This year Easter fell on the same day as the traditional date for the Buddha’s birthday -- the eighth day of the fourth month. It seemed somehow appropriate that I had spent the previous day at a workshop at the University of Toronto pondering the future of the field of Buddhist studies. Entitled ‘Whither Buddhist Studies,’ the workshop was designed to give representatives from various programs a chance to get together and talk about such perennial concerns as graduate student funding, program planning, and getting the attention of Deans.
The workshop opened with a rousing presentation by José Cabezón, who celebrated the expansion of the scope of the field from a traditional focus on canonical texts, eminent monks, and elite concerns to include practices, social contexts, women, Buddhism in the contemporary world, and increasingly sophisticated uses of information technology. The opening discussion also featured an exchange between a speaker who stressed the importance of awareness and possible engagement in political and social issues, and a speaker who claimed that it was hubristic to think that this was part of our role as scholars. The first speaker retorted that, on the contrary, it was hubristic to assume that we could separate ourselves from such issues, that it behooved us to consider who and what funds the universities that pay our salaries. For me this brief exchange represented a polarity that persisted throughout the conference. Beneath the dominant conversations about funding and institutional strategies there was a largely unacknowledged sub-topic; namely, that our professional activities are dependent on political, economic, and environmental issues that some of us might feel moved to try to address in our work.
After this promising start, workshop conversations turned to the nitty-gritty of fundraising and establishing institutional support for Buddhist studies. There was repeated lamentation over the shrinking resources available to graduate students and increasingly draconian time-to-degree requirements. Many worried about the demise of traditional in-depth exegetical studies, as fewer students could marshall the resources to pursue the requisite language skills for years on end.
As part of the panel on graduate programs, your Green Tara representative helpfully pointed out that our generation of scholars was created by the conditions of Peak Oil and accompanying globalization and that we were therefore unsustainable. I proposed that several ephemeral factors favored Buddhist studies in the seventies-through-nineties era. During these decades the differential between Euro-American and Asian economies gradually decreased, but for quite some time it was possible for students to spend extended periods of time in Asia supporting themselves on a few English teaching jobs. Moreover, in the U.S. there was a brief kindling of the spirit of generosity and then its fading afterglow -- during the Cold War it was necessary to spend on social programs and education in order to prove that capitalism was better at providing social services. Finally, the coincidence of “Peak Oil” (google it!) and the boom years of the IT revolution infused even peripheral fields like Buddhist Studies with a bubbly sense of expansion. Perhaps, I surmised, long-term study and transmission of the exegetical traditions may once again become the prerogative of Asian elites and monastics.
However, I hoped that there might still be roles for those of us who must make a living as academics. Besides the flourishing field of Buddhist cultural studies (!), opening the field a bit further would create scope for new areas. I endorsed four areas outlined by Anne Klein (I hope I’m remembering them correctly!) -- 1) contemporary Buddhist communities, 2) contemplative studies, 3) socially engaged Buddhism, and 4) interfaith or interface dialogue with other traditions or disciplines (such as psychology). To this I added a special plea for development in the area of Buddhist studies and ecology or environmental studies. I acknowledged the difficulty of engaging in such areas responsibly and the problems involved in inviting dialogue yet resisting naïve misrepresentation of Buddhist traditions, but I argued that if we did not try to do it responsibly others would do it irresponsibly.
Okay, so I am not nearly so articulate in person and that might explain why the vernacular version of these points went over like a lead balloon. However, conversations during the coffee breaks did bring forth a lone but enthusiastic undergraduate who said she’d been longing to combine Buddhist studies and environmental studies but couldn’t find a way to do it, a colleague (David Germano) who is helping organize a huge project to map cultural and environmental resources in Tibet, and several colleagues who said that they felt some combination of women’s studies and Buddhist studies should be added to the agenda. (After José Cabezón’s initial remarks concerning the increasing importance of the study of women and Buddhism, there was almost no mention of this topic.) Also during one of the breaks, a colleague suggested that rather than viewing the combination of critical scholarly approaches, Buddhist practice and devotion, and socially engaged activity as antithetical or schizophrenic (during the workshop discussion, too-near association with practitioners had been characterized as “stained” and “soft” as opposed to pure hard scholarship), we might do well to take emerging Buddhist notions of the multidimensional personality as a model.
At the end of the day, what could a Green Tara devotee do but savor the splendid Indian feast provided by our hosts and enjoy the company of witty colleagues flown in on fuel-guzzling jets from all over the North American continent? Were my intentionally provocative and largely ignored comments on the conditions of our field too pessimistic -- too blue, too glibly “green”? Some would argue that it is extremely optimistic, or clueless, to imagine that the academic study of Buddhism, or anything else, will survive in a university system resembling the one in which we function. On the other hand, Buddhism’s oft-cited adaptability is a testament to both the opportunism and the idealism of our species. Trying for a middle way, I would simply argue that in times of crisis, conventional truth is challenged to become less conventional.
Wendi Adamek is chair of the Buddhist Studies Seminar and this blog's Green Tara Reporter-at-large. Wendi joined the Barnard Religion Department as Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions in the fall of 2001. She completed her doctorate at Stanford University in 1998, and specializes in medieval Chinese Buddhism. She is the author of The Mystique of Transmission: On an Early Chan Text and its Contexts (Columbia University Press, 2007).
Image credit: Francesca Galeazzi