Early Buddhism continues its impeccable lack of existence in US academia

Continuing my irregular series on the presence or lack thereof of anything to do with early Buddhism in US Buddhist studies, may I present the latest list of panels sponsored by the Buddhism Unit for the upcoming American Academy of Religions conference, the largest interreligious conference in the US.

Ever since I attended, I’ve been getting the mailouts and noticed a curious detail. As I said seven years ago:

there is not a single topic that deals with anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. Nothing on the suttas, on the Vinaya, on Ashoka, on the emergence of the schools, or on anything else that might actually have anything to do with the founder of Buddhism, his historical context, his teachings, or his students.

Why stop there? Let’s do Islamic studies without the Koran. And Christian studies without the Gospels. And Jewish studies without the Torah.

Every serious student of Buddhism should have read all the suttas and the Vinaya and be well versed in them. There is no excuse. They should also have a proper grounding in early Buddhist philosophy and practice on a historical and text-critical basis. They should be aware of the evolution of the schools and the impact of Ashoka. Without a grounding in the fundamentals of the field, all that’s left is empty theoretical posturing that does nothing more than chase the tail of academic fashions.

Poaching Textual Authority: The Reception of the Bhikṣuṇī-vinaya (A19-209)

Saturday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM, Convention Center-111 (Street Level)

Scholars working to foreground the experiences of monastic women across Buddhist contexts are creating greater gender representation within the discipline of Buddhist Studies. A key factor in female Buddhist monasticism is the legal tradition governing women’s communities, or the Bhikṣuṇī-vinaya. This panel engages this foundational legal tradition and, especially, its reception across a variety of contemporary and historical contexts. Whereas commentarial studies presume the fealty of commentary to an authoritative root text and privilege questions of continuity and orthodoxy, a reception-oriented approach shifts the scholar’s focus to the varied experiences of voices, bodies, and cultures receiving the tradition. This panel highlights how Bhikṣuṇī-vinaya receivers approach the text as what Michel de Certeau referred to as “tacticians.” The four papers in this panel will explore the tactical hermeneutics employed by reception communities drawing upon the authority of the Bhikṣuṇī-vinaya but reading the tradition selectively as they engage in social experimentation.

Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College, Presiding

Manuel Lopez, New College of Florida

"Divergent Lives, Convergent Paths: Ordination, Education, and Social Status of Contemporary Bhutanese Nuns”

Darcie Price-Wallace, Northwestern University

"Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Textual Communities in Northern India: On the Foundational Women’s Ordination Narrative”

Nicholas Witkowski, University of San Diego

"Buddhist Monastic Women as Conduits of Charismatic Authority: A Study of Revolutionary Agency and Counterrevolutionary Reception”

Annie Heckman, University of Toronto

"Counting to 180: Butön Rinchen Drub’s curation of nuns’ pāyantikā offenses from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya(s)”

Amy P. Langenberg, Eckerd College, Responding

Performing Time in Buddhist Literature: Creative Re-imaginings of Past, Present, and Future

Sunday, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM, Convention Center-107 (Street Level)

Buddhist literature throughout time has danced between multiple temporalities, inducting its audiences into narratives that presence the past, predict the future, and transcend both. The narratives of crisis and catastrophe rampant in our contemporary moment offer a unique opportunity to call into question a liberal secular vision of linear, progressive time as a norm, and instead to look to alternative temporal framings as a way to re-imagine our relationship to past, present, and future. Our panel explores temporal plays in Buddhist writings as a resource to transform narratives of catastrophe. Our topics span from creative interpretations of the nidāna “At one time,” to affective responses of joy as a way to rewrite the past and future, to narrativizing the moment of straying into samsaric existence as a continual expression of gnosis, to ritual performances of the Heart Sūtra as an inter-religious performance of unity in the aftermath of disaster.

Chenxing Han, Institute of Buddhist Studies, Presiding

Elaine Lai, Stanford University

"Straying into Samsaric Time According to Heart Essence Literature”

Sinae Kim, Princeton University

"When is “One Time” (yishi 一時)?”

Adam Miller, University of Chicago

"(Re)Writing the Past (and Future) through Joy: The Story of Māra in the Precious Banner Sūtra”

Shayne Dahl, University of Lethbridge

"The Heart Sutra in Contemporary Japanese Mountain Asceticism”

Natalie Gummer, Beloit College, Responding

Business Meeting

Reiko Ohnuma, Dartmouth College, Presiding

Bryan Lowe, Princeton University, Presiding

Methods, Theories, and Disciplinary Formations in the Study of Buddhism

Sunday, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM, Convention Center-Mile High 4A (Lower Level)

How do our methodological choices challenge (or perpetuate) established understandings of Buddhism? Reflecting on the future of Buddhist Studies, the Collective Buddhist Studies Manifesto has called for the expansion of the theoretical and methodological parameters of the field in order to center neglected and marginalized perspectives. Last year’s AAR panel on privilege in Buddhist Studies and in Buddhism considered the ways in which institutional, disciplinary, and identity-based hierarchies shape not only careers but also the production of knowledge. Both of these conversations explored aspects of disciplinary formation in Buddhist Studies and called for revitalization through greater methodological pluralism and institutional inclusivity. This group of scholars, working across historical periods and geographical contexts, answers these calls by offering concrete examples of how new research areas make new methodological approaches necessary, and, equally, how the intentional application of diverse methodologies creates new ways of knowing Buddhism.

Jessica Zu, University of Southern California, Presiding


Amy P. Langenberg, Eckerd College

Ann Gleig, University of Central Florida

Wendi Adamek, University of Calgary

Nalika Gajaweera, University of Southern California

Kai Shmushko, Tel Aviv University

Victoria Montrose, University of Southern California

Author Meets Critic: Reading Matthew King’s In the Forest of the Blind (Columbia University Press, 2022) for Decolonizing Buddhist Studies (co-sponsored with Chinese Religions Unit)

Sunday, 5:00 PM - 6:30 PM, Convention Center-107 (Street Level)

What does a “critical Buddhist studies” look like? Matthew King responds to this question with his experiment in “anti-field history.” In the Forest of the Blind is a study of the nineteenth and twentieth-century circulation through Europe and Inner Asia of the Foguo ji, the account of Faxian’s fifth-century travels to Buddhist sites in South and Central Asia. Incorporating Chinese, French, Mongolian, and Tibetan sources, this book provokes conversations across linguistic, regional, and temporal boundaries. King shows how Inner Asian authors transformed Orientalist renderings of Faxian’s account through such diverse lenses as Qing world historical order, emergent nationalisms, and the Tibetan refugee experience. These lenses were themselves also transformed. The panelists respond to questions such as: What does it mean to emphasize “negative space and absence” over “impact or influence” in the historical approaches to Buddhist worlds? How can “circulatory” histories contribute to decolonial, deimperializing, and deorientalising scholarship?

Rae Dachille, University of Arizona, Presiding


Gray Tuttle, Columbia University

Sangseraima Ujeed, University of Michigan

John Kieschnick, Stanford University

Alexandra Kaloyanides, University of North Carolina

Matthew King, University of California, Riverside, Responding

Sonic Dharma: Chanting and Reciting in the Global Buddhist Landscape

Monday, 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM, Convention Center-107 (Street Level)

Chanting and recitation are central Buddhist cultivation practices. Invoking the Buddhist Dharma as a sonic practice plays an important role for Buddhists of most traditions. Scholarship on chanting exists within a variety of disciplinary contexts. Scholars, for example, study chanting from a textual perspective, focusing on the recited texts and their doctrinal meanings, or apply an ethnomusicological approach, considering musical theory, sonic patterns and experiences. The panel builds on existing scholarship by bringing perspectives informed by textual analysis, ritual theory, music theory, raciolinguistics and ethnography into dialogue. In doing so it aims to overcome the common dichotomy of textual and social-scientific approaches to the study of Buddhism. It thus takes series the content as well as the context of chanting, thereby providing a more comprehensive picture of this important Buddhist practice, while also exploring the diverse ways in which chanting and recitation shape the global Buddhist landscape

Rongdao Lai, McGill University, Presiding

Sara Swenson, Dartmouth College

"Murmurs and Yelps: Buddhist Ethical Soundscapes in Vietnam”

Miroj Shakya, University of the West

"Overcoming Poverty: The Tradition of Recitation of the Vasudhārā Dhāraṇī in the Newar Buddhist community of Nepal”

Funie Hsu, San José State University

"Paying Homage: Reciting, American Racial Formation, and Asian American Buddhists”

Jens Reinke, Leipzig University

"Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form? Chinese Mahayana Chanting in Translation”

Alex Grabiner, McGill University

"The Call of Bell and Drum: Ritual Structures and Innovations in Chinese Buddhist Liturgy”

Legacies of Violence: Trauma, Buddhism, and our Collective Bodies (co-sponsored with Buddhist Philosophy Unit)

Monday, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM, Convention Center-107 (Street Level)

At this pivotal moment in the transformation of Buddhist Studies, a time when scholars are examining and challenging forms of privilege and oppression within the field, it is necessary to open to new methodological and theoretical tools–tools that can meet the complex matters before us. In our panel, Legacies of Violence: Trauma, Buddhism, and our Collective Bodies, we contend that working with Buddhist thought alongside Black feminist thought, Indigenous feminist thought, and transgender theory can allow us to forge more nuanced understandings of trauma, violence, and resistance within Black, transgender, and Indigenous Buddhist bodies and collective communities.

Kevin Buckelew, Northwestern University, Presiding


Ray Buckner, Northwestern University

Rima Vesely-Flad, Warren Wilson College

Natalie Avalos, University of Colorado

Kali Cape, University of Virginia

Sara Lewis, Naropa University

New Work in Buddhist Studies

Tuesday, 8:30 AM - 10:00 AM, Hyatt Regency-Granite B (Third Level)

This panel highlights exciting new work in Buddhist Studies by graduate students. The first paper looks at the categories Mahāyāna and Theravāda in modern China and situates this distinction in the historical deployment of a contested differential for nationalistic projects. The second considers Atiśa Dīpaṃkara’s role in the later spread of Tibetan Buddhism and shows that Atiśa believed that monastics could engage in ostensibly sexual tantric practices by replacing them with internal yogic methods. The third assesses vegetarian discourse in Mahāyāna texts and argues that a body that smelled like meat signified bodily impurity, which reflected negatively on the character and spiritual attainments of a practitioner. The fourth analyzes The Lamp Which Clarifies the Origin of the Treasures (gter ‘byung gsal ba’i sgron me) by the 15th-century treasure revealer, Ratna Lingpa and challenges existing scholarship that identifies gter ma as an entirely Tibetan phenomena.

Bryan Lowe, Princeton University, Presiding

Caiyang Xu, Columbia University

"How ‘Chinese’ is Mahāyāna? The Formation of the Mahāyāna Distinction in 20th century China”

Patrick Lambelet, University of California, Santa Barbara

"The Great Lord Reconsidered: Atiśa Dīpaṃkara and the Taming of the Tantras”

Marielle Harrison, University of Chicago

"The Stench of Meat: The Olfactory Repercussions of Meat Consumption in Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts”

Heather Moody, University of Virginia

“The Tibetan Treasure Tradition in the Light of Ratna Linpa’s Lamp”


You and Lamotte have scared them all off bhante, no one wants to go where angels fear to tred.


Oh the irony of a panel on “methods” without a philologist!


Who needs philology when you have this:


Sorry, Bhante, is everything after the hr the mailing you got? Are those comments yours? Maybe you could wrap in quote tags what comes from the mailing. It is kind of wall-of-texty.

I was following H-Buddhism and was amazed how rarely there was even anything related to Theravada let alone EBT.

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I’m assuming you’ve already contacted the organisers to let them know about their omissions in the field? How did they respond?

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The area, Studies in Early Buddhism, is required scholars to know at least two textual languages, Pali and Chinese, in EBTs. Not many scholars in the world have the research skills and sufficient abilities to do the studies.


Yeah, it’s tough.

A hundred years ago, Buddhist Studies was very focused on texts and archeology. This was criticized as being somewhat colonial, in that it often boiled down to Western scholars telling Buddhists what they should believe. So, Buddhist studies generally (and the AAR crowd especially) shifted in a more descriptive/anthropological direction (ignoring, of course, that Anthropology has its own colonial baggage).

To me, the bigger question is why Buddhists themselves haven’t been more engaged in EBT scholarship. Excepting some scholars from Japan, and a few reform-minded monks elsewhere, has there been widespread interest in the EBTs among Asian Buddhists?

Among most of my Mahayana acquaintances, it’s deeply unsettling to engage with the textual history. Even in Thailand and Sri Lanka it’s hard to tell people that the historical Buddha didn’t literally step foot in their country.

Perhaps this work really does fall upon those few of us who are both committed Buddhists and committed academics.

In that light, I think the biggest thing for Buddhists in the academy to do is to come out of the closet already! Don’t be afraid to “go native” or to tell us (uneducated Buddhists) what you discover. This need not be thought of as “colonial” if it comes from a place of curiosity and generosity.

My 2¢


An academic approach is opposed to the immersive one needed to pursue Dhamma, which requires the individual to literally become the teaching in order to actually understand it. It certainly would “legitimize” the suttas and vinaya if it had more of a presence in academic literature, but to what end? It would just reinforce the idea that Dhamma could be understood from that impersonal, objective perspective, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are enough layers complicating matters as it is. Even within the so-called EBT community we find a lack of consistent priority given to the pursuit of liberation, and instead often find the state of worldly circumstances taking precedence. So, even if an academic were to look into it, it seems all they would do is repurpose ancient ways to address about modern problems, rather than emphasizing what the Buddha clearly praised above all else.

The one who develops their conduct and rightly inclines the mind is the one who is going to gain access to what is described in the suttas. We need more writings reminding the reader about that rather than more scholarship. The irony that one of the topics is about decolonization……what’s more in the spirit of colonialism than the notion that objective study is the most useful form of inquiry?


I really like what you’ve said here.

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I would argue that we have a similar situation in Europe. There are some renowned Pāli, Theravāda and early Buddhism scholars, but how many are currently teaching in universities? The description of the JIABS’ old website refers to a “peer-reviewed academic journal in Buddhist Studies from China, India, Korea, Tibet and Japan”—if we take ‘India’ to mean Sanskritic/Gandhāran traditions, it’s an accurate reflection of what people are actually studying. The University of Bristol being perhaps the last stronghold.

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That’s correct, I just pasted the email without comments, sorry it’s not clear.

It’s weird. I think there is an expectation among non-academics that academic study should aim for a certain degree of factuality and meaning, but that isn’t really the case any more, it’s all ideology. You look at the examples where people submit deliberately faked papers full of junk word salad and get peer reviewed and accepted and you think, o yes, that’s what is going on.

Ha ha, lmao, no I just heckle from the cheap seats.

Indeed, hardly anyone is learning even one language.

There is, I think in most Asian countries there is a significant minority who are into early Buddhism in one way or another. But as you say,

Which is why it is so good.

Don’t set up this kind of artificial polarity. I’ve learned a lot from academics over the years, and I know that many academics have learned from practitioners, or indeed are practitioners themselves. There is a place for a healthy and supportive relationship.

I think it’s not so extreme though. But yes, it is bigger than just the US.


It seems to me here that you are conflating academic and spiritual pursuits, and possibly selling academics short. There is certainly room for both, as well as plenty cross fertilization.

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Indeed @SDC, at the end of the day, I’m happier studying Buddhism at the monastery than at a university! :blush: Best, KhBh

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:laughing: Hmmmm well it does seem like there’s something important to be learnt here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what that may be… Something about EBT enthusiasts venting to other EBT enthusiasts in an EBT corner of the Buddhist internet about not being included by the bigger Buddhist community?

But as I say, I can’t quite out my finger on it, though I feel it may be significant. :wink:


Does it have to do with a choir? :stuck_out_tongue:


Bhante @Sujato, just to clarify, are you thinking that scholars aren’t being included in the conferences, or that there is a lack of scholars to include? My sense is that the latter is the issue, but I’m not sure.

Yeah, I really can’t see why non-academic Buddhists (for lack of a better term) would have any incentive to be studied by academics. For example, I am part of a fascinating Buddhist group that I would love to see studied in the larger context of modern Buddhist movements. But… I can’t trust at all in any conclusions or theories that academics would come up with. It is so easy for them to create narratives that then become truths about a situation that go unchallenged. Not least of which is because there are not enough academics in the field to offer peer review of their work. And the cycle continues.

The other issue is that there is a huge incentive in Academia to publish on something with any bit of controversy. This then creates a huge distortion.


You mean this in the sense that you’re afraid you’ll be misrepresented? Or misled?

Cause for me (reading anthropology and history of SEA) it’s pretty easy to dismiss analysis that doesn’t jive with my observations, but when I do come across some analysis that jives, it’s so helpful. Baker’s History of Thailand, Keeler’s Traffic in Hierarchy, etc have helped me to make sense of the new culture I find myself in much more quickly than if I didn’t have the benefit of their insights.

It’s to do with the culture of the humanities. It all just follows the trends of the day. In the 90s it was feminism, now it’s trans and racial issues, next year who knows? Nothing wrong with studying any of these things, but when the current ideology simply displaces actual scholarship you end up with nothing but shifting sands.

The bigger issue is that it all comes from a lack of faith. Buddhism isn’t the lodestar, xyz theory is. And when that happens, all you ever do is chase the coattails of the theory du jour. There’s no possibility of ever saying, hey, maybe there is something in the Dhamma that might actually lead the way. Maybe instead of following trends, we actually have access to a deep font of genuine understanding that might even lead to us setting trends. Instead of constantly problematizing Buddhism, maybe there’s even something in Buddhism that might help solve problems.

This is what happened with the mindfulness movement. But apart from that I don’t see anyone leading.

I traveled to the other side of the world to talk at the AAR conference and literally no-one showed up, so. Happy here in the cheap seats!



Oh gosh Bhante, dear Bhante! Forgive me, I see now this goes deep.

Bah! Pearls! Swine!!! (missing though they may have been) They don’t deserve you! We don’t deserve you Bhante!

But perhaps the devas came to listen? Or if not, in any case talking to oneself is often the only way one can have a decent conversation. So…