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Buddhism across Boundaries: Subaltern, Plebeian and Peripheral Networks in Colonial Southeast Asia

Across Southeast Asia, Buddhist nationalism is on the rise, presenting Buddhist identity in exclusivist ethnic and national terms. The current identification between Buddhism and nation in Southeast Asia, however, emerged under colonialism out of a more diverse milieu of Buddhist identities at the turn of the twentieth century. In colonial Southeast Asia multiple transnational and multi-ethnic Buddhist identities flourished and, moreover, Buddhism was a medium of connection across boundaries.

“Buddhism across Boundaries: Subaltern, Plebeian, and Peripheral Networks in Colonial Southeast Asia” explores the history of Buddhism as a medium for identity, engagement and collaboration beyond the late modern limitations of nation and ethnicity, through the study of disparate but effective networks of Buddhist patrons, organizers and supporters between 1880 and 1920. It promises to open up a new understanding of the complexities of Buddhist transnational organizing and the ways in which religion served as a means for collaboration and affinity.

This two-year collaborative project worked from the margins and fringes, rather than the colonial and Buddhist centres, starting in the outlying port cities that saw great flux and interactions of cultures: Akyab in Arakan, Tavoy in Tenasserim and Penang in the Straits Settlements, and in minority and mobile cultures: Chinese in Rangoon, Shan in Bangkok, Sinhalese in Penang, Irish in Southeast Asia. This project stepped back from the focus on monks to look at networks that facilitated the travel of ideas and gave birth to new identities and associations. The practice of Buddhism represented the visions of those who made it financially possible—the networks of sponsors, each with their own interpretations of what it should mean to be Buddhist and modern.

Investigating the changing role and meaning of Buddhism in the colonial world allowed us to ask: How did religion function as a vector of connection outside of the centralizing forces of colonial subjectivity and subsequent nationalism? How did promoting Buddhism make connections across ethnic, class and cultural boundaries and between those on the various margins of empire—even as they continually reinvented what “Buddhism” and “religion” would mean in practice? How did Buddhism become a medium for resisting both colonialism and the centralizing forces of burgeoning nationalism and official monastic orthodoxy?

The project team was led by Alicia Turner (Humanities) and includes Brian Bocking (University College Cork) and Laurence Cox (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) and research assistants Rachelann Pisani (University of Toronto) and Jasmine Jasani (York University).

The project was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant.