Enlightenment and the Gasping City: Mongolian Buddhism at a Time of Environmental Disarray. 2019. Cornell University Press.

With air pollution now intimately affecting every resident of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko seeks to understand how, as a physical constant throughout the winter months, the murky and obscuring nature of air pollution has become an active part of Mongolian religious and ritual life. Enlightenment and the Gasping City identifies air pollution as a boundary between the physical and the immaterial, showing how air pollution impresses itself on the urban environment as stagnation and blur. She explores how air pollution and related phenomena exist in dynamic tension with Buddhist ideas and practices concerning purification, revitalisation and enlightenment. By focusing on light, its intersections and its oppositions, she illuminates Buddhist practices and beliefs as they interact with the pressing urban issues of air pollution, post-socialist economic vacillations, urban development, nationalism, and climate change

Peer-reviewed Articles

‘Toward an Anthropology of Plastics’. 2021. Journal of Material Culture.

Materially plastics are ambivalent. In spite of their often lauded quality of creating seemingly untethered imitations, representations and replacements, they have a materiality that leaks, off-gasses and disintegrates. They are accomplished at mimicry yet frequently unable to be remoulded. They are ostensibly resistant to microbial contamination yet absorb environmental pollutants and leach endocrine disrupting plasticizers. This article argues that, due to the material influence of plastics, their ubiquity, and the societal transformations that they have enabled, that anthropologists need to pay sustained attention to this material. Moreover, it argues that anthropological methods and theories are crucial to understanding plastics at a vital moment in their (and our) history. It articulates three ways in which anthropology can engage plastics at all stages in their lifecycles. Firstly, to study plastics challenges what it means to exist: whether or not human beings are bounded or permeable entities, experienced as individuated, collective or somewhere in between. Secondly, plastics disrupt what people know, are willing to know, or are persuaded is worth knowing about the production and disposal of the products that they consume. Thirdly, the materiality of plastics expose contemporary inequalities. Plastics can create unseen violence, both in their geographically unequal toxic distributions and in the vastness of their temporal effects.

‘Mongolian Buddhism, Science and Healing: A Modernist Legacy’. 2021. Central Asian Survey.

This article looks at how the changing relationship between science and religion from the fin de siècle to the present period continues to influence healing practices in Mongolia. It explores how science and religion, rather than being congenitally antithetical to one another, are frequently co-constitutive. By following a few key historical lineages of spiritualism in their dialogue with the Mongolian cultural region, the article illustrates how ongoing exchanges between science and religion have contributed to changes in contemporary Mongolian urban religious practices. As the article illustrates, science, and/or the idea of science, has resulted in changes to lay religious epistemologies and methodologies. At the same time the prestige of science can be utilised as a means of underlining the strength of ritual efficacy, particularly within Buddhism. Yet when science or allopathic medicine fails to explain or to heal, science is utilised as a yardstick against which the transcendent power of ritual becomes evident.

Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia and Matthew Milligan. 2021. ‘The Wheel Turning King and the Lucky Lottery: Perspectives New and Old on Wealth and Merriment within Buddhism’ Journal of Contemporary Buddhism. 36, 2: 265-286.

By placing a contemporary pilgrimage of Myanmar Buddhists to Bodh Gaya in India in conversation with early Buddhist doctrine and practice, this article argues that wealth, its redistribution and celebration, have provided, and continue to provide, non-peripheral avenues for advancement within Buddhist societies. Through lavish gift giving and merry making, the group of pilgrims that we encountered, led by a weikza-lam practitioner, bolstered their esteem in relation to authoritative institutions and individuals. Money, and the plentiful conviviality that it enabled, was crucial to the successful outcome of the pilgrimage. This article contextualises the donations and merriment of the group within the multi-layered context of a Vihār in Bodh Gaya, with its religious hierarchies, at the former site of the dissemination of the globally successful Vipassanā meditation movement, and within the realities of a town marked by stark material inequalities.

Tenuous Blessings: The Materiality of Doubt in a Mongolian Buddhist Wealth Calling Ceremony, 2020. Journal of Material Culture, 25, 2: 153-166.

This article looks at how the ritual vases or bumba that are involved in a secretive Buddhist ceremony in Mongolia highlight the theoretical potential of centralizing material objects which instantiate doubt in anthropological theory. Bumbas are thought to instantiate great power if they are treated correctly and contain the right materials. If, however, the material contents are suspected of being inert or repellent, the owner risks being rendered foolish, and the ritual will have no efficacy. Materials instantiating unknown elements and causations can, through their presence, be a source of obfuscation, rather than clarification. This article highlights how the conjunction between uncertainty and material forms can reveal the interplay of certainty and doubt, which, rather than creating internal intelligibility, can constitute open cultural and ritual fields.

Mustering Fortune: Attraction and Multiplication in the Echoes of the Boom, 2019, Ethnos, 84, 5: 891-909

Since the end of the socialist period, Mongolia has experienced economic instabilities, growing inequalities, and increasing urbanisation. Prosperity (dallaga) rituals, once predominantly carried out by nomadic herders at specific times of the year, are now also held regularly within Ulaanbaatar’s Buddhist temples. In these ceremonies, Buddhist lamas and lay participants attempt to ‘call’ or ‘pull’ wealth to the household. In this urban context, prosperity rituals are overtly about money, combining nomadic notions of wealth, sedentary ideas of growth and multiplication, and contemporary anxieties regarding growing corruption and inequality. Following from nomadic ideas that link prosperity with movement, dallaga rituals attempt to influence the ways that money travels around the economy. As money has seed like qualities, one must be careful to ensure that the right kind of money is attracted to the household so that it does not multiply the misfortunes that are thought to characterise money made through ill-gotten means.

Spiritually Enmeshed, ‘Socially Enmeshed: Shamanism and Belonging in Ulaanbaatar.’ 2016, Social Analysis. 60, 3: 1-16

This article examines how shamanic practices can, through the generation of a spiritualized narrative past, relocate individual subjectivities in an extensive web of relationships that include and extend beyond living relatives. The analysis describes the transition from collective to individual responsibility and concurrent feelings of dislocation that occurred in Mongolia at the end of the socialist period. Referring to the biography of a young Mongolian woman, the article looks at how the vertical ontologies present in Mongolian shamanic practice have relocated Enkhjargal in extended kinship connections, building cosmologically enmeshed relationships that reach back into the pre-socialist past. In the increasingly fluid and unpredictable urban environment of Ulaanbaatar, it explores a living instance of re-engagement and attendant growth in both obligation and capacity.

The Blossoming of Ignorance: Uncertainty, Power and Syncretism among Mongolian Buddhists. 2015, Ethnos, 80, 3: 346-363.

Discussions of religious ignorance have arisen contemporaneously with postsocialist frustrations and uncertainties in Ulaanbaatar. By frequently describing their own or others’ ignorance about Buddhism lay Buddhists indicate that Buddhism, and the renewed possibilities of knowledge or ignorance about Buddhism, is a site of considerable importance. It also indicates a change in Buddhist epistemologies from the pre-socialist era. This article discusses how discussions of religious ignorance in Ulaanbaatar, rather than being anti-generative of religious practice, actually generate religious practices.

Paying for Prayers: Perspectives on Giving in Postsocialist Ulaanbaatar, 2015, Religion, State and Society. 43, 4: 327-341.

Since the end of the socialist period in 1990, Buddhism in Mongolia has been undergoing a resurgence. Temples no longer oversee vast tracts of land and receive income from the activities of bonded nomadic herders as they did in the presocialist period. They must instead fund themselves from the freely given donations of lay Buddhists. Whilst the majority of the Mongolian population self-identify as Buddhist, regular donations to temples are not an assumed part of social and economic relationships. In this article I investigate patterns of religious giving in Ulaanbaatar in relation to ideas about donation, the role of religious specialists and concerns about the intersections between capitalism and religion.

Religious “Revival” after Socialism? Eclecticism and Globalisation amongst Lay Buddhists in Ulaanbaatar. Inner Asia. 2012. 14, 2: 279-297.

The article questions whether the term ‘revival’ is apt for describing the re-identification of Mongolians with Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar. The paper argues that religious beliefs in Mongolia, rather than being a revival of old religiosities, tend to be characterized by openness, a lack of dogmatism and eclecticism.

Chapters and Edited Volumes

Zombie Rubbish and Mummy Materiality: The Undead and the Fate of Mongolian Waste’. 2022. Buddhism and Waste: The Excess, Discard, and Afterlife of Buddhist Consumption. Eds T. Brox and E. Williams-Oerberg. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

This chapter utilizes the “undead” as a way of analyzing the differences between ordinary and sacred waste, while foregrounding their material properties. Specifically it looks at what zombies and mummies, as two different classes of the “undead”, can tell us about the materiality of discarded items. As most Mongolian Buddhist rituals aim to purify spiritual contamination or the karmic results of bad actions, the synthetic materiality of sacred items has a complicating effect on these rituals: the process of carrying out ritual purification can itself lead to further pollution, both spiritually and materially. This chapter explores how the material properties of items used in Buddhist rituals can create ecological and spiritual contamination, complicating, inverting or reinforcing different understandings of their symbolic properties.

Monks, Money and Morality: The Balancing Act of Contemporary Buddhism. 2021, edited by Christoph Brumann, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko and Beata Świtek. New York, London: Bloomsbury

Chapters in Edited Volumes

Regeneration and the Age of Decline: Purification and Rebirth in Mongolian Buddhist Economies’ 2021 in Monks, Money and Morality: The Balancing Act of Contemporary Buddhism edited by Christoph Brumann, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko and Beata Świtek. New York, London: Bloomsbury

‘Introduction: Balancing Sangha Economies’ Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, Christoph Brumann and Beata Świtek, 2021 in Monks, Money and Morality: The Balancing Act of Contemporary Buddhism edited by Christoph Brumann, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko and Beata Świtek. New York, London: Bloomsbury.

Peer reviewed online

‘Buddhism in the Life of Ulaanbaatar: Nucleus, Trace and Bustling Urbanite’ 2022. Religion and Urbanity Online.

This article explores the interactions between Buddhist institutions and the changing physicality of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, over the last one hundred years. Whilst Buddhism was key to the foundation of the city, in the present day period it has become increasingly obscured by the instantiations of capitalism in what has become a busy and congested city. Once central metonymically and physically, Buddhist temples are now crowded in the urban sphere, creating logistical difficulties for the for training and retaining of Buddhist religious specialists. Due to the physical constraints within the city, Buddhist lamas are generally unable to live on temple grounds. They, like other urbanites, live as other people do, paying for their own food, accommodation and other daily needs. This paper pays attention to how urban developments within the city have contributed to the continued blurring of boundaries between religious specialists and the laity, examining how the challenges for contemporary Buddhist institutions reflect, and are reflected, in the changing capital.

Mongolian Buddhism in the Democratic Period. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, 2019.

Book Reviews

2019. ‘The Monastery Rules: Buddhist Monastic Organization in Pre-Modern Tibet.’ Berthe Jansen. Inner Asia. 21: 283-284.

2016. ‘Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture and Society’. Edited by Vesna Wallace. Inner Asia. 18, 2: 336-338.

2015. A Monastery in Time: The Making of Mongolian Buddhism, Caroline Humphrey and Hürelbaatar Ujeed’. American Anthropologist. 117, 4: 837-838.