Introducing "Deathpower"

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Read an excerpt from the introduction to DEATHPOWER: BUDDHISM'S RITUAL IMAGINATION IN CAMBODIA, by Erik W. Davis. For more information about the book, please visit:


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  • Introduction

    When I moved to Cambodia in 2003 to study contemporary Buddhist funeral rituals, my wife, Leah, moved with me. She was then in the second trimester of her rst pregnancy, so perhaps there was no way for me to not see fertility and new life in the human management of death. After all, we had just sold everything we owned except for a few clothes and a large box of books, bringing these with us for a planned stay of three years. We had left one form of life for a new one. While I was attempting to understand what this would mean for my academic project, both of us were also expecting a brand-new form of life to take us over, as we became three from two. Two years later we became four, while in the same time, we also lost family and friends to old age, sick-ness, and accident, conrming a link between the constancy of new life and the universal process of death that is no less profound for being obvious. Anthropologists have long connected these two on the basis of their conjunction in funeral ritual, but it doesnt take an anthropologist to make the connection.

  • 2Introduction

    In 2003, Cambodia was already in the full swing of globalization. Ten years of Vietnamese-sponsored government (19791989) followed the devastation of Democratic Kampuchea (19751979). The conict con-tinued through the eighties and nineties, with remnants of the Khmer Rouge in pockets of the country. This meant that massacres remained a part of daily life, and danger from land mines increased during this period, though the terror was certainly less for most than under the Khmer Rouge. After the fall of the Soviet bloc, a UN-led transition to a free market, formally democratic state resulted in elections in 1993 and a new constitution founded on the basis of Nation, Religion, and King. The garment industry was booming in 2003, and in 2014 was the larg-est export industry and the second largest industry in the country as a whole, after agriculture. The creation of a large group of urban wage workers as a signicant part of Cambodian social life was under way. At rst, my family settled into a house on the southern edge of Phnom Penh, closer to the factories than to the riverside.

    Death often seems to double life. Once there was an animate personal-ity in a body; after death there is only a corpse. Death implies a subtrac-tion and suggests that there was something more that must have gone somewhere. We are notoriously resistant to the idea that anything as important as a person might end. In this sense, we may imagine that death somehow multiplies life. The ability to master this paradoxically productive power, to manage that which death produces, and to put all the parts back into their proper places is at the heart of what I call deathpower. At death, Buddhist monks care for the dead and create new forms of social value. This pastoral care is backed by their abil-ity to conquer and domesticate spirits that resist their appropriate moral stations.

    When I introduced myself in Cambodia as a student interested in funerals and the things of death, I was frequently told this mildly transgressive proverb:

    The treasures of man are women, wine, money, and villas;the treasures of gods include incense and candles, whilethe treasures of the Buddha are nirvana and the grave.

  • Introduction3

    There was genuine laughter in response, and nervousness about its content: associating Buddhism so straightforwardly with death and the grave seemed disrespectful. No one else recited it in the presence of respected authorities like Buddhist monks; I did. They would laugh gently and change the subject, or else insist that in spite of the humor, the proverb was correct. When the proverb was told to me by laypeople, it was clearly a joke. When monks interpreted the proverb for me, how-ever, it became a code with a correct interpretation of each element. They explained that the poem identied treasures, or things of value (sampatti, a.w. sambat) for dierent types of beings: humanityexplicitly gendered malevalues things of temporary and pleasurable use, includ-ing women, while the gods value sacrices of incense and candles; the Buddhas treasurenirvanarests in the same category as death.

    The interpretation speaks to what dierent beings consider valuable, and was my introduction to discussions of value and its transformations in Cambodia. The last line of the poem identies the treasures of the Buddha with death and nirvana (a.w. nirva, nibbna, nippean). Buddhist doctrine certainly holds up nirvana as the highest goal of ascetic prac-tice, though it is famously dicult to explain (Collins 1998). To asso-ciate nirvana with death alludes to Buddhisms central concern with mortality, as well as the apparent but doctrinally denied equivalence between the two states. Attaining nirvana may be understood as the conquest of death; given the apophatic nature of the concept, however, nirvana can never be fully distinguished from the mortality over which Buddhism asserts conquest. Death is simultaneously a value, and the conquest of that value.

    None of these reections was foremost in my mind as we settled into our rst home in Cambodia. I leapt into my project as I conceived of it at the time: a study of the changes in Buddhist funeral ritual since the Khmer Rouge period. It took very little time to discover a problem: while ritual diversity throughout Cambodia had clearly diminished overall, current funeral practices were not signicantly dierent from the practices that had been hegemonic prior to the civil wars. I was able to conrm this not only through many interviews with people involved in funerals both before and after but also through close examination of Franois Bizots

  • 4Introduction

    work on pre-war Cambodian Buddhism, which, in spite of his consistent focus on heterodox initiatory practices and their possible relationship to a defunct sangha in Sri Lanka, contains close descriptions of normal funerals as well (Bizot 1976, 1981, 1994). In fact, in spite of my desire to focus precisely on the dierences, novelty, and change that had occurred as a result of Cambodias recent and violent history, I found that funeral rituals were profoundly unchanged, and almost exclusively relied on rural traditions. The only signicant dierence was the increased hege-mony of the already dominant funeral practices, a result of the sup-pression of traditional ritual diversity by the Khmer Rouge (Kobayashi 2005). While other practices were taking on new meaningsespecially the communal festival of Bhju Pia (a.w. Pchum Ben)the funeral rit-ual itself had been largely unaected by the successive waves of change introduced by the various regimes of the last half century. What hap-pened? Why were funerals so resistant to change and transformation, while other rituals were aected in the ways Id hypothesized (LeVine 2010)? Reproducing rituals without change is itself a strategic act; that this strategy is especially evident in funerals raises the question of their social value (Bell 1992).

    The value and persistence of agricultural imagery signies that much of the force and avor of such imaginations rely on daily embod-ied experience, such as that which occupies over 80 percent of Cambo-dias population: the techniques and practices of xed-eld, rain-fed rice agriculture. But this explains the persistence of particular images and practices, not the special persistence of funeral rituals over others. My answer to the question of funeral rituals resilience is that they are a central act in the re-creation of the sociohistorical world in which Cam-bodians imagine moral possibility (Castoriadis 1975, 170220). Funeral rituals perform, and through performance institute, key values in the Cambodian imagination that map geography and human beings, along with the techniques that mediate them for good and ill. Funerals are not the only rituals that engage these cosmological imaginations, but the moralization of the techniques that manipulate the dead in funerals and other death-focused ritual events is at the core of the morality of lived Buddhism.

    What I call deathpower is the social power to care for, and in so doing, manipulate, the dead. By manipulate I mean to transform the dead in

  • Introduction5

    either secular memory or ontological status. Deathpower implies pas-toral care for the dead and transforms their social meaning through that care. In Cambodia, Buddhist monks assist in the processes of both proper reection among the living and achieving improved rebirth for the deceased, and bind spirits into sites of ongoing valuesuch as rel-ics, a spiritually defended sanctuary, or an urn of cremated remains that descendants continue to interact with for years.

    Deathpower is not a private property of a priestly elite, however, and multiple actors frequently compete for access. Monks may argue for preeminence on the grounds of moral legitimacy, while magicians argue on the basis of practical assistance or technical expertise. The technical and moral dimensions of deathpower may be separated in analysis. The rituals I examine in this book associate morality with hierarchy. To live in the Cambodian sociohistorical world, oriented to life, is to be part of a hierarchy. To refuse hierarchy, in turn, reveals one as demonic, savage, immoral, and oriented toward nonexistence. In contrast to both, the Buddha and the sanghathe community of monksare those who con-front death and the lonely wastes without fear, falling into a subordi-nate hierarchical status, or immorality. For kings and Buddhist monks alike, moral and political sovereignty are rooted in a fearless and practi-cal engagement with death (Stone 2005).

    Against these moralized hierarchies rang