McDaniel on Lammerts and ed., 'Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia'

D. Christian Lammerts, ed.
Justin T. McDaniel

D. Christian Lammerts, ed. Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015. 452 pp. $59.85 (paper), ISBN 978-981-4519-06-9.

Reviewed by Justin T. McDaniel (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Buddhism (July, 2016) Commissioned by Thomas Borchert

Christian Lammerts’s new edited volume, Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia, is something that should not exist. However, thank goodness it does. The study of epigraphy, archaeology, and classical languages in Southeast Asia has been dying for several decades. The collected volume is also an endangered species. At a board of directors meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in 2013, archaeology and epigraphy were deemed disciplines that needed to be saved and so we decided to boost their presence in the field by creating a special panel. The number of publications in these disciplines has dropped dramatically in the last ten years. Many of the most prominent archaeologists in Southeast Asia are nearing retirement. Old Javanese has been dropped by the well-known SEASSI Southeast Asian language training program for lack of interest and is hardly taught at major research centers. Pali textual studies have declined dramatically and there are less than a handful of Pali specialists teaching at major research institutions in Japan, Europe, Australia, and South and Southeast Asia. They have few students. There has been a renewed interest in Sanskrit in Southeast Asia and Old Khmer has been seen as increasingly important to study with easier access to the study of Angkorian sites in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. However, the number of qualified teachers and teaching positions for these languages has not grown in relation to the discovery of materials through digs, landmine removal, and leadership from institutions like the Center for Khmer Studies, the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts and the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts, the Thailand Research Fund, the British Library, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Empowering Network for International Thai Studies, and the École français d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), among others. The increasing rise in anthropological, political science, and economic studies of modern Southeast Asia has been a great boon to the field, but Lammerts’s book offers some renewed balance and a healthy return to the study of the premodern and even ancient in the region.

Lammerts has brought together a diverse set of scholars, many of whom do not work in traditional teaching positions at university research institutions in the West. For example, Peter Skilling is a researcher and writer extraordinaire, but like the Arakanese and Burmese historian Jacques Leider, works with the EFEO, which is based in Southeast Asia. Andrea Acri, one of the most exciting young scholars in the study of pre-Islamic Hindu and Buddhist Java, is a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and does not teach regularly. E. Edwards McKinnon is also at the Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and serves as an honorary research associate. Stephen Murphy is a dynamic young scholar in archaeology who does not teach. He is the new curator at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. Titi Surti Nastiti is a researcher at the National Research and Development Centre of Archaeology, Jakarta. John K. Whitmore is one of the most respected historians of Vietnam in the world, but although based at a major Western research university--the University of Michigan--he is a research associate and senior librarian. Similarly, Hiram Woodward is the doyen of Southeast Asian art history, but for most of his career, he did not hold a teaching position and is now curator emeritus of Asian Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Only four of the contributors, besides Lammerts himself, have traditional teaching positions: of those, Alexey Kirichenko, a highly respected historian of Burma, teaches at Moscow State University; Nicolas Revire, an emerging expert in mainland Southeast Asian art history, teaches at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and Santi Pakdeekham is an expert in religion, language, and art at Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok. And only Anne Blackburn, Lammerts’s own teacher, regularly trains graduate students in the Western academy. She is a Pali and Sinhala scholar at Cornell who is an expert in Sri Lankan Buddhist history, but has offered fresh perspectives on the intellectual and social history of relations between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. I explain all this to both stress the importance of this collection of essays and to emphasize the need for new students in the field. Woodward, Skilling, Leider, Whitmore, McKinnon, and Nastiti regularly and selflessly advise, edit, and mentor students and young scholars in the field (often serving as readers on dissertation committees, including Skilling on my own). They are living bibliographies and encyclopedias for the study of Southeast Asian pasts. However, they are not recruiting young students through the teaching of large undergraduate courses or regular graduate seminars. If not for a volume like this, there is little way young students or scholars in comparative fields (archaeology, codicology, linguistics, etc. in South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Europe, etc.) would be introduced to their work. Prominent edited volumes become beacons in which accessible work is highlighted, and after reading them students can then search for the contributors’ scholarly work in more field-specific journals, exhibition catalogs, and scholarly monographs. Lammerts has not only produced a high-quality book, but has done a great service to the field. I hope that this collection is widely used in courses since many students in the field will never have a chance to take a course with these contributors.

While I cannot adequately describe every article in this book in this short review, the range of topics is as impressive as the scholars assembled. The book is largely of two minds and could have easily been two collections. However, I think there is an advantage to bringing these two fields together. First, this is the best recent collection of studies on art historical/textual/epigraphical studies in Southeast Asia (Acri, Revire, McKinnon, Murphy, Nastiti, Pakdeekham, Skilling, Woodward). Second, it is an equally excellent source for studies of pre-modern religious institutions and epistemes (Blackburn, Kirichenko, Lammerts, Leider, Whitmore). However, in a way, both groups do the same thing, with different emphases. The former simply talks more about the sources as reflecting the socio-historical context in which they were created and the latter describes the institutions and movements that we only know by a close examination of the sources. Lammerts, in his short but helpful introduction, highlights the reasons he brought together these topics under one title. He emphasizes that the field of Southeast Asian studies needs to strike a balance between transregional studies of Buddhism and “a parallel commitment to microhistorical studies of Buddhist texts, practices, and lives focused determinately on the locale.” He continues: “Such projects untangle local intricacies and question individual motives, laying the foundation upon which broader historical-comparative projects on the meaning and effects of macroprocesses can be built. The goal of such work is not the construction and defence of some chimerical national, sub-national, or regional identity (‘Thai Buddhism,’ ‘Arakanese Buddhism,’ ‘Southeast Asian Buddhism’), but rather an attempt to grasp how the ideas, products, and practices of Buddhists in historical Southeast Asia are inexorably grounded in the ‘particular times and terrains where they dwelled and in the material and cultural exchanges available in those times and terrains.’ The ‘dynamics’ of our title is meant to suggest this additional sense of the constant interplay between these local and global forces in history” (pp. 2-3).

He also makes an urgent call for scholars to take advantage of the thousands of manuscripts being exposed to a wider public through digitization and preservation efforts. These manuscripts (including ones in vernacular languages), especially newly exposed collections in Burma, Java, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, are helping scholars reevaluate the history of the region, as well as the study of poetics, law, medicine, astrology, and other fields largely ignored in the past. I particularly appreciate that he calls for increased attention to the study of vernacular poetry, which he correctly mentions “remains terra incognita in Western scholarship, despite the fact that it was one of the most popular forms of Buddhist textual production between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 4). Attention to these subjects breaks down the separation between the artificial categories of secular and religious subjects. Lammerts also provides a very useful list of manuscript catalogs and resources available now. Although I found every article in this collection erudite and useful, I wish Lammerts had more clearly explained why he chose to bring these particular articles together in the order he did (which is largely chronological), but he does offer a good basic description of each piece. This volume emerged from a conference in Singapore and that, I imagine, was the overarching reason for these scholars contributing. However, the work is presented in a manner of preserving the past versus signaling news ways of bringing innovation to the field. I think Lammerts does not give himself enough credit here. These articles do not simply fill in the gaps or save a field, but reveal the ways scholars are asking bold new questions from newly discovered or exposed material.

The material exposed is much more than textual. I am thrilled that art historians, textualists, archaeologists, and historians can be read in the same volume. Certain scholars, like Acri, Revire, Pakdeekham, Skilling, Whitmore, and Woodward incorporate evidence from all of these fields. For example, Woodward, in the humbly titled “Aspects of Buddhism in Tenth-Century Cambodia” and Skilling in the seemingly narrow “An Untraced Buddhist Verse Inscription from (Pen)insular Southeast Asia” employ the deceptively simple method that should be used by all scholars--find every source available and see what they tell us about the past. No muss, no fuss. Only seasoned scholars with years spent in archives and the field can do this. It is not a revolutionary idea, but it simply takes time, patience, and persistence to assemble every available inscription, image, relief, and manuscript. Only then can the big picture emerge. It also helps when scholars like Skilling and Woodward write so clearly and explain this mass of information in a very accessible way.

McKinnon, Nastiti, and Revire pay the most attention to nontextual sources. McKinnon, in his “A Bronze Hoard from Muara Kaman, Kutei” and Nastiti in his “Miniature Stūpas and a Buddhist Sealing from Candi Gentong, Trowulan, Mojokerto, East Java” offer a rare look at Brahmanism and Buddhism in Java. They also, like Acri, Skilling, Whitmore, and Woodward, expand this collection away from Theravada Buddhist studies. They are narrow studies, to be sure, but their inclusion here motivates scholars of Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia to expand their horizons and include the Javanese-Malay world into their curriculum. While art historians often compare evidence across the island and mainland regions (although the Philippines is regularly ignored, unfortunately), this is rarely done by Buddhist studies scholars, who largely remain firmly textually and linguistically ensconced in either the Theravada/Mainland world or the Mahayana/Island and Vietnam world. Revire’s “Re-exploring the Buddhist ‘Foundation Deposits’ at Chedi Chula Prathon, Nakhon Pathom” takes its cue from the comparative impulse of art history, bringing the Theravada and Mahayana worlds together in this article and offering a wonderfully detailed study of the ruins of what was a massive stupa in sixth-century Thailand. Looking at the history of the study of this stupa by Boisselier, Nandana, Piriya, and others, he shows that the foundation deposits in this stupa reveal “Indonesian or Śrīvijayan influence” (p. 172), and have reliefs that seem to draw on Sanskrit avadānas rather than Pali jatakas. These are “narrative traditions different from those transmitted in Pali by the Mahāvihāra Theravādins of Sri Lanka… Some of these traditions may have been Mūlasarvāstivādin, but they might just as well have belonged to other schools or nikāyas using Sanskrit, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, or different Prakrits” (p. 175). He does not just find the translocal in this local Thai stupa; he also looks closely at the well-preserved khakkhara finial (a ringed staff) now displayed at the National Museum in Bangkok to reveal aspects of a particular local Buddhist culture in central Thailand at that time.

Acri and Murphy, like the aforementioned Skilling and Woodward, move away from close studies of singular archaeological sites and material objects to take a broad view of religious cultures across large regions--Acri in Java and Bali and Murphy in northeastern Thailand and Laos. Acri looks closely at Javanese and Sanskrit kakawin (narrative poems) texts and other sources and add nuance to the very idea of a Śaivite-Buddhist syncretism in Java and Bali. It is exactly this type of close analysis of texts that will allow scholars to really interrogate the way religions interact intensely, which is one of the great defining characteristics of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Murphy takes a more geographical approach. By looking at a large number of sema (boundary) stones in northeast Thailand, he has shown that we can get a good estimate of the number of monks living in the region in the Dvāravatī period (approximately the sixth through eleventh centuries). Through this analysis of a large data set, he shows also that monks generally coalesced around urban centers near rivers. He also questions the very use of the term Dvāravatī when he writes: “By using the term Dvāravatī, it should be emphasized, however, that this paper does not support the idea that there was a central Dvāravatī political entity that held sway over all of the Chao Phraya Basin or the Khorat Plateau. Instead, it sees the political situation somewhat differently. The evidence to date from settlement patterns and the archaeological record points more to the emergence of urban centres located at moated sites along the major river systems or close to the coast. These sites may have exerted varying degrees of control over their surrounding hinterlands and perhaps smaller sites in their direct vicinity. However, it is unlikely that at any stage they controlled large areas of the region. The view of largely independent urban centres also raises the possibility of local rulers actively engaged in the patronage of Buddhism in return for the legitimization of their positions by high-ranking Buddhist monks” (p. 83).

Taking an extremely different approach to the study of Buddhism in the region are Leider, Pakdeekham, and Kirichenko. They all move us ahead in time to the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries in Burma and Thailand. Kirchenko looks at Burmese historical texts (a subject that he has mastered over the last fifteen years of sustained research), as well as Abhidhamma, Vinaya, and nissaya texts to offer the reader insights into major issues of class and ethnicity in Burma, as well as the constant struggle in the history of Burma between integration and independence of various ethnic groups. More specifically he demonstrates the rise of “non-central” monastic networks that “functioned as a viable and thriving alternative to court monasticism” (p. 334). He argues that in “the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Burmese monasticism did not have a large-scale integrated ecclesiastical organization, even at the court. The presence of a certain formal structure (such as functional ranks and particular divisions of court monks) did not affect the nature of Burmese saṅgha as a loose aggregate of different groupings, communities, and lineages in the state of constant flux” (p. 339).

Leider also looks closely at textual sources, in this case royal letters, to offer us a big picture of Burmese Buddhist history. He examines the letters that the Burmese king, Alaungmintaya, sent to Pegu in the mid-eighteenth century and argues that “read against the background of the political record as drawn out in Burmese historiography, an examination of the letters offers an exceptional insight into diplomatic practice carved out of the ethical and cosmological stuff of Burma’s Buddhist environment” (p. 373). He shows how Buddhist concepts were “instrumentalized in diplomatic language” and how these concepts could be employed by kings to justify political oppression and violence. The rhetorical style of these letters thus “exploited the wealth of commonly held popular beliefs, doctrines and moral certainties. Educated members of the élite were able to interpret without any hesitation the bits of Pali citations and the hints at Buddhist tenets constantly spotted in the letters. Quoting, repeating and emphasizing what everybody believed and adhered to in a shared Buddhist cultural environment was the ABC of this Buddhist rhetoric at the service of diplomatic interaction and public relations. To be socially accepted as a holder of royal power, a king or a king-to-be had to win battles, but he was lent moral authority only by establishing credible claims that he enjoyed a supernatural mandate. War was not legitimized by historical claims, dynastic rights or the right of the conqueror, but constantly presented as a campaign to spread or restore the Buddhist sāsana” (p. 402).

Pakdeekham also looks closely at royal correspondence. He studies the letters between the courts of King Mongkut (Rama IV) in Bangkok and the Cambodian royal court under King Ang Duong in the mid-nineteenth century. It has long been known that Siamese/Thai royal symbols, rituals, ornament, and lexicon have been strongly influenced by Cambodian/Khmer royal culture. However, this paper shows that the Cambodian court was as influenced, especially in terms of literary production, by the Siamese/Thai court as the Thai court was influenced by the symbolism and ritual accoutrement of the Cambodian court. King Ang Duong, for example, had Siamese cosmological, hagiographical, historical, and narrative texts translated into Khmer. Siamese Dhammayut monks also ordained Cambodian monks at this time. Ritually, Buddhist public ceremonies, like the Visakhabucha celebration, celebrating the birth, awakening, and parinirvana of the historical Buddha, in Cambodia were also influenced by Siamese practices. Pakdeekham does not present this material in an antagonistic way, but merely to show the relations between Siam and Cambodia were not as fraught and characterized by resentment and suspicion as we see today.

Finally, Whitmore and Blackburn examine Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Like Kirichenko, Leider, and Pakdeekham they look at the development of Buddhist monastic, literary, and political cultures through the close examination of primary historical sources. While their chapters might seem like unnecessary additions, because they are well outside the geographical range we normally associate with the Theravada world, this is one of the best choices that Lammerts made, as they expand the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. This is an important corrective to the field. Whitmore looks at a rarely examined period in Vietnamese history, the reign of Lý Nhân-tông in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The study of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam, especially detailed study of the way politics and religion informed each other, is extremely lacking. Whitmore does not lament the lack of sources or studies, but creatively looks at Chinese sources. In this way, he offers a rare look into the sectarian divisions and recombinations taking place in the Lý Nhân-tông court, especially between Thiền (Chan) Buddhism and older forms of Pure Land, Tiantai, and Huayan schools. What I particularly liked about Whitmore’s article is that he not only provides a detailed study of the period, but also offers a comparative study of Buddhist kingdoms at the same time in Burma and Thailand. For example, he writes: “In Đại Việt, Lý Nhân-tông established a Buddhist system that, to all appearances, resembled Jayavarman VII’s at Angkor in his effort to spread his beliefs across the countryside and bind the localities to his capital, though without such a strong central monument. Nhân-tông’s system of belief too was glorious, but seemingly without lasting impact on later reigns, which in Đại Việt became increasingly more Sinic classical. The realm of Đại Việt, like that of Angkor, changed greatly in the surge of internationalcommerce during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Eventually, under the succeeding Trấn dynasty, the monarchy of Đại Việt attempted to build on what Lý Nhân-tông had established in its early fourteenth century effort to create an integrated Thiền orthodoxy. Like Jayavarman’s effort at Angkor, this orthodoxy, the Bamboo Grove (Trúc-Lâm) school, was meant to hold together a realm undergoing increasing internal and external stresses” (p. 301). Whitmore points to an oft-missed opportunity to compare Angkor to its eastern neighbors instead of its Siamese rivals to the west.

Blackburn’s work over the last decade has been a model for others in the field of premodern Buddhist history. She has been reinserting Sri Lankan Buddhism into the study of Southeast Asian history, not through the typical fifth-twelfth century “influence” of Pali literature and Theravada ordination lineages, as seen in early studies, but through an examination of the interchange between Buddhist kingdoms and intellectuals in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. She is exposing new material drawn from chronicles, inscriptions, letters, and commentaries. In this articles she focuses on Pali chronicles like the Jinakālamālī and two versions of the Tamnān Mūlasāsanā Wat Pā Däng. “Reading such works,” she argues, “is beneficial to investigate the affiliative terms used to describe monks brought into contact and connection through the travel of monks who visited Laṅkā and then returned to Lān Nā [Northern Thailand]. Are they said to become participants in something ‘theravādin’, ‘mahāvihārin’, a ‘Sīhaḷa Saṅgha’, or some other collective(s)? Why is Laṅkā seen as a desirable focus for their pilgrimage and ordination? Finally, these texts--while obviously not transparent windows onto the social realities of mid-millennium Lān Nā and Laṅkā … depict intra-monastic and monastic-courtly interactions in the context of transregional Buddhist movement. These depictions are sometimes at odds with conventional scholarly understandings of the causality and patronage that characterized travelling monks and importations of monastic lineage across the borders of polity” (p. 309). To Blackburn, Sri Lanka was not simply an ancient influence on Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia, but an ongoing conversation partner in the mutual fashioning of these two regions.

Lammerts’s efforts have not only provided the field with a return to high-quality historical studies, but also have exposed new historical materials, pointed to new avenues of research, and brought together a diverse group of scholars from different disciplines. I highly recommend this volume.



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Citation: Justin T. McDaniel. Review of Lammerts, D. Christian; ed., Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. July, 2016. URL:

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