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Southeast Asian Animism, Becoming Other and the Perceptual Powers of Ruup

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Concepts of Form, Animism and Embodied Difference

A few notes and an extended citation from the reading of "Seeing and knowing Metamorphosis and the fragility of species in Chewong animistic ontology" by Signe Howell. Philosophically its quite an interesting piece in the way that the animistic conceptions of the Chewong reflect on modern experiences of crossing to other cultures, learning from other cultures, and also thinking about experiences of alterity, political pluralism and study in the land of another.

Principally it discusses the Chewong beliefs that shaman and others of a species can put on the "cloak" of another species, marry into, live as that other species, gaining the "eyes" of that species, and in some cases simply become (trapped?) in that species, or expelled. A man may become and live as an elephant, a frog or spider may become and live as a human (wearing that cloak). Meaningful aspects of these transformations include the idea that if you gain the other species "eyes", you learn to see the world as they do, and this different mode of seeing is what distinguishes them from human beings. All species are indeed of a single culture (it can be described in that way), all species in an instance can be understood and experienced as "person" -- there is an animistic principle that a person could be defined as anyone or anything you exchange or share with -- but when wearing their cloak (their outward appearance) you gain their eyes. This sight is what separates species and kinds.

Ruup As a Way of Seeing

I'll drop the relevant page screencaps below, but a few notes on this in terms of the study of Muay Thai in Thailand, and the experience of living in Thailand as a Westerner. The first one is something that Sylvie and I have discussed a great deal on, the notion of ruup. Ruup is your outline, your form, as a fighter your basic posture. Thailand's fighting styles have particular ruup, and when learning how to fight in them, if you are going to do it at a deep level, you need to learn this ruup. These involves attitudes of stance, principles of high and low, symbolic expressions of ease or strength, physical response patterns. In fact the ruup of a style composes an entire vocabulary or even a visual language of expression. What the Chewong's animism study alights us too is that putting on the ruup of another, what is called its "cloak", changes your eyes. It changes how you actually see, an importantly in this, in terms of fighting styles, the values by which you perceive things. The things that will stand out to you. When wearing a cloak of "another" the world itself as it is understood and is valued, changes. This is a complicated causal relationship because its not entirely clear that the wearing of the cloak (changing one's outward appearance) directly changes one's eyes, but it is implied. In terms of Thailand's traditional Muay Thai we can gain insight into the importance of ruup itself. It's not just an assumed physicality, but rather an entire semiotic disposition to one's opponent and the ring, the sport, that alters perception itself. And, there can be a sense that not everyone can put on the cloak of ruup, in a transformative sense. There are ways in which Western fighters "put on the cloak" of Thailand's Muay Thai that read more as a kind of "Muay Thai drag"...the eyes have not changed yet, or they lack the shamanistic cross-cultural capacities...they do not have "cool eyes" in the Chewong sense. At the very least the Chewong example opens up this principle of ruup appearances and perceptual change. Becoming a nakmuay, in the more traditional sense, is to have the cloak that changes your perceptions. You see differently.

This isn't a belief of Thailand, per se, but the study of it may shed light into generalized SEA animistic principles. I've written about animism and Thailand's Muay Thai here: Toward a Theory of the Spirituality of Thailand's Muay Thai. What the Chewong beliefs do is create a perspective on inter-cultural transformations, the kind of which happen in the more authentic attempts to learn and live the practice of Muay Thai in Thailand, and I take note of some small parallels I've seen in Thai examples. There is the story of the Naga (a snake people, who adorn the staircases of Thai wats) who wished to be a novice monk so that he could practice Buddhism, and who disguised himself as a man...and much like in the Chewong mythology was also found out. In Thai magical mythology there are several stories of shape-shifting shaman (lersi, sian), were- stories, or shaman who take on the heads of animal spirits.





We recall attending the sak yant blessing ceremony of Arjan Pi, who has given both Sylvie and myself our sakyant. In these events very devoted followers would occasionally become possessed by the yant they had been given, a monkey (Hanuman) or a tiger. Arjan Pi would admonish and warn that if you have been possessed this is a bad thing. You lack control over yourself and that energy. It is controlling you. This is a basic Muay Thai principle as well, just mastering the energies of fear, aggression and anger, channeling them. This is to say that these notions of cloak-wearing, and value changing do occupy Thai conceptions of spirit and human capacity, and they are thought of in terms of dangers. The stories of the Chewong help fill out this animistic picture, and perhaps the realities of what it means to take on the values and experiences of another culture, the eyes of another way of being. Some of Muay Thai is about that. And, alternately, if Thais (Thai fighters) are urged to take on the ruup of Western or other cultures, wear the cloak of those cultures, then they took will experience a change of eyes.




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I want to open up the idea that the cultivation of specific ruup and form in Muay Thai, traditionally, is not altogether different than the taking on of a sakyant form (magically, spiritually), at least within a logic of spiritual animism. The training of the body to be relaxed, upright, fluid (thammachat, natural), balanced, explosive, achieved in Thai kaimuay through arduous, repetitious work, interactive play, kru aesthetic shapings, are not just about learning techniques biomechanically, but rather in acquiring the cloak (the robe) of a certain form of expression, and this form of expression is tied to the capacity to see in a certain way. Sylvie and I talk a great deal about the "eyes" of Golden Age legends, that they can literally see the fight, the opponent differently than others do. In the study of Karuhat this is most pronounced in the way he is able to read weight-shift, and spatial closures which produce great anticipation. But Karuhat's own ruup is quite special.

Below (video) is the painful receipt of Sylvie's Tiger Sak Yant by Arjan Pi. She wrote about her experience here: Transformation and Belief: Receiving my Sak Yant Sua Ku and Takroh


This isn't to say that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the receipt of a sakyant, in sincere belief and practice, and the rigorous development of putting-on-the-cloak of Thai ruup in a traditional Muay Thai kaimuay, but there does seem to be an underlying regard for the power of representation and putting-on a shape, that it can change one's eyes, and one's capacities (and not always for the better). The Jangwah (rhythms) of Muay Thai, its postures, are earned transformations of perception that likely is in coincidence with the animistic beliefs of sakyant reception, especially in a traditional context. The "image" in Thailand (and SEA) carries with it a perceptual force, one might argue, that is quite different from the Western traditions (in Philosophy, but also culture) which have regarded image as dangerously false, going all the way back to Platonism. The cloaks of the Chewong, when used by those with cool eyes, contain a kind of trans-cultural capacity of perceptual shifting, and with a capacity for action. It does not go too far to see that the postures and rhythms of Muay Thai, in its tradition, also contain these analogous capacities...and possible dangers.

As one seeks to gain the "eyes" of the other, to see as they see, one alters one's form, if we follow the Chewong.

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One does not have to indulge in magical or even spiritual beliefs in order to appreciate some of what is being expressed here. There is a famous fragment from the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus (popularly known for his supposed assertion that all things change). This fragment is often translated as "Character is fate" (“ethos anthropos daimon", ήθος ανθρώπω δαίμων). It's a very difficult phrase to translate because of the multiple meanings of ethos and daimon (a multiplicity that Heraclitus probably intended), but here it is best to point out that ethos, from which we get "ethics", means something like "disposition" but also "manner" and "habit". Our way of being, of appearing through its repetition, is what makes up our destiny. Daimon can mean destiny or fate, but it also can mean life-guiding, life-determining spirit. We get the word "demon" from it (as Christianity positioned it that way). It is not unlike the kinds of spirit guides that are invoked by the Chewong. The ultimate meaning of the phrase from Heraclitus is disputed, but it probably means something like: "The way you have been, the way you have conducted yourself is the way you will go". We can see the connection between "appearance" and "capacities", and how it relates to identity. The Chewong see animals (and plants) as persons who have a Way-of-Life, an ethos, which shows itself in how it appears (its cloak). If you put on that cloak, with cool eyes, you enter that Way-of-Life, and you acquire the ability to see in a certain (altered) way. Your daimon, your spirit, your fate, becomes aligned with your altered manner. In Thailand when a young nakmuay (traditionally around the ages of 10-14) enters a kaimuay (camp) he is inculcated into a Way-of-Life, which is not only the patterns and manners of the kaimuay (what the Sociologist Bourdieu would call its habitus), but also the specific ethos of a nakmuay. The dispositions of ruup, of postures and emotional shapes and reactions of how a nakmuay should be, not only in the ring but also in life. The ethos of the boy is being changed, cultivated, no differently than it would be changed if he had entered into a monastery and learned that Way-of-Life, those dispositions, those constellations of ruup. One does not have to be a believer in spiritual things, or of animism or magic to see this. Through habit and practice we change our appearance. And as one's ethos, one's manner, is changed, so too is one's fate or destiny (one could say one's capacity). Following the Chewong, so also changes your eyes, the values and particularities you pick out in the world when you engage in it.

If you shape one's appearance, if you change one's cloak, you change your capacity in life. You can live among a different people. And, much of what draws the Westerner to Thailand and the beauty of its Muay Thai is that unique cloak...(and in its authenticity, its capacity, its eyes).


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This is also one of the challenges to the common Western (and global) attempt to export Thailand's Muay Thai techniques, piece by piece, bio-mechanically. As if this strike, this kick, this counter can be taken out of the fabric of its ruup (the full cloak of traditional Muay Thai) without losing much of its potency...and its meaning. As a technical cog it might be quite effective in other somewhat mixed if not Frankensteined fighting styles, because they are honed from a century of modern fighting, but like a word taken from a language a great deal of what it means and importantly what it does. And significantly, was Western and International values of training start to enter into Thailand's pedagogy itself, as Thais and Thai trainers start to put on the cloak of the Westerner (in part driven by the rise of Entertainment Muay Thai, but also many other factors), the meaning and use of those words becomes lost to Thais as well. (I write about the rise of the combo in Thai training: A faith renewed in the hope and future of Muay Thai, beyond its Farangification). In a certain sense the roots of Thailand's Muay Thai do not lie within its techniques, or its traditions, but in the conditions under which that Way-Of-Life underwent its living, in the kaimuay throughout the entire society, the dispositions and cloaks of its cultural expression.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This is so excellent Kevin, thank you. I’ll keep coming back to read this, something I’m very interested in. Esp how it all feeds into Muay Thai  which is what attracted me in the first place. 

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