Erik W. Davis’ Deathpower is being hailed as a major work on Cambodian Buddhism and Cambodian religion. See this review in the Phnom Penh Post, which makes it sound quite accessible. (All quotes are from the Post’s review, which is by Brent Crane):
Drawing from three years of field research … Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia, published earlier this month by Columbia University Press, expounds on Cambodian ritual dealings with souls beyond the grave – how individuals, mostly monks, interact with and interpret the spirit world and how communities respond to those interpretations.
Buddhism is overwhelmingly about death. Weddings are mostly for the achars, the specialists in ritual, and the ancestors – the monks attend, but their role isn’t crucial. Same for birth – birth practices are all about protecting the new-born infant and the mother from the attentions of malicious spirits. But at the time of death the monks are indispensable.
Being in charge of death gives the monks immense power. Which of course is not so dissimilar to traditional Christianity – the Church tells you you need the sacraments in order to die right, and who can say they’re wrong? Oscar Wilde repented on his deathbed.
Davis is arguing against the idea that Buddhism is all about seeking nirvana. A religion that spent all its time sitting with its legs crossed and muttering mystic syllables wouldn’t have much hold on anyone outside southern California. Yet this is what many Westerners think – so many times I’ve been told that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion. It’s a religion.
It has long been the prevailing academic view that folk beliefs within Theravada Buddhist practices throughout Southeast Asia, such as spirit worship, were “accretions” or additions to “real” Buddhism, based on a strict adherence to original Pali scripture.
The Post is slightly wrong there – there’s no “spirit worship”. Nor is there any Buddha worship, at least in theory – the Buddha was a man, not a god, and he achieved nirvana, which is the extinction of the self, and therefore he no longer exists, and so there’s nothing there to worship. My own take is that there’s no worship at all in Cambodian religion – people ask the gods and spirits for favours, and they thank them for favours given, but they don’t give praise.
And asking and receiving favours is, of course, the basis of Cambodian social relations – you have a patron who is wealthier and more powerful than you, you ask him for help when you need it, and you owe him a debt for what you receive. Religion mirrors society.
Cambophiles and Buddhism scholars alike have praised Deathpower. Renowned historian David Chandler deemed it “very pleasing” and a “reader’s feast”; Anne Hansen, a Buddhist Studies Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went so far as to call the 320-page book “the most perceptive, meticulous, informative, and important study of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism to date”.
High praise indeed. Hansen points out that the idea that the spirit world is not Buddhism is distinctively Western. It comes from the Western preconception that religion is the Word – religion is what’s written, whether in the Bible or the Koran (Islam is a child of this same mindset, and Protestantism takes it to an extreme). Buddhism, like Christianity, has written scriptures, and Westerners, academics and Californians alike, have instinctively preferenced the scriptures. Non-Westerns have no such preconception. Death is real, the spirits are real, and the monks know how to deal with both.
Deathpower is published by Columbia University Press and right ow is priced on the university website at $36, which seems reasonable. That’s the hardcover. The same website lists the e-book at $59.99. On Erik Davis’ personal website there’s a code that allows you to get a 30% discount.