(RNS) The mindfulness movement has seeped into Silicon Valley, Capitol Hill, and even the United States Military Academy at West Point. Next stop: the voting booth. By Daniel Burke.
This narrative ethnography explores the value of Buddhist consciousness of death, kamma, and the gift, by following the transformation in Thailand from a political order based in the global, military-gift economy of the cold war to the liberal free-market exchange of a "new world." At key moments in the transformation, the Thai military has massacred unarmed citizens in Bangkok streets. As actors struggle to harness the unstable symbolic power of corpses in public culture, the meaning of death becomes increasingly subject to the political economy that shapes mass media. While benefitting from both the sensational value of violent death and from the powerful argument for liberal freedoms which military massacres provide, the new order does not acknowledge the sacrifice of the demonstrators for its sake. Their death is divested of value, in part because of the flattening and anaesthetizing effect that mechanical reproduction has when representing violence, but ultimately because the form of political economy that may be gaining ascendance in Thailand is a cultural system inherently immune to symbolic exchange with the dead. The dissertation then explores alternatives to this economy of forgetting. Buddhist meditative visualizations of corpses, like mass media, seize upon gory detail as a powerful source of value, and yet the economy of the "charnel ground" meditation can avoid anaesthetizing effects. Never-the-less, the parallels between the image-realms of Buddhist meditation and media experience suggest that the utopian hopes some theorists have placed in mechanical reproduction are not unfounded, but unrealized. The problem of public memory that jettisons the dead is ultimately one of alternate cultural-economic realities in Thailand, and can be critically understood through a Buddhist consciousness of mind-body, and of the kamma haunting capitalist politics. The dissertation concludes by describing how rural villagers bring an ur-form of free-market capitalism, the casino, into the household funeral, where Buddhist consciousness of kamma, within a complex of family, economic, societal, political, and historical relations, provides fertile ground for a critique of political economy and for further development of the anthropological theory of the gift.