I'll admit to a minor bout of anxiety when we wrapped up our study of the South Asia galleries at the Asian Art Museum in December and moved into Southeast Asia in our docent training program. What in the world did I know about Southeast Asia? Nothing. I briefly flirted with the idea of making Southeast Asia my other field of study in graduate school (it seemed slightly less complicated than the Middle East), but then I realized I could focus on colonialism and colonialism in India instead and that would probably make a bit more sense.
But I needn't have worried. India, for all intents and purposes, is all over Southeast Asia. Of course, we would never use that bugaboo term "influence," so we can avoid imagining in a very un-PC way that there was no agency from the Southeast Asian side in the situation. It was simple: Southeast Asian elites dug Sanskrit, liked stone statues of Hindu deities, and thought having Brahmins at court upped their prestige quotient significantly. So they borrowed what they liked and adapted it to suit their tastes. Sort of like Westerners and Tibetan Buddhism.
The result, allowing for some Chinese colonialism in Vietnam, was that Southeast Asia became part of the "Sanskrit cosmopolis," according to Forrest McGill, and allowing for the continued use of Brahmins in rituals, eventually largely Buddhist. Significantly, Southeast Asians headed to India to trade, go on pilgrimage, study art, and came back to create some of the most stunning Buddhist monuments in Asia. Angkor Wat, originally dedicated to Vishnu, is one such example.
Which leads me thick into, once again, Buddhism. Justin McDaniel, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at U Penn, took us straight into some Buddhist philosophy Thai style. He neatly problematized all those nice divisions between Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, arguing that in lay practice, which concerns the majority of Buddhist practitioners in the world, those categories are fluid, blurred, and largely unimportant.
McDaniel also had two interesting spins on the four noble truths. The first noble truth (or "truth for noble people" as he puts it) in Pali is Sabbam Idam Dukkham, which should be translated as "All this is suffering" (most translations forget the "this"), emphasizing that it is our false perception of the world that's the problem, not the world itself. That's a bit liberating: the world itself is not suffering (it can be hard to live in a world you believe is comprised solely of suffering), but it's the way we perceive the world that creates the suffering. The second interesting tidbit McDaniel pointed out is that dukkha, or suffering, includes the existential trauma of realizing that you exist. He describes this as "the pain you have when you are alone and realize you're responsible for yourself." I'm sure I've sat through that explanation numerous times in dharma talks, but it's the first time it actually registered. Being alone in responsibility for your actions and the world you create... well, that's the pain of realizing no one is going to swoop down and save you from yourself. Heavy stuff, for sure! But definitely interesting stuff. And there will be plenty more of interest in the coming weeks...