Ghosh on Falcone, 'Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built'

Author: 
Jessica Marie Falcone
Reviewer: 
Suchandra Ghosh

Jessica Marie Falcone. Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. 324 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-2346-9; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-2348-3.

Reviewed by Suchandra Ghosh (Calcutta University) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53470

Jessica Marie Falcone’s deeply researched book, Battling the Buddha of Love, revolves around the activities of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), particularly the organization’s plan to construct a colossal statue (five-hundred-feet tall) of Maitreya Buddha in Kushinagar, India. The idea for the statue was to thank India for giving refuge to many Tibetan exiles. However, the project raised serious questions regarding the effects it would have on farmers’ land, their only source of survival. Ironically, Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of love, would have caused suffering among small farmers in Kushinagar. As a cultural anthropologist, Falcone conducted extensive fieldwork in India; she is well grounded in the theoretical literature on material culture studies, the anthropology of materiality, and the anthropology of art. Rich ethnographic data enriches the quality of the narrative. The author interviewed the affected farmers and much of her observations are derived from her conversations with them.

The book, comprising nine chapters, is laid out into two sections: “The Transnational Buddhist Statue Makers” and “The Kushinagari Resistance.” The first section primarily focuses on the work of the FPMT, a transnational organization. The first two chapters—“Community/SANGHA: FPMT’s Transnational Buddhists” and “The Teachings/DHARMA: Religious Practice in a Global Buddhist Institution”—deal with the people and functioning of the foundation respectively. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the early history of the foundation and the FPMT’s sangha, the Buddhist spiritual community, the definition used by Paul Williams.[1] Falcone draws a picture of the various categories of people who are part of the FPMT family and discusses non-heritage Buddhist practitioners, who were a diverse group. In chapter 2, she addresses the religious practices within the FPMT, among other things. Taking her cue from Nicholas Thomas’s notion of promiscuity in the context of objects (Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific [1999]), she refers to the promiscuity of notions and ideas: Buddhist traditions, mantras, rituals, etc. Falcone explains that the notion of karma is “arguably as promiscuous, mobile, and global as the now ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags” (p. 54). At the foundation, the difference between preservation and appropriation was often blurred. Ethnic Tibetans preferred to have non-heritage practitioners among them as this helped in the spread of the romantic notion of “Tibetophilia,” Western appreciation for Tibetanness.

After introducing the readers to the institution and the people of the FPMT, Falcone dwells on the planning of the colossal Maitreya project in chapter 3, “The Statue/MURTI: Planning a Colossal Maitreya.” The project was originally conceived by Lama Yeshe, who wanted a Maitreya statue to be built in India as a way to give back to the nation that had offered refuge to the Tibetan refugee community. Falcone discusses in detail the trials and tribulations of the building process, which were laced with politics.

In Buddhism, worshipping the relics of Buddha is an important phenomenon and much has been written about it. The presence of historical Buddha is evoked through his relics, which could be physical relics or relics of use. In chapter 4, “The Relics/SARIRA: Worship and Fundraising with the Relic Tour,” Falcone eloquently discusses the essence of relic worship through a thorough study of the viewpoints of scholars like Gregory Schopen, Kevin Trainor, and John S. Strong, among others. We learn that for collecting funds, relic tours are often organized throughout the world. The mechanism of organizing such tours is quite mindboggling. Arjun Appadurai’s study on the social life of objects has a strong presence in this book.[2] Falcone places the relics into Appadurai’s category of “enclaved” commodities since the social rules for their movement highlight their scarcity, authenticity, and sacredness. She ably examines the traveling spectacle of Buddhist relic veneration.

The next chapter, “Aspirations/ASHA: Hope, the Future Tense and Making (Up) Progress on the Maitreya Project,” turns to FPMT aspirations and Buddhist notions of hope for the future. Maitreya’s figure traditionally evokes love and kindness among his followers. His abode is the pure land of Tushita. According to Falcone, the Maitreya Buddha narrative is an “imaginative horizon” in the Buddhist social landscape as expounded by Vincent Crapanzano in Imaginative Horizons: An Essay in Literary Philosophical Anthropology (2004). Falcone narrates with precision the story of the progress, the dead ends, and politics/participation by the state governments in India for building the statue of Maitreya. The whole project was extremely contested and there were competing visions.

The second section shifts its focus from institution to space; here Kushinagar and the people of Kushinagar are privileged. We have Kushinagar as the space where the Buddha attained parinirvana and the narrative of the conversion of this space as a site of pilgrimage with sacred monuments. Among the sites related to the life of Buddha, Kushinagar generally got less attention from scholars as Bodhgaya remained the center of attraction as a pilgrim center reaching out to the world. The situation has changed of late. Kushinagar is part of the Buddhist Circuit that enhances its importance as a destination for pilgrims. Falcone then goes beyond the sacred to the secular space, which is entwined with the sacred. She looks into the cultural lives of Kushinagar’s many communities. Greater Kushinagar is brought to the foreground. Thus, in the first chapter of this section, chapter 6, “Holy Place/TIRTHA: Living in the Place of the Buddha’s Death,” Falcone beautifully weaves the pilgrimage industry into the larger social fabric of the town and its environs. She gives us a panoramic view of vibrant “ethnoscapes” and “sacroscapes” at play.[3] For Falcone, Kushinagar is a rich translocal space of abundant “crossings” and “dwellings.”[4] It offers a powerful vision of motion and dynamism alive with crossings and flows.

The next chapter in this section (chapter 7), “Steadfastness/ADITTHANA: Indian Farmers Resist the Buddha of Love,” centers on the resistance of the farmers to the Maitreya project. There were various stakeholders, and a clear divide was perceived between the statue’s supporters and detractors in the region. The connivance of the Uttar Pradesh government in this project is clear from the fact that the government quickly signed the memoranda of understanding for just one single Indian rupee in perpetuity! Significantly, the government exempted the Maitreya project from taxes, charges, duties, and fees. The farmers were given minimum compensation despite their potential loss of land, livelihood, homes, and community. Notwithstanding personal threats, Falcone participated in the protests.

Admittedly there was a disconnect between the suffering of the farmers and the moral values that the Buddhist communities espoused. In chapter 8, “Loving-Kindness/MAITRI: Contested Notions of Ethics, Values, and Progress,” the author succinctly discusses Buddhist ethics and the notion of “engaged Buddhism.” The three ways of perceiving engaged Buddhism are general mindfulness and kindness in everyday life, ethical living in general, and collective political action or volunteering for social justice projects. On the issue of special land acquisitions, Falcone draws a momentous comparison between the people’s movement in Nandigram in West Bengal and the movement in Kushinagar.[5] Except for land acquisition and protest by the farmers nothing is common between the two. The interviews lay bare the distraught conditions of the farmers in Kushinagar. Falcone makes clear that mindfulness and ethical living were not the central purpose of the Maitreya project.

The last chapter, “Compassion/KARUNA: Reflections on Engaged Anthropology,” is crucial to the book, as here the author reflects on her method and positionality. She makes a case for advocacy anthropology, whereby an anthropologist always works on behalf of the oppressed rather than the oppressors; the principal justification for advocacy anthropology is that an expert anthropologist may be able to redress the balance of power between the oppressor and the oppressed. However, advocacy in anthropology is debatable as advocacy in favor of the oppressed may sometimes be completely incompatible with the successful conduct of ethnographic research. Falcone’s personal ties with the FPMT made it all the more difficult and painful for her to break away from the organization. When she writes “my first sangha [Buddhist community] is now lost to me,” it is indeed heartrending (p. 220). The author talks about debate and looks at the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of debate to show that such advocacy can itself be an ethical practice.

In conclusion, Falcone illustrates guru devotion in the classical Tibetan Buddhist sense. Within the FPMT, guru devotion is seen as a necessity for devotees and monastics. It is not to be questioned. Some questions are addressed like how did a transnational Buddhist organization callously create so much suffering for the common people? The epilogue highlights the future of the project. So far, the FPMT has laid the foundation stone for a smaller statue. Though the project has still not come to fruition, a shadow of anxiety engulfs the author and the people of Kushinagar.

This book is a fruitful intellectual effort that challenges the stereotypical narration of protests. It is a story that shows how an institution manipulates to invoke a Buddha of love. How religion situates devotees in time and space is underscored in the book. The interviews are eye-openers for lay readers. What makes this book different from just a narrative of protest or an activist’s account is that even in the discussions of the quotidian struggle of a farmer, the approach of a social scientist is embedded. The end notes are extremely illuminative. The strength of the work is the rigor shown by the author in the blending of religious studies, history, social and cultural anthropology, and interviews with people, both members of the FPMT and farmers. This is what Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings, compiled, edited, and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya [2005]) would call “combined methods.” The sources speak for themselves. Familiar names like Appadurai, Thomas A. Tweed, S. J. Tambiah, and Jan Nattier appear in the text with substantial engagements of their positions. At times deep emotion and engagement of the author comes through while viewing the acts of the foundation.

Notes

[1]. Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2000), 2.

[2]. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3-64.

[3]. “Ethnoscape” is a term coined by Arjun Appadurai in his essay “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2, no. 2 (1990): 1-24. Ethnoscapes by nature refer to people in flux. Thomas A. Tweed uses the term “sacroscape.” He describes religions as “sacroscapes,” inviting scholars to “attend to the multiple ways that religious flows have left traces, transforming peoples and places, the social arena and the natural terrain.” Thomas A. Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 61.

[4]. Tweed emphasizes how religions and technology mediate crossings of all sorts. Rites of passage and power help in social and terrestrial crossing. As for dwelling, Tweed outlines four general dwelling-places of religion because of their dual spatial and temporal dimensions: the body, the home, the homeland, and the cosmos. Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling.

[5]. In Nandigram, thousands of acres of agricultural land were to be taken by the government for the purpose of building a chemical hub and a Special Economic Zone. Farmers of the locality did not want to give up their land. Following the villagers’ objection to and protest against the acquisition of land in Nandigram for the proposed chemical hub, the state government gave in and finally announced the cancellation of the project in the first week of March. However, the movement continued, leading to violence and death on March 14, 2007, when the administration tried to break up the people’s movement.

Citation: Suchandra Ghosh. Review of Falcone, Jessica Marie, Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53470

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