Remember “The A Team?” I loved that show back in the 80s–and I even loved the remake with Liam Neeson. If you know the show, you know the line, “I love it when a plan comes together”–it was George Peppard’s signature phrase, and usually came as a triumphant declaration of success, in spit of all evidence to the contrary.
All that is really apropos of nothing, except that it is the phrase that keeps coming into my head now that I am home from Vienna after attending the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. And the reason, of course, is that the past week was just about as perfect as one could hope for: great weather, great hotel, great food, great city, and a great, great conference. I came back about as intellectually fulfilled and stimulated as one can be–without any of the accompanying exhaustion or annoyance that so often is part of the conference experience.
For me, I think part of the wealth of the experience was that even though I presented a paper [on the concept of God in “The Lotus Sutra”–using Wittgenstein’s language theory to argue for it], mostly I was there as a listener. With very, very few exceptions, the scholars in attendance were Buddhologists–many of the big names I have read were there, which is always fun [I love being an academic nerd]–and I was mostly out of my depth. But what this meant was that I was freed up to be a listener: I took copious notes and payed attention as intently as I was able. I found it very liberating: you know how sometimes when you are listening to someone else, you aren’t really listening at all, but rather thinking about what you are going to say just as soon as you can break in, just to show how much you know? Scholars tend to do that more often than we should, I think. But not me, at least not this time: what in the world was I going to ask Jan Nattier, who was talking so compellingly about the challenges with translating a translation, and the differences we see, for example, when translating a Chinese text [for which the original Sanskrit has been lost] into Tibetan [a primarily monosyllabic language] vs. Mongolian [an exuberantly polysyllabic language]? Um, OK–whatever you say! So, having immediately come to terms with my ignorance, I threw myself into the disposition of a listener and a learner–and boy, did I learn!
Here are just a few example: John Powers had a great presentation on the physical marks of the Buddha’s body, asking why they have been all but excluded in contemporary discussions of Buddhist practice, even though they are so central throughout various Buddhist texts as a key proof of the Buddha’s identity, and the enlightenment of his followers. [Turns out Buddhism has its own mind/body problems….]. Taka Oshikiri offered a very interesting presentation on the introduction and development of tea in Japan, including its role in monastic life [Zen monastic life in particular]; and I also met a lovely woman, Katarina Plank, who works in Gothenburg [near my Swedish relatives!], and she gave a very interesting talk about the construction of a Thai Buddhist temple in the north of Sweden, in Fredrika–including a bit about the larger Buddhist population in Sweden. There were also two very interesting presentations about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the militant attitudes and actions of some of the Buddhist monks there–surprised?
I could go on and on, but I won’t: suffice it to say that every day was a great day, and I came away totally humbled and totally inspired. I guess what I want to offer here to conclude the blog is how I was again reminded how vitally important it is to be in conversation with people different from yourself–and, obviously, how important it is for the church to be carrying on those conversations: both as an institution and as individuals, particularly those individuals who are public ministers. I mean, after my presentation, a Buddhist nun came up to me and asked me to explain how I can talk about compassion in light of all the wrathful ways God treats God’s people in the Bible. It’s a fair question–and, of course, not a new one, but how it changes when it’s being asked by a woman who has dedicated her whole life to Buddhism, standing gently before me in monastic robes with a shaved head.
Even though I can count on one hand the number of times Christianity was even obliquely referenced [oh, one of those times was a reference to Bultmann & demythologizing: did you know there were scholars working to “demythologize” Buddhism in Japan about 40 years before Bultmann? I didn’t!], I was thinking about my seminary context and my students the whole time, processing the all the ways my own understanding of Christianity, and my thoughts about Buddhist-Christian dialogue, were being challenged and changed. There is just no way to replicated that experience without “the other”–and without putting yourself “under” their authority and wisdom. It’s a powerful, transformative experience that I wish for everyone. The church and its members would be better for it.