Is a buddha a human?

I have been pondering this question for a very specific reason: When entering a “character” in our jātaka database, we assign to it certain “character descriptors” such as male, monkey, merchant, and so on. This is partly to differentiate several characters with the same name but different characteristics, and partly to enable users to search not only for named characters but also for specific types of character.

However, as I was entering the stories from Avadānaśataka chapter 2 last week, I found myself in a muddle. The stories involve the Bodhisattva encountering various named buddhas of the past, each of whom therefore required a “character” entry. But after about the fourth or fifth buddha – tagging them “human”, “male”, “buddha” – I started feeling uncomfortable. Are they really “human”? Is that the right descriptor for a character who works miracles, teaches the gods, and inspires faith that can transform one’s karmic outcomes?

This is of course partly a question about the Avadānaśataka in particular. As I have written elsewhere (actually in a forthcoming book for Equinox, which also includes translations of stories 1-40), the text is clearly devotional, and inspires real awe in its audience. Repeated accounts, for example, of how, when a buddha smiles, rays of light enter the heavens and shout “impermanence!” to remind the gods they are mortal, and enter the hells projecting images of the Buddha that inspire such potent faith that the hell-beings are immediately reborn elsewhere, are hardly accounts of a “human” protagonist.

But the question also has a wider resonance, playing into long-standing debates about the ways in which scholarship has tended toward humanising the Buddha, portraying him as perfected but still “just a man”. Such portrayals seem far removed from many Buddhist sources, even those from Pāli scriptures, which arguably adopt the most human vision of what it is to be a buddha. What worried me, as I worked on putting these stories in the database, was that perhaps I too have internalised this idea of a buddha being essentially (bad word in Buddhism!) human, even though consciously I reject it. A buddha, especially but not only in the Avadānaśataka, is more than a human.

So, today I went back through, and took “human” out of the descriptors for all of the buddhas so far featuring in our list of jātaka characters!

They are all still tagged “male”, however, but that’s a different story of course…

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Labels and cultural imperialism

Allow me a small complaint on the way we talk about (or fail to talk about) the great civilisations of Ancient India.

I attended a lecture on comparative philosophy a few months ago, in which the speaker compared the views of three specific named medieval philosophers on a particular subject with “Indian” views on the same subject. While I was delighted at the speaker’s enthusiasm for bringing Indian thought into the study of “mainstream” philosophy, this wasn’t the most convincing demonstration of what we might gain from taking Indian philosophy seriously, in all its complexity and variety. There is no single “Indian” philosophical position on anything, anymore than there is any “Greek” one.

But at least that speaker was keen to point out that not all philosophy originates in Ancient Greece and Rome. A little while later I attended some of the Gifford lectures of Professor Mary Beard, a fabulous Classicist whose work I much admire. Her lecture series was entitled “The Ancient World and Us: From Fear and Loathing to Enlightenment and Ethics”. It was a lovely series, but I had to ask: Why do Classicists think it’s okay to use “The Ancient World” as shorthand for Ancient Greece and Rome? Surely this sort of shorthand – using temporal designators such as “Ancient” (“Late Antique” is another of my bugbears) when a geographical limitation is also meant – is a form of cultural imperialism? It implies that there is no Ancient World other than the one that underpins our own European culture. But there is.

The problem becomes even worse when the geographical designators are explicit rather than implicit, as in the keywords we are asked to choose when applying for funding from the national research councils. Listing the “Time Period” relevant to an AHRC application is a struggle for me. Do I go with “Hellenistic&Roman: 300BC-700AD”? That sort of covers my time period, but with a glaringly obvious problem. Perhaps the “Later Roman Empire: AD250-450” might cover my sources? There is simply no historical designator that I can use that comes without a geographical label too, even though geographical reach is a separate set of keywords in itself. What is implied by this is that the study of Ancient history outside of Europe simply doesn’t exist. (And, incidentally, is it still only Religious Studies that seeks to use the more neutral scholarly options BCE and CE for dates?)

There is a welcome campaign across many fields at the moment to diversify curricula, and bring new voices (from different genders, ethnicities, cultures and classes, to name a few) into our scholarly purview. As we embrace “global history” or the study of “world literatures” I would suggest that we must also begin to adjust how we speak of the subjects overall. Ancient philosophy is more than Aristotle. Classical civilisations were present outside Europe. Literature comes in many different languages and forms. Please, let’s start labelling things with a bit more care.

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On the joys of concentration

I have been thinking a lot recently about concentration. Concerns about what the internet and smartphones are doing to our ability to concentrate are all over the media. Despite avoiding social media and being rather good at ignoring my phone, I have nonetheless struggled with concentration in recent years, constantly juggling different demands for my attention. And whether witnessing the concentration spans of sixteen-year olds visiting the department for sample lectures, or watching colleagues barely manage five minutes of a guest lecture without checking their phones, evidence of our failing ability to just do one thing at a time is everywhere.

And so, as I got ever closer a long-awaited six-month research leave, I wondered: How easy will it be to get back into long uninterrupted spells of reading? Will I manage to avoid distractions, to concentrate, and to spend my time wisely?

So far I am pleased to say that my concerns were ill-founded. I have surprised myself by being able to read all day without any trouble! Indeed, it has been a real pleasure to get immersed in scholarship without worrying about all the other things I should be doing instead or as well. (This is what the Slow Professor calls “timeless time” – time when you don’t have to worry about what time it is!) My brain feels happy and alive, and ready to think about interesting things for long stretches.

A caveat, though, is that I seem only to be able do this when physically away from my office. Once here, my discipline is lost, and I find myself drawn into emails and administrative tasks (of which, for various reasons, some will necessarily continue during my leave). One challenge for the next six months will therefore be to identify the best balance of work across each week, with sufficient days on the sofa or in cafes, but also enough time in my office to keep the decks clear.

And, as the leave continues, you can expect more regular blog posts as I reflect on the many interesting things I have read, with full concentration, and fully alive to the joys of that concentrated time.

I hope that everyone out there is also managing some concentrated reading time this summer!

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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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