In her recent monograph, Thailand's International Meditation Centers: Tourism and the Global Commodification of Religious Practices
(Routledge, 2015), Brooke Schedneck
examines Buddhist meditation centers in Thailand and draws our attention to the way in which these institutions have creatively (though not always intentionally) altered Buddhist meditation and the meditation retreat format so as to make them accessible to the large number of non-Thai meditators who come to these centers. While at first sight the topic of meditation centers in Thailand might appear fairly narrow and easy to delimit, Schedneck shows that to understand both the histories of these centers and the ways in which they currently operate, one must locate these institutions in the broader contexts of Southeast Asian history, European intellectual and colonial history, and Buddhism's encounter with modernity.
After covering the rise of mass meditation movements (a process that can be traced in part to developments in late nineteenth-century Burma), Schedneck turns to the way in which the meditation centers where she conducted her fieldwork have created two systems within a single institution: one for Thai retreatants, and the other for foreigners. Not only does the social interaction between teacher and student differ in the two systems, but so too does the way in which meditation is taught. Thai participants understand meditation as but one of a number of activities that are meaningful according to a worldview based on Buddhist ideas and values, and they are taught accordingly. Non-Thai meditators, who are almost exclusively from the West, are instead presented with meditation as a secular practice that is to be understood in psychological and universalistic terms, and is largely a matter of individual development.
This difference is in turn related to the motivations and preconceptions about Buddhism and Asia that foreign meditators bring to the retreat. Schedneck positions such motives and assumptions in the larger contexts of Buddhist modernism, Orientalism, and the history of European views of Buddhism (both of the Enlightenment and Romantic varieties). As part of this discussion, she clarifies the way in which many first-time retreatants' associate Buddhist meditation with nature, or, alternatively, see it as a form of therapy through which individual transformation and healing can be realized.
However, Western objectifications of Buddhism constitute but one aspect of Schedneck's multi-faceted exploration of the international meditation centers. Her novel research into the ways in which individual meditation centers, the World Buddhist Federation, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand have portrayed and promoted these centers, is the "commodification" in the subtitle of the book. Schedneck demonstrates that the repackaging of Buddhist meditation is neither a wholesale adaptation of Western modernity nor a conscious attempt at securing tourist spending, but rather a creative adaptation through which Buddhism and meditation are rendered intelligible and meaningful to those who are culturally unfamiliar with both. And Schedneck is careful to point out that this dynamic is as old as Buddhism itself, for Buddhism's two-and-a-half-millennia survival was possible only because Buddhism was translated into the languages of, and adapted to the thinking of, those cultures to which it spread.
One of the most satisfying features of the book is the inclusion of excerpts from some of the interviews that Schedneck conducted with over sixty international meditation teachers and students. In addition, we find fascinating descriptions of the retreat centers at the center of her research and of the details of daily life during a retreat: schedule, food, ritual, and so on. This work will be of particular value to those interested in modern Thai Buddhism, Buddhist modernism, religion and modernity, Buddhist meditation, Southeast Asian history, and the legacy of Orientalism.
Luke Thompson is Visiting Instructor (Buddhist Studies) in the Religion Program at Bard College, and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University. His research focuses on pre-modern Japanese Buddhist intellectual history and Buddhist conceptions of history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.