Evil dwarf meets quantum physics

Contemporary Buddhism: an Interdisciplinary Journal
April 26, 2002

Elias Canetti's novel Auto da Fe concerns Peter Kein, a Sinologist who lives only for his books. Kein's life is overturned when his housekeeper marries him and turns him out of his house. His books are burnt and he is set adrift in a nightmare world befriended only by a dwarf of evil propensities (what is it with expressionists and dwarves?) and left to contemplate the vulnerability of the dissociated intellect. Kein is a scholar in oriental languages, which for Canetti is a byword for arcana - the obscurity that offers escape - and he offers an image of a time when western engagement with Buddhism was wrapped up in rarefied philology.

Latterly, this engagement has entered a wider sphere. Intellectual encounters between Buddhism and the West now include extensive interaction between Buddhist thought and philosophy, science and psychology, among many other disciplines. Buddhist concerns apparently speak especially loudly at present to postmodernists, theoretical physicists and psychotherapists. And Buddhism is of interest not only to scholars whose works have effects beyond the academy, but to those who practise it. The number of Buddhists of European descent in Europe and North America is well over 1 million, many of whom are serious practitioners.

This journal attempts to bridge the gaps between the diverse disciplines that study Buddhist-related issues, and to make scholarly findings and conjectures more accessible. As Michael McGhee writes, it "has a natural audience within this new western Buddhist population, that of an educated, critical Buddhist public concerned to relate Buddhist issues to practical ones in the context of the Dharma". In this endeavour, it undoubtedly addresses a need. The most prominent Buddhist magazines seem only occasionally to risk overestimating their readers' attention spans; and the only comparable academic journal is the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics , which does an excellent job in a narrower field.

By contrast, the aims of Contemporary Buddhism are so broad that it frequently lacks focus. It is hard to imagine a reader who would feel adequately addressed, say, by Frank J. Hoffman's discussion of Buddhism and human rights, which draws on technical jurisprudence, and Todd Lorendz's entertaining but speculative thoughts on Buddhism and quantum physics.

But between these poles are some excellent articles that find an appropriate level. One successful strand involves pieces by specialists explaining to a lay audience their own research or current thinking in their field. Andrew Skilton's account of the editorial reconstruction that is often necessary before Buddhist texts can be translated is a valuable caution to ordinary readers to whom such editing is invisible. Gay Watson's "Buddhism, consciousness studies and psychotherapy" is an excellent introduction to recent thinking in this area, as well as a summary of her own ideas. Her article is focused by a desire to distil conclusions that inform the practice of psychotherapists who look to Buddhism for guidance.

A second successful strand involves articles that explore specialist concerns but with conclusions speaking to broader interests. Patricia Sieber's article on poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirschfield demonstrates how a seemingly unconnected discipline - literary criticism - can illuminate the transmission of Buddhism to the West. Also successful are some of the articles in which scholars reflect on matters of general interest. An outstanding contributor is David Loy, a leading theoretician of "engaged" Buddhism. I appreciated "Saving time: Buddhist perspectives on the end", which discusses the philosophy of time and the constructed nature of our experience of time as a prelude to exploring the possibility of reconstructing this experience in the light of Buddhist teachings.

Writers capable of translating their specialism to a wider public are scarce and Contemporary Buddhism perhaps requires them in greater numbers than its editors have found. Several articles would be more at home in a specialist journal than in an interdisciplinary one, and there are occasional signs of editorial desperation. The most excessive is Kate Crosby's 55-page literature survey that seeks to bring research on "Tantric Theravada" out of the utmost obscurity in which it languishes into the relative obscurity of scholarly discussion. These are laudable aims, but the article does not belong here. It would be uncharitable to dwell on other unsuccessful articles, but I must mention that these volumes are marred by numerous typographical errors.

While the editors should be congratulated on finding some authors who can transcend their specialism, the journal is less successful in the task of relating academic findings to the practice of Buddhist spiritual life, which would require something other than typical academic methods. A starting point might be for contributors who are practising Buddhists to declare this. None of the contributors, including one of the editors, who are members of the Western Buddhist Order (to which I belong) mentions this unfashionable fact.

I shall continue to read Contemporary Buddhism with interest, and perhaps it already makes the contribution towards "a(n ecumenical) Buddhist culture in which the intellectual life and the spiritual life mutually inform one another" to which the editors aspire. Most valuable is its capacity to open academic insights to those with a non-specialist interest in Buddhism. I have a final request to the editors: more and longer book reviews, please. It would be good to read sociologists on the work of psychotherapists; literary critics considering translations; Buddhist teachers examining Buddhology, and vice versa. That would make for a truly rewarding inter and extra-disciplinary encounter.

Dharmachari Vishvapani is editor, Dharma Life .

Contemporary Buddhism: an Interdisciplinary Journal

Editor - Michael McGhee and John Peacocke
ISBN - ISSN 1463 9947; Online 1 476 7953
Publisher - Routledge
Price - Individuals £25.00; Institutions £80.00
Pages - - (Twice a year)

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