Buddhist Spaces: Beyond Secularity

Eric Huntington Reviews Thomas McDaniel’s Architects of Buddhist Leisure

McDaniel, Justin Thomas. Architects of Buddhist Leisure: Socially Disengaged Buddhism in Asia’s Museums, Monuments, and Amusement Parks. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016. 240pp. $68.00.

Justin Thomas McDaniel’s new book, Architects of Buddhist Leisure, seeks to demolish conceptual barriers between the secular and the religious not simply by denying these as categories, but also by revealing some of the faulty assumptions through which they are formed. Focusing on architectural sites that do not easily fit into expected spheres of religiosity, such as an amusement park in Singapore with depictions of the Buddhist hells or a Japanese temple with a public museum, McDaniel challenges the common expectation that religious institutions go hand-in-hand with doctrine and ritual. Thoroughly researched and intimately personal, McDaniel’s volume interrogates both what it means to study religion as a scholar and how to consider religious institutions from the perspectives of businesspeople, architects, and tourists. In doing so, McDaniel offers a valuable new way to look at Buddhism in Asia as well as other cultural traditions around the world.

In recent decades, scholars of religious studies have been turning away from text and doctrine to examine material culture and lived religious experience. McDaniel’s new book, like much of his previous work, continues to show the importance of his voice in this movement. McDaniel asks readers to redefine the evidence used to understand religious traditions and upend the preconceptions that scholars bring to the debate, in some ways reminiscent of Gregory Schopen’s seminal article “Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism,” which compelled scholars to reexamine the assumed primacy of Buddhist textual sources in the face of clear archaeological evidence that, contrary to the stated rules, monks and nuns did own property.

A decade after Schopen, John Kieschnick’s The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture focused attention on traditions of material objects themselves, including monastic robes, rosaries, and even tea. Realizing the importance of objects in religion, some scholars returned to manuscripts and block prints as physical objects rather than the sources of texts, emphasizing such topics as their illustrations and patronage (both addressed, for example, in Jinah Kim’s Receptacle of the Sacred) or scientific analysis of their materials and craft (both considered in Agnieszka Helman-Ważny’s The Archaeology of Tibetan Books). McDaniel himself has made contributions in this realm, including a study of the ritual uses of text in The Lovelorn Ghost & The Magical Monk.

Other scholars have transcended textual studies to examine religious sites, art, and architecture through other disciplines, including anthropology (e.g. Clare Harris and Toni Huber). One particularly current topic in this realm is the notion of religious pilgrimage, such as to sacred mountains or sites associated with the life of the historical Buddha. These pilgrimages can be arduous expressions of devotion, with some worshippers traveling by foot the entire journey and laying their bodies out in full prostration with each step on the path. Such pilgrimages are now understood as a fundamental category of Buddhist religious life, and it is in relation to such practices that McDaniel’s new book makes its most radical intervention.

McDaniel’s argument rests on a new category for understanding lived religions that he calls “religious leisure.” Activities in this realm are neither obligatory nor directed to specific goals, unlike stereotypical religious practices. Rather, these acts are relaxing, experiential, and minimally educational. Yet they are not entirely divorced from religion, since they are informed by Buddhist history, ritual, aesthetics, cosmology, and other concerns. The idea of Buddhism as leisure directly contradicts the well-known modern movement known as “Engaged Buddhism,” a form of activism that applies Buddhist teachings to environmental protection and social justice. Highlighting this disparity, McDaniel occasionally describes Buddhist leisure as “socially disengaged Buddhism,” capturing the idea that it provides opportunities for incidental reflection or momentary enjoyment rather than a strict set of ethical or behavioral guidelines.

For McDaniel, such concepts of “Buddhist leisure” are best exemplified in a broad spectrum of architectural projects overlooked by traditional scholarship, such as Buddhist monuments, leisure parks, or museums. Unlike the monasteries, temples, and pilgrimage sites usually at the center of scholarly attention, which primarily serve as centers of doctrinal learning, ritual performance, and devotion, such leisure architecture is best understood in terms of other values, such as its utility for the public or its simple aesthetic beauty. For each site, McDaniel spends considerable time describing how visitors (often including himself) experience the place, partly to illustrate the concept of Buddhist leisure and partly to show that the original plans of these sites do not always determine their actual use. This tenuous connection between intention and function becomes relevant as McDaniel narrates the planning and construction of these sites by particular historical figures.

While McDaniel’s central project is the deconstruction of the secular and the religious through the examination of Buddhist leisure, the primary subjects of his chapters are the individual people behind each site — their architects, financiers, and founders. This allows McDaniel to pursue several additional arguments surrounding his central thesis, a kind of multi-pronged approach to the overall topic. Delving into the histories and agendas of these individual designers, McDaniel reveals them to be far more complex and compromised by real-world concerns than the idealized figures of hagiography. Beset by problems of financing, guided by grand ecumenical projects without a clear audience, or using limited collections of art to capture the greater history of Buddhism, these figures exemplify the difficulties of categorizing and evaluating their projects decisively. While many of McDaniel’s subjects are famous, wealthy, or influential men, they are not quite the “great men” who were once imagined to determine the course of history. Rather, they exist at the boundaries of success and failure, tradition and innovation, or religion and secularity.

A perfect example is the architect Kenzo Tange, who was commissioned to plan a monumental park at Lumbini (the site of the historical Buddha’s birth). In this context, Tange is sometimes identified as a “Buddhist” or “Japanese” architect, but his greatest influence was Le Corbusier and he is best known as a designer of modern cities and “functional architecture for the masses.” Plagued by funding and organizational difficulties, the monument itself largely failed to become a center for Buddhist traditions or an attraction for international tourists. Even so, it has turned into a popular picnic site for local visitors, exemplifying Tange’s own philosophy of “metabolism” — the idea that constructions are ultimately adapted by people for their own purposes rather than fulfilling a predetermined plan.

While the Lumbini park exemplifies a failure to implement a particular vision and the problems of its categorization in the first place, McDaniel also investigates sites where the founder’s vision was executed perfectly, creating unique and highly personal amalgams of Buddhist and other traditions. Lek and Braphai Wiriyaphan were business owners with enough wealth to implement completely their own vision of Buddhist architecture. They began with a massive theme park in Thailand as a showcase for their own collection of artwork, recreating various Buddhist and non-Buddhist structures not with the goal of historical or doctrinal accuracy, but aiming to create an aesthetic experience. Later projects known as the Erawan Elephant (the largest metal animal sculpture in the world) and the Sanctuary of Truth (one of the largest wooden buildings in the world) borrow eclectically from various religious and artistic traditions to express Lek’s own vision of cosmic order and universal religious values.

Having established these core examples of the types of category-redefining sites that interest him, McDaniel concludes the book with numerous shorter case studies, many of which seem to be traditionally Buddhist spaces at first glance, but which reveal their idiosyncrasies upon closer examination. Shi Fa Zhao’s Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore divulges its boundary-crossing functions in its name, probably inspired by the more famous Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. While perhaps anachronistically emphasizing Tang Chinese style architecture, the temple itself is highly ecumenical, including some areas for basic worship along with a hall for viewing the relic and a Buddhist Culture Museum. Its goal is to give a “deeper understanding of Buddhism,” even though Shi Fa Zhao himself does not promote any particular sect or present any specific teachings, nor does the temple train monks or nuns.

McDaniel spends a great deal of time and research exploring some of these figures in depth, but the pages of Architects are also filled with numerous other cases from Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, India, Singapore, Macao, Korea, and even the United States, in some cases going back well into the pre-modern period. McDaniel admits to not providing much comparative framework, rather grouping the examples by thematic resemblance. He wishes for the reader to make his or her own comparisons and hopes to inspire future research in this new area of scholarship, the architecture of Buddhist leisure.

While the intellectual underpinnings of Architects are compelling and innovative, the pages themselves are not dense with theory outside of the volume’s introduction and conclusion. McDaniel clearly intends for the book to interest a broad audience. He writes in a personable and evocative style, often recounting his own experiences visiting Buddhist amusement parks with his children in much the same way as one would describe a vacation to Epcot. He also describes the process of his research with unusual candor, reporting the circumstances in which he conducted interviews, how he gained access to private archives, and the personal relationships he developed with the families of his subjects. These details make the book feel as much like an intellectual travelogue as an abstract work of scholarship, an encounter with the eccentric that proves we should not be so quick to identify where the “center” of Buddhism lies.

One is finally reminded that traditionally lauded Buddhist leaders of the past were often extraordinary in their own ways — otherwise they would not be remembered as standing out in history. McDaniel’s examples make the reader wonder how certain religious traditions take hold while others dwindle, each the product of both individual people and accidents of circumstance. A worthwhile counterpoint to typical introductions to Buddhism that rely on doctrine or history, Architects reveals the immense diversity of Buddhist culture and reminds the reader of undiscovered richness left to explore.


Eric Huntington is a postdoctoral fellow in the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University. He specializes in the Buddhist art and material culture of the Himalayas.

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