‘Wayward Distractions’

Religious studies professor Justin McDaniel on life, death, religion, and his latest book.

A row of gilded Buddha figures sit under a canopy swathed in red cloth
Buddhist temples (like the one above in Wat Pho, Thailand) are often ornately decorated with gilded statues, flowers, and incense. “Religion,” says McDaniel, “is often a celebration, not an austere retreat.” (Image: Frida Aguilar Estrada on Unsplash.)

For religious studies professor Justin McDaniel, travel is the lifeblood of his work. His new book, “Wayward Distractions: Ornament, Emotion, Zombies and the Study of Buddhism in Thailand,” includes descriptions of ornately decorated monasteries in Southeast Asia and a period room with a history of seduction, betrayal, and insanity in Washington, D.C.’s Freer Gallery of Art. The first of three volumes, “Wayward Distractions” is a compendium of some of the scholar’s hard-to-find articles, loosely organized under the rubric of art and material culture. 

The first in a planned series, “Wayward Distractions” is a compilation of hard-to-access articles centered on art and material culture.

“These articles in this book are a lot of the ones that weren’t translated, or are in venues that have paywalls, are hard to find, or are expensive,” he says. “I wanted them to be accessible. I write about monks and nuns and it’s nice to have, like, monks and nuns actually reading your book.”

McDaniel, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Professor of the Humanities, calls these articles B-sides, the “wayward distractions” en route to writing longer books. In working with editors to assemble the volume, he reflected on the history of his 20-odd years of written scholarship. In the introduction, McDaniel wanted to “not just summarize the articles, but to push ideas a bit radically.”

“I don’t want to be a relic to my students, and I don’t want to be a relic to readers,” McDaniel says. “I don’t see the point of being cautious at my age.” This involves pushing himself—and others—to read new books, listen to new music, travel, make connections, to try on a new point of view. This is essential in order not to become complacent, especially as an academic: “We have to fight against getting settled in our ways.

“My father always said to me, if you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re not in the right room,” says McDaniel. 

Penn Today sat down with him to discuss religion, life, and wayward distractions along the way.

What are the central questions that you ask in your academic research, and how has your approach changed over time?

A lot of the questions I’m asking right now have been very anti-interiority and anti-meaning. I’m having trouble believing there’s an interior life. I see no proof of it. I teach a course called Living Deliberately: The Contemplative Life. And I’m deeply skeptical that there is such thing as a contemplative life, or there is an interior life. I think there’s a private life, and that’s increasingly rare. But that this idea that we think deeply, as my students always say, they want important meaningful conversations and deep conversations, ‘deep inside,’ and I just don’t understand what they’re talking about. I often joke, ‘What do you mean, like behind your spleen?’ What part of the interior are you talking about? Because nothing of you is interior. Your thoughts are all constructed by a language that you didn’t choose, set in a grammar that consists of rules based outside of you. All of your ideas come from sense data outside of you. Your brain doesn’t have a deeper part and a more surface part; it’s a network. 

All of this language doesn’t make any sense in terms of neuroscience, doesn’t make any sense in terms of physics. We can’t kill ourselves by holding our breath because we pass out and just start breathing again, right? We don’t shape our own bones. We didn’t choose our eye color. All of the things that make us actually come from the outside: our genetics, our ability to breathe, the effect of gravity.

Our ideas come from the outside, and this idea that you have something deep and special inside of you is just incredibly misleading. And so, what does that mean for us as individuals? What does that mean for our identity? Buddhists have a famous saying: The I is made of non-I things; the chariot is made of non-chariot things; you are made of non-you things. We have this sense of self, but, really, what is the self if it’s not constructed by the outside? We are incredibly fragile and fractured people; we’re corporal and corporate. When we think about religious thought, why do we keep thinking that there is something deeper below the surface? 

I’m really influenced by Heather Love, who teaches in the English department. She wrote an article about ‘thin description,’ based off of Geertz’s famous ‘thick description,’ that a scholar should understand the socio-economic context of things; we should learn the subtext, the symbolism, the deep knowledge. That was the scholar’s job when they looked at a religious ritual or a play. They knew the secret stuff that nobody else did. And scholars get off on that; that’s our thing. We know the deep parts, right? 

But thin description, as she put it, is attending to aesthetics, attending the color and shape, attending to the physics of something, the feel of it, the tactile sense of it. I co-taught with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw of the Art History department and she reminded the students and me that we have to ‘see first.’ Simply look. Attending to a religious ritual or Buddhist statue is to actually look at it first, instead of throwing your ideas of what it means or symbolizes, or its place in a socioeconomic historical context. 

In Buddhism, we’re taught that meditation is not about figuring things out. It’s not about analyzing, it’s about not knowing yourself, none of that. It’s simply observing your breath. It's about observing your thoughts without attachment, without meaning. 

I find that as a parent, as a person, as a scholar, I pour meaning into things constantly. I pour meaning into my daughter. My daughter’s awesome. She’s the coolest daughter ever. You might assume that yours is the coolest (I’m right, by the way), but she’s the greatest person and I pour all this meaning into her. But in reality, she’s $8 worth of chemicals. She’s nothing more special than any other human being. But I place all this meaning into her. And that’s fine. I enjoy it. I’m going to keep doing it. 

We do this to everything we study, too. We assume that the religion we study or the math problem or the political revolution is the most important thing on the planet. We all know that it’s not, just like we all know our kids are no more special than the other kids. But we do this, and we fight and argue it. I’m at the point in my career that I’m really skeptical about that. 

Buddhists who are doing ritual are never asking the questions I asked. I should learn to ask, Why aren’t they asking these questions? Why aren’t they pouring meaning into this? Why aren’t they doing the interpretation? It’s not that they don’t care. They care about a ton of things, but they ask different questions. They pay attention to aesthetics, they pay attention to the outfits of other people in the room, they pay attention to the smells, all of these things, and they’re very comfortable with them. And I’m always looking for meaning behind the curtain. I’m always looking for the end. What am I missing by looking deep? 

That’s where my thinking is on Buddhism now. I’m very interested in the non-interior. I’m very interested in the effect of the surface, the thin description. That’s so different from how I started. I started really wanting to know every piece of historical detail. I wanted to know every theory. I was just like all young people, voracious for knowledge. You have to go through that stage, you have to build up skills. 

Now, I want to make the next stage of my career an exercise in hesitation. Every time you think you know something, hesitate. Every time you think you come to a conclusion, hesitate. Every time you ask a question, hesitate. Just wait a second. I’ve found that it’s been a useful tool.

A man stands in an ornately carved doorway
McDaniel has travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, where he was ordained as a monk. In Thailand, it is common for men to spend several months within monastery life, McDaniel writes, and men who have not been through ordination are considered dip, or raw.

You’ve written that some of the most interesting questions that arise in research are the result of unexpected juxtapositions. Can you elaborate?

In chaos theory, they have this idea of a strange attractor that’s deep within the system. If you take three billiard balls, take away friction and set them in motion, at one point, their interactions become unpredictable. They get complicated over time. Now imagine the neurons in your synapses in your brain. At any one time, there are hundreds of thousands of connections. That is unpredictable. But at one point, deep in the system, something happens that they start to form patterns. And the patterns are unpredictable, but they’re certainly discernible. Mathematicians still don’t know what, out of this chaos, starts to make patterns, and that’s why they call it strange attractor because they don’t know what is attracting things. 

I’ve started to see that in nature and religion, this idea that that we have so many different influences. Take a city like Bangkok or Philadelphia, a city like Tokyo or London, Kinshasa or Rio, a city that has so many so many diverse populations, so many layers of history, so many different competing religions, so many universities, so many individuals in so many classes, all interacting. How do we form a society? How do we actually want to help people? People are like, ‘it’s amazing how humans kill each other.’ I’m amazed we don’t kill each other more often. Why do we have compassion? It’s not efficient. 

A city actually works. What is bringing populations together? How is culture formed in amazingly organic, and largely peaceful ways? What is what is preventing absolute chaos? And also, what is preventing absolute order, absolute dictatorship? 

I’m fascinated by that in religion. How does a person, an individual make sense of their religion and their belief? We’re all so complex in our genetic history and our intellectual history and cultural histories. So mixed. How do we actually see ourselves as individuals? What is taking all these diverse influences that any human being has and making a coherent pattern out of it that make sense to them? What is that strange attractor that makes us feel like a person? 

Buddhism talks a lot about this. Buddhism has no creation story. Origins and ‘pastness’ are much less of a concern to Buddhists, in comparison to Jews or Christians. I was sitting in on Marija Drndic’s great Physics and Consciousness course at Penn two weeks ago, and Mark Trodden was a guest lecturer. He said something so basic to us that I never thought of. Some student asked him about the Big Bang. Like, basically, where did it start? He goes, ‘Oh, well, it didn’t start anywhere. That’s a fundamental mistake people make. The Big Bang is not a point in space. The Big Bang is a point in time. We don’t care where the Big Bang happened, because it didn’t happen in space. It happened in a point of time.’ That’s the only thing that matters because it’s all expanding at the same rate. And not expanding from one point, it’s just expanding away from each other. That completely switches the way you understand the universe. 

What, in our mind and our culture, in physics, allows us to not collapse into chaos? I think that’s the problem we often make in religion. We don’t ask about what’s missing. 

How did growing up in an Irish family and attending Catholic School influence your study of religion and your sort of academic career and career direction?

I went to an all-boys school. And then I went to a Catholic college. We were serious: all the holy days of obligation, mass at 6:30 in the morning. My parents believed that if you were going to be a member, you should pay the ticket price. They didn’t care what we thought. I would debate with my mom about the existence of God; she never minded that. She had no problem with me becoming a Buddhist. She was like, ‘That’s so cool. Anything that makes you disciplined.’

I just thought religion was cool. All the art, all the literature, the ritual, even the outfits—I just like it. If we remove religion from society, it removes a huge aspect of human culture. I often tell students that one of the theories is that religion gives humans an evolutionary advantage. Hope is an evolutionary advantage. We build structures that will long outlive us. Why would a species build things that would outlast their biological selves? Why are we archiving things? I’m on the West Philadelphia historical board; why do we protect buildings? Why do we have an inherent interest to protect things for our children in the future? The very concept of hope is hugely important for human existence, that we hope for something more beyond our death. Your children, your grandchildren will do things and remember you. 

My dad died this year. I do not think he’s looking down. I hope he is, but I really don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t exist; he’s dust, but the very idea that he could or the very idea that I could see him again—religion provides that. I think it would be so sad to have a life where you didn’t think of that possibility. It’s not a question of belief. I kind of hope I’m wrong. I hope my rational brain is wrong. And I think a lot of humans hope that. That’s why we write science fiction. That’s why we write fantasy. That’s why we have religions. 

One of the greatest theories of religion is that religion is just a better story. In the Big Bang, the sun explodes, and we all die. That is a really boring story, a terrible story. But the Mahabharata is a great story. The story of Muhammad is a great story. I’d rather have a life full of good stories. I’d rather have a life full of ideas and fantasies, and it has nothing to do with belief. People ask me, what do you believe in? And I always say I believe in everything, half the time. 

I watched my dad die for nine months—and thank goodness for nurses and physicians. They were so good at what they did. I couldn’t have done any of that; I couldn’t develop these vaccines. He died in the end, but it doesn’t matter. The effort they had—it was really impressive. We need that, but we also need poets. We should be celebrating the students that choose theater and poetry because we need them just as much as we need physicians, just as much as we need engineers. 

There were songs that I would listen to, when my dad was in the hospital. The musicians were just as important to my experience as the as the biologists. If we remove religion, or we remove the prayers my mom was saying those were an essential part of that experience, just as much as the science. 

I’ve never met a physicist who walked into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and regretted it. Somebody has to paint those paintings. But also, I’ve never met an artist who doesn’t respect the architecture and the engineering of the building or the chemistry of the paint. We need each other. 

I don’t like when people say, ‘Is religion necessary?’ Well, of course, it’s not. That’s a stupid question. Let’s get away from this idea of what is useful or not useful, what is practical or not. What makes human life richer and worth living? I think religious studies is part of that.