The author promises to take her readers through a tour of the international meditation centers in Thailand through the experiences of international meditators and their teachers in the context of the commodification of meditation through promotional materials (2). Because of this focus, her work is primarily a study of how Buddhism is imagined and experienced in contemporary settings. As a result, she argues that de-contextualization from the traditional worldview and re-contextualization in modern discourses show how religions negotiate modernity (3). As such, she claims that her ethnography contributes to the anthropology of religion, tourism, and meditation (5).
So far, so good, as most of these intentions are given historical backgrounds and are descriptively elaborated throughout the text, in the hope of understanding religious change and adaptation in modernity. This being as it may, I think that she connects meditation and religion too easily, and even as in popular thinking meditation seems to be a Buddhist monopoly, this is no matter-of-course. In the Javanese imagination of the radical immanence of Life, meditation is a highly recommended practice, at the same time that people would object to see it as ‘religion’ (Mulder 2005:48-53); Islam, too, is familiar with various kinds of meditational practice, even as in certain of its corners these are rejected as pretentious and heretical.
The way the book has been composed makes me think of a collage or a scrapbook. It follows the intentions that have too readily been given away in the programmatic title, but the text is devoid of theory and line, which makes me wonder how this is possible with a narrative that originated as a PhD dissertation at Arizona State University. Moreover, the foremost theorist of modernity and its relation to religion, Habermas, is conspicuous through his absence. Had his thinking been taken into account, she could have placed her observations in a modernity that begets individual-centered religious practice that allows for creatively adopting and subversively rejecting features of both modernity and religion. This characteristic open-endedness, in which everything is possible, keeps pace with the escalating contingencies of everyday life, so giving shape to Habermas’s ‘new obscurity’ (neue Unübersichtlichkeit) as sign and symbol of modernity.
At the level of the individual, this means being subjected to precarious situations and social dislocations with increased frequency, which greatly stimulates the vitality and versatility of religion, inclusive of meditation, mysticism, spiritual yoga, ancestor worship, magic, faith-healing rallies, spirit cults, mediums and trance. In other words, there simply seems to be no limit to contemporary religiously-tinged expressions. As a result, it fits her descriptions hand-and-glove when she observes that many non-Thais are stimulated to discover the wonders of meditation such as promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, even as personal motivations to engage in meditation vary to such an extent as to make it well neigh impossible to pinpoint the international meditators as a group. Consequently, she could have concluded that individual psychological needs should be considered as a cardinal driving force of the world-wide vitality of Religion.
As if to approve, she quotes from Yamashita “[Balinese essence] has survived by flexible adaptation in response to stimuli from the outside world… As a result, what we need are not narratives of homogenization or loss, but of emergence and invention” (145). Upon this, she concludes, “Within Thailand’s international meditation centers, intercultural dialogue and discourses of modern Buddhism act as a frame for continued translations. … aspects of the retreat and Buddhist teachings [are translated] into universal and secular discourses that privilege individual choice” (146). And this, again, is what we could theoretically have anticipated.
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 (University of the Philippines Press, forthcoming) (email@example.com).
Mulder, N. 2016. A review of Schedneck, B. 2015. Thailand’s International Meditation Centers; Tourism and the global commodification of religious practices, posted online on 7 June 2016: http://newbooks.asia/review/universe-grain-self
Habermas, J. 1985. Die neue Unübersichtlichkeit; Kleine politische Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J. 2006. “Religion in the Public Sphere”, European Journal of Philosophy 14(1):1-25.
Mulder, N. 2005. Mysticism in Java / Ideology in Indonesia. Yogyakarta:Kanisius Publishing House.
Yamashita, S. 2003. Bali and Beyond; Explorations in the Anthropology of Tourism. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books.