Research

RESEARCH PROJECTS

The following are a list of some of my research interests and projects:

Book Project – The Lamp of Contemplation: Meditation and the Construction of Tibetan Buddhism.

Meditation plays a central role within the Buddhist tradition. In fact, Buddhism was founded on the transformative meditative experience that the Buddha had over 2,500 years ago while searching for the ultimate answers to his disillusionment with the world and the human condition. Since then, an astonishingly diverse array of Buddhist practices have developed, each attempting to replicate that same experience through different methods, from the deceivingly simple techniques of mindfulness practice in Buddhist countries such as Burma (and extremely popular now in the West), to the ritually complex practices of Tibetan Buddhism. But what is meditation? What are its doctrinal foundations? And how do various Buddhist traditions justify the emergence of new and innovative meditative practices, different in their methods, and even in their goals, from those found in the earlier tradition? As a famous scholar within the Buddhist studies field expressed, “While it will be readily admitted that ‘meditation’ has always played a major role in what is generically termed Buddhism, what the Buddhists themselves understood by ‘meditation’ is not so readily apparent.”

The Lamp of Contemplation: Meditation and the Construction of Tibetan Buddhism explores these questions in the context of the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet around the turn of the first millennium through the life and works of the Tibetan scholar, Nupchen Sangyé Yeshé (10th century). Nupchen travelled tirelessly across the continent (Nepal, India, Gilgit) in search of Buddhist teachings and was exposed to the most relevant Buddhist contemplative systems of the period: the scholastic gradual approach popular in the great monasteries of India, the subtle but challenging techniques of the Chinese Chan (Zen) tradition, and the complex and antinomian ritual systems of the Indian Tantric tradition. Nupchen Sangyé Yeshé’s main treatise, The Lamp for the Eye in Contemplation, which will be the main work discussed in the book, is a direct reflection of his insatiable quest for knowledge, and offers a window into the rich Buddhist doctrinal debates during his time that took place across Asia about the nature and the goals of meditation.

What makes the Lamp for the Eye in Contemplation truly remarkable is that Nupchen is not simply trying to make sense of the historical, as well as geographical diversity of Buddhist systems that were reaching Tibet during his time. What makes the Lamp unique is the fact that in this text Nupchen introduces what has been understood by many scholars as the very first Tibetan Buddhist system, known as Atiyoga or Dzogchen, the so-called Great Perfection. At the time of Nupchen’s writing, Tibetans were not simply importing Buddhist texts and practices from Southeast and East Asia wholesale, but they were also formulating their own interpretation of the Buddhist tradition. During Nupchen’s time, and the Lamp is a great example of this process, Buddhism was becoming Tibetan Buddhism.

My dissertation is also part of a larger research project at the University of Virginia, the Early Dzokchen Literature Project, directed by Prof. David Germano and Prof. Kurtis Schaeffer. Our goal is to create a searchable database outlining the complex history of the earliest Tibetan contemplative Buddhist tradition, the Great Perfection. Since the text at the heart of my dissertation is the earliest Tibetan text presenting the Great Perfection as an independent vehicle, and offers the most comprehensive description of its early literature, a detailed study of the text, therefore, will be a great contribution to the project. I intend to continue working in a few more projects connected to this particular period and to the figure of Nupchen Sangyé Yeshé. One of them involves the translation and study of a commentary written by Nupchen, The Sun of Awareness (Tib. Rig pa’i Nyi ma). During my last research trip to Tibet I was also able to find out about a small monastery in central Tibet that has a large collection of Tibetan manuscripts, some of them attributed to Nupchen that I would like to catalogue and study.

Book Project – From Suffering to Happiness: Buddhism and its Transformations in the West.

(A talk  I gave at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introducing this topic can be found here)

In his The World as Will and Representation (Ger. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung), published in 1818, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer discusses the Buddhist world view of life as suffering, enshrined in the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, as a precedent to his own negative views of human nature, in particular, and existence, in general. Schopenhauer’s emphasis on the Buddhist notion of suffering, which was mostly a misrepresentation of the original Pali term, Dukkha, was emblematic of early Western interpretations of Buddhism that presented the tradition as a pessimistic religion. This negative assessment of Buddhism has largely changed in contemporary Western presentations of the tradition. Most introductory textbooks still translate the term Dukkha as suffering, but their authors also take pains to contextualize this idea and offer a more complex interpretation of the original Pali term.

Parallel to the attempts by Western scholars to offer a more sophisticated and complex understanding of a Buddhist worldview, there have been very successful efforts over the last two decades by some important Buddhist figures to present Buddhism not as a religion rooted in suffering, but as one focused on the achievement of happiness. The Dalai Lama’s 1998 book, The Art of Happiness, played an important early role in changing negative perceptions of the Buddhist tradition and its emphasis on “suffering.” More recent books, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices, published in 2009, have made this idea all the more prevalent by introducing it as one of the core principles behind the successful Mindfulness movement.

The goal of my book is to explore this evolution (from suffering to happiness) and the consequences that this has had on our understanding of the Buddhist tradition. Has Buddhism changed? Or is the West reinterpreting the Buddhist tradition to suit a different existential outlook on human nature? What are the roles of certain Buddhist figures in this transformation (including some Western teachers)? Are figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh simply applying the old Buddhist practice of Skillful Means (Skt. upāya) in their explanation of Buddhism to a Western audience, or are they dramatically changing the nature of the Buddhist doctrine as its introduction to the West is evolving? My book will try to answer those questions while exploring the historical and social context that has made this transformation possible.

The Intersection of Buddhism and Politics

During the years that I have studied and taught in Asia (1999-2001, 2003-2009), I developed an interest in contemporary issues, particularly those that deal with the intersection of religion and politics. Primarily, I am interested in understanding the role that Buddhism is playing in defining certain political processes in different parts of Asia. One example is the way in which Buddhism has shaped the Tibetan political response to Chinese occupation, from the traditional discourse of non-violent resistance espoused by the Dalai Lama, to the recent, and disturbing, emergence of a new form of protest: self-immolations. During my years as Director of the SIT Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Program, I was able to discuss the role that religion played in shaping Tibetan forms of resistance to Chinese occupation with many members of the Exile Government (including the Dalai Lama), as well as with many Tibetans in Tibet. A different example of that intersection of Buddhism and politics can be found in Bhutan, a country that I have been fortunate to visit for extended periods of time on several occasions, and in which Buddhist ideals have played a very important role in shaping modern political ideology, from the establishment of the concept of Gross National Happiness, to the transformation of the country from a traditional monarchy into a constitutional democracy. A possible outcome of this research would be a book that expands this investigation of the intersection of Buddhism and politics to other Asian countries like Nepal and Mongolia.

 

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