddha image, Desana Mahajati, New 
            Year, Visakha Puja, and Loi Kratong; and rites of passage such as 
            ordination, weddings, and funeral rites. Since much of Swearer's 
            field-work over the years has been conducted in northern Thailand, 
            he is able to offer valuable descriptions of the contemporary 
            practice of Buddhism in that area. But since Northern Thai or Lanna 
            Buddhism is different from the other Buddhisms of the region, which 
            are described much more briefly, the chapter might have been more 
            felicitously organized as a presentation of Lanna Buddhism in 
            comparison with other Buddhisms. The Mon - who contributed 
            enormously to the cultures and Buddhisms of both the Burmese and the 
            Thai, and are still a living Buddhist community in both countries - 
            deserve more than the brief mentions they receive.(1) 
            The second chapter, "Buddhism as Civil Religion: Political 
            Legitimation and National Integration," looks at Buddhism in a 
            political context: both from an ideal and an historical perspective. 
            The most useful part comes at the end: the too brief overview of 
            "Modern Nationalism and Buddhism" (pp. 95-105). The rest of the 
            chapter sits awkwardly, with too much space given over to a 
            retelling of (mainly) Western accounts of the cosmic symbolism of 
            the stupa and kingship, from Mus to Heine-Geldern. One may search 
            traditional texts in vain for "galactic interpretations" (p. 82) and 
            "primordial oceans." The association of stupas with cosmic mountains 
            and with kingship is overstated. Dedicatory inscriptions reveal that 
            the earliest-known monumental Indian stupas and cave-temples were 
            communal projects, sponsored by monastic, kinship, and trade groups, 
            with, it seems, little participation of the ruling elite. Lesser 
            stupas simply enshrined the remains of dead monastics. The primary 
            acknowledged motive in the making of stupas has been, and is, to 
            preserve relics and to make merit, rather than to build cosmic 
            mountains or microcosms.(2) In Southeast Asia, every stupa is 
            specific, with its own legend and life, its own role in the local 
            sacred calendar and its own place on the local sacred map. 
            For the study of kingship in Southeast Asia we have access to a 
            considerable body of inscriptions, along with chronicles and records 
            such as the Royal Orders of Burma. These contemporary documents, 
            which provide a wealth of information about the polity of the day, 
            carry more weight and deserve more attention than the opinions of 
            our modern exegetes. (We may mention in passing that poor Asoka is 
            trotted out mechanically whenever kingship is discussed. There is no 
            denying his pervasive influence over the centuries, but is it not 
            time to consider the role of other rulers, such as Bimbisara, 
            Prasenajit, or Ajatasatru? We must also not forget that historical 
            rulers become quasi-legendary paradigms - the Chos rgyals in Tibet, 
            for example, or Anawratha and Bayinnaung in Burma, or "Phra Ruang" 
            in Siam - and exert their own influences on their successors.) 
            One feels that some space should have been devoted (whether here or 
            in chapter one) to the communal Theravadin monastery as a social 
            force, as the link between the monastic and lay worlds, rather than 
            to the elite "temple-mountains" of Angkor or Pagan. How and by whom 
            is the temple built, administered, and maintained? What are its 
            functions - religious, social, educational, economic? What are the 
            roles of the abbot and the community, and what is their relationship 
            to the central administration? 
            The third chapter, "Modernization: The Dynamic of Tradition and 
            Change," discusses the changing roles of monks and laity; meditation 
            movements; women and Buddhism; and Buddhism in the West. This, much 
            the strongest part of the book, studies developments in Thai 
            Buddhism (with some mention of other countries), and draws on the 
            author's field-work and his familiarity with Thai sources. It is 
            current, dealing with the Dhammakaya and Santi Asok movements and 
            the Phra Yantra affair; with the contributions of outstanding 
            monastics like Buddhadasa and Chao Khun Dhammapit and of several 
            lesser-known monks; and with dubious monastics such as Kitthiwuttho. 
            (The attempt to relate the preeminently urban Santi Asok movement to 
            the forest tradition seems, however, neither valid nor useful.) The 
            role of contemporary lay activists, such as Ariyaratne and Sulak 
            Sivaraksa, is also discussed. 
            The text is well annotated, and complemented by photographs of 
            events and places. It has a comprehensive bibliography, and includes 
            an "Audio Visual Bibliography." Unfortunately the book is marred by 
            a number of misspellings of Pali words: puja for paja (repeatedly), 
            svabhava for svabhava (p. 12), patimokkha for patimokkha (p. 22), 
            Dhammapada for Dhammapada and Dhammapadatthakatha for 
            Dhammapadatthakatha (p. 15), and so on. The translation of yakkhas 
            as "demons" (pp. 16, 17) is inaccurate, since yakkhas are 
            nature-spirits, both benevolent and maleficent. There are also a 
            number of misprints in the English (e.g., "dias" for "dais," p. 26; 
            "chonthic" for "chthonic," p. 77; "complimentary" for 
            "complementary," p. 91). 
            More unfortunate are the number of inaccuracies. The "eye of heaven" 
            (p. 12, an unsuitable translation of dibbacakkhu, but not original 
            to the author) is not "the ability to see all worlds, far and near," 
            but rather the ability to witness the rebirth of beings in happy or 
            unhappy destinies, according to the workings of kamma. On p. 67, 
            read (presumably) "Parakramabahu" for "Dutthagamini." On p. 72, the 
            statement that the "Mahaparinibbana Sutta refers to the stupa of a . 
            . . dhammika dhammaraja" (based apparently on Dutt) is incorrect: 
            the sutta refers to a raja cakkavatti (Dighanikaya, PTS ed., 
            141-42). On p. 102 King Rama V's regnal dates are given as 
            1865-1902, on pp. 131-32 as 1886-1910: they should be 1868-1910 (he 
            was born in 1853). The glossary is unreliable, since it is vexed by 
            too many mistakes, not only in orthography (e.g., Asalaha for Asalha 
            Paja, p. 210: also Asalaha, p. 35; Kapilavattu for Kapilavatthu, p. 
            212; Moggalana for MogaBana, p. 213; Adhidhamma for Abhidhamma and 
            Theragatha for Theragatha, p. 215: also Therigatha for Therigatha, 
            p. 52) but of substance. A Cakkavattin is not a "Buddhist monarch" 
            (p. 210): the term is pre-Buddhist and pan-Indian. The Divyavadana 
            (p. 211) is not "a Mahayana Buddhist text" - it is Mulasarvastivadin 
            - and it does not contain "a legendary account of the life of the 
            Buddha," but a collection of avadanas. The Khuddaka Nikaya is not 
            the "Collection of Gradual Sayings" (pp. 211, 214, 215), but the 
            "Collection of Miscellaneous Texts." The Petaloka (p. 214, and also 
            p. 20) is not a hell (niraya), but one of the unhappy realms 
            The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia is described as an "updated, 
            expanded, and revised version" of Swearer's Buddhism and Society in 
            Southeast Asia (1980). The author notes that it is a product of his 
            observation and study of Theravada Buddhism since 1957. 
            Unfortunately, the book seems a rather hasty production, and is 
            uneven in quality: we feel that the author, with his experience and 
            knowledge, could have done better. Although the book contains much 
            that is useful and original - particularly in chapters 1 and 3 - it 
            must be used with caution. It does not really live up to its title 
            (although some of the limitations - that it "highlights Buddhism in 
            Thailand" and focuses on the Theravada - are set out by the author 
            in his preface). There is little on Laos or Cambodia, and not enough 
            on Burma. If space can be given to "Buddhism and the West," the 
            modern Theravadin movements in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and 
            Indonesia deserve at least a mention. There is a need for a reliable 
            book on the Buddhism of Southeast Asia, and we hope that these 
            remarks will contribute to an improved third edition. 
            1 See, e.g., p. 189, n. 51. At pp. x and 2 the Mon should certainly 
            be mentioned. On p. 97 it is implied that the Shan and Mon are 
            2 The following studies are useful for the study of the stupa (JIABS 
            = Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies): 
            Yael Bentor, "The Redactions of the Adbhutadharmaparyaya from 
            Gilgit," JIABS 11.2 (1988): 21-52; "Sutra-style Consecration in 
            Tibet and its Importance for Understanding the Historical 
            Development of the Indo-Tibetan Consecration Ritual for Stupas and 
            Images," in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the 
            International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita 1989, vol. 1, 
            ed. Ihara Shoren and Yamaguchi Zuiho (Naritasan Shinshoji, 1992), 
            1-12; "Tibetan Relic Classifications," in Tibetan Studies: 
            Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for 
            Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992, ed. Per Kvaerne, vol. I (Oslo, 
            1994), 16-30. 
            Daniel Boucher, "The Pratityasamutpadagatha and Its Role in the 
            Medieval Cult of the Relics," JIABS 14.1 (1991): 1-27; "Sutra on the 
            Merit of Bathing the Buddha," in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. 
            Lopez, Jr. (Princeton, 1995), 59-68. 
            Gerard Fussmann, "Symbolisms of the Buddhist Stupa," JIABS 9.2 
            (1986): 37-53. 
            Gregory Schopen, "An Old Inscription from Amaravati and the Cult of 
            the Local Monastic Dead in Indian Buddhist Monasteries," JIABS 14.2 
            (1991): 281-329. 
            For further references see, e.g., the bibliography in Bentor, 
            "Tibetan Relic Classifications," 1994. 
            While these articles exploit mainly non-Theravadin and non-Southeast 
            Asian sources, neither are the modern exegetes such as Mus 
            Theravadin, and their works involve a massive conflation of sources 
            (e.g., Hindu with Buddhist) - of ziggurats, mountains, eggs, 
            mandalas, and stupas - that tends to ignore historical and regional