The third UBEF lecture will be held via Zoom on 11 November, from 6:00pm to 7:30pm (Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney time). In this talk, Prof John Powers will be joined by Dr Mark Allon and Dr Jim Rheingans. To join the seminar, click the following link:
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What’s Wrong with Studying Texts? Current Debates in the Field of Buddhist Studies
Since its inception as an academic discipline in the 19th century, Buddhist Studies has been dominated by textual studies. J.W. de Jong once declared that “the study of Buddhism needs first of all to be concentrated on the texts” and characterised other disciplines within the field, including archaeology and anthropology, as “handmaidens” of literary work. In recent decades, increasing numbers of academics within the field pursue their work in other disciplines, but the majority still mainly concentrate on texts.
In recent decades, a number of people have questioned this hegemony, and some have characterised textual study as “colonialist”, an indefensible appropriation of the genius of other cultures, or as a form of theft in which western academics arrogantly position themselves as experts in relation to resources to which they have no legitimate right.
The three members of this panel work primarily on texts; each focuses on a particular area of research and is situated within a distinct discipline. Dr Mark Allon is one of the world’s leading experts on early Buddhist manuscripts from Gandhara (modern day Afghanistan). Dr Jim Rheingans is a historian of Tibet who reads texts as a means to reconstruct Tibet’s past, particularly with regard to a formative period that saw the inception of many of the most influential aspects of Tibetan society and religion. Prof John Powers is mainly concerned with the history of ideas and examines texts to reconstruct Buddhist doctrines and practices from the past and to compare propaganda disseminated by the People’s Republic of China to the ways in which adherents of the tradition view their religion and culture.
The forum will discuss what we do and how we might respond to fundamental questions regarding our work and the materials we employ in our research. In addition, we will discuss what the Buddhist traditions we study have to say regarding issues of cultural appropriation and colonial hegemony. Are there precedents within Buddhism for the sorts of controversies being debated in the field today? Do Asian Buddhists share the concerns of progressive westerners who want to protect them from academics who study their histories, philosophies, and literatures? Is any research on other cultures by outsiders a form or imperialism, or are there ways of doing this that are not guilty of colonialist attitudes?
John Powers is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and author of 18 books and more than 100 articles and book chapters, mainly focused on the Buddhist history of ideas in India and Tibet. His books include A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism (Harvard, 2009) and The Buddha Party: How the Chinese Commumist Party Works to Define and Control Tibetan Buddhism (Oxford, 2015).