Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Putting the humr in Indian Buddhism

Gregory Schopen is an acknowledged authority in Indian Buddhism, as well as an accessible writer


Gregory Schopen is a remarkable phenomenon by any standard. First, he's a specialist in a very restricted field, the academic world of Indian Buddhist studies. He writes books, such as this new one, on the remote topic of monasticism in India during what the Christian West calls the first millennium. Second, he's that field's dominating personality, and has seemingly lifted it out of an ethos characterized by disputes in obscure periodicals over archaeological sites and ancient rule-books into the light of a humane and resplendent day. But thirdly, and in many ways most importantly, he's an example of that exceptionally rare species -- an academic who writes not only lucidly but also eloquently, charmingly, and very often wittily.

There are no longer significant numbers of Buddhists in India. The faith at some point moved outwards as if by centrifugal force from its place of origin to Sri Lanka, Tibet, Japan, Korea and the pan-Chinese world. But at one time there were Buddhist monasteries all over the sub-continent, and these, together with those in what is now Sri Lanka, are the subject of Professor Schopen's enquiring gaze.

If Schopen is a big fish in a rather small pond, this doesn't prevent him dominating it with the style of a generous-hearted pontiff. He may of necessity deal with such things as broken walls, coins, re-used pots and stray inscriptions, but he surveys his field with nothing less than a full-throated ease.

The popular image of the Buddhist monk, he writes, is of a "lone ascetic who has renounced all social ties and property to wander or live in the forest, preoccupied with meditation and the heroic quest for ... enlightenment." As the title of this book shows, however, there was much else to be considered, and it's this business side of Indian monastic life that comes under scrutiny, along with matters such as death ("a lively issue"), nuns, the measurement of time, and parallels with the world of medieval Christian monasticism -- Ireland is the most westerly point that gets a mention.

Among the things that Schopen is at pains to point out are that Buddhist monks of the period continued to hold their own private property, that their institutions maintained important contacts with the rich donors to whom they owed so much, and the monastic life in general was ordered in ways that took a careful account of money.

As for Schopen's pervasive sense of humor, there are many examples to choose from. Right at the start there's a Dedication "to the taxpayers and working men and women of Indiana, Texas and California whose labor paid for my scholarly leisure." Then there are the acknowledgements -- one of a colleague most of whose personal library "is made up of books checked out of the university library for the next two hundred years," another of "the only monk I know who looks really good in a three-piece suit." Skip to the index and you'll find, under "Bull-shit," the following note: "There should, perhaps, be many more entries here."

But Schopen's scholarly pre-eminence and stylish sense of humor are related. He has a stylist's lightness of touch and an ever-present wit precisely because he is so eminent. After all, he has worked so hard on what was presumably at first recalcitrant and humorless material (though he does claim to see a certain droll humor in monastic regulations). His style is clear because he's such a complete master of his subject, in the same way that the style of the jargon-purveyors who dominate the humanities departments of so many universities is convoluted and inaccessible precisely because they are not masters of their subjects, and are hiding behind a briefly-fashionable terminology in order to conceal their own lack of true learning.

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