Women in Early Indian Buddhism

When I see an academic book that looks interesting and relevant, my general policy is to buy it and add it to a pile on my desk, ready to be read when I have a moment. The rule is that books have to be at least partly read before they are allowed onto the shelves. Of course, workloads being what they are, sometimes books stay on that desk pile for quite a long time, and the pile climbs ever higher and looks ever more daunting. In the summer I try to make a concerted effort to give these books some attention!

And so it was that this week I finally sat down to read Alice Collett’s 2014 edited collection for OUP, Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies.

The volume is a lovely little collection of studies of some neglected textual sources that provide new perspectives on the position of women in early Buddhism. Because of the authorship and provenance of Buddhist texts, women are too often presented as distractions or dangers to male practitioners (at best) or terrifying and voracious demonesses (at worst). But this volume provides evidence – including in texts likely authored by early Buddhist nuns – that the situation was actually much more interesting than this. From the relatively well known poems of early Buddhist nuns (in the Therīgāthā) to recent manuscript finds, the book covers a delightful range of sources, each one carefully assessed and explored.

Given my interest in jātaka and avadāna literature, it should be no surprise that I was particularly interested in Jonathan Walters’ chapter on the Apadāna and Karen Muldoon-Hules’ on the Avadānaśataka. Both chapters explore the theme of marriage. Muldoon-Hules investigates the presence of Brahmanical marriage rites in the Sanskrit Buddhist Avadānaśataka, while Walters argues that a focus on marriage in the past-life stories of nuns in the Apadāna is part of a strategy of re-writing women into the Buddhist past. In the two specific examples explored by Walters – the apadānas of Bhaddā-Kāpilāni and Yasodharā – the nuns’ stories reinsert these women into the narrative accounts of their husbands, suggesting that the women were not only partners in the men’s spiritual quest, but that the men could not have achieved what they did without their wives.

Sadly the volume does not contain any assessment of jātaka literature, perhaps because it is so vast and so often misogynous, though there are plenty of positive portrayals of women to be found in it too. Maybe writing something on the positive female figures of the jātakas is a job to add to my to-do list, which, incidentally, covers a whiteboard in my office. (Whichever way I face, I see either that big pile of books or that big wall of tasks! All in good time…)

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, gender, reviews of scholarship | 2 Comments

Trying to work in Edinburgh in August

The summer is always a strange time for academics. In amongst tying up loose ends from last academic year and preparing for the next, we cram in conferences, research, writing and – one hopes – the odd holiday. In Edinburgh it is doubly strange, because August involves a mass invasion of tourists and performers for the various festivals, including the world-famous Fringe festival. Many of the university buildings are transformed into venues for music, dance, theatre, magic or comedy.

Living in a tourist town is mildly annoying at the best of times. The walk from my office to the main university library takes me past the cafe that claims to be the “birthplace of Harry Potter” as well as a peculiarly famous statue of a small dog. I learned very quickly that if I refrained from walking through anybody’s photographs then I would never get anywhere! But in August I steer clear of the library altogether, if I can. And if I can’t avoid it, then I transform into my very own form of performance art: I am the “angry local trying to work” as I barge through the swarms of tourists, hands firmly in pockets as I refuse all the offers of flyers for shows. I manage to maintain this sour demeanour until someone asks me for directions, at which point my instinctive smile and British politeness take over!

For you should not misunderstand me: I am no misanthrope. I love Edinburgh and am happy to share it with other admirers. I am also aware that the festival is a lucrative opportunity for the city and the university, and that the money it brings can help support services that I value. But that said, I am challenged by the practicalities of working when there is a bar outside your office window and the building periodically shakes with the sound of a drumming group playing in what was the student canteen.

This year I thought I would try a new approach, to embrace August. I took time off and enjoyed some excellent shows as well as some peace and quiet at home. I am even allowing myself the odd show now I’m back at work. This afternoon I spent an hour in a shed with novelist Ian Rankin and three other members of the public participating in a continuous reading aloud of the twelve-volume Chilcot report into the Iraq war. Very sobering, though I’m not sure it helped with my ever-growing to-do list.

As well as the noise and the difficulty walking anywhere, It really is hard to work when everyone around you seems to be on holiday! I am not sure what the solution is, but I take some comfort from the knowledge that next year I will spend the second half of August attending conferences in Toronto. Maybe I can take holiday for the first half and join those folk in the bar outside my office window, or the crowds photographing themselves with the famous statue of the small dog…

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The Jātakas of the Mahāvastu

In the spirit of my last post, I’d like to share my research notes on the many jātaka stories found in the Mahāvastu. These fall into several categories, with some told as part of explanations of the career of a/the bodhisattva, and others told during the final life-story of the Buddha to explain repeated events in the past. Only the latter type tend to be called jātakas, and to further confuse matters some stories that are called jātakas don’t feature the Buddha at all! So these stories really challenge our definition of the jātaka genre and what it is all about.

My research on these stories is just beginning, but some preliminary thoughts will appear in a paper I am writing up for a collected volume on Buddhist paths, which Cristina Pecchia and Vincent Eltschinger are putting together following a symposium on that theme last December. It should be a really interesting volume.

Meanwhile enjoy the story summaries in pdf here: Mahavastu Jatakas

Posted in Buddhist texts, Jataka | 1 Comment

Summarising Jātaka Stories

I have been thinking a lot recently about the art of summarising stories. There are four reasons this is on my mind:

– I finally reached number 100 on my mission to tweet all 547 stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā. It is slow work as it is always bottom of the list, but I am gradually creating a searchable resource of really short summaries (which has its own page on this blog).

– I was asked, again, to try to identify an image that may or may not depict a jātaka story. This happens often enough to make me wish I had a proper searchable database (a long held ambition). In response to the last query I did get as far as scanning a typed paper summary of the first 454 stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā that I made during my doctoral research but long ago lost the digital file for (oops). A kind colleague used his text-recognition software to transfer my scan into a searchable file again. (Thank you Alex you are a wonder!) Though I still couldn’t identify the story…

– I have been working on an article on how jātakas are conceived of in different Sanskrit texts, in the process of which I have created summaries of the jātakas in the Mahāvastu, as well as revisiting previous summaries of the Avadānaśataka and Jātakamālā…

– I was paid a visit by an intern working to increase awareness of the University’s “DataShare” service, which is a platform for storing and sharing research data.

Tying together these experiences I think I have decided it is time to get myself a DataShare account and start to tidy up some of the story summaries I have produced over the years, ready to share them with others. When it’s up and running I’ll make sure to link to it from this blog.

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka | 2 Comments

Vessantara Jataka

Having recently submitted my own book to the publisher, I have been enjoying working through a backlog of reading other people’s! I particularly enjoyed devouring Steven Collins’ edited volume Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka, which came out with Columbia University Press earlier this year. It contains seven papers on varied localised forms of engagement with the story, along with an introduction by Collins.

9780231160384The Vessantara Jātaka, the story of the Buddha-to-be giving away his children and his wife in the perfection of his generosity, is one of the most important narratives in Southeast Asian Buddhism, and it is this region that features most heavily in this book. The volume is designed to accompany a reading of the Pāli version of the story, which can be found in a translation by either Margaret Cone (The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara) or Sarah Shaw (in our The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha). It certainly complements a study of the text, bringing the story alive in its varied artistic and ethnographic contexts. As such it is ideal for use in teaching alongside the story, and will definitely be finding itself on the reading list for my course on Theravada Buddhism.

The contexts that are explored are richly varied, as well as being – in several cases – richly illustrated with colour images. Some discussions surround key characters, from comic portrayals of the brahmin who receives Vessantara’s children, to interpretations of Vessantara and Maddī as a model husband and wife. Others focus on practices, including the Bun Phra Wet festival and its accoutrements, and a Newari ritual context. The introductory essay by Steven Collins sets the scene nicely, outlining the story and the key debates that surround it, such as questions of genre, “excessive” giving, and “original” versions.

Collins’ introduction reminds us that there is still plenty of work to be done on this fascinating story, not only in its various contemporary manifestations, but also in its textual forms. I have an article in my drafts folder on some different aspects of the Indian literary context that I think shed light on the Pāli Vessantara Jātaka. It has been hanging around for a couple of years waiting for attention, and maybe its time has come…


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“Translating Buddhism” conference

My head is still whirring from last week’s conference on “Translating Buddhism” at York St John University. The conference was wonderfully stimulating, as well as warm and collegial, and I left with plenty of new ideas and reflections, as well as a long reading list.

I enjoy themed conferences, and this theme proved very fruitful. The conference planning team came up with three sub-themes, which broadly mapped onto three streams of parallel panels:

  • Translating Texts

  • ‘Translating’ Buddhism across different Asian contexts

  • ‘Translating’ Buddhism from Asia to the West

I mostly attended the first stream, learning a lot about the different approaches to textual translation. Of particular interest to me were discussions of the different ways in which Buddhist texts might have been used, and how this affects our approach to translation. For example, Natalie Gummer talked about the performative nature of early Mahayana sutras, Karen Lang explored the translatability of humour, and Andrea Schlosser puzzled over how to translate wordplay. My own paper was about considerations of genre, asking how our understanding of what jataka stories are affects our approach to translating them, especially with regards to folkloric conventions (e.g. “Once upon a time”), repeated or formulaic passages, and humour or bad language.

Each of the three themes was also addressed by an invited keynote speaker, and all three of these were very stimulating. Collett Cox started us off with a reflection on the search for a text to translate, asking what it is we are really looking for and whether or not we are right to seek it. I particularly enjoyed her thoughts on viewing texts as processes, rather than as things. Very Buddhist!

The second keynote speaker was Lori Meeks, who addressed the second theme through an exploration of how a Chinese sutra on the blood-bowl hell (a special hell for women – best not to ask!) moved into new contexts in Japan, and how it became situated in the wider context of women’s position in Buddhism.

The final keynote speaker was Prof Jonathan Walters, whose work has long been a favourite of mine. Although I therefore had high expectations of his paper, I was not prepared for the spectacular tour-de-force that it turned out to be! We were treated to a historical walk through the lesser-studied stream of Western Buddhist “translation”, namely popular forms of Buddhist (and particularly Buddha-) imagery. From a rather disturbing American trend for postcards depicting nude women next to Buddha statues, to the recent Donald Trump Buddha-meme doing the round online (do a quick search – you’ll be amused!) we were immersed in image, song, and the careful and critical reflections of our speaker about the need to take this stream of Buddhist translation seriously.

In between all this intellectual stimulation there was plenty of opportunity for further chat, and I must say it was a relief to be able to talk about something other than politics for a change! (Though there was a fair bit of political discussion too, inevitably, especially after we were served Eton Mess for dessert one night – political metaphor anyone?!)

Huge thanks to the wonderful organising committee and hosts!

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, conferences, Translation | Leave a comment

Why Story?

I am sometimes asked why I find stories so interesting to study. It is a fair question, especially since I seem to get further and further drawn in to narratives – developing story-based school-teaching resources, organising events for the Story and Religion research network, reading ever more about the role of story in human cognition, psychology and society, and even telling Indian animal stories at Edinburgh Zoo!

The short answer is, I think, threefold (as is always best – the law of threes is another pervasive narrative principle…):

  1. stories are fun
  2. stories are ways of thinking
  3. stories are open

storytelling-animalThe first of these is why I feel so lucky that my job involves reading stories. Stories are inherently fun and engaging, and I find I get a lot of enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from reading and studying them. If we are to believe the evolutionary psychologists, the telling of stories evolved as a way of allowing humans to negotiate complex social interactions, to plan for the future and imagine alternative courses of action. We are therefore programmed to enjoy them and find them worthwhile. (I recently finished reading The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which is an accessible and enjoyable exploration of this area.)

Stories are sometimes dismissed as being rather simplistic, for children, as either simple fluffy fun or else straightforward didactic tools. Far from it. Probably the thing I love most about stories is that they are complicated explorations of life’s challenges and confusions. In other words stories are ways of thinking. I often quote Buddhologist Steven Collins on this – he speaks of two parallel streams of thought, systematic and narrative. Narrative thought, he argues, is just as worthy of study as systematic thought. (See for example, his discussion in Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities, CUP 1998.) I couldn’t agree more.

And because stories are ways of thinking, they are also open to multiple relationships with multiple audiences (including the tellers and retellers of stories). They may suit a variety of times, places or uses, or be open to reframing to suit different purposes. They may evolve and change, and sometimes the changes in how a community used or responded to a story can expose their particular concerns or priorities. Different people will see different things in a story depending on how they are able to hook that story onto their existing experiences.

119390Another book I have recently finished reading is If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by psychotherapist and narrative-enthusiast Sheldon B. Kopp. It is a little dated, perhaps (I found the constant male pronouns a bit annoying) but it is wonderfully rich in its discussion of how stories can be used to explore the human situation. The therapeutic qualities of story depend upon the possibility of reading ourselves into a narrative, or of relating to it in a particular way because of our own circumstances. In other words the open-ness of story serves an important function. (Our ability to tell our own lifestory is of course another key aspect of the psychotherapeutic process.)

An appreciation of the universal qualities of story – as fun, open, and a sophisticated way of thinking – serves to frame my more specific interest in Indian narrative traditions, and in the ways in which stories are used by Indian religious communities to explore their key ideas and practices. In other words my specific research interest keeps an ever-shifting balance between the unifying qualities of story – for all humans in all times and places – and the very particular times and places that I am trying to understand.

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