Highlights of the semester

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:

  1. 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!

  1. Guest lecturing on Buddha Da

BuddhaDaFor 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

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Sweet peas, karma theory and impermanence

Okay, so I am trying to keep this blog nice and scholarly, but I keep finding myself going off on little musings about my garden, especially now that the nights are drawing in and the weather has turned decisively to autumn. Actually, the garden and the process of gardening often remind me of Buddhist teachings. What better place to contemplate impermanence than a garden, where some things grow and some die, only to be reborn the following spring.

Many of the paccekabuddha stories that I have been studying involve natural objects of meditation – such as a tree stripped bare for its fruit (is it better to be a fruiting tree, or a non-fruiting tree, i.e. a renouncer?), a withered leaf (oh! Impermanence!), or lotus blooms withering in the sun. Maybe meditating on corpses is more effective, but gardening is certainly a more pleasant way of remaining aware of the constant change that characterizes existence, and that of course extends to our own bodies. Actually, sore knees or a tired back are rather good reminders of that too!


Contemplating the powerful field of merit that is my garden.

And then there’s karma, so often expressed in agricultural metaphors. We plant seeds of deeds, and if we plant these in a powerful field of merit (e.g. by offering a gift to a Buddha) then the fruits will be amazing. Repeated refrains in the Avadānaśataka remind us that every deed eventually fruits, even if only after hundreds of millions of aeons.

I suppose that may actually be where gardening and karma theory part company! Not all of the seeds I plant grow and bear fruit. Our aubergine (eggplant) plants are flowering like fury but have refused to set fruits despite our best efforts with a paintbrush. Perhaps they will fruit after a few aeons. Or perhaps they have descended from the Brahma realm and therefore refuse to engage in sexual relations. Ah, no, now I am drifting into Jainism, for in Buddhism plants are not a part of the cycle of beings.

I see another karma resonance in my garden, too: my sweet peas. What I love about sweet peas is that they demand to be picked. The more you pick the more you get. So, pick a bunch and give it away, and you will be rewarded by another bunch in just a few days. The more you give away the more you benefit – just like merit transfer! Until, of course, the plants are overrun with greenfly or die back as the colder weather sets in. Ah, impermanence.

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Hanging out with solitary buddhas

Last autumn I declared it the year of the paccekabuddha (or, in Sanskrit, pratyekabuddha). I have been intrigued by these figures, who are awakened beings from times between Buddhisms, for several years, and wanted to give them some proper attention. Having already signed up to translate the pratyekabuddha chapter of the Avadānaśataka for a group project, I set about reading everything else I could get my hands on.

It quickly became clear that these figures are not consistently portrayed, even within the narrative materials that naturally formed my focus. As such, I seem to have ended up with four things:

  1. A translation of the Avadānaśataka decade of stories about pratyekabuddhas;
  2. A conference paper about the same, presented at the IABS Congress in Toronto, August 2017;
  3. A conference paper about paccekabuddhas in (primarily Pāli) jātaka texts, presented at a conference about rebirth narratives in art and text convened by Jason Neelis and held in Toronto following the IABS congress, and a longer version for publication;
  4. A paper about the ways in which pratyekabuddhas teach, for a workshop on dialogue in Indian religions held in Lancaster in July 2017 and due for revisions for a published volume.

I have decided to make all of these available here, as pdfs, for anyone who is interested. Please do not cite without my permission, as they are all drafts for later publication. Number 1 will become a part of a team translation of the full Avadānaśataka; an expanded version of 3 will eventually be published in a collected volume in memory of Lance Cousins; and a revised version of 4 will be published in a volume on dialogue edited by Brian Black and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad.

Although the different papers reflect a variety of interests, one thing holds them together: an appreciation of the tension that pratyekabuddhas cause for the Buddhist tradition. As apparently solitary buddhas who achieve awakening in a time without Buddhism and keep the dharma to themselves, they are a peculiar category, somewhere between full buddha and arhat. In Mahāyāna sources they are denigrated as inferior and selfish, like arhats, while full buddhahood is upheld as the only true ideal.

I am generally convinced by the historical speculation that the category emerged as a means of including awakened sages of the past into the Buddhist fold. The stipulation that pratyekabuddhas cannot arise at the same time as a full Buddha or his teaching removes the threat of current rivals, while the insistence that pratyekabuddhas do not teach means that there can be no rival lineages or teachings either.

Yet pratyekabuddhas do teach, at least in the narratives, and in particular in the Pāli Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and the commentary to a famous set of verses about the benefits of “wandering lonely as a rhinoceros” found in the Sutta Nipāta. Their particular form of teaching, often using signs or enigmatic verses, or by engineering experiences for those who might benefit from them, is what I explore in my paper for the dialogue conference and volume (“Dialogues with Solitary Buddhas”).

The threat of pratyekabuddhas seems to have continued, with questions naturally arising about where they sit in relation to the Buddha (and past buddhas) and his disciples. What happens when a paccekabuddha meets the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be)? Is a paccekabuddha superior to the Bodhisatta when he teaches the latter in a jātaka story, or attains nirvana without the Bodhisatta able to follow? These are some of the questions I explore in my paper “Jātaka Stories and Paccekabuddhas in Early Buddhism”.

By the time of the Avadānaśataka there is a clear attempt to make pratyekabuddhas dependent upon full buddhas by telling stories of how Śākyamuni Buddha predicted various figures to future pratyekabuddhahood. Only two stories break this pattern, by telling stories about pratyekabuddhas of the past, whose crumbling stūpas are happened upon by the Buddha and his monks. These two stories show some awareness of the wider narrative context of pratyekabuddhas, including their association with awakening through signs of impermanence. Even here, however, the pratyekabuddhas are declared to have had past-life devotional interactions with past buddhas. Hence they can only achieve pratyekabuddhahood so suddenly because they undertook preparatory work at the feet of full buddhas in the past. I address the characterization of these figures in the Avadānaśataka in “Pratyekabuddhas in the Avadānaśataka”. (See also my draft translation of this decade here.)

I hope that these papers, and the publications that will in due course arise from them, will open up some new lines of thought in relation to pratyekabuddhas and their place in early Buddhism.

Posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Religious narrative, Translation | 1 Comment

If only we could bottle the atmosphere at conferences

I have just returned from Toronto, where I attended two conferences: The Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, followed by a smaller event focused on rebirth narratives, at the Royal Ontario Museum. Both were excellent in their different ways: IABS is such a wonderful opportunity to take the pulse of the field, to catch up with areas of scholarship, and of course to meet with colleagues old and new. It is, however, very big, and peppered with clashing parallel panels and half-conversations. The rebirth narratives conference was much smaller: we were all in one room for two days, hearing a series of closely related papers about the art and literature of the Buddhist world.

I wish I could bottle the atmosphere at such conferences – “eau d’IABS” perhaps – so I could take a healthy sniff of it mid-semester, to remind me that I am a scholar, and not just a teacher and administrator. My rather tired brain, so over-stimulated and still processing everything I heard and reflected on in Toronto, will now have to shift focus to the start of the new academic year, and I know I will struggle – as I always do – to keep that momentum of learning and thinking going as the more immediate demands grow.

Alongside many conversations on topics related to the conference, recent scholarship and the like, I was surprised by a recurring comment that I had not anticipated: quite a few people commented that they enjoyed my blog. Given that I hardly ever post anything, and it is rare indeed for me to post something really interesting (even by my own standards!) I was rather taken aback by this. In addition, I had actually decided to shut the blog down, since I could not find time to use it properly. Now, as a result of these conversations in Toronto, I have had a rethink.

The reason I have not been blogging very much recently is of course workload. I spent much of the past year juggling multiple commitments and feeling generally run down. In the new year I sought a new approach, and took up what I believe is called “time-theming”. This involves clustering similar tasks together, concentrating on one key task / cluster of tasks per day (or half day), and thus lessening the exhaustion that comes from trying to multi-task. As all the science now agrees, there is no such thing as multi-tasking: we just switch quickly back and forth between the tasks, and get worn out in the process.

Since blogging didn’t have any similar tasks to cluster with, it dropped off the list completely, but now I think I will reinstate it, and cluster it with the important task of reminding myself that I am a scholar. This task will be flexible – maybe simply trying to read an article or a chapter of a book each week. I will also challenge myself to think interesting scholarly thoughts, and share them here!

Hopefully this blog can be reborn as a way of keeping scholarly conversations alive between conferences. I will also use it to share papers and other research resources that I am creating. But, having resolved to use it better, you should be warned that this may necessitate quite a few retrospective posts, about events and thoughts and questions from earlier in the year…

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Categories and socks

I was mocked this past Christmas for my response to one of my gifts. I had been presented with a box of six “odd socks”. In fact, although each of the six socks had a different design, they shared a basic background and were all related to gardening, which makes perfect sense given that gardening is my new favourite thing.

My first response was to pair them up.


Honestly, that wasn’t so difficult. Birds and bees, flowerpots and tools, fruit and veg. A small child could have found an ordering principle that obvious. But apparently the socks were not supposed to be ordered. I had, it seems, missed the point of odd socks entirely.

Which got me thinking about my own propensity for order. I do prefer my socks paired, though I am happy for them to differ from one another. I have a habit of hanging the laundry so that all the similar-coloured things are next to each other. And, of course, finding and creating patterns and orders and categories is one of the things I love about research.

Much of this is fairly harmless, indeed maybe even beneficial. I see patterns in my research data and this informs my analysis and even the questions I decide to investigate. I like the clarity of a structured piece of writing, both when I am the author and when I am the reader. I have a particular love of divisions into three, which is of course a basic human instinct, though admittedly not so helpful with socks.

The danger comes, I suppose, when we see order because we want to, or when we impose our own categories on our material in order to pursue our own agenda. Whether or not I have done this with my Christmas present I leave you to decide.


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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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