One example of “intercultural mimesis” that Charles Hallisey highlights in his 1995 essay details the “great orientalist” T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922) and his role as (what Edward Said calls) an “inaugural hero”. That is, Rhys Davids had a prominent hand in shaping the legacy of Buddhist Studies – a legacy that, to a large extent, is still felt today. Hallisey explains that this legacy promulgated a “Pali Text Society mentality” that sought value in only “‘pristine’ teachings” found in classical-language sources, thereby dismissing vernacular texts. In the same vein, only a historicist approach was advocated, which helps to reinforce the orientalist-influenced mission to “uncover the origins of Buddhism.” All of this contributed to “textualization”, the term Philip Almond uses to explain the West’s control of Buddhist texts and thus control over defining the “essence of Buddhism”.
We can see how such puritan ideals of Buddhism is exacerbated when we consider Hallisey’s exploration of Rhys Davids’s “portrayal of early Buddhism as being largely free of ritual”. This ritual-averse legacy creates a divide between early Buddhism and Indian tradition, between Hinduism and Buddhism, and it ignores cosmology, and the symbiotic relationship between monks and the lay community. Addressing Hallisey’s call to “develop more nuanced accounts of the interactions” that constitute Theravada Buddhism, this talk argues for a “materialization” of Buddhism. Based on archival and ethnographic research in Thailand, I highlight key examples of contemporary material culture and ritual from Bangkok’s iconic temple, Wat Arun.