Erik W. Davis, "Deathpower: Buddhism's Ritual Imagination in Cambodia" (Columbia UP, 2015)


In his recent monograph, Deathpower: Buddhism's Ritual Imagination in Cambodia (Columbia University Press, 2015), Erik W. Davis explores funerary ritual in contemporary Cambodian Buddhism and the way in which Buddhist monks manage death such that its negative power is harnessed and used for the reproduction of morality and of a particular social reality. The book is organized around two themes, which serve as the warp over and under which Davis skillfully weaves the ethnographic detail resulting from his many years of fieldwork in Southeast Asia. The first of these two themes is binding. In the funeral itself binding is both symbolic, as when the funerary ritualists contain the potentially malevolent spirits exiting the corpse, and physical, as when the corpse is bound with consecrated string. Davis sees this image of binding extending far beyond the funeral rite, however, and discusses the way in which Khmer culture itself is founded in part upon the binding or controlling of water--necessary in rice agriculture as practiced in Cambodia--and the binding of people, which is actualized as the enslavement of highland non-agricultural peoples by lowland-dwelling Cambodians. The second theme that runs throughout the book is the dichotomy between civilization and its other. Thus, we find in the Khmer imagination a distinction made between the civilized, moral, agricultural, deforested lowlands and the wild, amoral, forested highlands. In its firm association with civilization, agriculture, and social hierarchy, Cambodian Buddhism legitimates this imagined dichotomy and renders the social world of the lowlands moral. Because Davis explains the nitty-gritty of the many rituals he discusses in larger theoretical terms, the book will be of great interest to both specialists and those with no knowledge of Cambodian Buddhism. On the more detailed side, he discusses not only funerals, but also the sīmā ceremony, the domestication of ghosts by Buddhist monks, the feeding of ghosts and ancestors, witchcraft, the ordination of novice monks, slavery in Cambodia, Khmer origin legends, fertility rituals associated with rice cultivation, nāgas, apotropaic tattoos, Khmer views of leftovers (of food, that is), and a fascinating amulet that is supposedly created by ripping a fetus out of a living woman. But all of this is explained with reference to broader perennial themes, including Buddhism's management and power over death, reciprocity within the family and (more broadly) human society, the relationship between kingship and Buddhism, human sacrifice, the ambiguity that so often characterizes attitudes towards the deceased, the relationship between agriculture and social hierarchy, and the way in which Buddhism defines itself in opposition to an imagined, amoral other. Specialists will learn something new about the particulars of Cambodian Buddhist ritual, Cambodian society, and funerary practice, while scholars of Buddhism and other religions will surely recognize familiar patterns even as they appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Cambodian Buddhism. Furthermore, in addition to his rich, first-hand accounts of various rituals and his examination of these rituals through a number of theoretical lenses, Davis includes at the end of each of the book's nine chapters a vignette relating either a legend or an episode from his own time in the field that illustrates a particular point he is trying to make. This, along with the inclusion of sixteen black and whitephotographs from the author's fieldwork and a Khmer glossary, make this a very accessible book despite its complexity and depth.

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Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson's research focuses on medieval Japanese Buddhist intellectual history, though he has interests in Buddhism beyond Japan, and particularly in anthropological approaches to Buddhism.

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