On Academic Learning and Teaching Buddhism

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here! 

One of the downsides of entering the regular work of scheduling, editing, and news-writing over at Buddhistdoor Global has been a decline in free time to simply observe the world and muse in a way worthy of blogging. . . 

Oh, and I had a kid. And the pandemic happened. And I moved from Hong Kong to Montana where my wife started an exciting new non-profit job working with our area’s refugee and immigrant communities. 

So I’ve had a few things on my plate.

In any case, I have still been observing the world as much as before, but haven’t had cause or time to write. Until now. 

There has been a fair amount of wrestling and hand-wringing about the state of Buddhist Studies as an academic discipline in my corner of the world. Some of it comes from the usual cycles of academic generations questioning and eventually replacing their mentors. Some of it comes from different methodologies and approaches to the study and occasional debates about which is the best way to teach/study the religion. 

I certainly don’t have any grand answer to how exactly academics should learn and study Buddhism. When I taught “study abroad” students in India, we had three classes: Buddhist Philosophy, Buddhist History, and Buddhist Anthropology. 

These three classes approached Buddhism from the very abstract and heady perspective, from the material perspective, and from the human perspective. Each of these, in my humble opinion, are valid approaches, and they are best used in some combination and consultation. In fact, students were required to take anthropology and then had to choose between philosophy and history as a second core class. 

I’m not sure if I’ll ever end up in a classroom regularly again, but I would love to give guest lectures or occasional talks/short classes again once the time-crunches of parenting a toddler in the middle of a pandemic with a working partner subside a little. That said, I am writing here now partly just to preserve some aspects of the conversation I found inspiring and helpful.

  1. Stephanie Balkwill, a feminist scholar of medieval Chinese Buddhism, wrote on twitter that, “In my work, translation is a method of decolonization, of challenging orientalist frames, and of exposing the male gaze.” 

    I love that. As a mostly-philosopher approaching Buddhism (with some history and anthropology training), I’ve long loved Buddhism precisely for its challenges to Eurocentrism in philosophy. As for Orientalism, Edward Said’s major works and Diana Eck’s book Banaras: City of Light (Knopf Publishing 1982) offer brilliant case studies in the persistence of “othering” the people and traditions outside of euro-American dominance. That “othering” tends to either idealize or demonize; either of which prevents any real seeing or conversing with traditions outside one’s inner circle.
  2. In another tweet, the University of Toronto Department of Religion offers the quote, “To get to the heart of Buddhism you need to know the language.” DSR Pali language course gives insight into Buddhist teachings. I’ll simply offer a wholehearted “yes” to this.
  3. Finally, a couple lectures from Aaron Proffitt, who focuses on Japanese Buddhism. If/when I get back into a classroom environment to introduce Buddhism, I plan to re-watch these as a primer. I think it’s essential to both deconstruct the history of the study of Buddhism and oneself as a scholar/teacher:

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