REF reflections for Buddhist Studies

Last year I was involved in the REF exercise (a UK-wide research audit process), serving on sub-panel 31, assessing the health of Theology and Religious Studies units through their outputs, impact case studies and environment statements. Now the results are out, it amuses me to categorise some reflections within a Buddhist framework.

First up, let’s be “protestant Buddhists” for a moment and advocate a return to the scriptures! The REF website has so much information on it, including the full criteria and policies, a list of submissions (including impact case studies) and lengthy reports at both panel and sub-panel level. There is a lot there, and, as a sub-panel member bound by confidentiality agreements, there is nothing I can say that is not also there. In other words, I will always be in tune with the scripture, but I can reframe its messages to address audiences of my own 🙂

And for this particular audience I would like to reflect on the fact that the REF, like everything else, is subject to the three characteristics of existence: it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.


As anyone working in the UK HE sector knows, the REF process has changed and will change again. Even its name has changed, and the criteria and submission rules have been different each time the exercise has run. The main change since the last time is that institutions cannot be so selective in which staff they include, but the number of outputs submitted per staff-member is lower. As such, there has been a general increase in the proportion of outputs given the higher grades of 3* and 4*, making comparison between 2021 and 2014 scores somewhat meaningless (though that hasn’t stopped people making the comparisons, of course!).

Impermanence, in a Buddhist sense, results from the inherent conditionality of the world. Everything is part of a complex system of causes and conditions, and once again this featured in the REF work. Research outputs were scored – amongst other things – according to their signficance for the field. Is the work “cumulative” (2*) or “catalytic” (3*)? Is it a “primary or essential point of reference” (4*)? This framework helped to remind me of how very interconnected all our work is as scholars. Not only do we rely on prior work, but our own contribution is of most value when it provides new insight for others. It is not only the “impact” that obviously impacts others – all our work, at its best, makes its mark on other scholars, students, and the wider world.

But the evaluation of research environments was trickier given the inherent impermanence of the world. One of the criteria was “sustainability” yet this is such a challenging thing to assess. We had to evaluate environment statements as they were presented to us, setting aside any knowledge we might have directly of departments, the pressures on them, and the changes that had happened between submission and evaluation. And one of the hardest things about the REF is knowing that its results will inform all sorts of subsequent decisions about departments up and down the country, especially in a small and vulnerable field like TRS.


And this of course is one of the reasons the REF is unsatisfactory, or dukkha. However carefully the exercise is done, its results will always be used for unintended purposes, and groups of people will selectively quote or compare scores, or seek to use the information to suit different ends.

But while we might reasonably debate whether or not the REF should exist, and how the criteria and different aspects rank, it was reassuring to me to see how robust the process was. It is at its heart a massive academic peer-review exercise, and we should have faith in its results in that respect.

This time around there was a new aspect to the dukkha of the process: long (and many) Zoom meetings! Although I don’t believe the need to mostly conduct our meetings on Zoom in any way compromised the process, it was impressively exhausting. I was sad not to have the chance to spend real time with other panel members, and I was troubled by back and neck pain (though even that turned out to have a silver lining in ways too unexpected to relate). Yet we all pushed through, accepting the unsatisfactoriness in the process, while making it the best it could be under the circumstances.


Looking back, I can see that the lack of self or ego in the REF process is why it was so enjoyable to be a part of. My sub-panel colleagues were so amazing to work with, because we all took the work incredibly seriously, but none of us took ourselves seriously. This was academics at our best.

The lack of self is also why we shouldn’t fear the REF, for it really is an assessment of groups not individuals. Nobody ever finds out their individual score for outputs, and nobody ever will. It is about the health of the field, and of units at institutions. For the field, we saw plenty of positive signs, with a wide variety of valuable outputs, and some great early career scholarship coming through, as well as some really impressive examples of research impacting wider society.

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Storytelling and narrative transmission

Edinburgh Buddhist Studies recently hosted a series of storytelling workshops (one for academics, one for school teachers) and performances (one prepared by Steve Killick and based around stories Halle O’Neal and I study, one a pre-prepared show by Sita Brand). The whole event was an absolute treat, brushing up on my storytelling technique, learning some more tales, and sharing my love of stories with other people.

I have a huge respect for the talent of storytellers, and enjoy having a crack at it myself as well. One of the things I often think about is how oral storytelling might have affected the transmission of stories in the contexts I study. Of course this is not a wholly original observation – it is fairly clear that we find different versions of stories in different contexts because (a) storytelling is flexible and (b) the needs of different storytellers and audiences vary. Indeed, my earliest research project – a study of the various versions of the story of the merchants seduced by demonesses and rescued by a flying horse – explored precisely those sorts of variations.

But when you try out storytelling for yourself, you realise what some of this might mean in practice. Storytellers often talk of the “bones” being what you learn when you learn a story, then the flesh being what you add as you tell it. In other words, the basic structure or skeleton of the story is what a storyteller will have memorised, and everything else is – to a greater or lesser extent – improvised. These bones can involve key phrases (with attention paid to how a story begins and ends, of course) but mostly they are about the basic plot: what we need in order for the story to make sense.

My own telling of the talkative tortoise, for example, owes much of its colour to Steve Killick’s rendering, but has a more sympathetic rendering of the tortoise. He’s lonely, and just wants someone to talk to. Perhaps my own need for an audience is in there, or perhaps an awareness of certain friends and relations who live alone and need to be heard. It is both the same story and a different one. The skeleton requires a tortoise who likes to talk, but does not tell us why.

This immediately resonates with early Buddhist narrative genres such as the jātakas. Verses at the heart might be memorised, and key plotlines too, and each is usually encased within a formulaic beginning and ending, but within this we find plenty of variation. Sometimes the variation addresses a particular theme or question, or focuses around building up a more complex or intriguing character. Sometimes it might add humour, or long descriptions that create suspense or delight. Imagining ourselves into these live storytelling experiences helps us to see how the stories may have travelled and changed, as well as why they remained so central to Buddhist transmission.

All these thoughts have ruminated for years, since I first encountered Steve Killick – and another Cardiff-based storyteller Mark Rivett – and understood first hand the magic of hearing live storytelling back in 2011 or thereabouts. But this time a new set of ruminations have been prompted: if jātakas were really one of the first ways in which Chinese audiences heard about Buddhism, were they still an oral experience, or were they transmitted in texts? And what difference might this have made to the stories’ ability to reach out to new audiences?

My hunch, from what little I know so far of the two earliest textual jātaka collections in Chinese, is that many of the stories were circulating orally, able to play with local motifs, characters and concerns, and able to add layers of explanation or back-story where none might have been needed in Indic contexts. It is a hunch shared by Alan Wagner, whose play provides an imaginary glimpse into how this storytelling might have worked, as Buddhist monastics entered new places and sought to teach, and to eat… but that is for another post.

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New book: Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives

I am delighted to learn that the book Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism, which I edited with contributions from a range of fabulous scholars, is now out! It emerges from a symposium that I hosted in Edinburgh way back in September 2019, funded by the same Leverhulme Trust money that supported the Jataka Database. As with the database, the symposium (and volume) sought to bring together visual and textual narrative materials and concerns, to bridge the gap that usually exists between the two disciplines.

The readers will judge whether or not the volume succeeds in its overall aims, but meanwhile there are also lots of gorgeous images in there, as well as some excellent standalone studies, so hopefully people will enjoy it. It was certainly a fun one to put together (with the exception of having to redo a disastrous “professional” index at the last minute!) and I am so pleased to be able to hold it in my hands at long last.

The volume is divided into three sections. The chapters in “Part I: Visual Narratives” (by Flavia Zaghet, Madhulika Reddy, and Monika Zin) explore visual depictions of stories in their own right; those in “Part II: Narrative Networks” (by Sonya Rhie Mace, myself & Chris Clark, and John Strong) seek to understand the relationship between specific visual and verbal narratives; and those in “Part III: Narrative Visions” (by Natalie Gummer, David Fiordalis, and Jonathan Walters) primarily investigate how visual imagery and visualisation work in textual narratives. Themes that cut across the chapters include the role of emotion, of the body, and of the imagination, amongst others.

You can find out more about the volume on the publisher’s webpage here:

One of the things I love about working with Equinox is that they publish simultaneously in hardback, paperback and ebook, with really affordable prices (even for this volume with its many colour images). Thank you Equinox for being so wonderful to work with, and thank you to all the contributors too, for being such a great scholarly team and thereby making such a volume possible.

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Chinese Jātakas

I learnt something last week that rather amazed me. Perhaps you will just be amazed by my prior ignorance, but hey ho, I’ll risk that:

Jātaka stories reached China before vinaya, and before anything like a set of āgama scriptures. In other words, Chinese Buddhists got the riches of my favourite narrative genre before they even had a set of monastic regulations. Wow.

I learnt this at a lovely workshop in Heidelberg, where a group of scholars (including some wonderful postgraduate researchers) met to discuss the two earliest Chinese jātaka collections, the Liudu ji jing (T152) and the Sheng jing (T154), both of which are being opened up to a wider audience thanks to the work of Michael Radich, Jan Nicol, Alan Wagner and others. Access to these texts for non-Chinese readers like myself had previously been largely through Chavannes’ French translations, which – though wonderful in their own way – offered a composite and incomplete approach to the stories as a whole. As we discussed at the workshop, the transmission histories of these two texts offer a number of puzzles that can only be solved through careful study of their specific contents and structure.

For me, questions of transmission are interesting on a number of levels. Why did these particular stories travel? Why these details and versions? Why are they collected and framed this way (eg, in the case of the LDJJ, as mapped onto perfections)? How come the generic assumptions taken for granted in the Indic texts I know (for example that there is no Buddhism around in the stories of the past) are irrelevant to these texts? (Is that a Chinese innovation? or did it come from prior [Greater Gandhāran/Central Asian?] transmission of the stories?) What did the Chinese translators and compilers (and early audiences) think jātakas were and were for? How do these Chinese texts relate to the Paññāsa Jātaka traditions of Southeast Asia, with which they share many features? Too many questions, and few answers as yet, but discussions will certainly continue…

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COP26, sewing and scholarship

As I’m sure everyone is aware, Scotland has been host to an important meeting about the climate crisis these past weeks. As a small sign of our commitment to change, the School of Divinity put together some patchwork banners for the towers of our building, New College, which looks out over Princes Street in the centre of Edinburgh.

My own contributions included a patch from the Edinburgh Buddhist Studies network (next to the T in NOT). In the network we have been discussing how best to change our own behaviours to better address the climate crisis. We have committed to moving away from short-term international visits, and to continuing creative use of online tools where this enables low-impact gatherings.

Personally, I have also committed to travelling by train wherever possible (I think I’ll be getting very familiar with the Eurostar in the coming year!) and the University of Edinburgh has at last issued a rule discouraging use of flights for work trips within the UK, something I already avoided, but which has apparently been causing the majority of our institutional emissions in recent years. These are certainly all steps in the right direction, and I feel positive about the ways in which people are talking more openly about the issues these days.

While we really do need the large-scale governmental change discussed at COP, we also have individual choices to make in order to tread more lightly on this planet.

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Gender illiteracy

It’s funny – there is so much discussion in the media nowadays of debates around the definition of gender, in particular how that relates to transgender identities. And yet, on a recent trip I couldn’t help but laugh at the gender essentialism on display in the signs I found on public transport. It made me wonder: Does nobody notice these things? Or does nobody care? Am I really peculiar for laughing in baffled fury at the presence of such signs in 2021? Does my Religious Studies training come into play here, in my tendency to read so much into signs?

First up, a picture of the bins in the toilets on an LNER east coast train to London:

A perfect example of the cross-cultural association between women and impurity. Ah, to be a man, and only produce litter. “Women: put your filth in here! And any filth associated with your offspring, for whom men have no responsibility.”

But it would be hard to know how offspring would ever come into being if we all obeyed these signs, found on the London Underground:

As a friend pointed out, the headmistress of our (all-girls) school would certainly have approved, and might well have got copies to put up around our school building. Luckily I was travelling alone, and so did not have to worry about keeping a respectful distance from my husband, as so many women have to in other parts of the world…

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Narrative Buddhology – new project and CFP

I have been working on a new research project for a full year, and realised recently that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Mind you, I haven’t exactly been regular with my blogging. The past year or two have been, erm, challenging…

The project, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, is a collaboration with Chris Jones, longtime Oxford associate but now based in Cambridge, and recent recipient of the 2021 Toshi Book Award (congratulations Chris!). We are exploring how buddhahood is understood in narrative literature, both Mahāyāna and “mainstream”, with a particular focus on the first half of the first millennium. This was a time when Mahāyāna ideas were fairly widely known, and non-Mahāyāna texts of this period – such as avadāna literature – likely respond to such ideas in their own articulations of buddhahood. The way the Buddha is understood in relation to other liberated beings (pratyekabuddhas and arhats) and in relation to other buddhas (of past and future, or in different worlds) is a theme that can help us to understand the lively literary and imaginative landscape of Indian Buddhism.

We have been enjoying digging around in a variety of literatures, revisiting assumptions (such as the idea that arhats are awakened, and the idea that there are three accepted paths in mainstream Buddhism) and discovering new Buddhist angles on key figures and questions. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps I will start to blog about research findings over the coming months.

We also have a project symposium, for which the call for papers is currently live – I paste it below.

Call for Papers: Literary Buddhas across Ages and Borders

Scholars are invited to submit paper titles and abstracts for a symposium on the subject of ‘Literary Buddhas’, to be held in Cambridge (UK) over 15–16th July 2022. The focus of the symposium will be narrative explorations of the character, life, deeds and influence of the Buddha, and of other buddhas besides, across Buddhist and Buddhist-inspired literature from different cultures, contexts and eras.

At the origins of Buddhism is the figure of Siddhārtha Gautama, or Śākyamuni Buddha, whose words and deeds have remained at the centre of Buddhist teaching over two and a half millennia. The Buddha’s story and aspects of it have been reimagined innumerable times, by authors who have focused upon different episodes or details from narratives that circulated India in centuries either side of the year zero. The Buddha’s traits and actions have been further explored and elaborated upon by South, Central, East and Southeast Asian Buddhist creatives for hundreds of years. In some works the character and career of the Buddha are found to be comparable to those of other buddhas from earlier ages (Dīpaṅkara, etc.), or buddhas who are believed to be resident in other worlds (Amitābha, etc.). These awakened beings have stories of their own, which illuminate further how the category ‘buddha’ has developed in different contexts. Modern forms of Buddhism, including those that have emerged in the West, have produced their own conceptions of the Buddha/s, such that the nature of an awakened being and his relation to the world remain fluid notions at the centre of increasingly diverse Buddhist creativity.

Papers may focus on any number of themes relating to how narrative literature has presented and explored the Buddha or buddhas. Relevant materials that papers may consider include:

· Pre-modern accounts of the Buddha/s in Indian and wider Asian literature, including across mainstream Buddhist (including Theravāda) and Mahāyāna literature, from any period or cultural setting.

· Modern literary explorations of the Buddha/s, of Asian provenance or otherwise, including popular and novel reimaginings of Buddhist narratives.

The symposium relates to a project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, and will be convened by Dr Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Chris V. Jones (University of Cambridge). The symposium will result in a volume edited by the convenors, in which all papers presented (subject to peer review) will be included. Contributors to the symposium should be prepared to submit publishable versions of their papers to the editors within six months of the event.

Applicants whose papers are accepted for the symposium will be offered three nights of accommodation and meals at the venue. Speakers will be asked to seek their own institutional funds to support travel costs; those without access to funds may be eligible for support by the symposium.

Dates and location: 15–16th July 2022; Cambridge, UK (provided that travel for contributors is possible; alternative, online arrangements will be made for contributors unable to travel).

Deadline for submissions: titles together with abstracts of no more than 500 words, anticipating papers that will be approximately 45minutes in length, should be submitted to, by 1st December 2021. Queries may be sent to that same address. Decisions regarding successful submissions will be communicated to applicants by early 2022.

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On a hybrid conference experience

Okay, so I really need to stop going on about conference formats, but you have to admit it is interesting thinking through the future of conferences! Last weekend I travelled to Oxford for my first in-person gathering (and indeed only my second time away from home) since the pandemic began. I attended the “Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures” conference organised by Matthew Orsborn, and was part of a small group who sat in a lecture theatre in St Anne’s College, while dozens more joined online. Two-thirds of the presenters ended up having to deliver their papers online. As I was getting ready for the nearly seven-hour journey at the end of an insanely busy two weeks, I did have a moment of doubt: Was I really right to go all that way for what was increasingly looking like an online conference?

My doubt was ill-founded. It was absolutely magical to meet with colleagues in three dimensions once again. The Q&A sessions were lively but it was the conversations around the edges that were best. The coffee and lunch breaks were superb – conversation flowed and twisted around and doubled-back as we digested the papers communally. The online papers didn’t feel remote, since we received them together in the room. I felt reinvigorated as a scholar again, and full of ideas and new connections; this is not my usual response to an online event.

So this was a hybrid conference that worked extremely well for those of us lucky enough to be attending in person, but was it any good for those attending online? Many of the online speakers noted how helpful it was to have had the flexibility to still present even though they were not able to travel to Oxford. However, the different time zones meant that scheduling was tricky, and some speakers were not able to attend all the papers. Meanwhile it was noticeable that those online felt very much like an audience rather than participants: few had cameras on, and few asked questions. But perhaps it is inevitable that the online experience lacks something compared with the in-person experience.

Huge credit is due to Matthew and the amazing team of postgraduate student helpers who ensured that the event ran exceptionally smoothly. No doubt there was a fair dose of luck in there too, in that the technology all cooperated and all the speakers had decent connections. But the preparations were also thorough, and there was a lot to manage behind the scenes. The event had multiple cameras set up so that the speaker, the chair, and the audience were separate participants on the Zoom call. Managing the multiple microphones was particularly tricky, and it took a bit of tweaking to get the screen and Zoom cameras both displaying the right combination of speaker and slides. There is no denying that this format is more work, but I for one consider this to be a perfectly viable format for future events, and a very successful experiment in hybrid conferencing.

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Once again on virtual conferences…

A few weeks ago we (that is, Edinburgh Buddhist Studies, or EBS for short) hosted the annual conference of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies. Of course, when we first offered to host, we hoped to be able to invite colleagues to visit the beautiful city of Edinburgh, offer them all an EBS canvas bag, show them the collections at the National Museum of Scotland, etc etc. In the end, we hosted online, but we were keen to avoid simply putting an in-person conference onto video call. Rather, we tried to experiment with a different format and platform, to keep a bit more community, and reduce the screen fatigue.

Structurally, our main innovation was in having only short-format papers, arranged into thematic panels, alongside roundtable discussions. This kept the contributions short and fresh, resulting in less video-call fatigue. In addition, we asked our PhD student contributors to produce posters or short videos, which were made available for viewing in advance of the conference, rather than during the event itself.

Network assistant and PhD Student Elodie Pascal ready to welcome attendees to the conference!

The main conference programme was on Zoom, and this was rather like the standard set-up, though we specifically opted for a “meeting” rather than a “webinar” in order to foster as much interaction as possible. More experimental was our virtual conference centre on Gather.Town, an interactive space-based platform, where video-call interactions are based on proximity to others’ avatars, mimicking real-life encounters – see my intro video on YouTube here.

Feedback on Gather was generally very positive, thought we did have some glitches including bad echoes between Gather and Zoom. Most people who used it, myself included, found it added a wonderfully fresh social dimension – the moment of being able to walk up to a presenter in a virtual Zen garden and congratulate them on their paper felt almost like a normal conference exchange. Gregory Scott made me chuckle with his tweet about the virtual bar too! Even more fun was the interactive poster session, where participants could walk around a poster hall and chat with the PhD students about their work. I had a wonderful moment watching all these little avatars of people I knew wandering around the screen, with little speech bubbles appearing here and there…. It was very much like hosting a “real” conference and feeling that satisfaction of having successfully brought people together.

The only trouble was that our packed schedule didn’t allow enough time to use the Gather space much! Indeed, the schedule overall was probably too heavy – although attention was kept through the short papers and roundtables, it was still too long to sit at the screen, and led me to my first ever chiropractor appointment!

As I have said before, I do think we have to embrace the online conference formats available, as even when/if covid eases, the climate crisis means we have to find alternatives to jetting all over the world whenever we want a good scholarly conversation. In addition to being low carbon, the conference was cheap to run, and we were able to direct the funding we did have towards PG prizes and our network assistant, who worked very hard behind the scenes to make sure everything went smoothly. So, there were lots of wins, and it is definitely a conference format we’ll be using again, albeit most likely with some tweaks.

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Conferences – one year into the pandemic

A year on from my reflections on what will happen to conferences and international travel as a result of the pandemic, it is time to summarise my assessment of the world of online academic interactions. Maybe it will help me get back into blogging!

The 2021 Spalding Symposium happened over the weekend on Zoom, and I was able to listen to a range of fascinating papers, including from graduate students. It was still a completely different experience from a “real” conference, however, missing the coffee breaks and discussions around the edges of the papers. The way I engaged with it was also different: to avoid screen fatigue and enable some other weekend activities I was quite selective about what to attend. Rather than being challenged and surprised by papers on unfamiliar topics, as I would at a physical event, I simply missed them. The intensity of a physical event was not there, and it was not so enriching for the same reason.

The advantages over having no conference are clear, however, and I was very impressed by the smooth running of the event. It was also great to have people participating from all over the world, although amusing to see that the same core Spalding crowd still maintained a sense of ownership over the gathering. It was also amazing to go from Spalding Symposium papers to a Cornell Buddhist Studies presentation (by a scholar from Portland) on Friday evening. In a few weeks I’ll be giving my own talk to an audience at UCLA, all from my living room. It is pretty amazing in terms of opening up the world.

The downsides are nonetheless difficult. Conferencing has always been one of the exceptions to my “weekends off” rule, but attending a conference normally involves a journey, a night or two away, eating out, hanging around with different people. In other words it is a sort of break, albeit often a very intense and exhausting one. Tuning in to conference papers on top of a usual week of work, from my little laptop where I’ve already spent all week, just feels strange. Maybe it is more interesting to learn about some aspect of Buddhist scholarship than to watch Gardeners’ World on TV, but the Mahavamsa is a funny sort of bedtime story, and Indian philosophy doesn’t help keep the house clean. I am so grateful for the opportunities that come from online papers, but find it increasingly hard to know where to draw the lines between the work and non-work parts of my life.

I also find I struggle, in all honesty, with maintaining concentration through full papers online, in a way that I don’t in person. As a result of that, the events I have enjoyed the most have been panel-discussion and academic conversation formats, or else peer-review formats with papers circulated in advance. Smaller audiences are also easier, with conversation flowing better if people already know one another; online maintenance of relationships is okay, I think, but the creation of new relationships is much trickier.

This general impression has fed into how we, at Edinburgh Buddhist Studies, have chosen to structure the UKABS conference that we’re hosting online in July. We’ve built the programme around short papers and panel discussions, and are trialling posters for PhD students. We’re also exploring the use of GatherTown as a way to try to recreate some of the informal edges of the conference. It’s all an experiment, so we’ll see what happens!

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