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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 4.1 (2021): 390–396;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Worldmaking Programs & Tiantai/Chontae/Tendai Buddhism)

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Davis, Erik W. Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 303.

University of Göttingen

Associate Professor Erik W. Davis is currently working and teaching in the Religious Studies Department at Macalester College in Minneapolis. Davis completed his bachelor degree at Macalester College (1996) with a thesis entitled ‘Monasticism and Women: Gender and Identity in Buddhism’ in 1996. In 2000, he submitted his master thesis, ‘A heap of memories: An unsorted problem and potential method for the history of early Buddhism’, at the University of Washington in Seattle. From 2003 to 2006, he carried out fieldwork in Cambodia for his doctorate at the University of Chicago Divinity School: ‘Treasures of the Buddha: Imagining Death and Life in Contemporary Cambodian Religion’ (2009). The doctorate thesis forms the core argument of the book reviewed here: Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia (2016). Published by Columbia University Press, the book includes major changes to Davis’ doctoral thesis as well as new material from follow-up visits to Cambodia.

Davis’ monograph investigates how contemporary Buddhism in Cambodia draws its moral authority and power from its handling of death and the dead. He argues that monks play a major role in the domestication of wild and negative forces by transforming or ‘binding’ them into resources of morality, power, and fertility. In focusing on rituals, Davis aims to illustrate various social imaginations in contemporary Cambodian society. In his dense descriptions of rituals and their performed imaginaries, Davis employs emic and etic concepts, ritual texts, data from intensive ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and reflective analysis. In addition to developing a greater understanding of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism, death, and the spirits of the dead, readers will learn core concepts and imaginations of Cambodian society: about kings and monks, spirits and ancestors, rice and magic, gifts, and leftovers, as well as tattoos and amulets. Davis has thereby provided an important work not only on Cambodian Buddhism, but also on Cambodian society. He demonstrates specific expertise in many areas of society, while providing numerous points of departure for studies in other Southeast Asian countries in this theory-laden, but nevertheless accessible ethnography. Deathpower is a valuable offering for students and scholars of Buddhism, Khmer culture, Cambodian religions, and anthropology.


About the Author: Paul Christensen is a research and teaching staff member at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology in Goettingen, Germany. He completed his dissertation project ‘Spirits in Cambodia – Existence, Power and Ritual Practice’ in 2019. He is currently working on the research project ‘Sandscapes in Southeast Asia,’ which examines the social consequences of sand mining in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Mekong region.


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