Renouncing Pleasures: Buddhist Monasticism and Masculinity among the Tai Lue


Roger Casas

PhD defended at: 

Department of Anthropology, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University



The Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna, in southern Yunnan Province, are habitually identified as the largest community of Theravada Buddhists in China. Following the end of the overt repression suffered during the Cultural Revolution and other periods of the Maoist era, the economic and political opening up of the country since the late 1970s has allowed for a strong recovery of Buddhist practice among the Lue. In spite of decreasing numbers of ordinations, particularly in the last decade, monasticism continues to play an important role in the configuration of Tai Lue identities. The recovery of monastic practice in Sipsong Panna is also marked by the increasing incorporation of local monasticism into regional and global Buddhist networks. Within this context of increasing connectivity and visibility, the public participation of Lue monks and novices in practices usually considered inappropriate and even unacceptable for monastics in China and Southeast Asia, such as having food in the afternoons, gambling, drinking alcohol, having girlfriends, or competing in sports, has become problematized and identified as proof of ‘ignorance’ or ‘defectiveness’ on the part of this minority religious community.
Questioning portrayals of such unorthodox monasticism as a symptom of backwardness or degeneration and building on previous anthropological work conducted on Theravada Buddhism, this thesis examines temporary ordination as one of the diverse disciplines, if a fundamental one, involved in the contemporary configuration of manhood among the Tai Lue. Based on long-term ethnographic work in the area, the thesis explores monastic practice in Sipsong Panna as a lived experience from the moment of ordination as a novice to that of disrobing, and in different contexts, paying special attention to the embodied aspects of that experience, such as interactions with different types of substances, and the cultivation of the body.
The thesis contends that in order to understand monasticism in Sipsong Panna, the strong connection Lue monastics maintain to the lay world of family and peers makes it necessary to delve into non-monastic forms of male socialization and competitive masculinity. Taking account of demands and expectations coming from the local, national and global spheres, the intense participation of Tai Lue monastics in ‘non-orthodox’ and controversial practices is explained in terms of the challenge that the arrival of the national public education system and Han Chinese models of successful manhood has posed to local monasticism. Concurrently, the impetus of their own local monastic tradition and their exposure to the assertive Buddhist reform project of the Thai nation-state shape the ways in which Lue monks embrace modernity, as guardians of Buddhist traditions and as embodiments of a particular type of masculinity characterized precisely by the monastic experience. Monasticism is portrayed as a site for Lue youths to negotiate these competing expectations, giving rise to criticism and consternation from various quarters, but also showing the creative, synthesising and accommodative nature of Lue monastic masculinity.