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:
- 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!
- Guest lecturing on Buddha Da
For 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!