New project: Jatakas in Indian texts and art

As I sit at home watching the snow build up outside the window (the university is closed for a second day running due to the weather) I am musing about my new research project, an exploration of the uses of jātaka stories in early Indian texts and art.

In many ways it is not a new project at all. My doctoral work, into the Pāli jātaka tradition, set me on a long and ongoing quest to explore how the jātaka genre is understood in a range of Buddhist contexts. Since my work on the Pāli tradition I have also worked on the jātakas of the Avadānaśataka, and spent some time looking at those in the Mahāvastu. I have also always had an interest in how (and why) jātakas are present as visual depictions at Buddhist stūpa and temple sites, though I never have a helpful answer when someone sends me a photo and asks “what’s this?”!

However, thanks to a recent award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize, I will soon be able to approach my jātaka research more systematically, and with the help of a research resource that I hope will also be of use to others. The prize is allowing me to employ a Research Assistant (for twelve months full-time for the 2018/19 academic year) as well as get the technical support necessary to create an online searchable database of jātakas in Indian Buddhist texts and art.

The creation of such a resource has been a longstanding ambition, and the idea developed through long conversations with my friend and fellow jātaka-enthusiast Arthid Sheravanichkul of Chulalongkorn University. I look forward to finally getting it off the ground, with the help of a Research Assistant, and with the guidance of a number of scholars – including Arthid – who have agreed to form an advisory team for the project.

Once complete, the database should allow a variety of search functions, making it easy, for example, to look up all stories about jackals, or all stories that feature the Buddha’s mother, or all stories addressing the theme of deceit. It should also provide a bank of images of stories in art, helping with future identifications and scholarship. These features will certainly help me in my research, and I hope they will also be of use to other scholars, of art or text, as well as to Buddhists and other story enthusiasts.

If you know of anyone who might be interested in the Research Assistant post please do encourage them to apply. They must have a PhD (or be due to have one by the start of September) in Buddhist Studies or another relevant field (eg early Indian religion). Further details are available in the job advert here:

Once semester is over and time opens up once more I hope to post further details of the plans for this resource and the wider research project that I envisage building around it.

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

Why I spent my morning on a picket line

This week I am on strike, for the first time in my life. I spent four hours this morning in the freezing cold handing out leaflets in front of New College, the building where I usually work. I did the same yesterday morning, and I will do the same again tomorrow unless the strikes are called off.

The reasons for the strike are set out clearly on the website of the Universities and Colleges Union. In short, the higher-ups have decided – on the basis of doubtful calculations – that our pension scheme needs reform, and that this reform should involve utterly devaluing the scheme for members. Not only will there be a huge cut in benefits as a result, there will be no predictability, as the value of individual pension pots will depend entirely on the vagaries of the market. Risk will be individual, not collective, and each of us will have to take a gamble based on how long we think we might live. It is, to put it bluntly, a disaster for all of us – academics and professional support staff – in the scheme.

I don’t consider myself a greedy person. I didn’t oppose previous devaluations of the pension, such as the closing of the final salary scheme or the introduction of a cap to the defined benefits scheme. All I want is a decent and predictable income in my retirement. I don’t really see that this is too much to ask.

But this strike is also about so much more than pensions. It is about a system where university management can make decisions that impoverish all of its staff without proper consultation. It is about a system where student fees – as our own PM recently admitted (and it isn’t often that I agree with her) – bear no relation to how much a course is worth or costs to provide, and relate only to the amount universities think they can get away with charging. Fees are soaring (and likewise student debt, which is now scandalous), pay has stagnated, an obscene proportion of UK academics are employed on precarious contracts, and now they want our pensions too? All while the Vice-Chancellors take their pay packets of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and spend millions more on vanity building projects? No thank you.

I love my job. It is stressful at times, as I have shared with honesty in previous posts. But I love being an educator and a researcher, and evidence would suggest that I’m quite good at both. However, I am starting to feel embarrassed about working in universities, which are becoming more and more like businesses. I passionately believe in the social good of higher education, and I like to think that I work in the public sector, for the good of others. These strikes have demonstrated plainly to me that I am far from the only person who worries that our university system is going down the pan in pursuit of profit.

So striking really has been an act of solidarity. We’ve sung and danced and eaten cake, and handed out “solidarity biscuits” alongside leaflets. The support from students has been overwhelming and humbling. They are losing valuable education, yet they can see the bigger picture, and they understand that none of us have taken the decision to strike lightly. Fingers crossed that negotiations re-open and we can all get in out of the cold, back into our offices and lecture halls where we want to be.20180226_082226

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Highlights of the semester

Well I didn’t last long with my resolution to blog regularly. Semester rather got the better of me, thanks to a rather challenging workload and a twelve-week long cold. Thankfully both are now over, and looking back I can see clear highlights to my autumn semester:

  1. Philip Leverhulme Prize

Top of the list has to be the fantastic news that I have been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize. To receive such recognition for my research productivity over the past ten years is uplifting in itself. However, even more excitingly, it also means that next year I will receive a nice big chunk of research money with very few strings attached. I will therefore be able to finally fulfill my longstanding ambition to create a searchable online database of jātaka stories in texts and art, beginning with early India. More on this project in due course – when I’ve had time to think about it properly!

  1. Guest lecturing on Buddha Da

BuddhaDaFor those of you who don’t know, Buddha Da is a novel by Anne Donovan that tells of a working-class Glaswegian man who decides to become a Buddhist. I was invited into my colleague Linden Bicket’s class on Scottish literature and religion to talk about it a few weeks ago, and the conversation was really interesting. The novel’s presentation of Buddhism is far more than the usual mindfulness. It is subtle, for example at one point in the narrative Jimmy (the main character) destroys a mural he has painted of the Buddha in the Buddhist centre where he is camped out. The author could so easily have had one of the lamas say, “oh, that’s just like when we destroy a sand mandala” but she doesn’t. It is left to readers to make the connection, or to feel the tension around his attachment to his creation.  On a broader level, the novel is structured much as many Buddhist narratives are – including the lifestory of the Buddha – around the idea of a man seeking some higher realisation and causing pain to his wife and child in the process. It really is worth reading – I recommend it – though you will need to read it with your ears, so to speak, as it is written in Scots.

  1. Our Masters cohort

This year I’m in charge of our Masters programme in Religious Studies for the first time, and we have a lovely cohort of eight students. They have been an absolute joy to look after, as each has such a strong and interesting personality, as well as their own particular disciplinary background and motivation. It feels very strange to think that until twelve weeks ago I didn’t know any of them! I am looking forward to seeing how they progress over the coming year.

  1. Lecture Q&A

In teaching my usual introduction to Buddhism in nine lectures (for an introduction to RS course with around 125 students) I had a rather unusual experience. I always encourage students to ask questions, and to interrupt the lecture if they need something clarified. However, in this year’s lecture on karma and rebirth the questions became the lecture. There were so many interesting questions that I abandoned my planned slides and talk, and we had a conversation instead. They may not have been aware of this, but the students’ questions actually guided us through all the material I had planned to cover, but in a wonderfully interactive manner! I left the lecture hall beaming.

  1. RS seminar revelation

I haven’t really had any research time this autumn, but I did have to spend a while revising a conference paper on solitary buddhas for the Religious Studies research seminar. As I was making the necessary adjustments I found myself realising that there was something not working about the framing of the paper but I couldn’t work out what. Then, in the questions after the paper, Joachim Gentz (Professor of Chinese Philosophy and Religion in the Asian Studies department here in Edinburgh) put his hand up, and then put his finger on exactly what the problem was. I love it when these wonderfully sharp people can see right to the point, and especially when they manage to do so in a manner that is helpful and encouraging. Thank you Joachim – you will make rewriting for publication a lot easier!

So not a bad semester overall, though I’ll still be glad of a rest over Christmas. I hope everyone has a good break coming up, full of chocolate oranges and roasted parsnips!

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Sweet peas, karma theory and impermanence

Okay, so I am trying to keep this blog nice and scholarly, but I keep finding myself going off on little musings about my garden, especially now that the nights are drawing in and the weather has turned decisively to autumn. Actually, the garden and the process of gardening often remind me of Buddhist teachings. What better place to contemplate impermanence than a garden, where some things grow and some die, only to be reborn the following spring.

Many of the paccekabuddha stories that I have been studying involve natural objects of meditation – such as a tree stripped bare for its fruit (is it better to be a fruiting tree, or a non-fruiting tree, i.e. a renouncer?), a withered leaf (oh! Impermanence!), or lotus blooms withering in the sun. Maybe meditating on corpses is more effective, but gardening is certainly a more pleasant way of remaining aware of the constant change that characterizes existence, and that of course extends to our own bodies. Actually, sore knees or a tired back are rather good reminders of that too!


Contemplating the powerful field of merit that is my garden.

And then there’s karma, so often expressed in agricultural metaphors. We plant seeds of deeds, and if we plant these in a powerful field of merit (e.g. by offering a gift to a Buddha) then the fruits will be amazing. Repeated refrains in the Avadānaśataka remind us that every deed eventually fruits, even if only after hundreds of millions of aeons.

I suppose that may actually be where gardening and karma theory part company! Not all of the seeds I plant grow and bear fruit. Our aubergine (eggplant) plants are flowering like fury but have refused to set fruits despite our best efforts with a paintbrush. Perhaps they will fruit after a few aeons. Or perhaps they have descended from the Brahma realm and therefore refuse to engage in sexual relations. Ah, no, now I am drifting into Jainism, for in Buddhism plants are not a part of the cycle of beings.

I see another karma resonance in my garden, too: my sweet peas. What I love about sweet peas is that they demand to be picked. The more you pick the more you get. So, pick a bunch and give it away, and you will be rewarded by another bunch in just a few days. The more you give away the more you benefit – just like merit transfer! Until, of course, the plants are overrun with greenfly or die back as the colder weather sets in. Ah, impermanence.

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Hanging out with solitary buddhas

Last autumn I declared it the year of the paccekabuddha (or, in Sanskrit, pratyekabuddha). I have been intrigued by these figures, who are awakened beings from times between Buddhisms, for several years, and wanted to give them some proper attention. Having already signed up to translate the pratyekabuddha chapter of the Avadānaśataka for a group project, I set about reading everything else I could get my hands on.

It quickly became clear that these figures are not consistently portrayed, even within the narrative materials that naturally formed my focus. As such, I seem to have ended up with four things:

  1. A translation of the Avadānaśataka decade of stories about pratyekabuddhas;
  2. A conference paper about the same, presented at the IABS Congress in Toronto, August 2017;
  3. A conference paper about paccekabuddhas in (primarily Pāli) jātaka texts, presented at a conference about rebirth narratives in art and text convened by Jason Neelis and held in Toronto following the IABS congress, and a longer version for publication;
  4. A paper about the ways in which pratyekabuddhas teach, for a workshop on dialogue in Indian religions held in Lancaster in July 2017 and due for revisions for a published volume.

I have decided to make all of these available here, as pdfs, for anyone who is interested. Please do not cite without my permission, as they are all drafts for later publication. Number 1 will become a part of a team translation of the full Avadānaśataka; an expanded version of 3 will eventually be published in a collected volume in memory of Lance Cousins; and a revised version of 4 will be published in a volume on dialogue edited by Brian Black and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad.

Although the different papers reflect a variety of interests, one thing holds them together: an appreciation of the tension that pratyekabuddhas cause for the Buddhist tradition. As apparently solitary buddhas who achieve awakening in a time without Buddhism and keep the dharma to themselves, they are a peculiar category, somewhere between full buddha and arhat. In Mahāyāna sources they are denigrated as inferior and selfish, like arhats, while full buddhahood is upheld as the only true ideal.

I am generally convinced by the historical speculation that the category emerged as a means of including awakened sages of the past into the Buddhist fold. The stipulation that pratyekabuddhas cannot arise at the same time as a full Buddha or his teaching removes the threat of current rivals, while the insistence that pratyekabuddhas do not teach means that there can be no rival lineages or teachings either.

Yet pratyekabuddhas do teach, at least in the narratives, and in particular in the Pāli Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and the commentary to a famous set of verses about the benefits of “wandering lonely as a rhinoceros” found in the Sutta Nipāta. Their particular form of teaching, often using signs or enigmatic verses, or by engineering experiences for those who might benefit from them, is what I explore in my paper for the dialogue conference and volume (“Dialogues with Solitary Buddhas”).

The threat of pratyekabuddhas seems to have continued, with questions naturally arising about where they sit in relation to the Buddha (and past buddhas) and his disciples. What happens when a paccekabuddha meets the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be)? Is a paccekabuddha superior to the Bodhisatta when he teaches the latter in a jātaka story, or attains nirvana without the Bodhisatta able to follow? These are some of the questions I explore in my paper “Jātaka Stories and Paccekabuddhas in Early Buddhism”.

By the time of the Avadānaśataka there is a clear attempt to make pratyekabuddhas dependent upon full buddhas by telling stories of how Śākyamuni Buddha predicted various figures to future pratyekabuddhahood. Only two stories break this pattern, by telling stories about pratyekabuddhas of the past, whose crumbling stūpas are happened upon by the Buddha and his monks. These two stories show some awareness of the wider narrative context of pratyekabuddhas, including their association with awakening through signs of impermanence. Even here, however, the pratyekabuddhas are declared to have had past-life devotional interactions with past buddhas. Hence they can only achieve pratyekabuddhahood so suddenly because they undertook preparatory work at the feet of full buddhas in the past. I address the characterization of these figures in the Avadānaśataka in “Pratyekabuddhas in the Avadānaśataka”. (See also my draft translation of this decade here.)

I hope that these papers, and the publications that will in due course arise from them, will open up some new lines of thought in relation to pratyekabuddhas and their place in early Buddhism.

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If only we could bottle the atmosphere at conferences

I have just returned from Toronto, where I attended two conferences: The Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, followed by a smaller event focused on rebirth narratives, at the Royal Ontario Museum. Both were excellent in their different ways: IABS is such a wonderful opportunity to take the pulse of the field, to catch up with areas of scholarship, and of course to meet with colleagues old and new. It is, however, very big, and peppered with clashing parallel panels and half-conversations. The rebirth narratives conference was much smaller: we were all in one room for two days, hearing a series of closely related papers about the art and literature of the Buddhist world.

I wish I could bottle the atmosphere at such conferences – “eau d’IABS” perhaps – so I could take a healthy sniff of it mid-semester, to remind me that I am a scholar, and not just a teacher and administrator. My rather tired brain, so over-stimulated and still processing everything I heard and reflected on in Toronto, will now have to shift focus to the start of the new academic year, and I know I will struggle – as I always do – to keep that momentum of learning and thinking going as the more immediate demands grow.

Alongside many conversations on topics related to the conference, recent scholarship and the like, I was surprised by a recurring comment that I had not anticipated: quite a few people commented that they enjoyed my blog. Given that I hardly ever post anything, and it is rare indeed for me to post something really interesting (even by my own standards!) I was rather taken aback by this. In addition, I had actually decided to shut the blog down, since I could not find time to use it properly. Now, as a result of these conversations in Toronto, I have had a rethink.

The reason I have not been blogging very much recently is of course workload. I spent much of the past year juggling multiple commitments and feeling generally run down. In the new year I sought a new approach, and took up what I believe is called “time-theming”. This involves clustering similar tasks together, concentrating on one key task / cluster of tasks per day (or half day), and thus lessening the exhaustion that comes from trying to multi-task. As all the science now agrees, there is no such thing as multi-tasking: we just switch quickly back and forth between the tasks, and get worn out in the process.

Since blogging didn’t have any similar tasks to cluster with, it dropped off the list completely, but now I think I will reinstate it, and cluster it with the important task of reminding myself that I am a scholar. This task will be flexible – maybe simply trying to read an article or a chapter of a book each week. I will also challenge myself to think interesting scholarly thoughts, and share them here!

Hopefully this blog can be reborn as a way of keeping scholarly conversations alive between conferences. I will also use it to share papers and other research resources that I am creating. But, having resolved to use it better, you should be warned that this may necessitate quite a few retrospective posts, about events and thoughts and questions from earlier in the year…

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Categories and socks

I was mocked this past Christmas for my response to one of my gifts. I had been presented with a box of six “odd socks”. In fact, although each of the six socks had a different design, they shared a basic background and were all related to gardening, which makes perfect sense given that gardening is my new favourite thing.

My first response was to pair them up.


Honestly, that wasn’t so difficult. Birds and bees, flowerpots and tools, fruit and veg. A small child could have found an ordering principle that obvious. But apparently the socks were not supposed to be ordered. I had, it seems, missed the point of odd socks entirely.

Which got me thinking about my own propensity for order. I do prefer my socks paired, though I am happy for them to differ from one another. I have a habit of hanging the laundry so that all the similar-coloured things are next to each other. And, of course, finding and creating patterns and orders and categories is one of the things I love about research.

Much of this is fairly harmless, indeed maybe even beneficial. I see patterns in my research data and this informs my analysis and even the questions I decide to investigate. I like the clarity of a structured piece of writing, both when I am the author and when I am the reader. I have a particular love of divisions into three, which is of course a basic human instinct, though admittedly not so helpful with socks.

The danger comes, I suppose, when we see order because we want to, or when we impose our own categories on our material in order to pursue our own agenda. Whether or not I have done this with my Christmas present I leave you to decide.


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