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Buddhistdoor View: The Search for an Identity in Buddhist Studies

Buddhist Studies in the academy is going through a gradual and understated trend. Yet, this trend is one of the most important stages in its intellectual evolution. Since the 1990s, Buddhist Studies has been welcoming more insiders who marshal systematic and rational arguments to benefit people that share their faith. For lack of a better word, over the past decade these men and women have been termed “scholar-practitioners.”

Based mostly in American colleges, they are broadening the horizon of Buddhist Studies and posing urgent questions: “Who is Buddhist Studies for?” “What is its ultimate purpose?” “How can it serve as many needs as possible?” The answers could shape not only the trajectory of academic Buddhism, but also how the wider Buddhist community understands itself for the next hundred years.

Buddhist Studies is a creation of modernity. In the late 19th century, the seats of influence and prestige were held at centers of learning that examined Buddhism as a historical object rather than a living, breathing religious force. The Franco-Belgian, Anglo-German, Japanese, and Saint Petersburg schools of Buddhist Studies carved out their scholarly specialties like colonial territories. They focused on textual studies, philology, languages, translation, and archeology (and in the case of the Russian school, anthropology). While sometimes lumped under the cumbersome heading “Buddhology,” these foci were more characteristic of biblical criticism or the philosophy of religion.

Theology—or its Buddhist counterpart—implies some level of commitment to the claims of the religion being studied. Louis de La Vallée-Poussin and Étienne Lamotte were Catholic pioneers who contributed immensely to Buddhist Studies but were by no means Buddhist. Buddhist Studies was therefore closer to the secular Studies in Religion curriculum than the more diverse courses we see today.

Thanks to the rise of the scholar-practitioner, the question of scholar versus practitioner is outdated. Their ascendancy was due to socio-historical factors like the lack of Buddhist monastics in the West. By the 1960s, when the Buddhist diaspora was in full swing in America, Western lay Buddhists—a far cry from the non-Buddhist Buddhologists—quickly realized the need to deploy the resources of the European university culture to fill the pedagogical vacuum of absent clergy.  

An informal equivalent to church theologians, scholar-practitioners have demonstrated that it is possible to enter the academy with an explicit intention to do what Christian, Islamic, or other theologians have done for centuries in the university environment. This includes trying to better understand their own tradition, to make comparisons with other faiths, to defend or justify particular religious beliefs, and to facilitate reform or propagation. In other words, scholar-practitioners aim to draw out modern meaning and ministry from an ancient inheritance.

The old way of doing Buddhist Studies did not draw on the resources of the tradition it scrutinized to address a situation or the need of actual Buddhists. This has always been the task of theology in the Judeo-Christian West—to advise and inspire its religious communities with exegesis and interpretation. With the presence of scholar-practitioners, Buddhist Studies was able to leave its ivory tower and be a relevant tool for the Buddhist community, just as theology has served the Abrahamic faiths—a purpose that did not concern earlier Buddhologists like T. W. Rhys Davids or Fyodor Shcherbatskoy.

This is not to say that non-Buddhist academics did not make significant contributions: figures such as Hermann Oldenberg and Sylvain Lévi have made an irreplaceable difference to the quality and content of Buddhist Studies. However, their core interests were different to scholar-practitioners. Straddling critical rigor and sincere faith, the present generation of openly Buddhist academics includes, among many, Rita Gross, John Makransky, Sallie King, Taitetsu Unno, Charles Prebish, and José Cabezón. Many of their publications and classes address how Buddhism should engage with the big questions of modernity, from feminism to prison visitation or genetic engineering. They are talking to Buddhists rather than about them.

The Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford. From Ho Center for Buddhist Studies Facebook
Mr. T.W. Rhys Davids and. Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids in 1894. From Pali Text Society

It might be melodramatic to assert that Buddhist Studies is having an identity crisis. Yet its already cross-disciplinary nature is diffusing even further, encompassing such diverse subjects as Derridean deconstructionism in Continental philosophy and X-radiography for preserving Tibetan art. Add to this the mingling of scholar-practitioners and traditional Buddhologists in what remains a secular setting, along with professors who are not scholar-practitioners but have benefited Buddhist thinkers hugely. Buddhist bioethics thinker Damien Keown wouldn’t count himself a Buddhist, but was the first person to hold the chair of “Professor of Buddhist Ethics” at Goldsmith’s: the first academic title of its kind.

Surely this confused, muddled medley of varying intentions, interests, and people raises questions of precisely who Buddhist Studies is talking to in the 21st century. What is its final goal, and should it try to communicate itself to more (or fewer)? Should monks from Asian countries aim to be more critical of their tradition while lay academics open themselves to being more sympathetic to the needs of modern Buddhists? Private philanthropists and foundations funding these Buddhist Studies programs also face the knock-on effects of these questions. Crudely put, what do they want from their money? The possibilities are as exciting as they are difficult to accomplish. A scholar-practitioner wants the best of both worlds: an institute that advances the critical scrutiny of Buddhism while allowing space for practitioners to debate, research, and teach on the needs of Buddhism and Buddhists.

​The faculties and departments of religious studies at eminent institutions like Harvard, Stanford, UBC, and elsewhere have demonstrated that this balancing act is not impossible. Nevertheless, when was the last time a Buddhist academic dared claim to be the next Nagarjuna or Dharmakirti—a thinker based in the academy who could benefit the next generation of devotees? Perhaps it is time to make more room for those who have that ambition.  

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