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  • Meditation in Modern Buddhism: Renunciation and Change in Thai Monastic Buddhism
  • Donald K. Swearer
Meditation in Modern Buddhism: Renunciation and Change in Thai Monastic Buddhism. By Joanna Cook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 214 pp.

The title of Joanna Cook's monograph, Meditation in Modern Buddhism, does not do justice to the scope of its content. In her study, based on fifteen months of fieldwork in a monastery on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, meditation serves as the medium through which she weaves a narrative that addresses not only meditation as technique and telos, but the place, role, and status of white-robed female monastics (Thai: mae chi) in relationship to saffron-robed male monastics (bhikkhu) and laity, and the symbiotic relationship between monastic practice and experience and Theravāda doctrinal teachings. The value of Cook's study lies not only in the information it provides the reader about vipassanā (insight) meditation per se, but the way in which meditation at "Wat Bonamron" (the name she gives to the monastery) becomes a prism through which to refract gender within a monastic context, and a window onto the perennially vexed question of the relationship between religious practice and doctrine, the "interiorization and experience of soteriological Buddhist [End Page 171] principles" (p. 174). In regard to the first, Cook contends that unlike a bhikkhu, a mae chi's sacred status betwixt and between monk and laity does not result from an attribution derived from ordination but from behavior and demeanor, guarding the precepts and the embodiment of mindful awareness. In regard to the latter, Cook ascribes to seminal Buddhist teachings, in particular, not-self (anattā), an a priori and a posteriori function in relationship to monastic practice, especially intense meditation experience. That is, the ascetic interiority engendered by meditation—the formation of the ascetic self—is informed by but also confirms the teaching of not-self.

Above and beyond participant-observer research strategies of observation, interviews, surveys, and questionnaires, Cook participated fully in the life of the monastery. She ordained as a mae chi, fasted from noon to six A.M., engaged in daily meditation six hours a day, and participated in arduous five-day meditation retreats. As a result, Cook's account incorporates not only thick description and cogent analysis that references a wide range of Buddhalogical, religious studies, and anthropological scholarship—for example, Michael Carrithers, Stephen Collins, Louis Dumont, Lindberg Falk, Gavin Flood, Charles Keyes, Justin McDaniel, and Stanley Tambiah—but also normative observations based on her own experience. ("Intensive embodied practice . . . provided a way of understanding abstract concepts of 'truth'" [p. 22].) From the betwixt-and-between vantage point of mae chi, Cook challenges the simplistic distinction between "monk" and "laity" and argues for a more nuanced, multivalent delineation of the plural roles performed by the range of those involved in the life and routines of a Thai wat (monastery). Cook also proposes that the contemporary resurgence of monastery-based religious practice in Thailand, especially meditation among mae chi and lay practitioners, is better understood under the rubric "monasticisation" rather than the familiar, more conventionally used term "laicization."

Cook contextualizes her study of Wat Bonamron (chapter 2, "Meditation and Religious Reform") by examining the resurgence of vipassanā meditation in Thailand "in tandem with the hybrid processes of reform, localism, and commoditization" (p. 26). Rather than seen in isolation, this development is framed within the broader context of the proliferation of new movements and alternative, often hybridized, religious practices as a way of maintaining meaningful identities in the face of the "crisis of modernity": the "authentic simplicity of meditation" in the face of commodification of Thai culture, the decrease in the moral authority of the sangha, and the "decentralization of religiosity" that extends from the cult of individual charismatic monks (e.g., Luang Ta Mahabua) to monastic based movements (e.g., Santi Asok, Wat Dhammakaya) and urban-based, lay-centered, socially engaged Buddhist groups and organizations (e.g., Sekkhiyadhamma).

The central chapters of Cook's study provide a detailed description and analysis of her ordination as a mae chi, and the organization, activities, and constitutive participants of the Wat Bonamron community. Founded in the late...


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