Ironic empathy is perhaps the best way to describe Joseph Walser’s (Chair of the Department of Comparative Religion at Tufts University) use of the dictum ‘to publish or perish’ as the main title of his lecture to the Buddhist Studies Seminar at Columbia University (Sept. 21, 2006). An abbreviation of his newly published book Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism & Early Indian Culture (CU Press, 2005), Walser’s talk was aimed at elucidating the socio-political influences on the writings of the philosopher-saint Nāgārjuna.
Walser’s erudite reexamination of works attributed to the acclaimed 2nd century Buddhist thinker, strives to answer such questions as: “just how is it that something that was written 1800 years ago in Brahmi script on palm-leaf parchment, sits today in Devanagri script in a library in New York City?” According to Walser, the answer involves a deep appreciation for social context, and is not altogether different from why his own book now sits in the Labyrinth Bookstore on 112th Street.
Conceived and written while applying for tenure at Tufts, the impetus for Walser’s book came out of feedback he received during that time. Thus the very act of writing about the social factors that facilitated the redaction of Nāgārjuna’s ideas were, for Walser, instrumental in whether or not he himself would be published and in turn tenured (circumstance that may have also allowed Walser some degree of empathy with his subject).
Just as it woud be a grievous error to reduce Walser’s interest to career advancement, an examination of Nāgārjuna in context does not take away from the philosophical import of the Mahāyāna’s most esteemed philosophical thinker. On the contrary, Walser’s study enhances our understanding of Nāgārjuna, providing a refreshing and novel perspective.