The Traffic in Hierarchy

Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma

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Ward Keeler
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , September
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From 1988 until 2011, it was very challenging to do fieldwork in Myanmar. Since Myanmar opened it borders in 2011, new opportunities for commercial interests and academic research have emerged, and there has been a significant increase in scholarship on the Burmese and their country. In addition, the study of Buddhism and gender has expanded in recent years. I anticipated this book would relate to recent works in Southeast Asian Buddhism that integrate the knowledge of Buddhism, area studies expertise, and gender studies, such as Monica Falk’s Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand (University of Washington Press, 2008). Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Ward Keeler’s book is significant in that it includes ethnographic reflections during the 1980s and again since 2011. It is also a call to reintegrate the work of Louis Dumont into the academy. Sadly, beyond these contributions, I did not find that this book offers much more to the very robust and rich field of gender studies and Buddhist studies or provide a significant contribution to the study of religion. 

Periodically throughout the book, Keeler testifies that he is not an expert in particular areas. I appreciate the humility in this approach, but at times, the disclaimers proceed with problematic analyses. For instance, Keeler remarks at the beginning of one chapter that he is “not a South Asianist” (110), and then proceeds to make the majority of the chapter about South Asian culture and history. It is this chapter that devotes considerable attention to the theoretical contributions of Louis Dumont. It contains some reflections on Indonesia and India, but very little discussion of Myanmar. 

Although the title of the book suggests a focus on Buddhism in Myanmar, Keeler forewarns readers that he is “not a scholar of Buddhism, properly speaking, and that my purpose, whether conducting fieldwork or reflecting and writing about it, has never been to take up the sorts of doctrine matters that concern Buddhologists” (34). Yet after making this statement, Keeler analyzes Burmese Buddhist practices and beliefs, failing to note important contributions on Buddhist practices and beliefs. This leads to the misinterpretation of events. Especially concerning is that the primary source for Buddhism throughout the book comes from the account of one high-level Burmese Buddhist monk.

In one subsection, Keeler focuses on the Burmese nat and wei-za cults. The nat and wei-za represent very nuanced, complex, Burmese negotiations of religious traditions and authorities. This area is ripe for gender analysis, as females tend to take on roles in the nat tradition, men in the wei-za, and there are cross-dressing and gender-bending performances in the practices. Some scholars point to the “Buddhist” element in these, others identify the movements as “non-Buddhist.” Near the beginning of the short subsection, Keeler explains, “I do not claim expertise in the study of either of these cults” (169) and proceeds to provide a general integration of contributions to this study. But he fails to draw from important scholarship, such as work by Thomas Patton and Niklas Foxeus, or make substantive contributions to the discussion. He also does not go into any detail (or ethnography) on the gender distinctions in these cults beyond a few choice sentences, which is a pity, because there have been remarkable recent contributions to these intersections, such as Amy Langenberg’s Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom (Routledge, 2017) and José Cabezon’s Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (Wisdom Publications, 2017). 

One powerful point in the book is Keeler’s discussion of male monastic sexual dispositions and appetites. I applaud Keeler’s willingness to discuss sexual interest and activity with a high-ranking monk. However, in order to make substantive points on monastic sexual desires and habits, this would require more ethnographic work to point to patterns of behavior. In addition, the theoretical approach to Burmese Buddhist masculinity becomes troubled with very little integration of previous work in the field of masculinities or Buddhist Studies. Keeler acknowledges works such as John Power’s Bull of a Man (Harvard University Press, 2012), but does not substantively use the material or advance its direction.

The theoretical lens for Burmese Buddhist masculinity becomes suspect in Keeler’s primary chapter “Masculinity.” Here, Keeler argues to “substitute for the binary of male and female—as which for obvious reasons makes intuitive sense to people everywhere and enjoys great cognitive and affective resonance—the spectrum of attachment and autonomy” (214). Following this proposal, Keeler fails to reflect on non-binary theories of gender or to provide any deep analysis of Buddhist concepts on attachment and autonomy. This lack of integration becomes quite visible in a subsequent chapter. Keeler entitles a subsection, “Women and Buddhism,” but leaves out a vast amount of scholarship on the subject matter and provides very little ethnographic reflections.

Overall, the book is very unequal in terms of chapter length and quality. For instance, the first chapter provides a strong reflection of hierarchy in modern Myanmar for twenty-eight pages. The second chapter is over twice as long (fifty-nine pages); instead of a focus on significant patterns or theoretical angles, it provides a very general review of mundane observations that have little relevance to the main theoretical veins of the book. 

Some chapters in this book would assist scholars who work on religion and gender and religion and power. Specifically, I recommend the introduction, “Everyday Forms of Hierarchical Observance,” and chapter 6, “Gaining Access to Power.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Jerryson is Professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ward Keeler is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.


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