Lunch with the Dean

On a different note that many recent postings, I had lunch with Dr. Richard Payne today (well, technically yesterday now). Dr. Payne is the Dean of the Institute  of Buddhist Studies (IBS) and also the author of “The Tantric ritual of Japan: feeding the gods, the Shingon fire ritual.” He is one of the few scholars of Buddhism in America to focus on Mikkyo, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. He is the only one on the West Coast, as far as I know. As the title of his book mentions, it focuses on the Goma fire ritual, a core part of Mikkyo practice.

A priest performing the Goma rite

IBS is a member school within the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), which is an institution that supports academic work in the area of Religion and also functions as a joining of a number of seminaries. A friend of mine, Lee Gilmore, did her dissertation there on Burning Man, and both GTU headquarters and the IBS buildings are only a couple of miles from my home. IBS also functions as the seminary for the Buddhist Churches of America, a mostly ethnic Japanese Buddhist church that is well established in North America.

Now that my Master’s Thesis is finished (knocking wood) and through both committee and approval, I’ve been considering whether I want to do doctoral work. Part of the cons of this is that getting a doctor can easily take seven or more years and I’m 36 years old now and would be 37 or 38 by the time I got into a program.

My MA thesis focuses on the beliefs concerning the soul within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a late 19th and early 20th century  esoteric and secret society based out of the United Kingdom. For doctoral work, if I do it, I want to move away from Western Esotericism as a subject area. As much as I find it very interesting, it is not a good choice in the long term. This is because it is not within my immediate personal interests and also because no one ever gets paid to do academic work in it as a core part of their job (with only a few exceptions). There are no departments of Western Esoteric studies in North America and, effectively, only two in the world. I am also a Buddhist practitioner with a background in Tibetan Vajrayana and, more recently, with Mikkyo through a Tendai-derived lineage of practice. I am a novice priest (not fully ordained nor having taken all of the vows and responsibilities) within our lineage and I fully expect, given enough time and a lack of enough rope, to be fully ordained as a priest.

(As a side note, most Zen “monks” in the West are not technically monks but have a different status better translated as “priest” in the opinion of many. Being a Buddhist monk means following a very specific set of vows (the vinaya) which are not generally observed in Japanese Buddhist traditions.)

I would like to join my non-technical interests, academic and Buddhist, as much as possible if I do decide to move forward to getting a doctorate. Both of these require that I learn at least a passable knowledge of Japanese (for both ease of communication as well as access to primary material, both textual and the kind that breathe). I may also wind up going on a sabbatical of some sort eventually in order to train more intensely in practice. Beyond that, I would also have to take the step of no longer working full time (and half-time work is not really an option in most technical jobs in the industry…).

In any case, all of this makes IBS, as both an academic and Buddhist institution, a good place to do doctoral work. GTU has a good PhD program and I know or have met a number of people who have passed through it.  I contacted Dr. Payne quite a while back about meeting to discuss both IBS/GTU and his own work in Shingon. Eventually, our schedules worked out and we managed to have the lunch today.

Dr. Payne was very encouraging and friendly in our discussion today. He asked what I felt to be insightful questions about my goals, interests, background, etc. and then gave suggestions on areas of research that would seem to work with those and which would be within GTU’s strengths as an institution. Given that we met for about an hour and a half, it was a good chat and I found it very helpful in my thinking.

I’m not sure if I am going to apply to GTU for next Fall at this point (there is a heavy financial commitment for tuition and I am enjoying my job at the moment). I do plan on seeing if I can get into the first year Japanese classes at UC, Berkeley for Spring term. The last time that I looked, they had a section with morning classes early enough in the day that I could attend without having a conflict with my work. It was made clear in discussions that I could probably get into them as an extended education student. This would lay the groundwork for either later academic training or, at the very least, better access to the Buddhist tradition that I am working within over time.