Buddhist monks, death rituals and black magic in Cambodia

Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, by Erik W. Davis, is released this month. Here, he discusses some of his book’s otherworldly content, from black magic and ghosts to Cambodian death rituals and Buddhist monks' spiritualism

Erin Hale
December 15, 2015
Buddhist monks, death rituals and black magic in Cambodia
Spirit guide: Erik W. Davis is an associate professor of religious studies at Macalester College in the US

Can you tell us about some of the themes covered in your book?
First is deathpower, which is about contemporary Cambodian Buddhist funeral rituals. Second, it covers how the particular understanding of death, and Buddhist monks’ particular relationship to death, ramifies throughout Cambodian culture. I sometimes discuss this as being not two separate levels but rather about “the image of death” in Cambodian society, and how that extends through culture in terms of religious rituals, black magic, understandings of kinship and reciprocity, as well as of sovereignty. The term ‘deathpower’ is the analytical term that holds the book together, and refers most broadly to the social power that accrues to those who interact with and manipulate the dead. Buddhist monks do this, and are the single-most culturally authorised group in this regard, but other people also engage the dead in similar ways.

As an academic you are distinguished for being able to speak fluent Khmer. How did this help your research?
I’m not sure if I like the idea of fluency – I’m not even sure if I’m fluent in English. Certainly having Chinese skills, to a large degree, is helpful. I’m not sure if it’s responsible to publish an anthropological work without being fluent. So much of life, and how much we see the world, is predicated by language. And having to deal with translators interpreting into English from Cambodian sense, it’s unfortunate.

Many parts of Southeast Asia have a dichotomy between Buddhism and spiritual belief. How is Cambodia different from the rest of the region?
In my opinion Cambodia isn’t that unique in that wherever Buddhism goes it finds a way to tame, to dominate, spirits of the dead. But what’s unique in Cambodia is how Buddhism deals with spirits of the dead, spirits of health and spirits of the forest. There’s a wealth of storytelling. In Cambodia, Buddhist monks have the capacity to live in the forest without fear of spirits. They can live with wild animals and ghosts.

You mentioned that Buddhist monks subjugate spirits. How do they do that?
The particular techniques vary widely, and even the logic will vary depending on whom you ask. It often includes specific mantragama (monokom) or meditative techniques. But the notion that some monks can and should have this power is widespread. In my book I discuss specifically the cases where a wild and malevolent spirit, the preay, is imagined to be captured, bound and domesticated, and placed under a central Buddha image in order to protect the temple.

Can you tell us more about Buddhist monks’ ability to live in the forest without fear of spirits?
The idea of a Buddhist monk who can dwell in the forests without fear, side-by-side with wild animals and spirits, is a very long-standing one. Although not widely practiced in Cambodia, the elective monastic dhutanga [ascetic] practices, which most famously include living in the forest, refer to this sort of life. In Thailand’s modernisation, forest monks became a very important part of the national Buddhist imagination. The basic notion here is that a monk who is a dedicated striver after enlightenment, wishing no harm to anyone, and endowed potentially with the higher accomplishments that come with achieving higher stages of meditation, will be ignored by beings such as large animals or spirits that might normally try to cause harm to humans. Instead, they will be drawn to the monk in a positive and non-harmful way, perhaps even trying to help him out.

We understand there will be a chapter on magic and curses. Can you tell us more about that?Deathpower is associated most legitimately with Buddhist monks but isn’t solely their preserve. A wide range of other actors, including ‘black magic’ practitioners, are imagined to engage in ways that are similar, but usually with a very different moral understanding. In my chapter on such things, for instance, I discuss a fortune teller who claimed to access knowledge about the future because of his noun krak [dried fetus amulet].

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