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The Buddha's precepts on respecting other races and religions? Thinking about the relationship of ethnicity and Theravada Buddhism.

In May of 2010, I was volunteering at a celebration of Yesak in Singapore. Vesak is a holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and pari-nirvana of the historical Buddha and takes place sometime in May. Although these events in the Buddha's life were historically celebrated in different ways around the Buddhist world, Vesak has become an international holiday, recognized by the United Nations, and marked by international conferences. In Singapore, it is also the day that the government has come to recognize as being special to Buddhists, as Christmas is to Christians, Diwali is to Hindus, and so forth. The Singapore Buddhist Federation sponsored the celebration at which I was volunteering. It took place in the courtyard of a mall. The Singapore Buddhist Federation is not a governmental organization, and so this was not an "official" celebration of the holiday. But the federation is also seen by the government as the closest thing to a nationwide Buddhist organization, able to speak for most Buddhists in Singapore. This celebration, a fair really, was thus the closest thing to an official celebration of Vesak that Singapore had.

A certain Buddhist ecumenism marked the fair. Its primary theme was "Passport to Happiness", and it was set up to look like a tour to a selection of "Seven Buddhist Wonders of the World". Glossing over sectarian differences within Buddhism, it showcased famous Buddhist sites from around Asia, such as a mock-up of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma (Theravada) or the giant Buddha from Leshan in Sichuan province (Mahayana). The seventh site was "you", and included the results of a photography contest whose participants submitted photographs that were supposed to evoke some aspect of Buddhism. My job as a volunteer was to ask people which photograph they liked, why and what aspects of Buddhism it reflected for them. The event began fairly early in the morning with auspicious chanting by Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan monks, and it was not until late in the morning that people began to show up in reasonable numbers. I therefore had an opportunity to chat with my fellow volunteers before taking up my duties. Most of this conversation was fairly mundane, the interactions of people who were meeting for the first and probably only time. But, because of the context, the conversation rolled around to our connections to Buddhism. One of the other volunteers, a Chinese Singaporean woman, told me that she had not been very involved in Buddhism until fairly recently, when she started attending lectures at a local Buddhist centre that catered to professionals. She listened to lectures by an Australian monk, Ajaan Brahm, who had recently been kicked out of Thailand for advocating the ordination of women. Her commitment was not total, she said, but she really liked Buddhism, because, "You know, one of the Buddha's precepts is about respecting other races and other religions". (1)

This was an interesting comment, not least because--according to my reading and understanding--the precepts of the Buddha never refer to the need to respect other races and religions. Indeed, these terms did not exist, at least not in the ways we understand them, in the time of the historical Buddha. I must admit that I do not know exactly what she was referring to. Generally, when people mention the precepts of the Buddha, they are referring to the panca sila, or to the vinaya more broadly. In the first case, the five precepts concern the necessity not to kill, steal, take intoxicants, commit sexual impropriety or lie. The vinaya are the vast set of rules that Buddhist monastics are responsible for following. They include a number of elaborations on the five precepts, as well as rules concerning monastics' interactions with lay folk and management of the sangha as an institution. (2) I do not think that the Buddha would necessarily have advocated disrespecting people on the basis of race or religion, but neither is this really language that occurs in old Buddhist texts. So what was going on at Vesak in Singapore? Was this a mistake, or was something else going on?

I want to suggest that my Singaporean fellow volunteer's comment was not an accident or a mistake, but rather the result of the particular way in which religion--Buddhism in this case --and race or ethnicity are configured in Singapore, (3) primarily but not solely by the Singapore state. This process will not be particularly surprising to people who have spent much time in Singapore, but the question of interest here is whether attention to this process is relevant outside of Singapore, too. That is, why should scholars of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia or any other Southeast Asian nation-state care about the comprehensible (non) mistake of a Singaporean citizen? I want to argue here that what we see in Singapore is actually relevant to a number of other contexts in Southeast Asia, in particular those in which Theravada Buddhism is associated in some way with minority actors. Through an examination of several different such contexts--those of Theravada Buddhists in Singapore, in Sipsongpanna in Southwest China and the Shans in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand--I suggest that we cannot separate the practice and imagination of Buddhism in Southeast Asia from the ethnic or racial forms that states produce and emphasize.

Thinking about Buddhism, Ethnicity (Race), Nation in Contemporary Southeast Asia

In order to make sense of this matter, it is necessary to sketch out, at least in general ways, the kinds of phenomena with which I am concerned here. To begin, it is worth noting that scholars' neglect of the relationship of Buddhism and race or ethnicity applies not just to Southeast Asia or to Theravada Buddhism; it is general. There is of course a significant body of scholarship that purports to address the relationship, but it only very rarely references both of these meta-categories in a substantive way. Rather, this scholarship tends to take just one of the two meta-categories as the primary object of analysis.

Scholars of Buddhism, for example, have tended to ignore ethnicity. Rather than seeing ethnicity and religion as implicating one another, or seeking to understand where they do so and where they do not, they tend to view ethnicity--and culture more broadly--as epiphenomenal. Exemplary of this approach is a work by the Sinhala scholars G.R Malalasekera and K.N. Jayatilleke, Buddhism and the Race Question (1958). Published in a UNESCO series dealing with race and modern thought, it makes the argument that Buddhism at its core seeks to avoid dividing people into categories. The authors assume the unity of Buddhism and the legitimacy of using the Pali texts as the foundational works of Buddhism--two issues that are no longer viewed today as they were when Malalasekera and Jayatilleke wrote. They note that, while race did not exist in the Buddha's day, one could use the matter of caste analogically to understand what the Buddha would have taught about race. In what is perhaps an overdetermined analysis, they argue that the Buddha, and indeed any "intelligent villager", believed that caste relations, and thus race, were of kings and society, not of the Buddha (Malalasekere and Jayatilleke 1958, p. 68). This kind of discussion of race and ethnicity in the study of Buddhism has certain parallels to the assumptions about violence and Buddhism. If Buddhists are violent, then theirs is not "real" Buddhism, though recent scholarship has shown that Buddhists have been violent in history and that their Buddhism has been both implicated in and constitutive of violence (Jerryson and Juergensmeyer 2010). In other words, scholars such as Malalasekera and Jayatilleke (1958) assume that, whenever racial ideologies or discourses of ethnicity characterize Buddhism, this is not real Buddhism. I do not mean to set up a straw man to knock down here. Buddhism and the Race Question (ibid.) is the product of a different time, a work grounded in different assumptions about what constitutes Buddhism. However, I would suggest that the relative silence from scholars of Buddhism on issues of race and ethnicity is evidence of the lingering assumptions that "real Buddhism" and the salience of racial ideologies are somehow fundamentally distinct from one another. (4)

Yet this is not simply a problem for the field of Buddhist studies; anthropologists and other scholars of society have also failed to address the ways in which religion in general and Theravada Buddhism in particular, on the one hand, and ethnicity, on the other, shape each other. When students of culture and society, from whatever discipline, discuss ethnicity and religion, their concern is, generally speaking, with the particular group under study, and the religion is simply a quality of that group. George De Vos, writing of religion in the context of ethnic pluralism, for example, speaks about religion as either a means of "abandoning one's ethnic identity ... [or] to maintain a separate identity" (De Vos 2006, p. 8). Religion in this sense is simply one of the cultural attributes of a particular group of people. It is like clothes to be worn or discarded, an attribute of a people that is principally of interest within the framework of the group. This is not an unreasonable view, and I do not want to suggest that we should divorce our understanding of religion from the people that practise it. But neither should we assume that it is possible wholly to understand a phenomenon like Theravada Buddhism, which is widely practised in at least seven different countries in Southeast Asia, within the context of a particular group, ethnicity or nation-state. (5)

In other words, scholars of Buddhism have privileged a subject for which the local and/or the ethnic is irrelevant, and scholars of culture have tended to subsume religion in general and Buddhism in particular to a focus on the group under study. The problem with the former approach is that Buddhism is always practised and lived in a particular location and is thus shaped by other dynamics of identity. The problem with the latter is that, in focusing principally on religion as a dynamic of a particular group, anthropologists are less likely to see the translocal dynamics that shape Buddhist practice.

It is beyond the scope of this paper fully to analyse what religion and ethnicity are or the ways in which they interact with each another. But it is necessary to articulate the assumptions in play in my discussion of them as categories in Southeast Asian societies.

Religion and ethnicity are meta-categories of affiliation and identity that may be the source of cohesion for groups of people as small as a village or as large as nation-states. In contexts of pluralism, they might also be a, or the, central location of conflict between different groups of people. Defining what constitutes an ethnic group or a religion is complicated and varies according to body of scholarship consulted and nation-state studied. That is to say, the aspects of culture--of language, religion, kinship, certain types of practice--important for creating a sense of the group varies with context. This variation becomes an interesting issue when one considers groups of people who span the borders of different nation-states. Are the Miao of Southwest China the same as the Hmong of the nation-states of Southeast Asia? The short answer is "yes and no", depending on the disciplinary background of the study and the geographic location under consideration. The Miao and Hmong might look at their common history and make claims to being a single group of people in the context of international mobilization, and yet emphasize their differences when dealing with the governments of the nation-states of which they are citizens.

On this issue, I take something of a modernist position. While ethnic groups and religions may have histories that predate the twentieth century, ethnicity--along with related categories such as "race" or "nation" (minzu, in Chinese)--and religion are at the same time modern categories of state governance and control. Modern Asian states have sought to categorize and define their populations as part of the process of modernization and for purposes of control. Thus, they have often defined what constitutes a particular group of people or religious activity, as part of a process of fostering certain activities, attitudes and conceptions among the populace and of discouraging others. For example, being Malay or Thai in the border regions of Malaysia and Thailand has a long history, but contemporary ethnic identities cannot escape the "British imposed ethnic compartmentalization" (Johnson 2012, p. 19). Moreover, ethnic and national identities have been inscribed within people's daily lives and "ossified" through a variety of state enterprises such as public education, censuses, national identification cards and the like (Johnson 2012, p. 61, citing Cohn 1996; see also Anderson 1991, pp. 164-70).

Some of these identities are justified on "scientific" grounds (Keyes 2002), others on nativist ones. This is not to say that these identities are stable. They are not, and they can and do change over time. As Keyes (1992) has shown quite clearly for the case of the "Lue" of Thailand, Southwest China and Laos, the "same" people can look quite different, depending on which side of the border they are on (see also Sturgeon 2007).

I do not mean to suggest that the state controls the definitions of ethnic--or religious--identity in an absolute way. I would, rather, advocate a negotiation model, in which the state--and in particular the modernizing state--has a primary role in establishing what constitutes a religion or an ethnic group in the society. Stevan Harrell has argued, for example, that there are multiple vocabularies for talking about ethnicity in Southwest China: that of the academics describing the "ethnohistory"; that of the state, which is most concerned with ethnic classification (for purposes of control); and that of different groups of people in the ethnically plural context of Southwest China as they interact with one another in and outside of the context of state power. These different vocabularies are permeable, though not to the same degree. The people usually hear and are influenced by the state more clearly than the state hears or is influenced by the people (Harrell 1995a, pp. 98-99). Moreover, in these negotiations, history is a basic tool: states and non-state actors wield history, making claims about the stability of a particular ethnic group or religion. They may forget change, just as Anderson and others have noted that nations forget it (Anderson 1991, p. 6; Renan 1996, p. 45). These observations emerge from the study of ethnicity in China, and the states of Asia vary in important ways --both in their concern with defining and controlling religious and ethnic groups and in the degree to which they are identified with particular religious and ethnic groups. However, I would argue that these same negotiations between the state and ethnic and religious groups over definitions, rights and roles within society take place throughout the region.

While there are important commonalities among these categories of affiliation, it is important to be mindful of their differences. For example, religious and ethnic actors normally employ different sources of authority. Religious authority is derived from ties to or knowledge of the super human, though what constitutes the super human and the discursive or practice-oriented bases of these ties vary in time and space and across communities. Formations of race and ethnicity on the other hand rely on a combination of scientific discourses (in particular those derived from biology), traditions and culture.

While I have been discussing "race" and "ethnicity" as a single matter, and will continue to do so, the two terms emerge from different intellectual traditions and are distinguished by different assumptions about their bases of authority. Yet, when the government in Singapore deploys the category of "race", that of China deploys nationality (minzu), and Thailand deploys ethnicity (chuea chat) among other categories, all three are engaged in comparable processes of categorizing the people of a particular nation-state. (6) The underlying assumptions may be different and emerge from different ties to colonial states or transnational universal ideologies: "race" is a legacy of British colonialism in Singapore, and minzu a legacy of Soviet Marxism in China. But fundamentally these states are engaged in the same work of categorization. (7)

Religion in general and Theravada Buddhism in particular should be seen in the same light as long-standing phenomena, "emphatically marked" (Blackburn 2010) by colonial and postcolonial state projects. As a number of scholars have noted, "religion" is a neologism to the region, though religions are not. This distinction between "religion" as an epistemological category, and religions as practised in society is important because, at the same time the building blocks of the nations of Southeast Asia were being formed, the idea of world religions and of "Buddhism" as a singular entity with the Pali canon seen as the "original" form and of Theravada as a form of Buddhism was also emerging (Masuzawa 2005; King 1999; Blackburn 2010; Skilling et al. 2012). Two aspects of this process are particularly important to understand. First, central to the development of the idea of Theravada in a transnational context was the idea that it was the original form of Buddhism, or at least the form closest to the original form that still existed and that it was fundamentally rational and devoid of superstition--i.e., Buddhism as philosophy rather than religion. It is in part because of this view that the connections between Theravada and politics, ethnicity and so forth were obscured. At the same time, throughout the developing and modernizing states of Southeast Asia, religions came to be regulated in bureaucratic frameworks. How such regulation was effected, and how close a particular religious community or identity is to the imagination and regulation of the national community has varied across the region (Hefner 2001). However, the emergence of Theravada Buddhism as a "religion" is intimately--though, paradoxically, indirectly --related to the emergence of the classification and regulation of religions throughout the region.

Along with the idea that Theravada Buddhism is highly rational, one of the assumptions about it is that Theravada and other forms of Buddhism are particularly suited to social justice and non-violent movements. The prominence of figures such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama and the Sarvodya Sramadana movement in Sri Lanka have reinforced this assumption. Scholars have challenged these associations with rationality and non-violence in recent decades, showing that magical practices of various sorts are important in the lives of Theravada Buddhists (for example, McDaniel 2011) and that Theravada Buddhism is an ideology that can be used to mobilize people to violent action (Tambiah 1992, 1996; Houtman 1999; Jerryson 2011). This last point is important here because there is often a clear link between ethno-nationalist mobilization and Buddhism, one in which Theravada Buddhism is clearly used in mundane and pragmatic ways to deepen ethnic distinctions in society and to give advantages to a particular ethnic or national group. I am very much in sympathy with the general thrust of this recent, more critical scholarship, and think that it is important to see how Theravada Buddhism functions in the politics of a given society, whether or not it is in the context of pluralism. However, one consequence of the focus of this scholarship on contexts of violence and ethno-nationalist mobilization, on what Tambiah has called the "politicization of ethnicity" (Tambiah 1996, pp. 22, 334), is the tendency to view the politicization of Theravada Buddhism for the purpose of ethno-nationalist mobilization as an aberration. Like the consideration of "race" in Malalasekere and Jayatil-like (1958) several decades ago, this politicization then comes to appear a distortion of "real" Buddhism. Part of what the case studies below show is that the linkages between ethnicity and Theravada Buddhism are far more widespread than simply what one finds in those locations of dramatic ethno-nationalist mobilization. Indeed, we might even argue that it is the widespread prior imbrication of notions of the group and Theravada Buddhism that are a necessary though not sufficient condition for this ethno-nationalist mobilization. Even while this is the case, it is also important to note that, at least in the minds of many of its practitioners, the cliches about Theravada Buddhism as a rational creed and as the original form of Buddhism persist, and become an important part of its legitimacy in society.

One important difference between religion and ethnicity is the fact that, while religions and ethnicities may have very close ties, in the contemporary liberal understanding of rights and constitutionalism, religions are more likely to be seen as and articulated within a framework of choice. While this view varies across Asia, and indeed across religions within Asia, it is often easier to abandon one's religion than it is to abandon one's ethnic or racial identity. When a state categorizes a person as belonging to a specific ethnic or racial group, this designation cannot for all intents and purposes be changed (Johnson 2012, p. 66). (8) If religious affiliation is a function of the ethnic formation, then effectively it cannot be changed either. However, if there is some degree of choice available, then that choice inheres in freedom of religion. To the degree that we are concerned with different forms of governance, there are ambiguities and contradictions in the relationship between race and religion. In the case of religion, nevertheless, even when choice is effectively not an option, religion in society is more likely to be described and articulated in terms of choice, while race and ethnicity are effectively never described in such terms.

There is one more point that is central to my discussion here: it is that religion and ethnicity cannot be reduced to one another. In part this is because, as noted above, they rely on different sources of authority and in part it is because they have come to be conceptualized in different intellectual contexts. There have been times and places in which actors have claimed that the religious and the ethnic are one and the same, as in the case of Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhalese, Burmese or Thais, and these claims have sometimes accompanied ethno-nationalist conflicts. Yet, despite significant overlap between ethnicity and religion, at least in the context of "world" religions, I would argue that translocal institutions and communities tied to the religion make it impossible for a religion to be wholly subsumed in an ethnic framework. For example, one of the important Buddhist fraternities in Sri Lanka is the Siam Nikaya, and the sangha in Thailand is sometimes referred to as part of the lanka vamsa (Th. lanka wong). While in practical terms these names do not have much day-to-day effect, they do offer a regular reminder that the Buddhism of the ethnic or national group extends beyond that group.

In describing markers of affiliation--religion and ethnicity --and the ways in which state formations and national discourses shape them, I have sought to walk a line between difference and similarity. Comparison brings both danger and promise. The danger is that, by stressing the similarity of the contexts, one flattens out very real differences in the formation of conditions relating to the interaction of religion, ethnicity and the state conditions. At the same time, I would suggest that the contexts described below resonate with one another, despite their differences. This resonance owes not to Theravada being a singular, unified phenomenon, though followers of the religion usually presume that it is just that. However, by examining in a relatively "thick" way several different contexts, it might become possible to see patterns in the articulation of Theravada with racial and ethnic formations in the current moment.

Theravada Buddhism in Singapore: Racial and Religious Harmony at a Temple Anniversary

The celebration of Vesak discussed above was not the only setting in which I encountered discussion of religion, and more specifically Theravada Buddhism, and racial harmony in Singapore. Indeed, throughout the six months that I spent there in 2010, I was exposed to regular discussions of these twinned concepts. One of the most interesting was at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Mangala Vihara (MV), a Theravada temple best known for being the site of the Buddhist and Pali College. According to the temple's own narrative of its history, it was founded through the combined efforts of a Sinhala monk who had come to Singapore in 1934, the Venerable M.M. Mahaweera Maha Nakaya Thero, and a wealthy Peranakan Singaporean who donated the land in 1960, Madame Chew Quee Neo (Mangala Vihara 1999, p. 2). Although the temple was founded by a Sinhala monk, the majority of the people who attended it in the past and, indeed, who attend it today, as well as the majority of the people who study in the temple's various educational programmes are ethnically Chinese. The Buddhist and Pali College is affiliated with the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, and the students who come to Mangala Vihara study basic Buddhist history and doctrines, as well as Pali. (9) In other words, they study that which is often understood to be the original form of Buddhism, unmarked by racial and ethnic formations.

Indeed, while Theravada Buddhism in Singapore is a diverse phenomenon, I found that most people in Singapore that followed Theravada Buddhism considered it attractive because of the presumption that it was pure and/or the original form of Buddhism. A teacher at one of the many Buddhist courses in Singapore that caters to lay Buddhists once told me that people were interested in Theravada Buddhism because it was not "joss-stick Buddhism", a popular conception of Mahayana Buddhism because of its close links to Chinese popular religions focused on venerating ancestors. Theravada Buddhism, she said, was not filled with "pointless ritual"; rather, her students viewed Theravada as "real", "strict" Buddhism. (10) This was a view articulated by people with whom I spoke at the Mangala Vihara. One man told me that he had gone from being Christian to Taoist to Buddhist. What appealed to him about Theravada Buddhism was precisely its original aspect. "It's like the Pope in Rome", he told me. "First there was the Catholic Church and all the other groups grew out of that, so that [Theravada Buddhism] is the oldest and has the truest line." (11) In other words, for many of the people who follow Theravada Buddhism in Singapore, questions of race and ethnicity are, superficially at least, quite distant from that which appeals to them about the religion.

Yet, even in moments presumably dedicated to religion, race pops up in Singapore. The fiftieth anniversary celebration of the MV's founding included a predictable set of events and speeches. There was an open house on the grounds of the temple, which included a five-day-long continuous Pali chanting event with Theravada monks from around Singapore, the display of three relics in MV's possession, displays on the history of the temple and its programmes on the grounds outside in air-conditioned yurt-like tents, and a free lunch. There were also a series of congratulatory and heartfelt, and largely predictable, speeches in praise of the temple's extensive educational programmes and their relation to the "true teaching of Buddhism". (12)

Yet there were also some fascinating eruptions of concern with race and religion in the speeches. The speech of the Resident Monk (i.e., the abbot) focused on the various accomplishments of the temple. One of these, he noted, was its support of English-language education. From the time of independence in 1965, the government of Singapore had encouraged the study of English for the new country, and from their beginning, the MV's Dhamma classes had been held in English. Another was the fact that the government had invested in building up "multiracial and multi-religious harmony", and that this was something that was displayed in the MV, with its "Singaporean, Burmese and Sri Lankan monks". (13) In living together and working harmoniously, he said, these monks take part at the local and national levels in building "our beautiful jewel of Singapore". The importance of inter-religious and interracial harmony was also a point made by the guest of honour, a member of parliament from the governing People's Action Party. His comments referred to a controversy that had occurred some weeks earlier, when the senior pastor of the Lighthouse Evangelism mega-church, Pastor Rony Tan, said disparaging things about Buddhism and Taoism in speeches that had been posted to YouTube. The MP noted,
   In a multi-religious and multiracial society such as Singapore, we
   have to be mindful when fostering our own religion. We Buddhists
   are often very good at this, but we need to be mindful that there
   are Christians and Muslims in our midst. The recent events with
   Pastor Tan show that this problem still exists, and even though he
   has publicly apologized and we have accepted this apology, we must
   continue to work against this problem. (14)

Thus, two of the three formal addresses delivered at the celebration made reference to the multiracial and multi-religious context of Singapore and to the MV's fulfilment of the country's social ideal. Making sense of these references requires understanding of the context in which Theravada Buddhism is practised in Singapore and of the general context of approaches to race and religion there.

Theravada Buddhism is a minority form of Buddhism in Singapore. The principal of the Buddhist and Pali College at the MV told me that 30 per cent of the Singaporean population is Buddhist, while the Chinese population is roughly 70 per cent. (15) However, it is unclear how much of the population follows Theravada Buddhism. Kuah-Pearce (2009, p. 136) notes that formal government statistics on religions in Singapore tend to ignore sectarian diversity within religions. To complicate the situation, most temples do not keep formal membership rolls, and people are often simultaneously involved in several different temples that span multiple traditions. I met a number of Singaporeans who regularly attend Mahayana temples, but then also study Theravada Buddhism at places like the MV; some aspects of religion in Singapore are exclusivist, while others are not. The number of Theravada Buddhists is also difficult to tease out because of the diversity of institutions. Singaporean Buddhism has at least three different levels of institutions: formal temples with consecrated images and simas, study centres, and associations and charities. This diversity in institutional forms is due above all to government policies restricting space that can be devoted to formal religious institutions. Study centres and charities face less stringent registration requirements, and so there are more of these than formal temples (Finucane 2009; Kuah-Pearce 2009, pp. 168-71).

While Theravada Buddhism is a minority form, it is primarily followed by ethnic Chinese in Singapore, the majority population. While a number of the formal Theravada temples in Singapore began their lives as immigrant temples, some of these have opened up to non-immigrants and thus serve several different populations. A good example of this is Wat Ananda Metyaram, also known as "Wat Thai". Wat Thai would seem to be the classic immigrants' temple. In contrast to the MV, which has been tied to the Peranakan community, Wat Thai understands itself to be a royal temple, its foundation attributed to Rama V and dating from the beginning of the twentieth century. (16) The monks at the temple are Thai, as are the majority of the people who work in its office, and it plays an important role as a location for the maintenance and propagation of Thai Buddhism in Singapore (Pattana 2010, p. 267). However, much of the management committee is Chinese, as are many of the people who attend the temple. Indeed, at Wat Thai's Vesak celebration in May 2010, while the temple was filled with people, the only languages to be heard were English and various Chinese dialects, not Thai. (17) There were also several well-attended lectures, in English, on the meaning of Vesak, which stressed the value of the teachings of the Buddha to the lives of stressed and busy Singaporean Buddhists. The focus at these lectures was on Buddhism as a rational, universal philosophy. It was thus emblematic of the "Reformist Buddhism" that has emerged in relation to a variety of state and non-state forces in Singapore over the course of the last several decades (Kuah-Pearce 2009, pp. 4-6 and passim; Chia 2009, p. 123).

Despite the perception that Theravada is "original" and "pure", it is not the only reason that people attend Theravada temples. Pattana (2010, p. 266, citing Wee 1976) notes that Thai forms of Theravada Buddhism are popular in part because Thai monks are associated with some of the same forms of magic with which the "joss-stick" Mahayana is associated, especially in contrast to the Sinhala forms. He also notes, however, that in recent years highly educated monks have come from Thailand to Singapore and that meditation and preaching have become a more important part of the life of Wat Thai. These two attractors, "magic" and "original Buddhism", should not be seen as being in competition with one another. Rather, this is a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" situation. (18)

The Chineseness of many of the Theravada congregations is an important clue for understanding what is taking place in the Theravada institutions of Singapore, though not in the way one might expect. Despite the claims of many to whom I spoke that it was the purity or original nature of Theravada that drew them, I suspect that language played just as big a role. Reformist Theravada Buddhism in Singapore is primarily an English-language phenomenon (Mangala Vihara 1999, p. xx). Despite its ethnic heritage, there is a sizeable Chinese community that does not speak or read Chinese particularly well. Or perhaps their actual "mother tongue" is a Chinese language such as Hokkien, but they do not speak Mandarin well. Indeed, the informant who told me that Theravada is like the pope also told me that, while he was Chinese, he did not actually speak any Chinese dialects. For this man, and for others in the Peranakan community, Theravada Buddhism--and, increasingly, Tibetan Buddhism--is accessible in a way that Chinese-language Mahayana Buddhism is not. One best understands this linguistic dynamic in the context of the government's concern with racial harmony.

Race is an important aspect of Singaporean governance. Indeed, the dynamic of racial harmony is a central narrative of Singaporean life, even in its failure. Singapore is understood as a multiracial society, sometimes given the shorthand "CMIO", for Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others. These identities, which Chua Beng Huat has described as a conflation of race-culture, are "inscribed" on the populace in ways that homogenize and flatten cultural dynamics (Chua 2009, p. 240). People have a race, usually one of the three main ones, and policies affecting them, such as spaces in public housing or schools, follow from this designation. Children must study a "mother tongue" in school; the languages that are offered are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, though one can apply to take another language such as Hindi or Thai. These policies are directed at maintaining a balance among these different racial groups. Thus, while ethnic Chinese are demographically dominant, the state seeks to mitigate this dominance and maintain racial harmony. In part, this goal has to do with the dynamic of the early years of Singapore's independence, when there were both vicious race riots in Singapore and Singapore left Malaysia as a result of "racial" politics and its Chinese majority. Yet, as Chua notes, flattening out and homogenizing ethnic and cultural groups "greatly facilitates public administration and governance" (ibid.).

Religion and Race in Singapore are not conflated exactly, but they are deeply entangled with each other (Kuah-Pearce 2009, pp. 135-36). Chua has noted,

To maintain parity of religion, which is often a socio-cultural extension of race-culture, all the major religious festivals are national holidays.... Consequently, race-cultures and religions have become hopelessly entangled in the attempt to achieve 'group' equality in allocating national holidays. (Chua 2009, p. 242)

Like my fellow volunteer at Vesak, people often speak of "multiracial, multi-religious harmony" in a single breath, language that echoes the language of the state. The White Paper on Maintenance of Religious Harmony makes this clear.

Religious harmony is as important to us as racial harmony. Singapore is a secular state, and ... the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, in Singapore racial distinctions accentuate religious ones.... We can only enjoy harmonious and easy racial relationships if we practice religious tolerance and moderation". ("White Paper on Maintenance on Religious Harmony", cited in Kuah-Pearce 2009, p. 145)

Moreover, the governance of religion in Singapore, like that of race, follows a comparable strategy of maintaining a crisis atmosphere, so that people have a heightened awareness of the necessity of maintaining the spirit of harmony (Hill 1999; Chua 2009, pp. 243-44). This strategy helps us make sense of the statements about racial harmony at the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the MV. Theravada Buddhism in Singapore, like religion in general, is tightly entwined with dynamics of race. A core reason for the popularity of Theravada Buddhism in Singapore is language, and language policy is even more explicitly entwined with policies on race. Despite the claims that Theravada Buddhism is pure or original, its popularity rests at least as much on the dynamics of language, and language policies are entangled with the concern for racial harmony in Singapore.

Ethnic Buddhism and the Dedication of a New Temple in Southwest China

In 2007, I attended the dedication of a new central temple in Sipsongpanna, a minority region in Yunnan province on China's southwest border with Myanmar and Laos. (19) This temple was the product of a collaboration among the senior monks of the local sangha, the local government and a real estate developer from Liaoning in northeast China. The sangha gained a temple that it had long wanted, but did not have the funds to build; the local government had an anchor for its urban development plan; and the real estate developer was given rights to manage the temple as a tourist site for fifty years. In addition to its size, which was unique in Sipsongpanna, the temple was distinct in several other ways. Most temples in the region do not have special names. Rather, they are referred to by the name of the town in which they are located. So, for example, the temple of the village (ban) "Thin" would be referred to as Wat Ban Thin. (20) This new monastic complex--which contains a large worship hall, several courtyards and pavilions for making merit, a forty-metre-tall walking Buddha image and a large school property and guest house--has a different kind of name, however. It is Wat Long Mueang Lue, the major temple (wat long) of the polity (mueang) of the Lue people. In other words, the name of this Theravada temple denotes not its location, but rather its affiliation with an ethnic group. (21)

The dedication of Wat Long Mueang Lue was a three-daylong affair that only partially reflected the ethnic frame of the wat complex's name. The first day was focused on the formal consecration of the temple, and the consecutive days on merit-making on the part of the laity. The formal consecration was a controlled, official affair. It was attended by monks from Sipsongpanna, as well as by other Theravada monks from outside of China, primarily the Shan states, and by Han and Tibetan Mahayana monks from around Yunnan. There were also government officials, both those whose formal duties involved religion and others. Indeed, while the worship hall was full on the first day of the dedication, it was not filled by worshippers, but rather by local government personnel who had been told that they were supposed to attend. (22) On the subsequent days, the entire complex was filled with people who had come to make merit and to see the new temple. The majority of the people there were Dai-lue, though non-Dai from around Jing Hong in particular had come to visit because for a few days attendance at the temple would be at reduced cost. Everywhere one went, one could see people who were marked as Dai by their clothing giving offerings to the temple. (23) Moreover, while it was a highly public and Buddhist affair, a number of the Dai-lue with whom I spoke about their reasons for having come expressed the sentiment very strongly that this new temple was a temple not just of the monks, but also of the people, and in particular of the Lue people. If Theravada Buddhism in Singapore is articulated in terms of original Buddhism, superficially distinct from racial discourses, what the people at this dedication were communicating was that Theravada Buddhism in China is explicitly ethnic.

Perhaps the primary reason for this linkage is the minority context of Theravada Buddhism in China. Most Chinese Buddhists practise forms of Buddhism that we normally call Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism is practised within China principally only by two or three minorities whose members live on China's southwest borders in Yunnan Province. The largest of these minorities is a group called the Daizu, (24) which itself is comprised of four different Tai groups residing in southern and western Yunnan. The Dai-lue of Sipsongpanna are one of the two larger fractions of the Daizu, and it accounts for the largest number of Theravada novices and monks: roughly 5,000 out of a population of roughly 300,000. Two central facts about the Dai-lue are that they are Chinese citizens and have been since the first years of the PRC, and that their cultural background is far more similar to that of other Tai communities in mainland Southeast Asia than it is to Chinese culture. Central to this is that they practice Theravada Buddhism, and that, as in other parts of mainland Southeast Asia, ordination as a novice or a monk has long been a central part of the socialization process for men in the region (Borchert 2013, pp. 412-13).

Historically, Sipsongpanna was a minor kingdom, aligned to and in competition with the city-states of Chiang Mai, Keng Tung and Luang Phrabang and tributary to the Chinese state. Like many of the other minorities of Southwest China, the Lue are not limited to China, but reside in communities in Southeast Asia as well. However, since the middle of the twentieth century, significant effort has been dedicated to making border ethnic groups Chinese citizens, transforming the Dai-lue into the Daizu. In the 1950s, the Chinese state engaged in a categorization project officially based on Stalinist principles (Mullaney 2011, p. 11), (25) which resulted in several different Tai groups being lumped together as Daizu. A variety of state technologies continue to reinforce this identity. While these categorization efforts have not always been completely successful, and China's minorities have resisted the state in several different ways in the course of the twentieth century, at the same time many minorities have also come to see themselves at least in part through the categories of the state. For example, prior to the state categorization project, the Dai-lue of Sipsongpanna had little to do with the Dai-nuea of Dehong, another fraction of the Daizu. However, they now see themselves as co-ethnics and co-nationals, to the extent that a number of Dai-nuea novices have studied at Buddhist schools developed by the Dai-lue in Sipsongpanna despite the differences in dialect and script between the groups (Borchert 2006, p. 164).

That the Dai-lue have been reconstructed as Daizu is in part the effect of Chinese scholarship on the Dai-lue and Sipsongpanna. Chinese scholars recognize the Buddhism practiced by the Dailue, and the Daizu as a whole, as different from that of the rest of China. But that difference tends to be reconstructed into a Chinese form, rather than a transnational one. Chinese scholars recognize for example that Dai-lue Buddhism comes from Southeast Asia. Indeed, they highlight this fact, but they tend to ignore the ongoing contacts with Theravada monks from Thailand and the Shan States in particular. Rather, they would have it, this influence came in the past to what is often treated as a stable and perduring national territory (Wang 2001, p. 368; Yang Xuezheng 1994, question 56). In the same way, there is a tendency to speak about Theravada Buddhism primarily as a function of being Dai, rather than the Dai as being Theravada Buddhist. For example, Buddhism in Yunnan, a Chinese-language history of Buddhism in the province by a Chinese historian, offers a fairly extensive discussion of the philosophical aspects of what constitutes Theravada forms (Wang 2001, pp. 425-32). But the entire section is prefaced with a discussion first of the ethnic groups within China that practise Theravada Buddhism and then of the history of the Dai-lue and a chart of the forty-four generations of chao phaendin (Wang 2001, pp. 368-75). (26) In other words, in thinking about the Buddhism of the Dai-lue, Chinese scholars seem to care less about what the Buddha taught, than they do about who the Daizu are.

At the same time that Theravada is understood primarily in ethnic terms, the ethnic form itself is also constructed in relation to the concerns of the state. Academic statements about the Dailue and indeed minorities in general tend to be fairly stereotyped. For example, in the preface to a book on Dai-lue women, the coauthors state that, "The Daizu are a people who practice rice-paddy agriculture as their primary form of planting, they have their own language, script and the entire nationality believes in Buddhism" (Zheng and Tao 1995, Preface). This last statement is among the most common when talking about the Dai-lue. The Stalinist criteria that officially guided the classification of Chinese minorities were that minzu had a common territory, a common language, a common mode of production and a common psychological make-up that manifested itself in culture. We see three of these in this statement. The consequence of this approach is that academic statements about different minzu in China are often winnowed down to a few overt markings, such as dress, that help make the members of the minzu legible to the state, a process to which Sara Davis has referred as the "simplification project" (Davis 2005, pp. 115-20). (27) Yet the influence of this kind of knowledge extends beyond a few academic treatises. Such stereotyped statements pervade school textbooks, and it is from these textbooks that most Dai-lue, monks and novices included, learn about their own history. (28)

The production of Theravada Buddhism as a function of being Daizu is an ongoing and contested project in China. It is one in which the Dai-lue themselves participate in a variety of ways, as can be seen most clearly in shifts in monastic education since the mid-1990s. In an effort to foster Buddhism in the region, its senior monks established a dhamma school to provide an advanced Buddhist education. While the Buddhist parts of this education are primarily based on models and textbooks from Thailand, a central part of the curriculum at this school has been an emphasis on Dai-lue culture. This has been accomplished formally with textbooks that focused on the importance of the language, and informally through statements by monks that the continuity of Buddhism in the region is linked to the continued existence of the Dai people, and that this in turn was linked to knowledge of the Dai language (Borchert 2006, pp. 126-28). All three of these--language, religion and groupness --have been bound tightly together, in ways that are harmonious with the Chinese state's efforts to compartmentalize ethnic culture. Moreover, Dai-lue monks have also become adept at seeking the aid of the Yunnan provincial government and Buddhist Association to foster these educational aims. They have become important participants in the Yunnan Buddhist Institute, a school that is meant to promote the study of Buddhism across sects under the aegis of affiliation with Yunnan, and thus China (Borchert 2014).

At the same time, while aspects of Dai-lue Buddhism fit well within the framework encouraged by the Chinese state, in some ways it cannot be contained by its Chineseness. First, there seem to be limits to the ability and willingness to frame this ethnic Buddhism within China. The story of Wat Long Mueang Lue is instructive here. In the years since the dedication, local Dai-lue villagers have tended to avoid the temple. In part this is because entrance procedures for locals have been a bit of a hassle; they had to bring their national identity card to prove that they were Dai-lue in order to receive free admission. In part, it was because they felt like it was a Chinese temple. Some of the images, for example a hall of "arahants", are more reflective of Chinese Buddhism than of Southeast Asian forms. One Dai-lue tour guide who worked for the state travel agency told me that she did not like to take foreign tourists to Wat Long because it was not really Dai-lue. (29) A monk whom I met in the main worship hall of the temple complex reiterated this point. The senior monks of the region had posted him there to prevent the management company from dressing up workers as monks to give the Chinese tourists an "authentic" experience of Theravada Buddhism. When I asked him whether Wat Long was a Chinese or a Dai-lue temple, he told me succinctly, "It's Chinese". It is not irrelevant that we were speaking in Dai-lue, not in Chinese, and so could not be understood by the Chinese guards who were also wandering around the worship hall. (30)

Second, the Dai-lue have ongoing ties with Theravada Buddhists outside of China that continue to shape the Buddhism practised in Sipsongpanna. In addition to the textbooks mentioned above, Dai-lue monks and novices are still wont to study in the dhamma schools (rongrian phra-pariyatti tham) of Thailand. Indeed, in any given year the senior monks of the sangha of Sipsongpanna send between five and ten of the students graduating from their dhamma schools to those in northern Thailand and Bangkok; to put this in perspective, the classes at the largest dhamma school in Sipsongpanna have been between thirty-five and fifty students. (31) While these kinds of contacts do not prevent Chinese discourses on ethnicity from shaping Dai-lue Buddhism, they do serve as a source of inoculation. Indeed, they implicitly internationalize Theravada Buddhism so that it is no longer simply about the ethnic boundaries of the Dai-lue.

The broader point to take from this case is that, while the Buddhism of the Dai-lue is marked by the status of the Dai-lue as Daizu, Chinese discourses on ethnicity cannot completely determine who the Dailue are, or what their Buddhism is. While these discourses present significant pressure to create a Theravada Buddhism in the region that is primarily ethnic, local conceptions of legitimacy reinforced by transnational Theravada resources undercut this pressure.

Northern Thailand: Shan-ness and Buddhism

While Theravada Buddhism in Singapore and Sipsongpanna are quite different, they are in a sense linked by Chineseness. In the first case, there is a Chinese-majority government, and Theravada is a minority form of Buddhism, though one practiced primarily by those whom the state classifies as members of its Chinese majority. In the second case, there is also a Chinese-majority government, and Theravada is a minority form largely because it is linked to an ethnic minority. One of the questions that need to be asked concerns the relevance of these relationships to non-Chinese states. That is, is the tendency for Theravada to be marked by ethnicity simply a function of its links to a Chinese society? In general I want to argue that this is not the case, that wherever states and societies categorize people they will shape the practice of the religion, though in a variety of ways. To illustrate this point, I turn briefly to consideration of the Shan in northern Thailand.

The Shan are a minority group in northern Thailand that have something of an ambiguous status because of shifting state policies regarding immigrants. Shan peoples generally come from the Shan states of northeast Myanmar, but they have come to the geo-body of Thailand in different waves. There are Shan communities that have been in Thailand since before it became a nation-state in the twentieth century; there are Shan who have arrived in northern Thailand in the very recent past. However, the Shan are--like the Dai-lue of Sipsongpanna--a Tai group, and they speak a language that is generally quite close to Northern Thai. Indeed, the Shan are often called "Thai-yai" (big Thai), and Thais and indeed Shan generally see different Tai groups as part of the same family of people, a belief that rests at least in part on state discourses (Niti 2006, pp. 43-45).

In northern Thailand, and in particular Chiang Mai, the Shan nevertheless have a fairly ambiguous and vulnerable status. Large numbers of Shan have come to work in the city, and Shan immigrants do much of the construction and restaurant work there. These immigrants may be recent arrivals, long-term residents and even members of families who have been in Chiang Mai for a number of generations. For many in Chiang Mai, the view of the Shan, the Thai and the khon mueang, the people of the North, as ethnic siblings is undercut by class dynamics and an "economic nationalism that treats migrants as alien others" (Ampom 2012, p. 332). One of Jane Ferguson's informants explained that "The Thai come ... and smi-i-i-ile, and say we're phi nong kart [brethren] but then they look down on us as aliens or worse, just because we want to travel to the city or to work for them under humane conditions" (Ferguson 2014, p. 54). Part of what this means is that Shan communities, at least in the Chiang Mai area, have an at best subaltern status in relation to the majority Thai. For example, in June 2013 there was a series of attacks by young men who used swords on motorbikes. These "samurai" attacks were attributed in the news and among the Chiang Mai populace to Shan gangs (Nyein 2013; Chaiyot 2013). While ultimately acknowledged by the police that these attacks were not a Shan problem, the early rush to judgment and with the possibility of repercussions for the Shan that it entailed are indicative of the vulnerable state in which the Shan find themselves.

The one sphere in which the minority status of the Shan does not undercut their status in Chiang Mai is Buddhism. It was striking to me that, when I spoke with lay Thais around the Chiang Mai University campus in June and July of 2013, they regularly talked about the Shan as distinct from Thais, and they often brought up the "samurai" attacks. Yet whenever I spoke with Thai monks about the Shan, they always emphasized the connections between the Shan and the Thai. Indeed monks in completely different locations and of different statuses all commented that the way that many lay people distinguished between Thai and Shan showed an ignorance of history on their part. They told me that, where lay Thais focused on the differences, Buddhist monks consistently focused on their connections. Outside of the admittedly anecdotal evidence offered by these conversations, other evidence also suggests the mutual impact of Buddhism and being Shan in the Thai North. Amporn Jirattikom, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, reports that in rural areas outside of Chiang Mai villagers often prefer Shan monks because they view them as more authentic, whereas Thai novices and monks have all been corrupted by modern life. (32) Here then, while different from the Chinese cases of Singapore and Sipsongpanna, we see further evidence of conceptions of ethnicity intertwined with Theravada Buddhism. (33)


In the summer of 2009, I was in Bangkok interviewing Thai monks about their views on national identity. On one particular day, I was sitting with my two sons, then aged six and nine, in a temple pavilion with a Buddha image in it. I had been dragging them around Bangkok, and they were hot and tired. My six-year-old was sprawled out with his feet toward the Buddha image. A lay woman who was sitting in the pavilion noticed how rudely he was sitting and hissed at me to make him sit more appropriately. Having been marked as an ignorant tourist, I started to speak with her about the temple and Thai monks. I asked her if monks were all the same, no matter what country or ethnicity, and she said very clearly that they were. It was a period of "red-shirt" demonstrations, though not protests, against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and I asked this woman if it was appropriate for Thai monks to attend rallies. Like many--though not all--Thais to whom I spoke at the time, she told me that it was not appropriate. I then asked her if the Burmese monks who had turned over their begging bowls and started the "Saffron Revolution" in 2007 had acted appropriately or not. As if I had flipped a switch, she started to talk loudly about how Burmese and Lao monks were all crazy, that they had been infected by communism and that they were not good. (34)

The comments of this woman provide a counterpoint to the comments of the volunteer at the Vesak celebration the following year with which I began this article. The Thai woman's comments point to a common viewpoint about Theravada Buddhism, that it is a universal form that is only superficially touched by culture, nationality or ethnicity. In Theravada countries, it is not uncommon to hear that people respect the robes and not the person, and that race and ethnicity are thus irrelevant. Yet, as the woman's tirade against Burmese and Lao monks or for that matter the Yesak volunteer's comment about the Buddha's precepts respecting race and religion each suggests, it does not take much digging to see that the universal of Theravada are modulated and nuanced by local conditions. In highlighting these comments, I do not want to suggest that Theravada is really about local forms or that being Theravada masks more fundamental ethnic or national identities. This is a mistake that I think much anthropological scholarship on Theravada communities ends up making. Rather it is the tension between the two that needs to be the focus of our attention. Further, it is necessary to understand how the state plays a role in shaping local understandings--understandings which may emphasize universal or ethnic versions of Theravada Buddhism.

Examination of the ways in which discourses and practices of Theravada Buddhism interact with discourses and policies of race and ethnicity in a variety of locations in Asia makes it clear that there is no single way in which group formation--whether on the basis of ethnicity, race, nation/minzu--and Theravada Buddhism interact. In Singapore, the state's discourses on racial and religious harmony help produce a form in which the universal aspect of Theravada as the original form of Buddhism is emphasized, and which also makes Theravada a site conducive to multiracial harmony, Singapore style. By contrast, in Sipsongpanna, the state-produced discourses on nationalities lead in the opposite direction. Publicly, Theravada Buddhism is primarily an ethnic form, open to no one outside the right minzu, except as an observer, but this strongly ethnicized version is undercut by both resistance to Han Chinese impositions and the transnational flows that have supported the rebuilding of Theravada Buddhism after Mao. In Thailand, evidence suggests that the universal aspects of Theravada partly mitigate some of the alienating aspects of Thai views of the Shan. What links these different cases is that they reveal that the lived experience of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia is a nexus of relationships and discourses on religion, ethnicity broadly construed and nationality.

This is, in a sense, the point, and in many ways it is a fairly modest one. Theravada Buddhism plays a variable role in societies throughout the region, but how it interfaces within these societies also varies. The meanings attributed to Theravada in each of these places are different, as is its status in relation to the ethnic or national majority and minority. In Sipsongpanna, it provides a possible resource for resistance to majority views of minorities; in Singapore it does not seem to be such a resource. In Thailand, it provides some minorities with cultural capital that their co-ethnics do not have. Rather than seeing ethnicity as governing Theravada Buddhism or vice versa in any general sense, I have tried to show here that there is a dynamic tension: Theravada cannot be separated from the societies of which it is a part of, but at the same time it should not be understood as wholly contained by them either.

DOI: 10.1355/sj29-3c


This paper has been gestating for a long time. I presented an earlier version at the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Taiwan in June 2011. I would like to thank Jeffrey Samuel and Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa for their helpful comments in Taiwan, as well as Michael Montesano and the two anonymous reviewers for SOJOURN who helped clarify issues large and small in the paper. I also want to acknowledge the many monks and lay Buddhists whom I have interviewed and observed over the years and who have been unfailingly gracious and helpful, even if they do not always agree with my observations.


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(1.) Field notes, Singapore, 8 May 2010.

(2.) There are several different vinaya codes, depending on the form of Buddhism, and also differences between those followed by nuns and those followed by monks. The differences between the different forms of the vinaya and between those for nuns and monks are important, but dwarfed by their commonalities.

(3.) I have used "race" because it is the term common to Singapore. In the other contexts that I will consider in this paper, Sipsongpanna in Southwest China, and Northern Thailand, the terms minzu (nationality) and chueachat or klum chatiphan (ethnicity, ethnic group) are more common. Also see note 6, below.

(4.) I would point to Jerryson (2011), Chapter 5, as an important exception. One of the few contexts in which race and Buddhism have been studied with any depth is that of Buddhism in America; particular attention has been devoted to racial dynamics in the American sangha (see, for example, Cheah 2011; Pierce 2000). I would suggest though, that this attention is less a function of concern with race among scholars of Buddhism than of race being a central problematic in the study of any aspect of American society.

(5.) In this sense, I have found Bruce Lincoln's approach to religion to be particularly valuable (Lincoln 2003). In addition to the more common aspects of religion, such as discourses and practices, he also emphasizes the institutions that regulate these discourses and practices and the community that, at least in part, is constitutive of and constituted by these.

(6.) I use "ethnic" and "ethnicity" throughout this paper because I understand that the work that these terms do, in describing groups of people that identify themselves or are identified by others as constituting a group of people, as largely coterminous. "Race" and "ethnicity" have different and complicated histories, but their differences here are not as important as their similarities. As Kuah-Pearce (2009, p. 133) notes, "In Singapore, ethnicity is taken to be synonymous with race".

(7.) Translation of all of these categories is also a problem that needs to be acknowledged. Thai and Chinese terms for "race", "ethnicity", "nationality", and "religion" are often neologisms, even if they are in some cases more than a century old at this point (Reid 1998, p. 14), and a simple translation often obscures subtle differences in understanding the grounding of a particular category. The histories of these categories in Asia also reflect important assumptions about particular societies. However, for the purposes of this paper, the differences are less important than the commonalities. See Josephson (2012), on the invention of religion in Japan, and Dubois (2005) for East Asia more broadly.

(8.) Note, though, some ambiguities exist. For example, in China, children of mixed-nationality parents can choose which nationality they want to be classified as when they reach majority.

(9.) Field notes, Singapore, 22 March 2010; Mangala Vihara 1999, pp. 26-27.

(10.) Field notes, Singapore, 22 March 2010.

(11.) Field notes, Singapore 26 April 2010.

(12.) Field notes, Singapore 28 March 2010.

(13.) Field notes, Singapore 28 March 2010. This comment would seem to be about nationalities rather than race. However, it is evidence of the point that "race" in Singapore is less about biology, than it is about but national/ ethnic groupings.

(14.) Field notes, Singapore 28 March 2010.

(15.) Field notes, Singapore 22 March 2010. According to the 2010 Census of the Population, 33.3 per cent of the Singaporean population was Buddhist. See < census_2010_release1/cop2010sr1.pdf> (accessed 26 August 2014).

(16.) The claim that Rama V is the founder should be understood in mythological, rather than historical terms. Wat Ananda was founded in 1923, but Rama V is said to have had the thought to found a Thai temple twenty-five years earlier (Wat Ananda 2009, pp. 37, 41). The volume commemorating the eightieth birthday of the then abbot of Wat Ananda cited above, lists Rama V as the founder in the frontispiece.

(17.) Field Notes, Singapore 28 May 2010.

(18.) It is also the case that there are many immigrants from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia for whom temples serve community roles as well as more strictly religious ones; they are outside the focus of this article.

(19.) Field notes, Sipsongpanna, Yunnan province, 2-4 November 2007, on which the discussion in the following pages draws.

(20.) "Ban" is usually transliterated to "man" in Chinese; one is thus as likely to hear "wat man tin" as "wat ban tin".

(21.) For information on this temple, see Casas (2007) and Borchert (2009).

(22.) These government workers had a variety of nationalities; I spoke to both Dai and Han attendees among them.

(23.) Note that markers of nationality may or may not be "authentic". In the year following the opening of the temple, the management company hired mainly Han Chinese people to dress as Dai-lue and serve tourists. However, on this particular day, those who wore formal Dai dress were probably Dai.

(24.) "Zu" ([??]) might best be translated as "people" or "nation". However, as noted above, these translations often miss the flavour of the word, and should be understood in heuristic, not absolute, terms.

(25.) The classification project was a large, complicated process, and Yang has argued that the application of the Stalinist categories was "flexible and pragmatic", rather than a rigid implementation of Stalin's model (Yang Bin 2009, p. 764).

(26.) See Yang Xuezheng (1994, pp. 75-76) for a similar ordering.

(27.) This observation resonates with Harrell's widely cited argument about the "civilizing projects" of the Chinese state with regard to its minorities (Harrell 19956). That is, civilizing, simplifying and controlling of the people are all deeply intertwined in the Reform Era PRC. I want to note too that this is a comment about the context of the production of knowledge in the Chinese academy, rather than about Chinese scholars per se. Many Chinese scholars understand conditions on the ground in profound and detailed ways, though not always as Davis (2005) implies. However, their ability to publish materials whose interpretations move outside the realm of state-driven discourses can be limited.

(28.) This sentence draws on fieldwork conducted on monastic education in Sipsongpanna, primarily during 2001-2.

(29.) Field notes, Sipsongpanna, 14 June 2009.

(30.) Field notes, Sipsongpanna, 15 June 2009.

(31.) Field notes, Sipsongpanna, 31 May 2007.

(32.) Amporn Jirattikom, personal communication, August 2013.

(33.) It is important to note, however, that Shan monks may not share the perspective of their Thai colleagues. Both Dai-lue and Shan monks that I have interviewed in Bangkok (in 2008 and 2014, respectively) have told me that they do not broadcast their ethnicity because they find "passing" as Thai a good way of avoiding trouble.

(34.) Field notes, Bangkok, 9 June 2009.

Thomas Borchert is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion, University of Vermont, 481 Main Street, Burlington, Vermont 05491, USA; email: thomas.
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Author:Borchert, Thomas
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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