A Recipe for Buddhist Studies

For the past several years I have been running an emergent Buddhist Studies program as a graduate area within the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. I should explain that there is ample Buddhist studies history at Northwestern, such as NU being the first American university to hire a Buddhist monk as regular faculty (Walpola Rahula back in the 1960s). But due to retirements and faculty moves, I have ended up building something new here on top of this history. More recently, since 2018, this work has been in collaboration with Kevin Buckelew. Today I will share what I see as a recipe, a praxis, and a vision for what I think is important to foster in Buddhist Studies:

Buddhist Studies should happen:

  • Where heart meets mind (1 word in many Buddhist languages), with compassion and hard work conjoined
    • our students are spiritual seekers, activists, refugees, job seekers, trauma survivors, and so much more and our Buddhist studies classrooms should be able to meet their whole selves
  • where devotion to philology, ethnography, doctrine, critical theory, literature, and contemplative practice can co-exist
    • it is not that everyone does all these, but that they have an equal status
    •  critical theory may be coming from Buddhist scriptures; and engagement in Buddhist contemplative practices does not imply bias
  • where we seek to understand Buddhist texts through and with the people and communities who inherit(ed) them, whether those people are alive or dead, and whether they come from North America, Europe, Asia, or beyond
    • texts don’t just mean something, they mean something to and for particular people in time
  • where we actively work to reduce harm
    • in how we generate, perpetuate, and police the production of knowledge
    • in how we attend to privilege and marginalization based on race, class, sexuality, embodiment, citizenship, and language
    • in how we treat each other within the often vicious, hyper-individualist, and self-promotional academic ecosystem
      • misery is not a glorified marker of rigor, but a form of suffering, and we should foster academic environments free from all forms of hazing
  • and we actively work to promote
    • the vitality of speaking and learning in non-hegemonic languages threatened by state suppression such as Tibetan
    • anti-colonial and anti-racist orientations to the field
    • researchers and research topics that center less-dominant voices, which tend to be female, and/or queer, and/or trans, and/or non-white, and/or focusing on Buddhism found outside of male monastic textual traditions
    • connections between people, texts, and ideas, with a mentality of abundance and not scarcity, collaboration not competition
    • engaged Buddhist critiques of greed, consumerism, environmental destruction, short-term thinking, misogyny, and more
      • we don’t need to hide behind fantasies of academic neutrality; it’s okay to care deeply about Buddhist insights!
    • space for change in the forms of new generations, new voices, and new ideas, not fear of it
  • And all of this Buddhist studies should happen not in its own silo, but in conversation with broader domains of the humanities and sciences

This is a work in progress, and a deeply collaborative one, about which I know I have much more to learn.

In closing, I would like to express how grateful I am to my students who have  taught me so much, and continue to do so!

                                           –Sarah Jacoby, November 2021