Nirvana for Sale by Rachelle M. Scott is an anthropological investigation into the intersection of wealth and piety in Thailand Theravada Buddhism. Through ethnographic methods, the book seeks to describe this relationship in a historically situated context. Thus, the book is concerned with cultural praxis within the context of religious discourses about wealth and piety.
As a piece of ethnography, the work is competent, but draws little attention to the classic anthropological methodology of participant observation, characterized by long-term engagement with local cultural practices. Instead the claims made are gathered through an analysis of publications and dialogues within the Thailand Buddhist community, mostly centered on a controversy surrounding fundraising methods for the construction of the Dhammakaya Temple and situated within the socio-historical context of Thailand’s changing economic climate throughout the later half of the Twentieth Century. This socio-historical situation is fitting for a work that seeks to illuminate and elucidate the discursive tradition of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.
This is accomplished by examining Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism through several different analytical frameworks. First, Scott examines “discourses on wealth and piety” within “specific historical and cultural contexts” in order to demonstrate “the dynamic character of Buddhist renunciation” (17). Then she provides us with a history of the Dhammakaya temple ranging from its origins in the rising economy of Thailand to the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s.
Following this historical situating, Scott then looks at how the Dhammakaya temple has used discourses on merit making within Buddhism to create a situation where “the better Buddhist you are the more wealth you accumulate” (51), reminiscent of the argument laid out in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This orientation towards modernity and capitalism is framed by the temple as “positive” (52), embracing the forces of modern global capitalism being intertwined with the tradition of merit making through the lay population giving donations to the Sangha.
Next Scott examines how this embracement of a modernist prosperity-gospel model of Buddhism becomes problematized within the socio-historical context of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. After this, she expands the analysis looking at “the broader field of debate over the commercialization of Buddhism” and its commodification “as a product” as well as “the effects of consumerism on contemporary Thai society” (17). This is contextualized through an overview of the discourses of various “principle voices within this discussion” (17) such as Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, “a well known promoter of dhammic socialism. These diverse voices help to contextualize and complicate the discourse surrounding both the modernist prosperity Buddhism of Dhammakaya Buddhism through a...