The how, where, and who of knowledge production in Buddhist studies

Natalie Gummer

1. Rethink how we make knowledge by thinking dialogically with Buddhists

When we create knowledge about Buddhism, rather than assuming and imposing the supposedly universal validity of so-called etic categories and methods, we should actively rethink—not discard, rethink—our theories and methods of knowledge production in dialogue with Buddhist communities, practices, and ideas, past and present. Why? Because we need to think through and beyond the unsustainable and unjust world made by Euro-American secular universalism. The study of religion has played an important role in shoring up Euro-American universalism by sequestering other ways of living and thinking in a (Euro-American) category that, in the secular world, is generally equated with false consciousness and “premodern” (even when contemporary) lifeways. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that including and marginalizing the study of religion makes (or underwrites) the universality and neutrality of the (white) secular academy—and underwrites the irrelevance of religious studies to contemporary life in the process. Yet for precisely this reason, the study of religion is a particularly potent location in which to rethink theories and methods of knowledge production

I’m tired of tsk-tsking neocolonialism, environmental crises, staggering inequity, and white supremacy, while continuing to produce knowledge in ways that, directly or indirectly, reinforce the power structures that perpetuate these outrages. We need to be much more radical and intentional in advancing the work of rethinking Euro-American secular universalism as the basis for knowledge production.

Fortunately, we are already engaged in the investigation of the very different ways in which people have produced knowledge (by which I mean to include not only intellectual, but also material, creative, and communal processes). The many different Buddhist communities, practices, and visions for human life that we study offer valuable resources for dialogically transforming how we make knowledge and what kinds of knowledge we make—without romanticizing Buddhist forms of knowledge production. Many of us are already engaged in this work, but it tends to be marginalized in ways that endow the “mainstream” with greater validity. And it is insufficient to relegate this work to the sidelines.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a “theological” project; nor am I advocating for an easy cultural relativism or the destruction of all norms. I’m not even discounting the aspiration toward producing universal knowledge. I’m simply objecting to the defunct but still regnant assumption that we’re already there. Aspiring to get there—an aspiration without an end point—demands that we question the naturalness and transparency of our own categories and rethink our paradigms and assumptions for producing knowledge interactively.

2. Recognize and value the local, positional, and embodied nature of knowledge production.

Can we please stop assuming that R-1s constitute the “real” location of Buddhist studies? (I do mean we, as in all of us: we tend to internalize these kinds of hierarchies rather deeply.) Where we get jobs (and if we get jobs) depends on many factors beyond our control, but those places shape us. They help us to develop certain capacities and forms of knowledge; they limit other capacities and forms of knowledge. Our scholarly contributions are not independent of the places at which we have been shaped, and we ought to appreciate the resulting differences in our perspectives and contributions more deeply.

Those of us who work at smaller institutions that center teaching may have less time to devote to our scholarship, but we might also develop distinctive kinds of critical distance on the field. Our classroom experiences enrich our work with the urgent and perceptive questions of our students, which keep us grounded in the exploration of why what we study should matter in their lives. Our daily interactions with scholars in areas of study very different from our own help us to develop an interdisciplinary flexibility of mind, as well as a heightened awareness of how the study of religion and the study of Buddhism are situated in the academy as a whole.

My own local circumstances, working with black-presenting women in a two-person religious studies program at a fervently secular college, have revealed to me how secularity and whiteness are intertwined in the academy, and how they permeate judgements about what kinds of knowledge and what kinds of embodied knowers are granted legitimacy. But the same local context has also granted me the freedom to pursue the intersection of these realizations with the knowledge I produce about Buddhism, both with my students and in my scholarship. And that’s no small gift.

Let me end by acknowledging that I am constantly discovering in myself the assumptions and hierarchies that construct our field. When I proposed and organized this panel about the future of Buddhist studies, I unthinkingly defaulted to representation in terms of regional focus and prominence in the field. So we ended up with a panel of people (wonderful, brilliant people, all of whose thoughts I value greatly—don’t get me wrong; this is not about individuals) who are mostly white and mostly at elite institutions. Given my location and experience, I should have known better. Of course regional focus matters, but it can also obscure the significance of other differences among us.

Here we are, this particular group of people, delivering manifestos for the future of the field, and so I have to ask: who gets to decide, and why?