When most people think of Buddhism they begin to imagine a lone monk in the forest or a serene rock garden. The world of ghosts, amulets, and magic are usually from their mind. They may even feel some aversion to the notion that the meditative calm of monks from the East could have anything to do with these superstitious ideas and practices. Justin Thomas McDaniel, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, challenges many of theses preconceived ideas about what constitutes the substance of modern Buddhism in Thailand. In his new book, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand (Columbia University Press, 2011), McDaniel begins his journey of contemporary Buddhism at one of the regular funerals for our lovelorn ghost (Mae Nak). Despite the compelling nature of this scene, as a skilled linguist and practicing scholar-monk for many years, McDaniel never imagined that he would be examining the supernatural world of ghost stories. However, after living in Thailand for several years as an academic and practitioner he realized that the specter of modern Thai Buddhist practices and believes would not leave him alone. McDaniel has catalogued much of hat he has found about Thai Buddhism on his wonderful project in digital humanities, the Thai Digital Monastery. Instead of looking for Buddhism, he let Buddhists tell, show, describe and recount what they do, chant, hold, and value.
McDaniel uses the story of the lovelorn ghost and the magical monk, who we find out, is the infamous Somdet To, as an opening to explore the various aspects of contemporary religious Buddhist practices and how they shape Thai society. The six degrees of separation (from Somdet To) takes us through an erudite analysis of biographies, hagiographies, film, statues, amulets, murals, texts, magic, chants, and photographs, in the coproduction of religious knowledge. While McDaniel’s book is a key contribution to Thai, Theravada, and modern Buddhism, it is also valuable in the study of religion more generally. His approach provides a template for the “pragmatic sociological study of cultural repertoires,” which examines what a particular person carries, recites, and respects, how they do something, how they say they do something, and the material and social contexts they do it in. This allows us as researchers to unshackle our study from the expectations of certain terminology. He also problematizes a number of other categories, such as, magic, cult, localization, folk, popular, local, syncretism, synergy, domestication, hybridity, and vernacularization, by demonstrating their limited usefulness when attempting to describe a Thai monastery, shrine, liturgy, or ritual. These innovative moves in methodology should be motivational to others in the field more generally. Overall, McDaniel produced a highly readable and enjoyable portrait of Buddhism in contemporary Thailand.