Architects of Buddhist Leisure: Socially Disengaged Buddhism in Asia's Museums, Monuments, and Amusement Parks by Justin Thomas McDaniel
Justin McDaniel's book Architects of Buddhist Leisure, the first in the new Contemporary Buddhism series from University of Hawai'i Press, is a study of the often overlooked daily leisure activities that take place at certain monuments, parks, and museums all across the Buddhist world, as part of what the author cleverly calls "socially disengaged Buddhism." Sites such as the Suôi Tiên Amusement Park in Vietnam, or the Sendai Daikannon in Japan, are not what scholars have traditionally considered religious spaces, since they are neither temples nor monasteries; but they are not entirely secular either, despite the fact that many of these sites include restaurants, as well as shopping and entertainment opportunities, such as amusement parks and karaoke bars.
One of the main goals of McDaniel's book is, in fact, to make the case for a reexamination of what he argues is the traditional (and often artificial) scholarly distinction between the secular and the sacred. Most studies of contemporary Buddhism focus on what academics deem "important" or "serious" religious topics, such as doctrine, scripture, or ritual practice, which have a tendency to present Buddhism as a religion that rejects desire and pleasure, and that is more concerned with the karmic consequences of actions than in their enjoyment. McDaniel makes a convincing argument for the importance of introducing leisure studies as part of a broader understanding of how Buddhists actually live and practice religion in their daily lives. In his own words, he wants to reclaim "the joy of Buddhists—the sensuous, the entertaining, and beautiful aspects of Buddhist life that can be overlooked in attempts to get at 'actual Buddhism'" (ix).
In order to make his case, McDaniel offers three main arguments, that will also be the lenses through which he will explore three different Buddhist leisure sites. First, McDaniel argues that the locations [End Page 127] researched in his book highlight the importance of public religious culture, as well as the relevance of leisure and spectacle in contemporary Buddhist countries. Visitors go to these sites not to pray (although they might), but to enjoy Buddhist culture. One of the main characteristics of these places is that they are "fun," a word we do not usually see in religious studies books, and a term that McDaniel wants to reclaim in our study of Buddhism.
Second, the sites discussed in the book reflect the needs of a growing Buddhist ecumenical movement that is the result of globalization. As part of this ecumenical culture, these sites attract Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists, and are "designed to delight." These are pleasant spaces that appeal more to the emotions than to the intellect. For McDaniel, and for anyone who takes a look at recent publications on contemporary Buddhism, these
affective encounters at Buddhist ecumenical leisure places are a neglected part of Buddhist daily life that have been excised from scholarly studies because they fall on the wrong side of the secular-religious divide. These affective encounters are a type of Buddhist learning, more accessible and common than ethical arguments, philosophical treatises, and doctrinal formulations (24).
Finally, McDaniel argues for what he calls the "local optima," or the complex set of interactions and intersections between the original designs and ideas for these places as envisioned by their creators, and the ways in which they are actually enjoyed and lived by their visitors. McDaniel's conclusion is that these sites have a natural tendency to settle for "small goods," instead of "optimal perfects" as originally envisioned, and he sees that as the strength and power of these sites, and not as a weakness.
McDaniel explores these arguments in three different chapters, each of them focused on a particular type of leisure place. The first one explores monuments and memorials, paying special attention to the Lumbini Memorial Park in Nepal, designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in the 1970s. Although the park was originally intended to be a monument to celebrate Buddhism as one of the great world religions, the site has been taken over and enjoyed by people in ways that are very different from those originally planned, becoming a venue for leisure and family activities more than a place of worship.
The second chapter focuses on historical and amusement parks, highlighting the work of Lek and Braphai Wiriyaphan, a wealthy married Thai couple who created the Sanctuary of Truth and the Ancient City in central Thailand. These are both examples of leisure spaces designed by and for laypeople that employ spectacle and entertainment in their quest to attract and delight visitors. [End Page 128]
Finally, the third chapter deals with museums, paying close attention to the Venerable Shi Fa Zhao's efforts to build a museum (the Nagapusa Buddhist Culture Museum) as part of a multipurpose temple in Singapore that hosts a tooth relic of the Buddha. For McDaniel, this museum is a perfect example of his "local optima" concept, a place in which Shi Fa Zhao and the architects and curators responsible for the museum had to "sacrifice the instructive power of religious art to the affective experience of visiting a museum." They eschewed "explicit agendas and allow visitors to leisurely experience Buddhist distraction" (161).
Overall, the book operates, as McDaniel himself acknowledges, as an introductory work to leisure within the contemporary Buddhist world, filled with suggestions and examples of how these types of studies can reframe traditional understandings in the religious studies field of the relationship between the religious and the secular, the public and the private. Not a bad place to get started.