PLAYING BOTH ENDS AGAINST THE MIDDLE:
BUDDHADHARMA, BUDDHIST STUDIES, AND ME
ROGER R. JACKSON
The editor of this collection assured potential contributors that writing our “Buddhist Studies memoirs” would be a simple and enjoyable task, easily completed in a few days. In fact, it is far more difficult than writing a scholarly article—perhaps even a book—because it requires so much reflection and synthesis, not to mention the ability to weave personal recollections together with historical, methodological, cultural, and even theological observations. Memory, of course, is notoriously unreliable, selective, and self-serving, so both memoirist and audience have reason to be wary of any purportedly accurate account of “my life and times as a Buddhist scholar.” Furthermore, the Buddhologist has the added anxiety of sensing overhead the sword of Mañjuśrī, with its incisive questions about personal identity, and consequent doubts as to whether an ontologically vacuous and protean self can cohere sufficiently to produce a memoir that is anything but a deluded and fantastical concoction. In the end, this process has been neither quick nor easy, and I fear that the result is a lot of verbiage that adds up not to very much. I suggest that readers who want to skip my autobiographical musings and “cut to the chase” go straight to the section where I talk about publications in which was involved during my time at Carleton, and to the section where by way of conclusion, I reflect broadly (but still personally) on the changes I have lived through in the fields of Buddhist studies in general and Tibetan studies in particular over the course of my career. These caveats notwithstanding, away we go.
CHILDHOOD THROUGH COLLEGE: 1950–72
By the time I entered Wesleyan University in the fall of 1968, I had lived half my life in Europe and half in the New York suburbs. My father was a journalist, first with United Press International and then with Time magazine, and his work led him and my mother to a four-year stint in London (where I was born, in 1950), and two multi-year sojourns in Rome, in the mid-fifties and early sixties, respectively. This somewhat peripatetic upbringing instilled in me an early love of travel and an appreciation for cultural and ideological differences. In Italy in particular, where I spent my middle-school years, I had friends from Hong Kong, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Iceland, and Somalia, as well as Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. I reveled in the complexities of Italian politics, which included a whole range of left-wing parties, and at thirteen I fancied myself a sort of junior Marxist, and aspired one day to be a Kremlinologist – or at least a journalist covering the Kremlin. In most other respects, though, I was a typical upper-middle-class American kid of the era, with a love of baseball and football, movies, rock ‘n roll, roast beef, dark humor, and politics. None of these passions, I should note, has ever abated – with the exception of roast beef, since I turned vegetarian almost three decades ago.
My religious upbringing was minimal: my mother was an atheist from childhood, and my father a lapsed Southern Baptist; so far as I could tell, the only really devout member of my extended family was my paternal grandmother, who was a Baptist – but also happened to believe in Atlantis and reincarnation. Because of this, my younger brother and I were free on Sundays, and generally free to follow wherever our interests took us. Back in America in 1965 for my final years of high school, in Pelham, New York, I went through a variety of intellectual phases, from heroic existentialist, to Romantic poet, to political activist, to enthusiast of Oriental mysticism. I loved reading and writing of all kinds, and edited my high school newspaper, assuming that, like my father, I would become a journalist. With unabashed nepotism, he got me summer jobs working as a copy boy at Time headquarters in New York; in 1968, just before I left for college, this allowed me to travel to the two national political conventions, including the infamous Democratic conclave in Chicago, where I stayed in the same hotel as Allen Ginsberg and Jean Genet, and, in the course of my messenger duties, nearly had my head cracked open by out-of-control Chicago cops.
My passion for Asian thought had been sparked in my early teens by reading three books: James Hilton’s novel of Shangri-La, Lost Horizon; Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye; and Morris L. West’s novel The Ambassador, about an American diplomat who finds brief refuge from the political turmoil of Diem-era Vietnam in a Buddhist monastery. It was lost on me at the time that these were all equally fictional, and all infected by what I would later learn was Orientalism – but in the midst of what seemed like a breakdown of American culture (not to mention the anxieties and awkwardness of a dateless adolescent), they held out the promise of personal and social serenity that seemed lost in the West but somehow preserved in the East. During my senior year of high school, I took a world literature class that included readings from Lin Yutang’s Modern Library classic The Wisdom of China and India, including translations of the Daodejing, the Dhammapada, and the Ramayana. Living close to New York City, I took advantage of the political and cultural ferment there, attending peace rallies (including the one where Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the Vietnam War), and visiting Greenwich Village, where I bought a small, gold-painted metal statue of the Kamakura Buddha and a slim volume of Zen koans – both of which I still have.
Wesleyan in the late 1960s was a hotbed of political, cultural, and chemical experimentation, but I was slow to enter into the ferment. My freshman year was largely consumed with exploration of history, literature, and philosophy of the West, competing on Wesleyan’s General Electric College Bowl team (we managed the most-likely never-equaled feat of losing twice in the same season), and hitchhiking back and forth to Northampton, Mass., to visit my high school girlfriend, who was attending Smith. I also wrote for the campus newspaper, the Argus, and served (as I would for all four years) as Time magazine’s Wesleyan stringer. My one frosh foray into Asian religion was an evening-long mini-sesshin led on campus by Philip Kapleau Roshi. It was my first real attempt at meditation, and while I found it in equal measure intriguing and boring, I did not feel transformed.
As a sophomore, now enrolled in Wesleyan’s residential, ungraded, Western-humanities-centered College of Letters, I began to read in my spare time about Zen and Daoism (especially through the works of Alan Watts), listen to the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Pink Floyd, and experiment with mescaline and LSD, which I’d first read about in Life magazine while still in high school. Any drug that could promise a vision of God (whatever that word meant) seemed worth trying, and so I did. Accounts of other people’s psychedelic experiences aren’t usually much more interesting than other people’s descriptions of their dreams, so I’ll spare readers the details. Suffice it to say, though, that I had a set of experiences on LSD that convinced me I was enlightened, that I had experienced pure being and seen that it was the everyday world – but suffused with ineffable radiance and joy. Indeed, I was assured the next day by a veteran trip-master that I had attained “the clear light” – a term whose significance I could not appreciate at the time, but which sounded as profound as I felt.
My conviction that I was enlightened lasted an inordinate amount of time, not only through the end of the fall semester, but well into a spring 1970 stay in Paris – where I studied French philosophy and literature, but also took up yoga and attended a variety of meetings with Hindu and Buddhist themes. On an extended spring-break trip through southern Europe (which included hearing Pope Paul VI’s Easter homily in St. Peter’s square and staying next door to Joni Mitchell in a cave on Crete), I eventually found myself in Istanbul, where I met wide-eyed travelers returning from overland travels to India. I was tempted to hop a bus east myself, but out of time and money, and fearful it might mean the end of the college education my father was financing, I returned to Paris. Around this time, inevitably, it began to occur to me that my psychedelic enlightenment was not, perhaps, as final as I had imagined, and that there must be ways of attaining such a state through disciplined practices that assured a more stable result. As a wise Benedictine monk put it to me a couple of years later, “psychedelic experience is like dipping your toes into the ocean of God; you only can immerse yourself through love and contemplation.”
The fall after my return from Paris (as the first class of women entered Wesleyan), I quit the College of Letters and changed my major to Religion, taking as many courses as I could on Asian traditions (primarily with the enigmatic and charismatic professor James Stone, né Helfer), but also trying out classes on topics as disparate as feminist literature, Merleau-Ponty, Moby-Dick as religious phenomenology, Navajo dance, poetry writing, Heidegger, ethno-poetics, and electronic music. I also regularly attended Kundalini Yoga sessions that were offered on campus, all the while concerned that the “breath of fire” exercises would, literally, blow the top of my head off. I graduated in 1972 having – in the apt characterization of our class by Wesleyan’s president at the time – “learned a lot about the human condition, but not studied very hard,” and had no idea what came next. (Although the military draft had been existential Sword of Damocles hanging over many of us in college at the time, and I had a rather dismal draft lottery number, I was able to avoid conscription through a perfectly legal loophole that turned up during my senior year; had that loophole closed, I had a Gandhian conscientious objector application on file – and if that had failed, I might – like my friend Richard Hayes – have ended up in Canada.)
Past concerns about being drafted, I knew that California was my next destination, and in the fall after graduation, I set out with my new girlfriend Pam (I had known her since the first day of seventh grade, but only connected with her romantically of late), on a cross-country hegira to – naturally – the Bay Area, crashing on the couches of friends or camping out in the mountains along the way. We eventually settled into a room in a communal house in the Oakland hills. Given my experience and my father’s contacts, I hoped for jobs in journalism, but nothing shook loose, and in the midst of a long, rainy winter in which I had been reduced to babysitting, astrology, and freelance editing to earn some money, I finally landed a job with the post office, delivering mail in San Francisco; Pam got a job, too, working as a clerk in Oakland. We spent as much non-working time as we could hiking in the Sierras (scaling Shasta, Half Dome, and Whitney) and exploring the spiritual smorgasbord of the early 1970s Bay Area: Sufi dancing, Hindu swamis, Tibetan Buddhist centers (most notably Tarthang Tulku’s Nyingma Institute), talks by the likes of John Lilly, Alan Watts, and Herbert Guenther, an occasional dinner at a Moonie commune, and a lot of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows. (Indeed, if I had a religion at this stage, it might have been the Dead – and I’ve never lost my love for their music, even in the post-Jerry Garcia era. Not coincidentally, my brother Blair, who lives in the Bay Area to this day, is one of the world’s leading experts on the Dead.)
TO INDIA AND NEPAL, AND BACK: 1973–75
While living in the Bay Area, Pam and I had applied to, and been accepted by, the Peace Corps, which first wanted to send us to Senegal. The diet there being mostly fish, though, and I being allergic, we wrote back and asked, “Why not somewhere in Asia, like Nepal?” They replied, “Why not Afghanistan, and you’ll have to get married.” We said, “No thanks, we’ll get there on our own.” Thus, late in the summer of 1973, having saved up $1500 apiece from our postal labors, Pam and I set out for Asia, in search of more serious spiritual training – though of what kind, we had no idea. We returned briefly to our homes in New York, then, with one-way tickets in hand, flew Icelandic Airways to Reykjavik, thence to Luxembourg. We hitchhiked through France, Italy, and Greece, and eventually made our way to Istanbul. From there, we took a four-day train ride to Tehran, followed by a series of buses that carried us through eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, until we arrived in Amritsar, India, on New Year’s Day of 1974. The transportation cost a total of $25 – though, as they say, you get what you pay for: about half the buses broke down, often in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. But we had made it to India!
We spent a few days in the guest house of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, then traveled to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lived in exile. Unfortunately, almost no one was around, partly because it was the dead of winter, but mostly because the Dalai Lama was in Bodh Gaya, offering a Kālacakra initiation to the assembled multitudes. We didn’t stay long in the mountains, and after a sojourn in Delhi, we made our way to Rishikesh, where we investigated a number of Hindu ashrams, none of which quite suited us. We continued down the Ganges to Varanasi. At this point, after a month, we were thoroughly disenchanted with India, overwhelmed by everything that assaults a first-time visitor: the smells, the dirt, the disregard of personal space, the bureaucratic hassles, and above all the crushing poverty – and fled north to Nepal, watching the Himalayas materialize around us from the back of a rattletrap pickup truck.
In Nepal, we enjoyed the considerably gentler pace of Kathmandu (then barely a city) and what seemed to us the more laid-back attitude of the Nepalis. We took a two-week trek from Pokhara through the Annapurna Range to Jomsom and back, and were making ready to return to India – intending to go to Auroville, the utopian community in Pondicherry inspired by Sri Aurobindo, whose fusion of science and spirituality I greatly admired – when we read of a month-long Tibetan Buddhist retreat that would shortly begin at Kopan, a monastery up the hill from the pilgrimage center of Bodhnath, outside Kathmandu. For both of us, it was a clarion call to finally, truly dive into a single tradition – it was, in effect, time to put up or shut up about meditation – so we scrapped our travel plans and signed up for the course, on the stages of the path to enlightenment, or lam rim, which was to be taught by two English-speaking Gelukpa lamas, Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. On the day we registered for the course, we met a young man at a café in Bodhnath (it was, in fact, my future friend and colleague John Newman), who had taken a course the previous fall, and warned us, “This is not a Dharma summer-camp.”
Kopan today is spectacularly beautiful and quite built up, but in early 1974, just a few years after its founding, it had, if memory serves, just a small gompa and a half-finished dormitory. The course itself was held under a gigantic hilltop shamiana, a tent typically used at South Asian weddings and other festive occasions. Most of the 250 people attending the course stayed in tents or in crowded rooms in houses on the Kopan hill; toilet and other sanitation facilities were minimal, and the food, though good and clean, was quite simple. It was perhaps the hardest month of my life. The physical discomforts were legion, and there were dramatic thunderstorms and a terrifying earthquake – but the real difficulty was with my mind, which never before had been confronted with so many perplexing claims (mind is beginningless, rebirth and karma are real, enlightenment is possible, guru devotion is essential) nor forced to focus so hard and for so long as in the meditation sessions we endured. It felt like a Buddhist boot-camp, and after a week, I was ready to quit (scores of attendees eventually did) – but Pam was thoroughly enraptured by the whole experience, so, ironically, I decided to continue out of fear that if I left and she stayed, it would be the end of our relationship.
By the end of the month (the last two weeks of which involved taking the eight precepts before dawn, eating little, and remaining in complete silence), I, too, was smitten – certainly by the richness and depth of the teachings and my growing comfort with meditation but more so by the lamas themselves, who seemed actually to radiate the wisdom and compassion they preached, something I hadn’t much observed among Christians in America (though no doubt I was looking in the wrong places). Thinking of no reason not to that wasn’t egotistical, Pam and I both shaved our heads, then took refuge, the five precepts, and a Green Tārā initiation from Lama Yeshe, and followed up with individual retreats for a couple of weeks after the course – our lives, and our travels, thoroughly upended. We wrote letters back home describing our experiences, along with assurances that we had not joined a cult and not essentially changed – but the zeal of the newly-converted obviously showed through, as a close friend from Wesleyan wrote me requesting that I not give him any “true-believer bullshit,” and my brother ended a long letter with this P.S. “Have a hamburger, watch TV, be real.” (On the other hand, my Southern Baptist grandmother wrote approvingly, observing that I seemed to have heard the Biblical injunction, addressed one way or another in every tradition, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
In the late spring Pam and I returned to India – which we now saw in a different and far more positive light – visiting Bodh Gaya and Delhi before once again taking the long bus ride up to Dharamsala. We rented a room in sprawling Victorian house in lower Dharamsala, and began attending classes, on the stages of the path, taught at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, translated into English by two young tulkus. Among the other students at the library at the time – all as young as we – were Michael Roach, Glenn Mullin, and Gareth Sparham, who all went on to careers as scholars, translators, and teachers. We eventually moved up the hill to the Tibetan settlement of McLeod Ganj, living in the compound that had served as the Dalai Lama’s palace when he first arrived in Dharamsala. We continued taking classes at the library, though I did go off to Thailand for a month for a brief (and miserable) Theravāda-style retreat south of Bangkok, and to visit a college friend who was in the Peace Corps up-country. While he taught English during the day, I vacationed from the Dharma, reading science fiction and listening to the Grateful Dead. I returned to Dharamsala in time for a vipassana retreat led at the Tibetan Library by S.N. Goenka, which for many of the Westerners in attendance (there were many Tibetan monks there, too) was an approach to Buddhist practice in stark (and perhaps refreshing) contrast to the complex cosmology and metaphysics taught by the Tibetans. Although some of our friends took up insight meditation as their main practice we stuck with the Tibetan tradition, resuming classes at the Library, and rejoicing in encounters with such renowned local lamas as Geshe Rabten, Ling Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama himself.
In October, we returned to Nepal, where we trekked through the Langtang valley north of Kathmandu, almost to the Tibetan border, then did a second month-long course with Lamas Yeshe and Zopa at Kopan. This course was far easier, now that we had acquired some knowledge and knew what to expect. It deepened our appreciation for the teachings, and brought us into personal contact with Lama Yeshe, an extraordinarily vibrant and charismatic teacher who, despite his limited English, communicated powerfully with all who met him, radiating warmth, humor, and insight. Knowing that our funds would soon run out and that we would have to return to the U.S. by the end of the year, we began to consider how we would continue our Dharma studies in America – not to mention make a living. The answer came in the form of a letter from Beth Solomon (now Newman) whom we had met at the spring Kopan course and befriended in Dharamsala. She had returned to the U.S. in the summer, and gone to live in Madison, Wisconsin – where one of the Kopan lamas’ most revered teachers, Geshe Lhundub Sopa of Sera Je Monastery, was a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin, and also in the process of forming a spiritual community. “Roger,” she wrote, ”he’s your intellectual dream come true.” Though I had graduated from Wesleyan certain I would never again darken the doors of academia, my goals and motives had changed, and I determined pretty much then and there that I would apply to the Buddhist Studies program in Madison for the following fall. We returned to America at the end of 1974, and not long afterward I was accepted into the program – despite, as I recall, writing in my application essay that one of my aims in studying Buddhism academically was to help spread Buddhism in the West. (What was I thinking?) Staying with our parents outside New York through the first half of 1975, Pam and I took advantage of the Buddhist scene in the area, visiting Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey, meeting Kyongla Rato Rinpoche at his Manhattan apartment, and participating in a small-group interview with Kalu Rinpoche at an apartment on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village; the other people in the interview (about which I remember nothing else) were three of my cultural and poetic heroes: Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and W.S. Merwin.
GRADUATE SCHOOL IN MADISON: 1975–83
Pam and I moved to Madison late in the summer of 1975, renting a made-over summer cottage with other fresh-back-from-Asia Buddhists on the west side of town, near Lake Mendota and just up the street from the small house owned by Geshe Sopa and his brilliant, eccentric, irascible, and indispensable assistant, Elvin Jones. Geshe-la, who had learned English in New Jersey when already in his forties, was every bit as impressive as advertised: gentle, humorous, deeply learned in traditional Tibetan Buddhist thought, deeply curious about the proper English translations for Tibetan philosophical terminology, and – amidst a motley crew of eager but ignorant Westerners – an incarnation of the perfection of patience (bzod pa’i phar phyin) for which he was named. Pam and I, and other recent returnees, became the nucleus of a small Buddhist center Geshe Sopa founded, first called Ganden Mahayana Center, and later changed to Deer Park Buddhist Center. In the fall of 1975, Geshe-la began teaching Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo) every Sunday morning in our living room – and he continued with the text after he moved to a larger house in the neighborhood that had a dedicated “gompa” in the basement, and continued, too, when he moved in 1981 to a still larger house with ample acreage south of Madison – where Deer Park remains to this day. He finally completed the Lamrim teachings in the early 2000s; they have been edited and published in five volumes by Wisdom Publications, with much of the editorial work performed by students who sat in on those very classes.
Reflecting Geshe Sopa’s and Elvin Jones’ conservative instincts, Ganden/Deer Park was a traditional, Gelukpa-oriented monastery, with one or two English-language teachings a week for Western students by Geshe Sopa or another resident lama, regular pujas in Tibetan, and longer courses taught during the summer by Geshe Sopa and/or visiting Geluk lamas, who in the first decade or so included the Kopan lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, senior tantric masters such as Zong Rinpoche, Serkhong Rinpoche, and Lati Rinpoche, and once – before he split from the mainline Geluk – Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. The Dalai Lama – who had been examined by Geshe Sopa on the topic of buddha nature for his geshe exams in Lhasa in 1959 – visited in 1979 and 1981, and on average once or twice a decade thereafter. As we developed the center in Madison under Geshe Sopa’s guidance, we heard tales from Boulder of the very different scene surrounding Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which seemed as wildly experimental as Deer Park was traditional. Deer Park has remained resolutely traditional over the years, serving the only-partly-overlapping Tibetan and Western communities in the Madison area, but seldom inviting non-Geluk teachers, and showing great reluctance to anoint Westerners as teachers, let alone as lamas.
Although I was the first vice-president of the Geshe Sopa’s Buddhist center, and was deeply involved in it my whole time in Madison, my primary purpose in coming to Madison was, of course, to do graduate work in Buddhist Studies. At the time I entered the UW program, there were only a handful of other universities in the U.S. where Buddhist Studies could be seriously pursued, including Virginia, Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Washington – but Madison was the oldest and best-established. It had suffered a terrible loss with the accidental death, in 1970, of its founder, Richard Robinson, but still had a strong core of faculty in place: Geshe Sopa and Stephan Beyer for Tibetan Buddhism, Minoru Kiyota for East Asian Buddhism, and A.K. Narain for the history of Indian Buddhism, with assistance from Tibet anthropologists Robert and Beatrice Miller and Sanskritist Frances Wilson. I arrived at a moment when most of the Ph.D.’s trained primarily by Robinson had graduated and moved on to teaching positions elsewhere. These included such luminaries as Lewis Lancaster, Roger Corless, Francis Cook, Charles Prebish, James Robinson, Stefan Anacker, and Jeffrey Hopkins. (Beyer also had studied under Robinson.) Among those who started under Robinson and completed their Ph.D.s during my eight years in Madison were Leonard Zwilling, Michael Sweet, Ter Ellingson, and Ed Bastian. Those who started their Ph.D.’s while I was in Madison included Artemus Engle, José Cabezón, Jamie Hubbard, Paul Griffiths, A.W. Barber, John Eppling, John Makransky, William Waldron, John Newman, and Beth Newman. (I finished before the arrival of such later Wisconsin students as David Germano, James Blumenthal, Paul Donnelley, and James Apple, though I got to know all of them over the years.) It is evident from a quick demographic analysis of the scholars just named that Buddhist Studies at Wisconsin in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (and this could be safely said about other programs operating in the U.S. and Europe at the same time) was overwhelmingly white and male. Although most of the students who completed Ph.D.’s in those days continued on to academic jobs, not everyone was able to land a position, and some did not even try: I have friends who became psychotherapists, lexicographers, hospital administrators, forest rangers, filmmakers, and freelance editors. And – as has always been the case in grad schools – not all those who started the program completed it: some veered off into computer technology, social work, or library-work, at least one, alas, went quite mad.
Unlike many of today’s grad students, I started my studies with no prior knowledge of Buddhist languages, so on the same September day in 1975, I began to learn both Sansksrit and classical Tibetan, working toward an M.A. in South Asian Studies that would lead, I hoped, to a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. I studied Tibetan initially with Lenny Zwilling, a recent Wisconsin Ph.D. who was filling in for Stephan Beyer while the latter was on a two-year sabbatical at Berkeley, and Sanskrit with Frances Wilson. In subsequent years, I also studied Hindi, Pāli, and colloquial Tibetan – though to my everlasting regret, I never became very proficient in spoken Tibetan. I also took courses from various professors on such topics as premodern South Asian civilization, Indian philosophy, and theories and methods in use in both Buddhist studies and the study of religion. I studied Indian history with A.K. Narain, and was among the graduate students who helped him organize the founding conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Madison in 1976, which was attended by many of the celebrated Buddhism scholars of the day, including A.L. Basham, Leon Hurwitz, Alex Wayman, Padmanabh Jaini, Alexander W. MacDonald, and others. Narain knew of my interests in writing and editing, and brought me on as an editorial assistant for two volumes of Buddhist studies essays he oversaw, and for the nascent Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. I eventually became assistant editor, and would go on to co-edit the journal with Gregory Schopen in the late 1980s and edit on my own in the early 1990s, before turning it over to Donald Lopez, who passed it on in turn to a series of editors in Europe, where it is housed to this day. (Two decades later, when I visited him in Varanasi, Narain brought me on to the editorial board of another journal he had founded, the Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies (IIJBS), which provided a forum for emerging Buddhologists, especially from South Asia; after he stepped down from the editorship, I became co-editor of the journal, with Lalji Shravak, from 2005 to 2018.)
The central focus of my graduate study was on courses related to Tibetan Buddhism, whether taught by Geshe Sopa or (when he returned from leave) Stephan Beyer. In the manner of a trained Tibetan scholar, Geshe-la taught such topics as Buddhist meditational systems (sa lam), the major schools of Buddhist philosophy (grub mtha’), and, at a more advanced level, various Tibetan classics, including Tsongkhapa’s great text on hermeneutics, The Essence of Eloquence (Drang nges legs bshad snying po), and Thuken Chökyi Nyima’s early 19th-century account of Asian religious philosophies, The Crystal Mirror of Tenet Systems (Grub mtha’ shel gyi me long). Beyer, who remains one of the most brilliant and stimulating thinkers I have ever met, taught courses on Buddhist culture, Tibetan literature, and (with V. Narayana Rao) South Asian aesthetics, though during my time at Madison he shifted his career trajectory dramatically, attending law school while still teaching, and eventually moved into a long career in law (which was followed, more recently, by a third incarnation, as chronicler of the ayahuasca experience). While my major interest was in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, particularly as seen through a Geluk lens, I developed an early and enduring interest in the rather less “clerical” side of Buddhism, as represented by the Indian tantric great adepts (mahāsiddhas) and such Kagyü masters of mahāmudrā (the great seal) as Marpa and Milarepa, whose mystical and poetic celebration of their enlightenment helped balance out the sometimes-dry analysis of the Geluk scholastics. Like my peers, I steeped myself in the Buddhist studies classics, reading works on South Asian Buddhism by the likes of T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids, La Vallée Poussin, Lamotte, Dutt, S.B. Dasgupta, Bechert, Schmithausen, and Seyfort Ruegg, and on Tibetan Buddhism by Tucci, Stein, and Guenther – along with more recent works like Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness and Beyer’s Cult of Tārā, which starkly embodied two contrasting foci in Tibetan studies, the doctrinal/philosophical and the ethnographic/ritual.
The Department of South Asian Studies at Wisconsin, in which Buddhist Studies was housed, was not a happy place during my time there. Indeed, it seemed at times like the quintessence of South Asia’s discontent: the Hindi teacher and the Urdu teacher despised each other, adjunct faculty (who did much of the language teaching) grumbled about their low status and lower pay, and professors raised in India by missionary parents questioned the right of Geshe Sopa, who lacked a Ph.D., to be teaching – let alone tenured – in an academic department. There were, admittedly, figures who tried to hold the department together, including the chair, Manindra Verma, sociologist Joseph Elder, and A.K. Narain, but theirs was an uphill push. There were tensions within Buddhist Studies, too. Though the primary orientation of the program was toward training in classical languages and doctrines, there were many who felt that grad students should be required to be more conversant with critical theory and with social scientific approaches to the study of Buddhism. In Tibetan studies, this debate was embodied in the tension between Geshe Sopa – whose approach and outlook were unapologetically those of a doctrine-oriented insider– and Steve Beyer – who favored a more critical, theoretically-informed, and social-science-oriented approach. Though I cannot vouchsafe this, it is possible that Beyer’s departure, in 1979, was hastened by the recognition that most incoming students were there to study with Geshe-la, not with him, and that the linguistic-doctrinal approach (also supported by Minoru Kiyota), was likely to hold sway for the foreseeable future. (Over the course of time, especially after the retirements of Geshe Sopa, Minoru Kiyota, and several other key figures, the South Asian Studies department’s dysfunction would lead to its being taken over for a time by the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, and eventually, when promising younger Buddhologists like John Dunne, Sara McClintock, and Charles Hallisey left for positions elsewhere, to the nearly complete dismantling of the Buddhist Studies program – a sad fate for the first of its kind in the U.S.)
In my own time there, I tried to play all ends against the middle, studying with, and befriending, as many different professors as I could. But given the personalities involved, it was not easy, and I often felt myself pulled in multiple directions. I had arrived as a newly-converted Buddhist, intoxicated with the Dharma and intent on traditional study with a traditional master who happened to be a tenured professor. Instead, I found graduate study disillusioning in the deepest sense of the term: it was sobering to realize that – romanticized Orientalist accounts notwithstanding – Tibet had as bloody and strife-filled a history as any other nation, and sobering, too, to recognize that many of the Buddhist ideas I had come to accept were not only culture-bound rather than universal, but uncertain to stand up to serious philosophical critique. In particular, as I read, listened to my teachers (especially Lenny Zwilling, and, later, Steve Beyer) and reflected on their words, the basic metaphysical claims I had first encountered at Kopan (mind is beginningless, rebirth, karma, and the realms of saṃsāra are real, enlightenment is possible), which seemed to be the sine qua non for my, or anyone’s, embrace of Buddhism, began to appear less and less plausible to me.
This “crisis of faith” affected both my enthusiasm for Buddhism practice and my commitment to the graduate program. Though I continued to serve as vice-president of the Buddhist center, I drew back from it to some degree, opting, for instance, to hike in the Grand Canyon rather than attend a summer course in Madison with visiting luminaries from throughout the Geluk world. At school, I toyed with the idea of shifting out of Buddhist Studies entirely, and perhaps entering a program in French studies, where I could seek existential clarity by writing a dissertation on Camus. I had enough forward momentum (and funding) in Buddhist Studies, however, to carry me though a Master’s, a couple of more years of classes, and prelims. Besides, I had decided that I would channel my doubts into my dissertation, taking on the text every Tibetan I knew insisted contained convincing proof of Buddhist metaphysics: the Pramāṇasiddhi (Proof of Epistemic Validity) chapter of Dharmakīrti’s 7th-century Pramāṇavārttika (Commentary on Epistemic Validity). More specifically, I would analyze and translate a 15th-century Tibetan commentary on the chapter by the early Geluk master Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen, a text Geshe Sopa knew well.
In the fall of 1979, not long after the Dalai Lama made his first visit to Madison (a visit we helped to organize), Pam and I got married, in a simple ceremony overlooking Lake Monona; the epigraph for our wedding announcement was from the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”: “Shall we go, you and I while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds.” Pam had just completed an associate’s degree in nursing, and was working on an oncology floor at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, trying to apply Buddhist principles in an environment of considerable anxiety, suffering, and sorrow. Around the same time, I learned that I had been awarded an American Institute for Indian Studies fellowship to do dissertation research in India (it being impossible at the time to conduct research in Tibet), starting the following fall, and Pam agreed that she would give up her job at that point to accompany me. This was the time I should started my dissertation research, but like many an exhausted ABD, I procrastinated – in my case, by writing a novel of the Americans-in-South-Asia-on-a-spiritual-quest variety. I completed a couple of drafts, and left it at that, having discovered that fiction-writing – especially dialogue – was probably not my strong suit; as one friend remarked after reading it: “all the characters sound like you.” (I did keep up poetry writing, and had a bit more success there, getting a few poems published in small magazines, and winning a minor prize or two – though I never did submit my magnum opus of that time, a long, still-unfinished, Beat-inspired paean to Avalokiteśvara, keyed to a full-moon ascent of Yosemite’s Half Dome and structured along the lines of a Mahāyāna puja.
In the fall of 1980, after six weeks of travel through France and Italy and a brief sojourn in Delhi, Pam and I set up housekeeping in a small, detached room in a Jain household complex in Sarnath, site of the Buddha’s first teaching – and also of the Central Tibetan Institute of Higher Studies, which in those days occupied just a few rooms at the Gelukpa temple near the center of town. We enjoyed the languid pace of Sarnath, often sharing meals, tea, and conversation with a couple of American college students who were in town, Liz Fukushima and Patrick Pranke. We got to know a number of scholars affiliated with the Tibetan Institute, including the principal, Samdong Rinpoche, Geshe Yeshe Thabke, and two younger scholar-monks, Losang Norbu and Ngawang Samten – the latter of whom would eventually succeed Samdhong Rinpoche as principal and became Vice-Chancellor when the Institute became a full-fledged university. For my dissertation research, I began meeting regularly with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, an English-speaking Drepung monk, who patiently and good-humoredly worked with me through the first half of Gyaltsab’s commentary. Pam assisted Geshe-la with an English translation of a brief Tibetan cultural history he had composed. My formal academic affiliation was not with the Tibetan Institute, but with Sanskrit University in Varanasi, where my supervisor was the late Pandit Jagannath Upadhyaya. The arrangement was mostly a bureaucratic one, and I didn’t spend much time at Sanskrit University, but Pam and I made the short trip to Varanasi once or twice a week – usually by bicycle rikshaw – to visit Indian or American friends, shop for books, listen to a concert, eat a good meal, or just take in the sights, sounds, and scents in the gullies and on the ghats. A particularly notable friendship we made was with the Jain scholar of Indian architecture, M.A. Dhaky, who worked at the AIIS office across the Ganges from Varanasi in Ram Nagar and collected our mail, which he passed on to us at his house in Varanasi nearly every Saturday, along with discourses about the differences between Western and Indian classical music, the likelihood of consciousness among the orchids, and the relative virtues of Jainism and Buddhism – all accompanied by exquisite “pure veg” Gujarati meals cooked by his wife, Gitanjali.
In this way, we passed the better part of nine months, occasionally going off to explore various corners of the subcontinent, including such northern and western sites as Agra, Khajuraho, Sanchi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Mount Abu, Ahmedabad, Ajanta and Ellora, and Mumbai, and, in the south, Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Bangalore, Sharavanabelagola, Belur and Halebid, Mysore, Sera monastery in Bylakuppe (where, among other friends, we visited José Cabezón, then a monk), and Madurai – with a 10-day sojourn in Sri Lanka (Colombo, Kandy, and the ancient northern capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnarauwa) added for good measure. These travels had no particular scholarly purpose, but added to our appreciation for the fantastic diversity of landscapes and lifeways found in South Asia. In March of 1981, at the outset of the hot season, Geshe Wangchen went to stay with relatives in Mussorie, a hill station in the Himalayas. I continued with my translation unaided for a time, but when the heat became too unbearable on the plains, we, too, headed for the hills, planning to reconnect with Geshe Wangchen in Mussorie, where I could resume work with him. When, however, we arrived at his house in Mussorie, we were told that he had decamped for London, where he had become resident lama at a meditation center there. This put a serious crimp into my research plans, and made me wonder how, and with whom, I could resume my work. Would I return to Sarnath? Go to Sera, where life would be less than ideal for Pam?
At the same time, we knew that in July the Dalai Lama would be visiting Deer Park (as Geshe Sopa’s center outside Madison was now called) to confer the first-ever Kālacakra (Wheel of Time) tantric empowerment in the West. Geshe Sopa and all our friends were working feverishly to prepare for the event, and we were torn between staying longer in India and returning to Madison for this historic opportunity. In the end, we decided we would return to the U.S. by the end of June. In May, however, as Pam and I sat on jam-packed train about to leave the Delhi station for Varanasi, where Pam and I would purchase brocade for the curtain that would surround the Kālacakra sand-mandala that summer, I had my suitcase stolen while I was distracted by a dispute between a sadhu and a middle-class family. It was light and easy to lift because little was in it: a couple of shirts, a pair of jeans, some toiletries – and the half-completed draft translation that would be the heart of my dissertation, along with my marked-up Tibetan texts. This was not a good moment. Pam went on to Varanasi for the brocade, while I returned to Delhi, looked in vain for the suitcase in station trash cans, filed a pointless police report, then went to a friend’s house to drink, sleep, and reflect – wondering if the theft was the dharma protectors’ way of telling me to abandon my perhaps-heretical project. In the light of day, I decided, no, I would persist. I replaced the lost Tibetan texts, in the process meeting for the first time the doyens of the Delhi Tibetan-publishing world, Gelek Rinpoche and E. Gene Smith, and when Pam returned from Varanasi with the Kālacakra brocade in hand, she and I went up to Dharamsala for three weeks, where we enjoyed the cool mountain air, and I – sooner than anticipated – began the second draft of my translation, managing to reconstruct the work I had done with Geshe Wangchen in fairly short order. We still returned to Madison in time for the Kālacakra, an extraordinary, if overwhelming, event by any measure, which kindled in me a desire to understand more deeply this most esoteric of Buddhist tantric systems. At that time, Geshe Sopa’s assistant, Elvin Jones, took robes, and would remain a monk until his death, while on retreat, in 1997.
After the Kālacakra, we settled into a new apartment, near the UW arboretum. Pam shifted from hospital nursing to hospice and home-care work, which she would practice for the next two decades, wherever we found ourselves. She also began working toward a Bachelor of Nursing. I dove into my dissertation, working with Geshe Sopa to complete the translation I had begun with Geshe Wangchen, and researching and writing the long, analytical chapters that would precede the translation in the finished thesis. Though I was never fully funded by the university, and never had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant (the classes at UW were too small to justify them), I managed to scrape by with fellowships and some work in the South Asia library at the university. I maintained my psychic balance through running, tennis, summer trips to the mountains, and reading and writing poetry. Then, as now, the consolation, contentment, and inspiration I’ve received from reading, and rereading, Dante, Whitman, Rimbaud, Eliot, Rilke, Stevens, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, Merwin, Levertov, Graham, Paz, Neruda, and Borges – not to mention Rumi, Attar, Basho, Han Shan, Milarepa, Saraha, Kabir, and the Mahābhārata – is unfathomable.
As I neared completion of the dissertation, it became clear to me that, in the end, I had not found Dharmakīrti’s arguments for past and future lives and the possibility of enlightenment fully persuasive, and intimated as much in my draft. At the same time, I came to realize that the absence of absolute rational or empirical proof of key elements of the Buddhist world-view mattered less to me now than it had when I began the project, for I had come to see religion in general and my identity as Buddhist in particular less as a matter of accepting or rejecting philosophical propositions and metaphysical claims, and more as a matter of identifying with a particular aesthetic – a way of seeing and responding to life that involves all the senses, the intellect, and the imagination. While wondering if I was “really” Buddhist, I had become Buddhist simply be being Buddhist, by participating in rituals, practicing meditation, debating philosophy, and imagining the world as if Buddhism were “true.” And if my faith was, by traditional measures, far from perfect – if, indeed, I was prone to agnosticism on many metaphysical matters – my participation in Buddhist life – along with my bedrock conviction in the value of recognizing and applying the doctrine of emptiness, exploring the vagaries of the mind, regularly practicing meditation, and trying to enact compassion – had shaped who I was to the point where I could affirm, without apology, “I am a Buddhist.”
Geshe Sopa was not pleased with my philosophical conclusions, but fortunately, he did not send me back to the drawing board – a good thing at that point, because my dissertation had grown to gargantuan proportions. The final product, typed on a Sears electric typewriter, and submitted and defended in the spring of 1983, was 1020 pages long – and that was far from a record for University of Wisconsin Buddhist Studies dissertations; Jeffrey Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness approached 1200 pages, and another, shortly after my time, exceeded 1600 pages. Apart from some musings on the irrelevance of Buddhist logic by Minoru Kiyota and some tough questions about the meaning of omniscience by philosopher of religion Keith Yandell, the defense went quite smoothly; I suspect, honestly, that no one on my committee actually read the dissertation in its entirety. At the same time, I continued my editorial work for JIABS, and published a couple of reviews in the journal, as well as short piece on Sakya Pandita’s polemical account of the Chinese-Indian Samyé Debate of the late 8th century.
EARLY-CAREER PEREGRINATIONS: 1983–89
Late in 1982, as I anticipated defending my dissertation the following spring, I began to wonder what I would do once my degree was in hand. I hadn’t thought about it much over the years, as I delightedly grubbed around in Buddhist texts and tried to make sense them, on my own and in conversations with friends. But now, the reality of having to make a living loomed large on the horizon, so I did what the majority of late-term ABDs do: I applied for teaching positions. Carleton College, four hours up the road in Northfield, MN, was advertising a one-year sabbatical replacement position to teach a range of Asian religions in the place of Bardwell Smith, who was heading to Japan for teaching and research. I interviewed for the position at my first American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting the last one ever held in New York), and was fortunate enough to get a campus interview and then be hired for the job. At the same time, quite uncertain that I would (a) enjoy or (b) succeed in academia, I sowed the seeds of a possible alternative career, taking the Foreign Service exam, which, to my surprise, I passed.
So, in the fall of 1983, I headed to Northfield alone – Pam was finishing up her B.S.N. in Madison, and would not join me until after New Year’s. I wouldn’t have been much fun, anyway, as I doubt I’ve ever worked harder in my life than I did that first year in academia. With zero teaching experience to my credit, I put together six separate courses over the course of three fast-paced, 10-week terms. I found in fairly short order that I loved teaching, and the students seemed to respond to my efforts and enthusiasm, which is, of course, gratifying for a beginner. I felt quite at home at Carleton, which reminded me a lot of Wesleyan: a highly selective small liberal arts college filled with bright, motivated students, and faculty whose knowledge and interests went far beyond their scholarly specialties. Thus, although I was the only Asianist in the Religion department, I found much to discuss with my colleagues in the department, and in the Philosophy department, as well as with Asianists elsewhere on campus (especially the historian of Ambedkarite Buddhism, Eleanor Zelliot) and at nearby St. Olaf College. Since my Carleton job was only for a year, I applied for a variety of temporary and tenure-track jobs that would start in the fall of 1984, but as the long Minnesota winter turned toward spring, I had no prospects, and was beginning to wonder if was destined for the State Department, for by this time I knew I had also passed a day of oral testing I had undergone in Chicago. My sole remaining academic hope was a late-advertised two-year visiting position in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan, which had most recently been occupied by Gregory Schopen (who had moved on to Indiana). One afternoon, out of the blue, I received a call from Luís Gómez, who offered me the job outright. Having no other live options at the moment – the gears of the Foreign Service bureaucracy turn exceedingly slowly – I accepted, without ever having met Gómez or visited Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor was a delightful small city, which reminded Pam and me of Madison. She found work at a home-care nursing agency. My own work at the university was utterly different from what I had done at Carleton: I taught either huge survey courses on Asian religions, for which I had teaching assistants, or small seminars focused on Tibetan, Sanskrit or Pāli texts. Just a year-and-a-half out of grad school, I felt like I was barely a step ahead of the very bright grad students I tutored, including, of those who went on to careers as teachers and scholars, Patrick Pranke and Jonathan Silk. Robert Scharf was just heading off to Japan when I arrived, and C.W. (Sandy) Huntington, who like me had worked with Geshe Wangchen in Sarnath, was already in India, finishing his dissertation on Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra. The Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures, in which Buddhist Studies was housed, reminded me a bit of South Asian Studies at Madison – in the good sense that it was a gathering place for brilliant scholars, but also in the unfortunate sense that at least some of these great scholars despised each other. I remember in particular that two of the world’s great Sinologists, who had offices right near mine, had not spoken in something like fifteen years. Combined with my own insecurities, this at-times-acidic culture made me wonder whether this was really the sort of academic environment in which I would flourish.
At the same time, the Buddhist Studies program, though still in formation, seemed quite harmonious. Luís Gómez could not have been a more gracious mentor or stimulating conversationalist; together with the late Bruce Hall, a fine scholar of Abhidharma also at Michigan on a temporary basis, we had many an interesting Friday-lunch discussion on every imaginable aspect of Buddhism, from the meaning of ancient texts to the tradition’s prospects in the modern world. Luís also introduced me to the joys and bafflements of the personal computer (he described his own as “my mistress”). I would buy own Mac desktop (floppy disks and all) the following year. Because my teaching load was not onerous, I found time while at Michigan to assume – along with Gregory Schopen – the editorship of JIABS, from which A.K. Narain, who had returned to India, was retiring. One of the pieces we published was an exchange between Geshe Sopa and Alex Wayman, based on Geshe-la’s critical review (with the English shaped by Elvin Jones) of Wayman’s translation of portions of Tsongkhapa’s Lam rim chen mo, my first (but not my last) experience with such scholarly imbroglios. I also worked on my first post-Ph.D. book: not, as might have been expected (and perhaps reasonable), a revision of my dissertation, but a short book on the Kālacakra Tantra, on which I collaborated with Geshe Sopa (with the assistance of Elvin Jones) and John Newman – who was himself working on Kālacakra for his dissertation in Madison. Pam and I also got to know the late, lamented Gelek Rinpoche, who had arrived in Ann Arbor from India not long before, and was in the process of establishing what would become Jewel Heart, at that point located in a simple farmhouse outside town. It was wonderful to have such easy and intimate access to so learned and charismatic a teacher, and although we had little contact with him in later years, our respect and affection for him never dimmed.
Although the Michigan position was slotted for two years, Luís did not expect that it would convert to tenure-track any time soon, and encouraged me to apply for more permanent jobs even in my first year. I had a multitude of initial interviews at the AAR, and although most came to naught, I almost got a campus visit at Macalester College, in St. Paul – but because the department was bringing candidates one at a time, and James Laine visited before I did, he got the job. Somewhat belatedly (they had gone through a number of candidates, unsuccessfully), I was invited for a campus interview for a tenure-track job at Fairfield, a small Jesuit-affiliated university in southern Connecticut. The Religious Studies department at Fairfield had never housed an Asianist, and it turned out that the members of the department, while interested above all in a scholar who could teach Asian religions, were also intrigued by someone who practiced an Asian religion, with whom they, and their students, might enter into dialogue. This was a revelation to me, for I had been trained in graduate school to keep my personal beliefs and practices as far away from my work as a teacher and scholar as possible, lest my work be infected by bias. I had maintained this strict separation in my interviews and activities at both Carleton and Michigan. Here, however, were potential colleagues who invited me to share my own perspectives and stories, both with them and – safeguards properly in place – with students. In the end, I was offered the Fairfield job, and, eager to return to a liberal-arts-school environment and to the broad intellectual stimulation found in religion departments, I accepted it. Pam’s and my family members, almost all of whom lived in the New York area, were delighted that we would be living near them again.
Around the time I accepted the Fairfield job, I heard from the Foreign Service that I had passed the final level of their screening, and now was eligible to join the State Department, as either a political officer or a United States Information Agency representative. There was still no guarantee I would succeed in academia, but I was enjoying it, and so far I had been able to find a teaching job when I needed it. The diplomatic life, with its constantly rotating postings and social obligations, appealed little to me, and less to Pam. And besides, Ronald Reagan was president, and I found it hard to picture myself – in a hypothetical germane to that era – justifying the American invasion of Grenada to, say, the Sudanese.
Late in the summer of 1985, after I returned from the IABS conference in Bologna (at which I presented on Dharmakīrti’s refutation of theism, and first got to know Janet Gyatso, Akira Yuyama, and a range of other Buddhologists, both beginning and established; Geshe Sopa and Ngawang Samten from Sarnath were also there), Pam and I loaded up our car and a rickety, unreliable moving truck, and drove with our cat from Ann Arbor to a newly-purchased house in Stratford, a more affordable town on the Connecticut shore a few exits up Interstate 95 from pricey Fairfield. We enjoyed being closer to family and friends living in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, and New Jersey. Pam worked as a nurse at the original American Hospice, in Branford, CT, then later for a home-care agency, though with the birth of our son in 1987, she took a long hiatus. As ever, we explored Buddhist centers in the area, traveling to Manhattan for teachings with visiting luminaries, and going on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the Milarepa Center, founded by Lama Yeshe in Vermont. I settled into life at Fairfield, where I had stimulating colleagues (most notably John Thiel and Paul Lakeland) who were, indeed, interested in talking through theological and philosophical issues. The students were good, but not quite at the level of those at Carleton (or the best at Michigan), and the teaching load was difficult: three classes per semester, which always included two sections of Introduction to Religion, a required course for all Fairfield students. That typically left only one slot per semester for courses in Asian religions – unless I opted for an overload, which once or twice I did. Teaching in the Catholic environment of Fairfield forced me to deepen my understanding and appreciation of Christianity, and to think more broadly and comparatively than I had before. Although there were few Asianists, let alone Buddhism scholars, at Fairfield, a number of us teaching in New England at the time – myself, Janet Gyatso (at Wesleyan), José Cabezón (at Trinity), and Jamie Hubbard (at Smith), encouraged by Dennis Hudson, Taitetsu Unno, and Robert Thurman, met regularly on one or another of our campuses to discuss our own work, as well as other developments in the field.
In my scholarly life, which I managed somehow to maintain, I published several book reviews and a number of journal articles (or book chapters) based on my studies of Dharmakīrti (as well as Buddhist philosophy more generally). One early article that I think retains some value is “For Whom Emptiness Prevails,” an analysis of the implications of Nāgārjuna’s commentary on the final verse of his own Vigrahavyāvartanī, which asserts that emptiness guarantees all dependently-arisen worldly conventions, including Buddhist religious claims; my argument is that emptiness guarantees conventions in general, but that the establishment of particular conventions requires application of perception and inference, in the manner of Dharmakīrti and other logicians. I also began work on turning my dissertation into a book for Snow Lion Publications. A 1020-page dissertation was too big, so I cut the 500 pages of summary and analysis by two-thirds, and focused on publishing the entirety of my annotated translation of Gyaltsab’s commentary to Dharmakīrti. At the same time, I began to research mahāmudrā (the great seal), which had first piqued my interest in grad school. I intended at the outset simply to translate and contextualize the core great-seal texts of the Geluk tradition, composed by the First Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen, around 1600. My investigation, however, inevitably led me into the writings of masters in the Tibetan order for which mahāmudrā is most central, the Kagyü, and that, in turn, took me back into the Indian tantric sources on which all Tibetan Buddhists drew, especially the later tantras and the songs of the mahāsiddhas. Within a few years, the research had ballooned to the point where I had written the scraps of two books, one on Geluk mahāmudrā, the other a history of the great seal in general. In late 1988, I was awarded a grant by the American Council of Learned Societies to research mahāmudrā in the library at the Tibetan Institute in Sarnath – which since my time there in 1980–81 had moved to a beautiful, new campus on the outskirts of town. On my brief visit in early 1989, I was able to renew my friendship with Ngawang Samten, and also spend some time in Delhi, Varanasi, and Bodh Gaya. As it turned out, though, this new project – which was rooted in my long-time interest in Buddhist mysticism, and which helped restore some balance, in both my scholarship and my personal practice, between the philosophical and contemplative strains of the tradition – would not come to fruition for several decades. Such are the vagaries of the scholar’s life.
I continued to co-edit JIABS with Gregory Schopen (still ensconced at Indiana at the time), though he stepped down in 1989, leaving me a sole editor. As I would for many decades, I regularly attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, which was rapidly becoming the most important conference venue for Buddhism scholars from North America – and sometimes beyond. In those years, most emerging scholars, reflecting the doctoral programs from which they had emerged (Wisconsin, Virginia, Harvard, Berkeley, Washington, Chicago) concerned themselves primarily with doctrinal and philosophical matters, with social scientific and even historical concerns largely relegated to the sidelines. Besides my cohort from Wisconsin, these scholars included such life-long friends as Mathew Kapstein, Richard Hayes, Ronald Davidson, David Eckel, John Strong, Todd Lewis, John Holt, Donald Lopez, Charles Hallisey, and John Powers. The field at that time was predominantly white and male, but there were important exceptions, like Sallie King, Anne Klein, Rita Gross, Miriam Levering, Betsy Napper, and Janet Gyatso, all of whom became friends as well. There were very few scholars of Asian or Asian-American origin at the time, especially in South Asian and Tibetan Buddhist studies. Anyway, In our AAR sessions and our conversations over drinks or dinner, my friends and I debated the great philosophical issues of Buddhist tradition: no-self and emptiness, buddha nature and buddhahood, the relation between rationality and direct experience, and so forth. At one particularly lively group dinner, I confessed to my Wisconsin batchmate Paul Griffiths – who as a philosophically learned Christian had studied Buddhism at least in part in order to refute it – that at times I lay awake at night wondering if there really was a God. I said to him, “And you probably lie awake wondering if there are past and future lives.” “No,” he replied, “but I do lose sleep worrying that I don’t have an eternal self.” (Griffiths never found quite the knock-down, drag-out debate he sought with his Buddhist colleagues, and eventually, after two brilliant books, On Being Mindless and On Being Buddha, shifted to Catholic studies.)
I had arrived at Fairfield with two years’ prior experience, and because my scholarly productivity was relatively robust and I was successful as a teacher, I was given early promotion to associate professor (without tenure) in the fall of 1988 – at which time I put in my application for tenure, to be decided upon by the Powers That Be in the winter. At the same time, though, I noticed that the Religion department at Carleton – where I had maintained friendly relations over the years – was now advertising a tenure-track position in South Asian religions (and, at an introductory level, Islam). Despite the likelihood of receiving tenure at Fairfield, I decided to apply. I was fortunate enough to be invited for a campus interview. My job talk, delivered late on a sub-zero January afternoon, was entitled “God as Lover, Wisdom as Whore: Erotic Imagery in South Asian Religious Poetry.” The other finalists for the job were a formidable trio – José Cabezón, Todd Lewis, and John Cort (all future Guggenheim winners) – yet to my astonishment, just a couple of weeks later I was offered the job – and the very same week I was informed that I would be granted tenure at Fairfield. I agonized over the decision at first. After all, Pam and I had family in the east, and I loved my colleagues at Fairfield. At the same time, though, the opportunity to teach Carleton-caliber students for (I hoped) the next several decades, and to be part of one of the best Asian Studies program at any small liberal arts college, was hard to pass up – as was the chance to live closer to Geshe Sopa, Deer Park, and our many close friends in Madison. And, perhaps strangely for easterners, Pam and I missed the open skies and more relaxed pace of the Midwest. So, amidst some understandable gnashing of teeth by our relatives, I accepted the job, and in the late summer of 1989 (after I had presented my first research into Geluk mahāmudrā at the IABS conference in Taipei), toddler in tow, we headed back to Minnesota – this time, we hoped, for the long haul.
TO CARLETON AND BEYOND: 1989–2020
It was a pleasure to return to Carleton: the students were, if anything, brighter than I remembered, my colleagues in Asian Studies and Religion more numerous and well trained than ever, and my nearly complete freedom to teach courses of my own devising a nice change from the situation at Fairfield. I came up for tenure within just a couple of years, and was awarded it. I taught until 2016, when I retired.
When I arrived in 1989, the Asian Studies program at Carleton was anchored by its founder, Bardwell Smith in East Asian religions, as well as by Sherpa expert James Fisher in anthropology, Eleanor Zelliot in South Asian history; Chang-tai Hung in East Asian history, Sinologists Roy Grow in Political Science, and George Lamson in Economics, Dale Haworth in East Asian art history, Nancy Wilkie in South Asian archeology, and a full complement of teachers of Chinese and Japanese language. Over the years, of course, with retirements and other departures, the cast of characters changed. In Religion, after Bardwell Smith’s retirement in 1995, we hired in succession two tenure-track faculty who for various reasons moved on after a few years, Mark Unno and Paula Arai; the position is now occupied by Asuka Sango. We had a number of short-term East Asia-oriented visitors to help fill the gaps or sabbatical leaves, including Leslie Gunawardana, Charles Jones, Sudharshan Seneviratne, Clarke Hudson, and Peter Gregory. On the South Asian side, my various sabbaticals resulted in visiting stints by a number of fine teacher/scholars, including Joseph Schaller, Joy Laine, Sara McClintock, William Elison, and Shana Sippy. Further, in 2010, for a “global Christianity” position we hired an ethnographer of Tamil Nadu, Kristin Bloomer. Elsewhere in the college, over the years, an expert on modern South Asian Anglophone literature (Arnab Chakladar) joined the English department, a scholar of Ming art (Kathleen Ryor) joined Art History, and a sociologist of South Asia (Meera Sehgal) joined Sociology/Anthropology and the Women’s Studies program. After Eleanor Zelliot’s retirement in 1997, a succession of South Asia historians (all of them of South Asian origin) filled her role; the position is now occupied by Amna Khalid. Needless to say, all these colleagues, and others, made my years at Carleton a feast of great conversation about all things Asian, and provided multiple opportunities to learn from outside speakers, artists, and performers. I made many friends outside Asian studies, as well, none more appreciated than astrophysicist Joel Weisberg, a committed social activist and longtime Deadhead, with whom I engaged in a series of on-campus public debates in the 2010s on the true meaning of the Grateful Dead song “Dark Star” – he claimed it was about pulsars and black holes, I said it was about mystical experience. (My brother, the Dead scholar, said, “actually, it’s about drugs.”)
Within this setting, I offered a range of courses on Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as well as introductory and more advanced classes on the study of religion (and, outside the department, the theory and practice of cross-cultural studies). I plunged as deeply into Islam as a non-specialist could, developing a basic course that endured for a dozen years – until eventually the department was able to hire a real Islamicist – whose first day of teaching turned out be September 11, 2001. I also began to offer small “directed reading” classes on Sanskrit virtually every term, and occasionally a tutorial on Tibetan or Pāli – a practice I continued until I retired. Although I never ceased to love teaching introductory courses – the students’ questions were so good, and so basic, that they required constant reassessment – in retrospect, the classes I enjoyed teaching the most were small, discussion-intensive forays into topics such as emptiness, tantra, mysticism, spiritual poetry, Indian philosophy, Gandhi, the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, Buddhist ethics, Buddhism and the Beats, and Sufism. And some of my very best teaching experiences were co-taught courses, the most notable of which was one called “From Nāgārjuna to Nishitani: Emptiness in Asian Buddhism,” which I shared with Bardwell Smith – and for which we were able to bring to campus at one time or another Geshe Sopa, Frederick Streng, and Taitetsu Unno. I also offered ad hoc independent studies over the years, on topics ranging from Mahāyāna philosophy, to the history of druidism at Carleton, to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Over the years, I became increasingly comfortable with admitting in class that I was a practicing Buddhist; indeed, in courses focused on Buddhism, I would begin with a disclaimer, to this effect: “I will do my best to present the material as neutrally as possible, but it’s possible (perhaps inevitable) that my own views will my presentation at times; if they do, please call me on it.” In the event, if I erred in a particular direction, it was actually more often toward being “critical” of Buddhism – not in a dismissive sense, but in the sense of adding social and historical context and unstinting philosophical inquiry to my presentation, because I felt the need to complicate the common American undergraduate assumption that Buddhism is a “cool” religion, which gave the world Zen, the Dalai Lama, and “mind science,” while Christianity (for instance) only gave us the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Jerry Falwell.
It was gratifying, over the years, to see quite a number of my students go on for M.A.s in South Asian studies, and a few to complete Ph.D.s and enter academia, including Eric Mortensen (now at Guilford College), David Fiordalis (now at Linfield), and Charlie Carstens, who is presently ABD at Harvard. Another student, a wild-haired rock drummer and general free spirit named James LaBresh, traveled in Tibet and other parts of Asia after graduation, and eventually took robes as a Theravādin monk and studied for many years at Ajahn Cha’s forest monastery for Westerners in northeast Thailand; now, as Ajahn Chandako, he is abbot of Vimutti monastery in New Zealand. Yet another student, David Kittelstrom, followed a similar post-undergraduate path to my own, traveling to India and Nepal and studying at Kopan, but instead of grad school, he went to work at Wisdom Publications, and now is one of the most respected editors in the field of Buddhist studies; indeed, it’s been my good fortune to have him as chief editor for two books of mine brought out by Wisdom.
Among my most satisfying – though also most challenging – pedagogical experiences involved taking student groups to South Asia. I directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) India program in Pune, Maharashtra, in the summer of 1992. The high point, apart from visits to Ajanta and Ellora, was accompanying hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims singing the songs of their poet-saints on the final phase of their pilgrimage to the temple of Vitobha in Pandharpur. I returned to teach at Carleton in September, but the students remained until December, barely making it out of the country amidst the communal riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. I directed the semester-long Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) program in Kandy, Sri Lanka, in the fall of 1993 and again in 2000. The programs in Sri Lanka were especially rewarding, as I was able to learn enough of the history and culture of the island to feel that I had at least a glimmer of what had gone on – and was going on – there. I felt able to convey the basics to the students and, with the help of my Sri Lankan colleague, Punchi Meegakumbara, I managed to produce one scholarly article, on tantric “echoes” in Sinhalese Buddhist ritual practices. At the same time, it was difficult to run the program in the midst of the Sri Lankan civil war. Kandy was generally quite removed from the fray, but many other parts of the island were off-limits to students, including, at times, Colombo, and security was a constant concern; my son, at six, was able to tell the difference between AK-47s carried by some soldiers and the Uzis wielded by others. Also challenging (both in India and Sri Lanka) was my role as director, which at once barred me from my main role as an academic – teaching (since local professors handled all the classes) – and required me to serve, simultaneously, as academic adviser, registrar, dean of students, provost, and wellness counselor. Further, one is fulfilling such roles for 20-year-olds, and as everywhere, some are quite mature and some are utterly impossible. Nevertheless, there are few experiences more worthwhile than helping students immerse themselves in a mostly alien language and culture, and many of my fondest memories – and longest-standing friendships, both in the U.S. and South Asia – have their source in these programs.
Because of my commitment to undergraduate study abroad, I served for well over a decade as Carleton’s representative to the ACM India program, and for a quarter-century on the board of the ISLE consortium, of which I was chair for many years. Like others, the ISLE board was comprised of a collection of distinctive and often strong personalities, with occasionally divergent agendas, and was at times bathed in melodrama: board meetings could be stormy, and colleges sometimes left the consortium under unhappy circumstances. ISLE probably cost me more sleepless nights than any other institution in my life, but I don’t regret it – partly because it was worthwhile to help run and preserve a unique and valuable program (it was the initial training ground for many present-day American scholars of Sri Lanka, and a life-altering experience for nearly every student who participated), partly because it resulted in friendships with colleagues both in the U.S. (e.g., John Holt, John Strong, Sree Padma, Ed Gilday, Todd Lewis, Steven Hopkins, and Maria Heim) and Sri Lanka (e.g., P.D. Premasiri, Sudharshan Seneviratne, Carmen Wickramagamage, Tudor Silva, and Kingsley de Silva). (The consortium model eventually became unsustainable, and in 2018, ISLE was taken over by the study-abroad retailer IFSA-Butler, under whose aegis it has, unfortunately, struggled – though ongoing security concerns are to blame more than IFSA-Butler.)
When my family and I moved back to Northfield in 1989, we lived for the first year in a sabbatical rental, after which we bought a century-old Craftsman-style house on the St. Olaf side of town. Pam once again found home-care nursing work, which she eventually traded in for pastel painting, library work, and somatic-yoga teaching, while our son passed from toddlerhood, to childhood, to adolescence and beyond. When I think back on the 10 years preceding and succeeding the turn of the millennium, I’m amazed at how many different balls I kept in the air at once: teaching, scholarship, involvement in the profession, college service, family life, recreation, travel, and a perhaps-excessive love of televised sports (inherited from my father and carried over from childhood). From my vantage point now, on the cusp of 70, it seems exhausting, and yet somehow, I, like so many others I know, managed it without collapsing into disaster or, for that matter, divorce. Indeed, I am acutely aware that I could not have done all that I did without Pam’s support, understanding, and sense of humor – not to mention her frequent reality-checks – for which I am eternally grateful.
In terms of our ongoing Buddhist practice, apart from regular forays to Deer Park – where Geshe Sopa continued to teach until around 2010, and the Dalai Lama was a frequent visitor – Pam and I acquainted ourselves with the burgeoning Buddhist scene in the Twin Cities, trying out Zen and Vipassana centers, and becoming increasingly involved with various Tibetan centers and teachers that appeared on the scene, including the longstanding Sakya center (with regular visits from Sakya Trizin and other notables), the Kagyu/Nyingma Tergar center founded by Mingyur Rinpoche, a Nyingma center (Bodhicitta Sangha) founded by Khenpo Sherab Sangpo, and a branch of Gyutö, a Geluk tantric monastery, that opened in Minneapolis in the early 1990s. Starting around the same time, the Twin Cities became a major magnet for resettled Tibetans from South Asia, so the Dalai Lama made regular visits, often in coordination with check-ups at the Mayo Clinic and sojourns to Madison. Prior to his first visit to the Twin Cities in 2000, I had my proverbial fifteen minutes of (quasi-)fame when I was featured on the front page of the Sunday St. Paul Pioneer Press; the reporter, who shadowed me for a full day at Carleton, made much of the fact that I somehow combined a commitment to Tibetan Buddhism with a passion for baseball – a koan in my life I have long since ceased trying to solve. Pam and I helped to found a small but successful non-sectarian Buddhist meditation center in Northfield, in 1996. Its orientation skewed in the early years toward Zen, and more recently toward Vipassana, but it always has maintained an openness to all traditions and teachers that is somewhat unusual among Western Buddhist centers.
THIRTY YEARS OF PUBLICATIONS
As noted, it is not easy to maintain momentum in one’s scholarly life at a small liberal arts college, even one as supportive of faculty research as Carleton – yet somehow, I did. Some scholars follow a completely logical publication path, in which the dissertation leads to a first book, out of which, then, a second book naturally evolves, and so on, seamlessly through the years. My own scholarly career has not been like that at all. At times I followed where my passion led me, but because of my multiple and only partially overlapping interests in philosophy, mysticism, and poetry, my own inclinations could pull me in opposite directions, so that I would work on wildly different projects simultaneously, or follow up one project with another quite unrelated to it. Furthermore, on several occasions I responded to the suggestions of colleagues that we collaborate on projects that led me away from my intended direction, but seemed worth pursuing anyway. The first such instance was the co-authored book on Kālacakra, which – combined with my detour into researching mahāmudrā – postponed the appearance of my dissertation-based book for several years. And even before the dissertation-based book was done, José Cabezón proposed that he and I co-edit a festschrift for Geshe Sopa, a carefully crafted volume on genres of Tibetan literature that would draw on the expertise of both established and emerging scholars of Tibet. I will comment on this volume in due course.
At the same time that various book ideas were forming, I strove to publish, in respected, refereed journals, articles that drew on my interests and knowledge: at this point, most of them were related to Buddhist philosophy in general and Dharmakīrti in particular, but several, too, reflected my interest in tantra. In retrospect, the most notable philosophical piece was an article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which examined Nāgārjuna and Dharmakīrti through the lens of the modern philosophical notions of deconstruction and foundationalism, arguing that Buddhist thought involves a complex combination of the two. The most interesting tantra-oriented piece was probably “Ambiguous Sexuality,” published in Religion, which analyzed a number of different approaches to the sexual imagery contained in the caryā songs of the Indian mahāsiddha Kāṇha, and argued for an interpretive middle way that avoided the extremes of seeing the songs either as crude excuses for carnal indulgence or as merely symbolic statements that had nothing to do with sex. A few years later, I contributed an article to a festschrift for the Dalai Lama, in which I explored similar questions of transgressive language in the songs of Saraha – a figure I first encountered in grad school and now began to study with increasing interest. In the remainder of this memoir, I will touch on articles only occasionally, focusing most of my attention instead on the book projects of which I was part – none of which is worth rocketing into space for the edification an alien civilization, but each of which, I hope, made a small contribution to one or another area of modern Buddhist studies.
After a decade of on-again, off-again work, the revision of my dissertation, also entitled Is Enlightenment Possible?, finally was released by Snow Lion in 1993. I like to think that the long introduction provides a useful entrée into issues of truth and argument in Buddhism in general, and Dharmakīrti’s thought in particular; and that the annotated translation of Gyaltsab’s commentary on chapter 2 of the Pramāṇavārttika opens at least once avenue into a difficult but important Buddhist philosophy-of-religion text. I do know that, despite its having long since gone out of print, it has been utilized now and again in academic settings, and with some frequency in the context of teachings on Gyaltsab’s text by Geluk masters in Asia and the West. Unfortunately, the one substantial review of the book, by Eli Franco (who was working on the same chapter of Dharmakīrti), was highly critical. He argued that not only were there a number of factual errors in one portion of the prefatory material but, more seriously, both the translation itself and my approach to the text (which in his mind was insufficiently philological and Indological) were seriously flawed. I was given the opportunity to respond to Franco, which I did at length, and he was permitted a final, brief retort; the whole exchange appeared in JIABS – by then edited by Donald Lopez – in 1997. There is no point in rehashing old debates. I’ll merely note here that I freely concede that some regrettable errors of fact crept into the book unchecked, and that there no doubt were elements of Dharmakīrti’s/Gyaltsab’s argument I failed to fully grasp or to adequately articulate. On the other hand, I had been quite clear that my take on the text was Tibetological and philosophical rather than Indological and philological, and felt it should have been judged accordingly. Franco’s critique, incidentally, exposed a perceived fault line, perhaps less evident now than two decades ago, between “European” and “North American” approaches to Buddhist studies, the former above all philological, the latter concerned centrally with philosophical theory, exposition, and analysis – though obviously there were important exceptions to these stereotypes on both sides of the Atlantic, with the very best scholars comfortably bridging the divide. I confess that for me, the exchange with Franco was a bit dispiriting, and confirmed my growing sense that pursuing topics other than Dharmakīrti was the best way forward in my scholarship. Because Is Enlightenment Possible? is in demand but hard to find, I may look into getting it reprinted – but only if I can make necessary revisions.
As noted, José Cabezón first proposed that he and I co-edit a volume on Tibetan literature in honor of Geshe Sopa in the late ‘80s. Thus, even as I was finalizing my Dharmakīrti book, we were working to conceive and bring to life a volume that would draw on the expertise of nearly three dozen Tibetologists in order to map out (at least in a preliminary way) the nature, structure, and social role of literature on the plateau, as viewed primarily through the lens of genre. Although there were excellent studies of Tibetan literature to be found in the works of such venerable scholars as Vostrikov, Tucci, and Stein, no one had previously attempted to treat the literary tradition as a whole. Of course, there were many genres that, for one reason or another, we were unable to cover and, as with any scholarly collection, some chapters worked out better than others, but we felt that we had at least succeeded in utilizing the talents of many rising Tibetologists (none of them, unfortunately, Tibetan) to open up the field of Tibetan literary studies for further cultivation in the future. (Besides co-writing the introduction, I contributed a chapter on the various genres of Tibetan poetry.) Certainly, when Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre was published by Snow Lion, in 1996, we were pleased to be able to present it to Geshe Sopa, just a year before his retirement from the University of Wisconsin. We were pleased as well when, a decade or so later, a fresh generation of Tibetologists found the work a useful takeoff-point for their own, even deeper, scholarly explorations of Tibetan literature. Apart from some excellent books, the most satisfying manifestation of this came in the form of a five-year AAR seminar, organized by Kurtis Schaeffer and Andrew Quintman, on “Religion and the Literary in Tibet,” which was made up primarily of younger scholars (an impressive number of whom were female, and a few of whom, at last, were Tibetan) – but which also included me, José, Janet Gyatso, and Leonard van der Kuijp from among the now-greying Baby Boom Buddhologists who had contributed to Tibetan Literature.
As indicated, over time, I grew comfortable in the classroom expressing my dual identity as a scholar of Buddhism and a Buddhist practitioner. To do so in one’s scholarship, however, was not so simple a matter, since the presumption in Buddhist studies (as in most fields) was that one would research and write in as value-neutral a manner as possible. At the same time, like me, most North American Buddhologists of my generation became scholars after – or because – they were Buddhist practitioners, and most of them, like me, remained practitioners after they became scholars. And although many of my most animated conversations with such close friends as José Cabezón and John Makransky were about the ways in which the two identities intersected in our lives, in the academy the twain were never supposed to meet – and until the 1990s, for the most part they did not. At that point, however, many of us had earned tenure, which does grant some leeway for taking intellectual risks, and because the scholarly conference most us of attended annually was the AAR, with its blend of scholarly and theological agendas (the latter mostly Jewish or Christian until recently), John Makransky and I were able to put together a panel in New Orleans in 1996 that for the first time invited scholars of Buddhism not only to reflect on Buddhist traditions from the standpoint of critical scholarship (which we’d been doing all along), but to consider broader scholarly, philosophical, and social issues from the standpoint of Buddhism – in short, to do “Buddhist theology.” The panel was a success, and, with the encouragement and support of Charles Prebish, it led to the creation of a volume of the same name, edited by John and me, which was brought out in the Curzon (now Routledge) Critical Studies in Buddhism Series in 2000. The term “Buddhist theology” was, and remains, controversial, because Buddhists generally consider themselves “atheists,” and because the word is Western in origin and redolent of Christianity. John’s and my introduction nevertheless attempted both to justify the term and explain what we meant by it, while the remainder of the volume brought together essays by a range of scholars who sought to speak as Buddhists on matters of intellectual and social concern, including John and me, José Cabezón, Alan Wallace, John Dunne, Rita Gross, Mahinda Deegalle, Sara McClintock, Kenneth Tanaka, Judith Simmer-Brown, Mark Unno, and David Loy. The volume was capped off by thought-provoking responses to the essays by Luís Gómez and Taitetsu Unno. My own contribution was entitled “In Search of a Postmodern Middle,” which combined spiritual/scholarly autobiography with an exploration of the Buddhist metaphor of “the middle,” especially as it relates to attempts find a healthy balance between critical and appreciative understandings of their tradition by modern Buddhist thinkers. Buddhist Theology was fairly widely and positively reviewed, and I think it helped set the stage for acceptance of what is (perhaps less tendentiously) called “Buddhist critical-constructive reflection” as a legitimate part of the academy and as a legitimate scholarly activity for Buddhologists.
No book was as much of a pleasure to write as Tantric Treasures, published by Oxford in 2004. I had been interested in tantra in general and the Indian mahāsiddhas in particular since I first developed an interest in mahāmudrā during my grad school years. I especially enjoyed reading their songs of spiritual experience and instruction, originally in English or French translation, then later in the relevant Asian languages. Late in the 1990s I began to experiment with my own translations, and eventually settled on three dohākoṣas (couplet-treasuries) preserved in both the “original” Apabhraṃśa and in Tibetan translation, those of Saraha, Kāṇha, and Tilopa. I did not study Apabhraṃśa in graduate school (who does?), but was able to make sense of it with the assistance of Sanskrit glosses (chayyā, literally “shadows”), the Tibetan translations (which of course could be deceptive as well as helpful), and my knowledge of Hindi. In translating these collections, I sought not to mimic the rhythm and rhyme of the Indic-language versions – which are nearly impossible to convey in English – but to provide versions in a looser, more open, modernist style (unrhymed, with broken, lines) pioneered in the realm of translation by the likes of Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, and Robert Bly. I also sought to avoid commentarial interpretations or interpolations derived from Tibetan tradition, leaving the verses as unadorned by later readings as possible. Finally, I opted to aim my introduction and annotations less at a scholarly audience than at undergraduates or interested general readers who might know little about Mahāyāna or tantric Buddhism, let alone medieval Indic verse-forms. While more philologically-inclined scholars may find little of value in Tantric Treasures (since I did not provide a new critical edition of the Apabhraṃśa, nor literal translations into English), and responses to poetry are notoriously subjective (what sings to one reader rings hollow for another), I have been gratified to hear how many of my colleagues around the world have found it useful in their classes over the years – and to the degree that this is so, I’m satisfied that the book has served its intended purpose for its intended audience.
In the early 2000s, even before Tantric Treasures had been completed, Geshe Sopa asked me if I would serve as general editor of his decades-in-the-making translation of one of the great works of Tibetan historical scholarship, the Geluk scholar Thuken Chökyi Nyima’s Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems, an 1802 account and analysis of philosophical tenet-systems (grub mtha’) – not only, as was usual, those of the Indian schools but those of the traditions of Tibet, China, Mongolia, Khotan, and even Shambhala, as well. I had worked on the Kagyü chapter of the text during a seminar with Geshe-la in grad school, so I had a built-in interest in the project, and besides, how could I say no to such a request from my mentor and guru? Putting other projects aside (the mahāmudrā book would have to wait again!), I accepted. At the point where I came on board, Geshe-la had produced a rough translation of the entire text in collaboration with Ann Chávez, a Deer Park student with excellent literary-Tibetan skills. She sent me the various chapters as computer files, and with Thuken’s Tibetan text open before me, I began to work systematically through every chapter but those on China and Mongolia; those were handled by Leonard Zwilling and Michael Sweet – who were far more expert in these matters than Geshe-la, Ann, or I. As I worked, I would drive down to Madison every two or three months for intensive consultation with Geshe-la and Ann, not attempting to cover the whole text, but only the points on which I felt uncertainty. It was an absolute joy to participate in these sessions, which saw Geshe-la in his element, explaining difficult passages with an energy that belied his age – he was well over eighty at the time. Indeed, many an afternoon saw Ann and I exhausted after several hours, and Geshe-la ready for more. As the project moved toward its final phases, we sent out chapters to experts in the traditions involved – Matthew Kapstein for Nyingma, Dan Martin for Bon, Tony Duff for Kagyü, Giacomella Orofino for Zhijé/Chöd, and Cyrus Stearns for Sakya – and received helpful feedback from each of them. At the same time, Thupten Jinpa proposed that the finished book be included in his nascent Library of Tibetan Classics series, and indeed The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems was brought out in that series by Wisdom in 2009. From my perspective, the value of the publication is that (a) it brings to light an important Tibetan historical and philosophical text that is relatively (if not entirely) nonsectarian in its outlook and (b) it demonstrates that the “history of religion(s)” was a field of study not limited to the West. And the personal benefit, of course, was a final opportunity to sit down with Geshe Sopa and analyze Tibetan texts – the book, which pleased him immensely, was published just five years before he passed away, after several years of increasing withdrawal, in 2014. Pam and I had the fortune to be able to visit Geshe-la during his week-long post-mortem meditation (thukdam), which was open to the public, and to attend his cremation at Deer Park, right by the stupa erected to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s conferral of the Kālacakra on that very spot, back in 1981. I wrote, “In clear September sky / turkey vultures circle / our teacher’s ashes fall like gentle rain / mingling with our adamantine tears.”
Even before the completion of The Crystal Mirror, I began to return my attention to my long-dormant research on mahāmudrā, contributing a short article on the topic to the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion and co-organizing a panel on the great seal with Lara Braitstein of McGill for the 2006 International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS) conference in Germany. This was my first IATS conference, and it opened up to me the wonderful work being done on mahāmudrā by Klaus-Dieter Mathes’ “Vienna circle” and other European scholars, whose writings and friendship had a significant impact on my own work from then on. Matthew Kapstein and I eventually collected the papers from Lara’s and my panel and a Kagyü-tradition panel he had organized at the same conference in a 2011 volume entitled Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, to which I contributed a brief history of mahāmudrā studies in the West (up through 2010). In 2008, Lara and I organized another mahāmudrā panel, this time for the IABS conference in Atlanta. In 2016, Klaus-Dieter Mathes and I co-organized a great-seal panel at the IATS in Bergen, the papers from which (with some additions) were brought out by Brill in 2020 as Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet. While the volumes were in gestation, I published a variety of scholarly articles on mahāmudrā, including pieces in IIJBS on the Geluk treatment of Saraha and on the Indian mahāmudrā canon; as well as a number of general treatments of mahāmudrā in on-line encyclopedias and bibliographies. (I seemed, willy-nilly, to become for a while the go-to scholar for introductory articles on the great seal, not because I was the world’s authority on the topic – far from it – but perhaps because my research over the years – which ricocheted here, there, and everywhere – had led me to develop a broader appreciation of the sweep of the tradition than some of my more deeply delving colleagues.
My main scholarly preoccupation throughout the 2010s, however, was with my book on Geluk mahāmudrā. I abandoned the idea of a two-book solution to presenting my research, on the grounds that I simply wasn’t qualified to write a general history of the great seal, but might have something to say about its Geluk variation. I decided that in that single volume I would combine a broad historical and doctrinal survey of Indian and Tibetan mahāmudrā with a more focused study of the teachers and texts that had shaped Geluk great-seal discourse, adding reflections on the “big picture” philosophical and religious-studies questions raised by mahāmudrā practice and theory. I also settled on ten Geluk mahāmudrā texts (or text-excerpts) for translation, which display the range of literary genres that treat the great seal, including history, prayer, philosophical argument, meditation instruction, ritual practice, and poetic songs. Researching, writing, and annotating the book required a great deal of textual sleuthing over the years – but in the final push, the task was made far easier by the availability of online resources such as Gene Smith’s Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), which provided a vast range of Tibetan texts for download with just a few mouse-clicks, and the American Institute of Buddhist Studies’ searchable Kangyur and Tengyur (themselves partly based on the pioneering work of the Asian Classics Input Project, or ACIP). As much fun as it is to grub through Tibetan texts in a musty library, I do wish I had had such technology throughout my whole career. I was also aided by the encouragement and feedback I received from countless teachers and colleagues in the worlds of both Buddhist studies and Buddhist practice. In the end, Mind Seeing Mind, published by Wisdom in 2019, was a hefty tome of over seven hundred pages, and while, as with any work I’ve ever done, there are things I would now change, I hope that the book succeeds at the very least in putting Geluk mahāmudrā on the map, by contextualizing it in useful ways vis à vis other contemplative traditions in India, Tibet, and elsewhere, and by providing reasonably reliable translations of some of its key source-texts.
Had I not retired from teaching at Carleton in 2016, I imagine that Mind Seeing Mind might still be on the drawing board (or, more properly, scattered among various computer files); being free from class preparation, paper-grading, committee meetings, and such freed up my time so I could finish the book, and it has allowed me to take on further projects: a book on rebirth, a fuller treatment of Saraha, and – a bit further down the road (I should live so long!) – something on Buddhism and the Beats and some of my own Buddhist-theological reflections. Also, I’ve long thought it would be interesting to put together a survey of “Buddha Through the Centuries,” modeled on Jaroslav Pelikan’s overviews of Christian ways of imagining and theorizing Jesus and Mary, and think, too, that the world could use a global anthology of Buddhist poetry – but whether I’m the one to undertake either of these, is a separate question, to which I have as yet no answer.
TWO CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS, AND A CODA
By way of conclusion, I want to reflect briefly, and personally, on two larger matters that seem important in a memoir like this: (1) my shifting responses to the question of whether it is appropriate for Buddhism scholars to be Buddhist teachers, and (2) my sense of the overall development of Buddhist studies during my decades in the field. I will also offer a brief coda on shifts within my subfield in Buddhist studies, Tibetan studies.
I noted earlier that in my application for graduate study at the University of Wisconsin, I had actually said that I was motivated partly by a desire to help spread Buddhism in the West. Once I was in grad school, however, the idea I, as an academic, would ever be a Buddhist teacher, seemed ludicrous. Even when I got used to putting on my “Buddhist hat” now and again in my Carleton classes and speaking and writing as a Buddhist theologian in the public sphere, I did not imagine myself as a dharmabhāṇaka – a Dharma-preacher. Notwithstanding Charles Prebish’s suggestion that Buddhologists might become the central conduit for the transmission of Buddhism to the West, my attitude was, I think, typical of Buddhist studies academics. There were, however, some interesting exceptions. My friend and colleague John Makransky, while a tenured professor at Boston College, received the title of “Lama,” and has devoted much of his time to the Foundation for Active Compassion, an organization he founded and directs. Anne Klein, who teaches at Rice University, is co-director of Dawn Mountain, a Tibetan Buddhist center near Houston. David Loy, who taught for many years at universities in Japan, has, since his return to the United States some years ago, retired from university teaching and begun leading Zen retreats, often keyed to ecological themes. Alan Wallace left academia decades ago, and has become a widely renowned meditation teacher, while continuing to publish prolifically. My former Carleton colleague, Mark Unno, holds a full-time position at the University of Oregon, but also is a teacher in the Japanese Pure Land tradition. The late Rita Gross, even while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, appeared regularly at centers affiliated with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, propounding her version of Buddhist feminism and trying to educate center-members about the particulars – and complexities – of Buddhist history (of which they are often shockingly ignorant).
I don’t consider myself in the same class as any of these scholar-practitioners, but in 2002, I was asked by Gangkar Tulku, the departing abbot of the Minneapolis branch of Gyutö Tantric College, to teach occasionally at the monastery. Thus began what is now a nearly-two-decade tradition of monthly Saturday-night classes, in which the students and I focus on reading and discussing Indian Buddhist classics in translation. We move very slowly, sometimes covering only a few verses per session, so over the years, we have only covered four texts: Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, the second chapter of Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika, Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakǖatāra, and, most recently, the Uttaratantra. Though I do lecture some, I see myself primarily as a discussion-leader, and feel that if I have any value as a “Buddhist teacher,” it’s because I can help students get a sense of the historical and philosophical complexities of their adopted tradition. I’m certainly no geshe, but if my academic perspective can help provide historical and philosophical context and bridge the gap between traditional presentations of the Dharma and modern ways of thinking, I’m satisfied. I’ve played a similar role in my occasional appearances at Zen and Mindfulness centers in the Twin Cities area, and in my teaching in the years since I retired at Maitripa, a small college in Portland, OR, that offers an M.A. in Buddhist Studies, as well as an M.Div., and was founded by Yangsi Rinpoche, a Tibetan disciple of Geshe Sopa and lharampa geshe, whom I got to know when he lived for a number of years in Madison. At Maitripa, I do my best to provide the students – who are usually committed Buddhists with little academic training in Buddhist studies – with some understanding of the complexity of the tradition and of the theories and methods employed in the study of religion generally and Buddhism in particular. I greatly appreciate the melding of academic study and Buddhist practice that is the hallmark of Maitripa, and find that teaching there brings together the Buddhist and the scholar in me more completely than in any institution I know. Though I’m far from a great contemplative, I’ve also been asked to teach meditation, and have come to enjoy doing so: I’ve led bi-weekly sessions at Carleton for a number of years now, and have been invited occasionally to lead workshops at Buddhist centers in various parts of the U.S. Overall, I have become comfortable with my unforeseen, late-life role as a Buddhist teacher – though not, I hope, complacent: In each of these contexts, I make it very clear that I am not a lama – just someone who knows the tradition a little and may be able convey some aspects of it in the brave, new world into which it has entered at the culmination of its long, strange trip to the West.
Over the years, my sense of the changing contours of Buddhist studies has been shaped by my many professional involvements, such as editing international journals; reviewing book manuscripts for publishers; evaluating the work of scholars at other institutions for their tenure cases; commenting on grant proposals submitted to NEH, ASCLS, Guggenheim and the like; serving as an external member of masters and doctoral committees; and interacting with colleagues at the national and international conferences of such organizations as the American Academy of Religion, the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and the International Association for Tibetan Studies – not to mention simply reading to stay abreast of the field. Because I attended AAR annual meetings with great consistency – I only missed a handful between 1982 and 2016 – my experiences there may be a useful lens for viewing changes in the field more broadly.
When I first began attending the AAR, my last year in grad school, you could almost (but not quite) get all the Buddhism scholars in attendance around a big table at a Chinese restaurant. Within a few years, however, the field – now stocked with Baby Boom Buddhologists – had grown significantly – and the AAR became the annual rendez-vous point for paper-presentation, networking, socializing – and job hunting. As more colleges and universities saw the need to have a Buddhism (or at least Asian religions) expert on campus, new and expanded graduate programs began turning out increasing numbers of Ph.D.’s. The Buddhism unit at the AAR, which had begun as a “group” (permitted only a few sessions at the annual meeting) became a full-blown “section” (with five slots each year). This was progress, but by comparison, scholars of Christianity (and to a lesser degree, Judaism) had multiple subsections and other units through which to explore more specialized concerns. Buddhism scholars could sometimes find a forum through one or another of the comparative-religion units that were part of the AAR menu, but for the most part, they had to apply to the steering committee of the Buddhism section, hoping that their panel, or paper, would be accepted. Most years, there were far too many proposals for the available slots; this had the advantage (in principle) of keeping quality high, but the disadvantage of shutting out many worthwhile ideas.
I served on the Buddhism section steering committee from 1996 to 2004, and observed first-hand the difficulties our limited profile could entail – not only because of the growing number of proposals but because of the changing focus of the field. As I suggested earlier, when I began graduate school, and even when I completed it, the majority of Ph.D. programs – and the scholars that emerged from them – were concerned primarily with the philosophical and doctrinal study of Buddhism. This mirrored a long-term tendency, in the broader study of religion, to see religious traditions primarily in terms of ideology rather than everyday practice. Of course, just as in the study of other religions, there were great historians of Buddhism (most of them European), and a few Buddhologists who were interested in ethnography or social history (including Richard Gombrich, Stephan Beyer, and Gregory Schopen), but these were the exception rather than the rule in the early 1980s. In the mid-1980s, Schopen received a MacArthur “genius grant” for his work on Indian Buddhist social and institutional history – an honor that affirmed the changes afoot in the field. Since I co-edited JIABS with him during this era, I was aware of Schopen’s work, but I don’t think I fully realized its import (and that of like-minded scholars) until, at a Buddhism section meeting at the AAR in the late 1980s, someone proposed a panel on Abhidharma for the following year’s meeting – and was met with a smattering of boos. Abhidharma (which too often gets a bad rap) was simply emblematic of Buddhism-as-philosophy, and an increasing number of scholars entering the field (again reflecting trends within religious studies) were influenced by the theories and methods of both cultural studies and the social sciences, and by an increasing concern with such categories as power, gender, and ethnicity. This was all to the good, as was the increasing representation within Buddhist studies of women and scholars from traditionally Buddhist cultures, but it meant that where in 1980 most Buddhism panels were philosophical in orientation, by the 1990s and early 2000s, those with doctrinal interests sometimes had difficulty getting their proposals accepted if they did not deal with Buddhism “on the ground.” Needless to say, anyone interested in something like “Buddhist theology” did not even apply.
The conundrum was (more or less) resolved around 2005, when – fortuitously but, it turned out, temporarily – the AAR split from the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), with which it had shared annual meeting venues for many decades. Not having to divide its space with the SBL freed up the AAR to add more units (and sessions) to its own annual meeting, and at this point two new units were born, one dedicated solely to Buddhist philosophy, the other given over to “Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection” (a.k.a. Buddhist theology). I served on the organizing committees of each of these, and co-chaired the BCCR with John Makransky for its first six years. Over time, reflecting the emergence of increasingly fine-grained specialties within the field, many other “sub-units” of Buddhist studies developed at AAR, focusing on such topics as Yogācāra, Tibetan and Himalayan Religion, and Buddhism in the West. At the same time, Buddhologists were able to find a forum for their work in non-Buddhism-specific units, including South Asian (or Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean, or Southeast Asian) Religions, Mysticism, Religion and Sexuality, Religion and Ecology, Ritual Studies, Yoga in Theory and Practice, Tantric Studies – the list goes on. Also, with the weakening of traditional notions of discrete “area studies,” scholars increasingly began to think across long-unquestioned geographical boundaries, articulating cultural history in terms of oceanic regions, borderlands, and the transnational commerce in religious ideas and practices. All of this made its way into the AAR, as well, affording all of us in Buddhist studies with fresh lenses through which to view our field.
From the foregoing account, it might seem as if Buddhist studies has become hopelessly fragmented. It’s certainly true that there are many more “interest groups” than when I entered the field, and it’s quite impossible now to keep up with all the work being published within the various areas of specialization; indeed, it’s hard enough for me just to keep up with the scholarship in my own areas of interest. This is nothing to lament, however. In the first place, even before the multiplication of Buddhologists in the past few decades, there never actually was a “unified field” of Buddhist studies that anyone could or did master; we all, to one degree or another (even the Lamottes, Hirakawas, and Gómezes), are specialists – though of course some are narrower than others. Furthermore, the increasing variety of methodological approaches to studying Buddhism, and the greater diversity among Buddhologists in terms of gender, ethnicity, and social location all are invaluable to the maturation of the field. Let a hundred flowers bloom! In my own case, although I may have helped nudge the field an inch or two this way or that at one time or another, my own influence on others is miniscule compared to what I have gained from listening to, conversing with, and reading the work of my colleagues throughout the Buddhist studies world. Multifarious though Buddhist studies may now be, it is, it seems to me, a field possessed of vastly greater diversity, sophistication, and scholarly rigor than when I got my start – and if some of that has rubbed off on me, so much the better.
I have keyed this memoir to the larger field of Buddhist studies, but as anyone who has read this far (or even dipped in and out) will recognize, my subfield, more than any other, is Tibetan studies. Much of what I just noted about Buddhist studies writ large, particularly in North America, may be applied, mutatis mutandis, to Tibetan studies, which over the years also became larger, more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and other identity-markers, more methodologically complex and sophisticated, and less bound to shopworn categories than it was in the 1970s.
Like most Tibet scholars a few years senior to me, I was expected to focus on textual and doctrinal matters – in part because such was the tradition in Buddhist studies and religious studies, but also because the option did not exist to do on-the-ground research in Tibet itself, which, in the mid-1970s, was just emerging from the depredations of the Cultural Revolution, and was still years away from opening itself to Western researchers. Thus, like me, most of the Tibetologists at Wisconsin and elsewhere studied in India, where they might conduct research in an exile community like those in Sarnath, Dharamsala, Dehradun, or Tashijong, or, as was more common, at one of the Tibetan monasteries that had been re-established in exile in the Himalayas or the south; most of Geshe Sopa’s students went to Sera Je, in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, most of Jeffrey Hopkins’ to Drepung Gomang, in Mundgod, also in Karnataka. Others worked in Nepal, where the Newars had been a fixture in the Kathmandu valley for centuries, and the longstanding Tibetan community had been replenished by the arrival of refugee Buddhist masters in the post–1959 period. Among North American graduate programs specializing in Tibet, Wisconsin and Virginia tended to be oriented toward the Geluk, Washington toward the Sakya, and Berkeley toward the Nyingma – but because the Wisconsin and Virginia programs were the largest, Geluk studies tended to predominate during this era.
When, in the 1980s, Tibet was reopened to visitors and Chinese Tibetology put back on track, Western scholars – effectively barred from the country for over a quarter-century – gradually began to return. I still remember the mixture of excitement and consternation I felt upon hearing accounts from friends like Donald Lopez, Janet Gyatso, John Makransky, and John and Beth Newman, who were able to finally “make it to Lhasa.” (I myself still have never visited Ü-Tsang, though I’ve been to Kham.) During the ensuing decades, it became routine for North American grad students to conduct their research in Tibet itself, sometimes in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but more often in the (marginally) less politically sensitive regions of Amdo and Khams. Such access to Tibet itself did not come without considerable debate within the scholarly community as the ethics of cooperating with the Chinese regime in gaining permission to work in Tibet. Would work on the plateau require one to compromise the commitment to Tibetan political autonomy and cultural preservation that was never far from the minds of most Western Tibetologists? Rightly or wrongly, some scholars, such as Melvyn Goldstein and A. Tom Grunfeld, were identified within certain diaspora quarters as excessively sympathetic to the Chinese narrative about Tibet, but everyone who worked on the plateau had to negotiate the realities of the situation; in my view, most of them struck an admirable balance, and the outside world’s appreciation for the diversity and complexity of Tibetan culture was enriched as a result. Within this context, the nature of graduate training in Tibetan studies underwent a change. For my generation, the emphasis (at least initially) was on textual and doctrinal study, often geared to the classics of the premodern tradition, and for this, mastery of Sanskrit (and/or Pāli) was considered essential. Later grad students were able to work in Tibet – and although many of them still studied Sanskrit, Chinese increasingly became a part of their repertoire, as well.
Also, reflecting the changes of emphasis in religious studies and Buddhist studies more broadly, Tibetan studies turned from its almost exclusive preoccupation with doctrinal and philosophical studies to a more broadly historical, social scientific, and cultural-studies approach, which took in religious life-histories, institutional history, and various literary genres – not to mention studies of raven augury, fasting rituals, and other popular practices. The study of doctrine and philosophy certainly was not eclipsed entirely – important works continued, and continue, to appear on Tibetan contemplative systems and on vital philosophical debates, such as the controversy over extrinsic emptiness (gzhan stong) – but it definitely was overshadowed. Indeed, any list of the signal works in Tibetan studies of the past several decades would have to include not only the works of philosophically inclined scholars like Jeffrey Hopkins, José Cabezón, Anne Klein, John Makranskay, Matthew Kapstein, Jay Garfield, Thupten Jinpa, and Douglas Duckworth, but also such works as Geoffrey Samuel’s Civilized Shamans, Matthew Kapstein’s The Tibetans, the analyses of modern Tibetan history by Melvyn Goldstein and Shakya Tsering, Goldstein and Kapstein’s Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La, Ronald Davidson’s Tibetan Renaissance, Gene Smith’s Among Tibetan Texts, Dan Martin’s Tibetan Histories, Janet Gyatso’s works on Tibetan autobiography and Tibetan medical systems, Andrew Quintman’s study of the Milarepa corpus, and the studies of gender and sexuality in modern Tibet by Sarah Jacoby and Holly Gayley. Also, where much (though not, of course, all) of the scholarship in my era had had been Geluk-oriented, in later times – particularly after the retirements of Geshe Sopa from Wisconsin and Jeffrey Hopkins from Virginia – most later grad students tended to work with Nyingma and Kagyü materials and informants, to the point where, in the 2010’s AAR seminar on Religion and Literary in Tibet, José Cabezón and I were the only two in a group of more than twenty mostly-younger scholars whose work was still focused primarily on the Geluk. Since I started attending IATS conferences nearly twenty years ago, I’ve noticed thatthis is the case among European scholars, too. One other development worth noting is the development, especially in the past two decades, of on-line resources like BDRC, THL, and ACIP, which made the information about the plateau vast and its wide-ranging literary corpus easily available to scholars, regardless of where they resided.
Regardless of these shifts in the field, changes in the Tibetan diaspora community and its institutions, and the vagaries of Chinese policies in Tibet, Tibetan studies has come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s – yet, to close on a note of considerable uncertainty, any scholar in the field, whether established or emerging, must acknowledge that the very object of their study – Tibetan culture – is itself in some peril, as Chinese control over the plateau continues to downplay the Tibetan language at the expense of Chinese, to marginalize traditional Tibetan practices and institutions, and more generally to subsume this vast and distinctive inner Asian cultural sphere under the aegis of the Chinese motherland. Though many scholars of Tibet have been outspoken in their defense of Tibetan culture, the politics and policies that will determine Tibet’s future are almost entirely out of their hands, and for the most part, they can do little more than observe, record, and defend – as if they were chroniclers of an endangered species. Their most – our most – fervent hope is that as scholars of Tibet, we will not be reduced to poring over the artifacts of a lost civilization, but will instead be able to continue studying an ongoing, vibrant culture, with a secure future.