(P74) Understanding Thai Buddhism through contemporary literature
Fri 13:30-15:00 K10 | 3.05
- Paul McBain University of Pennsyvlania
- Justin McDaniel University of Pennsylvania
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A Minor Literary History of Buddhist Publishing Houses in Northeast Thailand
Chairat Polmuk Chulalongkorn University
In the early 1960s, Preecha Phinthong, one of the most influential and beloved scholars from Northeast Thailand (also known as Isan) founded a family-run publishing house named Siritham. Located in Preecha’s hometown in Ubon Ratchathani, Siritham publishing house printed several important books on Lao-Isan and vernacular Buddhist literature, including Preecha’s transcriptions of the Lao epic Thao Hung Thao Cheuang and other classical poems. Together with printed materials by its predecessor, Klang Nanatham publishing house founded in 1937 by Khongsak Phothiphakhiyatham, Siritham’s publications contributed to an emerging field of regional literary studies in the 1980s in which poetical works from the Lao-speaking region of Isan were integrated into central Thai curricular contents yet posited awkwardly in a national literary history through the category of regional literature (wannakhadi thongthin).
This paper is a preliminary attempt to examine this moment of (mis)recognition of Isan literary heritage in Thai academic discourses through the lens of book history and minor literature. Instead of treating “regional literature” as a unified and stable concept, I ask what this category means outside central Thai academic discourses by looking at the roles of publishing houses such as Siritham and Klang Nanatham in promoting vernacular Buddhist literature. Through Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s conceptualization of minor literature as the deterritorialization of national language, culture, and consciousness, I further propose to investigate how these Buddhist publishing houses offer the minor archive for a revision of literary history.
Born into a palace of circling desires: Utsana Phloengtham’s ‘The Story of Jan Dara’ as a Buddhist modernist erotic novel
Paul McBain University of Pennsyvlania
Utsana Phloengtham’s ‘The Story of Jan Dara’ is one of the most widely known stories in Thailand. It is remembered as ‘erotic fiction’ as well as an ‘immortal classic.’ It has also been praised as a Buddhist treatise. Yet, despite being replete with Buddhist terminology and references, it has never been analysed as a work of Buddhist fiction. This article argues that Jan Dara is one of the very few examples of Thai Buddhist modernist literature, and a highly original and highly-layered one at that. The novel employs a diverse number of techniques and concerns derived from modernist authors such as D.H. Lawrence to explore sexual life in an aristocratic mansion of the 1930s. Understood with reference to the modernist tropes it employs and the debates in Buddhist cosmology and morality at the time of writing, it can be shown to be a scathing indictment of old-fashioned moralistic ‘hypocrites’ who practice decadent
lives ‘while mouthing the Buddhist precepts.’
How to do Things with Buddhism: Mahayana Buddhism as Global and Regional Counterpolitical Tool in Thai Literature and Media
Arnika Fuhrmann University of Cornell
Inquiring into Buddhism as a regional force or common denominator between Southeast Asia and East Asia is a perilous undertaking, given the state rationales, zoning projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the nationalist ideologies that Buddhism is closely associated with. In addition a history of desirous gazes onto Buddhist Southeast Asia from East Asian locations complicates a progressive invocation of Buddhism as a regional factor. At the same time, it is possible to identify many “minor” Buddhist patterns that link the region in more provocative ways. It is particularly productive to draw out the ways in which Buddhism works as a scrambler of temporalities and as a re-scaling, or reordering, tool. I am especially interested in the work that Buddhism performs outside of the realm of religious instruction—as well as in some very seemingly ephemeral effects of the tradition. I thus ask how Buddhist frameworks inform fantasy and desire, the constitution of personhood, rhetorical tools, registers of feeling—and how they diversify notions of self, agency, and psyche.
In previous writing I found that Buddhist framings played a significant role in transforming both transregional and intraregional encounters in Asia. In a Cold War context it was Mahayana Buddhism, as a “minor” tradition in both Thailand and the US, that became instrumental in imaginaries that were able to resist the damaging “free world” ideology of the US and its Southeast Asian allies. The migration of culture in this case was not only one in which (US) empire imposed forms on its dependent counterparts but, in tendency, represented a reciprocal relationship. In a second case Buddhism appears as a trans-Asia epistemological and ethical resource. This is the case for Hong Kong-Thai coproduced films of the 2000s. Here Buddhism works as a tool of recalibration that has the effect of evening out distributions of power and regard toward the other. In this cinema a Buddhist lens reverses Thailand’s long history of having to figure as zone of radical non-contemporaneity, in which Thailand doubled as Hong Kong’s historical other and appeared as a terrain of ghostly belatedness. As such, a Buddhist lens even works to revise established modes of othering. Finally in media that recuperate Bangkok’s history as a regionally connected Chinese city Buddhism emerges as an aesthetic and psychological language that diversifies relations to identity, space, and time. These media from contemporary Bangkok allow us to tease out a parallel in the workings of the digital, the temporal contours of memory, and a Mahayana Buddhist ethos of emptiness.
The study of Buddhism as a religion and of Thai literature have tended to lead separate lives. There are nevertheless many novelists, film-makers and poets who make use of Buddhist symbols, narratives, ideology and language in their work. This panel will discuss ways in which we can query such Buddhist-inflected references in order to make sense of Thai approaches to politics, modernity, sexuality and time as they are represented in literature. The papers presented will focus on particular works of literature and authors, analyzing the ways in which a fuller understanding of Buddhist language, contemporary debates and developments (both local and global) in Buddhism can be used to gain a deeper understanding of that material and, by extension, contemporary Thai Buddhism itself. The papers presented will show that the study of contemporary Thai literature reveals Thai Buddhism to be not merely a static tradition or belief but a constantly re-negotiated, politically-involved facet of life and thought in contemporary Thailand. We will also discuss ways in which Buddhist-inflected tellings of time and gender, amongst other things, present new possibilities for making sense of particularly modern problems. Some questions that the panelists might consider include:
? How is Buddhism deployed as a key ‘tradition’ in literature and art that must be preserved against the onslaught of foreignness and commercialism?
? How, alternatively, can it be used to critique such nationalist or neo-traditionalist perspectives?
? How do conflicts about what Buddhism should and should not be in the modern world manifest in literature and how are these related to contemporary politics?
? Can ‘Buddhism’ as a category of analysis reveal negotiate between the ‘local’ and ‘global’ in understanding Thai interpretations of the present and politics?
? Do Buddhist-inflected tellings of time and space present new conceptual possibilities for dealing with uniquely modern problems, such as environmental issues?