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date: 17 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Supernatural wizards with magical powers to heal the sick and who inhabit the minds and bodies of men, women, and children, as well as defend religion from the forces of evil: this is not the popular vision of Buddhism. But this is exactly what one finds in the Buddhist country of Myanmar, where the majority of people abide by Theravāda Buddhism—a form of Buddhism generally perceived as staid, lacking religious devotion and elements of the supernatural. Known as “weizzā,” the beliefs and practices associated with this religion have received little scholarly attention, especially when compared with research done on other aspects of Buddhism in Myanmar. Reasons for this are varied, but two stand out. Firstly, because such phenomena have been labeled by scholars and Buddhists alike as “popular” and “syncretic” forms of religion, scholars of Buddhism in Myanmar have tended to focus their research on aspects of Buddhism considered orthodox and normative, such as vipassana and abhidhamma. Secondly, the academic study of religion has been slow to develop new interpretive strategies for studying religious phenomena that do not readily fit existing categories of what constitutes “religion.”

These two dilemmas will be confronted by introducing and employing the framework of “lived religion” to examine the religious lives of those who engage the world of Buddhist wizards, as well as the experiences these individuals consider central to their lives—along with the varied rituals that make up their personal religious expressions. The reader is invited to think of religion dynamically, reconsidering the landscape of Myanmar religion in terms of practices linked to specific social contexts. After delineating a genealogy of scholarly approaches to the study of Buddhism-as-lived and the ways in which scholars have constituted the subject of their studies, the article will examine aspects of Myanmar religious life from the perspectives of those whose experiences are often misrepresented or ignored entirely, not only in Western academic works on religion but also in Myanmar historical monographs and other written, oral, and pictorial sources. In addition to increasing our understanding of the lived religious experiences and practices of the weizzā and their devotees, this approach to religious studies also enriches our investigation of the complex interrelationship between these experiences and practices and the wider social world they are enacted in. Acknowledging that any lens we study religion through offers only a partial truth, an improved religious studies approach to the weizzā and similar phenomena can get closer to the truths that people make in their own lives: thus, moving further from the contested boundaries that scholars and practitioners of religion place on religious worlds.

Keywords: Buddhism, Theravāda, Myanmar, Burma, Southeast Asia, lived religion, popular religion, methods and theories of religion

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