An Uncouth Monk: The Moral Aesthetics of Buddhist Para-Charisma

CEAS/RELS/TRAP Faculty Working Group Joint Lecture on Southeast Asian Religions
Sara A. Swenson, Dartmouth College
Mar 21, 2024 at - | ANNS 111

In this talk, I propose a theory of Buddhist “para-charisma” by analyzing the case of an iconoclastic monk in Vietnam. My argument draws from twenty months of ethnographic research conducted in Ho Chi Minh City between 2015 and 2019. During fieldwork, I was introduced to a highly respected monk with the extraordinary capacity to read minds and perceive karmic obstacles in the lives of his lay and monastic followers. This monk was unique for his open consumption of meat and alcohol, lay clothing, and use of insults in preaching. These behaviors had the deliberate effect of creating an uncomfortable, tense social environment among his visitors. Later, the nun who had introduced us explained that his harsh language and adversarial demeanor were a rare form of compassion that urged immediate awakening to Buddhist teachings. I compare this case with previously developed theories of Buddhist charisma and moral aesthetics. While past studies analyze Buddhist charisma through the moral aesthetics of physical beauty or affective responses of tranquility, gratitude, and awe, my theory of para-charisma shows how some monks can deliberately use repulsive behavior and negative affects to attract followers and advance spiritual goals.

Sara A. Swenson is an Assistant Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. She is currently a visiting fellow with Cornell University's Southeast Asia Program. Her research focuses on Buddhism and charity in contemporary Vietnam. Find her most recent publications in Asian Ethnology, Journal of Global Buddhism, Religion Compass, and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

NOTE: This event is immediately preceded by an ethnography workshop that will take place from 3:30 to 5:00 in Cohen 204. Find details here.