SOAS University of London

Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions

Spirited Dharma: Exploring Spirit Possession in Asian Buddhist Traditions

Daisy Cheung (Hamburg), Alexander Horstmann (Copenhagen), Patrice Ladwig (Max Planck), Tatsuma Padoan (SOAS), Mandy Sadan (SOAS), Edoardo Siani (SOAS), Elizabeth Tinsley (Columbia), and Davide Torri (Heidelberg)

Date: 5 December 2015Time: 9:00 AM

Finishes: 5 December 2015Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 116

Type of Event: Workshop

This international workshop intends to investigate how the phenomenon of spirit possession has been conceptualised and reconfigured by Buddhist ritual technologies across Asia, both in premodern and in contemporary times. Asian rich traditions of spiritual agency and spirit mediation have been profoundly marked by the way Buddhism has interacted with local cults and religious practices throughout its history. Strategies of incorporation and reconfiguration of local spirit beliefs through rituals of mediumship and exorcism have characterised most of the history of Buddhism in Asia. This kind of incorporation, involving the domestication and control of local spirits and deities, has often affected mechanisms of religious power and authority rooted in these beliefs, thus deeply modifying those societies at the political as well economic level. Furthermore, Buddhist appropriation of spirit possession practices has significantly transformed attitudes towards this world and the afterlife, and conceptions of the self in the Asian countries where Buddhism has spread.

Research on spirit possession can thus allow for a privileged insight on the profound impact of Buddhism in past and present Asian societies. However, there are currently no comparative studies addressing the problem of the transmission and diversification of Buddhism in Asia from the viewpoint of spirit beliefs and practices. This project will attempt a comparative, as well as a historically and ethnographically situated approach, by bringing together anthropologists and historians of religions specialised in different cultural areas – Japan, China, Mongolia, South Asia, Himalayan area, and Southeast Asia – thus covering a large gap in the existing literature. Our aim is to explore issues of power and local authority, conceptions of the self and the body, and attribution of agency and responsibility through an inquiry into the way Buddhist practices have dealt with spirit possession in different social settings. In this way we hope to highlight the ongoing tension between innovative trends and patterned recurrences within the Buddhist discourse, offering a platform to discuss these questions from different disciplinary perspectives.

09:00   Registration and coffee

09:20   Welcome by Tatsuma Padoan (convenor), Lucia Dolce (CSJR chair),
and Vincent Tournier (CBS chair)

09:30-10:15    Alexander Horstmann (University of Copenhagen)
Syncretism and anti-syncretism: Buddhist’s incorporations of spirit possession in Southern Thailand

10:15-11:00    Edoardo Siani (SOAS)
Unpossessed Spirit Mediums: The politics of spirit possession in contemporary Bangkok

11:00-11:15    Tea break

11:15-12:00    Patrice Ladwig (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology)
Possessed by the future Buddha and kings from the past. The production of presence in heterodox Buddhist millennial movements in colonial Laos and north-eastern Thailand.

12:00-12:45    Davide Torri (University of Heidelberg)
Buddhism and shamanism among the Hyolmo of Nepal

12:45-14:00    Lunch break

14:00-14:45    Daisy Cheung (University of Hamburg)
Possession (āveśa) in Indian Tantric Buddhist ritual texts

14:45-15:30    Elizabeth Tinsley (Columbia University)
Spirit possession in Japanese Buddhism

15:30-15:45    Tea break

15:45-16:30    Tatsuma Padoan (SOAS)
“Listening with eyes and seeing with ears”: Towards a semiotics of spirit possession on Mt Kiso Ontake

16:30-17:15    Mandy Sadan (SOAS)
Title TBC

17:15-17:30    Final discussion

17:30-18:30    Wine reception

Organiser: Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions, and Centre of Buddhist Studies

Contact email:

Sponsor: The Faculty of Arts and Humanities, CSJR, CBS, and JRC/Meiji Jingū