Current Dissertation Ideas

Goma ritual

Orientation for my first semester of my doctoral program is in two weeks and the week after that classes will begin. For the Fall 2009 semester, as an incoming doctoral student, I am required to take a graduate seminar in interdisciplinarity (try saying that fast). Much of that class will focus on the ideas that we students have for our dissertations. We will attempt to clarify them, bringing focus, and to also look at the overall academic career that we want to create. This is quite daunting as the first thing to do coming into the program.

Personally, I still need to clarify my overall post-school goals. I would be happy teaching undergraduates as a small university or the like and getting a chance to do research and write. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to work at a major research university, I would need to master something on the order of four languages and do a number of other things that I’m just not sure that I am interested in doing. I’ll be in my early to mid-40s when I graduate and I’m not terribly interested in fighting the horde of hungry academics for too few positions. It seems that we are coming into an academic world of change and that many of us would be better served by trying to carve our own roles in new environments.

In any case, the fact that my primary dissertation idea was not something that my adviser felt was unique enough or which added substantially to the existing body of knowledge has been of some concern. This is all the more the case with a seminar focusing on dissertation ideas (where we are expected to arrive with one). In discussion, my adviser has mentioned that there is almost nothing written in English on Taimitsu, the esoteric Buddhist doctrine and thought within Tendai. In fact, there is one book and it isn’t very good. Additionally, Tomitsu, the Shingon equivalent, has only a three or four texts and most of these are out of print. My interests are generally on esoteric Buddhism (Tantric Buddhism if you prefer) but I have a fond place for Tendai. Most people writing on esoteric Buddhism focus on Tibetan Vajrayana and little else.

In our discussion, my adviser mentioned something that had come up a year and a half ago when I took his graduate level course on esoteric Buddhism. This is that he had been told by Dr. Michel Strickmann that the Tendai Goma was influenced by the Susiddhikara Sutra. My adviser had never followed up on this information and, as far as he knows, no one else has ever done so either. I have read the Susiddhikara Sutra in its one English translation but wound up not using it for my work in the previous class. The suggestion is to translate one of the Tendai goma rituals into English and then to actually do a detailed look at it and the tantric text to see if the influence is apparent. This would actually add to the body of knowledge (which is almost non-existent for Taimitsu) and also provide the basis for other work later. At this point, I plan to use this was my working dissertation idea, though I would not be surprised if things undergo some change or refinement during the next couple of years as I work towards it. It definitely gives me specific goals in my reading of Japanese and other studies.

One of the problems that I need to solve is that of Japanese source materials. While you can go into the appropriate store (there is only one) in Kyoto and buy a copy of the goma (and other ritual manuals), they are not present in libraries, especially in the United States. I need to track down one (or more, if possible) Tendai goma texts in Japanese before I can really work with it as an area of study.

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a brief recording of a goma from Flickr