Joint Seminar by Asia Research Institute and Southeast Asian Studies Programme (Wed, 9 April 2008)

Assoc Prof John Whalen-Bridge (English Language & Literature, NUS)
Dr Margaret Chan (School of Social Sciences, SMU)
Dr Julius Bautista (Asia Research Institute and Southeast Asian Studies Programme, NUS)
Date: Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS7 Shaw Foundation Building, Level 1, Faculty Lounge


Assoc Prof John Whalen-Bridge
What is a Relic? The Buddha’s Tooth in Singapore (with attention also to eyebrows and general grooming habits)

In July 2007, The Straits Times published stories asserting that the object which the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple had been built to enshrine was a fake, a cow’s tooth rather than a human tooth. The paper received dozens of letters, and the event was debated within the Singapore blogosphere. A web page dedicated to revealing and ridiculing the people fooled by hoaxes picked up the story as well: “My favorite line from the Channel NewsAsia article: Renowned artist Tan Swie Hian says, ‘I don’t mind praying to a buffalo’s tooth provided I’m told it is one. Let me get it right before my prayer.’” Many Singaporeans have taken umbrage with assertions that the authenticity of the tooth should never have been questioned. Channel News Asia quotes Buddhist Studies scholar John Strong (author of Relics of The Buddha) on the matter. trong’s responses are quite apt and were very likely completely misunderstood. The historical question, he said, would be impossible to resolve, but he also said that “Buddhist belief that relics are ‘alive’ and can multiply: ‘I have no doubt that the Singapore relic is religiously authentic.’” Conventional notions of authenticity do not apply here, and for good reasons. My paper will explore dimensions of this event that extend far beyond the simple question of whether or not the temple was scammed. Attention to actual Buddhist practices in Singapore in relation to several centuries of Buddhist discourse about relics and other holy objects lead one to consider the possibility that the question of “authenticity” itself needs to examined carefully. Finally, this talk will use the occasion of the Buddha’s tooth problem to discuss the possibilities of “crossings” between religions belief, everyday secular life, and theories of religion as developed within scholarly communities. The tooth is in the temple, but it also exists within public space, and within the walls of academe. The tooth, we might say, incarnates variously within these diverse spheres.

Dr Margaret Chan
The Image as Magical Doorway in Chinese Popular Religion

The worship of images, such as statues of gods, is enshrined in the practice of Chinese popular religion for it is believed that the image is a potent source of transcendental power. This inherent spirit power of the image is unleashed through the ritual of kai guang (开 光  Enlightening ceremony) where the image is marked with blood or red ink. Offerings are made to images and this worship adds to the spirit power of the image itself while enriching the spiritual capital of the being upon which the image was modelled.

Prayers at an image call out the spirit from the image in order to perform the bidding of worshippers. I propose that the worshipped image functions as a magical doorway between mortal and spirit realms. Spirits use these energised images as portals through which to enter into the earthly realm. I argue that this magical quality of images is owing to its metaphysical nature as a “double-nature-being” for the image is at one time both sign and referent. A statue of the Monkey God is either clay or wooden object as it is the representation of the spirit of the Monkey God.

The actor is also a “double-nature-being” as he is both him/herself as well as the portrayed character. In these terms, it is argued that the highly theatricalized performances of the tang-ki Chinese spirit medium is less about audience appeal, than it is about magic ritual that enables a god to enter the earthly realm in order to render help to devotees.

In tang-ki possession, a god takes over the body of a mortal medium. The god moves the medium who might therefore be regarded as abject puppet. However this view derives from secular notions of theatre as entertainment. Traditional Chinese theatre derives from religious origins, and it is the very magic of theatre which stages the image as “double-nature-being” that enables the mortal medium to transmogrify into a god incarnate.

The very emblem of the transformative power of the image is the puppet. Puppets featured in ancient funeral processions and masked actors were also named puppets. The etymology of the character kui (puppet), written as 傀is indicative of the “double-nature-being” of the puppet being possessed both of  anthropomorphic “mortal” form, as it is replete with 鬼spirit power.

Dr Julius Bautista
Icons in Motion: Studying Material Religion Post-Iconography

This paper will comment upon the methodological and theoretical aspects in the study of material religious culture. “Iconography” as a methodological approach has an inheritance in the field of art history. There is a sense, however, that a museological approach alone is insufficient in understanding the whole spectrum of material religious culture.  What is the role of objects and things in the lives of the faithful?  In this paper I will discuss the extent to which an understanding of material religion can and should draw from a wider range of human experience.

About the speakers

John Whalen-Bridge teaches courses in American literature in the Department of English Language and Literature and is co-editing a series of books on Buddhism and American culture for SUNY Press. He is also convenor of the Religious Studies Minor Programme at NUS and is active in the Religion Clustre of FASS.  Somewhere between the time when Madonna’s “Material Girl” peaked as the #2 Billboard hit (1985) and when “Like a Prayer” made it to #1 (1989), Whalen-Bridge officially became a practicing Buddhist. While some would argue that all attempts on the part of Whalen-Bridge to develop equanimity have been futile, to date no one publicly declared him to be a fake Buddhist.  Whalen-Bridge is considering a larger project on the continuities and discontinuities between aesthetic experience, religious belief, and “knowledge,” a project that will, if luck is with Whalen-Bridge, consider the spiritual potential of interstitial zones between the Real and the Fake. Aspiring salesmen are given the mantra, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and it may be useful to consider the ways in which fake and inauthentic experience can be an essential component of real/authentic experience rather than an opposite value from which the real (or true, or authentic) must be purified. One aim of such a study would be to inquire about the conditions–professional, social/national, personal/psychological–shaping one’s engagement with Religious Studies. One aim of such a study would be to liberate listeners from the supposition that “religion” is or should be considered an object of enquiry that has been removed from the field of our own needs and desires or those of the society around us.

Dr Margaret Chan is Practice Asst Professor of Theatre/Performance Studies, School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. She is the Creative Thinking Coordinator at SMU where she also teaches Ethnography and Post-Modern Theatre Studies. Margaret holds a PhD (Royal Holloway, University of London) and an MA (Distinction) (Central School of Speech and Drama, London) in Performance Studies. She was awarded the Overseas Research Students Award, U.K., 1999-2002 and the Thomas Holloway (Royal Holloway, Founder’s Scholarship), 1998-2002.

Margaret research interest is in the field of tangki spirit medium worship, a signifying cultural practice of the Hokkien, the major community of the Chinese diaspora in Taiwan and South East Asia. In tangki spirit medium worship it is believed that gods possess mediums who become the gods incarnate. Her book Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Chinese Spirit Medium Worship was published in 2006 by the SMU, Wee Kim Centre and Singapore National Printers.

Dr Julius Bautista is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Visiting Fellow at the Southeast Asian Studies Programme and the Asia Research Institute (jointly appointed), NUS. He is an ethohistorian with degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. He research interests include Christianity in Asia and the theoretical and methodological issues pertaining to the study of religion more generally.