Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Buddhism and Pali scholar's journey into and out of the academic tradition

For those of you interested in a career in academia, be forewarned. It's not a very welcoming place at the moment. The people are pretty decent imho, but there are currently far too many PhDs for what "the market" needs. Or, put another way, massive governmental cuts (in most if not all English-speaking countries) on education spending over the last 20 or so years have led many departments to freeze hiring, let great professors go, and/or replace retiring teachers with adjunct labor.

These days whenever an undergraduate asks me for a recommendation letter for graduate school I send him/her here: (I do write letters of course, but I've taken it on as a duty to warn any/all prospective graduate students of the perils ahead of them). It's not glamorous. And it's not easy. And many who start PhDs don't even finish (up to 50% in the humanities, according to some estimates).

It's a broken system. But it's still the best one for some of us. I'm reminded of the Churchill quote:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Academia is the route to follow only when you've realized there is nothing else you can do with yourself and be happy.
In any case, I continue to lumber through the "thicket of views" which is modern-day academia while Eisel Mazard, as you'll see below, does not. In my lumbering I came across some writing by Eisel, who I would describe as an autodidactic solitary scholar. In 2011 I drew from one of his writings when I wrote "Imagining the Buddha as bald... and black?" Since then I've read several of his works and we've conversed now and again and I respect his scholarship in a number of areas that I'm interested in. 

Below, Eisel describes his journey into and out of early Buddhism / Pali scholarship and some of the joys and perils that came with it. Every experience will be different, the interests and expertise brought into the study, the influences and advisors, and goals of each student will be different. So, while Eisel's journey may be completely unlike that of any other scholar, it does provide a perspective not often seen or discussed in academia today. As he says:
…there were a lot of wonderful things about it. With nothing but a backpack, a bicycle, and a lot of hard work, I went everywhere, I did everything, I lived my dream.
When that dream was over, I had to look at the reality of the tradition as it exists today and say, "I can't be a part of it".


  1. Thoreau from Walden:

    The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

    What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

    It is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

    It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

    Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.

    This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.

    What everybody passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.

    Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

    To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.

    1. I LOVE this, Tom. Thank you for posting it. I'm familiar with the first line - which was used by my first Buddhism professor in his end-of-semester lecture each year - but the rest I've either never read or it hasn't stuck with me.

  2. The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally co�rdinated.

    Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of

    ( 238) them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization. In each case there is reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words. Poetry allies itself to metre, philosophy to mathematic pattern.

    1. Denis, I understand what you're saying (ie, of course, 'writing'), but I am unclear on what you're addressing. Rendered simply, the point in my comment was meant to be one of "don't misapply all that you've learned such that you pit your new-found wisdom AGAINST the need to make a living in this world. And, thus, view yourself as a victim."

      If someone gleans insight from being a Buddhist, it can be useful even in an occupation of a cab driver.

  3. That is taken from the aim of philosophy by whitehead

  4. The statement points, which I didn't state, to a genuine philosophical life, which is possible, to be incredibly complex and more than liked, in utter chaos. Whitehead suggests that the beauty of even being a philosopher, is a wondrous thing whose association is the cosmos themselves, all experience, all thought and history, hopes and dreams of humanity and this world. We philosophers carry heavy burdens in all kinds of respects but it is entirely, as we live and show, worth it. Hope some of that made sense haha.