Frank E. Reynolds, Jason A. Carbine. The Life of Buddhism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000. x + 230 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-21105-6.
Reviewed by Kate Crosby (Department for the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Published on H-Buddhism (September, 2004)
This collection of fifteen chapters, consisting mainly of reprinted book and article extracts from as early as 1928 to the present, is a useful resource for the study of the practice of Buddhism. Each chapter is provided with a brief introduction that draws out the relevance to broader Buddhist practice of the specifics described in that chapter.
There are four sections to the book. The first, "Temples, Sacred Objects, and Associated Rituals," contains chapters on Japan, Myanmar and Thailand. "Temple and Monastic Complexes (Japan)," even though it contains the oldest essay, from James Bissett Pratt's The Pilgrimage of Buddhism and Buddhist Pilgrimage, 1928, makes an excellent opening. While written specifically about Japan, it gives an indication of the vast range of roles a Buddhist temple plays in many communities throughout the world. The temple is the playground, the community leisure space, and the site of the fair. It provides not only a variety of religious needs, but also a focus and collective experience of affluence unimaginable on the individual scale. It also provides for every mood, from the calm of rest and jollity of community to the festivity of celebration and the solemnity of funerals--although, as seen elsewhere in the book, Buddhist funerals are not always solemn occasions. Pratt also describes the diversity of the buildings and sense of awe they inspire, and the range of religious practices, from the grand scale to the small and incidental. Interesting minor observations include the vast black ropes retained from the construction of the temple, presumably of incomparable strength since made from the long hair donated by female supporters; and the fact that some temple library buildings may be rotated in their entirety, in order to gain the equivalent merit of reciting all the scriptures. A contrast is also provided between the urban temple (equivalent to the urban or village temple in much of Asia) and the remote rural temple (equivalent to meditation or forest temples). The editors' apparent embarrassment at Pratt's empathetic style, "The setting of this first essay is Japan in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the observer is, at times, overly romantic" is unnecessary (p. 24).
In Chapter 2, Donald K. Swearer's "Image Consecrations" follows the texts, objects, actions, communal interaction and symbolism that form the "training" and empowerment of new Buddha images in northern Thailand. Swearer's contributions to this topic over the past decade have now culminated in his forthcoming book, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual Image Consecration in Thailand (2004).
Juliane Schober's contribution on the visit of the Buddha tooth relic from China to Myanmar in 1994 presents quite a different angle on the Buddhist use of sacred space and objects (Chapter 3). She examines the mobilization by the governing State Law and Order Restoration of Council (SLORC) of vast numbers of people from every level of society, walk of life and ethnic group, as well as the military, the media, and high-profile international visitors, to participate in worship and processions of the tooth relic on a grand-scale. Schober demonstrates how these celebrations acted chiefly as a mechanism to ensure political legitimacy and allegiance (and to raise money) in the wake of SLORC's continued holding onto power in spite of defeat in the 1990 elections.
The short extract from Tambiah's Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (Chapter 4) describes a village performance of the Mahachat (Mahajataka), i.e. the Bun Phraawes (merit-festival of the Jataka of Vessantara). Accounts are given of both the temple activities and parallel entertainments, which include opera, dance performances, and film. His analysis of the provenance of the participants, including visiting monks and lay people, and contributors, including the vendors, demonstrates the function the Buddhist festival in one village fulfills in binding the community of that village with those of neighbouring villages and the broader region.
The second section of the book, entitled "Monastic Practices" focuses on ceremonies performed within the Sangha, rather than those which emphasize and involve the community as a whole. Korea is taken as an example of the process of ordination into the Sangha, the account being extracted from Robert E. Buswell, The Zen Monastic Experience in Contemporary Korea. Buswell describes his own ordination into the Chogye order, at a time when he had already received ordination in Thailand as a Theravada monk, and makes some comparisons between the two, Theravada ordinations usually being a more individual affair, with families present, and only a few ordinations taking place at once. Buswell indicates the emphasis placed only on the four parajika rules, rather than the full set of vinaya rules, many of which are seen as archaic or too alien to Korean culture. He also describes the importance of lineage for those taking the lower ordination: "Competition is especially keen among postulants to have the Son master (a master of a particular form of meditation and teaching) as their unsa ("beneficent master").... Many postulants are heartbroken when they learn they will not become the disciple of the Son master, and I knew of several cases where rejected candidates left the monastery without taking ordination to start their postulancy over again elsewhere" (p. 75). Buswell concludes with a brief account of the controversial attempt in 1972 to introduce a special Thai ordination on top of the Korean ordination for some monks, because of doubts over the purity of the lineage as a result of the tradition of monks marrying that had been imposed under Japanese colonial rule.
Hiroko Kawanami's discussion of the Burmese female renunciants of Burma, thilashin, focuses on their ambiguous lokuttara (supramundane) versus lokiya (worldly) position. This ambiguous status is tied up with their continued role as givers, like laypeople, rather than merit-generating recipients, like monks; and the associated financial hardship they suffer. Between the initial publication date of Kawanami's article in 1990 and the publication of this book, much has happened in the development of full ordination in Theravada, with further growth even in the past few years. The editors' absolute claim regarding the potential revival of the nuns' lineage, "This loss of continuity has ... made the full ordination of bhikkhunis impossible," should have been tempered by reference to the debate of the validity of using the East Asian Dharmaguptaka lineage drawn earlier from Sri Lanka (pp. 85-86). Moreover, the flourishing of the revived lineage, particularly in Sri Lanka, means that we can now revise the editors' statement that, "In recent years there have been efforts to re-establish the bhikkhuni communities in various Theravada contexts. Up to this point these efforts have had only limited success."
Taiko Yamasaki's contribution on the Morning Star meditation (Chapter 7) provides an interesting combination of historic overview, description and a personal albeit partial account--for it is still an esoteric practice--of his own experience of performing it. The practice, which goes back to an early eighth-century translation of an Indian text by Shubhakarasimha, is particularly associated with Kukai (774-835) in Japan. It involves the repetition of the mantra NO BO AKYASHAKYARABAYA ON ARI KYAMARI BORI one million times while focusing on the bodhisattva Kakuzo in the guise of the planet Venus (hence the name Morning Star). The practice is performed over a period of, at one time one-hundred days, and now fifty days. There are only a few sites in Japan where it may be performed, each in a rural setting with a good view of the stars in the eastern sky. These locations and the layout of the shrine are described by Yamasaki, as are Japanese adaptations of the Indian original. The benefits of the practice, the rigours of which defeat many who try, are believed to be the ability to remember everything seen and heard, and "to deepen the samadhi (meditative concentration) state in order to experience the self as universal void of potentiality" (p. 99).
The autobiography of the Tibetan nun Ani Yeshe Drolma (b.1908), renowned for her ability as a meditator, recorded by Hanna Havnevik (Chapter 8), reveals the events the nun herself regarded as important about her life and religious practice. She recalls how she undertook numerous pilgrimages, fasts, initiations and repetitions of mantra, as well as witnessing a miraculous vision of Manjursri. She also mentions her journey to escape Tibet, reaching Nepal in 1961, and which of those shrines from her life in Tibet she has since heard from friends are now totally destroyed. Also important to her are the teachers with whom she studied, and their lineage, other religious people in her family and her own childhood commitment to the religious life.
The last chapter in the section of "Monastic Practices" is an account of the cremation of a senior monk from northern Thailand by Charles Keyes. Monastic funerals, particularly of famous monks, are far more elaborate affairs than ordinary funerals. The body is kept for days, sometimes even months, allowing for the important meditation on impermanence using a decaying corpse, as well as opportunities for merit-making through offerings to the deceased. Entertainment is put on, of a similar kind to that described by Tambiah in Chapter 4. The process culminates in a tug of war over the funeral bier of the monk, which, placed in an elaborate pyre, is then lit, in this instance through the fireworks attached to it. Keyes focuses on the merit-making participation of lay people and monks and the symbolism of the different components. In particular he draws attention to the "liminality" of the status of the deceased and the ritual, in which "the participants are confronted ritually with ambiguity, paradox, and other challenges to the normative basis of social life" (p. 126).
Part Three of the book focuses on Lay Practices. It opens with the description of the vast variety of degrees of taking the three refuges, five precepts and bodhisattva vow available for laypeople in pre-communist China taken from Holmes Welch's classic The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950 (1967). The taking of the refuges varies from taking them by post to spending two months in a monastery undergoing the same training as novice monks. Likewise, some, conscious that their lifestyle involves the constant breaking of one or another precept, may take only two or three of the precepts, while others take all. Welch discusses the increased custom of giving precept certificates, the relationship between the disciple and the master who gives the precepts, the seriousness with which the precepts are undertaken and the variation in their interpretation.
In Chapter 11 Rebecca Redwood French analyses a headman's treatment of the legal case of a repeatedly offending thief, who is a monk, in terms of Tibetan Buddhist considerations of different levels of reality and the effects of former lives on current situations as well as current actions on future lives. Although she does not explain the Tibetan legal system and its relationship to the monastic one in this excerpt, French does suggest that such considerations had a great impact on the settlement of cases: "In any dispute settlement proceeding, a good petitioner or witness was expected to be aware of future lives and their importance. Tibetans told stories of conciliators and judges asking parties about this directly, for such awareness indicated religious and moral depth. Judges were expected to consider the past and future lives of defendants when assigning penalties" (p. 155).
Jason Carbine's contribution provides an interesting analysis of the role of the Buddha and Dhamma, which represent the soteriological end of Buddhist ritual, in the performance of a typical Sri Lankan healing ceremony, which represents the this-worldly aspect of Sinhalese Buddhism. Since these healing rituals are aimed at healing, rather than Enlightenment or merit-making as such, and involve interaction with the lower deities and even malevolent spirits, they are often assumed to be part of a different realm of Buddhist religion, in some way incongruent with Theravada orthodoxy. Carbine, however, demonstrates that meditation on the Buddha and the use of Buddhist protection are employed to allow the patients to transform their own minds to create protection from the afflicting spirit. The healing ritual therefore employs quite orthodox understandings of Buddhist doctrine as one aspect of the healing process. Although both this and the previous chapter are associated by their titles and introductions with cosmology, neither contains much that is explicit on that subject. Rather, the understanding of cosmology is present in the background, in its implications for the worldview underlying the practices described.
The Buddhist ritual from Sri Lanka recorded by Richard Gombrich, in Chapter 13, is a form of worship that became popular in the late 1970s under the guidance of a charismatic monk, Venerable Ariyadhamma. Although Ariyadhamma envisioned it as a worship of the 28 Buddhas of Theravada, it became popularly known as Bodhipuja, "worship of the Bo tree," because a number of the verses contributed to the liturgy by Ariyadhamma are in praise of the bo tree. In addition to the verses he had composed, the ceremony combined traditional offerings, liturgy and a sermon. It was distinctive in that it often took place outside of the temple setting, dispensed with the usual visual hierarchy of sermon monk, support monks, then laity, and involved joint lay-monk and mixed Pali-Sinhala participation. The joint lead-chorus participation and the use of both sacred and vernacular language are far less common in Sri Lanka than in Southeast Asian Theravada. The editors do not point out that this ceremony has lost its popularity in Sri Lanka in recent years.
The final chapter of the section is an account of cemeteries dedicated to aborted foetuses in Japan. These have become far more numerous in recent decades because of the common use of abortion as a means of birth control. The chapter includes a translation of the pamphlet guiding parents on the rituals and offerings to be performed to assuage the anger of the aborted foetus. The author, William Lafleur, points out that the focus in these writings is on the feelings of the foetus, not on those of the parents. He suggests this tone is potent because "It taps into one of the oldest patterns of Japanese cultural life. Rich documentation, from historical and literary sources, as well as from the notes of anthropologists and sociologists working in Japan, gives abundant evidence that the concept of and cultural role of tatari (the exacting of revenge or a penalty by a god, spirit, or deceased person who has been wronged by living humans) is old and probably antedates all the written records we have" (p. 206).
The fourth and final part of the book, "Buddhism in the West," contains a single chapter. In it the founder of the Rochester Zen Center in New York State, Philip Kapleau, describes the ceremonies and chanting used there. He also defends the practices and religious paraphernalia against potential charges of meaninglessness or similarity with Christianity. The issue of language use recurs several times in this chapter. Explicit issues are the use of English, rather than Chinese/Japanese, in the chanting; the mechanism of chanting as a means of inculcating understanding without resorting to rationalisation; and the selection of words perceived by the author to have less strong Christian connotations. An implicit theme that strikes the reader is the development of Buddhist English neologisms, which currently still vary significantly between different "convert" Buddhist movements.
The general introduction is written with less consideration of the current state of Buddhist Studies, in that it retains the now outdated model of "Hinayana, Mahayana, Esoteric," continues to identify Theravada as Hinayana, and touches astonishingly little on practice, the theme of the book. Nevertheless, better material on practice is found in the individual chapter introductions, which draw out the main aspects of Buddhist practice and, taken together, draw out the threads of continuity between cultures. Editors' notes throughout the chapters explain terms that might be unfamiliar to the beginner, although they regularly omit explanations of less familiar terms, while providing explanations of the more obvious.
The bibliography is divided into three sections: "Overviews," "Other Important Secondary Sources," and "Introductions to and Translations of Primary Sources," although the position of some works under the first and not the second heading is surprising (pp. 221-225). Annotations give an idea of the value of each work listed. Given the potential of this book as a teaching aid, the bibliography is disappointingly short. It is regrettable that important works relating to the individual chapters, even those by the authors of those chapters, are not included. A glaring gap, given the subject, is that there are no references to audio or video recordings, to ethnographic film or archives. This means that the student is given virtually no assistance in following up more in-depth material on the practices described, or accounts of parallel practices in other Buddhist settings.
Although the geographical emphases of this book, namely Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet, mirror the broader imbalance of representation in Buddhist Studies, the overall effect of the work is to provide the reader with a good overview of the rituals, every day functions and daily lives of Buddhism within diverse societies. This book provides a much-needed complement to the introductions from doctrinal, literary and historical perspectives currently available. For, while Buddhist ritual and practice are in vogue in research, good introductions to the subject, especially across cultures and communities, are scarce. The selection of essays is well chosen and all are sympathetic in tone. The collection would be a good choice for inclusion as core reading on introductory courses to Buddhism. Overall the editors' contribution seems lazy and is disappointing, but perhaps a subsequent edition will allow for a much-enhanced bibliography, notes, and introduction.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-buddhism.
Kate Crosby. Review of Reynolds, Frank E.; Carbine, Jason A., The Life of Buddhism.
H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.