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.