Burma Lecture Series begins at U of T, Apr 12

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presented by the Southeast Asia Seminar Series

Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage and Vipassana: What ‘Circular’ Life-cycle Rituals Might Look Like in Burma

Gustaaf Houtman
Senior Teaching Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Adjunct Fellow, University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Editor, Anthropology Today, Royal Anthropological Institute in London

Friday, April 12, 2013
2:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs
1 Devonshire Place, 208N, North House

Register Online at: http://www.munk.utoronto.ca/EventDetails.aspx?EventId=13791

Why do Burmese rites of passage (with exception of death rituals) not principally fall within the domain of Buddhist functionaries? Melford Spiro (1975) answered: “In short, I know of no satisfactory answer to this question, and having said so, can only move on.” Here we pause to reflect on a feature many practicing Buddhists share. Typically, monotheistic religions encompass life-cycle rituals within the body of their teachings for which they make their own functionaries responsible, thus welding laity and religious specialists into a religious and socio-cultural community. However, in the case of Burmese Buddhism, especially reproduction-related rituals such as marriage are typically left to ‘outside’ functionaries, such as ‘Brahmins’ (beiktheik saya as they are known and, in the case of Japanese Buddhism, to ‘Christian’ priests). To explore a tentative answer to this question, I propose we look at Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage (1908), which he formulated as typical of ‘rectilinear’ and thickly ‘partitioned’ societies (which see life as one-off and directed), as distinct from a lesser emphasis on rites of passage in ‘circular’ or ‘thinly’ partitioned societies that substitute life-cycle ritual with rationality and with contemplation of the ‘philosophical [and psychological] significance’ of life (which see life in terms of rebirth as evolving by a multiplicity of causes). Van Gennep concluded his book saying that: “It is indeed a cosmic conception that relates the stages of human existence to those of plant and animal life and, by a sort of pre-scientific divination, joins them to the great rhythms of the universe.” The manner in which Van Gennep gave substance to ‘ritual’, a word that did not enter into common use in the English language until the 1850s (Platvoet 2006), helps us appreciate how Burmese vipassana contemplation techniques so popular in Burma today operate on a continuum with other kinds of practices, such as ritual and philosophy, that also punctuate (awareness of) the transformation of the person, of the polity and of the cosmos, albeit in different ways.

Gustaaf Houtman edits and produces Anthropology Today for the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, and is a senior teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and adjunct fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Originally trained in Burmese language and literature along with anthropology, his fieldwork in the early 80s grappled with the popularization of vipassana contemplation since the mid-19th century in Burma for a PhD in anthropology with several dozen traditions surveyed, each with their own biographical, historical and literary trajectories, many of which have remained largely unstudied. Since the late 90s he has focused on soteriological liberation discourses associated with vipassana (insight contemplation) and samatha (concentration meditation) deployed by national leaders, including rhetoric (by Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi and others) aiming for release from (colonial and military) confinement, imprisonment and occupation.

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