PhD Candidate Paul McBain will defend his dissertation, "A Drunken Bee: Sunthorn Phu and the Buddhist Landscapes of Early Bangkok." An abstract of the dissertation is below; please contact grad chair Jolyon Thomas for a Zoom link to the public portion of the defense.
Although Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855) is considered the ‘Shakespeare of Thailand,’ he is still relatively unknown outside of his home country and, although he spent almost twenty years as an ordained monk, is virtually never thought of as a poet who has anything to do with Buddhism. This study takes Phu’s nirat, a classical genre of Thai journeying poetry, as a new source for excavating Thai Buddhism of the early nineteenth-century. It argues that we must expand the bounds of what we consider Buddhist literature to include popular vernacular literature such as that of Sunthorn Phu. Making use of theoretical approaches to interpreting landscape such as that of Tim Ingold and Edward Casey amongst others, this study argues for understanding Phu’s poetry as a record of a particular way of seeing and engaging with the Buddhist landscape. Phu’s niratare taken in turn to explore particular sites - cities and rivers, Buddha footprints, temples and ruins and the forest and the ocean, respectively – in order to understand how Buddhist values inhered in and were thought through via the landscape itself. Examined in this way, a poem like Phu’s Nirat to Golden Mountain Temple can be understood as a trenchant political critique which depicts early Bangkok as a Buddhist kingdom in dharmic decline. Similarly, Phu’s nirat to the forests of Suphanburi can be understood as both a poetic treatise against practices of transformation such as alchemy as well as an oblique critique of a feudal system where one’s karmic merit is largely determined at one’s birth. Studying the nirat of Sunthorn Phu gives us a window onto the Buddhism of one particular time and place. It is Buddhism as an ongoing process of living, feeling and contesting within the bounded world of the landscape of early Bangkok.