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Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, The

Second Edition

Donald K. Swearer

Publication Year: 2010

A wide-ranging, readable account of the Theravada Buddhist thought and practice in the Southeast Asian societies of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. An unparalleled portrait, Donald K. Swearer’s Buddhist World of Southeast Asia has been a key source for all those interested in the Theravada homelands since the work’s publication in 1995. Expanded and updated, the second edition offers this wide ranging account for readers at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Swearer shows Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia to be a dynamic, complex system of thought and practice embedded in the cultures, societies, and histories of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. The work focuses on three distinct yet interrelated aspects of this milieu. The first is the popular tradition of life models personified in myths and legends, rites of passage, festival celebrations, and ritual occasions. The second deals with Buddhism and the state, illustrating how King Asoka serves as the paradigmatic Buddhist monarch, discussing the relationship of cosmology and kingship, and detailing the rise of charismatic Buddhist political leaders in the postcolonial period. The third is the modern transformation of Buddhism: the changing roles of monks and laity, modern reform movements, the role of women, and Buddhism in the West.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page

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pp. vii-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

The 1995 edition of this monograph was made possible by a sabbatical leave from Swarthmore College in 1994 and through the support from the Fulbright-Hays Program and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. I wish to thank Dr. Chayan Vaddhanphuti, director of the Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, where I was a research fellow, and Dr. Ratana...

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pp. xv-xvi

Everyone recognizes the saying, “It has to be seen to be believed.” With one rather modest change—“it has to be seen to be understood”—this familiar quip becomes peculiarly appropriate to the study of religion. A religious system consists of diverse phenomena: sacred texts, myths, symbols, institutions, rituals, festivals, sacred sites and so on. A religion encompasses more than a stipulated set of beliefs and practices; it also embodies and...

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Part I: The Popular Tradition

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pp. 1-3

All too often a textbook picture of Theravada Buddhism bears little resemblance to the actual practice of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. The lived traditions of Myanmar,1 Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka seem to distort and sometimes subvert the cardinal teachings of nibbana, the Four Noble Truths, or the Noble Eightfold Path familiar to the Western student of Buddhism.2 The observer enters a Theravada Buddhist culture to discover...

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Ideal Action

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pp. 4-16

Doctrinally, ideal action in Theravada Buddhism can be described as meritorious action (puñña-kamma) or action that does not accrue demerit (papa-kamma). At the highest stage of spiritual self-realization, the state of arahantship, one’s actions are totally beyond the power of kamma and rebirth (samsara). Terms used to characterize ideal behavior and attitudes ...

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Ritual Occasions, Merit, and the Appropriation of Power

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pp. 17-36

Buddhist rituals can be classified in various ways. Melford Spiro characterizes Theravada ritual action in Myanmar in terms of a fourfold typology: commemorative, expressive, instrumental, and expiatory.29 Commemorative ritual is performed in remembrance of historical, legendary, or mythological...

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pp. 37-49

The traditional festival cycle of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia features two closely connected patterns, one seasonal, the other Buddhist. The former reflects the rhythm of the agricultural year that moves from the rainy season and the planting of paddy rice through the cool harvest season...

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Rites of Passage

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pp. 50-70

Buddhism in Southeast Asia has not only integrated into its own sacred history a culture’s seasonal, agricultural rhythm, but also has marked and celebrated important junctures in the life cycle of individuals in the community. These life passage rituals integrate various cultural elements. Traditionally, birth rites have had little or no connection with Theravada Buddhism, but ...

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Part II: Buddhism and the State

In our study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia we now turn our attention to a different context: the classical Southeast Asian monarchy and the modern Southeast Asian nation-state. From the themes of ritual, festival, and rites of passage, the focus shifts to an examination of myth, legend, and history. We examine the influence of King Asoka as the paradigmatic Buddhist...

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Asoka, the Exemplary Buddhist Ruler

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pp. 72-81

Buddhist chronicles of Theravada Southeast Asia often begin their legendary histories with the Buddha’s visit to the country of the chronicle’s origin. Before recounting the history of Buddhism in that area and the support particular kings rendered the Buddhist monastic order, many of the chronicles outline...

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Kings and Cosmology

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pp. 82-100

Theravada Buddhism influenced the classical conception of kingship in various ways. One was the example of King Asoka valorized as the paradigmatic dhammaraja, the righteous monarch who, although a powerful world ruler (cakkavattin), governs justly and righteously as the embodiment of the ten royal virtues. According to the Theravada chronicles of Southeast Asia,...

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The Cosmological Schemeof the Three Worlds

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pp. 101-103

Lithai was most influenced by the model of the cakkavattin who attains his position through the virtues of his past meritorious lives and who rules justly and compassionately in accordance with the dhamma. Like the mighty cakkavattin who conquers the four continents with his armies, Lithai conquered Sukhothai and sought to establish his authority over a widespread...

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The Buddha as Cosmocrator

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pp. 104-108

As Steven Collins rightly argues, the relationships between religious and political institutions are characterized by tension and conflict, or in his words, “antagonistic symbiosis,” as well as cooperation and mutual support. In regard to classical Theravada Buddhism, to discriminate between these...

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Modern Nationalism and Buddhism

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pp. 109-128

Traditional religion has played a crucial role in the recent histories of many countries in the so-called developing world. Islamic resurgence in the Middle East and other parts of the world including Southeast Asia is a dramatic example. In the post-World War II period, Mohandas K. Gandhi capitalized...

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Part III: Buddhism and Modernization

Religious traditions are constantly evolving and responding to social, economic, and political change. Far from being static, they contribute to such change. They challenge foreign ideologies and in that engagement are influenced by them. In stable periods of history, religious traditions seem ...

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The Changing Role of the Monk

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pp. 130-158

Traditionally, one looks to the Pali scriptures for relevant background information about the place and role of the Buddhist monk in the Indian society. In one of the dialogues found in the Majjhima Nik¡ya (Middle Length Sayings of the Buddha) between the Buddha’s blessed disciple, Ananda, and a military general, the general expresses his appreciation for the presence of...

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Reforming the Tradition

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pp. 159-176

Theravada monks in Southeast Asia, as we have seen, are redefining their role in relationship to contemporary politics, pressing social issues, and current economic problems. Equally important, they have also criticized and attempted to reform inherited models of Buddhist thought and practice. All...

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The Changing Role of the Laity

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pp. 177-189

Are Theravada monks in Southeast Asia in danger of losing their distinctiveness and coming to resemble their lay constituents? Perhaps, but it may be equally true that some laypeople are becoming more like monks. At one time the ideal of nibbana and the practice of meditation associated with its attainment...

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Women and Buddhism

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pp. 190-196

In Buddhist texts authored by male monastics, women appear positively as female renunciants who attain arahantship and renowned lay women who give generously to the sangha, but negatively as a threat to the stability of the male renunciant order and as greedy, weak in wisdom, and inferior to men.130...

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Buddhism and the West

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pp. 197-202

The future of Theravada Buddhism will unfold in the West as well as its natal countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, although intercourse between the West and Theravada Buddhist countries is far from new. Travelers’ accounts written during the early colonial period...

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pp. 203-204

We have explored Buddhism in Southeast Asia as a dynamic multiplex and multivalent system of thought and practice embedded in the respective cultures, societies, and histories of the region. Such a holistic, multifaceted approach belies the possibility of a grand interpretative theory in terms of ...

Appendix 1 Sigālaka Sutta: Code of Lay Ethics

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pp. 205-207

Appendix 2 Borobudur

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pp. 208-210


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pp. 211-252


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pp. 253-261


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pp. 262-286


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pp. 287-322

E-ISBN-13: 9781438432526
E-ISBN-10: 1438432526
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438432519
Print-ISBN-10: 1438432518

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 33 b/w photographs, 21 figures
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1