In his recent monograph, The Buddha’s Wizards: Magic, Protection, and Healing in Burmese Buddhism(Columbia University Press, 2018), Thomas Patton examines the weizzā, a figure in Burmese Buddhism who is possessed with extraordinary supernatural powers, usually gained through some sort of esoteric practice. Like the tantric adept in certain other Buddhist traditions, the weizzā can use his skills both to manipulate human affairs in the present world and to help people progress towards Buddhist soteriological goals. The weizzā is thus a morally ambiguous figure, for while this Buddhist wizard might heal a sick relative or help one’s karmic circumstances, he might just as well cast an evil spell. Indeed, it is precisely because of the weizzā’s perceived power that these wizards and their devotees have been persecuted by both the government and Buddhist monastic leaders, and why this tradition has largely existed at the margins of state-sanctioned orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Patton shows that while prototypes for this Buddhist wizard can be found in Burmese Buddhism in premodern times, the weizzā as we know him really emerges during the twilight of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Like many other Buddhists of this time, the weizzā were dismayed by the presence of the British in Burma, which they saw as a direct threat to Buddhism, and they used their supernatural powers to fight the British in whatever ways they could. Later, after the British left and once it was seen that Buddhism was not in decline, weizzā shifted their focus from protection to propagation of Buddhism; to this end they built pagodas not only throughout Burma, but also in far-away lands such as the United States. These pagodas were supposed to transmit the power of the weizzā with whom they were associated, and many weizzā devotees liken them to nodes in an electricity grid or even to wifi hotspots.
While Patton locates weizzā within the aforementioned historical framework, much of his book is more concerned with the relationship between weizzā and devotee, and is based on both historical records and his extensive fieldwork. As noted, weizzā can use their powers for soteriological ends; but more often than not they are found healing the sick. Not only that, but the majority of their beneficent activity occurs after they have died. Indeed, most people who meet a weizzā meet him not during his lifetime, but rather in a dream or a semi-conscious state years after his death. In addition, weizzā are known to possess young women and help the living through these mediums, and Patton has a wonderful chapter on this phenomenon in which he explores the ways in which this weizzā possession is different from other types of possession found in Buddhism.
The book also looks at the process by which certain figures came to be prominent weizzā. The most famous weizzā, a man by the name of Bo Min Guang who died in 1952, was said to have acted in a most bizarre manner: his speech was often incomprehensible, he would shout like a madman, and he was even known to have hurled his own feces at devotees. After his death, legends about this man and reports of encounters with him accumulated to the point that his saintliness, supernatural powers, and continuing protection of the living were indisputable. And yet his persona was in large part a posthumous development. Listeners with knowledge of the saint figure in other Buddhist or religious traditions will be particularly interested in this section.
Patton makes a point of discussing the weizzā within a larger Religious Studies context. He draws extensively on the work of the scholar of American religion and Catholicism Robert Orsi, for example, and he contrasts the dream-encounter rhetoric that he discovered in Burma with a tradition of dream interpretation found in certain forms of Islam. In the interview we just skim the surface, and listeners wanting to know more will have to read the book in order to appreciate its arguments more fully and to enjoy Patton’s many detailed accounts from the field. The book will obviously be important for anyone studying Myanmar and Southeast Asian Buddhism, but will also appeal to those interested in possession, healing rituals, Burmese resistance to colonial rule, and the marginalization of religious groups perceived to be in possession of secret, esoteric powers.