AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 2

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Session 2: Technologies of Travel in Defining a Buddhist Colonial Modernity: Buddhist Agents of International and Inter-traditional Change in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Organizer: Amy P. Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Grinnell College, USA

While the development of colonial modernity in Asian societies in many ways threatened traditional forms of knowledge and community, it also inspired the reinvigoration and reinvention of many traditions. This multi-disciplinary and cross-regional panel focuses on the international networks that developed in the late 19th through to mid-20th centuries among different Buddhist groups and their contributions to multiple modes of Buddhist knowledge. The panel will investigate how these networks deployed technologies of colonial modernity – including railways, electricity, print presses, voluntary associations and newspapers – to create forums for interaction between previously isolated Buddhist traditions. Through the stories of border-crossing Buddhist monastics, the panelists seek to understand the role of inter-traditional exchange and the ways that broader cultural, economic and political networks facilitated the negotiation of a uniquely Buddhist colonial modernity. The panel will focus on the theme of travel to illustrate the transnational and inter-traditional dialogue that developed during this period to re-evaluate the significance of colonialism for Buddhist traditions. The first paper examines how colonialism led to new definitions of Buddhist tradition for Malaysian Buddhists, following the flow of monastics from Sri Lanka to Malaysia. The second paper explores how an Irish monastic, ordained in Burma, utilized hybrid technologies to articulate a bold vision of modern Buddhism. The following paper outlines how a Theravadin Sri Lankan monastic, born in the Himalayas, defined Buddhism as a form of anti-colonialism in Sri Lanka. The final paper highlights the involvement of Tibeto-Himalayan Buddhist women, as well as men, with South Asian Theravadin communities.

From Theravada Orthodoxy to Religious Ecumenism: The Sri Lankan Sangha in Malaysia and the Reinvention of Tradition
Jeffrey Samuels, Western Kentucky University, USA

The expanse of the British empire from south to southeast Asia resulted in a flow of people between the two regions. The arrival of Buddhists to Penang, Melaka, Singapore and—later—Taiping and Kuala Lumpur from Sri Lanka in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted, in turn, in the migration of Sinhalese monastics who arrived to the peninsula initially to serve the religious and social needs of the Sri Lankan communities. However, burgeoning ties between the British colonial government and certain Buddhist leaders as well as growing interest of Chinese Malaysians in Theravada Buddhism resulted not only in a growth of Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia, but also in a redefinition of the tradition itself. This paper investigates how the relationship between the British administration and certain Theravada institutions benefited the monastic order or sangha in colonial and post-colonial Malaysia. I also examine how some Theravada temples and monks adapted to their new social roles that was the result of their burgeoning relationships with Chinese Malaysians. Finally, turning attention to two Sri Lankan monastics who played a central role in propagating Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia—Kirinde Sri Dhammananda and Wattala Ananda Mangala—I examine how Buddhist monastics creatively refashioned the very tools that were used to defend Buddhism against its adversaries in Sri Lanka in order to create trans-local and ecumenical Buddhist movement in Malaysia.

Buddhism across Colonial Contexts with an Irish Ally: U Dhammaloka and his Networks, Collaborators and Patrons
Alicia M. Turner, York University, Canada

U Dhammaloka, an Irish working-class sailor turned Buddhist monk, ordained in Burma before the turn of the twentieth century, was remarkable not just for his popularity as Buddhist propagandist, organizer and opponent of Christian missionaries, but for his ability to forge connections across traditions, nations and ethnicities. His organizing brought together a diversity of supporters, from Burmese villagers to Australian Theosophists, Singhalese gem merchants to Shan Sawbwa chiefs. Traveling between Burma, Siam, Singapore, Japan, Ceylon and Nepal, he organized Buddhist missions, schools and tract societies that spanned countries and Buddhist traditions. In Singapore, for example, he brought together Japanese Pure Land, Hokkien Chinese, Singhalese and Burmese Buddhists for a set of rituals and forged a common sense of purpose in defending Buddhism. His use of existing networks—business, political, ethnic, and reformist—highlights the deeply interconnected nature of the colonial world. Keenly aware of the power of print media, he wrote as a correspondent to Southeast Asian newspapers as a means of publicizing his Buddhist projects across multiple colonial contexts and Buddhist communities. Moreover, he wove together a syncretic blend of discourses, ranging from Burmese Buddhist revivalism, American and European freethinker atheism, temperance, pan-Buddhist internationalism and anti-colonial rhetoric, that facilitated the flow of ideas and made each intelligible in multiple contexts. This paper will explore the connections in U Dhammaloka’s travels and discourse in order to better understand the hidden and diverse sets of interconnection that underlay colonial modernity and the multiple visions of modern Buddhism.

A Buddhist Anti-Colonial Modernity: Excavating the Travels and Legacy of S. Mahinda Thera, the Sikkimese-Sri Lankan Freedom Fighter
Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia, Delhi University, USA

S. Mahinda Thera (also known as Tibet Jathika S. Mahinda Himi, b. 1898?- d.1951) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who became renowned in 1930s and -40s Sri Lanka as the author of a number of virulently anti-colonial poems and songs that combined Buddhist motifs with nationalist cries for independence from European colonialism. Despite his dedication to the cause of Sri Lankan independence, he was not originally from Sri Lanka. While Mahinda Thera is popularly considered to have been a Tibetan who travelled to Sri Lanka in 1912 to take ordination in the Theravadin tradition, the ‘S’ before his title refers to “Sikkim,” Mahinda Thera’s actual place of birth. This paper will engage with the international and inter-traditional legacy of S. Mahinda Thera, and particularly focus on his political philosophy. S. Mahinda Thera’s poetry reveals the development of a uniquely Buddhist anti-colonialism that was part of a wider anti-colonial discourse present in Sri Lanka during the early to mid-20th century. At the same time in S. Mahinda Thera’s birthplace of Sikkim, Buddhism was also an important part of anti-colonial discourse. This paper will focus on the figure of S. Mahinda Thera in order to bridge these movements, and consider more widely the formation of anti-colonial modernity in Buddhist societies.

Was Buddhist Colonial Modernity Gendered?: Exploring the Archives of Tibeto-Himalayan Buddhist Travel in the early to mid-20th century
Amy P. Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Grinnell College, USA

While there were a number of agents involved in the creation of new Buddhist networks between the Tibetan plateau and South and East Asia facilitated by colonial modernity, this paper will focus on two – a monk and a nun – to draw out the extent to which participation in and access to new modes of travel and inter-traditional interactions were gendered. Gedun Chopel (1903-1951) was a renowned Buddhist scholar, monk, poet, sexologist and traveler who spent a period of time in Ceylon in the 1930s, which was in the process of undergoing a Theravadin Buddhist revival. The Sikkimese nun Pelling Ani Wangdzin (188?-192?) was a Buddhist practitioner who also travelled throughout India and Nepal and who interacted with Theravadin communities in South Asia during the decades immediately preceeding Gedun Chopel. Unlike Gedun Chopel, Pelling Ani Wangdzin does not have work attributed to her that records her travels. This raises questions about the availability of education and travel for women during this period. While Gedun Chopel’s work was circulated through the printing press and Tibetan-language newspapers, Ani Wangdzin is a largely forgotten figure, representative of the sizable groups of female Buddhist practitioners who also utilized the new technologies of travel available through colonial modernity in their pilgrimages and quest for education across national boundaries. This paper will examine the extent to which colonial modernity was a gendered process for Buddhists, and critically consider the way that it influenced traditional Buddhist social and philosophical ideas about gender.