Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Transformation in a Shan Buddhist Community by Nancy Eberhardt

“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”

This sage quotation from Clifford Geertz would be a good standpoint to muse about Nancy Eberhart’s description of another society’s version of ‘self’ and ‘community’.  The author spent several years in a rural Shan town near Mae Hong Song in Northern Thailand.  The Shan are an ethnic minority, found in greatest numbers in Burma but whose language is much closer to Thai and, one suspects, much of their culture and system of beliefs.  The book begins with a summary of theories (amongst them the work of Zaretzky and Demos) of the development of the Western ‘self’, about the polarization of the cold, inauthentic world of work and industry from the authentic, emotional world of home and how this engendered a new way of looking at what the ‘self’ is and new ways of looking at personal development (childhood, adolescence, middle-age etc.)

After a theoretical introduction, we are whisked to Uncle Pon’s, a local alcoholic turned spiritual healer.  People can be influenced by two different sorts of beings, phi (bad) and khwan (good).  Rituals are employed to scare away the phi by, for instance, waving a sword around the subject’s body, and simultaneously entice it out by laying out sweet meats and such.  Khwan, on the other hand, are benevolent spirits that inhabit one’s body and form part of one’s personality.  They have to be enticed back to the body.  A study done in the 1980s showed how the integration of computers into people’s lives has caused a shift in descriptions of what it means to be human from ‘rational animals’ to ‘emotional machines’.  Eberhardt argues that the Shan define themselves in contrast to these Others, the hungry ghosts and the easily-frightened-into-flight better angels of our nature.

Children are thought of as hai, or naughty.  Their khan are as yet tentatively attached to their bodies and they are an easy target for phi.  A child must gradually be ‘domesticated’, be taught to tame its animal-like desires and instincts.  This ties in with the Buddhist-inspired images of the ideal adult, who is calm, centered, gentle.

An interesting idea that emerges is that the Shan do not mark the stages of life according to one’s biological age or medical conditions (back pains etc) but in terms of family position and associated social responsibilities.  As one grows older, one is expected to develop in self-mastery and, hence, to see things as ‘they really are’ more clearly.

Essentially, the Shan seem to see ‘selves’ as made up of various element that orbit around, pushing and pulling, frightening and attracting one another across time and dimensions of life and death.  Unlike in the West, Eberhart argues, a child does not achieve uniqueness as a mark of personal development into adulthood, but is born as a unique individual who is formed according to exterior things – the influence of others, of ghosts, of unseen karmic forces.  The Shan do not seem to find one’s ‘interior’ state interesting and would probably find the neurotic, highly individualistic character of so much Western literature as a person who was ‘still struggling’ to understand and control the karmic forces.  For the Shan, true development is rising above these conditions, developing the self-mastery to see them for what they really are.

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