Treasures of the Buddha: Imagining death and life in contemporary Cambodia

by Davis, Erik W., Ph.D., THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, 2009, 271 pages; 3362007


This dissertation introduces funeral rituals in contemporary Khmer practice, and investigates the connections between funeral rituals and other forms of culture. A key premise of my research holds that the ritualization of death results in a type of culturally conceived value I refer to as deathpower . I focus on the socially imagined interactions between the living and the dead, and examine deathpower in Khmer culture today, from funerals and exchange with the dead, to the use of the dead in witchcraft.

Focusing on the culturally-conceived value of death allows for connections between diverse topics, including those stated above, as well as hierarchy and agriculture, among others. This focus is made possible by my approach, in which the cultural imaginary and its contents are taken as the primary data to be analyzed. The imaginary includes symbols, but is not limited to symbolic expression. Instead, the imaginary forms and underpins the symbolic that has been the primary datum for most symbolic anthropologists of ritual. By applying the thought of Cornelius Castoriadis to my subject, I discuss the ways in which the symbolism of funeral ritual connects to other rituals and practices, supporting each other in an anaclitic, or supportive, relationship.

The introduction and chapter one deal with deathpower and the concept of the cultural imaginary, discussing its specificity in the Cambodian context and history. Chapter two deals with an ideal-typical Cambodian cremation ritual. Chapters three through five explore three different modes in which deathpower is transformed and distributed: through its creation/recuperation/binding in funerary ritual (chapter three), its distribution in offerings to the dead and Buddhist monks, and finally through the secret appropriation of leftovers by witches.

Following Castoriadis' work on the social imaginary as refracted through anthropological work, I explore what I have called the image of death and how various interactions with this image produce varying types of social power. Some types of deathpower are associated simply with the sovereign power over life and death - the power to take life and deal out death. Contrasted with these are types of deathpower that emerge as a result of ritual exchange with the dead - either in funeral or memorial contexts, or in imaginations of witchcraft.

I examine interactions with the image of death as practices that not only exchanges culturally conceived and produced value, but also associated with a moral map of the world and its possibilities. The social imaginary of death in Khmer Buddhism identifies some types of exchange with the dead as moral, others as distinctively immoral, and yet others as the ambiguously moral prerogative of kingship and sovereignty.

Finally, this dissertation attempts to contribute to discussions about the methodology for studying religious practice. This is done primarily through attention to the relationship between the imagination of ritual action and actions taken in other ritual or non-ritual contexts. This focus demonstrates how these relationships of anaclisis contribute to the durability and social efficacy of ritual action.

AdviserSteven Collins
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsReligious history; Cultural anthropology
Publication Number3362007

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