This week (June 20th-26th), Dharma Drum Mountain is hosting the 16th International Association of Buddhist Studies Conference, a conference that happens once every three years. IABS is the largest association of Buddhist scholars and would-be scholars in the world, representing all aspects and areas in the field. It is the first time the conference has been held in Asia, and the first time, I believe, it has been held at a monastery, as it is usually held at a university.
A person may wonder what this “field” of Buddhist studies actually is. Well, I’m not sure if I could supply an adequate answer. Maybe one way to think of Buddhist studies is that it is that academic field that has everything to do with Buddhism, except, perhaps, the actual practice of it. Though there are many scholars who are studying the practice of Buddhism, this would be part of Buddhist studies and not necessarily part of the Buddhist path. And though many scholars are Buddhist, many are not.
For a religion that assures its adherents that nothing less than complete and utter freedom, happiness, and release from all suffering is the final and inevitable “end” of its practice, the field of Buddhist studies is an interesting mix of necessity and sparsity. Necessity, in that the scholars excel at textual analysis and comparison, historical investigation and development, and sorting out myriad grainy details muddled through the workings of time and the movements of space. And sparsity, in that the field is dominated, in the west at least, by people who may or may not be Buddhist. In addition, in academia, having a preference and bias for one’s area of study, especially a bias as potent as a religious one, is definitely not encouraged; indeed, it is sometimes seen as a hindrance to good scholarship, and rightly so.
The academic field of Buddhist studies, as with most likely other fields of religious studies, may be likely to a simple analogy: It is sort of like looking at an aerial photograph of a vast landscape, much of it hidden. The purpose of the photograph, what it actually depicts, is vaguely understood, but not all that well. The onlookers attempt to map out and analyze the terrain from a distance and from a limited perspective. Sometimes this analysis begins with a starting point and traces a route to its completion, and sometimes it focuses on a particular oasis part way along, describing and comparing its characteristics in great detail. Such investigation, planning, and analysis is very important, and provides vital information for travelers; but such virtues are mostly missed unless there are those willing to actually step out onto the ground and traverse the domain of the known, into the landscape of the ineffable. The value and real purpose of the map is, of course, in making the journey itself.
Regardless, this week’s gathering of scholars here at DDM is a very impressive array of names and authors, many of which are familiar to anyone who has delved even a bit into the academic-side of Buddhism. There are, also, a number of monks attending and quite a few presenting. Scholar monks are often, I feel, a wonderful balance of guide and traveler; people who know part of the map very well, and who also know from experience the best moves through the terrain.
I am very grateful to be here during this conference, as it allows me the opportunity to meet some of the people who are doing research in areas I find of great value. For example, I was able to meet a German monk in the Sri Lankan Theravadan tradition today in the Library, Bhikkhu Analayo, who has done an exceptional amount for western understanding of Chinese and Pali texts in early Buddhism. Plus, he’s a wonderfully good person.
As much as I would like to, I will not be able to attend much of the numerous panels this week, as my Chinese classes require me to be away from DDM for the vast majority of each weekday. And, given how I feel like I am barely staying up with the pace of the class as it is, I dare not actually miss a day for fear of never catching up.