Escaping Colonialism, Rescuing Religion – By Alexandra Kaloyanides

Alexandra Kaloyanides on Alicia Turner’s Saving Buddhism

Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, 221pp., $PRICE
Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, 221pp., $54

Last spring, I taught a seminar on Buddhism to a group of 16 students at a liberal arts college. Toward the end of the semester, we discussed a documentary film that concluded with the claim that the future of Tibetan Buddhism would not be in Tibet, or even in Asia, but in North America. I asked the students about this idea of the West saving a threatened Eastern religion, and even before I finished the question, a student called out, “COLONIALISM.” She said the loaded word’s six syllables with the same exasperated tones she would use to complain about things like “The. Worst. Winter. Ever.” The rest of the class rolled their eyes in agreement.

College students are quick to condemn colonialism for many of the wrongs in today’s world. Especially in the study of Asian religions, it seems that nearly every modern development — from the rejection of ritual practices to the privileging of ancient texts — can be traced to the eastern expansion of European empires of the 16th-20th centuries. Even for countries like Tibet that were never occupied by a Western power, scholars have shown (and students have learned) that the West described that country with the same processes of othering, romanticizing, demonizing, and de-historicizing that European colonial powers used to justify their occupation of Asian lands. (See, for example, Prisoners of Shangri-La by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.) Just as the British described India as an irrational, backward country in need of the measured control of a militarized Western empire, the documentary my seminar watched envisioned Tibet as an ancient, mystical land unable to preserve its Buddhist tradition in the modern world. It was left to America, this logic continued, to assume responsibility for the future of Tibetan Buddhism.

Since the 1978 publication of Edward Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism, academics and cultural critics have thought a lot about how European ways of imagining an exotic Orient led to devastating material realities in the Arab-Islamic world and in South Asia. This analysis has illuminated our understanding of the real-life consequences of Western concepts. But one problem that continues to plague this thinking is the lack of attention to the role that non-Western peoples themselves played in this colonial period. In the field of Asian religions, for example, scholarship since Said has focused so much on the representations of Asian religions in American and European sources that it seems to continue to silence the work Asian communities have done to represent their own traditions. By constantly chalking these inter-cultural dynamics up to Western hegemony, we turn our backs on non-Westerners who participate in and resist the circulation of ideas about what Asian religions are like. Yes, the documentary my seminar watched about the American future of Tibetan Buddhism traded in Orientalist tropes about timeless, mystical Asian religions, but how are we to understand the involvement of the Tibetan teachers profiled in the film? In what ways did they reflect or rework American Shangri-La fantasies to further their own agendas?

A new book by Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, offers a way to escape this academic dilemma. It does so by looking at the category of “religion” itself to investigate how Burmese communities at the turn of the twentieth century used its shifting definitions to promote particular Buddhist projects. Rather than simply submitting to British definitions of what was proper religious belief and behavior, Burmese in the colonial period reinvented Buddhism according to their own interests. Turner shows how they did this by employing a premodern category that was related to, but also distinct from, the European category of “religion.” This term, sāsana, comes from the canonical Buddhist language of Pali and refers to the teachings of a buddha and the period in which those teachings thrive in the world. Turner argues that:

Shifting the focus onto the dynamics of sāsana as a manner of seeing the world reveals the diverse modes of belonging at work in colonial Burma and offers insights into our own analytical categories. The worldview and inner workings of sāsana stand as one alternative framework that oriented Burmese in the colonial world. In this light, the nation was not an inevitable outcome of these confrontations, nor did colonialism and modernity exert singular or absolute agency.

By attending to sāsana and religion in colonial Burma, Saving Buddhism shows how Burmese communities were able to draw on traditional Buddhist resources and newly available colonial technologies to renegotiate the conditions of life under the British crown. Rather than yield to Western ideas about religion, these Burmese communities creatively combined long-established Buddhist techniques of reform and preservation with modern innovations such as such as the printing press, subscription associations, and modern schools. Turner describes these colonial Burmese communities as “active and adept bricoleurs” who recast ideas about Buddhism and their community’s role in its history.

Pagoda, Bagan, Mayanmar. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Pagoda, Bagan, Mayanmar. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Buddhists at the center of Turner’s story are not the traditional elite or pioneering monks, but rather regular lay people. Saving Buddhism shows how working-class figures such as schoolteachers, merchants, attorneys, and clerks, as well as women, rose to positions of prominence in the promotion of the sāsana. This extensive participation in religious institutions was revolutionary because throughout Burmese Buddhist history, the king was the chief patron of Buddhism. He was the figure in charge of ensuring that monastic behavior was pure, that the instructions of the Buddha were preserved and promoted, that holy relics were venerated, and that rituals were performed. But when the British toppled the last Burmese dynasty in 1885, people worried that monks would go unfed and undisciplined, that holy sites would be desecrated, and that the Buddha’s message of how to achieve ultimate liberation would be lost. Burmese Buddhists in the newly colonized country began to fear that the Buddha’s teachings were in danger of disappearing from this world altogether.

Fear of the decline of the sāsana was not a new phenomenon. This concern, expressed throughout Buddhist history, holds that the Buddha’s teachings, like everything else, are impermanent, and that they will eventually be forgotten until another buddha arises to again bring the world out of ignorance. What was new is how the Buddhist laity assumed responsibility for addressing this decline. Turner is careful to avoid claiming that Buddhism was in a period of actual decline. Instead, she skillfully turns our attention to the rhetoric of decline, to the shared imagination in which the Buddha’s teachings were entering into a state of rapid decay. In the midst of this cosmological concern, Burmese lay people began to organize themselves into Buddhist associations to take on the work of preserving the sāsana. Turner’s extensive research into the archives of print publications prominent in urban centers, both Burmese-language and English materials, allows her to carefully track the textured ways public reporting on this work revived old forms and created new ways of intervening into the colonial world.

While Turner’s sophisticated scholarship is focused on Buddhist associations and how they imagined themselves as a moral community, she does tell us about the real consequences of their rhetorical methods. We learn about the increasing numbers of lay-run groups that took up the previously royal responsibility of feeding large communities of monks, administering examinations on canonical texts, and promoting ethical reform movements. Turner details how preaching campaigns, temperance pledges, and student protests empowered individuals and communities to transform their daily behavior in ways they saw as preserving Buddhism. And in her dazzling final chapter, we learn about how Burmese organizations successfully retooled British policies of non-interference into religious affairs and definitions of the category of religion to overturn colonial-mandated rituals of respect and rules for allowing non-Buddhists to wear shoes at Burmese holy sites.

The power of this book comes from how it explicates the work of Burmese Buddhists in redefining religion in the colonial period. Turner shows us how to look behind the curtain of scholarship proclaiming the all-powerful colonial Oz to find that it was not only British authorities and European scholars who were grappling to control religion, but also Burmese Buddhists. To reveal the agency of this Southeast Asian community, Turner builds on the argument that Burmese associations prioritized a common moral interest in preserving the sāsana. And while she mobilizes an abundance of print materials and colonial records to support this argument, her project also raises questions about other driving concerns for Buddhist associations. I found myself wondering about economic incentives for participation in these efforts and how they worked in concert with concerns about the sāsana. Turner touches a few times on this issue of material power, telling us, for example, about how lay people’s social capital would benefit from having their donations to Buddhist associations listed in the paper. What other ways did the organizers and supporters of these associations financially benefit through their work in the name of the sāsana? How did the installation of capitalist structures in colonial Burma transform the Buddhist practices and ideas that Turner studies?

Turner is forthright about the limitations of her sources. She writes at the outset that her study is “disproportionately focused on the activities of ethnic Burmans in the larger towns and cities of the Irrawaddy valley.” This clarity about her data invites future research into ethnic minorities in Burma and rural populations. Turner’s conclusion tells us that in the nationalist efforts in the period following the decades of her study, ethnicity became more important than religion in the ways that leading associations defined themselves. But we are left wondering how the promotion of the Bamar ethnicity emerged as pivotal. What other sources from the colonial period might we examine to understand the development of twentieth-century ethnic conflicts that would ravage the country?

These questions of economics and ethnicity speak to the opening Turner has given us into the study of religion in colonial period. Through methodologies like the ones Saving Buddhism so deftly employs, future scholarship can now explore further the religious work that disempowered people do to renegotiate the terms of their disempowerment. College students in Buddhism classes should still learn sigh-worthy lessons about the oppressive practices of empires. But now, by studying works like Turner’s, they will also be able to investigate the creative projects people in occupied lands have designed to transform those oppressive practices for their own ends.