The UK Buddhist studies community has lost two great scholars in the past months. Just before Christmas Ian Harris, expert in Buddhist ethics and Cambodian Buddhism, and founding member of UKABS (the UK Association for Buddhist Studies), passed away. And last week it was announced that Lance Cousins, surely one of the world’s finest scholars of Pāli and early Buddhism, has left us.
I will not try to repeat the obituaries offered by those more competent, but I would like to share some personal memories, because both men have had a profound influence on my life and career, quite possibly without realising it.
It was Ian who first got me involved in UKABS, when Lancaster hosted the 2006 UKABS conference. I happened to be in Lancaster that summer, and helped out with some of the registrations, as well as giving a paper in the student panel. It was there that Ian suggested I might be a good postgraduate representative on the committee. I served as such until I graduated in 2008, and then progressed to Treasurer, until 2014; these years of service were greatly enjoyable, if hard work, and allowed me to get to know so many colleagues across the UK and beyond. By the time I stood down, Ian had recently rejoined the committee as President, though ill-health meant his term did not last long. His warmth as a person made him a pleasure to work with, his scholarship – especially on Cambodia – has been immensely important to the field, and the enthusiasm with which he fostered the UKABS community made a major difference to so many of us here in the UK. He will be much missed by all of us.
My interactions with Lance are associated primarily with a different organisation and a different conference, namely the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions. I attended this first as an undergraduate in 2003, and vividly remember my first encounter with Lance, whom I found utterly intimidating! I have a particular memory of the DIY labels system, which led to an amusing contrast between my friend and I (“Hannah” and “Naomi”) and some of the more consequential members of the Symposium (e.g. “Gombrich” and “Cousins”). However, the more I talked to him the more I came to appreciate the great generosity and wry humour with which he shared his wealth of knowledge. I enjoyed our regular encounters at the Spalding, and when I started my doctoral studies at Oxford he kindly offered advanced Pāli reading classes. I wrestled Abhidhamma and Pāli commentaries under his guidance, neither of which were my cup of tea but both of which greatly improved my language skills. (My fellow student was the late Jungnok Park, whose neat tabular representations of Abhidhamma concepts helped me navigate the classes, and whose tragic death in 2008 cut off what should have been a long career of his own.) Eventually, just before I moved away from Oxford for good in 2010, Lance agreed to read a jātaka with Sarah Shaw and myself. We would show up at his house with scones or other offerings, and he would switch off the cricket and settle down to read with us, always offering a helpful insight or a new perspective. What wonderful memories I will keep of those afternoon Pāli sessions!
With the loss of Lance Cousins and Ian Harris the UK Buddhist studies community is immeasurably impoverished. They touched so many lives and gave so much to scholarship and to the scholarly community.
Lance Cousins in particular will be remembered with fondness at next month’s Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, as a regular participant and contributor, a true friend of the Symposium.
[Addition 25th March: Since writing this I have come to know that the Samatha Trust website is gathering reflections about Lance: http://www.samatha.org/lance-cousins]