The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk

Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

Justin Thomas McDaniel

Columbia University Press

The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk

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Pub Date: January 2014

ISBN: 9780231153775

384 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $32.00£27.00

Pub Date: September 2011

ISBN: 9780231153768

384 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00£79.00

Pub Date: September 2011

ISBN: 9780231527545

384 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $31.99£27.00

The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk

Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

Justin Thomas McDaniel

Columbia University Press

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.

In this sweeping study full of fresh observations and original thinking, McDaniel continues his radical reinterpretation of Thai religious practice. Challenged to understand rituals, sacred objects, saints, deities, and spirits of bewildering diversity, he sees in a lovelorn ghost and magical monk a way to make sense of what seems senseless. He thereby dispels the familiar categories of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism. Does anyone understand Thai religion in all its complexity better than McDaniel?

Craig J. Reynolds, Australian National University

Justin Thomas McDaniel celebrates the complexity and situation-specific vitality of Buddhists and their 'repertoires' in his engaging work on contemporary, especially urban, Thailand. His book is a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate teaching, and it is exemplary in its use of Thai, French, and English writings on Thailand and Buddhism.

Anne Blackburn, Cornell University

A brilliant and innovative book that not only carves out some important new directions in the study of Theravada Buddhism but also sets a new bar. If my students had time to read only one book on Southeast Asian Buddhism, this is the book I would choose.

Anne Hansen, University of Wisconsin

This magnificent, beguiling, and thought-provoking study describes and celebrates the heterogeneity and, as McDaniel puts it, the cacophony of Thai Buddhist experience as expressing the values of security, heritage, graciousness, and abundance. It should be read by every scholar of Buddhist studies and of religious studies more widely. An epoch-making achievement.

Steve Collins, University of Chicago

a highly readable and enjoyable portrait of Buddhism in contemporary Thailand.

Kristian Petersen, New Books in Religion

This book informs, entertains, and provokes...anyone interested in Thailand today, in Buddhism, in ghosts, or in why CentralWorld was burned down (it was the only building in the area with no protective shrine), should read this brilliant book.

Chris Baker, Bangkok Post

...this monograph will likely serve for years to come as a benchmark in the study of Thai Buddhism, and McDaniel's arguments, claims and interpretations will be advanced, debated and critiqued by future scholars seeking to elucidate Thai Buddhism with the same care and insight he has displayed.

Erick White, New Mandala Blog

This is an important book - certainly the most important to come out of studies of Thai Buddhism for many years.

Patrick Jory, Journal of Religion

Quite clearly The lovelorn ghost and the magical monk is a major, multifaceted contribution to Southeast Asian Studies and Buddhist studies on the one hand; and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology and history of religions on the other.

Frank Reynolds, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

This is a compelling and ethnographically rich consideration of situated knowledge. It will be essential reading for all scholars of Thailand, Buddhist studies, and anthropology.

Joanna Cook, University College London, Journal of Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies
Note on Transcription
1. Monks and Kings
2. Texts and Magic
3. Rituals and Liturgies
4. Art and Objects

Read the >Introduction to The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand.

Web Features:
  • Read Justin McDaniel's essay in Huffington Post, Bangkok Post.

2013 George McT. Kahin Book Prize on Southeast Asia, Association for Asian Studies

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.