Architects of Buddhist Leisure

Socially Disengaged Buddhism in Asia's Museums, Monuments, and Amusement Parks

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Justin Thomas McDaniel
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Justin McDaniel’s Architects of Buddhist Leisure: Socially Disengaged Buddhism in Asia’s Museums, Monuments, and Amusement Parks takes the reader on a tour through a variety of Asia’s non-monastic and non-sectarian “Buddhist” spaces—territory, thus far, largely uncharted in Buddhist studies—along the way offering both a healthy dose of critical reflection and a delightful wealth of anecdotal and historical detail.

In the opening pages of the book, McDaniel transports us to the site of a giant image of Kannon (Guanyin), the sixth-largest statue in the world, built in the 1990s in Sendai, Japan. This vignette is a well-chosen starting point for the book, insofar as it allows McDaniel to point backward to the long history of giant Buddha statues across Asia, and to simultaneously highlight the element of “spectacle” in the wider range of public Buddhist spaces treated in the chapters that follow. The remainder of the introduction outlines three arguments that he wishes to make based upon his study of these sites. The first is that scholars of religion must acknowledge the importance of public leisure sites, especially the ways in which they pose a serious challenge to the distinction between the secular and the religious (6–17). The second is that, despite the fact that “Buddhists have made almost no effort in history to create a unified pan-Buddhist movement” (19), we can detect a certain ecumenism at these sites—one relayed, in large part, through affective encounters with objects. McDaniel’s discussions here of “affective encounters” (21–24), in which he briefly but effectively draws in the work of a number of theorists and art historians to describe the type of learning he sees occurring at leisure sites, is a high point of the introduction. The third and final argument is that the building projects undertaken at Buddhist leisure sites are best seen as “complex adaptive systems,” the trajectory of which their designers or architects can steer only in part. Though McDaniel engages in careful reflection on various key terms throughout his presentation of these three arguments, he makes only one passing reference to the clever phrase “socially disengaged Buddhism” featured in the title of the book (14). What he means by this can for the most part be intuited, but one might have expected, either here or in a subsequent chapter, some additional explanation of this term’s significance vis-à-vis the “socially engaged Buddhism” off of which it plays.

The three core chapters of the book center on three different, but often overlapping, types of leisure spaces: monuments/memorials; historical, educational, and amusement parks; and museums. In each chapter, McDaniel focuses on one designer, and the “complex adaptive system” of which they were—or still are—a part. Each chapter is, however, also peppered with passing references to other projects for comparison, which collectively contribute to the refreshing geographic breadth of the study.

Chapter 1 deals with Lumbini Park, a site at the birthplace of the Buddha designed by Kenzo Tange who was, unlike some of the figures we meet in later chapters, more properly an “architect.” McDaniel’s discussion of the trials and tribulations faced by Tange, the local community in Nepal, and various international governmental and monastic collaborators is an important contribution to the study of famed sites associated with the Buddha’s life, and will no doubt be of interest to scholars working more broadly on tourism and development at religious sites in South Asia.

Chapter 2 turns to the “creative and idiosyncratic expressions of (often wealthy) individuals” (81), found at three sites in Thailand built by Lek Wiriyaphan and his wife Braphai in the late twentieth century: the Sanctuary of Truth, the Ancient City, and the Erawan Elephant. Religious eclecticism and spectacle both reach a crescendo at these and other theme parks—such as the hell park at Wat Muang—discussed in this chapter, and invite further reflection on the pedagogical value of entertainment as well as the degree to which creators of such parks themselves operate with, or deliberately confound, divisions between the religious and the non-religious.

Chapter 3 begins with an unexpected yet fascinating detour from contemporary Asian spaces, and back to late nineteenth-century events at McDaniel’s current institution, the University of Pennsylvania. We learn of the eccentric collector and would-be “temple” founder, Maxwell Sommerville, who wished to transform his trove of Asian curios into a functioning, and explicitly ecumenical, Buddhist shrine at the university’s art museum. According to McDaniel, something of Sommerville’s desire to “erase the distinction between the museum and temple, the collector and the monk” can be observed in the attitude of Shi Fa Zhao, who built the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore—named after the famous temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka—in 2007 (135). Stopping short of suggesting that the activities of nineteenth-century Orientalists have directly, or indirectly, influenced collection and display practices among Buddhists in Asia, McDaniel instead places Shi Fa Zhao’s temple-museum somewhere on the spectrum between Sommerville’s temple “experiment,” and the decidedly deritualized environment of fine art museums housing Buddhist objects (148). The chapter concludes with a survey of several other Singaporean and Japanese museums which also fall somewhere along this same spectrum, including a monastery-cum-“hyper-sexualized pleasure garden” in Nagoya (157–159). Those interested in how these case studies relate to theoretical perspectives on the power and politics of museum culture will be glad to find that McDaniel offers a few brief but suggestive comments on this issue at the close of this chapter.

McDaniel brilliantly wraps up his tour of Buddhist leisure sites with one last example from the US, followed by a number of thoughtful comments on the nature and feasibility of comparative work ,and the issue—or non-issue—of “authenticity” in the spaces covered in this study. This book as a whole testifies to McDaniel’s intellectual adventurousness, is accessible enough to be used for undergraduate teaching, and marks an exciting start to the new series on Contemporary Buddhism from the University of Hawai’i Press.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Grace Ramswick is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justin Thomas McDaniel is professor of Buddhist studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


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