The Culture of Giving in Myanmar

Buddhist Offerings, Reciprocity and Interdependence

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Hiroko Kawanami
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     2020.
     200 pages.
     $115.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350124172.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Culture of Giving in Myanmar: Buddhist Offerings, Reciprocity and Interdependence is indisputably a key contemporary work on the sensitivities of the social custom of gift-giving and its implications in social and religious contexts. It is an important resource that draws attention to the competing complexes of gift exchanges embedded in social relations and the meanings derived from these processes. Gift-giving and receiving within religious contexts unpack less-known layers of nuances that stimulate a continuum of generosity and reciprocity among Buddhist people in Myanmar. The book poignantly attempts to identify and understand the dynamic processes that underlie, motivate and shape gift exchanges in Myanmar, and how these transactions and relationships are grounded not in “soteriology but sociology” (8). It takes us through the intriguing journey of finding the answer to the question “how can people living in one of the world’s poorest countries be amongst the most charitable?”, opens compelling avenues on the subject of interdependence and reciprocity in Myanmar, and offers robust emic perspectives using empirical and participatory ethnographic methods.

The introduction offers a background of the process of gift-giving: how it varies across regions, and how it expands and consolidates social relationships. Buddhist monastics in Myanmar are at the heart of social transactions and reciprocity, and moral and cultural groundings prescribe the manner of gift-giving and receiving. These gifts go beyond “donations”’ and are rooted in spiritual and cultural notions of dana (Pali word that refers to the virtue of offering), kamma (Pali word for intent and deeds), and merit. Each of these terms is contextualized and explained as is the case with Theravada Buddhist community in Myanmar. The author identifies and examines the tensions when religious leaders are involved in the gift exchanges: To what extent should this be a moral obligation? To what extent should this be reciprocated? What do gifts symbolize and what are the personal and cultural ramifications? Giving gifts to Buddhist monastics is non-linear and is almost like a symbiotic chain of unending actions that not only sustains but also supports the mutual dependence and the fabric of the community. It is indeed not a need-based “one-off or one-to-one transaction” (3), rather is a deeply internalized experience of cultural reliance and meaningful day-to-day engagement.

Chapter 1 discusses the ingrained generosity of the people in Myanmar where 90 percent of them are reported to engage in “giving activities” (21). Throughout the year, there are festivals and special days to express gratitude towards parents, teachers, doctors, monastics, besides the usual alms transactions between the laity and the monks and nuns. Expressing reverence and gratitude fosters close relationships and signifies the affirmation of meritorious act for the entire community. Chapter 2 focuses on the laity: their relationship with the monastic community, their motivations around gift transactions, the meanings attached to it, and their intended expectation from the process. Often, the lay people in a Buddhist community are sidelined, but Hiroko Kawanami ensures she gives substantial voice to them and their beliefs and practices.

The following chapter focusses on the Buddhist monks and their positionality and agency as key religious and community figures in everyday lives in Myanmar. Buddhist monks are indeed central to the essence of Myanmar, and their roles as protector of religion and country is conspicuously pronounced. Though the primary functions of the monks are “learning the scriptures, meditating, and disseminating the teaching of the Buddha” (70), they engage in sociopolitical roles to support the nuns and the laity. Their involvement in politics should not be seen as a deviation, but rather as an evolved and engaged form of Buddhism. Kawanami briefly discusses the monks’ roles in the far-right nationalist organization MaBaTha and explains the need to adopt contextual framework to assess the monastic involvement in this discourse.

Chapter 4 is on Buddhist nuns. It highlights the importance of this community despite them not being fully ordained and their role as a bridge between the monks and the laity. The manner in which the nuns interact with the laity vary considerably from the monks, and this is owing to their religious and socioeconomic statuses. Kawanami unpacks the webbed layers of transactions, customs, and their symbolic capital and the manner in which the nuns facilitate the and fulfil communal trust and dependency in Myanmar.

Chapter 5 is called “Donor Groups and Social Outreach.” This chapter observes the different communities (traditional and contemporary) of lay Buddhists in the villages and cities of the country, and how they are motivated to participate in religious and social giving. The author brings significant examples to argue that these processes are ever-changing and are shaped by events such as natural calamities, political crises, or international interventions. Kawanami ends with the chapter “Towards a Society of Interdependence,” where she reflects on cultural generosity in Myanmar that is manifested in a “wide range of material and immaterial ways” (145). Much like her readers, she recollects that the title of the book should perhaps have been The Culture of Receiving given the cultural and religious vitalities of the receiver in Myanmar. She summarizes how transactional activities in Myanmar result in a “cycle of interdependent reciprocity” (148) that leads to maintenance and sustenance of the people within and beyond the monastic realms.

Overall, the book passionately weaves narrations around the exchange of material and symbolic gifts enabling cultural interdependence in Myanmar and succeeds in achieving the objectives it intended to. While delicate concepts are simplified and contextualized, the underlying tensions within the processes of transactions sometimes seem trivialized. Myanmar was undergoing high political tension during the time this book was published, and while the author does mention aspects of it, it may have been intriguing to examine how the equation of interdependence is impacted by political turmoil, if at all. Lastly, studies in this realm are not abundant, however, as a scholar of similar interest, I would have particularly enjoyed the insights of local and regional authors on this subject. The book is irrefutably a robust value addition in the broader anthropological and sociological discourse on gift transactions and contributes effectively to the ongoing research in anthropology of Buddhism and Southeast Asian studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sneha Roy recently completed her doctorate at University of Wales Trinity Saint David and is currently working with KAICIID International Dialogue Centre.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hiroko Kawanami

Keywords: 

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