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A funeral ceremony at an ornate cremation pavilion symbolising Mount Meru, a sacred peak in Buddhism. Photo supplied
A funeral ceremony at an ornate cremation pavilion symbolising Mount Meru, a sacred peak in Buddhism. Photo supplied

'Deathpower'

Buddhism scholars have long debated how to make sense of supposed non-Buddhist spirit worship. One American scholar thinks he has the killer solution

The title sounds like the name of an ’80s metal band: Deathpower. But US academic Erik Davis’s first book has nothing to do with over-distorted guitars or long-haired showmen.

Drawing from three years of field research in the Kingdom, Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia, published earlier this month by Columbia University Press, expounds on Cambodian ritual dealings with souls beyond the grave – how individuals, mostly monks, interact with and interpret the spirit world and how communities respond to those interpretations.

Davis defines his neologism deathpower as “the social power that accrues to people who care for the dead”. 

But in his study of how holy men and others communicate with the deceased, Davis discovered implications that go beyond Cambodia. In his take on it, the mediums’ deathpower redirected common understandings of Buddhism itself. 

It has long been the prevailing academic view that folk beliefs within Theravada Buddhist practices throughout Southeast Asia, such as spirit worship, were “accretions” or additions to “real” Buddhism, based on a strict adherence to original Pali scripture.

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Below the Mount Meru cremation pavilion, undertakers prepare to burn a corpse and a coffin. Photo supplied

“Scholars have tended to have a stereotyped view of what Buddhism is for quite a long time,” said the author over Skype from Minnesota, where he teaches about Buddhism at Macalester College.

Such scholars have come up with various theoretical ways to separate such beliefs from a purer strain of Buddhism. In Deathpower, Davis challenges those efforts. 

“Many people who are Buddhists believe in spirits… In fact, it seems like one of the major things that monks are there to do: to manipulate and deal with the spirit world,” he said. 

“If people tell us when we encounter them in Cambodia that they are Buddhist and what they are doing is Buddhist, then why are we saying they’re non-Buddhist?”

Deathpower grew out of a PhD dissertation with the University of Chicago that Davis researched from 2006 to 2009 in Cambodia.

For three years not a day went by that he did not contemplate death. Most of his research took place in crematoriums around Phnom Penh, though he did some secondary snooping in the provinces as well.

Davis said he estimated he had been to more than 150 funerals. In the crematoriums, Davis “hung out” with the achaar, “the men in white robes who do most of the funerary arrangements and work with the families”. 

Dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt with black pants and nearly fluent in Khmer, Davis was initially suspected by the white-robed undertakers of being a Mormon missionary. But eventually, after repeated trips, the achaar were convinced that Davis was who he said he was: a blonde, ear-pierced eccentric from middle America interested in how Cambodians die. 

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The lowest panel of a three-panel depiction of a cremation and its associated Khmer rituals. Photo supplied

Cambophiles and Buddhism scholars alike have praised Deathpower. Renowned historian David Chandler deemed it “very pleasing” and a “reader’s feast”, Anne Hansen, a Buddhist Studies Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went so far as to call the 320-page book “the most perceptive, meticulous, informative, and important study of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism to date”. 

Part of the attraction of Davis’s new work, said Hansen, was that it pushed the boundaries of Buddhist studies in a fresh, somewhat controversial direction. 

“Davis’s book is ‘provocative’ theoretically in regard to some of the ways he talks about the intertwining of Buddhist and non-Buddhist aspects of Khmer religious life. This has long been a problem for scholars – how to talk about what is and isn’t ‘Buddhism’,” she said. 

Davis “doesn’t try to explain away the presence of spirits, ghosts and supernatural operations in Southeast Asian religion”, said Hansen. Rather, he attempts to prove “that the control of spirits and malevolent powers is part of what creates the moral power of Buddhism in Cambodia,” she said.

For Davis, the spirits, long treated as distinct from proper Buddhism, empower rather than weaken the religion in Southeast Asia. Indeed, they are inseparable from it. 

But deathpower was not the sole possession of monks, said Davis. Magicians and sorcerers claimed to hold sway over the dead. Laymen too, through an notorious folk practice involving grilling a fresh foetus known as a kong krau, could acquire the power. 

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The author, Erik Davis Photo supplied

As the horror story goes, to make their foetus amulet, men must impregnate a spouse and in the third trimester forcibly cut out the unborn child, roast it over a fire and wear it around his neck. The eviscerated spouse would usually die, said Davis.  

“The person who owns the amulet will feed the amulet and take care of it like a son. In return, the amulet will give them special knowledge and warnings about dangers coming,” said the author, who encountered one man during his research said to possess a kong krau. People would also pay the possessor of the amulet to use its services. 

“It would be a socially illegitimate but efficacious form of deathpower,” he said, though added that it was an uncommon practice.  

“It’s not like everybody’s walking around doing this.”Davis said that he was already working on a second, equally grim book.

The work, How To Do Things With Dead People, will be a “comparative study of political rituals dealing with the dead …between Auschwitz, Choeung Ek and a Native American genocide case.”

Yet despite so much gloom and doom, Davis said that he did not struggle emotionally with the weight of his subject matter – at least not any more.  

“I’ve been studying Buddhism for 25 years,” he said happily. “Expecting death and suffering has its rewards.”

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