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Buddhism and Society

by Melford E. Spiro

Buy the book: Melford E. Spiro. Buddhism and Society

Release Date: October, 1982

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Melford E. Spiro. Buddhism and Society


Fascinating Contrast of Theory and Practice

Spiro is an anthropologist, interested in the ways in which the intellectual strictures of doctrinal Theravada Buddhism are translated into the everyday practice of an entire society (in this case, that of Burma/Myanmar). Although his field work in Burma was done in 1961 and 1962, I am not aware of anything more recent (undoubtedly due to the military regime), and saw nothing in a three-week visit early in 2002 to make me question the continuing usefulness of this work.

The book begins with an overview of Theravada Buddhist doctrine, which is one of the best and clearest short explanations I have read. Spiro then explores how a system built on a quite pessimistic view of the world (life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, escape suffering by giving up your desire (for people, things, and so on) and achieve the non-Being of nirvana) can be implemented by people who must live in the world (and who are naturally inclined to believe that suffering is caused not by desire but by the frustration of desire). His study of how the Burmese (both lay people and monks) actually understand and practice their Buddhism is fascinating and ultimately revealing of how *any* society adapts an elite belief system to a mass audience.

Spiro also includes an overview of the Buddhist ritual system in Burma, the functioning and role of the monkhood, and a few comments on the impact of Buddhist practice on Burmese society. Spiro writes very well, with a minimum of jargon and pretension. Although this is a scholary work (and I am not an anthropologist), I found it very easy to read, with a wealth of new and interesting material. Kept me entertained for all of the (long) flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the practice of Theravada Buddhism, or planning a trip to Southeast Asia.

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