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Prof. T. H. Barrett and the State of Contemporary Buddhist Studies

Prof. T. H. Barrett. From
Prof. T. H. Barrett. From

Professor Emeritus T. H. Barrett is a veteran scholar of East Asian studies and Chinese religious history, and a specialist in the history of the British understanding of China. He earned his BA at the University of Cambridge and PhD at Yale University, and spent much of his academic career as a professor of East Asian history at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He is an academic staff member of the SOAS China Institute and the SOAS Japan Research Centre, as well as a member of the college’s Centre of Buddhist Studies. Prof. Barrett was a member of the advisory board for the British Library’s exhibition on Buddhism and chaired the concluding discussion that assessed the two-day conference “Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage” related to the exhibition.

Buddhistdoor Global: What has been your overall impression of the conference?

T. H. Barrett: I was very impressed by this conference. If you go to something like the UKABS [United Kingdom Association of Buddhist Studies] conference, the level varies considerably because there are senior scholars and junior scholars, so some of the research is very high level while others are preliminary PhD research, whereas this was all at the highest level; all the speakers were experienced scholars. On the other hand, it was also extremely broad. Usually workshops or themed conferences have a strong focus. This obviously related to the exhibition and textual sources of Buddhism, but at the same time it was not confined to one area. There were very interesting resonances between entirely different parts of Asia, but it was not as huge as those big international conferences were you just get a bit lost. I thought it was a first-rate conference.

BDG: You chaired the final roundtable discussion that reviewed the two-day conference. What were the main takeaways from the discussion?

THB: I was interested, as you may recall, in two themes that came out of the conference. One was, surprisingly, not about books at all. It was about the fact that Buddhism is not inherently about books—like Islam—because originally it was an oral literature. The Buddhist word was cast into oral literary form, so it was invisible. Only the sangha gave one access to the Buddhist word because monks had memorized it.

I was also interested in the way in which the corporeality aspect of Buddhism came out. Buddhism was perhaps more physical than intellectual in some ways. Kate Crosby’s lecture was very clear on this: there are processes of meditation that have a clear physiological dimension, which generally have been lost or ignored. Lucia Dolce also showed that there was a very physiological approach to medieval Japanese Buddhism, a discourse about creating embryos and things like that. I found that fascinating but the reasons why this aspect of Buddhism has been lost puzzle me.

Kate said that she felt this was due to the intervention of imperialism, a move to emphasize the psychological aspect of Buddhism as a response to Christianity’s invasion of Asia, but we see the same thing happening elsewhere. In China, for example, the kind of meditation that Kate Crosby was talking about again doesn’t seem very prominent in recent history, nor is it prominent in Japan. It is only in the medieval period that Lucia has been able to find documents that refer to this dimension of Buddhism; it does not seem to be part of contemporary practice. I suspect that the reason is not imperialism as such but modernity. When Buddhism becomes involved with modern societies, Buddhists have more trouble. It has to do with the introduction of concepts of the management of time, which came with industrialization and so forth. Time is different in a modern society and people find less time for things such as very extensive physiological approaches to meditation. Bill Porter—who is a good translator of Chinese and also an academic—wrote a book called Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. He spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries in Taiwan. He traveled around China talking to hermits. He said that Daoist hermits are hard to find; they stay hidden because they do not want to be interrupted, as the nature of Daoist meditation is quite demanding. Buddhists, on the other hand, are always happy to talk and have always been ready to engage with society, but I think one of the consequences of that is perhaps that they have lost control of their time, to some extent. That is what I have been thinking about, that aspect of it.

BDG: The formation and preservation of collections, mainly textual, were at the heart of this conference. Many scholars discussed how the concept of canonicity has changed over time and in different cultures and regions. Can you tell us more about that?

THB: As I emphasized in my remarks, the other “body” that we were talking about, metaphorically, was the textual corpora—bodies of literature. The Buddhist Canon is an extraordinary body of literature that has been preserved as a totality, quite a large totality, throughout history. The sangha also preserved huge amounts of other material, and yet their ways of organizing it vary radically. I think Andrew Skilton was a bit sorry that, after his lecture (“Not-being-the-Canon, Customary Parlance and Word-power: Endangered Texts in Thai Buddhism”) everybody remembered the box by the door where they put the texts that cannot be classified. I think he would have wanted people to remember also the large number of texts that had been handled efficiently by the Thai members of the sangha and others whom he had been investigating for their way of dealing with texts.

As I tried to say in my summary, the practices seem to have varied. In addition to the Thai example, Lucia Dolce mentioned that some of the texts she is interested in were put in separate boxes and labelled “heterodox.” Whereas Prof. Zacchetti was talking about commentarial literature, which was eventually introduced into the printed Canon, but not immediately, and I did suggest that this happened after China had been part of the Mongol Empire. Thus there might have been a Tibetan influence there. In fact, Tibet has two Canons: the Buddhist word (Kangyur; Bka’ ’gyur) and the commentary (TengyurBstan ’gyur). So the addition of the commentaries in the Chinese Canon may be connected to it—there are a lot of things to be explored there.

I also found the following discussion interesting. [Keynote speaker] Birgit Kellner’s paper about the individual collections of teachers and how you can trace those in Tibet and so forth, could also be applied to the individual collections that were taken by monks from China to Japan. We have some records about these and they make a very interesting contrast with the actual catalogues of the Canon. What lessons do we learn about looking after Buddhist books today? Obviously there is no one unified kind of Buddhist librarianship that has built up over the past. Still, as I indicated, these catalogues are well worth studying. On the other hand, we also have to think carefully about how we deal with Buddhist books today: how do we organize them, catalogue them, and make them available? This could be a topic for another conference. As I indicated, from the Dunhuang manuscripts we can actually reconstruct quite a lot of information about how Buddhist monasteries in 10th century China organized the totality of the literature that they had available, although it is fragmentary. The Chinese scholar Fang Guangchang has done a lot work to bring together all the materials. Yet we really need somebody to work through those materials carefully and think about what they may indicate about how not only librarianship but literacy was organized in that particular Buddhist context.

BDG: Last year, Buddhistdoor Global interviewed you about the academic landscape in Chinese studies.* How can institutions such as the British Library work with university institutions to give more opportunities to students of Buddhist studies—itself in already a precarious situation?

THB: This is a very important topic. In some ways I hesitate to recommend anything to the British Library. What we want librarians to do is to get as many books as possible, to catalogue and make them available to scholars. Everything else—like communicating to the public—is necessary and good. But if they don’t do their basic task—grabbing as many books as possible and making them available—then what’s the point really? And the task is formidable. I do not know if you are aware of current publication statistics? China produces 20 per cent of the world’s books and the rest of Asia and Africa produces at least another 20 per cent, so at least 40 per cent of the publications these days are not Eurocentric. And yet I cannot think of any library that devotes 40 per cent of its budget to non-European language books. Even SOAS [SOAS University of London (the School of Oriental and African Studies)] does not spend 20 per cent of its budget on China. This is something that academic institutions will have to come to terms with. Many do not even bother with China anyhow, but the ones that do really need to be aware of how the resources for basic library work are not coping with the problem at all. Some are handling it better than others, but a lot of them do not seem to realize what the problem is. So the British Library has an important job to do, which in itself is very demanding on its resources.

However, there are areas where it can do things that no university can. It used to be that 40 years ago our universities were given money by the government to do what the government thought was necessary. This was far too difficult for the government to cope with, because it involved committees and so forth, so they just decided: “well let the university teach whatever people would pay for.” Yet, there are a lot of things that are extremely important that people won’t pay for or won’t pay for in sufficient quantities. If the only way to get a class in Tibetan is to get 20 people, nobody is going to learn Tibetan, and 20 people is generally the minimum for a university class these days. You were lucky if you were in a class smaller than that, because they are changing now. Universities have so little money that unless you have 20 people every year who want to do Tibetan or Chinese Buddhism, it is not going to happen. No one is going to learn it.

Yet there are languages that are extremely obscure, which only one or two people in a generation will want to learn, but they are of vital economic importance. It is not just that these languages have interesting materials in them—obviously you can find Sogdian texts that are very interesting because they are translations of Chinese texts that have been lost in their original language, that is intellectually interesting—but they also are of financial importance. My contemporary Nicholas Sims Williams, who knows many Iranian languages, was once asked to comment on an artifact that had an inscription on it. It turned out to be a forgery. Now had there not been someone who managed to learn these very obscure languages in my generation, a museum could have wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds buying an artifact that was not genuine.

So the money that was spent on his education, even if it was an expensive education—it required very distinguished scholars to teach him, and the scholars’ salaries were not low and the scholars only taught to a few people—even so, it was economically better than that money being wasted on buying forgeries. As you know the identification through inscriptions of historical artworks is extraordinarily important and yet the linguistic skills that are required to do that are not the kind of thing that you can learn in a university anymore. So if the British Library can keep the scholar who can read Khotanese, for example, that seems to me a rational thing to do. And yet they have to be aware that they are doing it, and not to assume that somewhere else in the university system is full of classes of people learning Khotanese. That’s not going to happen. There needs to be some rationality rather than just relying on chance. I am not sure that the people perceive the problem.

The assumption was always that somewhere in the academic system there is going to be some old professor who knows all the languages and teaches them to somebody when necessary. That does not happen anymore, it just doesn’t. And in a lot of cases—I am just talking about Britain—you need to search for expertise somewhere else. If you want to learn an African language, you will do much better learning it in France, in Paris, or in Beijing. Britain does not and so is failing completely to provide an education of this sort. What the British government thinks it is doing is very unclear. Turning the academic system into a market system—“you get what you pay for”—is a bit strange because the market never works if you don’t know what you are buying, and if you are selling knowledge how can the market system work? It cannot.

But when this move came about, Margaret Thatcher almost destroyed SOAS because SOAS was never designed as a market system. It was a university designed for the old scholar who can consult about rare languages with government support. So the move to that system—that is why the British Museum and the British Library have become so important—almost crushed SOAS overnight. Then the Foreign Office asked for a government inquiry because it was concerned that some of its people should be able to speak the less known languages, which in those days would include things that turned out to be quite important—like Korean, for example. There was a government inquiry and there was a degree of support, but the government since that time has always been very reluctant to make special provisions for anything, because of its being hypnotized by the market approach to education. So although the situation in the 1980s was restored to some extent, it was really not done very well and heaven knows what is going to happen in future.

Of course, Buddhist studies is deeply affected by this because the languages of Buddhism, firstly, don’t have a clear commercial purpose; and secondly, they are mainly textual languages. They are not languages that are spoken and it is difficult to teach them. When you realize that you need somebody here who can teach them, it is already too late. Gandhari is a South Asian language that has only become clearer in the course of the 20th century and it is very difficult to learn, which means that someone must have worked on it for years before being able to tackle it. You cannot easily find an expert when you need one. Especially if—this is something that has been touched upon in the conference and which I tried to allude to in my remarks—you have a library with a lot material the origins of which relate to the imperial era and therefore are open to challenge in terms of possession.

Even when they were acquired in legitimate way, they still were acquired at a time when there was an imbalance of power between buyer and seller. If you do not show your willingness to work with these materials, make them available internationally as far as possible, you are failing in your duty to the wider world. Obviously, over recent decades the Dunhuang materials have been explored and have been made available more widely, but there is still a lot of work that could be done. Still a lot of work could be done to make sure that the personnel are trained in how to deal with these areas, because it is a question of responsibility within the global community. 

Belt and Road, Buddhist Salvation, and Out-of-touch Vice-Chancellors: Prof. T. H. Barrett on Engaging with China (Buddhistdoor Global)

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