Review of The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk

Justin McDaniel, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 327; photographs, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Erick White.

Few scholarly monographs in recent years have risked making large arguments about the breadth and depth of Thai Buddhism as a whole. Fewer still have critically reflected on the various long-standing assumptions and models which have shaped the academic study of Thai Buddhism. Justin McDaniel’s The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand pursues both of these challenges, and does so with passion, wit, insight and care. McDaniel explicitly seeks to upend established descriptions, interpretations and theories regarding the character and dynamics of Thai religiosity in the present and the past. This ambitious rethinking is, moreover, solidly grounded in a broad and deep substantive knowledge of Thai Buddhism, as both a textual tradition of scholasticism and a living tradition of practice, as well as an impressive familiarity with the wide scope of existing academic studies in English, Thai and other languages. As a result, this monograph will likely serve for years to come as a benchmark in the study of Thai Buddhism, and McDaniel’s arguments, claims and interpretations will be advanced, debated and critiqued by future scholars seeking to elucidate Thai Buddhism with the same care and insight he has displayed.

While ranging broadly across the full expanse of past and present Thai Buddhism, McDaniel concentrates most centrally on four specific topical foci: sacred biographies, protective magical texts, devotional rituals and liturgies, and vernacular religious art. In the process, he fruitfully brings into his discussion and opens up for investigation a range of source materials typically neglected in the study of Thai Buddhism, materials such as films, murals, ritual calendars, amulets, regional liturgies, statuary, hagiographies, comic books, CDs, and tourism performances. Accordingly, the substantive picture of Thai Buddhism conveyed is richer, more idiosyncratic and less tied to the stereotypic representations typically conveyed by Thai authorities, foreign scholars or casual observation. Providing structure within and across this buzzing diversity is McDaniel’s repeated use of the figures of Mae Nak (“the lovelorn ghost”, of his book’s title) and Somdet To (“the magical monk”). As two neglected figures within academic studies of Thai Buddhist history and mythology, they provide numerous illustrative examples of his more general points. The end result is an illuminating look at familiar concerns, but one which asks new questions from unusual angles via the use of unconventional materials.

After framing the general analytical and interpretive approach of his study in the Introduction, McDaniel proceeds in the next four chapters to unpack in considerable detail the empirical and interpretive significance of his four neglected thematic topics, before closing with an impassioned call for a new approach to the study of Thai Buddhism. Chapter I centers on an examination of hagiography, focusing on the biographical tales told about Somdet To, a high-ranking Bangkok monk of the nineteenth century who is regarded by many as the most famous and popular Buddhist saint in contemporary Central Thailand. Through the stories told about this monk and the uses made of him by contemporary Thai Buddhists, McDaniel seeks to challenge common assumptions that elites dominate religious discourse, that Buddhism is primarily about meditation and world peace, and that Thai saints only exemplify certain canonical values such as nonattachment and indifference.

In Chapter II, attention shifts to religious texts, their multiple mediums of transmission, and their various social uses, focusing especially on the Jinapanjara, a protective magical incantation written by Somdet To. In the course of examining the social life of this text across vernacular scriptures, hand-books, CDs, shrines, films and chanting clubs, McDaniel critically examines ideas of the esoteric and the magical in contemporary academic studies of Thai Buddhism.

Chapter III explores in depth the cacophonous ritual calendar of Buddhist Thailand, the complicated history of modern liturgical chanting manuals, and the idiosyncratically expansive pantheon of deities that contemporary Thais supplicate. Central to all of these discussions is McDaniel’s criticism that, contrary to many scholars’ assertions, there has not been a pronounced standardization and homogenization of Buddhist belief and practice over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that dynamism, debate and diversity have in fact flourished.

In Chapter IV, vernacular religious art and its social reception takes center stage, as statues, shrines, amulets and murals are examined in terms of their material aesthetics, associational logics and social uses. McDaniel’s overarching goal here is to investigate the material and artistic culture of Buddhist Thailand within its local historical and performative contexts rather than the more common art-historical frames of canonical iconography, aesthetic styles and Indian precursors.

The illumination, appeal and persuasiveness of McDaniel’s various arguments are due to a variety of literary and stylistic elements beyond those arguments’ interpretive and logical strengths. For one thing, the rhetorical style of the monograph is for the most part conversational and non-technical. Whether describing the spatial layout of the temple that houses Mae Nak’s shrine in Bangkok or examining arguments about the Tantric character of popular Thai Buddhism, McDaniel’s discussions remain accessible to and informative for the general reader. In addition, the monograph is richly descriptive and packed with numerous examples of each of the general topics explored. There is in fact an embarrassment of descriptive riches, as McDaniel explicates film narratives of Somdet To, describes temple murals depicting hell, reports on a shrine grotto dedicated to Somdet To, or unpacks the scriptural components of regional liturgies. This attention to comprehensive descriptive detail grabs the reader’s attention and richly conveys the subject under discussion. At the same time, McDaniel’s accounts are peppered with evocative personal vignettes of his explorations, discoveries and realizations in the field, such that the reader frequently has a sense of standing alongside the scholar as insights are made. Lastly, McDaniel’s arguments are built on a broad and deep foundation of scholarship, and expanded upon in sometimes quite extensive footnotes that tell stories unto themselves. Most noteworthy in this regard is the seriousness with which the author takes Thai-language primary sources and scholarly works, integrating them extensively into his scholarly framework.

Aside from any of its specific interpretive and theoretical arguments, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk is also noteworthy for its general approach to the study of Thai Buddhism. The book consistently highlights the cacophony of voices and individual agents at work in contemporary Thai religiosity, emphasizing in particular the ambiguous and potentially contradictory character of Buddhist beliefs and practices as lived realities. It seeks to document the everyday and everyman of mainstream religiosity, rather than focusing upon the elite or the official, the dominant or the marginalized. McDaniel’s arguments consistently return to aesthetics, practices, technologies and repertoires, rather than focusing on theologies, worldviews, canonical teachings and official doctrines. The monograph relentlessly examines Buddhism inThailand in its full local, historical messiness, rather than seeking explanation by appeals to the idea of Theravada Buddhism in general or Indian Buddhist precursors. Moreover, the book prioritizes and seeks to vindicate the practical and worldly concerns of Thai Buddhism in contrast to those soteriological and transcendent dimensions that most normative discussions of Buddhism emphasize. The book’s arguments consistently privilege and emphasize the assumptions and statements of Thai informants over scholarly theoretical and explanatory models, regardless of how much the former fail to conform to the expectations of the latter. As an exploration of the historical, social and performative contexts of practical, everyday religious behavior, the book is, as McDaniel makes explicit, “an exercise in following, listening to and seeing individual Buddhist agents” (p. 19). In all of these ways, this monograph represents an exemplary model that one hopes will inspire future scholarly work guided by these same principles.

At the same time, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk is a sustained, informed investigation of a diverse set of foundational, but frequently neglected, methodological, substantive, interpretive, analytical and theoretical issues in the academic study of Thai Buddhism. Many general technical and academic debates frequently linger under the surface of McDaniel’s descriptions and arguments, even as he also explicitly engages with a variety of specific scholarly theses, models and theories. McDaniel is forthright and opinionated as he passes judgment on the analyses and interpretations offered in the work of scholars, named and unnamed, who have preceded him. As a result, the monograph exemplifies, provokes and demands greater self-reflexivity regarding the general theories, analytic frames, conceptual models, interpretive categories and empirical conclusions which scholars have advanced in the study of Thai Buddhism. Inevitably, however, such self-reflection is deeply shaped by the disciplinary training that every scholar brings to the subject at hand.

Inspired by McDaniel’s spirited response to prior scholarship, what follows is a more extended series of critical reflections on some of the technical academic arguments advanced explicitly and implicitly by The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk. I approach these arguments, and the broader scholarly issues that they raise, from the perspective of an anthropologist, rather than that of a religious-studies scholar. My hope is that this contrasting disciplinary perspective will prove illuminating as I seek critically to rethink many of the important arguments, ideas and positions that McDaniel advances.

This review is available in its entirety here.

Erick White has carried out research on the sub-culture of professional spirit mediums in Bangkok. Most recently he served as an adjunct instructor in Antioch University’s “Buddhist Studies in India” program in Bodh Gaya, Bihar.