The Allure of the Past

John Kieschnick, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Professor of Buddhist Studies at Stanford University

According to a (probably apocryphal) story, when the great Bohemian scholar and specialist in medieval Hebrew poetry Moritz Steinschneider was introduced to the famous Hebrew poet Y.L. Gordon, his first question was “To which era do you belong?” The story reflects, I think, the common scholarly desire to break the past up into manageable compartments, with every individual neatly plotted on a time-line and filed according to family, school and genre. If we know which era the poet belongs to we have a context for understanding his poetry.

Since coming to Stanford to take up the chair in Buddhist Studies established by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, I’ve become increasingly interested in how and why Buddhist monks wrote histories of monastics, monasteries and the vagaries of the Dharma. Often, they wrote about Buddhist history to glorify eminent monks and hold them up for emulation. At times they wrote about the past in order to give precedence to their own lineage over its rivals, or to castigate former rulers for adopting policies unfavorable to Buddhism. At times they wrote history to demonstrate the truth of Buddhist doctrines like rebirth, or to demonstrate the power of karma as a historical force. More puzzling are the instances in which Buddhist historians of the past obsess over details that seem to have no special significance. Medieval Buddhist historians argued, for example, over differences of a year or two in the dating a moderately eminent monk, or pointed out mistakes in the place names given in a Buddhist account they read, all without explaining why we should care about these discrepancies. Sometimes accuracy in such details matters—did the prominent seventh-century monk Daoxuan as a young man really work in Xuanzang’s translation center? Only careful attention to place names and dates can tell us one way or another. But just as often, historians seem driven by a sort of professional pride or desire to demonstrate their scholarly acumen than by any more overt ideological agenda; they want to get the date right because they can, because they like their history tidy.

Last spring the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford held a workshop on Buddhist interpretations of the past, inviting a small team of scholars specializing in the Buddhism of India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China and Japan to join scholars and students at Stanford for a day and a half devoted to an open-ended discussion of a series of broad questions, including: Why did Buddhists write history? Is the notion of time different in Buddhist historiography? Which Buddhist doctrines matter in the study of the past: karma, rebirth, no-self? And, how have writings about the past by Buddhists changed in the modern era with the rise of the academic study of Buddhism? The result was, for me at least, an appreciation of the range of approaches to history in the Buddhist tradition and the realization that the past has always been an important part of what it means to be a Buddhist.

The Present Intervenes

I arrived at the study of modern Buddhism driven by a persistent curiosity about what it means to be a good person. How, I wondered, do Buddhists determine what is good and struggle to be good people? How does Buddhism enable people to nurture capacities of mind and body, and to develop transformative relationships with others? My journey to the study of modern Buddhism began when this curiosity prompted me to leave a degree in industrial chemistry in order to pursue one in the humanities, where I studied the history of religion, as well as the culture and language of Japan. But it was while I was living in Japan as an undergraduate exchange student that I encountered living Buddhism and Buddhists every day. I was struck by the differences between what I had learned about Buddhism in the classroom, and the Buddhism I saw in society.

One of the pleasures of working with the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies has been that, like Steinschneider confronted with a living Hebrew poet, I regularly have the opportunity not only to meet specialists in Buddhist history, but also to meet Buddhists whose own experiences don’t easily fit into my historical categories. Venerable Telo Tulku Rinpoche for instance, delivered a lecture in which he told the story of his life as a son of Kalmyk immigrants in the U.S. who sent him at an early age to India to study to become a monk, where eventually he was recognized as a reincarnation of the great Indian master Tilopa. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992 this plucky nineteen-year-old from Philadelphia found himself elected “Shadjin Lama” (Head Lama) of Kalmykia, charged with revitalizing Buddhism in a region he had only visited, briefly, once before. Venerable Bhante Buddharakkhita told the equally fascinating story of his, at times harrowing, experiences as the first monk in Uganda where he has attempted to establish a temple in an area in which his practices, teachings and intentions are frequently misinterpreted, challenged and ridiculed. “People laugh at me,” he said, smiling. “My daily life is filled with confusion, with laughter, with fighting.” Closer to home, Jimmy Yu from Florida State University gave a moving account of his relationship with the late Master Shengyen, who took him under his wing when he was a boy in New York, eventually accepting him as his personal attendant, in many ways taking on the role of a father.

These three men clearly belong to the modern era in which Buddhist leaders easily move between continents and, perhaps less easily, between languages and cultures. At the same time the echoes of the past reverberate through their stories. In other words, maybe asking a living person what era he or she belongs to is not such a pec uliar question after all. How common was it in the past for a young monk to be charged with great administrative responsibility? Were early missionary monks always subject to misinterpretation and ridicule? And did young monks often consider their teachers to be like fathers? In short, present interventions like these inevitably lead us back again into the Buddhist past.

John Kieschnick. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Professor of Buddhist Studies at Stanford University. Photo by Davey Hubay.

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