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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
buddhadharma| 67 |spring 2006 importance of theory and method in the study of Buddhism. At the very heart of this exciting development of North American Buddhist studies was the role of scholar-practitioners. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, some estimates placed the number of Buddhists in the United States as high as six million. There were more academic courses in the study of Buddhism than ever before, and with the huge explosion of well-written and infor- mative trade volumes published on virtually all aspects of Buddhism, a genuine “Buddhist literacy” was developing in North America, one that made it increasingly easier for scholar-practitioners to finally come forward publicly and vocally. Yet was there a scholar-practitioner-friendly university cat- egory developing to parallel Duncan Williams’s practitioner-friendly institutions for students? José Cabezón, among others, suspects not. Not long ago, he remarked that one of the prevailing views in the study of religion is that “Critical distance from the object of intellectual analysis is necessary. Buddhists, by virtue of their religious commitment, lack such critical distance from Buddhism. Hence, Buddhists are never good Buddhologists.” He believes that stereotypes such as these are indeed falsehoods, but that they exist nonetheless. When queried recently about the role of scholar- practitioners in the university, Cabezón, who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, remarked, “Part of the problem of being a scholar-practitioner, I think, is specific to this country. Because of the separation of church and state, there is always the sneaking suspicion that scholar-practitioners might be using the podium as a pulpit.” On the other hand, Georges Dreyfus of Williams College says, “I have never felt that my institution put any restriction on my teaching or that I have been prevented from doing certain things because they would be too Buddhist. On the contrary, limitations have come from me and my own discomfort with stepping out of a professorial mode to enter a more dharmic one.” Dreyfus goes on, “I can only say that my being a Buddhist seems not to have been a handicap at all, and may have been an advantage. I believe that there is a pre- sumption of goodness that is granted to Buddhists in certain liberal milieus – the expectation that since you are a Buddhist, you must be a good guy, morally and politically. I find this assumption quite remarkable, and I have never been comfortable with it, though I must say that it has probably worked to my advantage.” When Richard Hayes was hired to teach in the faculty of religious stud- ies at McGill University in Montreal, he reports, “I was told by several colleagues that my activities as a Buddhist were seen as enriching the depart- ment by giving it more variety. It seemed to make sense to everyone there that a person who studied a religious tradition would do so because the tradi- tion was appealing to him, and it made sense that if a person found a tradition appealing, then he might very well practice it.” Duncan Williams, an ordained Soto priest who teaches at the University of California at Irvine, finds that his status as a scholar-practitioner affords him a unique relationship with his students. “As a scholar-practitioner at a public university with a roughly 60 percent Asian and Asian-American stu- dent body,” explains Williams, “I find that students regularly look to me to mentor them; many are young people struggling to come to terms with Buddhism, either as a newly adopted religion or, more frequently, as their family’s heritage.” This sentiment is mirrored by Victor Sogen Hori, a Canadian scholar-practitioner. “The one area where being a monk makes a difference is in the classroom,” says Hori. “Students are fascinated by the fact that I spent years in a Buddhist monastery.” Despite the mostly supportive university atti- tudes cited above, Cabezón (who also has found his university experience to be supportive, and especially so when he taught at a Christian theol- ogy school, which he found to be “a very nurtur- ing environment”) still has doubts. He says, “I wonder whether some scholars who started out as (or still are) committed Buddhists end up going out of their way to conceal their identity. And I won- der the extent to which the academy has ‘secular- ized’ us, forcing us to write in modes (and use forms of rhetoric) that are not completely honest. In more extreme cases, I think some scholars have gone out of their way to create a distance from the traditions that they study and practice (or once practiced), as if to say, ‘See, I can be as critical as anyone.’ ” In many cases, this defensive profes- sional tactic is used to ensure that matters of reli- Scholar-monks were traditionally responsible for the education of the laity, but Buddhism in the West has not favored a monastic lifestyle. The gap is being filled by scholar-practitioners who, although not living as full- fledged monastics, have solid scholarly training grounded in a rigorous personal practice.