The following is my report I submitted to the Explorers Club (explorers.org);
Modern Theravada Buddhism Among The Dai in Xishuangbanna, China
Xishuangbanna Prefecture Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China
In August of 2017 I traveled to Yunnan Province, China to conduct an independent study on the distinct cultural and religious practices of the Dai ethnic minority group. The following is my account and findings from my fieldwork and time spent there. My expedition was partly made possible by The Explorers Club, whom which I am very grateful towards their decision to award me a research grant.
During my undergrad career at the University of Iowa, I earnestly studied eastern religions and cultures and became intrigued by the extremely diverse region that is Yunnan province, China and the small pocket of ‘southeast Asian’ style Buddhism that exists in the southern tip of the province. Based on my studies, I held several strong assumptions about religion and spirituality in the PRC (People’s Republic of China). It’s been my impression that the cultural revolution wiped away a good amount of China’s Spirituality but I also know that when it comes to Buddhism, China has traditionally followed the Mahayana and Tibetan lineages and not Theravada, which made Xishuangbanna even more interesting.
Before I went to Xishuangbanna, I spent two weeks in the north of Yunnan Province in the cities of Dali and Lijiang. I even spent a night at Wu Wei Shan monastery outside of Dali (planned to stay a week but a bout of food poisoning forced me to leave early) and this experience gave me some important insights that would prove valuable later in assessing Dai Buddhism in the south. I spent a total of 27 days in Xishuangbanna, mostly in the city of Jinghong.
I stayed primarily at a backpacker hostel for most my stay and found the owner’s English language ability invaluable in a region where very few speak anything other than Mandarin, Dai or other minority languages. I came to this region with the following questions that I hoped to answer. What is the current state of Dai Theravada Buddhism? How has it changed since the cultural revolution? What is the relationship between the Dai people and the rest of China like? How important is spirituality to the Dai people? And more specific, is to be Buddhist, central to Dai identity?
When I arrived in Xishunagbanna via flight from Kunming (the capital of Yunnan), it became obvious very quickly that the area’s Dai cultural heritage was crucial to the identity to this region. With street signs in both Mandarin and Dai languages, palm trees and jungle covered rolling mountains in the horizon and the Great Mengle Buddha standing tall, overlooking downtown Jinghong, it became evident that Xishuangbanna was the perfect advertisement for Yunnan’s ‘Most Diverse Province’ reputation. Another thing that became apparent during my first few days, was that I stood out like a sore thumb. I came to realize quickly that Westerners were few and far between in this area and so is the ability to speak English.
Locals would often come up and take pictures with me while I ate at restaurants and hung out at bars. I arrived in Jinghong just in time for the commencement of the Closed Door Festival. The Closed Door Festival is a 3 month long Buddhist festival but much more than just a festival or celebration, (as I did not see any parades or city wide celebrations or parties) it is time to honor Theravada heritage and spirituality. During this time, traditional Dai practices and a Buddhist code of conduct, become almost enforced and are taken much more seriously than other times of the year. Villagers will be expected to attend Theravada ceremonies at their local temple, usually once a week and for the duration of the three months. Couples cannot get married during this time, new homes cannot be built and no hunting activities can take place. Monks are supposed to refrain from eating meat as well, which was surprising to me because I always thought monks traditionally consumed a vegetarian diet no matter the time of year.
My first impression after learning about the practices of this ‘Closed Door Period,’ was that it seemed to be very much like a very long Lent. But after further consideration, and while this is an obvious connection to draw based on my own cultural upbringing, this Dai Buddhist festival is in fact very different from any personal connection I could make. The Closed Door Period does not have its origins in Buddhism but in the Dai people’s cultural identity and history.
This festival is a result of the bridge and mold of the Dai people and culture, with Buddhism. Just like in the Tibetan sect of Buddhism, old mythological and spiritual beliefs have been blended together with the teachings of Buddha. The same is true with Dai Theravada Buddhism and the Closed Door festival is a prime example of this. The belief in Spirits and the sentient nature of the forest and the wilderness is a still a very real concept in the Dai consciousness.
When first arriving in Xishuangbanna, it was pleasant to receive a lot of information regarding Dai Buddhism and culture from my host who is of Dai heritage. She was married to a man who is Han Chinese and in retrospect I think their bond represented the state of Dai relations with the rest of China.
My first hypothesis on the state of Dai Buddhism was based on my Knowledge of the Chinese Communist party and the Cultural Revolution. I did not expect the relationship to be as positive and cooperative as I came to know it to be. Early on through a western expat owned Café in Jinghong, I was able to get in touch with a monk who spoke Dai, Chinese and English. I was very fortunate to make this connection early and this monk who I will refer to as ‘Charlie,’ was extremely knowledgeable and eager to sit down with me.
While I didn’t directly realize it, I always possessed somewhat of a romantic view of Buddhist monks which I think is partly a byproduct of the growth in popularity of eastern wisdom and philosophy in western society. Buddhist philosophy on life and spirituality had always connected with me personally and thus I always envisioned monks to have this aura about them as a result of their disciplined meditation practice and monastic lifestyle.
While I did meet some Shaolin monks while I was in Dali at Wu Wei Shan monastery, I never got a chance to speak with them because of our language barrier but the discipline I witnessed in them certainly elevated my held preconceptions. Perhaps as a sum of having these partly unconscious views, I was a bit taken back when I sat down with Charlie at a café and found him to be (robe and shaven head aside) very much a normal person. Not to say my preconceptions were wrong and I was disappointed, (not in the slightest honestly) but talking with Charlie was just like talking with any other person.
This experience is just one of the fruits and benefits of travel, learning from a book and classroom will only teach you so much but learning from direct experience tears down the doors of separation that not only provokes some speculation but ultimately prevents a person from authentically knowing. It was clear to me at this point, I was no longer an ‘armchair anthropologist’ which was a term thrown around during my undergrad studies referring to someone who studies beliefs and cultures without actually engaging them directly or travelling to their place of practice.
One of the first of many intriguing facts Charlie shared with me was that the Chinese Government, since the turn of the century, has in fact funded the construction of Theravada Buddhist temples all around Xishuangbanna. This was obviously very intriguing to me due to my background understanding that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is inherently anti-religious. He did however, acknowledge to me that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s, temples were burned by Mao’s soldiers and Monks beaten.
Regarding the reasons for becoming a monk, Charlie said in modern Dai society, the motivation is mostly social and for the educational opportunities that becoming a monk provides. The circumstances remain as in traditional times where Dai children don the robe at 9-10 years old but in the modern era, more than just as a traditional cultural practice and in pursuit of spiritual aspirations, the incentive to obtain a higher education is also a big motivation. As I suspect is the case in other parts of the world where traditional cultural practices are facing modernization and the influx of western amenities, Dai children are intrigued by a life that doesn’t require the discipline and study that it takes to be a Buddhist monk.
But even with this, I was told that there is not much of a shortage of young monks. It was very interesting to hear Charlie tell me that he would be leaving soon to study for his M.A. degree in Bangkok, Thailand. Though now I suppose it makes good sense, I was not aware that there are many Buddhist universities and colleges across Asia that many monks go to study and for almost no expense. Apparently, there are many types of ‘scholarships’ that only are available for monks and nuns. Aside from education, monks are still enormous social providers in Dai society and this is still a strong pull on young Dai boys to obtain monkhood.
Not only does becoming a monk bring good fortune to yourself and family but to the Dai community in general. Since the reality and mysticism of spirits exists in the Dai worldview, monks can serve a shamanic role in the community if a situation calls for spirits to be properly exorcised. And as one would infer, Monks in Dai society are considered to be more intelligent and of higher social rank.
Without a question, one of the bits of information that stuck with me after my conversation with Charlie, was that becoming a monk gives Dai individuals the chance at a great education which can help them get ahead in Chinese society. Charlie, and many other monks who I spoke with later during my time in Xishunagbanna, told me that Dai children do not have an equal chance of success in life compared to Han Chinese but becoming monks gives them an opportunity or a way out of a life that could very well seem pre-determined to them. There are still opportunities available to them but a main hurdle they face is the fact that they learn the Dai language first and then later they learn Mandarin Chinese. So early on in public school, Dai children face a disadvantage that other Chinese do not have. I was told the situation is improving but for a while, it has remained a prominent issue.
Following my discussion and meeting with Charlie, I spent the following days wandering Jinghong and the neighboring small Dai villages scattered a few kilometers around the city. I went to the major Theravada temple in downtown Jinghong and spoke to a few more monks there. At this point in my trip, my discussions with them began to reinforce the idea that to be Dai is also to be Buddhist, there is not a separation.
Beyond any shred of doubt, their religion was inherent in their sense of identity. This is in stark contrast to the rest of Buddhism in China because here, the potentiality of becoming a monk is ingrained in young Dai boys at an early age and Buddhism surrounds everything they do. In the rest of China, if one really wants to become a monk or nun, they really have to search it out, it’s not something that is typically pushed on children by parents. This aspect is important regarding the spiritual element of being a monk because in Dai culture, and as mentioned earlier, the motivation is much more social and educational, thus the spiritual pursuit often takes a back seat to these motivations.
Do Theravada monks believe in the traditionally held concept that Enlightenment can be obtained in this lifetime? That’s a question I would find out soon. One of the days I spent roaming downtown Jinghong, I also sat inside the main temple and had a small contemplation session, not only to seek out some serenity but attempting to imagine what a monastic life would actually be like.
I always imagined a Buddhist temple would be much different than any of its counterparts in the West but its turn out, I found them incredibly similar to Christian Churches. How can that be? I mean they are two completely different religions after all, right? Well if you can get past the fact (some perhaps would not be able to) that instead of figures of Christ all around, there is Buddha and specifically instead of Christ on the cross at the center of the rooms, (usually above the alter where sermons are given) there is, Buddha, Theravada Buddhist temples are very alike. Perhaps it requires looking at these temples from a larger, more broad perspective to see it this way but I do not believe it is an inappropriate comparison. Local people come in to pay their respects to Buddha, meditate or pray briefly and on many days, a gathering will take place where a senior monk will give a sermon. It’s all about connecting with or finding solace in something greater than one’s self and this is a desire and ritual that transcends the boundaries and differences of cultures and religions.
Instead of taking a bus or hiring another kind of transport to take me out to the nearby Dai villages around Jinghong, I elected to rent a bicycle. While my host acknowledged that it was possible to reach the towns by bike, it would take a few hours and I would have to leave early in the morning. Despite being not much of a morning person, I chose to take the more adventurous option. Also since the Dai are lowland people, I figured I wouldn’t have to trek up too many steep hills to reach them anyway. This assumption proved to be not entirely accurate. The day turned out to be quite hot and the sun felt strong as I peddled seemingly endlessly through the hordes of traffic that, while are quite timid compared to other China cities, still is quite ferocious compared to American Midwestern standards (my home).
Navigating with the map that my host had given me, plus using the app ‘Maps.me’ on my phone, I made my way out of Jinghong City, the outskirts and eventually to the open roads that went straight to the towns and villages. While I didn’t directly pedal through the mountains and hills that look so luminous and beckoning from the vantage point of Jinghong city itself, there was still some pretty steep terrain, and the heat combined with the amount I seemed to be persperating made me wonder if, and when I should turn back.
Eventually I made it to a small township just off the banks of the river and decided the village looked like a good place to explore. I was greeted by several smiling Dai individuals, who seemed to be quite surprised to see a westerner show up in their town. I conversed with them in the little mandarin that I knew, and eventually a photo was taken. I continued to make my way to the far end of the town. Some homes were built quite scantily and others seemed a bit more modern.
I saw Dai women dressed in their traditional Garments and Men with no shirts revealing elaborate tattoos. I went to a temple and again being sighted by some locals, quickly became the center of attention (very used to this at this point). I marveled at the elaborate paintings of Buddha that adorned the inside of the temple’s walls.
Each singular painting depicted a phase in Buddha’s life, from the first time he ventured out of his royal palace which sheltered him from the suffering of the world, and he witnessed death and suffering, to the moment in which he attained enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree. These paintings were marvelously well done and produced a strong spiritual aura that perhaps is similar to the feeling one gets while standing in a gothic church in France. This was just a small village as well, so for such a small community to have built such an elaborate and well-constructed temple that I can imagine was not cheap in price or effort, and in a location where few people other than the locals will get to see it, reveals I think, just how important spirituality is to these people.
Based on my observations in this riverside village, it was clearly evident that there was no escaping the sacredness that Buddhism holds for the Dai people and how closely it ties into their sense of identity.
On September 15, I hired a guide named Sam who was to take me out to southern Xishuangbanna, past the city of Mengla and into some Dai and Aini villages. Sam was of Dai descent and could also speak English, Dai and Chinese. Not only was he an extremely knowledgeable and proficient guide but was extremely kind and I enjoyed spending time with him. On the drive down, he told me about the history of the Dai people, the impact of the cultural revolution on their way of life and reiterated that the belief in spirits and animism are still very much apart of the Dai worldview. It was interesting to learn that the last Dai kingdom ended in 1951, so it certainly wasn’t too long ago that Dai lands in Xishuangbanna were a sovereign state.
Sam told me that while there are over 13 minority groups in the region, it has always been considered taboo to intermarry with any of them and many of the different tribes were akin to and taken as slaves during the reign of the Dai kingdom. Interestingly, Han Chinese have never been labeled as off-limits as marriage partners despite the rather recent state of unsteady relations during the 60’s and 70’s. When we arrived at our first Dai village after an over 2 hour drive through the winding mountains and going through a military checkpoint, we went directly to the morning market in the center of town. Seeing this market for the first time was, though like other markets I have seen in China so far, also different in that it very much resembled a slaughterhouse with all kinds of raw meat and animal parts and products on display.
Sam remarked to me that the Dai, “eat everything” in regard to the animals that they kill and I certainly believed him with seeing plastic water bottles full of blood for sale on the counters right next to pig heads and unskinned legs.
After the market, we went to a 900 year old temple and pagoda on a hill close to the village. There were some young boy monks playing outside the temple and they became very intrigued when they saw a foreigner coming on the grounds. Sam told me he knew of a senior monk at this temple and was hoping that I would get a chance to meet him but after communing with the young boy monks, he was told the monk was not available on this day. As we descended the dragon styled and monument stair case that lead up to the temple, Sam told me that the reason Dragon monuments are always standing guard at the entrance of the temple is because according to Dai legend, Dragons came to Buddha begging for him to teach them and for them to become Buddhist monks, the Buddha told them that dragons cannot be monks but if they stand guard outside of the temples, he’ll teach them about the Dharma (Buddhist teachings and state of the universe).
After the temple and pagoda, we went to another Dai village that was well-known for its paper making plantations. The village defiantly seemed to be much more ‘well off’ than the last one we visited and there were many nice SUV’s parked close to well-built and modern designed homes. Sam informed me that Dai villages have benefited immensely from the paper making, rubber tree farming and tea growing. Apparently southern Xishuangbanna is known nationwide for the quality teas that are produced here and a tea brewing and tasting festival takes place annually in which people from across China come to participate in. Also, later this day I would get to see an 800 year-old tea tree located close to an Aini village and I would as well, get to taste some of the best tasting teas I have ever tried produced by a local Aini family and friends of Sam.
One of the things that amazed me the most about Xishuangbanna and this Dai village was the plethora of pictures and posters of Mao Zedong. Of all the places in China I expected to see support for Mao, an ethnic minority group village, and an extremely religious minority group at that, was the last place I would expect to see it. Even acknowledging that by this point in my trip, I had realized Dai relations with the Chinese government were quite good, I still was a bit puzzled and I wondered if the Communist party requires these posters to be on display. I exclaimed to Sam my surprise and bewilderment and his response baffled me even more. “People see Mao as a God,” he said and I replied, “But even after everything that happened during the cultural revolution and the temples burned and monks beaten?” “Yes,” he said, “most people do not remember that anymore.” ‘Well it wasn’t that long ago,’ I thought to myself.
The argument is always going to be there that people are afraid of speaking their true feelings out of fear of crackdown by the Communist party but I sincerely did not detect any sense of untruthfulness by Sam or any other person I spoke with regarding views on this topic. It is in my view that they were all genuine and thus I must suppose Sam’s remarks and my observation offers even more convincing evidence that the Dai people have adjusted quite well to being part of the PRC and the relationship between them is quite good.
Back in the Paper making Dai village, despite its wealth and modern amenities, the village still possessed the very thing that is crucial to Dai culture and identity; a Buddhist temple. Perched up on a hill on the edge of the village, Sam and I made our way up to the temple on stairs that were ridden with debris and still under construction. As we entered the temple grounds, we encountered some monks and Sam began conversing with them telling them why we are here, my research purposes and if a senior monk was available.
Eventually the senior monk appeared and through Sam I began to have a conversation with him that would prove to be as revealing and insightful as I have had on my trip so far. The monk who I will call “Sai,” was actually not of Dai descent but was Burmese and from a small village in Myanmar. Apparently, this temple was in need of a senior and knowledgeable monk and so Sai was sent to fill the need. This revealed to me how connected the Theravada world is and perhaps gave an example of the close cultural and religious bond the Dai share with Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand, Myanmar).
Through Sam as our interpreter, Sai continued to tell me about his life, daily routine which included waking up at 5am every day for meditation, chanting and also to occasionally fulfill requests made by people in the town. He would say prayers for them and consult them if they were having personal issues. Saturday and Sunday, he focuses on teaching young monks the Buddhist scriptures and in the evenings, they will have group meditations in which the whole of the village is invited. Sai had an elaborate pagoda looking tattoo on his back and beneath it he had a few lines of some form of scripture etched that resembled some other tattoos I had seen in the region.
I had observed since the beginning of my time in Xishuangbanna, many Dai people and monks have, what I was told to be, old Dai style writing and Buddhist scripture tattooed on them which is supposed to bring about good fortune and protection from bad spirits. I took this as a key and unique characteristic of Dai culture but in this case Sai is Burmese, so I was confused as to why he would have it tattooed on him. He, along with Sam, came to tell me that yes there are unique Dai cultural tattoos inscribed in the old Dai language.
But this particular scripture on Sai’s back is not a style of writing that is unique just to the Dai people but in fact, it is a language that many southeast Asian people and all Theravada monks can understand, thus another important finding linking the Dai to Southeast Asia. When I asked Sai, how important is Buddhism to him personally, he remarked that it feels very traditional and an important cultural way of living and that this attitude encompasses the people of southeast Asia as a whole; Buddhism is part of who they are and how they see themselves.
He went on to say that he feels he does a great service to his community by keeping this tradition and being a monk. Reaching enlightenment is not realistic for most people to achieve in one lifetime he said, and instead the focus should be on becoming a good person and trying to live selflessly by helping others. He stressed that karma is very real and it will affect how you end up in the next life and it is wise for all to not forget this.
A personal question but also an anthropological one of mine, that I have asked almost every monk I spoke with during my time in southern Yunnan, was if they had any personal experience with the spirits that exist according to the animistic beliefs of the Dai worldview. I think it’s a question that touches the very essence of cultural anthropology, ethnographic field work and religious studies because the goal is to understand the mind behind cultures and beliefs that are perhaps different than our own. We must acknowledge that while many old foreign spiritual beliefs may be superstition to our western oriented minds, that doesn’t change the fact that people truly believe these things and that is reason enough for inquiry.
While I do not believe I interviewed enough people to get a consensus answer on this, the monks I did interview all said the same thing, that ‘spirits exist but no personal encounters, communication or experience with them.’ My final question to Sai was not directly related to my research and anthropological questions regarding Dai Buddhism but nonetheless was a question I believed was very much worth presenting.
I asked him why if he had any insight, into the growth of Buddhism and eastern thought in the Western world. His response, “People want to become a good person and to be human we know that one day we will die and people want to know that when their time comes, they know they lived a life of purpose and above all else that they treated others well.”
In conclusion of my ethnographic study in Xishuangbanna, I believe I can safely say that I left there able to answer all my research questions that I set out to discover. Dai Theravada Buddhism is alive and well and seems to have kept its traditional role in Dai society, despite the occurrences in the Cultural Revolution and the messy process that is industrial modernization.
Monks are still the gatekeepers of religious knowledge but the unrobed Dai individual still keeps their spiritual heritage close in their minds and in their hearts. The Dai relationship with the rest of China is quite good and this seems partly be a result of the Chinese government assistance in building new Buddhist temples and allowing Dai communities to continue practicing their traditional cultural way of life.
While perhaps Dai children are not on an equal playing ground in regards to opportunities as their fellow Han Chinese, I sense that the situation is improving and also that the opportunities that becoming a Buddhist monk provide are certainty not regarded as a loathed only option, but a welcome chance to continue their cultural tradition and to receive a higher education.