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The Buddhist Grammar of Healing

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Building Efficacy in the Pluralistic Therapeutic Context of Rakhine, Myanmar

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In Rakhine State, like elsewhere in Myanmar and in the region, many healers combine the knowledge and skills of both the herbalist and the exorcist, each resulting from the blending of several medical traditions that have spread across the region and mixed with indigenous belief systems. Within this assemblage, both the efficacy of the remedies, as well as that of the healer, derive from compounds of different sources—tangible and intangible, visible and invisible, material and spiritual1 —reflecting the complexity of the cognitive framework. Within this therapeutic whole, Buddhism occupies a singular position. Although often presented as totally separate from worldly practices, Buddhist practices, symbols, and powers are indeed a sine qua non of medical efficacy in many therapeutic processes. Focusing on the case of the master U Thun Kaing, this article intends to illustrate how medical efficacy is built within a pluralistic medical context, where Buddhism occupies a predominant role that is often denied in ideological conversations. How are different notions, practices, and powers articulated in the hands of a single healer? How is this complexity shaped by the dominance of Buddhism, and how is this role articulated with the common perception of Buddhism as “pure” and “otherworldly”? How does the relationship between materiality and spirituality, visibility, and invisibility unfold?

Affiliations: 1: National University of Singapore


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