Tibetan or Japanese

Working out is a time for either meditating on the body, listening to music and podcasts, or pondering things otherwise not thought about (if not all three).

Today, while working out, I was thinking about my upcoming entry into the Graduate Theological Union’s doctoral program in September. I have been planning on focusing on Japanese Mikkyo, the esoteric Buddhism in Japan, with a general ground in esoteric Buddhism in East Asia. I have an earlier, practitioner’s, background in Tibetan Tantra, but I have had an interest in Mikkyo for years now.

One of the thoughts that occurred to me, in thinking about Buddhist Studies and its issues, is that you can largely divide Buddhist Studies into at least three areas:

  1. translation work (of sutra, tantras, ritual manuals, commentaries, etc.)
  2. historical research (what was going on in century x in y region, etc.)
  3. current studies (however you want to term it but focusing on Buddhism as it is practiced in various places, including in America)

I’m sure there are other and better schemes to divide things but bear with me here. These are obviously not areas that exist as completely discrete from each other either.

I was thinking about the elephant in the room for my work (or maybe it is two elephants) which is my language work and my longer term interests. I have to learn an Asian language (I know none now) for my work. Learning more than one is possible but would be extremely challenging in the time spans involved. I’ve been planning to focus on Japanese because of my interest in Mikkyo. It occurred to me that what language I learn is likely to determine the longer term focus of my academic work. If I learn Japanese, I will be focusing largely on Japanese Buddhist materials. This means Mikkyo but could also related to Zen or the various Pure Land schools (and I do have an interest in Zen as a priest). I realized that this largely restricts me to the second category above unless I want to do field work in Japan itself. I have no interest in becoming a translator of texts as my primary academic function.

One of the points that came to mind is that while I am interested in esoteric Buddhism (or Tantra) in its historical contexts, how it developed, etc., I am also extremely interested in how Buddhism is functioning today, especially within the United States. While it is technically possible to discuss Mikkyo within the United States, it is a very limited discussion. There are, effectively, two forms of Mikkyo here, that practiced by the Shingon school and that of the Tendai school. Outside of Hawaii, Shingon seems to be limited to a few temples on the West coast serving an ethnically Japanese community (certainly the Seattle, Sacramento, and Los Angeles temples are such). Tendai is limited to the temple in New York state, as the official mission, and a few priests here and there (who may or may not be recognized by the Tendai church in Japan). So, studying Mikkyo effectively means either modern work within Japan or historical research (in Japanese).

In contrast to this, there is Tibetan Buddhism. Much of the Tibetan corpus has been digitized, in an effort at preservation, which means texts are available to study. In addition to this, Tibetan Buddhism, in a variety of forms, is well established here in the West. This means that if I, for example, learned to read Tibetan (through the classes offered at UC Berkeley), I would be able to do either historical research (with a huge component as Tantra) or work in communities here in the West that are using these texts today.

So, I am pondering whether I’ve narrowed my interests overly into an area that might not have the best longterm prospects for research and work. Now, that said, I am quite interested in Mikkyo. I do wonder if I’ll have access to the texts that I’d need to find interesting areas of study. In order to really study these, I may need to go to Japan for a lengthy period and being married and owning a home here makes that difficult for more than a few months at a time. Then there is also the question of whether I can study those texts without a grounding in Classical Jaapnese or Chinese as well.

In a perfect world, I think I would learn Sanskrit and perhaps Chinese and focus on the development of esoteric Buddhism in India and its connections to non-Buddhist Tantra.

These are things that I need to settle, as much as possible, before I start school in September. Otherwise, I run the risk of reseting myself in a year or more and delaying my work towards a dissertation while I shift gears. I’ve known at least two people that did this at GTU and I believe, in both cases, it caused people to set back their academic work a year, at least.