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Living Buddhism (Review)

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Julia Cassaniti. 2015. Living Buddhism: mind, self, and emotion in a Thai community. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, ISBN 9780801456718 

Julia Cassaniti’s Living Buddhism is a multifaceted miniature in which thick description, a tangible participant observer, and down-to-earth interpretation demolish academically rarefied ‘Buddhism’, resuscitate the notion of ‘culture’, and demonstrate the theoretical relevance of the nexus everyday life and ideas. Be this as it may, this overloaded sentence stands in need of ‘deconstruction’, so let’s descend into detail.
Even as the main data are set within a wider scope of chance observations and occasional interviews with minor figures, the focus of the research is on a very limited set of actors who are familiar with each other, and whose being in the world, in the course of the project, reveals how Buddhist ideas enlighten and give meaning to everyday action. To reach that point required a long period of on-and-off field-work in which observer Julia became a participating friend who, initially fettered in her own out-of-place ideas, could gradually gain access to the mental world of her Northern Thai village friends. In her reportage, she is inevitably present, which, in my opinion as a fellow field-worker, she should be.
Similar to my early experience in Thailand, she had her academic preconceptions about ‘Buddhism’, but, whereas her confrontation with ‘the field’ dismantled them in due course, the idea “the Thais are mistaken Buddhists” stuck with me for a long time in the urban environment where it was steadily reinforced by my contacts with Thai intellectuals and intimate association with the monks of Wat Thongnopphakhun in Thonburi and Wat Phra Sihing in Chiang Mai (Mulder 2008; 2009). Subsequently, we know that we have to make ourselves very conscious of the ideas we carry in our minds and of those that we are being fed in the field, which is exemplarily revealed by Julia-in-the-field.
In the 1960s and 1970s, at the time of my formative years as a researcher, Clifford Geertz put his stamp on the interpretation of culture (Geertz 1973), and in a way, Cassaniti revives the ‘culture as a blueprint for action’ with the important difference of making it a two-way street. In her vision—to which I fully subscribe—culture becomes a ‘mental toolkit for action’ and a ‘conceptual space for possibilities’. In the latter sense, it catches the possibilities of shaping personality, mind, self and emotion, motivation and dominant discourse that, in their turn, shape the interpretation or understanding of life in a particular context.
The narrative moves from initial perplexity at the fact that people say and do feel better by thinking of anicca, impermanence, to appreciating that their understanding of getting stuck on things will bring suffering. Because of this, they will craft calm and “cool-hearted” emotions to enable them to let go of being emotionally hung up on persons, things, and circumstance. Whereas this moralized affective orientation creates positive results, the middle chapter of the narrative highlights the second quality Buddhism attributes to existence, dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, that unfolds through holding on to said attachments. Since the third quality of non-enlightened life, anatta, the illusory notion of self, escapes from people’s affective orientation, the narrative moves on to a final chapter that dwells on karma, on the chain of moral cause and effect; the way informants explained said chain evoked in me the stream of aphorisms with which my low-brow companion for seven years elucidated the experience of life. A few comparisons with the Christian reasoning of a nearby Karen village, and the more elaborate case study of a person seized by alcoholism—and his eventual recovery—serve as vivid demonstrations of how personal engagements with impermanence, emotion, attachment, and karma work to craft health and well-being.
As a result, a major message of Living Buddhism is that, whereas Religion serves as a major vessel of thought, we have to realize that living religion is localized and will be shaped according to the particular characteristics of the group that has appropriated ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Buddhist’, etc., ideas, and that, to be effective, ‘modern’ physicians should not confine their treatment to bio-medicine, but also take the alcoholic patient’s cultural setting into account.
 

Niels Mulder (1935; Dutch) has devoted most of his professional life to research on the mental world of members of the urban middle classes on Java, in Thailand and the Philippines. His latest work is Life in the Philippines: Contextual Essays on Filipino Being. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press 2016.

References:
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures; selected essays. New York: Basic Books.
Mulder, Niels. 2008. Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.
---. 2009. Professional Stranger; doing Thailand during its most violent decade: a field diary. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.

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