323rd Meeting – Tuesday, June 8th 2010

 Monastic Discipline and Social Change in Sipsong Panna (PRC)

A talk by Roger Casas

Present: Bob Vryheid, Steve Epstein, Derrick Titmus, Ken Dyer, Ricky Ward, Jack Eisner, Renee Vines, Bonnie Brereton, Hand and Sangdao Bänziger, Jacques Leider, Louis Gabaude, Prissy Soontorminate, Willem van Gogh, Hunter Marston, Uwanna Rathanasri, Caroline Marsh, John Cadet, Reinhard Hohler, Ann Adams, Ursula Cats. An audience of 22.

The following is a summary of his talk prepared by Roger:

The Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna are arguably one of the ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that have received more attention from academic scholars since the end of the 1980s. The importance that Sipsong Panna has acquired since the beginning of the 1990s as one of the main tourist destinations in the PRC undoubtedly plays an important role in this interest towards the area and the changes it is experiencing as part of its integration within national and regional trade markets.

Assimilating on its way elements of previously existing local cults, Theravada Buddhism spread from Chiang Mai (via Kengtung, in Shan State, Burma) and was adopted as a legitimating cult by the ruling class of Sipsong Panna at some point between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. As it is the case of many other Tai societies in Southeast Asia, Buddhism in Sipsong Panna essentially revolved around the practice of dana (Pali) or tan (Lue), the virtue of giving, exercised mainly through the various religious festivals (also called tan) informing the Lue calendar, but also through the daily food offerings by which villagers provide the means of subsistence for the Sangha, the community of monks and novices. Traditionally, Lue males were expected to become monks at least once in their lives, usually for a few years during childhood or youth, although there were no fixed norms regulating when to enter the Sangha or for how long. The temple stood as the main institution for cultural transmission, for it was practically the only place where someone could learn to read and write the Lue script, and therefore spending more or less time in the Sangha was also a fundamental scale by which Lue would judge social status of individuals.

According to the ethnographic work carried out in the region by Chinese specialists during the 1950s, these features remained virtually unchanged until the incorporation of the Sipsong Panna polity within the structures of the PRC through the creation of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (XDAP) in 1953, and the subsequent implementation of socialist policies in the area. The land reform in 1956 marked the beginning of a series of measures aimed at transforming the political and social organization in newly created Sipsong Panna, and affirming the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the area. As Buddhist religion was considered a major support for the political structure of the former Sipsong Panna kingdom, CCP policies were persistently pursued to dismantle the religious administrative framework in the area. Religious practice was broadly deemed an obstacle for the carrying out of economic reform, and therefore the land reform, as well as the consecutive movements of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, caused the overall interruption of religious practice among the Sipsong Panna Lue. Many Lue monks fled to Thailand, Laos or Burma during this period; some of them would return to Sipsong Panna following nation-level political and economic reforms at the end of the 1970s, while others would remain part of the Lue diaspora around the world.

The change of leadership in the CCP and the PRC in 1976-78 brought this period of overt repression to an end. The Cultural Revolution was officially deemed a negative period that had put in danger harmonious relations between the Han and the rest of ethnic groups inside the PRC. Religious practices of ethnic groups were again tolerated by official ideology, and, consequently, after being repressed for more than three decades, Buddhist practice in Sipsong Panna flourished again: since the beginning of the 1980s a process of reconstruction of temples and shrines and overall recovery of Buddhist practice took place in the region; once village temples had been restored (even if precariously), locals arranged for the ordination of novices, recovering a process that had been practically disrupted for more than 20 years. To this day monks and novices are still an inseparable part of the social landscape in Sipsong Panna.

            30 years after the start of the Buddhist “revival” in the area, however, the discipline (or, better put, lack thereof) of local novices and monks remains an issue – for the heads of the local Sangha in particular: measured by the standards of monastic discipline in Thailand and other countries in the region, the behaviour of monks (called tu in Lue language) and novices (pha in Lue) in Sipsong Panna, where drinking alcohol, eating full meals in the afternoons, driving motor vehicles, working in the fields, and flirting with girls are common practices among members of the Sangha, is nowadays considered by both insiders and outsiders as “backward”, and a reflection of the extreme repression suffered in the recent past.

            This is only partially true. On one hand, the repression suffered by Buddhism in Sipsong Panna is probably only comparable to that suffered by Khmer Buddhism under the Democratic Kampuchea regime between 1975 and 1978; on the other, however, Buddhism in that region can be said to belong to a different tradition than that of the different schools present in today’s Southeast Asia: Sipsong Panna has not gone through a reforming process of religious administrative centralization and purification of practices, as has happened, for instance, in Thailand – if anything, it can be argued that the local Sangha is now going through one such process. In any case, remnants of local, past elements of Buddhist practice have survived in Sipsong Panna (for instance, the absence of alms collection, the afternoon meal, etc.), elements prior not only to any modern reform, but even to the so-called “singhalization” of Southeast Asian Buddhism around the fifteenth century. The problematic of discipline of Sipsong Panna monks at present probably reflects a situation that was common among Buddhist communities in the so-called “pre-modern” period.

In any case, the problematization of monastic discipline in Sipsong Panna has provoked a series of interventions through which the discipline of the local Sangha has become the target of a reformist project aimed at transforming local monks into examples of moral conduct and model citizens, in a context of economic modernization and the internationalization of local traditions. I would like now to focus on this project, and specifically in the significance of the individual practices of religious specialists and their adaptation to the new cultural context in Sipsong Panna. In any case, I will not discuss monastic discipline in the area from a normative point of view; instead, I simply aim here at highlighting some points of the relation between this problematic and the political, social and economic transformations that Sipsong Panna has experienced in its recent past.

To start with, we may ask what the determinants of traditional practice in relation to monastic discipline are. In relation to this problem, an increasing number of academic works are putting into question the importance of textual training for the study of Buddhist monastic learning, privileging instead the relevance of ritual practices over the study of texts, and emphasising other, informal and non-verbal aspects of monastic education – such as body practices and the imitation of models within and outside the temple.

            Concerning monastic education in Sipsong Panna, it is clear that textual learning has a very secondary place in local temples – more important are the diverse models of behaviour influencing learning practices of the novice. After the members of the family, once the boy enters the temple the monk or monks within it then become obvious models of behaviour for the child, who, observing them, will imitate and acquire the manners and attitude of his mentor. Other, intermediate but sometimes closer models are provided by the pha long or elder novices, with whom the younger (pha noi) often establish strong bonds of affection.

Village temples in Sipsong Panna are still, among many other things, places for the recreation of village men and boys; lay teenagers in particular often come to the temples to spend time and play with their peers, providing an important and strong link with the “outside world” for novices. This interaction symbolized in the friendship between novices and lay teenagers points to a continuity with the secular “world” and with a type of “education” outside strict monastic morality. One of the most important aspects of this education is masculinity, especially through this contact with other teenagers and young adults; the novice acquires the habits traditionally associated with male behaviour: drinking alcohol, smoking, flirting with girls, etc. All of these practices are generally accepted by Lue villagers, and not necessarily looked down upon even among religious specialists.

            But this does not mean that there is no separation between monk and layman, or that the canonical discipline is totally disregarded, or that there are no norms concerning how monks should behave. “Canonical” Buddhist morality is also relevant to understand local monastic discipline: there are older monks and novices who do try to adhere to a more strict way of life – and these are of course equally respected within the community. However, and regarding the “problematic” activities described above, the determinant factor in their social acceptance is that the novice or monk is also expected to establish a discipline of moderation in relation to them: novices and monks are allowed and often expected to take part in practices usually considered improper for religious specialists outside of Sipsong Panna, but on the condition that they show the necessary self-control and self-restriction.

            The importance of Buddhist monastic discipline among the Lue (and other Buddhist groups) lies thus in establishing a certain ethos, a particular attitude of self-control, and through it a certain morality, which help legitimating the privileged status of some Tai men in relation to other fellow Tai men, of Tai men in relation to all women (who cannot be ordained and must conform with helping provide the means of subsistence of monks and novices and participating in ritual activities), and of the Tai as a whole in relation to other ethnic groups inhabiting the region such as the Akha, Lahu, etc., and which are excluded from access to this privileged form of education. In short, even if many of the norms taken for granted in Thailand and elsewhere are not observed among monks and novices in Sipsong Panna, Buddhist monastic discipline still acts among the Lue as a major tool for cultural transmission and social differentiation, a veritable “discipline of power”. 

            This is still to a great extent valid. However, the consolidation of CCP rule together with the massive arrival of Chinese migrants in the area during the last five or six decades has put an end to the previous cultural-symbolic and socio-economic dominance of the Tai in Sipsong Panna – and brings into question the role of Buddhism as a fundamental cultural marker among them. This end has come in a gradual way, accelerating from 1980 onwards by the spread in the region of the national media, and, most importantly, the public education system.

Since the beginnings of the twentieth century, different Chinese governments in Sipsong Panna have tried to limit the power held by local Buddhist temples over the education of Lue boys. Of course, the overt repression of the Maoist period did not succeed at this: as mentioned, with the Buddhist “revival” at the beginning of the 1980s, Tai boys left public schools en masse to be ordained as novices at their village temples. This created a problem for the local government and its goal of expanding state education and the study of Chinese language in Sipsong Panna: Lue boys and their families preferred them to become novices in the local temples than to enter public schools, and the number of Tai girls in schools was far greater than that of boys. Cooperation between local monasteries and the public system of education seemed to be the logical solution to this problem; however, while in the 1980s and 1990s there were some attempts to establish special classes for novices combining Buddhist and public curricula and teaching in Lue language, most were abandoned after a few years, and it can be argued that, in general, during the last few decades there has been little cooperation between the Buddhist authorities and the state education system.

The only option remaining for members of the Sangha wishing to obtain a recognized diploma is the public school system. This option has been promoted not only by the State and the local government, but also by the local Buddhist elite: in the 1990s many Lue monks and novices from Sipsong Panna spent several years in temples in Thailand, particularly in Wat Phra Phuttabaat Taak Pha, in Lamphun province. Some of these monks were officially sent by the Sipsong Panna Buddhist Association, while others travelled there by their own means. In any case, upon returning from Thailand the monks brought with them ideas related to monastic discipline and the model role of the monk dominant in this country, establishing a monastic school based on Thai models at the central temple in the region, Wat Pajie.  At present there is only one temple-school in Sipsong Panna, located in Wat Luang Muang Lue, in Jinghong City, the capital of the region. Apart from this institution, where students follow a hybrid, secular and religious curriculum, many novices and monks around the region are enrolled in public boarding schools.

What are the processes involved in the education of religious specialists within public schools? To start with, in state boarding schools novices and monks are usually uprooted from their village communities and subject to an experience in some sense similar to that of the temple; in fact, some aspects, such as the organization of time, are even more emphasised, more strictly organized in the school than in the temple.

Contrary to what happens within villages, where novices and monks enjoy special status, at school they are considered equal to other students: while some novices rebel against this (this is a cause for dropping out), in general those pha studying within public schools are even more prone to adopting allegedly secular practices such as spending time with girls, playing basketball, doing menial work, etc.

In relation to this, the public school system promotes a somehow different relation of the boys to their own bodies: even if the care of the body is also arguably important within the temple (starting with the canonical dietetic prescriptions), in the school the care of the healthy individual body, understood as part of the healthy body of the nation, is systematized through physical exercise – for example through gym class, to which novices and monks are also subject, but also diverse sports and competitions played in breaks, etc. Although the origins of this emphasis on the body can be traced back to Maoist policies on public health, traditional Chinese conceptions of macrobiotics play an important role here too. Such conceptions are popularized not only through the school system, but also through the daily practices of Han migrants (daily morning and afternoon physical exercises, etc.), and through the media – especially through the immensely popular martial arts films and TV series, which emphasise the importance of mental and body ability and skills in the transformation of the self.

Apart from this, novices and monks attending public school are subject to the influence of ideas related to a national conception of the community – there is an almost absolute absence of subjects related to local culture and language in the state education system, not to speak of religion and Buddhism. But, apart from the purely theoretical content of such teachings, there is one fundamental element in the contemporary Chinese education system to which members of the local Sangha can relate: this is the concept of suzhi, or “quality”, a very popular concept in contemporary China, spread through both formal and informal educational contexts.

There are two points related to this concept of suzhi that may be said to build a bridge between the discipline of the temple and that of the public school, facilitating the integration of local monks and novices into the school system. First, suzhi implies a work that one carries out upon oneself, a work aimed at improving the “quality” of the individual as well as their chances of social mobility in the new economic system. In the temple, the emphasis is arguably put on moderation and self-control, and the content of education, the goals of this personal project, are basically different, but the ideas related to the potentiality for development and the capacities of the individual (both in body and soul), and on self-transformation, are relevant to both systems.

Second, suzhi is a concept universally applied – not only to individuals, also to groups: the concept establishes a categorization, a scale of value in which different groups or individuals (both inside and outside China) are ideally located depending on their possession (or lack) of “quality”. The belief that there are beings which are superior to others, capacitated and legitimated to dominate others, is then another fundamental common point shared by Tai and Buddhist culture, on one hand, and the Chinese school system, on the other. And, as stated, this status is achieved in a similar way: through the work carried on oneself, through the transformation of the individual.

The public school system, as well as the Chinese media, sells the idea that Han culture is superior to all others (again, both inside and outside of the country); especially since the founding of the PRC, this idea has gradually won over the “minorities”, and nowadays local families choose to send their children to state school, because they consider the kids will be better taken care of there. Obviously, the perspectives of social mobility play an important role here, but we must not forget that it is mainly individual practices which facilitate the adaptation of novices and monks to the public system: for the members of the Sangha, the goal is to improve their own quality and that of their ethnic group (minzu).

There is “opposition” and “resistance” to this process: the number of Tai Lue boys not attending or quitting public school is still relatively high. But the symbolic dominance of this framework is such that those who fail in school are generally presented (also by local Tai) as proof of their low quality, and of the low quality of the Tai (as well as other minority groups) as a whole in relation to the Han majority.

            In conclusion, the conduct of monks and novices has been problematized through two parallel processes: the internationalization of local Buddhism (especially the increasingly formal contacts with Thailand) and the institutionalization at the national level of Buddhist religion in accordance with modern ideas of “religion”. Local projects aimed at reforming monastic conduct have to be understood as efforts at integrating Buddhism and Lue culture within national and international structures – in which the conduct of monks is seen in a different way from that traditionally dominant in Sipsong Panna. This project is succeeding at least in part – partly thanks to the similarities between conceptions related to individual practices of self-transformation in both temples and public schools; however, and on the other hand, the continuation of the “backward” practices of the local Sangha (which may be said to include the rejection of the state school system) can be seen as an affirmation of a traditional form of Buddhism, and at the same time of a local identity. In any case, to give account of the transformations in Buddhist practice and in culture in general, it is necessary to take account not only of the “technologies of power” put into practice by the state, but also of the individual “techniques of the self” through which the former are reproduced and also contested.  

A most informative and entertaining evening.