Theravada Traditions offers a unique comparative approach to understanding Buddhism: it examines popular rituals of central importance in the predominantly Theravada Buddhist cultures of Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Instead of focusing on how religious ideas have impacted the ideals of government or ethical practice, author John Holt tries to ascertain how important changes, or shifts, in the trajectories of the political economies of societies have impacted the character of religious cultures.
Each of the five chapters focuses on a particular rite and provides detailed historical, political, or social context: Holt shows how worship of the Phra Bang Buddha image in the annual pi mai or New Year’s rites in Luang Phrabang, Laos, has changed dramatically since the 1975 communist revolution and the subsequent opening up of the country to tourism; he describes how, in the face of insurrections and a prolonged civil war, the annual asala perahara processions in Kandy, Sri Lanka, have come to reflect a robust assertion of a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist identity; how ordination rites among Thai Buddhists reflect the manner in which Thai culture has been ever more “commodified” in the context of its dramatically developing economy; and how in tightly controlled Myanmar the kathina rite, the act of giving new robes to members of the sangha after the completion of the rain-retreat season, transformed into a season of campaigning for gift-giving and merit-making; finally, he demonstrates how, in light of the devastating losses inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, pchum ben, the annual rite of caring ritually for one’s deceased kin, became the most popular and perhaps most emotionally observed of all rites in the Khmer calendar year.
In short, Theravada Traditions illustrates how popular, public ritual performance, far from being static, clearly indexes patterns of social and political change. Broad but deep, rigorous yet accessible, this rich, innovative volume provides a provocative introduction to the practice of Theravada Buddhism and the nature of social change in contemporary Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.