Academic frustrations, why I am disheartened, and where I should be going

I’m attending the big Japanese Buddhism at UC Berkley this weekend. That has been very interesting so far. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Paul Groner and Dr. Steve Covell, who have both written on Tendai, and talk with them a bit (especially Steve). I also was able to see Ryuichi Abe speak at the opening keynote. All of these are people who have written very good books that I happen to have.

This conference has once again brought the the forefront some of my ongoing issues with my Buddhist Studies work. I’ve been planning on focusing on Japanese esoteric Buddhism, specifically Tendai, for a while. I’d like my dissertation to focus on a particular tantric ritual or set of rituals. At this time, we (my advisor and I) have made the preliminary plan for me to focus on the Susiddhikara Sutra and its influence on the core Tendai rituals (or maybe just one, like the goma). The problem here is that every professor that I talk to about this, other than my advisor, starts talking about all of the language work that I’ll need to do and then all the time I’ll need to spend in Japan in order to get access to libraries of books, etc. etc. Dr. Covell mentioned today (and in a helpful way, I should add) that I should go to Taisho University to do research and that I’d really have to have my Japanese mastered in order to do that.

You know what? I have zero (none at all) interest in being an expert on, say, 12th century Japan, Japanese history, or of spending a year or two in Japan with a bookcase full of contemporary scholastic works on Taimitsu just to finish my dissertation. We’re not talking about my academic career here, we’re talking about what I need to do to get my degree.

Along with this, while I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to Tendai, anything beyond that seems to have strong karmic barriers or somesuch. To really understand these rituals, I would like to follow the same path that Dr. Payne (my advisor) and Dr. Covell (not to mention others) have done and be trained in the practices, instructed in the traditional meanings, etc. This requires Tendai ordination, which is a sisyphistic task as far as I can tell. I actually am friends with one Tendai priest (who reads this blog) and have spoken to others but the way things seem to be going, unless I want to abandon my home to go to Japan (and going there has been recommended against by more than one person), the process to do that here in the U.S. would take longer than actually getting my entire doctorate. Meanwhile, I can’t shake a tree or a bush without someone not involved with Tendai falling out of it and making introductions to me.

I’m wondering if I’m suffering from a both “the grass is greener” issue and ignoring what is in front of my face. I have a background in Tibetan tantric practice. I’ve been fascinated by tantra for 20 years now and I’ve practiced a bit of it. That said, I’m a Zen priest, working and living in America, and participating in a non-denominational Mahayana seminary (outside of my doctoral work). Maybe I need to step back and away from the “Oooh, shiny!” smells and bells of esoteric Buddhism and its rituals and unify my current spiritual practice, where I live, and what I want to do for my academic work.

While I’m not interested in becoming an expert in 12th century Japan or learning Classical Chinese (just to read a few texts), I am very interested in the practice of Buddhism in the West, especially in the community of those that converted to it. Where is Buddhism going here in the next century? Are we creating new sects, trying to transcend sects (as seems to be happening in Zen), or doing something else? It seems like I should be considering finding a dissertation that focuses on the here and now or that is related to what I am involved with (meditation and koans, mostly) rather than focusing on stuff that propels me to places where I don’t want to be. Frankly, Buddhism now is much more interesting and almost none of it is esoteric in the sense of tantra if you leave out Tibetan Vajrayana. At the end of the day, as a practitioner who is also a scholar, I’m thinking that I should unify my interests, which are contemporary, not ancient.

I haven’t come up with a dissertation idea that goes along these lines, having just spent a chunk of the afternoon thinking about this, but I should. One of my classes this term is dedicated to refining your dissertation and all the groundwork for it so as to not spend 11 years (a true story, it seems) doing a doctorate instead of five or six. If I want to change focus, I should do it now, rather than later. All dissertations are centered around a specific question that needs to be answered and also about what the answer to that question tells people (what is learned) that is new. Those two things are both necessary.

I guess I’d better quick cracking or I’m going to wind up banging my head against work that I don’t have an interest in really doing just to create a dissertation.