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Justin McDaniel
Justin McDaniel

To many, Buddhist monks are revered mystics who reside in secluded monasteries and mountaintop temples. Perhaps it came as a surprise then, when Dr. Justin McDaniel, published author and associate professor of Buddhism and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that he himself was ordained during his three and a half year sojourn in Thailand. McDaniel was invited to Hamilton by the Asian Studies Department, and presented his lecture about Thai Buddhism in the Wellin Museum Overlook on April 10. 

After graduating from Boston College in 1993, McDaniel took time off to do humanitarian aid; he worked with Cambodian refugees in the U.S., eventually deciding to continue his outreach by going to Southeast Asia. Because of the Cambodian civil war with the Khmer Rouge, McDaniel went to Thailand where he met many peers who had been ordained as monks. Although he was not very interested in Religion at the time, McDaniel decided to embrace the culture and began his monastic life.

After becoming a monk, McDaniel decided to return to the U.S. to study the languages  in which he had learned to chant. Then, with a doctorate in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University, McDaniel returned to Cambodia in 2003 with the intention of studying Buddhism in a new way. Whereas most teachings begin by focusing on the life of the Buddha, McDaniel decided to decenter the Buddha and focus instead on stories and folklore.

Although Buddhist rituals and beliefs vary throughout the world, these stories are known all over and are passed from generation to generation. McDaniel believes that these stories, rather than religious texts, hold the essence of Buddhism.

McDaniel clarified that while many Buddhists do not understand the religious chants, they believe that these incantations have power. Similarly, objects and images are received as important, not for their age, material or style, but for their associations, local history, and protective power. As an example, McDaniel related the story of a powerful, some say magical, monk, Somdet Toh.

Although Somdet Toh passed away in the late 19th century, his image is prominently displayed throughout Southeast Asia to this day. The reason his legacy endures is largely due to the holy water and sacred amulets he produced. These amulets are very sought after, valued at $2.7 million each, and are said to possess powerful magic.

Before his death, Somdet Toh planned the construction of several massive statues of the Buddha throughout Thailand. He placed some of his sacred amulets in the base of each statue and blessed the statues with protective powers. It is widely believed that these statues protected temples, none of which were harmed, from U.S. bombings during WWII air raids.

Today, Somdat Toh is revered as a protector of the nation, a master meditator, and patron of the Lao ethnic group (his mother, of whom he was very proud, was a Lao woman). It is his mantra that is used to create safety, and his incantations that are sown into military uniforms for protection. Even though Somdat Toh’s chants are not part of the official religious canon, they are widely known and are believed to have healing powers.

McDaniel concluded by saying that approaching Buddhism with the intent of finding a comprehensive definition is the wrong method. In reality, it cannot be summed up so easily, “you have to honor the complexity, not just pick and choose the parts you want.” Looking at Buddhism as a goal, or destination, causes you to miss the journey; “Buddhism is not a product, but a process,” McDaniel quipped. Although the texts are important, the essence of Buddhism does not lie in semantics. Rather, it lives in the stories, objects, and rituals of everyday life.

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