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
‘Zombie Rubbish and Mummy Materiality: The Undead and the Fate of Mongolian Waste’. 2022. Buddhist and Waste: Excess, Discard, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.