Many thanks to Natalie Gummer for her initiative and perseverance in putting together this roundtable. It’s an honor to participate.
In recent decades, the field of Buddhist Studies has burgeoned, expanding from its initial focus on textual and philological studies to embrace social and institutional history, ritual and material-cultural studies, and new perspectives including politics, economics, gender, class, and race. Such methodological plurality is healthy and urgently needed; at the same time, however, I put forward a plea for preserving—albeit with modifications—the study of doctrine and texts that has defined classic Buddhology. I see this area as foundational to our field but also easily lost. While the warning signs may not be everywhere equally apparent, at a time when the Humanities is itself on the defensive, transmitting the specialized knowledge of languages, texts, and the bibliographic apparatus necessary for advanced study of Buddhist thought is going to become much harder.
So what? one might ask. There exists a perception of doctrine as an elite, normative domain, divorced from if not actively obscuring what “real Buddhists” actually do. But this is often a one-sided misapprehension: Doctrine also responds to, grounds, and supports grassroots Buddhist practice. Without the ongoing presence of at least a few colleagues specializing in sūtras and commentary, logic and epistemology, Madhyamaka, Yogacāra, Tiantai, Chan, Pure Land and other Buddhist textual traditions, Buddhist Studies will not remain intellectually viable or be able to engage effectively with other branches of philosophy, ethics, or religious thought. Within Religious Studies, which continues to be dominated by Western, and largely Protestant categories, Buddhist perspectives can be instrumental in exposing and critiquing unrecognized assumptions. We also need doctrinal studies to retain a grasp of Buddhism’s intellectual history. Terms inevitably shift meaning over time; today, for example, in the application of Buddhist insights to psychotherapy and to specific forms of group trauma, we increasingly see duḥkha defined as “stress.” But even while rendering Buddhist teachings relevant to contemporary situations, we need classic textual and doctrinal studies to track how present understandings have drifted from earlier meanings, why that has happened (or is happening), and what is gained, transformed, or even lost thereby. And doctrinal studies have abiding social relevance. The denial of fixed essences, the recognition of existing only within a shifting web of interrelationships, can help dissolve the reified identities we ascribe to others and ourselves and loosen the strangleholds of anger and ideology. I do not naively suggest that Buddhist thought will save the world, but it is no inconsiderable resource.
Still, if doctrine and its study are not inherently elitist, traditional pedagogical methods cannot wholly escape this charge. Sitting with students around a seminar table and engaging with premodern texts ranks high among life’s rewarding experiences but is nonetheless a privileged one. As resources within the academy shrink even as demands grow for righting its structural inequalities, advanced textual and doctrinal study should not remain confined solely to a handful of graduate programs with the requisite faculty and library support. Other, and more varied, venues are needed for those with expertise to share it. Pandemic conditions have shown that, while perhaps not ideal, virtual venues can be inclusive in ways that physical classrooms cannot. We can perhaps develop new kinds of seminars, workshops, and courses, and ways to award academic credit, that are not bound by institutional affiliations. We must press for more digitization initiatives and freer access to source materials. We must also examine why the demographics of Buddhist doctrinal and textual studies in particular has traditionally been so narrow and work to ensure greater openness.
But besides democratizing learning opportunities, more is required of those of us working on Buddhist doctrine. It is not enough to master the rarified technical language of Buddhist thinkers and exegetes of the past; we need also to convey their arguments in accessible terms and make clear what was, or still is, at stake. It is now well recognized that some Buddhist teachings have, historically, been coopted in the service of discriminatory and oppressive aims. Doctrine is politically underdetermined, and how it is appropriated for social practice and ideological agendas is often shaped by factors external to itself. We need to promote awareness of this process, of how ideas come to be embedded in institutional, political, and social contexts, in order to better guide both our historical inquiries and our forward-looking, constructivist efforts.
(AAR, November 21, 2021; San Antonio by Zoom)