Justin Thomas McDaniel, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand. Seattle and London, University of Washington Press, 2008. pp. xiii + 358.

Reform of Theravada Buddhism occurred in different parts of Southeast Asia in different circumstances at different times. In Burma reform started in the late eighteenth century with the enforcement of strict ordinations and the strengthening of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The same process began in Siam in the middle of the nineteenth century and continued into the early twentieth with new curricula for the education of monks. Cambodian Buddhism experienced similar changes under French colonial rule, drawing inspiration from what was taking place in Siam. Across the region, including Ceylon, the encounter with Western travellers, diplomats and missionaries provoked a re-examination of monastic practice rather than doctrine. The impulse was fundamentalist, a return to orthodoxy and the Buddhist canon. Many indigenous Buddhist thinkers were intent on eliminating superstitious elements from the religion. They sought to proselytise a rational worldview that even today sees Buddhism as compatible with Western science.

Such is the conventional story of Theravada Buddhist modernism, but Justin McDaniel, the author of Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand, is not having it, or at least, he is not having all of it. He finds this account of Buddhist modernism misleading in its elitism and ignorant of how Buddhism was actually taught in monasteries, especially in the villages and more remote parts of the region. After studying Pali at a village monastery on the Thai Lao border and too many years at American universities studying Buddhism and a dizzying number of European and Asian languages, including Pali and Sanskrit, all of which he uses effortlessly, McDaniel came to the conclusion that most of what Buddhists teach other Buddhists in mainland Southeast Asia is not canonical. Indeed, some monastic teachers, while they may be effective instructors, do not even know Pali.

To make his case, McDaniel begins by sketching a history of northern Siam distinct from Ayudhya and Bangkok. Speaking sometimes of only Siam and sometimes of Siam and Laos together, he tells the story in two ways, first as religious history centred on Lanna, the northern Tai kingdom, which had been a hub of Buddhist learning since the sixteenth century. The Buddha images and relics in Chiang Mai attracted charismatic teachers and students from afar. The comings and goings of so many monks through its monasteries and academies gave the city the feel of a single campus. Even today students from southern China, Burma and parts of Laos come to northern Thailand to study. The knowledge stored in the manuscript collections of northern monasteries is secular as well as religious, with medical and protective texts bound with grammars and ritual guides. Training of monk-teachers was not systematic, and the teaching materials were not standardised. The evidence points to an informal educational setting that valued individual initiative and the idiosyncratic approaches specific to each teacher.

The second strand of the history tells of the centralized government’s encroachment that detached ruling elites from their local roots. The history textbooks refer to the integration of the far-flung provinces into a centralised system, a process whose most famous monastic opponent in the north was Khruba Siwichai, but resistance was mostly passive. McDaniel calls the process ‘internal colonialism’, a ‘takeover’ by Siam of the northern kingdom of Lanna which was culturally and economically more connected to the Lao lands to the east and to the Shan country to the north and west than to the Siamese in the south. Most historians have shied away from wholly embracing the concept of internal colonialism, while agreeing that the late nineteenth-century reforms cannily made use of Western colonial practices in order to subordinate or marginalise local rulers. My own sense is that internal colonialism is not, or not yet, a critical concept used widely for dismantling the modernising dynastic narrative in Thai historical writing.

In religious affairs the Sangha Law of 1902 marked the culmination of the new arrangements by creating an ecclesiastical administration with monastic heads of monthon, provinces, districts and sub-districts, all appointed by Bangkok to parallel the civil administration. But the royal reform of Buddhist education that this administrative infrastructure was supposed to guarantee was limited in most places, and not very modern. When he looks at the examination system introduced in the early twentieth century McDaniel finds little difference from the texts used by King Rama II (r. 1809-1824), and when he studies the curriculum as a monk he does not recognise any influence of the Buddhist educational reforms of a century earlier. He bluntly sums up this revisionist view by saying that ‘these reforms were not actually implemented in any significant way’ (106). Many, if not most, monastic teachers have not taken part in the reforms imposed by the Thai monastic and secular elites. McDaniel identifies a stratum of educational activity and pedagogical practice largely untouched by national planning and educational policy.

Students and teachers engage in ‘languaging’ Pali, taking old texts and reshaping them in contemporary contexts. This awkward neologism, coined by the philologist and linguist Alton Becker, refers to the discussion of words and phrases that accompanies the practice of translation. A more successful and insightful category is curricula, which McDaniel seizes on as a keyword for understanding what really goes on between teacher and student in the classroom. When he is studying at the northern Lao monastery, McDaniel is surprised to discover that his Pali and Sanskrit classes do not help him very much. Monastic education in northern mainland Southeast Asia turns out not to be about memorising or studying the Buddhist canon, which often lies locked away in forlorn splendour, but about interpreting words, teasing out meanings, and tracing etymologies from the commentarial literature, not from the canon. The monk-teachers create their own curricula by ‘gathering palm-leaf manuscripts’ and ‘lifting words’ (yok sap). They translate and gloss words, worrying over the correspondences between the Pali and the vernacular. The activity of interpreting the texts and learning how to be a Buddhist involves aesthetic and behavioural matters as much as skill in reading, what one thinker in the field calls ‘action-oriented pedagogy’. Texts are discussed orally in a rich sensory atmosphere conjured up by images, murals, incense, and candles. The lecturer may interrupt the proceedings by shifting his feet or coughing or spitting betel juice. He may end his lecture abruptly because he is too tired.

McDaniel’s logocentric methodology suits the three genres of texts used to teach Buddhism: nissaya, namasadda, and vohara. Indeed, namasadda, which are filled with marginalia, corrections, and emendations, literally means word-book or glossary. Nissaya are ‘supports’, notes for telling stories, giving sermons, or explaining instructions. Vohara lift words and phrases from seemingly ancient texts and contextualise them in a sermon delivered in the vernacular. These three genres, which draw on words and passages from canonical as well as extra-canonical origin and which lie somewhere between vernacular and classical texts, served as outlines for sermons and lectures that were expanded in performance. The informality of the teaching method, the lack of ‘originality’, and a non-standardised curriculum were strengths of the pedagogy, not flaws.

McDaniel wants to do away with a scholarly paradigm which pits the translocal canon against local knowledge. He wants to break down a fixed idea of canon. Teachers’ notebooks are filled with vernacular versions of local Buddhist histories, extra-canonical stories of the Buddha’s life (jataka), incantations for protection (paritta), and folktales. If a text is presented in an aesthetically proper form, it will be seen as canonical. For rural teachers and students, all Buddhist texts are canonical. As he works his way through the manuscripts, it becomes clear that the Buddhist canon is fluid and open, a work in progress.

Important books lead to new questions. Are the habits of mind engendered by learning in this particular way relevant only to religion? Or are these habits of mind applicable to solving problems in other spheres of human affairs? Given the expenditure of human energy in religious education over hundreds of years and the numbers of men trained in this way, one can imagine that the techniques of languaging had an impact beyond the monasteries. Many of these monks disrobed and went out into the world, and the way religious truth was encoded in the manuscripts and then decoded and interpreted by teachers shaped how these men thought and lived their lives.

Rather like the Buddhist commentarial literature with which McDaniel has spent so much time, there is something untidy and informal about the book. One chapter ends suddenly in exasperation: ‘I am getting ahead of myself here…. That is enough said for now’ (91). Buddhism values mobility and pilgrimage which promote nonattachment, and the author wanders through his material like a thudong monk, sometimes looping back to revisit a favourite point and clarify his grasp of it. Everywhere his erudition is evident. One footnote runs for an entire page, and the numerous references to works in Asian and European languages may be daunting to the novice. But in a refreshing departure from most first books, McDaniel does not feel compelled to nail down every sentence with a citation. He is not afraid to throw out ideas based on slender evidence, inviting other scholars to take issue with him or to pursue the matter with their own materials and methods. Authoritative but not territorial, Justin McDaniel is generous with his knowledge and his hunches.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds

Published originally on New Mandala, 7 February 2010