Interview with Dr Jack Chia on Buddhism in maritime Southeast Asia

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you work on?

My name is Jack Chia. I am an Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at the National University of Singapore. My research focuses on Buddhism in maritime Southeast Asia, Buddhist modernism, Chinese popular religion, and Southeast Asia-China interactions. My first book, Monks in Motion: Buddhism and Modernity across the South China Sea, will soon be published by Oxford University Press later this year. This book is the first book to explore the connected history of Buddhist communities in China and Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.

What effect has diaspora had on Buddhism?

In Monks in Motion, I point out that majority of Buddhists in present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are ethnic Chinese who migrated to Southeast Asia or were born to their immigrant parents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As my research reveals, a significant feature in the Chinese immigration to maritime Southeast Asia was the dissemination and development of Buddhism in the diaspora. Chinese diasporic monks played an important role in the making of Buddhist modernism in the Malay Archipelagic states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. 

What have been some of your favourite discoveries during your work? 

I have discovered that Chinese Buddhist monks used Buddhist doctrines and historical memories to negotiate and justify the relevance of Buddhism in their respec­tive nation-states. For instance, Ashin Jinarakkhita, one of the monks I wrote about in my book, was able to use the historical site of Borobudur to support his historical claim that Buddhism was an indigenous religion of the Indonesian nation. By organizing the Vesak celebrations at the Borobudur, he showed the nation that Buddhism had not only been “revived” but also that Buddhists have “returned” to reclaim their long-lost Buddhist sites in postcolonial Indonesia.

You are currently working on ‘Beyond the Borobudur: Buddhism in Postcolonial Indonesia’. Can you tell us more about your aims for this book project?

For my next book, I plan to examine the role of Chinese Indonesians in the Buddhist revival and their tumultuous relations with the authoritarian anti-Chinese government during the New Order (1965-1998) and the post-authoritarian transition. One of the aims of my project is to trace the transregional Buddhist networks between Indonesia and other countries. My study hopes to demonstrate that Buddhists in maritime Southeast Asia do not exist in isolation, but are closely connected to the Buddhist communities in East, South, and Southeast Asia.   

What would you want people from outside Southeast Asia to know? And what would you want Southeast Asian people themselves to know? 

I hope people from outside Southeast Asia know that the Southeast Asia is a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse region. It is a fun region to visit, but also a great place to live, study, and work. 

I hope Southeast Asian people can value the religious diversity within their region and be committed to providing a safe and harmonious environment for all.

If you could meet a person from history, who would you meet and why?

I would like to meet the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. As a scholar of Buddhism, I have always been fascinated and inspired by the description of the Buddha in the Buddhist texts: “The sound that comes from the good Gotama’s mouth has eight characteristics: It is distinct and intelligible, sweet and audible, fluent and clear, deep and resonant. Therefore, when the good Gotama instructs an assembly, his voice does not go beyond that assembly. After being delighted, uplifted, inspired and gladdened, that assembly, rising from their seats, depart reluctantly, keeping their eyes upon him” (Digha Nikaya III:40). He certainly sounds like a great public speaker and a nice person to meet in person!

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