Monday, November 09, 2009


My final panel for this AAR - the Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection Group's discussion "Applying Modern Academic Findings to Help Inform Buddhist Understandings Today" - crystallized for me the place where much of what I encountered this time leaves me: the relationship of academic work in religious studies to broader communities not of scholarship but of faith and identity. Or: the place within religious studies itself of constructive (as opposed to descriptive or critical) work.

Who would have thought that the trial-separation from supposedly too-normative SBL would have brought this out into the open! (It is certainly possible that this has been going on all along in AAR, but I just didn't find my way to the relevant panels. But the very existence of a "Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection" group is news to me.) In any case, its exploration of the contributions scholarly work can make outside the academy resonated with the discussions of Québec's ethics and religious culture curriculum (ERC), with colonized and First Peoples' demands that we undo the dehumanization of earlier religious studies, through creative expression as well as through scholarship, the call to understand the significance of transhuman futures, the engaged intellectuals Ramadan, Cone, West, Altizer and Zizek, even with the contributions to bi- and trans- "theologies" of two papers at the Queer Theory and LGBT Studies in Religion Consultation. (Even the tired discussions of civil religion and secularism are closer to constructive work in their way.) What happened to "they study God, we study them" and why am I not sorry at the change?

The most interesting paper I heard (I had to leave after three) was not the titillating propadeutic to a contemporary Buddhist sexual ethics or the somewhat unsurprising report that the Rinzai School of Japanese Zen had done little beyond apologize under pressure for the way its members and institutions aided the Japanese war effort in the 1930s and 1940s, but Rita Gross' talk "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners." Gross described her efforts to teach a "nonsectarian Buddhist history" at Lotus Garden, a Tibetan Buddhist center with which she has long been associated. She encountered a lot of resistance, and found that many devoted practitioners were not only woefully ignorant of the history of their own tradition, but unable to cope with the history. Confronted with the multiplicity and contingency of Buddhist history, many in her audience (not all) responded like flatfooted "empiricists," indeed like "literalist fundamentalists": "are you saying it didn't happen?" In vain did she argue that the validity of various teachings wasn't underminded by an appreciation of their historicity. Indeed, she argued, Buddhists especially should be able to deal with and even appreciate historical awareness, and listed five principles of a historical approach which correspond to Buddhist values:

(1) all sources must be considered without prioritization
(2) change is normal and to be expected
(3) things change in different ways in different places and times, so diversity is to be expected
(4) change can be explained, but not supernaturally
(5) the present consensus of historians is a hypothesis which, too, is likely to change with time

Interesting to think how awareness of impermanence, a commitment to compassion and to right speech, and the fruits of meditation in awareness of pratitya samutpada and "letting differences be," might aid and be aided by historical consciousness. The aims and methods aren't that different from ERC's... I wonder what secular historians would make of this?

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