The New Panditas

Charles Prebish examines the emerging role of Buddhist scholar-practitioners and how they are deepening our understanding of Buddhism.

By Charles Prebish

Photo by Abhishek Sundaram.

When I was young graduate student in the Buddhist studies program at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1967, I heard my very first scholar-practitioner story. It was about a recent visit to the university by Edward Conze, then considered to be the world’s foremost authority on the complicated form of Mahayana literature known as Prajnaparamita. This story, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with Professor Conze’s academic passion. Instead, it concerned a question playfully put to the rather blunt and outspoken scholar during a seminar session: “Dr. Conze, do you actually meditate?” “Yes!” Conze replied. The student, curiosity piqued, pressed on: “Ever get anywhere?” Conze responded brusquely, “First trance state.” The dialogue ceased abruptly, and the issue was never broached again. At the time, it must have been utterly shocking for the students in that seminar to learn that any scholar of Buddhism actually did anything Buddhist. Now, less than forty years later, not only are scholar-practitioners commonplace in the university, but they are even writing inspiring books, like Georges Dreyfus’s The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, which describes the now-professor’s path to earning his monastic geshe degree.

Not long after completing my own Ph.D. in 1971, and only a half-dozen years after taking refuge in the Theravada Buddhist tradition under Venerable Bope Vinita at the Washington Buddhist Vihara, I visited Professor Francis H. Cook at the University of California at Riverside to discuss his contribution to my forthcoming book, Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, published in honor of my mentor, Richard H. Robinson. Near the end of our first day together at his home, Professor Cook began to stir up a pitcher of martinis and quietly told me that this was the one aspect of his Buddhist practice in which he didn’t carefully observe all five vows of the laity. Until that very moment, I hadn’t known that Frank Cook was a Buddhist, that his Buddhist name was Dojun, and that he was a serious student of Taizan Maezumi Roshi. From that moment on, our discussion switched from text chapters on Chinese Buddhism to how Cook lived so comfortably in his Buddhist identity in the midst of a very non-Buddhist university. By the time I left California, I was overwhelmed by what Cook had so easily shared with me. I had never met a man so at ease in his own skin, and so utterly comfortable with his Buddhist identity. To this day, he remains an elegant human being, and his inspiration gave me the courage to visibly and publicly change my own life.

By the time I returned to my home and teaching position in Pennsylvania, buoyed by Frank Cook’s example, I was determined to do publicly what I had only done privately: “come out” as a Buddhist. Up until that point, only my wife knew of my Buddhist practice, the long hours of solitary meditation, and time spent in retreats. On my first day back at the university, I walked into the office of my religious studies department head and blurted out, “I think you should know that I’m Buddhist!” Without even a moment’s hesitation, he responded, “Oh, now you’ve become Buddhish?” Despite his accompanying laugh, his remark wasn’t a joke, and the coming years verified my worst fear: he no longer took my academic scholarship seriously. Rodger Kamenetz’s wonderful book The Jew in the Lotus was still two decades away, and being identified as a Jewish convert to Buddhism wasn’t as romantic then as later being called a “Jubu.”

It is now very common for university courses on Buddhism in North American universities to be taught by professors who, in addition to having sophisticated academic credentials in Buddhist studies, also happen to be practicing Buddhists. Since 1990, I have been referring to these individuals as “scholar-practitioners.”

Throughout much of Buddhism’s history, Buddhist scholarship and practice have been two very distinct vocations in a highly polarized tradition. Not surprisingly, stories reflecting the study/practice dichotomy in Buddhism are abundant in both the primary and secondary literature on the subject. Walpola Rahula’s History of Buddhism in Ceylon provides a good summary of the issue. During the first century B.C.E., in response to a concern over the possible loss of the Tripitaka during a severe famine, a question arose: What is the basis of the Teaching (Sasana)—learning or practice? A clear difference of opinion resulted in the development of two groups: the Dhammakathikas, who claimed that learning was the basis of the Sasana, and the Pamsukulikas, who argued for practice as the basis. The Dhammakathikas apparently won out.

The two vocations described above came to be known as gantha-dhura, or the “vocation of books,” and vipassana-dhura, or the “vocation of meditation,” with the former regarded as the superior training (because surely meditation would not be possible if the teachings were lost). Moreover, the vipassana-dhura monks began to live in the forest, where they could best pursue their vocation undisturbed, while the gantha-dhura monks began to dwell in villages and towns. As such, the gantha-dhura monks began to play a significant role in Buddhist education.

It would probably not be going too far to refer to the gantha-dhura monks as “scholar-monks.” Why is this distinction so important? It is significant because the scholar-monks were responsible for the education of the laity and cultivated a Buddhist literacy among the ordinary practitioners of the tradition. While this was a normative practice in the ancient Buddhist tradition, Buddhism in the Western world has not favored a monastic lifestyle. As such, the education of the laity has been left to teachers who are no longer trained as scholar-monks. In fact, while many of the leaders and authorized teachers in the various Western Buddhist groups have had formal monastic and scholarly training at some point, many—if not most—have abandoned the monastic and scholarly lifestyle altogether. This has fostered a “scholarship gap,” which to a large extent is being rapidly filled by scholar-practitioners who, although not living as full-fledged monastics, have solid scholarly and academic training grounded in a rigorous personal practice.

Prior to 1975, there weren’t very many places in North America where one could pursue graduate-level academic training in Buddhist studies and get the solid grounding necessary to become an authentic scholar-practitioner. The University of Wisconsin, along with Harvard University and the University of Chicago, dominated the landscape, and there certainly weren’t many openly Buddhist scholars on the scene. By 1995, when I conducted the second of two statistical surveys of Buddhist studies scholars in North America, I was able to verify that one could do advanced work in Buddhist studies at no fewer than sixteen universities or colleges, and the anecdotal data supplied by my informants supported my suspicion that between one-quarter and one-half of the people whose teaching focused on Buddhist studies were in fact scholar-practitioners. Two years later, Duncan Ryuken Williams published an article called “Where to Study?” in the Spring 1997 issue of Tricycle in which he listed twenty-two universities with extensive resources in Buddhist studies, including a special category of universities he called “practitioner-friendly institutions.” In this new category, he cited the California Institute of Integral Studies, the Graduate Theological Union, Hsi Lai University (recently renamed University of the West), the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and Naropa University. We might now add to that group the United States branch of Soka University. Some of the twenty-two universities cited by Williams—such as the University of Virginia (where Jeffrey Hopkins produced no less than eighteen Ph.D.’s during his long tenure)—have made a huge impact on Buddhist studies generally, but particularly upon scholar-practitioners.

An American school of Buddhist studies was obviously fermenting in the years after 1970, and by the turn of our new century, it would rival, and perhaps even surpass, the earlier Anglo-German, Franco-Belgian, and Leningrad schools of Buddhology. Most obviously, this rapid development was fueled by the fast growing interest in Buddhism, generally, on the part of North Americans, and the establishment of the “Buddhism section” of the American Academy of Religion as the chief academic venue for Buddhist studies in North America.

After surveying many of the issues influencing Buddhist studies in North America, JosŽ Cabezón, a scholar-practitioner and former Tibetan monk, concluded in a 1995 article, “All of these factors have contributed to what we might call the diversification of the Buddhologist: a movement away from classical Buddhist studies based on the philological study of written texts, and toward the more general comparative and often theoretical issues that have implications (and audiences) outside of Buddhist studies.” More recently, this sentiment was echoed by Georges Dreyfus: “As I’m sure you are aware, there is very little normative Buddhist discourse going on in the academy. This is not the result of outside pressures, but the way the field has moved away from texts and doctrines and toward the study of socially-located practices and institutions.” What Cabezón and Dreyfus are suggesting is that modern Buddhology has largely abandoned the classical philological approach in favor of a greater emphasis on social issues, Buddhist practices, and the social institutions that support them.

Four years after the publication Cabezón’s 1995 article, University of Chicago scholar Frank Reynolds similarly asserted that American Buddhist scholarship had turned away from matters of origin and essence and that it increasingly emphasized other matters such as beliefs, practices, modes of communal life, and current Buddhist histories. Such an approach is far more consistent with the professional and personal interests of Buddhist scholars who are also practitioners.

Reynolds boldly identified four areas that, to his mind, characterized the North American school of Buddhist studies. First is the use of new computer technologies in Buddhist studies. Second is the production of what he calls “communally generated research,” consisting of multi-author work on issues in Buddhist studies. Third is scholarship on contemporary issues in Buddhism, including that related to or produced by scholar-practitioners. Finally, there is a renewed concern for the importance of theory and method in the study of Buddhism.

At the very heart of this exciting development of North American Buddhist studies was the role of scholar-practitioners. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, some estimates placed the number of Buddhists in the United States as high as six million. There were more academic courses in the study of Buddhism than ever before, and with the huge explosion of well-written and informative trade volumes published on virtually all aspects of Buddhism, a genuine “Buddhist literacy” was developing in North America, one that made it increasingly easier for scholar-practitioners to finally come forward publicly and vocally. Yet was there a scholar-practitioner-friendly university category developing to parallel Duncan Williams’s practitioner-friendly institutions for students? JosŽ Cabezón, among others, suspects not. Not long ago, he remarked that one of the prevailing views in the study of religion is that “Critical distance from the object of intellectual analysis is necessary. Buddhists, by virtue of their religious commitment, lack such critical distance from Buddhism. Hence, Buddhists are never good Buddhologists.” He believes that stereotypes such as these are indeed falsehoods, but that they exist nonetheless.

When queried recently about the role of scholar-practitioners in the university, Cabezón, who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, remarked, “Part of the problem of being a scholar-practitioner, I think, is specific to this country. Because of the separation of church and state, there is always the sneaking suspicion that scholar-practitioners might be using the podium as a pulpit.” On the other hand, Georges Dreyfus of Williams College says, “I have never felt that my institution put any restriction on my teaching or that I have been prevented from doing certain things because they would be too Buddhist. On the contrary, limitations have come from me and my own discomfort with stepping out of a professorial mode to enter a more dharmic one.” Dreyfus goes on, “I can only say that my being a Buddhist seems not to have been a handicap at all, and may have been an advantage. I believe that there is a presumption of goodness that is granted to Buddhists in certain liberal milieus—the expectation that since you are a Buddhist, you must be a good guy, morally and politically. I find this assumption quite remarkable, and I have never been comfortable with it, though I must say that it has probably worked to my advantage.” When Richard Hayes was hired to teach in the faculty of religious studies at McGill University in Montreal, he reports, “I was told by several colleagues that my activities as a Buddhist were seen as enriching the department by giving it more variety. It seemed to make sense to everyone there that a person who studied a religious tradition would do so because the tradition was appealing to him, and it made sense that if a person found a tradition appealing, then he might very well practice it.”

Duncan Williams, an ordained Soto priest who teaches at the University of California at Irvine, finds that his status as a scholar-practitioner affords a unique relationship with his students. “As a scholar-practitioner at a public university with a roughly 60 percent Asian/Asian-American student body,” explains Williams, “I find that students regularly look to me to mentor them; many are young people struggling to come to terms with Buddhism, either as a newly adopted religion or, more frequently, as their family’s heritage.” This sentiment is mirrored by Victor Sogen Hori, a Canadian scholar-practitioner. “The one area where being a monk makes a difference is in the classroom,” says Hori. “Students are fascinated by the fact that I spent years in a Buddhist monastery.”

Despite the mostly supportive university attitudes cited above, Cabezón (who also has found his university experience to be supportive, and especially so when he taught at a Christian theology school, which he found to be “a very nurturing environment”) still has doubts. He says, “I wonder whether some scholars who started out as (or still are) committed Buddhists end up going out of their way to conceal their identity. And I wonder the extent to which the academy has Ôsecularized’ us, forcing us to write in modes (and use forms of rhetoric) that are not completely honest. In more extreme cases, I think some scholars have gone out of their way to create a distance from the traditions that they study and practice (or once practiced), as if to say, ÔSee, I can be as critical as anyone.’ ” In many cases, this defensive professional tactic is used to ensure that matters of religious preference and practice are excluded from important personnel matters such as promotion and tenure decisions.

Perhaps the most thoughtful and up-to-date investigation of the role of scholar-practitioners in the university and beyond is John Makransky’s February 15, 2005, lecture to the Harvard Buddhist community and Harvard Buddhist Ministry Colloquium. Makransky points out that “Buddhist studies scholars are generally trained to do the deconstructive work of historical and cultural analysis—to see through the ways that Buddhist communities have legitimated new developments by constructing them as the original truth of sacred figures from a primordial past, or to deconstruct Buddhist ideologies that separate the Ôpure dharma’ from the Ômerely worldly’ concerns of cultures, as if Buddhist institutions had not thrived precisely because of their sophistication in applying Buddhist resources to meet worldly needs and desires of cultures.” Makransky explains that some of those “worldly needs” may have resulted in a watering down of the dharma, relegating Buddhist ideals and practices to means of promoting physical and mental health, reducing stress, strengthening the concentration or morale of athletic teams, and addressing the problems of troubled teens, addicts, prisoners, the dying. He wonders whether “This leaves a gap between the world of living Buddhist practice and the world where modern critical knowledge of Buddhism progresses. So many monasteries and dharma centers remain largely uninformed by the critical findings of the modern academy and what they could mean for the future of their own traditions.”

Invariably, according to Makransky’s argument, this traps scholar-practitioners in a circumstance that potentially relativizes their own tradition and even brings them into tension with that very tradition. To complicate matters further, “If they continue to practice and deepen their experience of the buddhadharma within their Buddhist community,” says Makransky, “their practice may also begin to redefine their academic studies.” It wouldn’t be going too far, I think, to presume that their practical and community interests might eventually even supplant their professional research interests altogether.

So what does Makransky think is needed? “To meet modern cultures successfully,” he says, “Buddhism certainly needs Buddhist scholars who serve Buddhist traditions in ways analogous to the work of Christian theologians—incorporating the insights of modern disciplines for use by Buddhist traditions, rather than seeking to hide their tradition from modern historical knowledge.”

In view of the above, it seems fair to suggest that the scholarship-versus-practice dichotomy still persists to some degree. In Asia, the monastic renunciants were almost exclusively responsible for the religious education of the lay sangha. Here, in the absence of the traditional scholar-monks so prevalent in Asia, it really does appear that the scholar-practitioners of today’s North American universities are indeed beginning to fulfill the role of quasi-monastics, or to serve at least as treasure-troves of Buddhist literacy and information, functioning as guides through whom one’s understanding of the dharma may be sharpened, irrespective of whether it occurs in the university or practice center.

Such a suggestion spawns two further questions: (1) Are there sufficient scholar-practitioners currently active in Buddhism to make a real impact? And (2) are they actually making that impact? With regard to the former question, much of the information reported is necessarily anecdotal. By simply making mental notes at the various conferences attended by North American Buddhologists, one could easily develop a roster of scholar-practitioners who are openly Buddhist; the number is at least 25 percent, but more likely well in excess of 50 percent of the Buddhologists in North America. But Cabezón estimates that less than 50 percent of the students in Buddhist studies programs today would self-identify as Buddhists. If he is correct, that would certainly impact on the number of scholar-practitioners in the near future.

The second question is perhaps not as difficult to assess as the first. As one surveys the vast corpus of literature that surrounds the academic programs sponsored by numerous North American Buddhist groups, the names of academic scholars of Buddhism have begun to dominate the roster of invited presenters, and these individuals are almost exclusively Buddhist practitioners as well. In other words, many Western Buddhist masters have come to acknowledge and incorporate the professional contributions of these American Buddhist scholar-practitioners into the religious life of their communities, recognizing the unique and vital role they fulfill.

These institutional heads of Western Buddhist communities are beginning to identify those individuals who are best trained to serve the educational needs of their communities, irrespective of whether they come from within the community itself or from outside the parent community. Cooperative efforts like these establish an important symbiosis between Buddhist communities and Buddhist academics. My suspicion is that a significant number of scholar-practitioners are logging at least as many miles in that role as they are in their more traditional occupations as academic researchers and faculty members of North American universities, and this serves as a remarkable foreshadowing of the genuine and growing interpenetration of study and practice in North American Buddhism.

Charles Prebish

Charles Prebish

Dr. Charles Prebish is the author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and co-editor of The Faces of Buddhism in America. He held the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University from 2007 until 2010.