Meetings with Potential Advisers

Tea Garden Buddha

I went out and had lunch with Dr. Payne of the Institute of Buddhist Studies today. IBS is only about two miles or so from my house so it isn’t difficult to get over there when I have a need.

Dr. Payne is teaching the class on Esoteric Buddhism that I’ve been taking (as a distance class) this term through IBS. Most of the class is the reading of texts (such as the Vairocanabhisambodhi Sutra, as I’ve mentioned before). In addition to the reading and short assignments, the class has a (roughly) 25 page term paper due by the end of the semester. Right now is roughly the time when we should have an idea of what our topic will be and submit it for approval.

Frankly, I’ve been stumped on what to write it on. Part of the issue that I’ve had in the course is about the level of expectations. I have a Buddhist background, at least to some degree, and a Master’s degree. This is a graduate level class but I know some of those in the class are people from other parts of the Graduate Theological Union who have no Buddhist background. Given the variance in knowledge level and background, it seemed that finding a topic shouldn’t be something that drives me to ruin.

Discussing this issue, and the course in general, was the reason that I contacted Dr. Payne and arranged to have lunch. He and I met over lunch last Fall, as well, and I figured that he wouldn’t mind chatting over food. We wound up having a fairly good conversation for an hour or so, only partially about the class and the paper. We ranged over some discussion of the relationship and evaluation of Japanese mikkyo in a sometimes Tibetan-centric view of tantric Buddhism and the possibilities of research.

Since I’ve decided that I want to get into the program at GTU, Dr. Payne would probably wind up being my mentor and thesis adviser as doctoral student. My interests are in tantric Buddhism, ritual, and the issues around the adaptation and transplantation of Buddhism into America. The first few of these (if not the latter, who knows?) are primary interests of his. Since the focus of my interests in tantric Buddhism are on the Japanese traditions, which is what his doctorate focused on, an interest in working with me is probably one of the core factors in whether or not I am accepted into GTU when I apply. I still need to get at least one more reference (unless I can use him after this class, perhaps) but I had a perfect GPA in my MA program and my thesis provides a fairly good writing sample. I’ve been told that if your academic credentials or work are solid, “fit” is the real defining factor in acceptance to most doctoral programs.

Dr. Payne has suggested, a couple of times now, that my Russian language background could be useful if I wanted to build a career working with the pre-Revolution Buddhist academic material preserved in Russia. Apparently there is quite a collection of earlier material that has largely been ignored during the last century. One new thing he mentioned today is that this collection (or one part of it in St. Petersburg) includes texts written on bark stored in jars taken from the Northwestern parts of China (or the Russian side of that line), probably written in Tocharian. Of course, since there are all of two or three people in the world that can read Tocharian, these may not be translated soon. Focusing on the Russian work would probably make me employable after receiving a doctorate but I’m not really sure that the interest is there for me. I also don’t speak any Russian anymore (I haven’t used it in just about 20 years) but since I learned the basics of it when I was 12 - 14, much of it is probably still buried in my brain, unlike !#@!*$ Japanese or Tibetan.

It was a good lunch. I appreciated the good doctor taking the time to chat and he has a fairly decent sense of humor, which makes it easier to chat. I haven’t felt constrained about being myself when chatting with him and I made it explicitly clear that I had decided to apply to GTU for the PhD program and that I expected that I would want and need to work with him as my advisor if I got into the program. He jokingly pondered for a moment and agreed that this would be the case, given my interests.

He also gave me a very good suggestion for my term paper, which is to do with comparing the content and relationship between the Vairocanabhisambodhi Sutra and that of the Susiddhikara Sutra. These two form a primary pair of tantric texts (despite “sutra” in the title) in East Asian Buddhism (with the third being the Sarvatathagata-tattvasamgraha or “Adamantine Pinnacle Sutra”). The Vairocanabhisambodhi Sutra is considered more important in Shingon and the Susiddhikara Sutra is more important within Tendai, which affects their usage of them in esoteric practices. Since I own both of these texts (well, all three), comparing these two and focusing on the ritual content is a handy idea which does not require me to go read another 800 pages in many books in order to write a mid-length paper.