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In Session: Social Service (Luhmuye) for Welfare of Others: From a Communal Charitable Tradition to Modern Non-State Welfare Provision in Contemporary Myanmar
3: Engaging Suffering: Free Funeral Service Societies and the Rise of Socially Engaged Buddhist Soteriology in Contemporary Myanmar
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Arizona State University, United States
This paper focuses on the nexus of Buddhist soteriology and urban welfare provision in Myanmar, looking at the Buddhist ethicization of a Burmese charitable tradition: luhmuye (social services). Myanmar since the 1990s has seen an explosive growth in grassroots welfare organizations, such as Free Funeral Service Societies, that have not only filled the welfare vacuum left by the military junta (1962-2011) but also transformed voluntary social services into a form of Buddhist practice. This development of Buddhist welfare provision challenges scholars of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia to rethink the laicization and monasticization debate. Some scholars take lay involvement in monastic practices as a sign of the laicization of Buddhism that the monastic authority over the means of enlightenment is in decline. Others take the same phenomenon as indicative of the monasticization of laity and the perpetuation of the centrality of the monastics in Buddhism. This debate has focused on monastic practices and largely overlooked how Buddhism as pluralized ethical principles and historical practices can be internalized and reinvented in everyday social life in lay and civil domains. Based on my field research, this paper shows how emerging welfare organizations in contemporary Myanmar enable new forms of luhmuye that emphasize the welfare of others (parahita) to become not only an ethical action but also a popular venue for lay Buddhists to pursue mental and moral cultivation toward enlightenment by pursuing ideal social and economic conditions for endeavors to overcome attachment and suffering in this world.