Monks, Nuns and Sons

a monk and his nephew

            a monk and his nephew

In Bangkok, there are lots of monks with sons.

This statement would seem to be provocative, something meant to begin a discussion about how troubled the Sangha is (in a period when the Kingdom is itself troubled), and how it desperately needs reform. The kind of statement that begins a discussion about monks flying in private jets, or corruption over monetary issues.

Instead, it’s an innocent observation about a situation that I had never thought of. Monks can have sons. And this leads to a wider, completely obvious, observation: monks, nuns and novices, they all have families.

In 2014, I was interviewing Thai monks about their views on their own status as citizens. This was a time of protests which ended up in a coup, and while it was a time of heightened political sensitivity (which has continued), and my questions were often directly about politics, our conversations often veered into non-political areas. I wanted to know how old monks were, how long they had been monks what kind of educational background they had. This was how I learned about the sons of monks. One day in March, while walking through Lumpini Park, I encountered a monk who was in a booth collecting money for rice farmers. Lumpini is a large green space near one of the key shopping/business centers of Bangkok, and when the protests were consolidated after the failed elections of February, they ended up in Lumpini (taking away one of the few exercise areas for many residents of the City of Angels). This was not the first monk that I encountered in Lumpini, but unlike those monks, this monk was happy to speak with me about his views on politics. He admitted to me that he was not the most knowledgeable monk around, and that I should really be talking with one of the protest leaders, Luang Pho Buddha Issara, but he was happy to chat. Perhaps it was because he also wanted to test his English; this was a monk who had lived in Texas for a few years while in the military (probably as some sort of liaison between the US and Thai militaries). He told me he and his wife divorced while he was there, and that his son had remained with his ex-wife when he came back to Thailand. We kept talking for a few minutes, and then it hit me. “You have a son?” “Of course.” I asked the monk if his relationship with his son had changed, and he told me of course it had, but it also seemed that he had not seen his son since he had ordained five years prior.

This was a revelation to me – monks with sons! And it has a perfectly straightforward explanation, not at all associated with monks fathering children. Among the 120,000 or so monks in the Thai Sangha there are many who ordain after they retire, when their spouses have either died or they have gotten a divorce. This is a normal practice within Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia, though these monks tend not to have a very high status. This is because they have become monks after they have been members of society, usually though not always with spouses, children, jobs and so forth. They have been tainted, as it were, by the world; they have not spent much time in robes, and their knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha, some of these men would tell me, is not very great.  (And of course they are in good company – the Buddha had a son, Rahula, before he became the Buddha.)

Over the next few weeks, it seemed, every time I went to a new wat, I encountered another old monk who was also a father. And I started asking these men about their children. Some were like the monk in Lumpini Park, telling me that their relationship with their children had changed a great deal. Others were far less willing to abandon the nature of their familial relationships. “Of course, it’s the same,” said one monk. “A father is a father; this doesn’t change when you become a monk.” He told me that he would see his son and his granddaughter regularly; there were no problems with this – the son would come and pay his respects to his father, making merit with him a couple of times a month. I suspect that their relationship did change – I know my children don’t regularly make merit to me – but perhaps less than one might expect.

The most interesting conversation wasn’t with a monk at all, but rather with the nun Bhikkhuni Dhammananda. Venerable Dhammananda has been at the center of efforts in Thailand to reestablish an order of nuns, part of wider efforts to reestablish this order throughout the Theravada world). Ven. Dhammananda was formerly a successful academic, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh who decided a number of years ago to take the higher ordination. She resides with a handful of nuns a couple of hours to the west of Bangkok at a wat that was founded by her mother. While her efforts have received some support from individual monks within Thailand, the Sangha hierarchy as a whole has said that her ordination is not legitimate, which puts her in something of an ambiguous state within Thailand. When I interviewed her in February 2014 (again about questions of citizenship), I also asked her if she had children, and how they had responded to her decision to ordain. She told me that her sons were adults, and that they supported her efforts, but also that her relationship with them had changed in radical ways. They too regularly made merit at her temple, but she could not be in a room alone with them anymore because of a need to maintain a very high standard of propriety (cue the comment about plenty of space for mediocre men in an institution, but none for mediocre women). She also said though that she and the other nuns at the wat loved to see her granddaughter. As proof of this, there was a picture of the granddaughter on the side of the wat’s refrigerator.

When I conducted research on Theravada, minority monks of Southwest China in 2001-2002, I was accompanied by my wife and our now 15 year old son who was one at the time. He fascinated the monks and the novices of the wat. They would play with him every day after I taught English to the novices – they even threw his first birthday party, making him cry when they sang Happy Birthday (see the picture). When I have returned to the region, even after a decade, the monks ask how he was doing and if he remembered them.

Jasper first birthday party.wat pajie

One day in spring 2002, when the abbot and I were chatting and watching the novices play with my son, he sighed and said, “Children, they are lovely…but they are dukkha,” using the term that is part of the “first truth” of Buddhism, that suffering or dis-ease is an inevitability in existence. This seemed a curious thing to say at the time, because the abbot was as likely to play with my son as the novices were (if not quite as boisterously). I don’t know why he mentioned this, but I do know that for many years, the abbot (a figure who has “left home”) supported his younger sister and her children after they had come to Southwest China from the Shan States in Myanmar. While not a father, perhaps he was feeling a little too clearly the difficulties that familial attachments inevitably cause.

The abbot’s comment is one that we have come to expect from the monastics of Buddhism. After all, it conforms with the ideal that we find in a number of Pali texts such as the Khuddaka Nikaya which talks of monks “wander[ing] alone like a rhinoceros,” or the Dhammapada: “Better it is to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Live alone and do no evil; be carefree like an elephant in the forest.” (trans. By Acharya Bodhirakkhita, 1985; accessed at This also fits nicely into Weber’s influential framing of Buddhism as “other-worldly asceticism.” It is also, if not wrong, at least too limited a way of looking at Buddhist religious specialists, confusing an ideal within Buddhism with the ideal.

Why does this matter (beyond the fact that I have a bit better sense of the experience of Thai Buddhists)? There are two points here. First scholarly work in English on monastics and families has been insufficient. Gregory Schopen twenty years ago drew our collective attention to how inscriptions showed monastics dedicating merit to their parents. More recently Shayne Clarke’s (2014) Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms reading of disciplinary commentaries tells us that family relations inside and outside the monastery were of significant concern, and there is a special issue of the Journal of Global Buddhism (released a few weeks ago) which is dedicated to the “Family in Modern Buddhism.” While this work is welcome, it is really focused on pre 20th century Buddhisms, or on Japanese forms which have a long history of clerical marriage. Indeed, with the exception of a chapter on monastic recruitment in Jeffrey Samuels’ important book on emotion in Sri Lankan monastic culture, Attracting the Heart, there has been no attention to the position of Theravada monks in the contemporary world as members of families (let alone as fathers).

This insufficient scholarship points to a problem with the way we have framed our interests in monks and nuns as actors, no doubt. But I suspect that there is a broad reluctance within the Thai world (and indeed perhaps the Theravada world more broadly) to talk about the ways that monks remain imbricated within family relations, and certainly with the ways that they could be fathers. The status of monks as sons is clear and obvious since the merit of ordination is often dedicated to one’s parents. And Thais are certainly aware that monks can be sexual beings, and were before they ordained, but that sexuality is a problem to be resolved or repressed once one has taken on robes. Moreover, structurally, monks have left the family, even if they still communicate with their family members regularly. Most of the monks I have talked to in Thailand (and indeed in China as well) are willing to answer questions about their families, but they rarely bring them up in the course of a conversation. In other words, while these “monks with sons” are nothing out of the ordinary, they are a subject about which Thai Buddhists are generally silent.

So let me modify my opening statement. There are monks with sons in Bangkok, but I don’t know if there are a lot of them, or if this is a significant phenomenon or not. However, because of scholarly inattention and internal silences, no one else does either.

Monks, Politics and anti-politics

What do you do when religion and politics get mixed up? In Thailand, this has happened recently, largely in the midst of the larger conflict that has been going on in society for the last decade.


In the last few weeks, there have been three different stories in the English media in Thailand involving Buddhist monks and temples. The first two, from the English-language branch of the “Khaosod” (“Fresh News!”) website, had a distinctly “yellow” – as in yellow shirt (royalist) – hue. The first was about everyone’s “favorite” firebrand monk, Buddha Issara. Luang Puu Buddha Issara was one of the protest leaders from January to May of this year which aimed to “shut down Bangkok,” prevent elections in February and generally make things miserable for the caretaker government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. These protests, ostensibly about the corruption of the Thai government, ultimately precipitated the coup in May. In mid-November, Buddha Issara delivered a letter to the legislative and reform council of Thailand providing several proposals about how to reform Thai society and get rid of corruption. The article is not about the letter he delivered, but about the warm reception he received from the lawmakers who said that they appreciated his letter, and that his proposal is “very beneficial to the administration and economy of [the] nation.” Buddha Issara is a fascinating monk, in part because (at least when I was in Bangkok last spring) he was something of a bell weather of people’s political stance. With some interesting exceptions among monks, people who were generally “reds” (red shirts – pro-democracy/Thaksin/anti-royalist party, though not anti king) disliked him and said he was “not a monk,” and those that were generally “yellow” appreciated what he was doing in leading the protests.

The second article is about a monk, Phra Papakaro (receiving alms in picture above), giving a decoration to a high-ranking police officer in Surat Thani, one of the Southern provinces of Thailand. Phra Papakaro was, until recently, also a protest leader, and former politician, named Suthep Taungsubal. Suthep is a former deputy prime minister, and leader of the Democrat Party, and was the principle leader of the protests that took place starting in the fall on 2014, precipitated by the amnesty bill put forward by Yingluck, which was opposed by most Thais on the grounds that it would have pardoned her brother (on the Red side) and the leaders of the Democrat Party that ordered the clearing of central Bangkok in 2010 which led to the deaths of some 70 protesters and another twenty or so members of the police/military. These leaders were primarily Suthep and Abhisit, the Prime Minister at the time. Suthep was the leader of most of the protests from January to May 2014, but Buddha Issara was an aligned figure, a fellow traveler in the yellow movement if you will, rather than a follower of Suthep’s (and indeed, throughout the spring, there were various moments of tension between these two figures; the first picture is the two of them talking). In the immediate aftermath of the coup in May, Suthep crowed a great deal about his close relationship with General Prayuth (the leader of the coup, and now the prime minister). While the coup-led government has worked hard to institute reforms that resemble what the protesters were calling for, particularly in June, it also wanted to call itself independent and Gen Prayuth did not appreciate Suthep’s general demeanor. And so right about a month later, Suthep ordained as a monk. In this he has followed a well-worn path of politicians seeking to avoid political troubles in the monkhood.


This brings us to the last piece, an op-ed in the Bangkok Post by Sanitsuda Ekachai, is about the need to keep Suan Mokh free of politics. Suan Mokh is a temple that was established by the important reformist monk, Buddhadasa, in the early 1930s as a place to reform Thai Buddhism and “return to the roots of Buddhism.” It has been an important place over the decades for meditation movements in Thailand (as well as reflective of Buddhadasa’s fairly eclectic architectural vision) and middle class Thais and foreigners interested in meditation programs have flocked there over the decades, though by most accounts it’s been fairly quiet since Buddhadasa’s death in the early 1990s. It is also where Suthep/Papakaro, the erstwhile leader of the protests leading up to the coup in May has gone since he ordained this past summer. As Khun Sanitsuda notes, hundreds of people come to visit Suthep each week, not so much disturbing the peace of the place as giving it an overtly yellow-shirted cast that it had not had before. Moreover, while monks are forbidden by an order of the Supreme Sangha Council from participating in politics, Suthep bestowed a decoration on a Surat Thani policeman, described in the article as a “hardcore yellowshirt” activist. This he did as a monk.


Here’s the thing that I think is interesting about the coincidence of these two events: the play of politics, or rather the way that “politics” becomes a problem for monks to address. As noted above, monks are not supposed to be involved with politics because they are supposed to be learning, preserving and teaching the dhamma. Good/pure/original Buddhism is free of politics,

just as Khun Sanitsuda suggests Suan Mokh should be. The opposite is also true – Buddhism which is not free of politics is necessarily tainted. And indeed one of the critiques that one occasionally hears about monks like Buddha Issara is that they are tainted by politics, they are “political monks”. Yet in many ways this is an anti-political discourse, in which Thais (among others) fail to acknowledge or perhaps better specifically refuse to acknowledge how monks are engaged in politics. Khun Sanitsuda talks about Suan Mokh under Buddhadasa as a place that was free of politics but then she notes that he was critical of capitalism and urged inter-faith understanding with Muslims (who are a much larger part of the population in the southern part of Thailand). These are of course highly political acts and being accused of being a communist in Thailand during the Cold War potentially had serious consequences (just as reading 1984 in public or using the Hunger Games salute can be in this post-coup moment).


Ironically, when I interviewed Buddha Issara in June, he told me that he was not involved with politics. Rather there was a crisis for the people and what he was doing was because there was no one else that was speaking for the people. Just to bring it all back together, when I asked Buddha Issara if there were any monks that he admired, he paused and said Buddhadasa, the founder of Suan Mokh.

A Good Gift – From, not to, a Monk

Today, it was raining in Burlington, and so I have been walking around with a brownish orange umbrella. This is not a particularly remarkable umbrella, except for perhaps the fact that it was given to me by a novice in Thailand. A year and a half ago, I was in Chiang Mai, studying Thai at a program run by the University of Washington and Chiang Mai University (language work, alas, is never done). I was spending the two months with my then five year old daughter. We had rented a bike for the two months, and she rode on a bench on the back of the one speed bicycle, and we went all over town. Fortunately for us, the first part of the rainy season (which usually starts in mid-July) was pretty dry, and so we really were able to get away with not having much in the way of rain gear. However, one day, when I picked her up from the Thai pre-school she was attending (learning Thai much more quickly than I), this run of luck ran out. As often happened when I picked her up, we picked up a few bottles of yakult (a Japanese yogurt drink that can be found at any of the ubiquitous 7-11s in Thailand), or an ice cream cone and walked over to the wat next door to the preschool. This was your standard old wat in Chiang Mai: perhaps 500 years old, it couldn’t quite decide if it was a community temple, or a tourism oriented temple, so it ended up being both. Regardless, soon as we were sitting there snacking, the heavens opened up and we, raincoat-less and umbrella-less, were stuck. And we were stuck for a long time. There was a small sala with a couple of wheel of fortune fortune telling devices, and for some odd reason an old mercedes that was under a canvas wrap. We were not the only one’s stuck at the temple. There was an old woman and her daughter. They were from out of town, but the old woman had grown up nearby and so they had come to visit her old community temple. So we all sat in the sala and waited. After about 45 minutes, although the rains had not really stopped, I was ready to go home, and so I put my daughter on our bike and started to mentally prepare myself to go out into the torrent. And a novice came up with an umbrella. I said, no, really. And he said to me that I should take it, that they had a lot of umbrellas and it was fine. This went on for a few minutes, but eventually I took it and biked to our apartment one-handed in the rain (which my daughter really liked).


This was actually one of several umbrellas that I have received from monks in similar circumstances (one in 2001 in China and another in Bangkok in 2014). So what? While it has made my world easier (keeping a five year old dry is not a terrible idea), does it really matter that a monk gave me an umbrella?


Scholars often talk about monks as fields of merit. This means that they provide lay people with the opportunity to make merit by being worthy of receiving gifts. Gifts (Dana) which make merit, as Reiko Ohnuma and Maria Heim have talked about, are gifts that go to figures that are presumably morally superior, such as anyone in robes. In other words, we normally think of gifts passing in one direction from lay people to monks (and indeed that is normally the way that they pass).


However, monks receive far more than they can use. While there are occasional examples of monks who engage in conspicuous consumption (in the movie, the Funeral, there is a great scene where a Buddhist priest gets out of a big old limousine in slow motion), many of these monks get in trouble (like the Thai Phra Nen Kham, whose indiscretions with the wealth donated to him was revealed inadvertently when he was captured wearing ray bans on his private jet in June 2013). Every year, monks, particularly senior monks right around now receive many different sets of robes (the celebration of kathina). Far more than they can use. Isn’t this wasteful, one might ask? I’ve heard monks respond to this question by saying that it’s a misunderstanding of generosity. The gifts don’t belong to them, and they spread it out. The dana moves on to others.


So on one level, my brownish orange umbrella was an example of a monk being a nice guy to a foreigner with a little girl. But on another, it was also an example of dana and generosity moving down the road to the next person.

Bad Gifts

pindabaat.thailand 2009.compressed

            Every day, around Bangkok, among other places in the Theravāda world, lay people give gifts to monks. During the spring semester, when taking my son to his school in western Bangkok, I would see groups of monks from the wat just down the road. These monks walk barefoot (!) around the neighborhood, stopping to receive an offering when people proffered them. Monks would often stop by the bus stop, which was a de facto market where people would buy breakfast, and perhaps make merit. (One established market I biked by every day in Chiang Mai advertised itself in the following way: “Make Merit! Fill a monk’s bowl! Buy things! Fresh and Safe!”). Others seemed to have set rounds of houses. There was one monk who I would see standing outside of a house waiting. Normally, the lay people are supposed to wait for the monk, but the occupant of the house was an older woman who could not move quickly. So the monk waited for her, knowing that she liked to make merit most mornings. Normally, lay people give monks (and novices) food at these times, and indeed most of what is given to monks are among the “requisites” that they need for their well-being: food, daily use articles like shavers, pens and paper or books for education, medicine. Less frequently, monks are given new robes, or a begging bowl. Occasionally, though they are given less appropriate things; they are given “bad gifts.”


This week, I am going to give a paper on “bad gifts” at a conference called “The Ethics of Religious Giving: Historical and Ethnographic Explorations,” at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. “Bad gifts” are things given to monks that are seen as inappropriate. My research for this paper comes from watching and talking with monks and novices in Thailand and Sipsongpannā, a Theravāda Buddhist minority region in southwest China over the last twenty years. While I can’t discuss everything I say in the paper, there are a few points that I found interesting and worth highlighting here.


What is a bad gift? At first, I thought this would be a straightforward issue to address. A bad gift is something that Theravāda monastics should not have. Obvious choices for this would be alcohol which the most basic precepts in Buddhism forbid or a gun, which as one monk I spoke with noted “can only be used to kill.” However, there is a surprising amount of difference in what would count as a “bad gift,” depending on who you talk to, the area and how the question is framed. For example, in Thailand monks and novices are forbidden from driving cars and motorcycles and bicycles, but in Sipsongpanna in China, they do drive and ride and at least until recently, a bicycle would be offered by relatives or neighbors when a boy ordains as a novice. In other words, a bicycle is a bad gift in Thailand, but not in China. And of course bicycles are not in the vinaya.


What does inappropriate mean? Another question emerges from the way I framed the problem above. If bad gifts are things that are seen as “inappropriate,” what does this mean? Obviously, these would be things that someone says monks shouldn’t have, and presumably this would be because the vinaya says they shouldn’t. Monks can’t drink alcohol according to the vinaya and so beer is not good (though it’s worth noting, I have seen people give alcohol to temples, and monks accept them and have to figure out what to do with this gift). My phrasing comes not from the vinaya but from what Thai monks in particular have said to me when I asked them about bad gifts. They tended to say one of two things: that a given gift or thing is “not appropriate” (mai somkhuan) or “unattractive” (mai suay). The second is particularly striking, because it highlights how monks are often seen/understood as figures who are models for the lay folk. If one were to give cigarettes to a monk, which is not quite forbidden in Thailand, but not encouraged, this would encourage monks to do something that is “unattractive.” Again, this is different in Sipsongpannā, which has been shaped by the cultures of China (where smoking is more common) as well as the Theravāda cultures spread through mainland Southeast Asia. In Sipsongpannā giving cigarettes is not seen as inappropriate.


Who decides? For me, this is perhaps the most interesting point. When talking about Buddhist morality, scholars of Buddhism, monks, and lay folk have collectively tended to emphasize the importance of the vinaya, the disciplinary codes of Buddhism. The vinaya is held up as the authority, even when people are not really paying attention to the vinaya. In fact, part of what seems to be taking place is that at least at the margins, what counts as bad gifts are things that lay people decide are inappropriate or unattractive. As monks will tell you, often with a laugh, bicycles, smart phones and cigarettes are not in the vinaya (though as they also say betel is). As a result, people need to think analogically about what works and what doesn’t. I argue in the paper that despite being “below” monks in the religious hierarchy, it is lay people, in conversation with monks, and the vinaya and government authorities, that decide what counts as a good or a bad gift.

An Ethnographer, A Medievalist, and a South Asianist: A Conversation

Over the last sixty years, scholars of religion have variously described their work in terms of both field and discipline. Since the decline of the Eliadian/Structuralist paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars have been increasingly likely to describe what we do in terms of specific subfields shaped more broadly by disciplinary unity (though even as I say this, I can think of ways that even these subfields are both unified and pulled apart by “discipline” – this is the joy and frustration of Religious Studies!).  We are fortunate, though perhaps not unique to have in the UVM Religion department several different broad disciplinary orientations in play at the same time.  Our faculty do philosophical, ethnographic, historical and comparative work.  This summer our two historians, Anne Clark and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, scholars of Medieval Europe and Muslim South Asia respectively, each spent portions of their summers in specialized libraries doing research.  Since my research generally entails chatting up monks in Thailand and China, it wasn’t completely clear to me what that meant.  So I asked Anne and Ilyse some questions over email about what it was like to do their type of research.


What is an archive for you?

IMF: Great question. An archive to me is a collection—or series of collections—of rare material, which might be newspapers, photos or prints, maps, or books on a particular topic or from a particular area. But beyond a definition, to me, an archive immediately conjures a set of (obnoxiously lofty) sensations: the smell of old newspapers and manuscripts; the look of someone else’s handwriting; the feel of sometimes-crumbling, leather-bound volumes and whisper-thin onion paper; the sounds of dozens of other scholars scribbling notes in pencil, each uncovering something remarkable.

AC: In general I don’t think of myself as working in archives.  For medievalists, “archive” usually refers to collections of documents like wills, charters, deeds, commercial records, etc., and I don’t work on that kind of material.  I work with medieval manuscripts, which are books created before the invention of the printing press, so each book is a unique handmade artifact, distinct from every other book in the world. I think maybe it’s especially because I’m an American, living in a world where the built environment is perhaps 100 years old (my house is 118 years old and the Religion Department about the same) with few older artifacts as part of my daily life, that handling an 800-year old book is really a thrill.

What is the physical space where you were doing research? 

IMF: I was working in the British Library, and spent most days in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, though sometimes needed to use the Rare Books Room.

AC: I worked in the Österreichische Nationalbibiothek (Austrian National Library), in Vienna, in its beautiful Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books. The manuscript reading room was originally the library of an Augustinian monastery, attached to one of the Hapsburg palaces. As with most medieval manuscript collections, there are levels are security to go through, designed to protect the manuscripts from damage or theft.

Could you be more expansive about the literal space? Light?  Dark?  Comfortable?  Crowded? 

IMF: The Reading Room had rows of workspaces—long tables with individual “desks” designated by a change in the wood grain, an individual lamp, a few outlets, a desk number, and a call button to get a librarian. The room was cold, and while the light was decent for reading, I wouldn’t call it bright—rare materials like cold and dark. (After all, the books’ comfort far outweighs the researchers’.)

AC: Except for very hard wooden chairs (!), all the other appointments were quite good: wi-fi access; electric outlets at every desk (don’t forget to bring your electric current converter), good lighting through huge windows as well as individual desk lamps. There were rules that I inadvertently broke, like not realizing I had been assigned a particular desk, but since the reading room was not filled to capacity, no one scolded me or told me to move.

What is the process of doing research? How do you start the day?

IMF: I’m an early bird by nature, so my day usually looked like: retyping handwritten notes from the day before in the cafe while I waited for the BL to open, then immediately getting to work in a reading room!

AC: Because my time in Vienna was limited, I arrived at the library when it opened, picked up the manuscript and got set up in the reading room.  I stayed pretty much glued to my chair, poring over the one manuscript I was researching.  I had on my computer a scan of a similar manuscript, and my main work was a careful comparison of the two, and making detailed notes about the differences between them.

How do you get books  – are you getting books?

IMF: The British Library has a system for requesting materials. Basically, I would search the catalogs, request an item (books, manuscripts, and collections of tracts or newspapers, usually), and specify when I’d like it to be delivered. But I arrived in London with a list of 10 must-have works, ranging from a tract published in 1813 in an Indian newspaper to a Persian manuscript to a set of prints related to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion.

AC: I had written to the staff at the library in advance, so the manuscript, sometimes called the Lilienfeld Prayerbook, was waiting for me as soon as I checked in.  This is important to do, because not all materials are always available.  For example, I had also wanted to look at a related manuscript in Munich, the so-called Prayerbook of St. Hildegard, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), but when I had written ahead to inquire about access, I was told that it was not generally shown to scholars because of the availability of a photographic facsimile. This points to the dual role of the rare book library: to both protect and make available their resources.  The library took the big step of allowing the manuscript to be photographed and published to make it widely accessible.  Yet, for me to engage on a major analysis of the manuscript without seeing it “in the flesh” (and remember, the book itself is flesh, animal skin prepared into parchment), made me worried that I would miss something that couldn’t easily be seen in the photographs, and also makes me feel slightly tentative in writing about it.  And, truth be told, I wanted that flesh to flesh experience.

Is this a political process? Does it help to chat with the librarians?  To bribe them? 

IMF: This isn’t political at the BL, and bribing wasn’t necessary. Though, to be fair, befriending the librarians did help: I could bolt to lunch and not forfeit my seat even when the room was at capacity (and decorum would dictate getting up meant giving up), and occasionally it meant I could bend the 3 day rule ever so slightly (and I do mean slight: a few hours!).

AC:  Tom, maybe your experience in South Asia is showing here!  No bribes were needed in Vienna, although I was required to purchase a library membership (ten euros for one year).  And the staff was uniformly helpful, and fully comfortable with speaking to me in English so that I didn’t have to embarrass myself with pathetic attempts at German or sign language.

What are the materials you examine each day?

IMF: For the most part, on this trip, I was working with India Office Records, so my materials ranged from published, widely-circulated books to handwritten (Indic and Islamicate) language manuscripts and registers.

AC: My whole time was focused on one manuscript that I had researched in advance.  It is a twelfth-century illustrated prayerbook, primarily in Latin with Middle High German additions. This is part of my larger project about how the juxtaposition of texts and pictures in medieval prayerbooks may have been used by their owners to stimulate emotional experience in their devotional practices.

What are the constraints of the location?

IMF: In the reading rooms, one cannot have food or water, for obvious reasons. This broke my 4 cups of coffee a day habit, quickly! One also cannot remove materials from the room, but also only (for the most part) had access to each item for 3 days. So, I guess, days were long and caffeine-free.

AC: In addition to no food or drink, the library also prohibits use of pens, and monitors strolled by occasionally to ensure that the manuscripts were being carefully used.  We aren’t required to wear gloves, but there it is important to touch the books only minimally—just enough to set them up on the foam cushions provided and to gently turn the pages.

Do you enter the library/archive space knowing what you are going to read each day?

IMF: Sometimes! I tried to plan out what materials would arrive, and when. Days I needed to work exclusively with a Persian manuscript, for example, I planned for. Days that found me receiving a few ordered items—especially things I’d found via footnotes and in-text references—were a bit more surprising.

AC: I had a very focused plan to get through as much of that one manuscript as possible, but as with all manuscripts, you never know what you will find.  There’s always the moment of first opening, the excitement and slight fear that I may not even be able to read the handwriting, or that it will be damaged, or that there will be unexpected marginalia, etc.  So first I just look it over–the covers, the first and last pages, etc.  And I had particular themes and subject pages that I prioritized.  Also, because this was an illustrated prayer book, and my work investigates the relationship between text and image, I spent a fair amount of time looking closely at the pictures, and taking notes about them.

Sometimes when I interview someone, I have these moments where they say something I am not expecting, but it is exactly what I was hoping they would say (the reverse is also happens). In those moments, I can sometimes feel my heart racing with the excitement of the unexpected but sought for.  If you have found something you don’t expect, do you know immediately?

IMF: Yes and no! On the one hand, I had the sense that what I was looking at was really important or special, maybe even a true gem of a source. On the other, sometimes I’d look at a piece of writing and know it was important to my research, that it would become something I’d use and return to, but wouldn’t quite be sure how it fit into my overall project just yet.

AC: Sometimes I am so busy copying as much as I can, that the impact of it doesn’t always hit me at first.  Then it’s not till I’ve had time to do a more careful translation that I’ll discern the significance of even just a single word, or more likely, a pattern of words or phrases scattered throughout the whole work.

Coups and Conversations

On Thursday, May 22, I went to a wat (temple/monastery) in Eastern Bangkok to interview a monk. I had been to the wat a few times, trying to catch a monk sitting around bored, and open to chatting with a nosy foreigner. This is a strategy that I have been using on and off for the last few months. It makes the encounter seem a bit more spontaneous and more likely that a monk will speak freely about his thoughts on politics and whatever possible role he might have. However, I had reached the end of my patience with this particular wat. Martial law had been declared two days before, and I wanted to speak with a monk I had never spoken to about this. I went up to the samnak-gaan wat (ie the office) and explained that I was a researcher and would like to speak to a monk about the roles of Thai monks in society. The man working in the office said sure, and then he thought for a long time about who to get. He disappeared, coming back about fifteen minutes later with the only monk he could find. The monk seemed a bit embarrassed and a bit reluctant to talk, as if he had been coerced into talking to the foreigner (not impossible). However, he quickly warmed up, and we chatted for over an hour about his responsibilities, the place of the wat in the community, and his thoughts on martial law. In general he was not worried about the declaration. He said he thought this was probably a good thing because the protests which had been going on for six months had reached an impasse and martial law would calm things down and allow proper negotiations. About four hours later, General Prayuth, the head of the military got sick of these negotiations and decided to declare the caretaker government null and void, and ultimately the Senate and the Constitution as well. For the 14th time since 1932, Thailand had been subject to a military coup.

In very broad terms, the coup was the latest shift in a decade long conflict over the control of Thai society. The details are beyond the scope of a blog post (good reporting is provided by Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, and smart, clear op-ed pieces by both Michael Montesano and Duncan McCargo, also in the Times), but in very broad terms, this is a conflict over the relative influence of different stakeholders in Thailand as a democracy. It has often been cast in binary terms between the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts,” with the former being associated with rural folk, particularly farmers of the North and Northeast, and the latter being associated with royalists, and middle and professional classes. The “red shirts” want to privilege electoral politics, while the “yellow shirts” have wanted to privilege the centrality of the monarchy. I am trying to use careful language here because most the red shirts also “love the king” and most yellow shirts also want electoral democracy (though their leaders should probably be seen as anti-democratic). The shirt colors are short hand for broad coalitions, because these were the colors worn by the different groups in mass mobilizations that have taken place over the last decade.

The origins of this coup go back to the last coup in 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from office by the army, presumably because he was a threat to the king. Thaksin while a fairly greedy and thuggish politician is also the only prime minister to have made it through an entire term and be reelected in Thailand’s coup-happy history. Since 2006, Thai politics has been a real mess. Various Thaksin related parties and prime ministers have been thrown out of office, and/or banned from participating in electoral politics by judicial decision/coup. On different occasions, mass protests have shut down Bangkok’s airports and shopping districts and in 2010 there was a crackdown on a group of red shirts that had taken over the central shopping intersection in Bangkok, resulting in the death of around 70 protestors and a handful of soldiers and policemen. The most recent set of protests began late last year and were precipitated by an amnesty bill that the government (then run by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck) put forward. This would have granted amnesty to the leaders of the government during the crackdown, the Democrat Party, and would also have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he’s been in exile since being removed from power, and was convicted of corruption in absentia). While the government withdrew the amnesty bill, the yellow shirts (who no longer wear yellow but instead drape themselves in the Thai flag and blow whistles on the streets of Bangkok) ramped up their protests, causing the government to resign, occupying several key intersections of Bangkok for three months (under the catchy slogan, “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”), and doing their best to block the election that took place of February 2 of this year. While they were largely unsuccessful in this, they were successful enough that it allowed the courts to throw out the legitimacy of the election. Throughout these protests, their key leader, Suthep, has called for the elimination of the government and the removal of the “Thaksin regime” in language that is often violent, misogynistic and frankly repugnant. He has called for the appointment of a “neutral” party to lead the country to “reform,” though beyond the removal of Thaksin and his sister, what reform might mean has been quite vague.

The coup has been less about violent repression, and more about stifling voices and dissent. General Prayuth, the coup’s leader, immediately arrested many of the political leaders, and has required that other political leaders, both elected and unelected, red shirt and yellow, academics and journalists report to the army for a “cooling off” period. This is officially meant to provide negotiations the opportunity to be successful, but most understand that it is meant to quell opposition. Small protests have occurred throughout Bangkok, and they have been met with an overwhelming presence of army and police, well out of proportion to their numbers or threat. Many people have taken the coup fairly phlegmatically, saying to me that this is “Thai style politics,” but many others have taken to symbolic modes of dissent: reading 1984 in groups of four (groups of five are proscribed); taking selfies of themselves doing a three-fingered salute taken from the Hunger Games; handing out and eating sandwiches in public. These have all been banned by the junta. The junta also shut down Facebook for about an hour a week ago – this really got people upset, and it was quickly restored.

To be honest, I don’t know how the people of Thailand or Bangkok feel about this. My evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve talked to a number of people, mainly monks, in the two and a half weeks since the coup. Some are willing to wait and see how it goes, others think it is simply a terrible turn of events. Two conversations with several monks in particular stand out. The first was a couple of days after the coup. I biked up to a wat, and as I was parking my bike, the monk came up as if he had been waiting for me, spitting mad, anxious to tell me how terrible and stupid the coup was and how much worse it would make everything. The second was a few days later at a university library. This monk was also not happy about the coup, but rather than being mad, he was sad and scared. “Many people disagree,” he said. “They cannot speak out. Big gun.” He moved his hands showing someone being grabbed. As he said this, his voice became quieter and quieter, not wanting to be overheard.

Buddhist monks and politics in Thailand

monks at pithi panyak

I have been in Thailand since the beginning of January conducting research into the political identity and attitudes of the Buddhist monks of the country. My research is organized around the problem of how monks and novices see themselves as citizens, and whether being a monk interferes with or works together with their citizenship. Buddhism is a central part of Thai national identity, with some 90% of the population presumed to be Buddhist, and ordination as a monk for at least several weeks is widely understood as being an important responsibility that Thai men should undertake (though many do not). Moreover, while Buddhism has not been established as the official religion of the country, the king is required to be Buddhist and “religion” (often though not always understood to be Buddhism) is one of the three central “institutions” of modern Thailand, along with the king and the nation (ie the people). Buddhism is thus central to “thai-ness,” and formally at least monks have a very high status in Thai society.

Yet this doesn’t always translate into the lives of individual monks, and it is the attitudes of individual monks into their status that I have been trying to understand. For example, while Thailand is a democracy (coup’s aside), and women were enfranchised several decades before they were in the United States, monks are forbidden from voting in elections. The rationale for this is that monks are in the center and above politics. If they have the right to vote, the argument goes, this will foster division within society, and that is seen as contrary to their primary role in Thai society. Many monks that I have talked to this spring do not seem to be particularly troubled by their disenfranchisement. Some have said to me, for example, that if they could vote, they were afraid that they would be the subject of lobbying by politicians, something they had no interest in. For the first month or so that I was asking monks about this, all of them told me about being “in the center,” and I thought that monks simply did not want to vote. Then one day, by chance, I asked a monk, “So, you don’t want to vote?” He looked at me as if I was silly. “I didn’t say that, I would be happy to vote if I could.” Since then, I have followed up my question about monks voting with questions about the individual monk voting. A somewhat different picture has emerged as a result. While none of the monks seems to want to take to the streets to push for enfranchisement, some 2/3 of them have told me they would like to vote if they could.

I am still in the process of coming to understand the implications of this.  Most monks in Thailand are Thai citizens; being a monk changes what they the can do as citizens.  It provides them with access to educational opportunities but changes how they can participate in the political process.  But it is unclear to me whether most monks think that they should have a voice in society – as monks.

In a few days, I will post some thoughts about the coup last week and the political protests of the last year that precipitated it.