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68 Transnational Buddhism and the Transformations of Local Power in Thailand Ingrid Jordt In his autobiographical introduction to World Conqueror and World Renouncer, Stanley Tambiah reconstructs for his readers the intellectual journey that led him to his path-breaking work on the Thai polity in religious and historical perspective. It is at least in part for this work that we honor him in this collection, and it bears profitable recounting to repeat his words on how he saw himself located as an ethnographer and analyst: I was conscious then, and even more so later on subsequent visits and especially when I was writing the book Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand, that my view of the Thai world was a projection outward from the village. Such a perspective, though partial, was rewarding, for my intensive close-to-ground labors gave me some idea of how religious conceptions and rites were interwoven with village institutional life and some inkling of how the great tradition of Buddhism, in both its doctrinal and cosmological aspects, may be refracted in the microcosm of village life. I promised myself that some day I would attempt a macroscopic view of religion’s connection with society as a whole, espeF5920 .indb 68 F5920.indb 68 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM 12/17/12 3:00:38 PM Buddhism and Local Power in Thailand 69 cially in society’s aspect as a polity. . . . I realized that if I wanted to study how kinship and Buddhism interrelated, how religion and politics informed and interpenetrated each other, I would have to manage a panoramic and telescopic view of the society, from a vantage point located high above the bustling metropolis of Bangkok . So, in 1971 I began wide-ranging fieldwork in Bangkok, studying closely four urban monasteries and visiting others (including some in provincial towns); inquiring into the organization of the monks’ universities, particularly Mahachulalongkorn, and the careers and views of their administrator-monks and monkstudents ; interviewing officials at the Department of Religious Affairs and collecting whatever official documents I could; and doing many other things such as visiting shrines and meditation centers, attending ceremonies and curing sessions, and so on. (1976, 3) As I have periodically returned to Tambiah’s writings, I have been struck by his capacity for binding together complex and wide-ranging strands of data and theory under a single paradigm. It is not hyperbole to refer to Tambiah’s accomplishment in synthesizing Thai Buddhist cosmology with the historical and regional power principle as “world conquering.” In writing this paper, my goal initially was to use several interviews I had conducted in 1988 with Phra Phimolatham (1903–1989), the prominent monk whose position in the Thai sangha (Buddhist community) drew Tambiah’s attention in the 1970s, and to combine my interview material with what I knew of that monk’s engagement with my field site in neighboring Burma, to add an ethnographic wrinkle to Tambiah’s work.My attempts were soon discom- fited, as each time I grew excited at what I could add, I looked deeper into Tambiah’s books and found that he had already reflected on this or that aspect of social action and meaning, sometimes if only in a protracted footnote. I offer then, more in the spirit of amusing than enlightening our Professor Tambiah,the following reflections on the legacy of Phra Phimolatham ’s efforts to revitalize Thai Buddhism by infusing new life into meditative practice there,and of his efforts to propagate vipassana (insight) meditation beyond Thai borders. Phra Phimolatham figures prominently in both World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Tambiah 1976) and The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Tambiah 1984). He was the abbot of Wat Mahathat (the principle monastery of the majority Mahanikai sect) and the ecclesiastical Minister of F5920.indb 69 F5920.indb 69 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM 70 Ingrid Jordt the Interior who greatly advanced the propagation of lay meditation in Thailand. My own perspective on this history is neither a “projection outward from the [Thai] village” nor “from a vantage point located high above the bustling metropolis of Bangkok.” The view I offer is, if from anywhere, from Burma,where Phra Phimolatham traveled more than a dozen times in the attempt to import Burmese pedagogy for Abhidhamma study and the Mahasi method of vipassana meditation practice...


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