Religious Modernities in Thai Meditation Centers

A review of Constructing Religious Modernities: Hybridity, Reinterpretation and Adaptation in Thailand’s International Meditation Centers, by Brooke Schedneck. 

This important and timely work addresses the proliferation of foreign engagement with Buddhist meditation in Thailand. This is a key and overlooked area of enquiry in the study of Thai Buddhism. In recent years meditation retreats have become an accessible and attractive activity for foreign visitors to Thailand. Exploring the promotional publications around meditation retreats, the pedagogic methods of meditation teachers, the range of motivations and commitments of international meditators, as well as the schedules and requirements of important retreat centers, Shedneck provides a grounded and ethnographically rich account of religious adaptation and hybridity.

Through long-term fieldwork, participant observation on meditation retreats, in depth interviews with teachers and meditators, and reviews of the publications produced to promote meditation, Schedneck examines international engagement with Buddhist meditation in Thailand. This multi-methodological approach provides a historically contextualized and qualitatively nuanced account of important engagements with Buddhist practices in the contemporary context. She considers recent revisions of secularization theory to understand the constitution of hybrid religious forms and argues that the increasing global appeal of meditation reflects a blurring between categories often distinguished as “secular” and “religious.” Religiosity is understood to develop through partial or temporary religious engagement, linked to spiritually motivated travel by transient communities. The reinterpretation of Buddhism and emergence of forms of hybrid religiosity reflected in the engagement with meditation in international retreat centers are occurring in the context of cultural and transnational flows of information and people.

In the Introduction Schedneck clearly establishes the theoretical framework through which she interprets her empirical work, focusing particularly on postmodern religiosity and hybrid multicultural contextualization. She considers hybridity as a theoretical tool in order to demonstrate diverse engagements with meditation and the mixing of religious and secular frameworks by meditators. She argues that hybridity results from the endeavor to extract vipassana meditation from its Buddhist roots, producing new possibilities through processes of negotiation and compromise. Employing a post-colonial theoretical lens, Schedneck considers postmodern religiosity, globalization and cultural flows. She argues that adapted forms of meditation stem from forms of globalization that are characteristic of contemporary religion. New centers of Buddhist authority and new interpretations of meditative practices are being created. One example of this, that the author explores, is the circulation of practices and discourses generated by tourism. The author considers the history of interpretation of Buddhism, Thai tourism literature and meditation teachings. In addition Schedneck considers the relationship between tourism, religion and commodification. She argues that meditation becomes commodified and shaped into a desirable experience through the promotion of meditation retreats. It is represented as an escape from modern life that induces relaxation within natural settings. She argues against a negative association between religion and commodification, and argues instead that religious practice is reconfigured through its relationship with the market in hybrid ways. Through exploring the literatures about meditation, which advertise an escape from modern dystopia and represent a search for re-enchantment, Schedneck argues that meditation is promoted to foreign tourists as a desirable commodity.

In Chapter 2 the author considers the modern Buddhist discourse of “universality,” as contracted with “culturally specific,” Buddhism. Meditation is often understood to have a “universal” appeal, and to be removed from more “traditional,” “cultural” or “religious” aspects of Buddhism. Considering social discourses about Buddhism and meditation, Schedneck argues that foreign travelers engage with meditation in hybrid ways. She unpacks the links between orientalist interpretations of Buddhism and contemporary international meditators. In Chapter 3, Schedneck gives an overview of the modern history of vipassana meditation and its development in Thailand. She provides a clear account of the retreat centers and meditative practices most popular with international meditators in Thailand. Chapter 4 examines the representations of meditation retreats in tourism brochures, guidebooks and meditation center pamphlets in Thailand. In these publications meditation is represented as both a modern and rational technique and, at the same time, a traditional and authentically Thai escape from modernity. The author argues that such discourses reinforce an orientalist idea of meditation as “other.” Chapter 5 considers the diversity in background and experience of international practitioners who engage with meditation in Thailand and their motivation for doing so. Meditators appropriate different aspects of the meditation retreat depending on their motivation and commitment. The author gives a thorough account of the retreat settings, schedules, activities, and experiences of participants in two different retreat centers in order to highlight the range of practitioners’ experiences. Chapter 6 focuses on the ways in which international meditation center teachers adapt their teachings for foreign meditators. Schedneck argues that the ways in which teachers represent meditation is a product of intercultural dialogue and reinterpretation, which contributes to hybrid forms of religiosity. In the conclusion the author returns to the question of religious identity, and spiritual tourism to argue that global Buddhist networks are created through engagement with international meditation centers.

Focusing on the relationship between pedagogical techniques, student/teacher dynamics, practitioner motivation and the promotion of meditation through publications, Schedneck draws attention to the cultural particularities of international meditation centers in Thailand. In so doing, she provides a grounded and problematized consideration of secularization and hybridity in the contemporary Thai Buddhist context. This work will be a significant contribution to studies of modern Buddhism, religious studies and Thai studies.

Joanna Cook
Lecturer
Department of Anthropology
Goldsmiths, University of London
joanna.cook@gold.ac.uk

Primary Sources 

Ethnographic fieldwork
Extensive ethnographic interviews, 2009-2011
Buddhist monastery and meditation guides
Thailand Tourism Authority materials

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2012. 338 pp. Primary Advisor: Juliane Schober.

 

Image: International Dhamma Hermitage in Chaiya, Thailand (Photo by Brooke Schedneck)

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