Tai Buddhist Practices in Dehong Prefecture, Yunnan, China (<Special Issue>De-institutionalizing Religion in Southeast Asia)
This paper will explore the religious practices of Theravada Buddhists in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. The data presented were gathered by the author during a year of fieldwork in a village outside the city of Ruili. Dehong Prefecture is located on the China-Myanmar border. One of the maingroups in this area is the Dai (Tăi), who follow Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism was brought into Dehong mainly from Myanmar. Local religious practices have much in common with Buddhist practices in Southeast Asia, sharing the same Pali canon. However, this area differs from other Theravada Buddhist societies in that it has a relatively low number of monks and novices. Although all the villages in Dehong have a monastery, just as in the rest of Southeast Asia, most of the monasteries are uninhabited. One reason for this is the oppression of religion during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But more important, the custom of ordaining is significantly less widespread in Dehong than in other Theravada Buddhist societies. Therefore, without resident monks, Buddhist rituals in Dehong are performed by virtue of the direct relationship between the lay community and their Buddhist texts, Buddha images, and pagodas. In particular, holu (experts in reciting Buddhist texts) and xiŋ lai (elderly people who go to the monastery during the rainy season retreat to keep eight precepts on special holy days) play important roles as mediators in this relationship. It is laypeople, not monks, who play the central role in the practice of Buddhism in Dehong. In this situation, knowledge of Buddhism is transmitted mainly from laypeople to laypeople. Furthermore, a diversity of practices has been produced and reproduced by local Buddhists. These features of Buddhist practices in Dehong are in striking contrast to practices in other Theravada Buddhist societies, and suggest that there is a need to re-examine the models to understand the Theravada Buddhist societies that were developed upon the case of Central Thailand.
- Southeast Asian Studies
Southeast Asian Studies 1(3), 395-430, 2012