Senior Spotlight 2019: Abra Clawson

a series about our graduating seniors


I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

-ABRA CLAWSON ’19



Why did you major in Religion?

It began as a quest for redemption. 

I signed up for a religion class my first semester at UVM, hoping to get an introduction to something I had never studied in high school, and about which I knew nothing. The class frustrated me endlessly (why was the answer to every question “yes… and no”!?), but it was also my favorite of the semester. A year later, I decided to give religion another shot and took a second class, determined to do better than I had in my first semester. I realized that my religion professors were the ones I found the most compelling, and who pushed me the hardest but also made it clear that they believed in me. The classes were interesting, but the people were really what drew me in. By the end of sophomore year, I declared a minor (after finding out that I would get a super cool mug if I did). 

Junior year came around, and I felt dissatisfied with some of my classes in other departments because I thought I was not being pushed to be critical of what I was studying. I was also in awe of the older religion students in my classes, because they said things that seemed so smart and important and different from my other classes. I wanted to take more classes with these people. I ended up transferring into “Religion and Secular Culture” the second week of the fall semester, declaring religion as my second major at the same time. From there, things just got better; I loved how the major built on and complicated what I learned elsewhere. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I could see myself going in a few directions over the next few years, so look for me: 1) working at a regional theatre in artistic management or sound design, or 2) living in another country doing research and creating multimedia projects.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

The senior seminars (“Religion and Secular Culture,” “Religion and Empire”) were my favorites! I would tell younger students not to be scared by a course number; the intro classes were the hardest anyway. My seminar papers are the assignments I’m most proud of at UVM, and both Professor Borchert and Professor Morgenstein Fuerst made them feel manageable. Those are also the classes where I got to know the other students the most, and where the department began to feel like a family. But really, just take at least one class in something you’ve never studied before, something out of your comfort zone. Also, don’t wait until senior year to take Religion 100.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I’ve been obsessed with Shakespeare since 6thgrade, and I think it would be cool to work on a project about religion and Shakespeare which goes into the historical context of a few plays and their characters, and then takes a look at the way they have been produced over the years. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

The ability to feel comfortable just stopping by anyprofessor’s office to ask a question or just to say hello. Running into people in the hallways and having conversations that spilled out of the classroom. The early mornings sitting on the couches before class.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Abra Clawson is the 2019 winner of the

Outstanding Major Award.


Faculty News!

It’s been a while since we posted, in large part because we have been busy. Here’s a snippet of some of what the Religion faculty have been up to! And, as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for some real-time updates.

In January, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst was a speaker at an international workshop on Authority in Islam held in New Delhi, India. It brought American, European, and Indian scholars together and will be published as a book, soon.

As you likely heard, Prof. Vicki Brennan won the 2018-2019 Dean’s Lecture Award, an acknowledgement of her significant research and pedagogical contributions to the field and UVM. The Award is described as:

The series was established in 1991 as a way to recognize and honor colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences who have consistently demonstrated the ability to translate their professional knowledge and skill into exciting classroom experiences for their students — faculty who meet the challenge of being both excellent teachers and highly respected professionals in their own discipline. The Award is a celebration of the unusually high quality of our faculty and has become an important and treasured event each semester.

https://www.uvm.edu/cas/deans_and_full_professor_lecture_series_news_and_updates

In January, Prof. Vicki Brennan gave the Dean’s Lecture. Her talk was titled “Exhibiting the Sacred: An Ethnography of Spirited Things.”

Breaking news includes that Prof. Vicki Brennan has just been named an inaugural fellow for the Luce Foundation-sponsored project Sacred Writes! This project aims to connect scholars of religion to various publics beyond their classrooms; Prof. Brennan will join an impressive cohort of leaders in the field of religion for a week-long intensive training session on public scholarship.

And, departmentally, we are excited to say that our newest initiative was recently passed by the Board of Trustees! We are launching an Undergraduate Certificate in Religious Literacy, the first of its kind in the nation. It is a program developed to address student demand for Religion courses beyond a major or minor; the Certificate has a related brand-new course “Religious Literacy,” currently in its first iteration. Stay tuned for more!

Lectures in Religion and Law

This Fall, Prof. Thomas Borchert has arranged a truly impressive speaker series–one that boasts academic rockstars and timely topics. The Lectures in Religion and Law Series, “Interrogating Religion Freedom in the US and Abroad,” features four talks between October and November 2018; two of which center on Asia and two on North America.

Prof. Borchert gave the first talk in the series himself! On October 3, he presented “Bloody Amulets and Punitive Disrobing: Reflections on the Legal Environment Governing Monks in Contemporary Thailand.” The talk was a CAS Full Professor lecture, a series sponsored by the College to honor and share the work of newly-minted full professors. We assume you may know his work already, but if not: Prof. Borchert writes about religion, nationalism, and Thailand.

Prof. Winnifred Sullivan is the second speaker. Renown scholar of law, religion, and the United States, Prof. Sullivan’s talk, “Banning Bibles: Death-Qualifying a Jury,” will be on October 11.

Next, we welcome Prof. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who focuses on law, religion, international relations, and the concept of religious freedom. Her talk, “Religion and Politics after Religious Freedom,” will be held on November 2.

Finally, Prof. Jolyon Thomas joins us a lecture titled “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan” on November 13. He is a scholar of definitions of religion, religious freedom, religion and media, Asian religious traditions, and religion and law. This talk is also the Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Thomas Mackell

Thomas Mackell ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Thomas Mackell ’18

In high school I got really into (and found some solace in) reading pop philosophy stuff on Taoism and Buddhism like some writings of Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, etc. I came to college knowing I wanted to study “Eastern philosophy” in a way that actually taking religion classes has helped me to realize was essentializing and Orientalist! I was just studying Philosophy at first, which lacked a direct confrontation with a lot of social justice and political issues that Religion classes offer so I added another major.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I’d like to move to a city like New York, Philadelphia, or go back DC. I’m definitely comfortable living in apartments my whole life. It’d be nice to go to post-grad to do some work that could involve using what I’ve learned and actually helping people, thinking about working in a library, museum, school, or maybe something to do with law or some non-profit work who knows!

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I think REL 100: Interpretation of Religion is super important as far as it deconstructs our common Western assumptions of what religion is and reveals that “The Invention of World Religions” was a colonial project. Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and Saba Mahmood’s “Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject” are definitely two of the best things I’ve read for any class.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

There are some ideas floating around my head connecting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of language as a “form of life”, Judith Butler’s idea of “performativity”, and Robert Orsi’s “lived religion” but I would need to think about them a lot more to write something coherent.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

Going to Professors Clark and Brennan for advising help, Professor Borchert pulling Adorno off the shelf for me and bringing snacks to 203 along with all the bonding over stress we got to do in that class. Cramming into a packed seminar room for REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Simon Wolfe

Simon Wolfe ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Simon Wolfe ’18

I initially chose religion because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but at the time

I thought I might want to be a rabbi.  I stuck with it because religion turned out to encompass quite a lot, and I’ve always thought of it as the best parts of literature and history smooshed into one.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

No idea.  The world is big and scary and there’s somehow to much and not enough to do at the same time.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I’ve said for years that Intro to Islam with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst should be required for everyone in arts and sciences.  That course fundamentally changed the way I see not only Islam, not only religion, but the whole crazy entangled world all together.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I wish I could expand my term paper from Religion and Empire which was about the abolitionists Maria W Stewart and Angelina Grimke.  It would be titled something like The Nasty Christian Women of Abolition: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Discursive Struggle for Liberation.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

No memories in particular, but its always been my favorite building on campus.  The seminar room and all its beautiful dark wood and old books have always made me feel very comfortable.  I had my first class ever in that room, a TAP course on the Bible with Professor Clarke.  Every other classroom has been something of a disappointment since then, but luckily religion classes end up in there with some regularity, and it’s always been a little spot of home on a campus that so often seems to value STEM over the humanities.  When/if I come back to visit campus, that will be the first and one of the few spots on my list.

Upcoming Religion@UVM Events on Campus!

It’s the middle of the spring semester, so predictably, that means there is a bounty of Religion@UVM events–whether that’s sponsored, co-sponsored, faculty-initiated, or featuring a faculty speaker! Check out the UVM calendar but also the information below.

 


Join us on Tuesday, April 3, alongside the UVM Humanities Center, Romance Languages and Linguistics, History, and Art and Art History departments for a talk by Prof. E. Bruce Hayes of the University of Kansas.



Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, in her capacity as Director of the Middle East Studies Program, has invited scholar of religion Prof. Megan Goodwin of Northeastern University to campus. Join us on Thursday, April 5.


Prof. Richard Sugarman will give The Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies Holocaust Remembrance Day Lecture on April 12, 2018.




 

We’re celebrating our very many new books–and we hope you’ll join us–on Friday, April 13!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


On April 20, Prof. Clark welcomes Dr. Amy Appleford to campus for a talk titled “Dying Daily: The Vernacular Office of the Dead in Late Medieval England.


 

 

 

 

On Friday, April 20, Prof. Vicki Brennan hosts a day-long symposium featuring keynote speakers, student presentations, and more. It is the culmination of years worth of work, lecture series, film series, multiple courses, and the Sacred Things exhibition–you don’t want to miss it.


Prof. Thomas Borchert, in his capacity as Director of the Asian Studies Program has invited Prof. Kristian Petersen of the University of Nebraska Omaha to deliver the Claire M. Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies. Join us on Monday April 23.

 

 


 

Books! Books! Books!

Check out the recent books written by our faculty–and stay tuned for individual posts from these scholars!


Educating Monks: Minority Buddhism on China’s Southwest Border by Prof. Thomas Borchert (University of Hawaii Press, May 2017)

“Most studies of Buddhist communities tend to be limited to villages, individual temple communities, or a single national community. Buddhist monastics, however, cross a number of these different framings: They are part of local communities, are governed through national legal frameworks, and participate in both national and transnational Buddhist networks. Educating Monks makes visible the ways Buddhist communities are shaped by all of the above—collectively and often simultaneously.

Educating Monks examines a minority Buddhist community in Sipsongpannā, a region located on China’s southwest border with Myanmar and Laos. Its people, the Dai-lue, are “double minorities”: They are recognized by the Chinese state as part of a minority group, and they practice Theravāda Buddhism, a minority form within China, where Mahayana Buddhism is the norm. Theravāda has long been the primary training ground for Dai-lue men, and since the return of Buddhism to the area in the years following Mao Zedong’s death, the Dai-lue have put many of their resources into providing monastic education for their sons. However, the author’s analysis of institutional organization within Sipsongpannā, the governance of religion there, and the movements of monks (revealing the “ethnoscapes” that the monks of Sipsongpannā participate in) points to educational contexts that depend not just on local villagers, but also resources from the local (Communist) government and aid form Chinese Mahayana monks and Theravāda monks from Thailand and Myanmar. While the Dai-lue monks draw on these various resources for the development of the sangha, they do not share the same agenda and must continually engage in a careful political dance between villagers who want to revive traditional forms of Buddhism, a Chinese state that is at best indifferent to the continuation of Buddhism, and transnational monks that want to import their own modern forms of Buddhism into the region.”


Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad by Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (I.B. Tauris, 2017) 

“While jihad has been the subject of countless studies in the wake of recent terrorist attacks, scholarship on the topic has so far paid little attention to South Asian Islam and, more specifically, its place in South Asian history. Seeking to fill some gaps in the historiography, Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst examines the effects of the 1857 Rebellion (long taught in Britain as the ‘Indian Mutiny’) on debates about the issue of jihad during the British Raj. Morgenstein Fuerst shows that the Rebellion had lasting, pronounced effects on the understanding by their Indian subjects (whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh) of imperial rule by distant outsiders. For India’s Muslims their interpretation of the Rebellion as jihad shaped subsequent discourses, definitions and codifications of Islam in the region. Morgenstein Fuerst concludes by demonstrating how these perceptions of jihad, contextualised within the framework of the 19th century Rebellion, continue to influence contemporary rhetoric about Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.Drawing on extensive primary source analysis, this unique take on Islamic identities in South Asia will be invaluable to scholars working on British colonial history, India and the Raj, as well as to those studying Islam in the region and beyond.”


Singing Yoruba Christianity Music, Media, and Morality by Prof. Vicki Brennan (Indiana University Press, 2018)

“Singing the same song is a central part of the worship practice for members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Christian Church in Lagos, Nigeria. Vicki L. Brennan reveals that by singing together, church members create one spiritual mind and become unified around a shared set of values. She follows parishioners as they attend choir rehearsals, use musical media—hymn books and cassette tapes—and perform the music and rituals that connect them through religious experience. Brennan asserts that church members believe that singing together makes them part of a larger imagined social collective, one that allows them to achieve health, joy, happiness, wealth, and success in an ethical way. Brennan discovers how this particular Yoruba church articulates and embodies the moral attitudes necessary to be a good Christian in Nigeria today.”


Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts edited by Prof. Thomas Borchert (Routledge, 2018)

“Over the course of the nineteenth century, most of the Theravada world of Southeast Asia came under the colonial domination of European powers. While this has long been seen as a central event in the development of modern forms of Theravada Buddhism, most discussions have focused on specific Buddhist communities or nations, and particularly their resistance to colonialism.

The chapters in this book examine the many different colonial contexts and regimes that Theravada Buddhists experienced, not just those of European powers such as the British, French, but also the internal colonialism of China and Thailand. They show that while many Buddhists resisted colonialism, other Buddhists shared agendas with colonial powers, such as for the reform of the monastic community. They also show that in some places, such as Singapore and Malaysia, colonialism enabled the creation of Theravada Buddhist communities. The book demonstrates the importance of thinking about colonialism both locally and regionally.”

Senior Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Rebecca Friedlander, ’17

I majored in religion because I took a world religions class in high school and realized how much I didn’t know. I really wanted to learn about new places and new people and I was already planning on majoring in anthropology so religion seemed like a good second major to really give me a broad world view.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years I’ve hopefully completed a masters and maybe even further schooling but I’m keeping my options open right now. Currently I’m thinking about graduate school in archaeology but I’m taking a year off to work and really get a plan together.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would definitely say take at least one class with every professor if you can and don’t miss out on office hours. That’s one thing I wish I had done more of when I was in college because the few times I went it was super helpful and it’s amazing how much you can learn outside of the classroom when you’re just having a conversation and how much you can improve your own work and your life.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I’m reading a lot of dystopia right now so if I could write a book it’d probably be something along those lines. I really like novels that look at how simultaneously expansive and small the world really is in terms of how much everything is connected and impacts everything else but also how much the world contains. So I guess it would have characters vastly different from one another but that have intertwining storylines.

 

The Religion of Prince

The Religion of Prince by Todne Thomas
4/22/16
 
“Dearly Beloved,
We are gathered here today
to get through this thing
called life.” – “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince
 
On April 21, 2016, music icon Prince Rogers Nelson died at the age of 57. A creative genius, disciplined musician, charismatic performer, and prolific songwriter who fused rock, R&B, soul, and funk, Prince engineered a career that spanned four decades. Prince is widely lauded for his considerable musical talent. Prince is also notorious for his public performance of an overtly sensual sexuality that defined gender conventions. Prince’s concerts and music were vital contemplative spaces that illustrated the socially constructed character of gender and sexuality as well as the myriad embodied and performative hybridities that gender and sexuality can entail. For Prince to debut an overtly gender-transgressing sexuality in the 1980s as an African American man was incredibly significant. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of Neoconservatism and the Christian Right that attributed black poverty in the United States to black cultural deficiencies and a pathologized rather than institutional racism. Family values, and more specifically a corrective heteropatriarchy, were proposed as a way to end what was a perceived to be an onslaught of black welfare queens, absentee dads, and broken families. Prince’s performance of an embodied black sexuality that did not conform to a hypermasculinized black masculinity or a respectable black patriarchy was a defiant rejection of the intersectional hegemonies that sought to discipline black sexuality. Even amidst the controversial perspectives voiced by Prince after he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2011 that have been associated with anti-gay and anti-bisexual rhetoric (which in their own right merit analysis), the transgressive legacy of Prince’s career remains. His music and performance contained not only a confident pulse and an arrogant swagger but also a soulful rebuke of the constriction of sexuality—a counter-church if you will with “Purple Rain” as a hymn that airs the ambivalences, contradictions, and challenges that shape the affective and material contexts of black intimacies.
 
In addition to the ways in which Prince’s music located itself against the grain of conservative religio-political formation that constituted and demoralized blackness as nonheteronormative, is the aesthetics of Prince’s music and its religious and spiritual implications. In Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Harding writes of the broad registers of an indigenous black folk religion.
 
The meaning of religion for Black folks, they insist, is in the heart of our history, our trauma and our hope. It is what makes us indigenous to this place, to modernity. As [Charles] Long puts it, Black religion is the way have oriented ourselves—over the centuries in these Americas and extending back before our arrival on these shores—to “mash out a meaning” of life in the midst of tremendous suffering and pain. Religion, in this sense, is not simply a doctrine of faith or the methods and practices of church; rather, it is all the ways we remind ourselves of who we really are, in spite of who the temporal powers may say we are….Black religion then, is not only in the music, the drama, the communion, and the interpretation of text within the walls of the physical church; it is also in the orientation of Black people to so-called secular culture. Black religion is Otis Redding and D’Angelo as much as Mahalia Jackson and Mary Mary; it is hip-hop as holy dance; and root work as much as the laying on of hands. [Harding 2015, 118].
 
Black religion then constitutes an interpretive grid by which black people make sense of their place in the world, construct meaningful, hopeful, and even sensuous identities for themselves against hegemonic colonial narratives that confine blackness to abjection or the underside of morality and power. Whether in the moan of a woman rocked by the Holy Spirit or the ecstasy of a sexual moan sung by Prince followed by a pronouncement in “D.M.S.R.,” “Girl it ain’t no sin to strip down to your underwear,” both embodied performances aid a “beloved” in “get[ting] through this thing called life.” The throaty screams of Prince’s singing catapulted in tenor tones somewhere into a universe of the future is call for a radical immanence. In a time in which #BlackLivesMatter activists invoke black matter, bodies, and immediacy, in a way that I argue unseats a hegemonic Christian emphasis of ascetic suppression of the body and emphasis of a future messianic salvation, Prince is a priest of a black religion of here and now, of a this-lifeness that beckons us to contemplate how we love, inhabit, and move our flesh.

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 www.buddhanet.net). 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.