Battling the Buddha of Love

A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built

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Jessica Marie Falcone
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , September
     2018.
     324 pages.
     $23.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501723483.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“If we are fighting the Buddhist Coca-Cola, then how can we hope to win?” (183) says the leader of a grassroots coalition of farmers in north India who are fighting against the feared acquisition of 750 acres of land proposed for a colossal Maitreya Buddha Statue. As the title of this absorbing book Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built aptly describes, this lucid ethnography by Jessica Falcone explores the transnational life of a globalizing Tibetan Buddhist organization (FPMT- Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), and the peasant farmers who resent the varying ways in which Buddhist virtue and guru devotion translates into monumental structures that impede on their land and livelihood. How can you build a 500-ft statue of loving kindness, asks Falcone, in a manner that also has the potential to cause so much collateral suffering?

FPMT was founded in the 1960s by the charismatic Tibetan refugee, Lama Thubten Yeshe, with a strong appeal among Western devotees and converts. Straddling the worlds of a “classical Tibetan monastery in exile” and a “transnational Buddhist empire” (25), FPMT has since grown into a global network with over 150 centers abroad, with the majority of practitioners coming from non-traditional Tibetan ethnic backgrounds. As the late wish of the now deceased Yeshe, the desired construction of a 500-ft Buddha of loving kindness was taken up as the “heart project” of his Nepali disciple Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The book largely focuses on the second major imagining of the Maitreya project (2.0), and the destabilizing presence that unfolds in the town of Kushinagar—a growing pilgrimage site where the historical Buddha allegedly took his last breath. For many FPMT interlocutors, the Maitreya statue is a lightning rod for karmic connections and merit making, a symbol of gratitude for India’s support of the Tibetan exile community, a humanitarian and charitable endeavor, and a potentially lucrative investment for religious tourism and development in the state of Uttar Pradesh. However, for the peasant farmers, and some Buddhist critics, the Maitreya is nothing more than a gross vanity project, an object of religious neo-colonialism, and a black hole for corruption and potential displacement. 

While Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the top-down develop-mentality of corporate big business has generated enormous social and political upheaval in the post-liberalization Indian landscape, rarely is this kind of structural violence attributed to large, transnational religious organizations, like FPMT, that also claim to be strong advocates for engaged Buddhism. There are certainly close parallels here with Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, 2005) and her notion of the “economy of appearances,” now tied to the virtuous propagation of dharma in a globalized world. Like the Bre-X mining scandal described by Tsing, the more spectacular the conjuring, the more likely an “investment frenzy.” This conjuring is evident in the various planning iterations for the ambitious 500-ft Maitreya statue, and the circulating relic tours where merit-making and sponsorship activities are closely aligned—including opportunities to have your pet blessed. Like Tsing, who reminds us that this conjuring is always “culturally specific, creating a magic show of peculiar meanings, symbols, and practices” similarly, Falcone shows how this colossal construction of loving kindness is both empowered and limited by the cultural/religious specificity that undergirds its spectacular production, and eventually leads to its disenchantment.

Not surprisingly, the contestation around the “imaginative horizons” of the Maitreya provides an exciting, but also challenging terrain for ethnographic research and writing, especially given the different temporalities at play in the cultural biography of the greatest statue never built. In her own words, the “future tense evokes the crucial anxieties and ambivalences in the present with regard to divergent visions of what is to come” (134-135). On this point, Falcone should be commended for writing such an eloquent, reflexive, and experimental ethnography that weaves together the metaphysics of Buddhist ontology with a strong commitment to ethical engagement and advocacy anthropology. For students, or those with an interest in the anthropology of religion, globalization, and Buddhist ethics, there are several engaging narratives and meta-analyses around the study of futurity, the intermeshing of spiritual and economic values, the affective immortality of lama rebirth as well as the use of ethnography as a meditative vehicle. However, in presenting the ethnography along a set of battle lines, it also reifies what is now becoming a familiar script of global forces and heroic subaltern resistance. Evident in the first and last image of the book, the author does not want to be seen as a “passive researcher,” but one who stands in solidarity with the farmers.

More compelling are the ways in which Falcone writes with reflexive curiosity and ambivalence towards the Maitreya statue and the culture of guru devotion as a Buddhist practitioner herself. I appreciate the humility and vulnerability that accompanies her spiritual relationship with FPMT prior to undertaking this research, her acknowledgement of naivety, and the animosity towards her presence as a researcher by FPMT’rs and farmers alike. One would hope that this book will be read by some of her FPMT interlocutors, but I suspect very few will. After all, as Falcone discusses, is it not a sign of karmic weakness that a Buddhist practitioner would question the unquestioning faith in guru devotion inherent in these globalizing Tibetan organizations like FPMT? In response to these ethnical quandaries, Falcone situates her critique within the Tibetan cultural and philosophical tradition of debate itself—suggesting that such an engagement can, itself, be an ethical practice and a way of developing wisdom around the “emptiness of all things,” and certain seeming contradictions like the sacralization and worship of gargantuan holy objects.

I suspect one area of criticism is Falcone’s notion of the “heritage spectrum,” and the typology devised to represent the complexity of practitioners and institutions across the global Buddhist world. In delineating these differences along lines of enculturation we are introduced to “heritage, semi-heritage and nonheritage Buddhists” that cross-cut a faith continuum from “searchers” to “monastics.”As a researcher who has also struggled with terminology around this diverse ethnic and devotional landscape, I appreciate these efforts to operationalize these differences without oversimplifying. However, when reading the book, this heuristic does come across a bit clunky at times, especially as these categories intersect with terms like lineage, nationality, and ethnicity as well as other subjects moving through sacred and secular spaces, such as “pilgrims, temporary inhabitants and transplants, and locals.” 

Perhaps more could have also been done to draw parallels with other Buddhist sacred sites in India—and elsewhere—where Buddhism, development, and the spiritual logic of late capitalism have become enmeshed in conflicts over space and place such as Bodh Gaya, Lumbini, Sarnath, and especially the efforts to revive the great Buddhist monastic-educational complex Nalanda University. But all these are very minor points that in no way take away from this theoretically informed ethnography of supersized Buddhism and displaced loving kindness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Geary is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Marie Falcone is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University.

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