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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
buddhadharma| 69 |spring 2006 gious preference and practice are excluded from important personnel matters such as promotion and tenure decisions. Perhaps the most thoughtful and up-to-date investigation of the role of scholar-practitioners in the university and beyond is John Makransky’s February 15, 2005, lecture to the Harvard Buddhist community and Harvard Buddhist Ministry Colloquium. Makransky points out that “Buddhist studies scholars are generally trained to do the deconstructive work of historical and cultural analysis – to see through the ways that Buddhist communities have legitimated new developments by constructing them as the original truth of sacred figures from a primordial past, or to deconstruct Buddhist ideologies that separate the ‘pure dharma’ from the ‘merely worldly’ concerns of cultures, as if Buddhist institutions had not thrived precisely because of their sophistication in applying Buddhist resources to meet worldly needs and desires of cultures.” Makransky explains that some of those “worldly needs” may have resulted in a watering down of the dharma, relegating Buddhist ideals and practices to means of promoting physical and mental health, reducing stress, strengthening the concentration or morale of athletic teams, and addressing the problems of troubled teens, addicts, prisoners, the dying. He wonders whether “This leaves a gap between the world of living Buddhist practice and the world where modern critical knowledge of Buddhism progresses. So many monasteries and dharma centers remain largely uninformed by the critical findings of the modern academy and what they could mean for the future of their own traditions.” Invariably, according to Makransky’s argu- ment, this traps scholar-practitioners in a circum- stance that potentially relativizes their own tradition and even brings them into tension with that very tradition. To complicate matters further, “If they continue to practice and deepen their experience of the buddhadharma within their Buddhist community,” says Makransky, “their practice may also begin to redefine their academic studies.” It wouldn’t be going too far, I think, to presume that their practical and community inter- ests might eventually even supplant their profes- sional research interests altogether. So what does Makransky think is needed? “To meet modern cultures successfully,” he says, “Buddhism certainly needs Buddhist scholars who serve Buddhist traditions in ways analogous to the work of Christian theologians – incorporating the insights of modern disciplines for use by Buddhist traditions, rather than seeking to hide their tradi- tion from modern historical knowledge.” In view of the above, it seems fair to suggest that the scholarship-versus-practice dichotomy still per- sists to some degree. In Asia, the monastic renun- ciants were almost exclusively responsible for the religious education of the lay sangha. Here, in the absence of the traditional scholar-monks so preva- lent in Asia, it really does appear that the scholar- practitioners of today’s North American universities are indeed beginning to fulfill the role of quasi- monastics, or to serve at least as treasure-troves of Buddhist literacy and information, functioning as guides through whom one’s understanding of the dharma may be sharpened, irrespective of whether it occurs in the university or practice center. Such a suggestion spawns two further ques- tions: Are there sufficient scholar-practitioners cur- rently active in Buddhism to make a real impact? And are they actually making that impact? With regard to the former question, much of the infor- mation reported is necessarily anecdotal. By sim- ply making mental notes at the various conferences attended by North American Buddhologists, one could easily develop a roster of scholar-practitio- ners who are openly Buddhist; the number is at least 25 percent, but more likely well in excess of 50 percent of the Buddhologists in North America. But Cabezón estimates that less than 50 percent of the students in Buddhist studies programs today would self-identify as Buddhists. If he is correct, that would certainly impact on the number of scholar-practitioners in the near future. The second question is perhaps not as difficult to assess as the first. As one surveys the vast corpus of literature that surrounds the academic programs sponsored by numerous North American Buddhist groups, the names of academic scholars of Buddhism have begun to dominate the roster of invited presenters, and these individuals are almost exclusively Buddhist practitioners as well. In other words, many Western Buddhist masters have come to acknowledge and incorporate the professional contributions of these American Buddhist scholar- practitioners into the religious life of their com- munities, recognizing the unique and vital role they fulfill. These institutional heads of Western Buddhist communities are beginning to identify those indi- viduals who are best trained to serve the educa- tional needs of their communities, irrespective of whether they come from within the community itself or from outside the parent community. Cooperative efforts like these establish an impor- tant symbiosis between Buddhist communities and Buddhist academics. My suspicion is that a sig- nificant number of scholar-practitioners are log- ging at least as many miles in that role as they are in their more traditional occupations as academic researchers and faculty members of North American universities, and this serves as a remark- able foreshadowing of the genuine and growing interpenetration of study and practice in North American Buddhism. “Many monasteries and dharma centers remain largely uninformed by the critical findings of the modern academy and what they could mean for the future of their own traditions.” — John Makransky