BUILDING BUDDHISM IN CHIANG RAI, THAILAND
CONSTRUCTION AS RELIGION
Building Buddhism in Chiang Rai, Thailand: Construction as Religion foregrounds the importance of religious construction in the practice and modern history of Buddhism in northern Thailand. Focusing on the physical construction and renovation of Buddhist spaces in the city of Chiang Rai since its repopulation in 1844, I track how religious construction shapes the city’s history and serves as a crucial a site for the production of ethical values. Even though construction is an important religious activity, the processes of building and the lives of those who carry them out are under-researched in religious studies. Following the activities and concerns of northern Thai Buddhists, I present Buddhist building as a central aspect of what Buddhism is and how it is kinetically constituted by Buddhist communities. Drawing on historical work in archives and temple holdings, and analyzing local legends, monastic sermons, and Buddhist material and visual culture encountered during ethnographic work at 162 temples in Amphoe Muang Chiang Rai, I showcase how the construction of Buddhist temples provides many of the social, ritual, and aesthetic processes through which Buddhism in northern Thailand is actively lived.
The first part of the dissertation shows how Buddhism is built from the ground up by communities that understand themselves to be living in a landscape that has been visited again and again by Buddhas of the past. The voices, histories, and legends that document Buddhist temple building in Chiang Rai present northern Thailand and its border regions as a “vibrant geography.” This means that for northern Thai Buddhists space is not a tabula rasa upon which the social, religious or the political unfold. Rather, there are inescapable topographies, archaeologies, histories, and numinous presences that directly contribute to the constructions that occur therein. Physically building Buddhist temples creates social and spiritual benefits that extend through multiple rounds of rebirth. While fashioning, donating, and installing temple elements, northern Thai Buddhists inscribe their own biographies into this vibrant geography—incorporating themselves in the stereologically significant social formations that frequently reassemble through the incalculably long span of Buddhist cosmological temporality.
The second part traces the modern history of Chiang Rai through the widespread practice of renovating the abandoned Buddhist ruins that populate the landscape of the Kok River valley. Beginning with the 1844 repopulation of the once-abandoned frontier between what is now northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma, I show how the various powers that converged in this area engaged in Buddhist building as a means of caring for the Buddhist materials in their midst, responding to the numinous powers of the land, constructing community, and asserting (sometimes conflicting) political authority. This section ends with a detailed history of the Shan and local rebellions that erupted in response to increased Siamese colonial presence in Chiang Rai. This history has not yet been written (in Thai or English). I tell the story with a focus on the role of Buddhist spaces and actors on all sides of the political and geographic reshufflings that eventually deteriorated into violence in the early twentieth century.
The third part compares historical acts of temple building with contemporary ethnographic examples to show how Buddhist building constructs key ethical values in the religious lives of northern Thai Buddhists. The chapter on samakkhi (unity) explores how northern Thai Buddhists identify samakkhi as facilitating temple building and providing a foundation for harmonious society based on Pāli ethical categories. Samakkhi is constructed and displayed through acts of communal donation (dāna), and building. Here I discuss samakkhi as an exuberant affect that is generated through ceremonies of ritualized construction that results in spiritual and communal benefit. The chapter on barami (Pāli: pāramī) presents barami as a crucial means of production in Buddhist craft and temple building. Revealing an under-explored aspect of this Buddhist ethical category, I show how barami is integral to the social and material products of temple building and is an organizing force in the cosmic biographies of powerful monks, craftspeople, and everyday Buddhists.
The dissertation also includes two appendices: a twelve-page summary translation of the 1890s account of the reconstruction of the vihan at Wat Phra Singh, and a thirty-two-page direct translation of the Tamnan Phra That Chao Doi Khao Khwai Lae Maeng Sihuhata, a previously untranslated and unstudied chronicle (tamnan) from Chiang Rai.