The service of Buddhist Studies to the Buddhist ??sana
Many of us owe a debt to two distinct traditions. The first is the Buddhist tradition proper, which continues to preserve and proclaim the compassionate heritage and dispensation of the Buddha. This tradition has echoed in the heart of this world for two thousand, five hundred years. The second is the collage of academia called Buddhist Studies, which has allowed us greater access to the former and promoted its study at important institutions of education. It has become an indispensable tool for those who want to swim deeper in the ocean of the human intellect. Buddhist Studies has also allowed many of us, who may not be committed to Buddhism, to partake in its scholarly, academic and critical study. It is a rare chance for an intimate encounter with what survives, what was left behind, and what we have lost forever. This is an acknowledgement that should be made honestly and proudly, for Buddhism (and therefore its study) is open to not only anyone, but every being.
As an enthusiastic admirer of the Buddhist Studies disciplines, I remain very careful to stay mindful of the sometimes-uppity atmosphere they find themselves in. This atmosphere is the collegiate environment of academia. Its presence there, amongst a small group of scholars and perhaps an even smaller group of students who wish to follow in their footsteps, is a peculiar situation, but an important one. At least, it is a necessary presence in the same way other fields of inquiry like astronomy, biomedical science, astrophysics or engineering share a domain in the academy’s ivory towers. Why should – and how could – Buddhist Studies be any different? It is, after all, essentially the science of critically examining this great, vast multiplicity of philosophy, religion, and practices (almost unjustly) called Buddhism. The term “Buddhist Studies” also suffers from the same injustice. It masks a very diverse field of foci that its students can pick and choose from. Sometimes it does not even involve the immediate study of anything philosophical until much later, when one has situated her interest in a field such as history, textual studies, languages, philology, or something similar. Or perhaps she may prefer a certain form of Buddhism (such as Therav?da or Mah?y?na) – and one can split the Mah?y?na into Yog?c?ra or M?dhyamika thought, then even further until one is writing some dissertation about a single word or syllable and its history from the early scriptures to its use in a Mah?y?na master’s opus!
And higher academia wonders why it is such easy prey.
But it is not all games and shenanigans. As fun as it is to poke fun at those who have their heads in the clouds, it must be admitted that they are the ones who are helping us to go higher. An inspiring thing to take note of is that Buddhist Studies, in any of its forms, is conducive to the preservation and promulgation of the ??sana, the dispensation of the Buddha’s law. It is about the preservation of the tradition’s heritages, be it the digital cataloguing of endangered texts or fieldwork into the daily rituals of nomadic Tibetan horsemen, whose steeds still thunder across the plains of their ancient home today. Whichever approach, Buddhist Studies has the unique capability to serve and protect Buddhism, much like Vajrapani himself.
Most writing, including scholarship, is really quite simple and straightforward. All it means is to make something (ideally important) known. However, many writers – from academics to journalists to novelists and playwrights – experience professional, cultural, and even psychological or peer-influenced pressures to mask that candidness that makes writing so genuine. Buddhist Studies is honestly one of those rare disciplines in which such a reality is recognized, and sometimes challenged and refuted successfully. There are plenty of books of excellent academic quality – intellectually enriching and challenging – that are also tour de forces, books that would engage one for hours on end. They say nothing is more satisfying than collecting books for one’s shelves, and nothing feels more satisfying than collecting and recommending books that epitomize or advance the cause of Buddhist Studies. Never underestimate a professor’s capacity for eloquence and poetic insight!
I am privileged that I can admire and be inspired by Buddhist Studies whilst doing my usual writing with a sense of freedom: to care only about the Buddhist experience, particularly that of conversion and the path of moral growth.