Meditation in Modern Buddhism:

Renunciation and Change in Thai Monastic Life

In contemporary Thai Buddhism, the burgeoning popularity of vipassanā meditation is dramatically impacting the lives of those most closely involved with its practice: monks and mae chee (lay nuns) living in monastic communities. For them, meditation becomes a central focus of life and a way to transform the self. This ethnographic account of a thriving Northern Thai monastery examines meditation in detail, and explores the subjective signification of monastic duties and ascetic practices. Drawing on fieldwork done both as an analytical observer and as a full participant in the life of the monastery, Joanna Cook analyzes the motivation and experience of renouncers, and shows what effect meditative practices have on individuals and community organization. The particular focus on the status of mae chee – part lay, part monastic – provides a fresh insight into social relationships and gender hierarchy within the context of the monastery.
‘This is an engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking ethnography and phenomenology of Buddhist insight meditation in contemporary Thailand. Using her own experience as a ‘nun’ (mae chee) as well as her relationships with others in a monastic setting, Cook uncovers and analyzes the formation of subjectivity, inter-subjectivity and the embodiment of ethics in Buddhist practice. The book should be required reading for anyone concerned with Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia, and will be of interest to many others: for example, to those concerned with religious ethics, with the practice of self-reflexive anthropology, and to Gender Studies as a discipline.’
Steven Collins

University of Chicago

‘This is a most welcome development in the study of Thai Buddhism – scholars have tended to focus on the religious roles, experience, activities, achievements and institutions of male Buddhists. … The book excels in achieving an impressive analytical depth that allows insights into (female) monasticism and what Cook, drawing on Foucault, calls ‘meditation as a practice in self-formation’. She is able to do this thanks to the cogent engagement of data gained from other practitioners and her own experience as a meditating mae chi and deploying an impressively wide range of literature from and beyond the field of Buddhist studies.’
Martin Seeger

South East Asia Research

Paper Links

Cook, J. (2009). ‘Hagiographic narrative and monastic practice: Buddhist morality and mastery amongst Thai Buddhist nuns‘. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15, 349-364.

Cook, J. (2008). ‘Alms, money and reciprocity: Buddhist nuns as mediators of generalized exchange in Thailand‘. Anthropology in Action Special Edition: Gift Exchange in Modern Society 15(3), 8-21.