Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tour of the provinces

My new course, "Buddhism and Modern Thought," is turning into something quite different from what I originally envisioned. A very good thing! When I proposed it, I was thinking of it primarily as yet another western intellectual history class, but I've been finding material that's allowing me to present the western reception of Buddhism as it should be presented: as ancillary, a provincial development, even in modernity - which I'm not assuming is western or westernizing but multiple. And thanks in large part to bell hooks' visit to The New School last Fall, "western Buddhism" itself has been wrested from the hands of white male Buddhist teachers. It all lets me try to do something I was very excited about a few years ago - imagine a history of modern thought (or of thought, for that matter) that's not Eurocentric.

How do I propose to do it? I'm still moving pieces around, but the current arc of the course starts with Marilyn Ivy's essay "Modernity" from Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, then looks quickly at the western construction of the Buddha from Donald Lopez' The Scientific Buddha: His Short & Happy Life and Philip Almond's British Discovery of Buddhism, and then nibbles on some Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But that'll all be finished by the end of week 3.

Next, we read Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, an introduction to Buddhism written in 1959 by a Sri Lankan scholar and still very widely used in US universities (I read it when I first studied Buddhism). Rahula argues that Buddhism - he focuses on Theravada - isn't religion at all, but in its rational and experimental nature better understood as science, psychology. We'll appreciate Walpola's skillful playing of western yearnings along with his account of the dhamma.

But then we turn to Buddhist modernisms in Asia - I'll have students give presentations here - starting with Sri Lanka, followed by Japan, Southeast Asia, China and Taiwan, and Tibet and Nepal (sequence determined not by Buddhist history but loosely by the stages of western Buddhist encounter). Students will read the relevant sections from Buddhism in World Cultures (ed. Stephen Berkwitz) and Buddhism and the Modern World (ed. David McMahan), so we'll have a rich and complicated understanding of the emergence of different forms of Buddhist practice and thought in the wake of colonialism, modern science, nationalism, globalization. Among other things, we'll find out that Walpola Rahula was hugely important in his native Sri Lanka, arguing, fatefully, that monks should be involved in politics.

Only then will we return to the western reception and construction of Buddhism, reading David McMahan's Making of Buddhist Modernism. (Actually I think we'll first read an essay by Richard Payne about how important "modern occultism" was both for modern constructions of religion and for Buddhism in American self-help culture.) Not only will it be clear that Buddhism wasn't waiting around for modern western people to revivify it - piles of dusty tomes neglected by ritualistic orientals - but I hope we'll be able to see what western Buddhologists and Buddhists have been doing as part of larger global trends. (Maybe even larger trends understood in Buddhist terms?! David Loy!)

Then it gets a little unclear... I want to tailor the class to the interests of the intrepid dozen willing to sign up for a course that meets at 8 on a Monday morning, and each student will have a research project s/he'll be giving progress reports about through the second half of the semester. If they want Henry Steel Olcott or Hermann Hesse or D. T. Suzuki or Jack Kerouac or John Cage or Chögyam Trungpa or Derek Parfit or Wittgenstein and Nagarjuna or Sharon Salzberg or Marcus Boon or Pema Chödrön or "The Matrix" or DharmaPunk or JuBus or even speculative non-Buddhism, they'll get it (well, some). But we will certainly also read some of The Buddha and his Dhamma by Dr. Ambedkar (who brought Buddhism back to India as the religion of the Dalit movement), some Alice Walker (probably this talk), and Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-Worldly Nibbana (which you've heard me enthuse about before).

What will it all add up to? We'll see - but I'm confident it'll be good. That said, it's still several days until we start; things might yet shift around! And how do I begin? I usually like to use the time of the first class for a film, but I'm open to a series of videos. Maybe Ambedkar?

No comments: