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The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

Justin Thomas McDaniel

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Paper, 384 pages, 20 halftones
ISBN: 978-0-231-15377-5
$28.00 / £19.50

September, 2011
Cloth, 384 pages, 20 halftones
ISBN: 978-0-231-15376-8
$60.00 / £41.50

Stories centering on the lovelorn ghost (Mae Nak) and the magical monk (Somdet To) are central to Thai Buddhism. Historically important and emotionally resonant, these characters appeal to every class of follower. Metaphorically and rhetorically powerful, they invite constant reimagining across time.

Focusing on representations of the ghost and monk from the late eighteenth century to the present, Justin Thomas McDaniel builds a case for interpreting modern Thai Buddhist practice through the movements of these transformative figures. He follows embodiments of the ghost and monk in a variety of genres and media, including biography, film, television, drama, ritual, art, liturgy, and the Internet. Sourcing nuns, monks, laypeople, and royalty, he shows how relations with these figures have been instrumental in crafting histories and modernities. McDaniel is especially interested in local conceptions of being “Buddhist” and the formation and transmission of such identities across different venues and technologies.

Establishing an individual’s “religious repertoire” as a valid category of study, McDaniel explores the performance of Buddhist thought and ritual through practices of magic, prognostication, image production, sacred protection, and deity and ghost worship, and clarifies the meaning of multiple cultural configurations. Listening to popular Thai Buddhist ghost stories, visiting crowded shrines and temples, he finds concepts of attachment, love, wealth, beauty, entertainment, graciousness, security, and nationalism all spring from engagement with the ghost and the monk and are as vital to the making of Thai Buddhism as venerating the Buddha himself.

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About the Author

Justin Thomas McDaniel is associate professor of Buddhist and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also taught at Ohio University and the University of California at Riverside. Chair of the Southeast Asian Studies Council and the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Association, and founder of the Thai Digital Monastery Project, McDaniel has lived and researched in Southeast Asia for many years as a Social Science Research Council and Fulbright Fellow, manuscript cataloger, translator, volunteer teacher, and Buddhist monk. His first book, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Monastic Education in Laos and Thailand won the prestigious Harry Benda Prize for Best First Book in Southeast Asian Studies.

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