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51 Understanding Social Totalities: Stanley Tambiah’s Early Contribution to Sociology of Thai Buddhism James Taylor Stanley Tambiah’s legacy to Thai scholarship has been in his elucidation of underlying structures and dialectic within Theravada Buddhism and his explication of a Weberian paradox: namely, the way that social actors make the religion meaningful to their worlds, and, likewise, the way that the Buddhist laity creates meaning in a religion which espouses in a normative frame the concept of mundane worldly abandonment.This apparent paradox can be appreciated most clearly in the notion of the reclusive forest-dwelling Buddhist saint (arahant), the exemplary renunciant figure so highly esteemed in Thailand. In this essay, which relates to the renunciation question in Thai Buddhism, I wish to show, first, something of Tambiah’s method, especially as articulated in his monograph on Thailand entitled The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (1984), and how he elucidates critical historical forces and social practices based on Max Weber’s early ruminations. Second, I will also show briefly, using an example from my own fieldwork on reform forest monks and the monks’ primitive charter (vinaya), how Tambiah’s research method gave me a sense of intellectual direction and was, in his own words, F5920.indb 51 F5920.indb 51 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM 52 James Taylor a “primary point of reference” (Tambiah 1996) as I followed on from his final and, in my view, most significant monograph on Thai Buddhism , the abovementioned Buddhist Saints. Indeed,much of my own work,carried out a decade after Tambiah’s Buddhist Saints was published, attests to many of his early “interdisciplinary ” (Tambiah 1987, 188) observations, though it further elaborates on the use of biographical sources and includes a sustained ethnography, over fourteen months and seventy-two forest monasteries , of wandering monks. Tambiah tended to lean more toward the center than to work outward, while I started in the periphery, in the forests, and then worked toward the center. I was concerned with two mutually reinforcing tendencies: a conscious attempt by actors to reproduce the past from memory work, and the lived experience of the monks ritually ascribing meaning to practices in the present. In my view, Tambiah’s enduring gift to contemporary Thai scholarship , specifically on Buddhism—aside from his more general insightful anthropological contributions to knowledge and the theory of myth, ritual, and performance—lies in his well-known Thai trilogy, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970), World Conqueror and World Renouncer (1976), and the aforementioned Buddhist Saints (1984).Tambiah started in the village,moved to the city/nationstate ,then to the forests.Nor must we forget his numerous papers over a highly productive twenty-plus years of research on Thailand, which was largely put aside with his renewed interest in ethnic issues in his native Sri Lanka in 1983. Indeed, I know of few, if any, courses on the anthropology and history of mainland Southeast Asia that have not cited his work on Thailand. Weber, Charisma, and the Dialectics of History: Tambiah’s Contribution to Knowledge on Thai Buddhism Before looking at Tambiah’s methodology, his contribution to knowledge , and his relevance to my own work, in this section I present a brief synopsis of some critical moments in his research on Thai Buddhism. When Tambiah initially undertook fieldwork in Thailand in 1960, he was mainly concerned with education, but within the context of the many interrelated aspects of village life. As I will discuss in more detail later, in looking at the totality of everyday life in a northeastern Thai village he noted that Buddhism/folk religion had center stage, F5920.indb 52 F5920.indb 52 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM Understanding Social Totalities 53 providing an all-embracing, coherent (if sometimes contested) ritual system. He also saw in village life a smaller social unit of the macrocosm , the village giving insights into the larger civilization, while Buddhism acted as a culturally sophisticated force impacting through time on local animistic worlds.1 In turn,within this differential space, Buddhism became interwoven into the seasonal/agricultural ritual cycle of village life. This study coincided with Tambiah’s ongoing theoretical interests in an interpretation of the structural interaction between cosmology and ritual as a dialectical, semantic, and pragmatic process,2 and, in the case of myth, the way...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780823246199
Related ISBN
9780823241897
MARC Record
OCLC
867738144
Pages
336
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-17
Language
English
Open Access
No
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