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Buddhist Secularism? Interrogating the Relation between Buddhism and Religious Plurality in Burma/Myanmar and Thailand

Sat, April 2, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 2nd Floor, Room 213

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel

Abstract

While both the scholarly literature and popular discourse emphasize the role of Buddhism in politics in Burma and Thailand and the “problem” of religious minorities, little work to date has considered how such interactions constitute local constructs of the “secular.” This panel explores the provocatively-termed concept of the “Buddhist secular” to look at the place of Buddhist discourse in mutually constitutive genealogies of “religion” and “secularism.” We are interested in the specificities of Buddhism regarding secularism, the supposed compatibility of certain Buddhist practices with the secular, and the construction of the “Buddhist secular” vis-à-vis minorities and marginalized practices. Two presentations examine the turn of the 20th century as a decisive historical juncture for negotiating the Buddhist secular: exploring the Nangsue Sadaeng Kitchanukit (Book Explaining Various Things, 1867) from Thailand as demonstrating an epistemic shift towards a secular construction of the category of religion; and looking at colonial Buddhist monasteries as a space where “Buddhism” operated as a mechanism for pluralistic interaction in Burma. Two contributions engage with the contemporary construction of the Buddhist secular in Burma/Myanmar: one explores practices of public evangelizing in Yangon for insight into how this Buddhist secular is navigated by different actors in a moment of political change; the other looks at how Burmese spirit worshiping faces a new process of marginalization in this same context.

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