Efficacious Space: An Introduction
Anthony Lovenheim Irwin
1 This paper is derived from the author’s Master’s Thesis: “Imagining Boundaries: Sma Space, Lineage Trails, and Trans-Regional Theravada Orthodoxy,” (MA Thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011). The research for this article was partially funded by the Empowering Network for International Thai Studies (ENITS), Institute of Thai Studies.
2 Anthony Lovenheim Irwin is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has secured Fulbright funding to conduct his PhD dissertation fieldwork in Chiang Rai, Thailand on the subject of new Buddhist building projects in Amphoe Muang Chiang Rai.
Taking into account textual, theoretical, and material evidence, this article makes a case for understanding the power of sm space as being linked to the performative and ritual actions of the sangha, as opposed to cosmological or cosmogonic referents. This article uses this specific type of Theravadin spatial arrangement in order to broaden the study of religious space, and to make theoretical room for religious spaces that do not necessarily fit into dominant sacred-space theory. Specifically, this article argues for a new theoretical category of religious space, known as “efficacious space,” which is space that is established according to specific criteria, which by virtue of those criteria, empowers people to effect transformation within that space
The Mahvamsa, a Lankan chronicle written in Pali, recounts the coming of Buddhism to the island after King Ashoka’s third-century B.C. Buddhist Council. The chronicle recounts that after Ashoka’s reformation, the missionary monk Mahinda is sent to Lanka in order to convert King Devnampiyatissa and his subjects to Buddhism. After soaring through the air from his home in northern India to the island of Sri Lanka, Mahinda is met by the king, who with much celebration brings the monk into his capital city of Anurdhapura. The king allows Mahinda to reside in his Mahmegha pleasure-park, located within the city. Over the next couple of days Mahinda preaches Dhamma to the inhabitants of the city and tours around with the king, visiting various holy sites, known as mlakas, within the Mahmegha Park. In one example, Mahinda and King Devnampiyatissa go to the royal dwelling
located inside the park, where Mahinda scatters eight handfuls of jasmine flowers around a tree standing outside of the structure. Upon completion of the jasmine-flower ritual, the earth quakes mightily. Excited, the king questions Mahinda about the earth-shaking power of his ritual, at which point the monk replies “Already in the lifetime of three Buddhas there has been here a mlaka for carrying out the duties of the brotherhood, O king, and now will it be so once more.”3 The narrative continues with Mahinda identifying mlaka around the city, and explaining to the king that at each specific site, Buddhas of previous ages had relinquished pestilence, performed miraculous feats, received gifts of land from the reigning kings, brought scores of people to enlightenment, and transplanted cuttings of the sacred Bodhi trees.4 At each mlaka, Mahinda calls for the construction of a specific element that will comprise the Mahvihra monastic complex – stupas, the ordination, or uposatha-hall, the Bodhi tree, places where gifts will be given, etc. With each pronouncement and identification of a new sacred site, the earth quakes again in affirmation. The sacrality of these mlaka is validated by Mahinda’s narrative, which links each location with the actions of previous
Buddhas. There is temporal significance to Mahinda’s narrative in assigning sacredness to each site, which fuses the sites of the present with the miraculous actions of Buddha’s of past ages. This narrative firmly establishes Lanka in the sacred geography of the Buddhist world and enforces a Buddhist model of temporal cosmology in which each age is defined by the birth of a Buddha who reveals the Dhamma. In this cosmology, space is endowed with sacrality when it is somehow significant in the biographies of Buddhas. This section of the Mahvamsa reveals that place, sacrality, and the interaction between the elite and the sangha are intertwined into a narrative based in cosmology and temporality. All of the temporal and cosmological convergences that are represented by the sacredness of the Lankan mlaka, however, are not enough to fully establish Buddhism on the island – for that, a particular type of Buddhist space, known as sm space, must be demarcated and reserved for the performance of monastic ceremonies. It becomes clear in the Mahvamsa that sacred sites and cosmotemporal significance are not enough to secure Buddhism on the island after Mahinda goes around and establishes all of the mlaka. The episode ends with Mahinda’s acceptance of King Devnampiyatissa donation of the Mahmegha grove, which echoes the acceptance of this same garden by previous Buddhas in earlier ages. This act symbolically completes the cyclical temporality of Buddhist cosmology with Mahinda and King Devnampiyatissa playing the typical parts of this temporally-telescopic Buddhist narrative. Once the Mahmegha Park is donated, Mahinda causes the earth to shake simultaneously in the location of the sacred mlakas he has identified, and then brings one thousand people to conversion through preaching.5 All of these newly converted Anurdhapurans, earth-shakings, and cosmo-significant narrative parallels would seem to suggest that the teachings of the Buddha that Mahinda has been charged with establishing on the island have been firmly rooted in terms of sacred geography, cosmology, elite participation, and lay-conversion.
5 Mahvamsa, XV, 174-177. Specifically, he preaches the Aggikkhandhopam-sutta. It is not clear if these people are enlightened or simply converted as it states these people became “partakers in the fruit of the path.”
On the following day, however, after Mahinda’s preaching converts another thousand locals, King Devnampiyatissa asks “[d]oes the doctrine of the Conqueror stand, sir?” To which Mahinda replies “Not yet, O ruler of men, only, O lord of nations, when the boundaries [sm] are established here for the uposatha-ceremony and other acts (of religion), according to the command of the Conqueror, shall the doctrine stand.”6 Mahinda then instructs King Devnampiyatissa to “mark out the course of the boundary [sm].”7 After this, the monk establishes the necessary boundary signs in order to mark the sm as space for the performance of the monastic ceremonies. On the following day, the king ploughs a furrow encompassing the mlaka and Mahinda subsequently assigns the outer and inner boundary markers for the sm, as well as those specific to the mlakas of the island, at which point again, the earth quakes.
This section of the text explicitly shows that even though the sacred character of the various mlaka is displayed through their connection to cyclic cosmological temporality embedded in the ontology of Mahinda’s narrative, for all its earth-shaking power, this system of cosmology is not what ultimately establishes the doctrine in any given place. As Mahinda directly states, only when sm space has been established for monastic practices in the proper method will the ssana be firmly established on the island. This insistence separates the function of sm space from the function of sacred space as it is commonly theorized in religious studies scholarship; while the latter are important due to their a priori role in the cyclic replaying of Buddhist cosmology and function in localizing cosmological realities, the former is produced, and indeed only relevant in the here-and-now.8 The importance of sm space is derived not from the fantastic, mythic, or cosmologic, but the legalistic and performative aspects of is consecration and utilization, including the interaction between the Buddhist king and the sangha. Sm space, as the dedicated area in
8 The Mahvamsa displays this point through negation – while all other important sites of Anurdhapura are linked to previous ages, none of the previous kings of Mahinda’s narrative are noted as establishing sm space in the city.
which monastic ceremonies such as the upasampad, or full monastic ordination, and Ptimokkha recitation take place, functions to maintain the ssana through the direct performative actions of the sangha.
I have used this section of the Mahvamsa to theoretically separate sm space from classical understandings of sacred space in religious studies. Before elaborating on how the study of sm space can contribute to the theorization of certain types of religious space, I need to first give a solid definition of what sm space is, and how it has, on and off, proved central to the concerns of the Theravadin literati over last 1,500 years. After my brief survey of sm space in the Theravadin scriptures, I will return to the theoretical question of sacred space, and how this theoretical category must be expanded upon in order to encapsulate the realities of what sm space is and how it has been theorized by elite Theravadin thinkers. Working from sacred space theorists such as Mircea Eliade and Brian K. Smith, I elaborate sacred space theory into a specific type of religious space I call “efficacious space.”
Sm is a Pali and Sanskrit word that simply means boundary. Throughout the Theravadin world, “sm” is a legal term that holds religious significance, and is used to classify a handful of different but related spaces that demarcate areas reserved for monastic ceremonies. Because doing so would be both boring and confusing, I will not go through all of the different types of sm spaces that have emerged throughout Theravadin history. For clarification, however, I will simply mention that in Thailand, the area located around the ordination hall within the bounds of a Buddhist temple is commonly known as sm, even though there exist more specific terms in Pali for this particular type of sm space. The ordination hall, also known as an uposatha-hall (ubosot in Thai) is where the monks meet to perform certain ceremonies. In Northeastern Thailand, the ordination hall itself is called the “sim” a term that is derived from the Pali “sm.” In terms of scripture, the need for established, concrete sm space arises in the second section of the Vinaya Pitaka, which is the
first section of the Theravada Pali canon. The Vinaya Pitaka contains the regulations and specific rules of behavior and decorum that govern the community of monks known as the sangha, and includes various issues ranging from the legal procedures for fixing schisms within the sangha, to the type of robe and footwear allowed to the monks. The Vinaya recounts the establishment of what is known as the uposatha ceremony, which is an assembly of the order of monks held twice a month for the recitation of the monastic law. The specifics of the ceremony develop piecemeal throughout the Vinaya, which covers the very basics of the ceremony – including the establishment of the uposatha-hall, which is a building or cave properly sanctioned off by means of establishing a sm in which the monastic ceremonies are to take place.
Within the Vinaya, the need for a specialized building and boundary for monastic ceremonies arises due to the fact that the Buddha prescribes that the uposatha ceremony is to be held before the complete fraternity of monks who reside within one residence (ekvasso).9 The bhikkhus, however, unsure of the exact bounds of one residence, ask the Buddha how far one residence extends, to which he replies:
I prescribe, O Bhikkhus, that you determine a boundary [sm]. And it ought to be determined, O Bhikkhus, in this way: First the landmarks are to be proclaimed: a landmark consisting in a mountain, in a rock, in a wood, in a tree, in a path, in an anthill, in a river, in a piece of water. The landmarks having been proclaimed, let a learned, competent Bhikkhu proclaim the following ñatti [pronouncement] before the Samgha: “Let the Samgha, reverend sirs, hear me. If the Samgha is ready, let the Samgha, as the landmarks have been proclaimed all around, by these landmarks determine the boundary for common residence and communion of Uposatha….Thus I understand.10
The rituals performed today that establish sm space have evolved out of this scriptural model and have taken many forms throughout time, but the basic elements remain. However elaborate or drawn out a sm consecration ceremony may be, to establish a sm space, a group of monks use the Pali pronouncement found here in the Vinaya. They will identify the markers of the boundary (which now in Thailand are buried beneath the ground) and agree upon them in succession, reciting the appropriate pronouncement at each individual marker. This ritual process delineates the extent of the sm boundary and separates the sm space from the surrounding area.
On one level, the ritual that consecrates sm space, and sm spatial quality fits well into Mircea Eliade’s theory of sacred space. The simple act of cordoning off an area for ritual action correlates with Eliade’s assertion that, for what he calls “religious man”, space is not homogeneous. Instead, he argues, space is interrupted by sites of specific importance that are endowed with sacrality. First and foremost in Eliade’s scheme, sacred space is separated from the formless expanse of space that surrounds it.11 These special enclosures, which are often encompassed by a marking wall or circle of stones, allow for kratophany and hierophany within their confines.12 Certainly sm space fits this qualification of sacred space as well – the enclosed space is where the sangha is empowered to perform certain rituals that it is not able to otherwise. There is a sort of kratophany present in the ritual of upasampad ordination that can only be performed within sm space; however, the source of the kratophany that manifests within sm space is something that is not covered by current sacred space theory. Kratophany and hierophany, as they are used by Eliade, imply sacred power as a manifestation of divine force and/or cosmological relationship between a particular space and transcendent reality.13 The force present in sm space that empowers the monastic community to
effect change within specific rituals, however, is not dependent on, or in relationship to, cosmological/cosmogonical referents. Sacred space theory has mostly focused on the cosmological and cosmogonic implications of sacred space construction and the ritual power exercised within such space. Eliade argues that the elaborate techniques for the construction of sacred space are not merely the work of humans. “In reality,” Eliade argues, “the ritual by which [[[humans]]] construct a sacred space is efficacious in the measure in which it reproduces the work of the gods.”14 In reproducing the work of the gods, the consecration of sacred space mimics the creation of the cosmos – Eliade argues, along with others, that the construction of sacred space is a symbolic act of cosmogony that reproduces on a microcosmic scale the whole of creation.15 Brian K. Smith’s work on Vedic ritual space, like Eliade’s, also depends on the separation of ritual space from the nonritual realm, as well as ritual space being a model of cosmological reality. Smith identifies that:
According to the Veda, the ritual realm is to be spatially and conceptually set apart from the nonritual realm. Spatially, this is achieved by the demarcation of a distinct space for the ritual…thereby creating a visually recognizable enclosure for the ritual activity. The ritual arena is thus made to be a world unto itself, a delimited realm where activities are focused and controlled.16
Similar to Eliade’s sacred space, Vedic ritual space is constructed as something distinct from the space surrounding it. This distinction allows the Vedic priests to become “human gods” who act on behalf of, and within the realm of the gods while engaged in ritual.17 Vedic ritual space gains its efficacy through its simultaneous mirroring of, and attempt to reconcile the chaotic cosmogonic act of Vedic creation.
In the Veda, the creator god Prajpati manifested the multiple realms of existence through an event of cosmogonic emission – the stuff of the cosmos is literally comprised of Prajpati’s godly semen. Unpacking this Vedic myth, Smith explains that this generative autoerotic act was a form of self-sacrifice and that all Vedic ritual sacrifices performed in the world of men both mimic and seek to reconcile this initial chaos-producing event. Smith articulates that in Vedic sacrifice rituals:
Prajpati is reconstructed [after his cosmic emission] in a secondary cosmogonic act of ritual construction which also shapes into form the discontinuous creatures of the cosmic emission. Unlike all the kings horses and all the king’s men, the gods and men, deploying the formative an connective power of ritual, can put the shattered god and his creation back together again – an operation of ritually productive reintegration…18 In replicating and ameliorating Prajpati’s cosmogonic sacrifice, Vedic ritual operates within the divine world and is therefore set apart from mundane reality. Within sacrificial space, matter regains its connection to its material essence, i.e., Prajpati’s generative semen. The mechanics of Vedic ritual help in understanding the power and importance of the Anurdhapuran mlaka discussed above. The mlaka are enlivened due to their connection with Buddhist cosmology. Unlike the cosmologically charged mlakas, the force that sacralizes sm space is not connected to cosmological or cosmogonic realities.
The language used in the ritual pronouncement that consecrates sm space supports an understanding of sm space efficacy as noncosmological, instead of as a space consecrated purely by the efforts of the sangha. The Pali term used in the ritual pronouncement given in the Vinaya above is smya sammuti, meaning “establish the boundary.” “Sammuti” is best translated in this phrase as “establish,” however, it also can mean “common consent,” “general opinion,” and
“convention.”19 The linguistic components that make up the word “sammuti” point to the idea of collective imagining. “Sammuti” is constructed from the prefix sa, meaning “together,”20 and man meaning “to think”, “to be of opinion”, “to imagine.”21 “Sammuti” then can be read as meaning “to make of one mind,” or “to collectively imagine.”
The use of the word “sammuti” suggests that unlike the Lankan mlaka identified in the Mahvamsa, whose sacrality is ensured by their connection to Buddhist cosmological time, sm space is something collectively imagined by the sangha, hewn out from the mundane surroundings (trees, rocks, ant-hills), but given efficacy by the collective imagination of the community of monks. Sm space consecration, then, does not fit into Eliade’s statement that “the ritual by which [[[humans]]] construct a sacred space is efficacious in the measure in which it reproduces the work of the gods.”22 In order to understand why “the work of the gods” has no bearing over sm space efficacy, it is helpful to briefly touch on how sammuti is used in the Theravadin theory of dual reality, sometimes called Two Truths. In the Abhidhammic theory of Two Truths, which has developed over the course of Theravadin history, two types of truth are theorized – ultimate truth, known as paramattha-sacca, and conventional truth, known as sammuti-sacca.23 On the one hand, paramattha-sacca contains the irreducible mechanisms of Buddhist reality, such as impermanence, suffering, the aggregates of the empiric individuality, and so on.24 Sammuti-sacca, on the other hand, contains the conventional manifestations of these mechanics – tangible matter, beings, gods, the world of humans, etc.25 Karunadasa explains that in the Theravada system, neither realm of truth is superior nor subordinate to the other, but merely different ways of expressing the
condition of existence. He clarifies that paramattha-sacca is “truth expressed by using the technical terms expressive of the ultimate elements of existence. In like manner, sammuti-sacca or conventional truth means the truth expressed by using conventional terms in common parlance.”26 The use of sammuti in Abhidhammic theory reveals that in Theravadin understandings of existence, the worlds of the gods and the world of men are both contained within the realm of sammuti-sacca, they are both manifestations of ultimate irreducible realities in conventional terms. While Abhidammic theory is often separate from ritual action, I argue that the implications of sammuti in the sm consecration ritual are similar to its use in Abhidhammic theory. Karunadasa explains that “[s]ammuti is a mental construction superimposed on things per se and as such possessing no objective counterpart. As a product of the synthesizing function of the mind, it exists by virtue of mind.”27 After being established, sm space exists by virtue of the collective mind of the sangha, and as space, it refers only to the sangha’s ability to create efficacious space. The conventionality of sammuti as it exists in sm space consecration calls for a theoretical augmentation of Eliade’s sacred and the profane dichotomy. The consecration of sm space is not merely an act of separating what is sacred from what is mundane, but also is a phenomenological exercise focused on the creation of space at a fundamental level. Its power lies not in its modeling of cosmogony and cosmological time, but in its being functionally true and extant in the conventional sense – a quality bestowed on it through the collective imagination of the sangha.
All of the textual and ritual material concerning sm space we have explored thus far works to connect sm efficacy with the actions of the sangha. The above analysis of the Mahvamsa suggests that the efficacy of sm space is not tied to the cosmo-temporal cycles of Buddhist history, but instead is established through the performative and ritual actions of the sangha in the here-and-now. The excerpts from
the Vinaya concerning sm space consecration outline the specific ritual behavior necessary for the sangha to establish sm space and provide the exact pronouncement (ñatti) with which the sangha collectively consecrates the space. Furthermore, the glossing of the term sammuti in this pronouncement as “to collectively imagine”, linked with the Abhidhammic theory of Two Truths explored above, supports an understanding of sm space efficacy as emanating from the power of the sangha as a collective entity and not cosmological or cosmogonic referents.
In addition to the textual and theoretical evidence explored above that positions sm space as a form of efficacious space, the sm space of Wat Phra Sing, a third level royal temple located in Chiang Rai, provides material evidence that links sm space’s efficacy to the performative action of the sangha. The uposatha-hall of Wat Phra Sing is consecrated in the typical Thai fashion, with eight sm markers positioned at the cardinal and semi-cardinal directions around the building and a ninth marker buried in the center of the uposatha-hall. What makes this sm space unique, however, is the inclusion of eight images of important monks stationed directly across from each respective outer sm marker (Figure 1). These eight monastic images have their hands folded in a wai gesture and their eyes downcast directly at each of their corresponding sm markers (Figure 2). The presence of these monastic characters makes the sm consecration ceremony perpetually present on the grounds of the temple, and serves as a material manifestation of the connection between the collective imagination of the sangha and the efficacy of sm space.
Figure 1: Uposatha-hall at Wat Phra Singh. This image features the northern sm marker in the foreground and the northeastern marker in the background with their corresponding monastic images frozen in a pose of constant consecration. The image positioned at the northern sm marker is Maha Moggallana. (Image: Irwin, 2012) Figure 2: Detail of Monastic Image at Wat Phra Singh Sm: The wai gesture and downcast eyes are visible in this shot. (Image: Irwin, 2012)
Regardless of the differences between sacred space theory and sm space realities, there are important similarities between the function of sm space, and sacred space as it exists in classical religious studies scholarship. Brian K. Smith resolves that in the Vedic system, “[t]he whole point of the ritual as a whole and nearly every rite in it was to effect change on the subjects undergoing the process and on the world outside the domain of ritual activity.”28 Furthermore, Smith articulates that the space of Vedic ritual is “the domain where, by virtue of its distinction from the limitations of activities performed in the real world, control over the world could be most efficiently exercised.”29
Smith’s focus on efficacy in Vedic ritual informs my classification of sm space as efficacious space. As I define it, efficacious space is space that is established according to specific criteria, which by virtue of those criteria, empowers people to effect change within that space. Sm space is the place in which the work of monasticism is carried out, where individuals are transformed into monks, and where existing monks gather to perpetuate monastic law. If the criteria by which sm space is established is not valid, then all of that monastic work is invalid. However, the criteria by which sm space is established has undergone extreme change and controversy throughout history.30 Smith argues that in order for Vedic rituals to be efficacious, the ritual agents involved must strive for perfection in both performative and material specifics. He clarifies that “the quest for perfection, for control of each and every detail, necessarily entailed anxiety about what would happen if mistakes were made.”31 The obsession with ritual perfection is similar to how sm consecration specifics have been theorized by Theravadin thinkers throughout time. In Smith’s Vedic case, the inability to match material and performative details
could lead to unwanted outcomes in the extra-ritual world, or result in complete lack of efficacy altogether. So too is the case in sm consecration. If a sm space is not properly constructed, then the rituals performed within that space will be invalid. Unlike the Vedic case, however, the prototype for sm consecration criteria is not found in cosmogonic myth, but in the material and performative specifics given in the Vinaya and exegetical Theravadin texts. The lack of cosmological modeling for the establishment of sm space, and the fact that properly established sm space is one of the five requirements necessary for monastic ordination to be considered valid, has led to a large amount of anxiety over the proper methods and materials necessary for the consecration of sm space. Throughout Theravadin history, numerous exegetical texts have sought to codify the specific criteria necessary for the production of valid sm space by articulating material and performative elements upon which proper sm consecration depends. Buddhaghosa’s 4-5th century Samantapsdik and the Mon King Dhammaceti’s 15th century Kalyn inscription have proved the most influential in terms of sm space standards. The methods and criteria found in these texts are not unified, and sometimes contradict each other, even though they all attempt to accord with the original criteria given in the Vinaya. In addition to this, all of the ink spilled on the subject of sm consecration methods and criteria in these orthodox texts seek to solve a specific problem – that if a sm space is not properly established, the monastic upasampad ordinations and other ceremonies that occur within that space are invalid.
This problem, and the subsequent Theravadin obsession over sm space criteria, has informed my definition of efficacious space. If a sm space is not properly established (both in terms of material and ritual) then the sangha is unable to change a novice or lay-person into a monk through the act of ordination. In other words, the sangha is only able to effect change within sm space when the criteria of that space are infallibly adhered to. My focus on efficacy is derived from the debates concerning valid and invalid sm spaces that exist in the Theravada texts themselves, which are singularly occupied with determining the proper methods for
the establishment of sm space so that they conform with the guidelines delineated in the Vinaya and are therefore able to empower the sangha to effect change. None of the texts that I have investigated cite cosmological precedents or models as dictating proper (or improper) sm consecration. On the contrary, according to the orthodox texts, sm validity is predicated on its conformity to the material and spatial requirements given in the Vinaya, and actuated by the group of monks who establish (imagine) the sm into existence, or
Anxiety over how to ensure the perfection of sm became a growing concern throughout Theravada history as one of the means by which to prevent the decline of the ssana. This concern drove some of the more well known Buddhist reformations of Southeast Asia, such as the Kalyn reformation and later, the nineteenth-century Thammayut reformation. These reformations, which saw large changes to the practice and understanding of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia, were predicated on questions of space, and whether or not the criteria by which particular sm spaces were constructed were valid enough to confer upon those spaces the efficacy necessary to effect change within the world.
Classifying sm space as efficacious space, as opposed to merely sacred space, allows for a theorization of religious space that does not depend on cosmological modeling for its efficacy. Inquiries concerning sm space efficacy are tailored to the Theravadin texts themselves, and invite subsequent questions about space, efficacy, power, and change in religious studies more generally. I argue that we begin looking at how space in the context of religion is constructed in order to empower people to do certain things without having to be a reflection or recreation of cosmological models. I believe that efficacious space as a theoretical category can be used broadly across religious studies to further understand the link between the material, and ritual aspects of religious spatialization, and how space empowers people to perpetuate religious meaning and reality in the world.
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