Tag Archives: Buddhism

Brutal irony

Saturday was Buddha Pūrṇimā, the international holiday that celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing. The UN Secretary General issued a message calling for solidarity and the alleviation of suffering.

In Sri Lanka, the military decided to celebrate the holiday in true Colt Peacemaker style, by launching a Gaza-style offensive against the last remaining enclave of Tamil separatists. Don’t get me wrong: in my opinion the LTTE is one of the worst terrorist organisations on the planet. That does not, however excuse the slaughter of civilians. The horrific triumphalism of the Asian Tribunes article celebrating the ‘liberation’ of the northeast of the island stifles any attempt at black humour. Hundreds are dead.

In the Swat Valley, thought to the birthplace of Padmasambhava, the Pakistani army continued a thorough offensive to dislodge the Taleban. I have not seen any reliable reports on how many are dead. At least a million people have become internal refugees.

At Bodhgaya, protests erupted because the shrine there, sacred to Buddhists worldwide, is controlled by a Hindu-majority board backed by government decree. The governor chose to chastise the Amebedkar-Buddhist protestors telling them that they were not showing ‘tolerance and inclusiveness’.

Here in Aberdeen our small saṅgha had a picnic.


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?

One day later

Now that life has been rather stable for a while—we’ve been living in the same house for four years, Eleanor’s in school, and we haven’t had to negotiate burning barricades or tear gas for a little while—I thought I’d take advantage of the calm to undertake a proper rohatsu for the first time in a few years. The Rules: no food after noon, no television or music, no alcohol, and of course no meat, and as much meditation as I could manage in the morning, middle-of-the-day and late night slots.
Well, in a house with a small child, the no television rule meant hiding upstairs sometimes; and Bhāwanā felt obliged to give me huge bowls of broth at dinnertime. Fair enough. Most days I managed to put in two or three hours of meditation, sometimes waking early and sometimes after dinner. Two mornings, my daughter found me asleep across my zafu in some quiet corner of the house.

As it got closer to the 8th I tried, and failed, to step up the pace. I opened up Chodo Cross’s translation of the Zazengi. I made sure that I went out for long walks or runs every day. Because it’s December in Aberdeen, that meant running in the dark, which I find completely delightful even if I do fall over sometimes. One night I found myself running along the beach at high tide in a raging storm, plowing my way through runoff streams and getting slapped by waves that reached overfar. Sometimes the meditation went luminously well, sometimes it was just marking time. On the last night I found I had to help someone with a crisis rather than sit: well, an education in attachment, I suppose, and perhaps a reason to take robes someday. When I could finally sit I looked at the Zazengi: ‘Great Teacher Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years.’ Then it was over; I woke up on Monday morning, read, and ate breakfast with my family. Nobody I talked to knew about rohatsu; for Bhāwanā’s family the full moon of Vaiṣākh is the important Buddhist holiday, not some Japanese holiday in December. Fair enough.

That day, a colleague walked by and when I asked him what he was up to, he said, ‘I’m wandering around. It’s one of the privileges of my job that I have to wander around.’ I told him it was an important day for Zen practitioners and that he had said something Zen people would enjoy. Two mature Japanese students talked to me for a while and we agreed we would talk some more about the relative merits of Shingon-shu and Soto-shu.

Tonight I went out for a run again. The tides have shifted, and the weather is calmer, though still cold. On the homeward stretch, coming down the beach, the sea had retreated and I could run for kilometre after kilometre along flat, open sand with the waves growling gently next to me. To the south Jupiter and Venus were up. I looked at the morning star and ran forever until the dog and I met the Don River, turned and went home.

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.).


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.

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.


I was just listening to the Bush Tetras, and they said, 

‘You can’t be funky if you haven’t got a soul’. 

(‘Can’t be funky’, from New York Noise, Rough Trade.)

Not, ‘if you haven’t got soul.’ No, they said, ‘a soul’. I think the only way out of this is to read it as a-soul, that is, the ‘a’ of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, a negating prefix cognate to the a of anomie and apathy. Hence, we can take this to mean, 

‘You can‘t be funky if you haven’t got no-self.’

Taken this way, a proper experientially grounded realization of enlightenment is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to being funky.

There, now I feel much better.