Over the Wall

The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies brings Buddhist studies out of the academy

Jeff Wilson

In case you haven’t noticed, the English-language Buddhist mediasphere has become vast. It encompasses countless books in various genres, magazines for practitioners, blogs and websites, various forms of social media, academic journals, podcasts, films and television programs, and more. It isn’t possible to stay abreast of all these sources, and so of course choices have to be made. Often people select sources based on their particular orientations toward Buddhism: Perhaps the reader is a casual practitioner interested in meditation for better health and well-being, or a full-time monk training in a traditional lineage, or a professor of Buddhist studies trying to teach iPhone-addicted undergraduates about emptiness and dependent co-origination. The result, naturally enough, is that communities of conversation form around different concerns and approaches, which are stimulating but also limiting. The tendency toward one sort of division—between academic scholars of Buddhism, potentially locked in their ivory towers, and the public at large with an interest in Buddhist matters—is one that can be easily observed.

It hasn’t always been this way. Knowledge of Buddhism was initially brought to the West as much through the efforts of scholars as through the migration of Buddhists. Through the years, Buddhist scholars have contributed tremendously to the development of Western Buddhist practice, as well as to the understanding of Buddhism in the larger non-Buddhist public. Today, even though many (perhaps most) scholars of Buddhism are also interested in Buddhism as a personal spiritual path, the pressure to speak to an academic community and the weight of training in specialist modes of investigation and expression tend to cut off the ability of many scholars to reach a wider audience with their work. But as Rita Gross pointed out in her online retreat for Tricycle, “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners,” it can be deeply enriching for practitioners to learn about new findings in Buddhist history and development.

The biannual Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, which debuted in 2011, hopes to lower the walls between the academy and the average Buddhist practitioner. As founder Richard Gombrich—himself one of the most respected senior figures in Buddhist Studies—wrote in his 2012 editorial for the journal: “We felt that there was a need for a publication which, without any drop in intellectual quality, would in some ways be a bit more like a magazine. By this we meant that it should be more accessible to non-specialists, and more varied, with a wide range of contributions, a wide range of subject matter (in terms of both topic and approach), and—we hoped—a correspondingly wider audience.” This is a new extension of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies’ mandate, which supports the teaching of Buddhist Studies and conferences at Oxford University. The advent of the journal, therefore, brings the scope of the Centre beyond the campus, out into the general community and onto the international Buddhist Studies stage.

The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies falls clearly within the parameters of rigorous academic discourse, and any scholar should be proud to place an essay in it. But there are some subtle ways in which the journal bucks the usual trends in its quest to reach a more mainstream reading audience. The range of contributors is noticeably broad: there are graduate students and professors from all levels of the academy, but also journalists, monks, and independent scholars, including some with no formal higher education in Buddhism but plenty of insight on display. The tone of articles in the journal differs from others in the field as well. There is more overt "opinionating," with comments on the state of Buddhist studies and the publishing world, and even recommendations for proper Buddhist practice. Though some other journals, such as Contemporary Buddhism and Buddhist-Christian Studies are willing to publish research essays that include some moderately prescriptive material, no other journal matches the range of contributors that the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies regularly presents, and some of the editorials and articles seem especially frank.

What sort of benefits can skeptical practitioners get from reading scholarly research? Beyond the obvious usefulness of knowing Buddhist history for its own sake, new research often sheds unexpected, sometimes very helpful light on issues of importance to contemporary Buddhists. For example, in an article in volume 3 of the journal, Paisarn Likhitpreechakul examines the textual evidence for the Buddha’s banning of “pandakas” from receiving ordination. The exact meaning of the term pandaka has always been unclear. It has usually been interpreted as referring to someone of indeterminate gender, which in turn has been used as a justification for refusing monastic ordination to homosexuals, hermaphrodites, eunuchs, and transgender persons, and sometimes for holding wider social stigma against such people as well. But Likhitpreechakul calls attention to an overlooked commentarial tradition that suggests that the term pandaka refers to a man who cannot emit semen: i.e. that the issue is impotence, not gender. This would have clear implications for the LBGTQ communities of traditional Buddhist nations, and perhaps for Buddhists in the West as well.

In another issue, Peter Roberts discusses the Karandavyuha Sutra—you’ve probably never heard of it, but you do know the practice that this sutra introduced: the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. Roberts discusses why this is one of the most famous practices in all of Buddhism, yet the actual sermon of the Buddha that describes the mantra is widely unfamiliar to Buddhists, East and West. This is interesting in its own right, and also potentially suggests some of the forces at work behind what Buddhist practices survive over time, and why. These are concerns that practitioners have too, and learning about the Buddhist past from specialist scholars can provide clues to how modern Buddhists might choose to deal with the circumstances that face them today.

One particular benefit that academic journals provide, especially if they are written with an eye to both insiders and interested nonspecialists, is their review of books. In this age of information overload, even scholars don’t have enough time to read all the new work being done in Buddhist studies. Frankly, book review sections do much of that work for us. A well-written review conveys the essential points of a new academic work without hours of personal investment, and assesses whether the author’s points seem to be accurate and noteworthy. The book review section of the Oxford Centre’s journal is noticeably lively, and has a tendency to cast a wider net than most academic journals. For example, the second issue of the journal reviews The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean to Be You? by Julian Baggini, the founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine. This is not a work of Buddhist studies—it is a wide-ranging investigation by a modern philosopher on a search to understand the ego. But its relevance to Buddhists and those who study them should be immediately obvious, and the reviewer digs into the book with gusto, noting where Baggini’s intellectual perambulations bring him in line with classic Buddhist thought and where he wanders far from views that accord with traditional dharma.

It’s too early to tell whether the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies will succeed in its mission to bring Buddhist Studies to the average reader. That will depend on whether significant numbers of such readers do indeed begin to read and debate the journal’s contents. Certainly the journal won’t be for everyone: even a relatively publicly-oriented journal takes effort on the part of the reader. But the potential rewards are real, and the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies is more accessible than most other academic journals. Those who wish to pursue their curiosity can find the journal via the website of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (www.ocbs.org).

Jeff Wilson, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a scholar of religion and the author of Dixie Dharma.

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