NSW: Reading Buddhist Poetry from Southeast Asia

The University of Otago will host a seminar series by Dr Trent Walker, Postdoctoral Fellow of The Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, between 13 and 17 February. The seminar series may be attended in person and online via Zoom.

Reading Buddhist Poetry from Southeast Asia

Many of the Buddhist texts composed in second-millennium Southeast Asia are in verse. While prose has long dominated in the realm of Buddhist sermons and scholastic exegesis, poetry was reserved for the texts most frequently recited and memorized by both laypeople and monastics. Despite their abundant parallels across borders and languages, literary compositions in verse from Southeast Asia are rarely seriously studied outside of the confines of particular national traditions.

This intensive course, comprised of five two-hour public lectures delivered in a hybrid format, aims to situate classical- and vernacular-language poems from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam within a regional approach to aesthetics and doctrine. Each lecture explores a different theme germane to the production and performance of Buddhist poetry in Southeast Asia, namely: language, prayer, debt, shock, and pleasure. Readings include articles and book excerpts on Southeast Asian Buddhist poetry as well as English translations of original texts in Chinese, Khmer, Lao, Pali, Sanskrit, Thai, and Vietnamese. Audio and video recordings of recitation practices, along with live demonstrations, will accompany each of the lectures.

Lecture 1: Language
Many Buddhist poems from Southeast Asia are products of an interconnected web of translations between languages across the region over a period of centuries. How do these historical and linguistic layers affect how we read Buddhist poems? This lecture draws from examples throughout Southeast Asia, with a central focus on the transformations of a Pali chant as it is translated into Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese. Reading poems in the Southeast Asian context requires keen attention to how the interplay between languages shapes how Buddhist texts are produced and performed.

Lecture 2: Prayer
No matter whether they were composed for narrative or liturgical purposes, most Buddhist poems in Southeast Asia begin and end with stanzas of homage, aspiration, or absolution. How does the logic of these distinct forms of Buddhist prayers and vows affect the formal structure and aesthetic sensibility of Southeast Asian poetry? This lecture focuses on the opening and closing portions of poems in Khmer, Lao, Pali, and Thai. Understanding Southeast Asian Buddhist poetry as a regional phenomenon demands that we read in, around, and through the ways prayer binds such compositions together.

Lecture 3: Debt
A common thread in Southeast Asian Buddhist literature is the repayment of debts to parents, teachers, and other revered figures. The complex nexus of virtue and debt, expressed as guṇa in the Southeast Asian usage of Pali, is commonly encapsulated in single letters, especially in the traditional meditation practices of the region. How do these exoteric and esoteric aspects of debt surface in Buddhist verse? This lecture engages a variety of poems in Khmer, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese on these themes, including the way they invoke and move beyond classical Sinitic or Sanskritic models of filiality. Understanding the multiple layers of debt as a signal theme across poetry in multiple languages is key to reading Buddhist texts in Southeast Asia.

Lecture 4: Shock
Some genres of Buddhist poetry in Southeast Asia are recited only for the dying or the dead. Many such texts are crafted to shock the living into realizing the impermanence of life, arousing an emotional experience known in Pali as saṃvega. This sense of being shocked or stirred into the spiritual path emerges repeatedly in poems from Southeast Asia, including those structured on Buddhist narratives as well as on particular doctrines. How do the aesthetics of shock shape the way poems are written and performed in Southeast Asia? This lecture focuses on material from Cambodia, along with parallel texts in Lanna, Lao, and Thai. Often paired with the stilling of pasāda, the shock of saṃvega is a crucial lens for appreciating the composition and reception of Buddhist poems.

Lecture 5: Pleasure
Buddhist texts praise the pleasures of peace, contentment, and renunciation, typically framed in Pali or Sanskrit as sukha, “well-being.” At the same time, Buddhist texts tend to be deeply suspicious or critical of sensual pleasures (kāma). Yet many forms of pleasure fall on a spectrum between what normative doctrine praises and what it censures. Buddhist poetry in Southeast Asia engages with pleasure, especially expressions of aesthetic rapture, that challenge prescriptive dichotomies between wholesome and unwholesome mental states. What is the role of pleasure in how Buddhists have written and received poetry in Southeast Asia over the past millennium? Drawing on Khmer, Thai, and Vietnamese examples, this lecture charts the spectrum of pleasure as a tool to read more deeply into the subtleties and contradictions of Buddhist poems in the region.

The seminar series may be attended in person and online via Zoom. More information is available at religion@otago.ac.nz or elizabeth.guthrie-higbee@otago.ac.nz.

To register, go here


Reading Buddhist Poetry from Southeast Asia


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