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.

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, conferences | 2 Comments

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!

Posted in Academia, conferences | Leave a comment

Jataka Database version 2

I’ve really enjoyed using the jataka database over the past year, and have also been delighted to have so many people get in touch to say they find it useful. However, it has also been on my mind that there is still a lot to do – not just expanding the content, but also fixing some bugs, especially in the search functionality and (less interesting to you, but important to me) the admin interface.

Our original developer from the Digital Innovations team of my university moved on to other things earlier this year, and with Chris Clark also completing his time on the project last Christmas, the poor database has been slightly abandoned. But my wonderful partner has come to the rescue, voluntarily getting his head right around the whole database – tables, interface and all – and we are working together to get version 2 ready for launch. It has caused me to cross my usually-sacred line between work and home, but in a fantastically enjoyable way!

Today, day 2 of a four-day weekend, I have been playing around with entity relationship diagrams again, to make sure users of the website have a clear idea of its structure and content:

So, what will be new on version 2?

The main rewrite has been to enable more languages than the original Sanskrit and Pali, so soon it will be possible to start adding Tibetan, Chinese and more. This restructuring also solves the current search bugs that can’t cope with names in more than one language. There will also be new search options, offering more flexible and complex searches but remaining easy to use.

Once the data is migrated over to the new structure, I’ll be working to expand the content some more, including with more notes and references. We are also overhauling the admin interface to make it easier to input material, so that it will be possible for others to add further texts and art.

If you have any requests or suggestions for what else we should be doing for the relaunch, please do let me know! Otherwise, watch this space…

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka | Leave a comment

The Viriya-puntiṃ-jātaka

During lockdown spring cleaning I found a jātaka story, and thought I’d share it just as a bit of light-hearted escapism from all the very serious world events.

It is one that I wrote, with my undergraduate Buddhist Studies buddy Hannah, on a trip to Oxford in spring 2003, where we attended the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions for the first time. (I vividly recall this – we had to write our own name badges, and so “Naomi” and “Hannah” were deeply intimidated by “Gombrich” and “Cousins”, and were thrilled to meet “Dermot Killingley”, who wrote the Sanskrit textbook that had got us sucked in to begin with!)

Composed in Buddhist Hybrid English (inspired by Cowell et al.), this jātaka recounts a real-life adventure on the river, and is called the Viriya-puntiṃ-jātaka:

In the past, two scholars named Oscar and Nicky dwelled in a town called Oxford. At that time on that occasion, having received visitors, having acquired food, they took them punting. Oscar, having punted, having chosen the smaller potentially-stagnant way, encountered a fallen tree blocking the way. Having striven to remove the obstacle, having given up, having turned around, having seen another punt, they cried: “Turn back! The way is unsuitable!” The punter, named Competitive Dad, replied: “We will not turn back! We will find a way!” Laughing, mocking, abusing and reviling Competitive Dad, the scholars returned to the easier route.

Having arrived at the big river, the scholars were swept into deep water. Having regained control with much vigourous use of the Patronising Paddle, having punted against the current, Oscar for a short time left the boat for the shore. Re-entering the boat he almost fell in the water. Determined to re-encounter Competitive Dad on the impossible rivulet, having entered the rivulet from the other side, the water being shallow, having run aground, having climbed bushes, having dug mud from beneath the boat, calm and vigourous the scholars reached deeper water. Having reached the place of the falling of the tree, they saw that Competitive Dad had cleared the way. Rejoicing, praising, honouring and revering Competitive Dad, the scholars punted home.

He who mocks Competitive Dad, the clearer of the way,

Will run into deep water, and may be swept away.

He who strives through difficult waters, with unfailing strength,

Will, with the help of Competitive Dad, punt easily the length.

At this time on this occasion, O monks, the punting scholar named Oscar was Ānanda, his calm companion Nicky was Uppallavaṇṇā, and I myself was Competitive Dad. Following the punting adventure, all the company became stream enterers.

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Jataka | 2 Comments

Not normal

The weekend just gone would have been the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, held here in Edinburgh, the final one with me at the helm, and an opportunity to welcome a host of wonderful colleagues to this wonderful city. Today would have seen Oliver Freiberger stay on for a little extra panel discussion on comparative approaches to the study of religion. Last week, Maria Heim was due to be here, offering the Khyentse Buddhist Studies lecture.

Instead, I spent the weekend in the garden. Today, I spent the day at the dining table looking at the garden, tapping at my laptop, with coffee breaks in the garden. I like the garden, but still….

Things are not normal at the moment. In fact, to use a word that has had more airings in the last couple of months than it probably had in the previous decade, things are unprecedented. Or perhaps, we are told, we are all getting used to a new normal. We won’t be returning to normal normal for quite some time.

I can’t wait to get back to some aspects of normal: working in my office, hanging out in cafes, meeting up with friends….

But one of the last aspects to return to normal, I suspect, will be international travel for work. Not only will quarantining and other control measures likely persist for a long time, university budgets and the increased costs of flying will take a toll on academic gatherings in particular. And, perhaps, this might actually not be such a bad thing.

After all, even after this pandemic is over, there is still that small matter of a climate crisis. Perhaps this is our chance to reinvent how collegial academic networks are built and sustained, and how we relate our own research plans to the audiences we imagine across the world.

I have already taken a few tentative steps in the direction of virtual events – some peer review virtual exchanges, and an online comparative religions panel discussion to look forward to – and I know others are experimenting too. It is harder, admittedly, to form relationships virtually than to sustain them, but perhaps we just need to get more inventive in our formats. Just as online teaching is different to simply teaching online (as we are all discovering!) perhaps online conferences need a different format or framework.

And honestly, if I can attend an international symposium without leaving my garden, I’ll be pretty happy with that! So, invitations welcome….

Hope you are all keeping well.

Posted in Academia, conferences | Leave a comment

Launching the Jātaka Database

I’m delighted to announce that today we are launching phase 1 of the Jātaka database: you can now view the site at https://jatakastories.div.ed.ac.uk – there you can explore a range of stories and story-features, and also read our rationale for how the resource is set up.

So far it includes all the stories of the Buddha’s past-lives found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, Ārya Śūra’s and Haribhaṭṭa’s Jātakamālās, the Mahāvastu, Avadānaśataka and Divyāvadāna, and the Apadāna, Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka. It also includes images of jātakas at Bharhut, Sanchi and Kanaganahalli.

There are, of course, many more texts and sites to include, even within the confines of the Indian literary and visual traditions, not to mention in other regions and literatures across Asia. This is very much a first step. Nonetheless we hope it will be an interesting resource for people. I have certainly enjoyed getting lost in it, following the endless series of links to yet more viewpoints!

The database could not have happened without the support of the Leverhulme Trust, and the hard work of Dr Chris Clark, who has been in Edinburgh for more than a year taking great care over its creation; I wish him every success as he now moves on to other projects. Many other acknowledgements are needed, and indeed listed on the site, and in general the resource depends upon people’s generosity in making texts and images and scholarship freely available for others to use.

On which note, I would love to hear from people willing to help expand the resource. I have vague plans to add to it myself in the coming years, with a particular priority being the stories found in Pāli sutta and vinaya texts, Indian Mahāyāna sūtras, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. We have also already made some headway with Ajanta, using the now copyright-free images in Yazdani’s volumes, and hope to upload and annotate these in due course. Collaboration with the Gandharan birth-stories project is also on the horizon. But with a busy few years ahead, it will all take some time, and then there are the many sources beyond my capabilities, for example the jātaka stories in narrative collections in other languages, or the confusing (to me!) realm of Andhran visual culture. If colleagues have resources or expertise they are willing to share to help in this endeavour, that would be a huge benefit to the project.

So, if you like the database and think you can help improve or expand it, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy exploring the rich stories already there…

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka, Religious narrative | 4 Comments

Jātaka stories and boundary-making

This week I have been in Austin Texas, hanging out with lovely colleagues at the South Asia Institute and making a contribution to their Fall Seminar Series, which this year is themed on “Religious Boundary-Making in South Asia.”

This is, of course, a theme that relates closely to some of my research: one of my key interests is the ways in which narrative is used to explore and create boundaries between different religious groups. This is particularly intriguing when the different groups adopt common characters, motifs, or even whole stories in order to make their own case for who they are, in opposition to the “others” around them.

What I particularly enjoyed about this invitation, however, was that it came at a time when I was not working on that research area at all. Instead, I am knee-deep in jātakas, thinking through some of the different ways in which the genre is used and framed and understood across different Indian texts and visual depictions.

Rather than digging out some old research from my Shared Characters volume, I decided it would be interesting to think through how the theme of boundary-making – and my approach to shared narrative elements as part of this boundary-making – would apply to material I am working on now. In the end, much to my own surprise, I ended up talking about the famous jātaka story of Vessantara, who gives away his children and wife in the peak of his perfection, and how this story features in Buddhist articulations of how their values and aspirations differ from others around them.

Some of this happens through shared Indian narrative material: a narrative structure and occasional wording shared with the Rāmāyaṇa (as studied by Gombrich, Collins and Meiland, amongst others) allows for a particularly Buddhist presentation of a tragic hero, so dedicated to his supreme goal that he causes harm to those around him; and a shared motif of Śakra disguised as a brahmin allows us to appreciate that Vessantara gives regardless of the recipient.

On a more thematic level, the notion of generosity – with its intersections with the ideal of renunciation – offers a Buddhist revisioning of a common sacrificial cosmos, with Vessantara’s giving linked to bodily gift-giving stories as well, and hence framed as part of a self-sacrificial path to buddhahood. Meanwhile the physical sites of stūpas, which are often decorated with jātakas and celebrated as potent fields of merit in the related narrative genre of avadānas, place gift-giving at the heart of Buddhist visual and material identity from the earliest period.

In addition, the priority given to Vessantara over and above stories of bodily sacrifice in the Pāli tradition suggests that he may also be used to mark boundaries between Buddhist schools or bodies of literature. Although stories of Vessantara (or Viśvantara or Sudāna) are told across Buddhist languages and schools, and images of the story are prominent at early Indian stupa sites, stories of gifts of literal flesh-and-blood are far more common in Sanskrit jātaka literature than in Pāli (with the intriguing exception of the “extra-canonical” or “non-classical” Paññāsa Jātaka, as explored by Arthid Sheravanichkul). Why were Pāli scholastic compilers a bit squeamish about bodily sacrifice stories, despite acknowledging the necessity of flesh-gifts on the bodhisatta path in principle? I am still puzzling about that one, though perhaps the better question to ask is why northern Sanskritic traditions enjoyed a proliferation and increased celebration of bodily sacrifice stories. The answer to that question, if indeed it is the right question to ask (which it may not be!) may be to do with the emergence of Mahāyāna ideas of the bodhisattva path, as per Natalie Gummer’s fantastic work about sacrificial and performative frameworks in Mahāyāna sūtras.

So the theme of boundary-making has helped me to think a bit differently about the Vessantara story, especially in the light of some attempts to suggest that Vessantara (or his extraordinary – and for most of us offensive – giving) is not properly Buddhist. For me, the Vessantara story is not only Buddhist, but a key part of explorations and assertions of what it means to be Buddhist.

And I will try to keep these questions about identity formation and shared narrative heritage in my mind as I continue to explore how jātakas “work” in a variety of Indian textual and visual contexts. Being immersed exclusively in Buddhist narrative should not make me forget the wider landscape in which such narrative developed.

Posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka, Religious narrative | Leave a comment

Publication of Lance Cousins memorial volume

appleton9781781798928-webI am pleased to announce that a memorial volume dedicated to a valued teacher and colleague in the field, L.S. Cousins, has now been published by Equinox, under the title Buddhist Path, Buddhist Teachings, and edited by myself and Peter Harvey. Its contents are varied and – I hope and trust – a valuable and appropriate tribute to a great and much-missed scholar.

You can learn more about the book, or order it, here: www.equinoxpub.com/home/buddhist-path/ 

BPBT contents


Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Publications | 2 Comments

Digitised manuscripts vs the real thing

I’m in Dublin this week, giving a lecture at the Chester Beatty Library, as part of a series accompanying their “Thai Buddhist Tales” exhibition. It’s my first time in Ireland, and my visit to the Chester Beatty in particular feels long overdue; I have wanted to visit since working on the Illuminating the Life of the Buddha book, since the holdings include many manuscripts similar to the one featured in that book. As well as viewing the exhibition, which is really fantastic, I was able to also look at some additional manuscripts in the reading room.

The visit has been magical, and well worth the short hop across the sea. Yet, in the spirit of my last post (on trying to cut down academic travel) it is interesting to note that the Chester Beatty are increasingly leading the way in digital resources. Not only do they have an excellent array of materials ready for you to view online, but they even have a virtual version of the exhibition, so you can visit from the comfort of your own home, however far away it might be. It’s not the first time I’ve visited an exhibition virtually: a few years ago I enjoyed touring an exhibition on Vessantara at the University of Zurich.  This time, I was able to compare the virtual tour with the in-person experience.

And this all got me thinking: Clearly it’s a great thing to have manuscript collections available online. The world-wide web democratises these treasures, making them available to all, around the world, which is particularly important when collections arise from colonial or military activity, as they so often do. Scholars looking for something in particular can check from afar, and zoom in to impressive detail such that they actually see more than they would in the reading room. Libraries can benefit from additional information from researchers far away. Yet, is there something lost? To see a manuscript in the flesh – to touch it and hold it and appreciate its overall presence – still holds a certain magic, as I was reminded in the reading room this morning.

It is not just manuscripts or exhibitions that are increasingly available online, of course: having immediate access to the mass of scanned out-of-print books that are now online has saved me a huge amount of time in recent years. Books that I used to have to visit Oxford or London to see are now accessible from my office computer. And so, as a result, reasons to visit Oxford or London are reduced, and whether I see that as a good or a bad thing depends somewhat on my mood. While I was a Masters student in Cardiff, researching the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and producing a partial edition from manuscripts, my visits to the British Library, SOAS library, Cambridge University Library, and Indian Institute Library Oxford, formed some of the highlights of my year. They connected me in to a network of other scholars, and gave me the confidence to believe in myself as a proper researcher. Being amongst the rare books, and chuckling at the marginalia on the palm leaf pages of the text, conferred something that it is not quite possible to describe, and something that is certainly impossible to replicate in the digital world.

But perhaps, in the end, these musings are just like any other form of nostalgia. I miss mix-tapes and film cameras. I still determinedly use CDs. The physical form of these experiences is important to me. The magic of working with a physical book or manuscript will always be worth preserving, but we should also celebrate the growing opportunities of the online world.

And while we do that, I’m just going to pop in the Chester Beatty gift shop and get myself a few jātaka bookmarks…

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka | Leave a comment

Conferences and Climate Change

We all know that we have to make changes, in order to try to manage the changes already happening to our climate. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about academic travel, as the big glaring issue in my otherwise low-carbon lifestyle. We holiday in the UK, grow a good portion of our own vegetables, eat mostly vegetarian food, and generally shun the consumerist excesses of society. But I am aware that I can undo all this good with a single trip for work.

Yet I really don’t want to stop travelling for work. Conferences and trips are the highlight of the calendar: chances to hear about new work, catch up with colleagues, and get valuable ideas and feedback. A good conference enlivens the brain like nothing else. And I have lost count of the many unpredictable benefits that conversations with international colleagues have brought over the years.

How, then, to cut back responsibly, but without losing all this? I have been pondering this question and come up with three specific resolutions:

  1. Quality not quantity

My gushy praise of conferences above is entirely sincere, yet if I’m honest, I have also been to a fair number of bad conferences and symposia that have left me wondering why I bothered. So, if we need to make sure that less is more, we need to ensure that every conference or trip is really worthwhile. This can mean different things in different contexts. For example, I generally find longer papers more worthwhile, yet I also find the great breadth of the IABS Congress a wonderful opportunity to dance between snippets of research. Themed events tend to mean more coherence and scholarly exchange, and there are certain scholars I have come to value the company and contributions of above others. Practical constraints can also make an event more worthwhile: I tend to get more from an event if I am not horribly jet-lagged, and if I am there at a time of the year when I can put other work to the back of my mind. If an event can be reached without flying then that’s obviously another point in favour. So I am going to go full-nerd and make myself a little flowchart to help me decide on my priorities for future events, so I can reduce the overall number with minimal loss in benefit.

  1. Embrace the technology

One obvious move is to take more conferences and conversations online. This is still a fairly tricky idea in practice, however, with little agreement as to the best format or software, though personally I think the “nearly carbon neutral” model of pre-recorded papers and discussion boards put together by folks at UCSB is well worth a try: https://hiltner.english.ucsb.edu/index.php/ncnc-guide/

The benefits are clear: in addition to the carbon footprint, the time commitment is lower; people with families or other caring responsibilities that might prevent them going in person can participate; so can people from parts of the world with little research funding and/or obstacles to travel such as lengthy/expensive/unpredictable visa processes. In other words, it is a more inclusive way to hold a conference. The downsides are clear too, most of all the loss of that face-to-face contact that so often ends up being the most valuable part of a symposium or trip, but supplementing less-regular face-to-face events with better virtual interactions has to be a piece of the solution.

  1. Sharing and combining

In addition to symposia and conferences, the other most common type of academic trip is to speak at a seminar series or give a visiting lecture. These are of course lovely invitations to receive, and I am doing two such trips this autumn. However, they also have the least benefit to the speaker, in the sense that we give a lecture but often do not hear any of the rest of the series, and only occasionally receive feedback on our own work. There is still value, of course, not least in those around-the-edges conversations with one’s hosts, and also in the fact that – in the UK context at least – such invitations are key markers for promotion. However, I have decided not to do such trips outside Europe in future, unless I can combine multiple visits so that the journey is not made for a single talk. And, as a host of visiting speakers, I am going to see if I can get better communication with folk arranging programmes in Oxford and London, so that speakers visiting the UK can also have the opportunity to speak to multiple audiences in one trip.

These are all small moves, but many small moves make a movement.

Posted in Academia, conferences | Leave a comment