NORTHEAST THAI-LAO THERAVADA BUDDHISM PERIPHERAL, CENTRAL, OR VARIETAL?

Author:Lefferts, Leedom
 
FREE EXCERPT

The Thai-Lao population of Northeast Thailand, twenty-two million in a national population of sixty-eight million, live a paradox. While they are the Kingdom's single, largest ethnic group, they are an unvoiced minority subjected to a documented history of subordination, discrimination, colonization, and prejudice. This paper, following Tsing's suggestion that religion provides a mechanism by which minorities can express agency, proposes that the Thai-Lao have cultivated a variant of Theravada Buddhism best understood in its own terms. Central to this is the evolution of the Bun Phra Wet, a festival celebrating the penultimate life of the Buddha's karma. While the Vessantara birth story on which the Phra Wet festival is based is well-known throughout the Buddhist world, no other variant of Theravada Buddhist expounds on it as do the Thai-Lao, celebrating the agency of citizens to certify the legitimacy of the ruler.

INTRODUCTION

While it might seem presumptuous to suggest that a population of over twenty-two million living in a kingdom of some sixty-eight million people in which they form the largest ethnic group constitutes a "peripheral" culture, it should come as no surprise that in cultures and political systems where minority centers control large populations, such as Southeast Asia, a regime of this kind is possible.

I speak here of the Northeast Thai-Lao people of the Kingdom of Thailand, for which a documented history of subordination, discrimination, colonialization, and prejudice is easily compiled. (2) While such descriptive adjectives are appropriate, they perpetuate the division between center and periphery against which this paper takes a stand. These terms provide little context for the expression of difference except as extremism; they perpetuate the dichotomy of center and periphery. A primary result of this approach is the invocation of revolution and dethronement of the center as the redress for inequality, which simply perpetuates the center-periphery dialectic.

This paper expresses a different perspective on the relationship between the Northeast Thai-Lao and "the Kingdom's center." It engages in an ethnographic examination of a religious ritual constructed by the Thai-Lao, which asserts their independence from, but at the same time forges their own ties to, this center. In undertaking this effort, the paper proposes an alternate understanding of a foundational Thai-Lao religious ritual which, while related to other Theravada Buddhist rituals in the Kingdom, has evolved mechanisms that express the differences experienced by these people.

The Bun Phra Wet (Lao/Thai: Bun, occasion for merit-making; Lao/Thai: Phra Wet, (3) Prince Wetsandon, Pali: Vessantara) is the merit-making festival in honor of the accomplishments of the karma of Prince Vessantara. Because of the merit he evinced during this life, his karma was reborn in its next life as Siddhartha Gautama to become the Enlightened One. The festival presents and represents to the people who celebrate it their "religious" independence from those who consider themselves central in political, economic, and social terms.

This independence seems to have come about over time in part due to the dynamics of discrimination and servitude that prevail in the Siamese, now Thai, Kingdom in which the "center" has defined the "periphery." (4) But to these Thai-Lao participants, the Bun Phra Wet provides a gradation of affect and allegiance, which allows them to energize their involvement in a larger, more inclusive grouping, as adherents to Theravada Buddhism and direct intercessors with their ruler. This ritual provides a way for these people to see themselves as involved in a more inclusive Buddhist status when compared with adherents closer to the "center." At the same time, the ritual provides a way for them to interact directly with their rulers; indeed, in their performance the people go to the forest to ask for Phra Wet to return from the exile they had demanded. I call this emergent ritual a "varietal" version of religious and political behavior rather than a "peripheral" one.

"Independence" leads me to propose "variety" rather than "center/periphery" because it permits a dynamic understanding of the ways these people wish to conceive of themselves in their peculiar majority-as-minority status. The present paper addresses this behavior by considering frameworks for discussion and the ethnographic evidence to support this contention.

FRAMEWORKS

It would be disingenuous to state that, when I initially undertook fieldwork in Thailand and selected the Northeast part, I was headed into an area that I understood as "peripheral." Charles Keyes's 1968 statement concerning "Northeast Thai Regionalism" was well-known; (5) Thai and US military efforts to ensure that the region remained a part of the Kingdom, including a number of American military stationed in the region, were clear indicators of anticipated if not actual separatism; The Ugly American graphically depicted problems of regional development, (6) but the lack of electricity and year-round road access to the place where I undertook my fieldwork, only ten kilometers from a major Northeast city, showed its marginality. Indeed, I selected this community precisely because it was the focus of an effort of concentrated development, which by definition meant that it was destined to become more similar to the places from which I had come than the places from which these villagers had originated. Concepts of "center" and "periphery," "developed" and "undeveloped," ruled and I was asked to lay a baseline for analyzing the trajectory of the coming forced evolution.

But at the same time, I also became, as is the goal of an ethnographer, involved in the lives of the people with whom I was living. Almost everything I learned about Northeast Thai-Lao comes from living with them. This, from the viewpoint of people of the center, meant bringing my friends closer to the center's way of life. I also saw where such goals were, from the point-of-view of the people "subjected" to this "development," riddled with loopholes and caveats, experienced and expressed by my friends.

Over time, I became accustomed to thinking of the places where I researched and the subjects that I undertook to comprehend as "peripheral." But at the same time I found that people in this "peripheral" space--the villagers who became my friends and what they do--enlightening, innovative, and important for understanding larger frameworks in which all people exist, including the concepts of "periphery" and "center." The tension between the assignment of "peripherality" and the evident innovativeness of people supposed to be on the receiving end of innovations--both peripheral and scholarly--inform the dynamic that has led to the formulation of "varietal" differences in religion that undergirds this paper.

THEORIES

There are times when, employing a word often used and thought of as easily understood, I have found recourse to the "OED;" The Oxford English Dictionary provides a clarity not otherwise available. The OED gives three definitions for "periphery." The third definition seems most in keeping with the usual thrust of the meaning of "periphery" in social science today:

  1. The region, space, or area surrounding something; a fringe, margin. Now chiefly: the outlying areas of a region, most distant from or least influenced by some political, cultural, or economic centre, [emphases added] (7) In this definition I emphasize "Now chiefly" and "least influenced by some political, cultural, or economic centre" because these give the term a sense of history. "Now chiefly" connotes that the meaning has changed; "least influenced" states that influence from the center does occur, but has happened here less than in other, less distant locations. The OED is useful because, with each of its definitions, it presents a series of quotations of actual use, so that it is possible to chart these historical changes.

Early usages of "periphery" were more positive than the majority of recent practices. The OED first cites Benjamin Martins 1759 Natural History of England, in which he wrote, in the context of the architecture of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, about the "spacious Peripheries of [decorative] Enrichment," "peripheries" here meaning the spaces in the arches supporting the cathedral's three roofs. Note, however, that these "peripheries" were to be filled; they were vacant, but could become "enriched." (8)

Within a century the negative connotations we associate with periphery became more overt. These are perhaps best seen in Alexander Goldenweiser's 1925 American Journal of Sociology discussion of diffusionism and culture areas: "As one moves from the center to the periphery, the tribes become less and less fully representative of the culture area." (9)

In 1969, A. G. Frank, considering development, underdevelopment, and revolution in Latin America, wrote,

In the metropolis-periphery relationship of each of these levels, as in that of the international one which engulfs them all, the metropolis sucks capital out of the periphery and uses its power to maintain the economic, political, social and cultural structure of the periphery and its peripheral (228) metropoles and therewith to maintain as long as possible the capitalist imperialist system which permits this exploitation, [emphasis included to highlight incorrect OED citation] (10) The latest cited example from the OED, from 2002, presents an inkling that "periphery" might not always be a vacuum. Tom Nairn, reflecting on the impact immigrants and outsiders might make on British politics at the turn of the millennium, notes that representatives from the peripheries can make contributions to the center: "This gives an opportunity for identitarian preachers to step in--frequently from the periphery." However, Nairn previously noted "a disconcerting lack of response (so far) from the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP