The Buddha's Wizards

Magic, Protection, and Healing in Burmese Buddhism

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Thomas Nathan Patton
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231187602.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas Nathan Patton’s The Buddha’s Wizards: Magic, Protection, and Healing in Burmese Buddhism offers an accessible introduction to modern weizzā (also spelled weikza; cf. Pali vijjādhara) cults in Myanmar. These extraordinary figures are Buddhist wizards who, having mastered a range of supernatural powers and left the worldly realm, become protectors of the Buddhist religion (sāsana) and assist devout petitioners in need (6). The subfield of weizzā studies within Burmese religion has flourished in recent decades, as the nine core essays in a recent edited volume on weizzā attest (Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Guillaume Rozenberg, and Alicia Turner, eds., Champions of Buddhism: Weikza Cults in Contemporary Burma, NUS Press, 2014). Patton’s welcome contribution to weizzā studies reflects both his scholarly acumen and the maturation of the subfield.

The Buddha’s Wizards builds on the Patton’s previous publications. The bulk of chapters 1 and 3, for instance, appeared as separate articles (“Buddhist Salvation Armies as Vanguards of the Sāsana: Sorcerer Societies in Twentieth-Century Burma,” JAS 74 (4), November 2016; “The Wizard King’s Granddaughters: Burmese Buddhist Female Mediums, Healers, and Dreamers,” JAAR 82 (2), June 2016). Much of the rest has been elegantly reworked from his 2014 Cornell dissertation. The five body chapters of The Buddha’s Wizards, while clearly readable as individual essays, advance a progressively deepening understanding of weizzā in Burmese society.

The core argument of The Buddha’s Wizards is clear: the weizzā’s “protective power in the lives of the devout” explains the continuity of their cults across the dramatic changes of Myanmar’s past century (xxii). This “lived religion” approach displays the influence of Robert Orsi and Jennifer Scheper Hughes, both of whom are frequently cited. Quotes from extensive field interviews as well as excerpts from Burmese religious magazines bring a chorus of voices to life. Fluidly weaving these conversations into his prose, Patton succeeds in his stated aim of “deepen[ing] readers’ respect for the individuals who appear in the book” (xxviii).

Patton’s emphasis on his interlocutors’ perspectives springs from affect theory; his chief interest is the emotional lives of weizzā followers. His narratives draw readers into the intimate bonds devotees form with these miraculous wizards. Not only does his book elucidate the connections devotees share with their revered protectors, but the cited interviews themselves reveal an exceptional intimacy and trust between ethnographer and subject. Patton makes it easy for readers to appreciate the subjective feelings that shape the religious lives of weizzā devotees.

The overwhelming kindness of The Buddha’s Wizards—to both its readers and its subject matter—overshadows its possible shortcomings. The book is impressively concise; advanced undergraduates should find both its anecdotes and its arguments compelling. At the same time, Patton’s work does not probe the range of deep, dark, and often conflicting questions of belief and violence that animate other work on the weizzā, including Guillaume Rozenberg’s The Immortals: Faces of the Incredible in Buddhist Burma (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015). Patton’s book tells us much about the emotional lives of weizzā devotees, but little about the intricacy of their rituals or liturgies. Some of these fascinating details are treated in more depth in Patton’s essay in Champions of Buddhism, “In Pursuit of the Sorcerer’s Power: Sacred Diagrams as Technologies of Potency” (Taylor & Francis, 2012). The Buddha’s Wizards largely eschews detailed analyses and philosophical elaborations in favor of a more streamlined approach.The chapters advance Patton’s arguments across time, ranging from 19th-century antecedents to post-2013 developments. Chapter 1, “Vanguards of the Sāsana,” concisely outlines how weizzā cults emerged in recent Burmese history, including their relationship to sorcerer figures in the broader Buddhist world (12–16). Patton then demonstrates how changing perspectives on the decline of the sāsana in colonial and independent Myanmar were linked to the varying fortunes of weizzā cults and associations. Questions of violence, including Islamophobia among weizzā practitioners, are mentioned but somewhat sanitized (36–37).

Chapter 2, “The Buddha’s Chief Wizard,” cuts a bold portrait of the controversial Bo Min Gaung, “arguably the most popular and revered weizzā in contemporary Myanmar” (39). Patton demonstrates how devotees extend this figure’s biography though their emotional and physical engagement with his images. The details of how Bo Min Gaung believers interact with his statues and photographs make this chapter particularly valuable for the comparative study of icon worship across Southeast Asia.

Chapter 3, “Women of the Wizard King,” is somewhat misleadingly titled, as its focus on women is revealed late and remains theoretically under-analyzed (89–95); its narratives regarding mediums and healers are captivating nevertheless. Chapter 4, “Pagodas of Power,” which covers the affective and oneiric dimensions of religious building projects, is particularly brief. Here Patton touches on some of the more surprising entailments of affect theory, including the intriguing notion of “vital materialism” (107–108).

The final chapter, “Wizards in the Shadows,” dives headfirst into some contradictions only hinted at over the course of the book. Here Patton finally addresses the anxiety of his informants regarding the marginality of weizzā cults vis-à-vis the mainstream vipassanā- and Abhidhamma-centered Burmese Buddhist orthodoxy that has burgeoned over the past century (114–117). The conclusion reiterates Patton’s arguments that weizzā religiosity is more ordinary than occult, and that understanding its practitioners’ affect is key to understanding Burmese Buddhism writ large (137).

The Buddha’s Wizards is, at present, the most readable introduction to weizzā cults in Myanmar, covering aspects of history, hagiography, protection, mediumship, architecture, and marginality. The analytical focus on affect draws readers into the emotional world of the devotees, though it also smooths over some of the more complex facets of weizzā cults. This book nevertheless eloquently demonstrates the power of studying religions as lived phenomena. I hope it will find readers far and wide, both among specialists and in the undergraduate classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Trent Walker is the Khyentse Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Thai at Chulalongkorn University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Nathan Patton is Assistant Professor of Buddhist and Southeast Asian Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.

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