Studying Buddhism in Practice

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Studying Buddhism in Practice
John S. Harding, editor

Paperback, 200 pages, $29.95
Published by Routledge, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0415464864
Hardcover and e-book also available

About the author:

JOHN S. HARDING  is Associate Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. His books include Introduction to the Study of Religion with Hillary P. Rodrigues (2008) and Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada with Victor Sōgen Hori and Alexander Soucy (2010).

From the publisher:

This book introduces the rich realities of the Buddhist tradition and the academic approaches through which they are studied. Based on personal experiences of Buddhism on the ground, it provides a reflective context within which religious practices can be understood and appreciated. The engaging narratives cover a broad range of Buddhist countries and traditions, drawing on fieldwork to explore topics such as ordination, pilgrimage, funerals, gender roles, and film-making. All the entries provide valuable contextual discussion and are accompanied by photographs and suggestions for further reading.

The narratives include:

  • Coronation at Kōyasan: how one woman became king and learned about homeland security and national health care in ancient Japan (Pamela D. Winfield)
  • Buddhism through the lens: a study of the study of Buddhism through film (Lina Verchery)*
  • Voice and gender in Vietnamese Buddhist practice (Alexander Soucy)*
  • Feasting for the dead: Theravāda Buddhist funerals (Rita Langer)
  • Buddha for our time: images of a Sri Lankan culture hero (John Clifford Holt)
  • Shifting signposts in Shikoku pilgrimage (John S. Harding)*
  • From texts to people: developing new skills (Mavis L. Fenn)*
  • Merit, gender, and Theravāda Buddhist practices in times of crisis (Monica Lindberg Falk)
  • Encounters with Jizo-san in an aging Japan (Jason A. Danely)
  • Amitabha’s birthday and the liberation of life (Paul Crowe)*
  • Preaching as performance: notes on a secretive Shin Buddhist sermon (Clark Chilson)
  • The insides and outsides of a Tibetan Buddhist ritual on the outskirts of Sujata village (James B. Apple)*
  • Practicing the study of Buddhism: cross-cultural journeys and renewed humanism in the history of religions (William R. Lafleur)
* Articles by Canadian scholars

The Sumeru review:

Studying Buddhism in Practice was conceived as a complement to standard undergraduate textbooks on the study of Buddhism. Its approach is closest in style to ethnographic anthropology, insofar as it comprises observation of Buddhist ritual and personal reflection by the observers, who are self-proclaimed “outsiders.” In the introduction, the editor takes pains to explain that this hybrid approach is somewhat unorthodox, chosen to elucidate both the lived experience of practitioners and also that of the scholarly observer. In other words, the book is as much about how we study Buddhism as how Buddhists practice Buddhism, within their specific cultural contexts.

The largest issue this book raises for me is its reticence about the increasingly blurry boundaries between scholars, practitioners and scholar-practitioners. Indeed, the notion of scholar-practitioner does not even appear in the front-matter of the book. That is a serious problem.

As Buddhist practice has matured in the west, we have seen a concomitant growth in the number of Buddhist teachers who can speak and write deeply about the practice of Buddhism, its history and its philosophical perspective across many cultural expressions. Nobody looks at Robert Thurman and says, “Oh gee, he can’t be an objective scholar because he used to be a monk and is obviously a practicing Buddhist!” That is just one exaggerated example to make the point. Scholars who cling to the notion that they can somehow be objective, independent, impartial and above the fray are merely demonstrating their service to a different ideology – that of secular humanism. This book has an aura of spiritual tourism about it. The essays veer frequently into the territory of “Oh gee, I studied Buddhism and it changed me.”

I am not proposing that there is no place for objective, independent observation and the attempt to see events within larger systems of context. However, since Charles Prebish proposed the designation of scholar-practitioner, we have yet to see academia embrace it en masse as a valid perspective. I couldn’t hep feeling, while reading Studying Buddhism in Practice, as if I were a CIA operative trying to figure out why “those people over there” do what they do so I could categorize and respond to them better, while firmly entrenched within my own ideological bunker. It was not a good feeling.

As a practitioner of Buddhism, I seek to see the spiritual in everyday life. The narratives in this book seek to explain the spiritual in terms of everyday life. That’s kind of like looking through a telescope from the wrong end!

Be that as it may, for the right audience (young adults with no experience of Buddhist practice in their own culture), in the right context (an undergraduate university course where the material can be discussed), this is a good book. The sincerity and backgrounds of the authors are solid.

Each essay is arranged in three parts: a narrative, discussion and readings. The readings refer to writings by other Canadian scholars of Buddhism as well.

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