Here’s a piece in Seed Magzine that sweeps across lots of developments in the field, including Maffi, Holling, the Barcelona conference and a raft of other topics.
Tag Archives: anthropology
I’ve been working on the anthropology of literacy, especially in Himalayan Buddhism, since 1989 – my first significant paper at Chicago was on the relationship between manuscript rituals and scholastic practice in classical Indian Madhyamika. It’s not an easy subject to locate; I’ve offered papers in a wide range of contexts – the Western AAR in 1991, the 2001 Rema(r)king the Text conference at St. Andrews, the 2004 conference in honour of Richard Gombrich – but I was only able to publish this material this year, as a chapter in Die Textualisierung de Religionen ed. J Schaper. At the CRASSH conference it turns out that Hildegard Diemberger and Steve Hugh-Jones were giving a paper on the anthropology of digitizing Tibetan manuscripts. Our two papers segued nicely; I gave a brief account of the argument from ritual origins for the nature of Mahāyāna literacy, then looked at the Hyakumanto Dharani and Thunder Peak Pagoda, then went on to look at digital prayer wheels and hacking code for VR constructs to include mantras.
There are other people working on this problem. Kristina Myrvold at Lund works on the Ādi Guru Granth Sahīb among Sikhs, and organized a conference on manuscript rituals that I had to drop out of. That will, I hope, become a book. The Schaper volume includes comparable studies on Judeo-Christian textual practices, and I certainly remember Mary Douglas’ visit to Aberdeen in which she talked about an intricate pattern in the Old Testament.
Actually, it’s at least four problems just within Mahāyāna Buddhism. There’s the early material; there’s the Newar material; the Tibetan material; and the East Asian material. All the practices are related and distinct. Gregory Schopen and Paul Harrison have both written about the links between Mahāyāna and literacy, and I refer to their work in my piece. David Gellner published a careful study of the recitation practices at Kvaḥ Bāhal in the 90’s at the same time I was surveying all the different recitation cults around Nepāl Maṇḍala. Tibetan practices are fundamentally different to Newar or Indian, and alongside Diemberger and Hugh-Jones, one should probably look at Yael Bentor’s articles on consecration. Apparently T Barrett has been writing on the Chinese materials, which then should be put alongside Glenn Dudbridge’s articles as well as L. Carrington Goodrich in the 40s and the useful piece in Architectural History by Guo (1999) on the construction of rotating libraries.
I really should put a bibliography up somewhere.
Okay: Bhavana had a great idea. Why shouldn’t the Anthropology Society, who are always up for a ritual, play Holi? The results speak for themself: see this, and this, and this. What the pictures don’t tell you is that it was snowing. Bleah. It’s one thing to be doused with abhir-water when it’s 35° – quite another when it’s 0° with a 50 km/h wind blowing sleet. Still, it’s the thought that counts.
Bushmeat in Africa is a hot topic right now, less so in South and Southeast Asia. No one so far has written clear theory for the study of bushmeat – as with many such crises, it’s the conservation folks and the journalists who are making the running. We anthropologists are only just waking up on this one.
Here’s the BBC article that links through to an excellent documentary on eating bushmeat in Cameroon. I have to admit to serious discomfort, not just at the endless pictures of dead monkeys for sale, but at Stefan Gates’ apparent indifference to the practice – he really is there in part to decide whether or not porcupine or civet cat are tasty, though he does take a stand when it comes to primates.
We need to think about bushmeat clearly: the young restauranteuse cheerfully declaring that the chimpanzees and gorillas will never go extinct is not so surprising in itself; nor is the fact that the same police who raid the bushmeat stalls will cheerfully tuck in to bushmeat stew. Yet there has been a Cameroons public education campaign that all the hunters, vendors, cooks and eaters have obviously heard—and in that context, the insistence that ‘no matter how much we eat, I know it can never disappear’ seems to be more of a claim about the bush itself than an educated claim about population sustainability. Bowen-Jones, Brown and Robinson used commodity-chain analysis in a 2003 article, which established the socioeconomic complexity of the problem; but there’s been almost nothing on the anthropology of bushmeat—and without this, seemingly incomprehensible claims of the inexhaustibility of bushmeat will remain incomprehensible.
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.
This is an interesting encounter. Rheingold is a hero of the technorati and was one of the first people to theorize online communities. His first-person description of trying to talk to Habermas might be ossified professor syndrome, but he might be describing a genuine failur of imagination.