Category Archives: Serendipity

Things found whilst apparently not looking for them.

My office smells

I walked in the door of my office this morning, having trod across the Old Aberdeen landscape. Rotting leaves, frozen ponds, barking dogs. Having heaved one sack each of papers to be marked and proposals to be considered out of the trusty pack, I plopped the laptop onto its stand, connected a few wires, and went to do my office pūjā while it whirred into its usual bewildered state. Pungent incense from a Viet grocery in Orlando waved at the Tārā and raven on the door, at the various manifestations of the Three Jewels over my desk. A postgrad across the hallway looked a bit startled.

Incense stuck firmly into a ricepot, I ambled down the hall with a kettle and a filthy glass pot. I scrubbed the coffee stains out of the pot, filled the kettle, retreated into my office and fired up the wee espresso machine kindly sold to me by another lecturer. Now my office really stinks: incense and coffee smells pour out from under my door and fill up the whole hallway.

Either my neighbours are really polite, or it smells like home to them too. Not sure which. I know somebody must think de-odorizers are a good idea, but who?

A cup of tea.

There are very few people out there that I specially want to meet. Talking to ordinary folk on the bus or the beach is enough. When I hear an interview with Professor X on the radio, or read a posting by Joe Bloggs, I am glad to know them that much, but only rarely think, I’d like to meet you.

I regret never having met John Cage. I have no idea what I would have said to him, but every report I have ever read suggests he was wonderfully easy to talk with, a man with no pretension or prejudice. His writings, films, and recordings are deeply inspiring and I regard him as an unintentionally significant figure in West Coast Buddhism—although Simon Wickham-Smith and I disagree over his ‘place’ in Zen.

Here are some available resources on the net:

Ubuweb’s Cage sections: film, sound, historical. Recently they have also put up a long film.

There is a mailing list for Cage studies, called Silence-L.

It’s also a good thing to celebrate a Cage Day in any year when it is possible. On this day, a group of people agree to use a toolkit for chance determinations that will guide their actions for that day – so, for example, one might use avispexy (assuming there were birds to be seen) to guide which direction one travelled, how far, and by what means; then again to decide what one did en route or on arrival (sing, dance, write, interview, sit quietly &c.).

Another bairnling

‘That one is actually a night-time jumper, because those flowers there are actually stars.’

Makes sense to me.

Pinball

From Ray, my son: ‘Was pinball the game where you launched a ball and then you had to edit everything really fast so that the ball reached its destination?’

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Acquainted things have happened

Well, I’ve hauled the bedraggled blog from Blogger to WordPress. Why, exactly, is not quite clear to me; one of those fretful decisions arrived at through an accumulation of tiny reasons. Maybe just time to shake out the cruft.

Reviewing old entries I was delighted to recall dinner with Bill Woodcock last year, when I was in Berkeley for the Society of Ethnobiology conference. Turns out Brent Berlin was a friend of his family when he was a young ‘un. I don’t think we knew any anthropologists at all – biologists, yes, but not social scientists.

This will not be true for Eleanor or Raymond or Tanglewest, who will grow up knowing ecologists and anthropologists, lamas and priests, all sorts of people. There at least I’m doing the job right.

Today was such a fine day that I would be remiss not to make note of it. The bulbs are surging, the birds are singing, it was shirtsleeve warm for the first time in weeks, and it was even still daylight as we cycled home. Coming out of the Encountering Buddhism lecture I saw my first bee of the year and shouted ‘hello!’. I was so happy to see it. It promptly landed on a student’s face – and much to their credit they did not flinch.