Spirit Possession in Buddhist Southeast Asia - Transcript

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Terese Gagnon [00:00:08]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Terese Gagnon. I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière and Peter A. Jackson about their new co-edited volume, Spirit Possession in Buddhist Southeast Asia. World's Ever More Enchanted from the US Press. Benedicta de la Perrier is an anthropologist at CNRS in Paris, specializing on Burma, where she has conducted regular field research since the 1980s. Peter Jackson is emeritus professor in Thai cultural history in the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific. He has written extensively on religion, gender and sexuality in Thailand, as well as critical approaches to Asian area studies. Welcome to the podcast Benedicte, Peter. Thank you for joining us today to speak about your exciting new book.

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière [00:01:09]

Thank you for inviting.

Peter A. Jackson [00:01:11]

Thank you, Terese.

Terese Gagnon [00:01:12]

So just to kick things off, can you tell us a little bit about how this volume came to be and what drew you to this topic of spirit possession?

Peter A. Jackson [00:01:22]

Benedict, Would you like to begin?

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière [00:01:24]

Yeah, sure. Sure. Spirit Possession is one of my aim of researching. I have done many inquiries in Burma about both the spirit mediums, circles, the rituals, and the evolution of these rituals. Long years and the book project actually came out of our encounter with Peter since some years now. And the idea came out from the fact that actually there is no real representation of what is spirit possession in Southeast Asia among spirit positions to this. For me, this is one of the important contribution of this book to allow to locate Southeast Asia in spirit possession studies. So that's one point. The other point was that Southeast Asian studies have really evolved since the 90s and the globalization allowing new kind of research to be done. And in the same time spirit position calls that are very pervasive in Southeast Asia and used to be pervasive in traditional societies of Southeast Asia, if you want to put it this way, we are also undergoing tremendous change due to globalization and the new social phenomena in general in Southeast Asia. And there were some studies giving an idea of the impact of such developments on spirit possession, but not really deep research about the link between these developments. They are general trends and this kind of variety that we have been able to document through this book. And also something very common that is that they are all anchored, rooted in traditional spirit possession cultures.

Peter A. Jackson [00:03:17]

Will follow on from there. Thank you very much. As Benedict mentioned, this project began when I had the opportunity to be a visitor at the Benedict Center for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Paris in 2016. My own work has been on development of new religious movements in Thailand more broadly, not only spirit possession, but also cults of wealth changes within Buddhism in the last 2 or 3 decades. And when I was in Paris, I had not met Benedict before. That was there for two months in 2016, and I gave some presentations on my work on Thailand, how the rise of the market economy, how new types of media were being utilized in the religious domain, how these were having impacts across the religious field so that a whole range of new religious movements were becoming very prominent in Thailand ever since the end of the Cold War. In the era of globalization, as Benedict mentioned, and these movements were cults of ambulance, for example, of magically empowered amulets, prophecies, people going seeking predictions on the future, a whole range of new phenomena which in a sense contradicted existing theories of relationship between modernity and religion, the classical barbarian theories of modernity and religion. The more modern, the more capitalist, the more developed society is, the less important religion will be in that society. Yet across mainland Southeast Asia, at least in the Buddhist societies that we're interested in, in this book, the more that the market economy became entrenched, the more that new media became important in everyday life, the greater the proliferation of new religious movements took place. So something completely contrary to 20th century theories of modernity and religion were taking place. My own research had not really been focusing on spirit possession as such in the past. I was looking at other dimensions, but it was in my visit to Paris and Benedict Center that we had the opportunity to have conversations and we found an interesting number or fascinating number of parallels. Not only was the phenomena that I was looking at in Thailand taking place within that country, that is the marketization and the mediate ization of society. Similar phenomena were taking place in Burma, Myanmar as well, in Cambodia, even in socialist Vietnam and in all of these societies across the mainland at the moment when the market was becoming important at the moment when globalization was having an increasing impact in their own different ways, we found an explosion of new types of religious phenomena in a whole range of domains. These were not necessarily connected so that people in Vietnam were not necessarily connected with those in Myanmar or Thailand or Cambodia. But in a sense, we found a parallel transformations of the religious cultures of these societies taking place in the context of processes of globalization. And it was in conversations with Benedict, whose own work has focused on spirit possession in Burma for the last three decades. It was in talking with her. In seminars that I realised that these parallel processes were really something that needed to be explored further. I needed my own work, needed to move beyond a simple country study on Thailand and think about something collaborative across the region. I need to thank Melodie and her colleagues in Paris that provided us with opportunities to begin to have collaborative workshops, bringing together people working across the mainland to begin to have conversations. We also jointly, Benedicte and myself, we convened panels at international conferences at the Icas International Convention of Asian Scholars in Chiang Mai in Thailand in 2017. And we had a couple of very successful panels there with presenters from around many of the contributors to the book, gave presentations at that conference. And then a couple of years later, I think it was 2019, just before COVID, we were able to get together again in Paris, again with the very kind assistance of the senior in Paris to have another get together, many of the contributors to the volume to, in a sense, think again about the book as well. One of the things that Benedict mentioned, the particular focus of the book, I think one of this particular focus is that I would like to emphasize that it's focusing particularly on mainland state Asia. Previous studies have been a number of comparative studies of religion and changes and religious movements in Southeast Asia in the last couple of decades. A number of publications, they have often included Muslim societies of peninsula and island, Southeast Asia as well. And of course there are many changes taking place in religious cultures and religious domain in Malaysia, Indonesia and in the Philippines as well. But we felt Benedict and I in our conversations and working both on Burma and on Thailand, felt that these previous studies had focusing on often movements of more conservative trends within Islam, emerging in the contemporary moment, trends which often were anti magical against spirit opposition in particular in these peninsular societies, often were overlooking the fact that within the Buddhist societies of mainland Southeast Asia, these processes of globalization were not leading to any opposition resistance in a sense to spirit possession or magical studies, but rather to the opposite that these societies were providing opportunities for growth and expansion efflorescence which was not paralleled in the island societies of of Southeast Asia. So we're wanting to focus on the mainland. Now there are debates about whether we should describe Vietnam as Buddhist will. Buddhism is there together with other other influences as well. But in a sense, the emergence, the growth of globalization across Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma over the last 30 years has seen an interesting expansion in these phenomena. And one of the things that Benedict pointed out to me when we ongoing interesting conversations over the last 3 or 4 years is that there has not really within the academic field of religious studies being given sufficient emphasis to spirit possession. As such, it's often been regarded as a minor separate issue. It's been anthropologists who have often been at the forefront of spirit possession studies, whereas scholars within religious studies have often minoritized or seen it as not an important phenomenon. Religious studies often emerged in the Western Academy, focusing on religions which have Bibles, texts, Koran, etcetera, focusing on text religions, whereas religions or phenomena based on ritual, based on practices have often been overlooked in the field of religious studies. And it's really it's been left to anthropologists in a sense to take the field forward and to think about these issues. At the same time, these issues not simply relevant only to etymology. They're broadly relevant across the field of the study of religion. But in a sense it's been anthropologists such as Benedict and her colleagues working on spirit possession in neighboring countries who have really been at the forefront of this issue. And really in this book, we were wanting to bring the issue of spirit possession to the forefront of comparative studies of religion in the mainland, to bring it into conversation with Buddhist studies, to bring it into conversation with the broader field of Southeast Asian studies, so that we felt that the phenomena which have been taking place in the last 3 or 4 decades need to be given much greater importance in the comparative field, both within religious studies and also in the comparative field of Southeast Asian area studies.

Terese Gagnon [00:10:18]

Thank you so much. That's incredibly interesting to hear from both of you. And I think especially what you were just saying, Peter, really gets to the next question that I was wanting to ask, which was what was your hope that this volume would contribute to the existing literature on religion, especially religion in Southeast Asia? And it sounds like you're definitely saying, you know, more kind of empirical and ethnographic accounts of religion as it's being practiced and beyond just textual examples of religion. So I think that's really exciting. And as someone who's an ethnographer myself, I can definitely appreciate that impulse. And another thing that was really interesting to me when I was reading the introduction of this book was the fact that you're looking at vibration notions of enchantment and really questioning how modernity produces enchantment. So I would invite either of you or both of you who have something to say about some of the ways that you saw that happening of modernity itself, producing enchantment and a flowering of different spiritual expressions in Southeast Asia. To maybe describe what that looks like for our listeners.

Peter A. Jackson [00:11:23]

I was talking a lot just then. Benedict, Would you like to begin again and I'll follow up again?

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière [00:11:28]

Yes. I think that one of the important thing in this book is also to describe the transformation of spirit possession. And this is due to many factors, but there is a commonality in the different trends that we can look at is that there is a transformation of village based cults whose officials were mainly non-professional women in charge of one nostril divinity, localized into a more urbanized cult, professionalized and with main officials who are often transsexual and less women. These general terms are very, very general and correspond to societal transformations such as urbanization and modernization and all this kind of thing. And you can trace it all across mainland Southeast Asia. So that's the first point I would like to highlight, but I give the voice to Peter.

Peter A. Jackson [00:12:34]

Thank you. Benedict The question of modernity and enchantment is fascinating and I think there's no single answer. A number of scholars have critiqued Weber from a range of dimensions, so you can find some critiques from those working on relationship between capitalism and religion, for example. And there are other scholars who are working on the relationship between media and modernity and religion. So I think there's been a range of interventions, to put it that way, that have provided both critical perspectives and also perspectives on how new forms of enchantment can be actually produced in the context of modernity. My own position is that I think there are a range of factors taking place here. On the one hand, there is the rise of neoliberalism as a distinctive form of capitalism, which has a particular set of relations that are under very insecure economy. As neoliberal market forces take place, the emphasis on consumption as opposed to production leads to a very different social order than the early 20th century than the era in which the above is writing. So the relationships between the market and society are now completely different in the early 21st century than they were at the beginning of the 20th century. Market is much more a space in which religion finds much more support than it did in the early 20th century, to put it that way. Another dimension is that the type of society which is proliferated, which is pervaded by media. Some have argued that this type of society is producing new forms of magic. If you think back to the 19th century when photography was first invented, one of the first new media, then it was argued photography would provide a way to see reality, that photographs were photographs of reality, that once you had a photograph, you were taking image of what was really happening. So we have this idea that media are providing representations of the real world which can take us beyond the issues of biases of human beings. The early ideas of theory of media and society were of a 1 to 1 relationship that media would help us get closer to reality. But what has happened with the Internet, with digital media, with the type of media which we are now interacting with in this podcast, that it has undermined the relationship between this notion of reality and media and representation. Representations can sometimes no longer be trusted. To the extent that we saw in the United States in the last few years where the idea of fake news, where in a sense media can be sources of misinformation rather than correct information, and in this context, where notions of magic ality are not so strange anymore, where the relationship between media and magic has no longer, in a sense, unusual or strange. So that we find in Southeast Asia in the cults that Benedict is looking at and those which I'm interested in in Thailand, that these spirit mediums are active users of new media. So that rather than Facebook or photography or mobile phone. So whatever, rather than these type of media being in a sense used to critique the magical dimensions of life, they're actually being utilized to promote and accentuate the magical dimensions of society and provide it with greater space in society as well. So these are the sort of changes, the need to rethink the relationship between the market and society and religion, media and society as well. Another dimension I think also comes back to the very notion of ritual that the phenomena that we were looking at in this book are very much focused on the practice of ritual. People have beliefs about divinities and gods and they interpret what they are doing. If you ask them what is happening, of course they will give you an explanation. But often, at least in the cults, which I'm interested in Thailand, what one is doing in ritual is often more important than what one believes about it, so that it's important to do the ritual correctly. It's a matter of correct practice, and I have participated in these type of rituals, and I have not been asked what I believe. And. But I've been made very clear that what I should do correctly in order to join the ritual space, it's been very made clear to me what I should be doing, how I should compose my body, what is my correct response to the images of the deities. It is this manual of ritual practice which is very important and coming back to religious studies and the origins of this field, which was focusing on texts, notions of belief, of doctrine. These were the issues which were important in the origins of religious studies as an academic field in the Western university system. In a sense, doctrine is not so important in what these phenomenon of spirit calls its correct ritual. Doing things correctly and series of ritual are very important about notions of enchantment. Here, I'm particularly attracted to the work of Stanley Tobiah, formerly of Harvard and who was one of the early participants in developing theories of the performative nature of ritual. Those who think about performativity these days, often we'll think about Judith Butler and theories of gender performativity but actually theories of performativity and ritual predate their use within gender studies. They go back a decade or more before Judith Butler's work in the engagement of ritual studies by Stanley Meyer and other scholars of religion and ritual, often in Southeast Asia. And they were pointing out that ritual itself can be productive of enchantment, that the forms of ritual practice can bring into being a worldview, that embodiment of ritual that way that we enact with the world. Engaging in spiritual rituals has an effect on the human being, can produce a worldview and in a sense a bot, a habitus, to use that sort of notion that there's a very productive relationship between the embodiment and the types of enchantment that we're talking about here, and theories of embodiment and enchantment become very, very important, I think, in understanding the relationship between modernity and ritual. Because if we think about religious studies and also critical attitudes to religion in the contemporary era, if you think about even the word ritual or the word virtualization, it can often be seen as a negative word is to put down in many places. Then in a sense in mainstream religious studies or by people of faith, virtualization is seen to be the opposite of correct religiosity. Atrocity should be, in a sense, belief, correct belief. Correct doctrine. Whereas phenomena that Benedict are looking at in this volume really in a sense that is not the primary focus. The primary focus should be on what is being done. And it's in a sense it's important. I think book has an important contribution in a sense to challenge ideas that religion is only about doctrine. Ideology can be about embodiment, about practice, about engagement with the world around oneself. This is an important contribution that the book makes across the broader field of Southeast Asian Religious studies as well.

Terese Gagnon [00:18:58]

Absolutely, yes. Thank you both for those really insightful responses. And I think this theme of embodiment and sensory experience and practice of these forms of religion is so fascinating. And I'm wondering if you might have some examples to share from some of the chapters that really just kind of ground or highlight these dimensions of performance and embodiment. I know. Benedict, Do you have a chapter that you've written? I don't know if you maybe have a vignette or a story to share that could really take our readers to this moment that you're writing about?

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière [00:19:31]

Yes, I could have taken many different examples to contribute to this book, but I choose to actually, because I had the data to write about one new ritual, massive ritual in Yangon that has developed since the year 2000. This ritual is a perfect example of what can happen, how cultic figures are re-emerging, emerging everything as we choose to write in this book on the religious landscape, mainly due to the confrontation of different group of religious specialists, mainly those coming from the esoteric field, those coming from spirit position and those coming from the Buddhist monastery. Field. All these groups contributes to this new ritual in one way or another without much to discuss. They are more acting and reacting in a specific place, which is the real agent of this story. And this place is both a pagoda. And so I described the different process that make that the treasure guardian of the pagoda became one new spirit with a new annual ritual and with different kind of practice around the outside of the pagoda, actually, because part of this practice involves spirit possession, and that will be evaluated more or less negatively according to different groups of people involved. And well, that's the idea and the process of emergence efflorescence in a complex religious configurations such as the Buddhist Burmese one.

Terese Gagnon [00:21:16]

Thank you so much. That's really interesting to hear more about. Also, I understand that this volume on Spirit Possession has what we can call a companion volume titled Deities and Divas Queer Ritual specialist in Myanmar, Thailand and beyond. So also picking up on these similar themes and similar locations. So Peter, you are also a co-editor of Deities and Divas, as well as this volume on Spirit Possession. Can you perhaps tell us a little bit about how the two volumes are linked and what might differentiate the two?

Peter A. Jackson [00:21:48]

And certainly, thanks Terese. The transformations of the religious field that Benedict has mentioned and talked about have a whole range of dimensions. I mean, I was earlier talking about the impact of media and capitalism, but there's been a tremendous transformation of the gendering of these rituals as well across the field. Many of the historical the traditional practice of spirit possession in mainland Southeast Asia, the ritual specialists were often women. In many cases they were older women who had families already, and often they were linked to cults of local spirits. But what has been happening in recent couple of decades as the transformation of the gendering of the field, where increasing numbers of male to female transgenders and gay men have become ritual specialists to some extent in some places, not always, but becoming more prominent than sometimes than the female specialists of the past. We found that in this book. There were so many dimensions, so many issues that I decided that we would look at the gendering issue in a separate volume. So in a sense, the book we're talking about today, spirit possession in Buddhist Southeast Asia, leaves aside the issue of the gendering it's mentioned, but it's not the primary focus. The primary focus is more on cults of wealth, on transformations of the ritual field and its relationship to Buddhism. I'll come back and talk about Buddhism and relationship to spirit cults more directly in a minute. Just to mention that the issue of the gendering of the field has in the past often just simply been a footnote. So there have been previous studies in Southeast Asia in the past that often mentioned that there have been primarily women or men or whatever, but gender itself has often not been the primary focus of the study. And I was feeling that there was a need to give that issue a primary focus, particularly in the context where the transformations of the market of media that we've been talking about earlier have also been impacting the gendered dimension of the field. Thought it was important to bring that into discussion with queer studies, with gay studies, with transgender studies in a much more focused way. So that's the particular focus of the book on Deeds and Divas. And Benedict also has a fascinating contribution to that book as well. And for those people listening to this, there's going to be a separate podcast about the book detox endeavors.

Terese Gagnon [00:23:51]

Yes, Do stay tuned for that. We're drawing close to the end here, but maybe if both of you could leave our listeners with a few takeaways of what you hope anyone, a scholar or a general reader of this volume might take away after reading it, If you have any thoughts on that.

Peter A. Jackson [00:24:09]

Maybe if I just begin. Benedict one point I would like to mention, which I think a number of the chapters addressed, but particularly those working on I'm talking now from the point of view of tie studies and Benedict might talk about Burma studies in a minute, but I think one of the most interesting compositions of the chapters perhaps by Benjamin Belmont, is working on the Khmer ethnic groups in Thailand, but bordering Cambodia, and visit Bintang Wijaya, who's working area of northeast Thailand, and Meagan Sinnott and other contributors working on Thailand in religious studies. On Thai studies. There's often in the past been an idea that spirit possession is something distinct from Buddhism, from Thai Buddhism, that Buddhist monks in monasteries do their thing, they do their Buddhist thing in monasteries and spirit mediums, do their thing in spirit shrines outside of monasteries. I think what this book does shows that this idea of a separation of Buddhism and spirit possession as supposedly distinct elements does not really hold anymore, if it ever did. But the chapters, in a sense, show an intimate relationship between spirit mediums and Buddhist monks. Sometimes Buddhist monks blessing spirit mediums. Spirit mediums are going to monasteries to make merit and to provide support for monasteries. The interrelationship between spirit mediums, often who are lay men and women. They're not actually Buddhist monks, and the sangha and the Buddhist monks is much closer, much more interactive and has often been represented in previous studies. And I think this book shows that these fields of mainstream Buddhism, what happens within monasteries in Thailand and spirit possession, what happens in shrines, what happens in spirit possession rituals are much more intimately related. Yes, they are distinct fields. They can be seen as different dimensions, but they're much more closely related and has often been represented in the past. And this book shows how these monks and mediums very much work, collaborating often in collaborative rituals.

Terese Gagnon

Thank you. Yeah. Benedict Yes.

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière

Another point I think that is that should make us make more comparative research at the level of mainland Southeast Asia, because what this book does is to gather to this that make sense together because there are, I would say, comparable. And what is comparable is the essence of cults, but also the articulation of unique position with the Buddhist field, as explained by Peter and many more things, and also the kind of spirit possession, the bodily manifestation of the divinity. These are really things that come to light through the book. But the difficulty is I think we can talk about difficulties are that each small subgroup of studies like ties to these Burmese, to these studies have their own vocabulary approach. And one thing that you can see through the book is that there are very different contrasted approach to this phenomena and we need to gather more and to think together about how to tackle with this kind of phenomena to produce more than even descriptions of this phenomena.

Terese Gagnon

Thank you so much. That's a really great note to end on in the final moments. I'm wondering if there are any events that are perhaps happening in conjunction with the publication of this book that our listeners should be aware of any virtual talks or anything else you would like to make our listeners aware of?

Peter A. Jackson

I think we are hoping to have a book launch at the conference in Paris at the end of June or early July. Yes.

Terese Gagnon

That's wonderful. I will be there also. So I look forward to hopefully attending and yeah, anyone else who might be listening who will be there can definitely join for this exciting opportunity to participate in the launch of this really exciting new volume. So thank you so much, Benedict and Peter, for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing these really interesting insights about your new volume with our listeners. Thank you.

Peter A. Jackson

Thank you, Terese.

Terese Gagnon

My name is Terese Gagnon. I have been speaking with Bénédict de la Pèrriere and Peter Jackson, the co-editors of the new volume entitled Spirit Possession in Buddhist Southeast Asia. World's Ever More Enchanted. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia.


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