Have you seen a what’s-it tree?

One of my favourite jātaka stories is the tale of the Kimsuka – or “what’s-it” tree (number 248 in the big Pāli collection). Last year I turned it into a resource for school teachers to use, and last week I was able to participate in a sample lesson based on the story, at a CPD event we held at New College.

Louise Hepburn, who is a Principal Teacher at Kirkfieldbank Primary School, has been a key participant in the Approaching Religion Through Story project that a colleague and I have been running over the past two years. Sharing her expertise and ideas at last week’s event, she began by giving us each an envelope containing a photograph of a tree. This, she told us, was a what’s-it tree. We were told to study the photo carefully, in secret, and practice describing it to others.

Next we were up on our feet, meeting other people and telling them what a what’s-it tree looks like. Soon there were disputes: Was the tree green? No, definitely red. Or perhaps covered in seedpods. Was it bare or covered in leaves? Everyone seemed to have a different idea! We could not agree on a description of the tree.

Of course, as you may have guessed, the photographs represent the tree at different stages in the year, with buds on the trunk, red fleshy flowers, green leaves or distinctive pods. All the pictures were of the what’s-it tree (the teacher wasn’t telling lies!) but we had to come to a realisation about different ways of seeing something, or the dangers of having only an incomplete viewpoint, just as the four brothers do in the original story.

Jātaka learning in action! You can see Louise’s lesson plan, as well as loads more teaching resources that involve stories at the project website.

Posted in Academia, Buddhist texts, Religious narrative, Teaching | 3 Comments

End of semester and back to research

It is strange to look back at my last post, in which I sing the praises of the Slow Professor and rejoice in managing to keep up a weekly research day! That didn’t last very long: first marking hit, then a major administrative deadline along with a whole host of other things. Last week I crashed headlong into the final week of semester, absolutely exhausted and barely able to string two words together.

However, not only did I survive, a few well-timed events re-ignited my research brain!

not_reading_workshopLast Wednesday (5th April) the University of Edinburgh’s Asian Religions Network held two events. The morning was spent at a roundtable discussion entitled “Not reading religious texts”, in which we discussed different ways in which people interact with texts other than by reading them. Colleagues with textual, ethnographic and art-historical interests came together and the meeting was hugely fruitful as well as stimulating. In the evening it was our annual Khyentse Buddhist Studies lecture, this year featuring Professor Bernard Faure.faure_lecture_poster

And then the weekend, and the end of semester, suddenly appeared, and I was on the train to Oxford for the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions. Not only was this event – as it always is – a thoroughly stimulating experience full of interesting papers and excellent conversation, but the train journey (six hours each way) allowed me to reacquaint myself with my current research. What’s more, the sun was shining in Oxford and the food was excellent, so I returned physically refreshed as well as reengaged.

So what next? Well there’s still plenty of marking and admin and meetings, but hopefully this will now be mixed with regular interactions with stories about pratyekabuddhas, and maybe a few more blog posts too…

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On slowing down at work

As the civilized world falls apart around our ears, I have been – once again – trying to improve my working practices. The aim has not been simply increased efficiency, though this is certainly a factor: I needed to learn to enjoy my job again. In recent months I have been spending more and more time feeling disgruntled about my work, even disliking aspects of it that I used to enjoy. This is in part because of increased managerialism and a sense that I no longer work in the public sector (on which more in a later post) but in larger part because of struggling to carve out enough time and headspace to do anything well enough to feel any degree of satisfaction with it or to take any pleasure in it. Over Christmas, exhausted and cross, I realized that I needed to change something or I was going to end up walking out of the profession altogether. So, in the classic response of a Humanities scholar with a puzzle to explore, I ordered some books!

9781487521851My first text was The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber (University of Toronto Press 2016), and I must say that reading it has had a significant impact on me, not least because it is full of very practical (though at times perhaps a little idealistic) guidance.

The authors had me in the opening chapter, about time-management. As the academic workload increases, the new wisdom seems to be to divide our time up into ever smaller and more carefully scheduled chunks. Even research can, apparently, be done this way; indeed many enthusiasts claim that the only way to succeed is with “daily writing”, preferably in 25 minute chunks while logged in to a supportive online community. If 25 minutes cannot be found during the working day, we are told, then early morning, before anyone else in the family is awake, is perfect. For me, this advice has too many flaws: I don’t want to work at home, I don’t want to get up any earlier than I already do, I can’t get into writing in 25 minutes, when I am into writing I don’t want to stop after 25 minutes, and I much prefer complete solitude when I do write; and anyway, I have much more trouble finding time and energy for reading than writing. This is not the solution for me. Berg and Seeber likewise reject this type of compartmentalization, and instead introduce a whole new term: timeless time, that is, time when you don’t need to worry about what time it is, and can get completely engrossed in a creative process. This ideal goes hand in hand with another aspect of their advice: reducing fragmentation.

This has already had a beneficial impact for me. I have quit Twitter (though to be fair I wasn’t really using it anyway, and it had started to make me feel a bit sick thanks to its association with a certain president) and cut down other insignificant activities. In planning my week I am trying to carve out larger chunks of time for specific tasks, and cluster related tasks together. I don’t reply to emails as they come in, but at designated times, and I have stopped them filtering through to my home devices altogether. If I have a task that requires a long period of flow – and research is not the only task that fits into that category – I try to allocate at least a half-day. I am therefore being strict with the scheduling of appointments, and working away from my office when I feel that is beneficial, despite the guilt that I feel in my increasingly “presentist” workplace. I must say it is working a treat, and the result is that my to-do list is ticking over nicely, and I am not so stressed about it anymore. In addition, I am – for once – managing to keep to a whole day of research per week, which is a boost to my energy and mood.

The chapter of The Slow Professor on teaching was also quite thought provoking, particularly the idea of a “pedagogy of pleasure”. The discussion made me realise that the reason I had stopped enjoying my teaching in the autumn was because I wasn’t really there. I may have been physically present, but my brain was half elsewhere, worrying about the next deadline or planning the next task or running around in circles about how to get everything done. This semester I am fully present in every class, completely engrossed in that wonderful exchange, responsive to the mood of the students, and – best of all – loving every moment of it once again.

The Slow Professor also has chapters on research and collegiality, which I also enjoyed, but which have had less of an impact on me in practical terms. I would heartily recommend the book, with the caveat that I don’t think blanket advice can ever suit everyone. Its value is perhaps that it is likely to provide each reader with one or two moments of realization, or a feeling of being given permission to do something that they already knew was a good idea really.

So there we go, I am slowing down yet getting more done and enjoying it more in the process. Thank you very much Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber!

And I am grateful to them also for making me aware of the work of Stefan Collini, leading me to read his fantastic book What are Universities For? about which I will say more another time…

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New book: Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative

9781472484451I am delighted to announce publication of my new book, Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes, in the Routledge series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions. The book is the major output from an AHRC project “The Story of Story in Early South Asia”, which I carried out with James Hegarty of Cardiff University between 2013 and 2016.

And my domestic appliance reward (a tradition I began with my first book!) this time is a sewing machine. It has taken me twenty years to get over the horror of sewing classes at school, and I now feel ready to embrace this creative art. So far I’ve only managed cushion covers, but the world is my oyster!

Wishing all my readers a very restful festive season and an excellent start to 2017.

Posted in Academia, Buddhist texts, Jain texts, Publications, Religious narrative | 5 Comments

Toshiya Unebe

I was very sorry to hear this week of the death of Professor Toshiya Unebe (Nagoya University), who passed away on 15th November at the very young age of 48. He had been suffering from a brain tumour.

100_2221I first met Unebe-san at a conference in Bangkok in 2010, where we quickly discovered a mutual enthusiasm for a particular illustrated manuscript held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The trip to Thailand also involved some very enjoyable tours around temples in the area admiring the mural art. After this initial meeting, he and I teamed up with Oxford-based Sarah Shaw to study the unique and beautiful manuscript that had first sparked our conversation. The result was our book Illuminating the Life of the Buddha.

Our correspondence continued during the publication of papers from the Bangkok conference and from a Jātaka panel at IABS congress 2011, as well as during the long process of creating and editing the manuscript book.

image002Unebe was such a pleasure to work with. He was utterly meticulous in his research, yet warm and light-hearted in conversations about it. His visit to Oxford was a great opportunity to get to know him better. My husband and I took him out to Stratford one weekend, where we spoke little of Shakespeare but did sing along to a band playing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins. He knew all the words, and somehow I was not surprised.

Rest in peace, Unebe-san. It was a privilege to work with you.

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Libraries as temples to learning

Contrary to the typical academic, I do not like working in libraries. I love books, but prefer to surround myself with them in my office or on my sofa, rather than shut myself away in a room with them. On a recent trip to Yale, however, I was really struck by the fantastic architecture of the two libraries there, and wondered – as I sat in a delightful bookshop café (another of my preferred book-related surroundings) – whether such facilities would tempt me to change my working patterns.


The Sterling Memorial Library

The main Yale library – the Sterling Memorial Library – was designed by architect James Gamble Rogers and opened in 1931. The story, as recounted by an undergraduate student leading my campus tour, is that he wanted very much to build a church – every architect’s dream. However, the University weren’t interested in a church, though they did want a library…

100_3836So the result was a fabulous building, complete with empty niches on the walls (because obviously the building has been there long enough for invading iconoclasts to remove the saintly statues!), an altar screen to “Lady Yale”, and stained glass windows, albeit depicting scenes from the history of New Haven. A real temple to learning.


Interior of the Sterling Memorial Library



The Beinecke Library (on the left)

However, just around the corner is another library, this time a modernist treat from 1963 – the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, recently reopened after a renovation. The outside is striking enough, but it is the inside that really makes you gasp. A central glass-bounded column contains the rare books and manuscripts held by Yale, while light filters gently through the marble walls. Glorious! I could have stayed in there for hours!



Interior of the Beinecke Library

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Visiting Gandhara in Edinburgh

I have recently become aware of some quite impressive pieces of Gandharan Buddhist art in Edinburgh collections, both in the University Library Centre for Research Collections, and in the National Museum of Scotland. During a recent visit from Peter Skilling and Nat Sirisawad we were lucky enough to view both collections, including the museum pieces that are kept in off-site storage. (Many thanks to curator Rosanna Nicolson for arranging this latter trip, which was a fantastic experience!)

Sumedha makes his vow to buddhahood at the feet of the past buddha Dipankara, who predicts that he will indeed become a buddha in the future. This traditionally marks the beginning of the long path of Śākyamuni Buddha. Gandharan relief. Image (c) National Museums Scotland. Museum reference A.1934.371

Sumedha makes his vow to buddhahood at the feet of the past buddha Dipankara, who predicts that he will indeed become a buddha in the future. This traditionally marks the beginning of the long path of Śākyamuni Buddha. Gandharan relief. Image (c) National Museums Scotland. Museum reference A.1934.371

Most of these pieces are fragmentary stone reliefs, but some are quite substantial, including a beautiful relief of the encounter of Sumedha with Dipankara Buddha (above), and a number of other friezes that are harder to identify. These seem to have been donated primarily by army officers from Scottish regiments, though little is known about their provenance.

The University’s collection can be found by inputting “Gandhara” here: http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/

A Gandharan relief showing musicians and dancers? Photograph © The University of Edinburgh/Thomas Morgan. Item reference 0017324.

A Gandharan relief showing musicians and dancers? Photograph © The University of Edinburgh/Thomas Morgan. Item reference 0017324.

Only some of the Museum’s pieces have been photographed, but more are promised, and you can search what there is here: http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/search-our-collections/

These visits, along with more time spent amongst the University’s Southeast Asian manuscript collections, have convinced me that I would like to explore Edinburgh’s Buddhist materials more extensively. I hope, with the help of colleagues, to find out more about what the items are and how they ended up in Edinburgh instiutions. Watch this space!



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