Let Buddhist Studies Die

The processes that will drive climate change over the course of the next thirty years have already begun. For “Buddhist Studies” (as distinct from the study of Buddha-dharma) to have a long-term future would require not just that the coming centuries prove survivable for human beings, but also that they prove survivable for the humanities and so for the byzantine, fragile academic institutions in which humanists are trained. But if things go badly, the ways we organize our time and resources will be very different thirty years from now. And if things go well, the ways we organize our time and resources will likewise be very different thirty years from now. This is my way of saying I don’t see a long-term future for Buddhist Studies as such. I think that should liberate us to spend the next thirty years committed to the living, and to preserving possibilities for human and non-human life on this planet.

This manifesto takes some inspiration from Whitney Bauman and Kocku von Stuckrad’s “Ten Theses on Academia, Society, and the Planetary Future.” Like many other scholars concerned with speaking across scientific and humanistic disciplines, Bauman and von Stuckrad favor non-dualism over dualism: “binary patterns of perception [are] important, but [they] can only be the first step. We need to recognize global entanglements and interdependence.” Guess who should be a big help here? It’s us.

But scholars of Buddhism can’t be effective in conversations with the powerful disciplines—physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences—if we enter these conversations always only as local experts or captive guests. To be real conversation partners, we need to learn their languages and their methods, by developing projects that specifically require extra-disciplinary expertise. And in the spirit of the manifesto as a genre: Anatomy labs for every PhD student; policy analysis certificates for every tenured faculty member; BScS in geoscience for every endowed chair.

As we work on getting to the table, let’s also consider what to bring. Bauman and von Stuckrad call for engagement with marginalized knowledge systems. Because of the dominance of certain Western ways of knowing the world, we might take it for granted that if it’s Buddhist, it’s a valuable alternative. But the mindfulness exercises offered up to university staff in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic as a free gift from the institution—the exercises that tell them they’ll cope better with the strain caused by looming austerity measures if they focus not on the things they can’t control but on their own thoughts and emotions—are not contrapuntal just because they’re Buddhist. Elite Buddhist thinkers counseling political quietism are not contrapuntal just because they’re Buddhist. We should be looking for and at alternatives within the tradition—at interpretations of foundational texts by marginalized and non-elite practitioners, at non-elite practices, at non-textual forms.

Drawing out these resources from within Buddhist traditions is also a way of caring for those younger than ourselves who join us in the field of Buddhist studies, and who are likely to experience profound social transformation, and profound loss, in their lifetimes.

What should we teach them? We should teach them how to distinguish between individualizing practices and those that, as Rima Vesely-Flad describes them, honor community, and so enable collective forms of action. We should teach them about rituals for grieving—this seems more obvious now than it did when this session was proposed back at the start of 2020.

We should teach them the difference between impermanence and apocalypse, so that they can better think critically about demobilizing claims that the anthropocene ending marks the end of the whole world, better recognize other worlds that have ended and are ending, better imagine other possibilities.

But we should also teach them about—or learn how do ourselves and then teach them about—medicine and healing, small-scale and collective food production, alternative economies and strategies of mutual aid. Practical knowledge in all of these domains is available within Buddhist the tradition, so there’s no threat here to the identity of the field; on the contrary, it opens a pathway to learn about Buddhism in a host of new ways. So again, in the spirit of the genre: Candidacy exams should now include a demonstration that the hopeful candidate can keep themselves alive for a semester without relying on a globally distributed supply chain. No tenure until you can do it for a year. No promotion to full until you can do it for yourself and all your advisees.

Let the field of Buddhist Studies die knowing its members have committed themselves—politically and pragmatically—to a more general work of staying alive.

Submitted by Melissa Anne-Marie Curley

Department of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University