Thursday, February 8, 2007

Contemporary Buddhism: an Interdisciplinary Journal

Contemporary Buddhism: an Interdisciplinary Journal
Ed. Michael McGhee and John Peacock
Volume 1, 1 & 2; Volume 2, 1 & 2
Curzon Press, 247pp. and 236pp.
Yearly subscription (2 issues) Individuals: £25, Institutions: £80
ISSN 1 463-9947

Published Spring and Autumn 2000 and 2001

Reviewed by Vishvapani
This review first appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement

Elias Canetti’s novel, Auto da Fe concerns Peter Kein, a sinologist who lives only for his books. Kein’s life is overturned when his housekeeper marries him and turns him out of his house. His books are burnt and he is set adrift in a nightmare world befriended only by a dwarf of evil propensities (what is it with expressionists and dwarves?) and left to contemplate the vulnerability of the dissociated intellect. Kein is a scholar in oriental languages, and for Canetti such endeavours are a byword for arcana, the obscurity that offers escape, and Kein resembles the Prospero in Milan, “rapt in secret studies.”

Kein offers an image of a time when western engagement with Buddhism was once largely philological. Latterly, however, it has entered a wider sphere. The intellectual encounter between Buddhism and the West now includes extensive interaction between Buddhist thought and philosophy, science and psychology, among many other disciplines. Buddhist concerns apparently speak especially loudly at present to post-modernists, theoretical physicists and psychotherapists. And not only is Buddhism of interest to scholars whose works have effects beyond the academy, there are many people who actually practice it. The number of Buddhists of European descent in Europe and North America is now well over a million, many of whom are both serious practitioners and intellectually curious.

Contemporary Buddhism: an Interdisciplinary Journal attempts to bridge the gaps between the diverse disciplines that study Buddhist-related issues, and to make scholarly findings and conjectures more accessible. As Michael McGhee writes in the opening editorial, Contemporary Buddhism “has a natural audience within this new Western Buddhist population, that of an educated, critical Buddhist public concerned to relate Buddhist issues to practical ones in the context of the Dharma.” In this endeavour Contemporary Buddhism undoubtedly addresses a need. The most prominent Buddhist magazines seem only occasionally to risk over-estimating their readers’ attention spans; and the only comparable academic journal is the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which does an excellent job in a narrower field.

By contrast the aims of Contemporary Buddhism are so broad and its audience is so diverse that there is frequently a sense that the Journal lacks focus. Indeed it is hard to imagine a reader who would feel adequately addressed, say, by both Frank J. Hoffman’s discussion of “Buddhism and Human Rights” (vol.2, no.2), which draws on technical jurisprudence, and Todd Lorendz’ entertaining but speculative thoughts on Buddhism and quantum physics (vol.1, no.2).

But between these poles are some excellent articles that find an appropriate level. One strand that seems successful to me is pieces by specialists explaining to a lay audience their own research or current thinking in their field. Andrew Skilton’s account of the editorial reconstruction that is often necessary before even important Buddhist texts can be translated is a valuable caution to ordinary readers to whom such editing is invisible (vol.1, no.1). Gay Watson’s “Buddhism, Consciousness Studies and Psychotherapy” is an excellent introduction to recent thinking in this area, as well as a summary of her own ideas (vol. 1,2). Watson’s article is, moreover, focused by a desire to distil conclusions that can inform the practice of the many psychotherapists who look to Buddhism for guidance.

A second successful strand is articles that explore specialist concerns but whose conclusions speak to broader interests. Patricia Sieber’s article on poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirschfield demonstrates how a seemingly unconnected discipline, in this case literary criticism, can illuminate the transmission of Buddhism to the West. Also successful are some of the articles in which scholars reflect on matters of general interest. The outstanding contributor of such pieces is David Loy, a leading theoretician of Engaged Buddhism. Of his several contributions I particularly appreciated “Saving Time: Buddhist Perspectives on the End” (vol.1, no.1), which discusses the philosophy of time and the constructed nature of our experience of time as a prelude to exploring the possibility of reconstructing this experience in the light of Buddhist teachings.

Writers capable of translating from their specialism to a wider public without losing clarity are always scarce and Contemporary Buddhism perhaps requires them in greater numbers than its editors have found. Several articles would be more at home in a specialist journal than an interdisciplinary one, and there are occasional signs of editorial desperation. The most excessive of these is Kate Crosby’s 55-page literature survey that seeks to bring important research on “Tantric Theravada” (vol.1, no.2) out of the utmost obscurity in which it currently languishes into the relative obscurity of scholarly discussion. These are laudable aims, but not those of this journal and the article doesn’t belong here.<<

Though it would be uncharitable to dwell on other unsuccessful articles, I cannot avoid mentioning that these volumes are marred by numerous proofing errors. The editors should, however be congratulated on finding at least some authors who can transcend their specialism. The Journal is less successful in the harder task of relating academic findings to the practice of Buddhist spiritual life – which would require something other than typical academic method. A starting point for this might be found if contributors who are practising Buddhists were prepared to declare themselves. In particular, of the several contributors, including one of the editors, who are members of the Western Buddhist Order (to which I myself belong) none mention this currently unfashionable fact.
I shall continue to read Contemporary Buddhism with interest, and perhaps it already makes, in a small way, the contribution towards “a(n ecumenical) Buddhist culture in which the intellectual life and the spiritual life mutually inform one another” to which the editors aspire. Most valuable is its capacity to open academic insights to those (not just Buddhists) with a non-specialist interest in Buddhism. I have a final request to the editors: more and longer book reviews, please. It would be good to read sociologists on the work of psychotherapists; literary critics considering translations; Buddhist teachers examining Buddhology, and vice versa in many combinations. That would make for a truly rewarding inter- (and extra-) disciplinary encounter.

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