Wayward Distractions: Ornament, Emotion, Zombies and the Study of Buddhism in Thailand

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Justin McDaniel

When more than 93 per cent of the citizens of one country profess a single religion, as Thais do Buddhism, and when that religion is deeply integrated into national institutions and ideologies, it becomes tempting to think  of the religion as a textual, institutional, cultural and conceptual whole. But at the same time it is obvious that expressions of Buddhism in Thailand reflect anything but a single order: they are often gaudy, cacophonous, variegated, and jumbled: almost technicolor. Diversity and apparent contradiction are everywhere. A more open engagement with Buddhism in Thailand will require a willingness to be distracted, to step away from received hierarchies and follow the intriguing detail in the ornate design, the odd textual reference, to prefer "thin description" over a search for meaning.

Justin McDaniel's book-length writings in Buddhist and Theravada Studies are well known and widely cited, but his approach cannot be understood without taking into account his shorter writings, what he calls his wayward distractions. Collected together for the first time, and set in place by a compelling introduction that argues for a strongly materialist approach, these essays cover subjects ranging from ornamental art to marriage and emotion, the role of Hinduism, neglected gender and ethnic diversity, Buddhist inflections in contemporary art practice, and the boundaries between the living, the dead and the undead. These writings will be of importance to students of Theravada and Thailand, of religion in Southeast Asia and more generally, of the materialist turn in studies of religion.

"Justin McDaniel lifts Buddhist Studies down from the high altar and plunges it into the messy business of humanity. He shows how the texts, practices and institutions at the core of Thai Buddhism are constantly reacting with the everyday pursuit of livelihood, love, joy and beauty. The results are often “overwhelming” – the book’s favorite adjective. These essays range across literature, art, architecture, history, corpses, amulets, birds, nuns, marriage and more. The book is both a manifesto for the study of experience and a vastly entertaining tour of Thailand’s extraordinary religious landscape."
Chris Baker, historian

Justin Thomas McDaniel is Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words, won the Harry Benda Prize. His second book, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk, won the Kahin Prize.

Kyoto CSEAS Series on Asian Studies
Publication Year: 2021
292pp, 229 x 152mm
10 b/w images
ISBN: 978-981-325-150-2