Research-led teaching, or jātakas jātakas jātakas

We’ve all heard the phrase “research-led teaching”, but what does it mean? Well, this semester I have been reflecting on that question, as I have been teaching a course on jātakas for the first time ever. Alongside the class, which is for upper undergraduates and masters students, I have been continuing to work with Chris Clark on our jātaka database project, as well as starting some of the associated research, and I also reviewed two new jātaka translations. As such, there has been substantial alignment in all of my activities!

I must say I have really enjoyed this alignment, which has helped in both directions. Researching has given me fresh perspectives to bring into class, and the students’ responses have fed back into my research. Sometimes it is their surprise or incredulity or puzzlement, and sometimes – I particularly love these moments – completely new insights into materials that I think that I already know well.

The students’ enthusiasm for the course has also been very affirming. Okay, so maybe not everyone finds jātakas as fascinating as I do, but I don’t seem to be completely crazy in my love of this literature. The down-side, I suppose, is that I do take it a little bit too personally when they don’t like a particular story, or – worse – when they don’t want to read my work, or don’t understand it when they do!

But even this is good for me, of course. Ego is a big problem in academia, and it is good to be reminded that sometimes I don’t write as clearly as I should, or don’t have the most pertinent insight into a particular theme or story. However, it is equally good to be reminded that jātaka stories really do offer intriguing and accessible insights into early Buddhist ideas and values.

And while the course seems to have been a success, it has also energised me and immersed me into jātakas once again, ready for a six-month research leave and a whole new agenda of reading and thinking….

I suppose this is teaching-led research as much as it is research-led teaching!


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Thirty years of the world-wide web

There have been lots of discussions in the past week about the anniversary of the internet. I have been particularly interested to hear about its inventor’s concerns that it isn’t quite living up to his very good intentions. It got me thinking about the benefits and challenges that the internet has presented for me, since I got my first email address aged 17, and how the www has completely changed the way we research and teach.

My top three benefits

  1. Electronic texts and research resources

I love being able to access ever increasing stocks of texts and scholarship online. Books that used to be only held in rare libraries are now on, while GRETIL offers a host of Sanskrit and Pali texts in easily searchable form. Digital research tools are still in their infancy, yet already I cannot conceive of going back to researching the non-internet way.

  1. Global networks

Most of the colleagues with whom I share research interests are at different institutions to me, indeed many of them are the other side of various ponds. Being able to connect by email and skype has added greatly to my sense of being part of a global academy.

  1. VLEs

Okay, maybe I’m weird, but I love the fact that courses now have online portals where students can access everything, and where I can post messages and resources. I wish such things had been available to me when I was an undergraduate.

My top three challenges

  1. Email mountains

Emails can eat up whole days, and people email without thinking of the effects on the recipient’s time. Some emails are a delight to receive, but many are either irrelevant (yet even to skim and delete takes its toll) or downright annoying, especially those asking questions the answers to which I have already provided in other formats. Some days I loathe emails and wish they had never been invented. I now routinely keep them to the office, meaning at least weekends are email free, though that does mean that personal emails from friends never get a reply – sorry, pals!

  1. E-books

I’m rather old-fashioned in my reading habits – I enjoy curling up in an armchair with a physical book. I have quite a spatial memory so can often recall the colour or location of a book in my office before its title or author; likewise I can often track down a particular chapter or even page by where in the book it is. E-books simply don’t have the same effect, and I find that if I read on screen I take in less and forget it quicker. Also:

  1. Screen eyes

The centrality of the internet to our work inevitably means we are all chained to our computers. If there was no internet, I would still type up my writing, I’m sure, but my days would involve a far larger variety of chairs and views. I think I now spend around 80% of my work time staring at my computer screen. Bad for the eyes and for the back.

Yet despite these downsides I would not be without the internet. Perhaps we just need to find ways to control it, and keep it in its place, rather than letting it control us. I am trying to develop habits of regular switching off of the internet, or time writing and thinking in spaces free from its reaches. You will never find me getting an internet-enabled watch or having my work emails ping through to my phone. Thanks, internet, it’s good to have you, but I’m in charge here.

Happy birthday world-wide web!

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Offering biscuits to the Buddha

I was in Reading this week, visiting friends, and we went to Reading museum. I particularly enjoyed the gallery dedicated to famous local biscuit factory Huntley & Palmers, for two reasons: (1) many of my ancestors worked at the factory; and (2) I have always used this as an excuse for why I like biscuits so much.

On this visit a new item caught my eye that takes my biscuit loyalties in a new direction: this 1911 poster for the Burmese market:


BuddhabiscuitsdetailYou can’t see clearly on this bad phone snap, but if you look closely, the devotees are actually offering Huntley & Palmers biscuits to the Buddha!

I couldn’t really work out what to make of the image, which delighted and repelled me in equal measure. And having spent my train journey reading – what else – Buddhist multi-life stories, I couldn’t help wondering what the karmic rewards would be for offering the Buddha such tasty treats. In the end I decided to take the find as further evidence that my career choice and snack habits really have been determined by my past life involvement with this biscuit manufacturer. Yum yum.

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What is a jātaka and how many are there?

My brother is a high school librarian, and he sometimes sets his pupils a library quiz, to test their ability to find certain books and information within them. Recently, presumably out of a desire to entertain his younger sister, he included a task about jātaka stories:

(a) What is a jataka story?

(b) How many jataka stories are there?

The pupils did pretty well, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that these apparently simple questions were actually more complicated than at first glance.

The first question is still open to debate. The most basic and widespread definition is ‘a story of a past life of the Buddha,’ and this is the general definition I tend to work with. This definition, however, forces us to consider certain stories that are not ever labelled this way as jātakas, such as the stories of the Buddha’s past lives in the Avadānaśataka.  Should we instead limit our category to those stories that explicitly refer to themselves as “jātakas? If so, we not only lose many potential narratives that have clear parallels with more established jātaka texts, but must also include a couple of stories in the Mahāvastu that – despite their “jātaka” label – are stories of the past-lives of other people and do not feature the Buddha-to-be.

And what about stories of the Buddha’s past-life encounters with past buddhas? These tend not to be called jātakas within their textual contexts, but are commonly called such by scholars, who happily refer to, for example, the “Dīpaṅkara Jātaka”. Here I am more hesitant: although I tend towards inclusivity, it is clear that such stories were considered at least a separate sub-genre, since they are collected into different texts (eg a separate chapter of the Avadānaśataka, or the Buddhavaṃsa as opposed to the Cariyāpiṭaka) and used differently in art (for example at Ajanta, where the Dipankara story is the only “jātaka”, as far as I am aware, to be depicted in stone relief rather than painting).

Deciding how to define a jātaka has been an important part of setting out the parameters for the jātaka database project that is – thanks to the hard work of Dr Chris Clark and the technical support of the Digital Innovations team – now underway here in Edinburgh. Since I am clear about my own interests, which extend to all stories of the Buddha’s past lives regardless of what emic label they have, defining jātaka in the most inclusive manner is clearly the way ahead for this project, but I remain aware of the issues it creates.

As for part b of the quiz, that one made me laugh even more, since nobody really knows the answer. There are commonly said to be 547 jātaka stories, but this is just the number in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, the largest and most well-known collection. Even for this one text, 547 is an approximation, since some of the 547 titles have no actual story, and some stories are repeated under multiple titles. Once you add in other jātaka collections the picture gets even more complicated, and then there are all the jātakas in the form of images, often without clear textual parallels.

Even after our database is complete, it will only – for the first phase at least – cover jātaka stories found in early Indian texts and art. And even then, there will be no definitive answer even for this limited range of texts and artistic contexts. That is largely because of the tricky question of how to decide when a story is a distinctive story, and when it is the same as another story in another text or image. What about when the story is identical except for a single verse? Or what about when two stories relate to the same characters but their actions are slightly different? And when does a visual jātaka need to be seen as a separate story rather than a depiction of a textual jātaka?

We are trying to tackle this through a “linking table” in our relational database. For each story (either textual or visual) that appears to have parallels in other texts and visual contexts, we will create an entry for the story cluster, and every instance will link to it. This will allow users to see any parallels. However, while the technical side is now sorted, the task remains of deciding what constitutes a parallel!

And so, inspired by my brother’s quiz, perhaps my next conference paper will be entitled: “What is a jātaka and how many are there?”

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Lifelong Learning

One of the “graduate attributes” that we are supposed to be developing in our students is a commitment to lifelong learning. I have always appreciated this one, as a lifelong fan of learning (also known as a professional nerd) myself. Let us do what we can to inspire students to continue discovering and researching and developing throughout their lives. As well as helping their careers, it will give them joy.

In recent months I have been reminded once again of the excitement I feel when I learn something completely new. This time it was not a research discovery, but a task related to my jataka database project, which is finally getting underway. Indeed, I must blog about it properly in the new year. But meanwhile, this is what I loved learning: how to structure relational databases.

No really.

Ooh it is so much fun! A whole different way of thinking about structuring information. And another language for relating to the tables, namely MySQL. I didn’t anticipate how interesting it would be to dip my toe into this new world. And, contrary to what you find on Indian religion, if you look for information about, say, entity relationship diagrams online, you find sensible and helpful resources. (And yes, I do now know what those are as well!)

And even as I shut down my office computer any moment now and declare it the holidays, I will be continuing to learn. I may banish the emails and even the work books for the next two weeks, but only so I can attend to my other projects: learning a new piece on the piano, learning to sew a dress, learning to knit slippers, learning what happens in the three novels currently sitting on my bedside table, learning how many chocolate oranges it takes to make me feel sick.

So allow me to wish you all a happy and learning-filled holiday season!

NOTE: I gather that WordPress adds advertisements to my posts. Please note that they are nothing to do with me, and that clicking on the links is at your own risk! I have been advised that one recent ad was fraudulent, so do watch out.


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Silver Athena SWAN award

Last week we at the School of Divinity heard that we had been successful in getting a Silver Athena SWAN award, in recognition of efforts we have been making towards creating an inclusive and supportive environment for staff and students of all genders. We previously held a Bronze award (since 2014), and we have been the pioneering department of Divinity/Theology/Religion – the first in the UK to get Bronze, and now the first in the UK to get Silver.

The award makes me personally very proud, because for four years (2014-2018) I was the School’s Equality and Diversity Director, and had the responsibility of overseeing our Athena SWAN and related work. I spent many many many hours of my life filling in the long and complex application form for the Silver award. The result makes all that work feel worthwhile, but more importantly it also recognises what I already knew from my own observations: the School’s culture has been changing, and for the better. We still have more to do, but we are going in the right direction.

As I reflect back on the process, here are my top tips for what is needed for Athena SWAN success:

  1. The broadest possible support. Ideally, include other areas of the E&D agenda too, and make sure the emphasis is on gender equality and not advancing women. You officially need an “Athena SWAN self-assessment team” but it doesn’t need to be called that, and in my view it’s better if it is called an E&D committee (as ours is), or People+ (as in the School of Social and Political Science) or something like that, to ensure everyone knows that everyone will benefit from the process. Transformations cannot happen without lots of people contributing.
  2. The highest possible support. Support from the people in power, and the people with access to resources, is essential. Here at Edinburgh there has been a big push towards Athena SWAN applications from the highest levels of management, and this filters down to communicate a clear priority area for work. This has helped greatly.
  3. Specialist support. I am in no way qualified to perform the statistical gathering or analysis necessary for the application, nor did I know what a SMART action plan is until I had to write one. Thankfully, the School had access to a specialist support person from HR, who guided me through everything a did a lot of data work herself. This was completely essential to our success.
  4. Time. Quite apart from the time spent overseeing committees and initiatives and changes to processes and so on, the time needed for filling in the application form was substantial. It took more time than I could possibly have imagined, and I think of myself as someone quite good at filling in forms! I honestly think I could have researched and written at least half a book in the time it took just to navigate the form itself. If you are overseeing an application, make sure you get sufficient time.
  5. Perspective. I found it really helpful to separate out – in my head – the application process itself from the changes to culture and processes underpinning the application. Clearly the latter is the real priority, and the real cause for celebration. Whenever the form was driving me mad (especially when trying to compress the word count!) I kept reminding myself of all the good things brought about by the external leverage of the Athena SWAN process. In a professional environment now dominated by market forces and commercialisation, it is so valuable to have a lever for change that makes us create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all.
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I love reading novels as well as academic books, but usually these two categories are firmly separate. Recently this separation broke down as I read Vanessa Sasson’s novel about the Buddha’s long-suffering wife, called Yasodhara and available from Speaking Tiger Books.

I first heard about Vanessa’s creative efforts at last summer’s IABS Congress, when she was persuaded to do a little reading from the opening of the novel during the Q&A session that followed her paper. I was really impressed by the skilful way in which she switched gears, drawing us all into the emotional torment of Yasodhara as she contemplates her young son’s departure. I was almost in tears by the end.

Photo on 17-09-2018 at 13.40I was therefore really excited to hear about the book’s publication, and couldn’t wait to get my order. It was well worth it: a very imaginative and engrossing tale, interweaving a range of narrative sources and references (including the Vessantara Jataka and the Ramayana) to create something both engaging and thought provoking.

It is not often that a scholar is able to also write good fiction. In the field of Indology the notable exception is Lee Siegel, whose novel Love in a Dead Language captivated me as a graduate student, combining as it does the academic conventions of translation and commentary with fiction. Vanessa Sasson’s book is also not exactly full blown fiction: it is based in part on biographical (or hagiographical) sources about the Buddha’s lifestory, and Notes at the end of the novel helpfully indicate what bits of the story come from where. However, she has not been held back by any concerns over “fact” or “history”, instead letting her imagination take her on a journey of exploration in the company of Yasodhara. We get a totally different – and hugely enriched – perspective on the Buddha’s lifestory as a result.

Posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, gender, Publications, Religious narrative | 2 Comments