AAR Member Spotlight
The Member Spotlight is a series of interviews with AAR members who have shaped the field of religious studies. Member Spotlight is published online and in the monthly e-Bulletins. Do you have a colleague who you think we should spotlight? Nominate them!
Inés Talamantez is a leader within the field of Native American Religious Studies. She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University. She is an associate professor of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
What do you think your biggest accomplishment is in your profession?
The founding of the field of Native American Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is probably my biggest accomplishment. I was hired to implement courses in religious studies both on the graduate and undergraduate level. These courses have all been successful and more than 20 doctoral students have received their degrees in the field of Religious Studies with a special concentration in Native American Religious Traditions. More recently I was instrumental in developing a minor in Indigenous Studies, which has also proven to be quite successful as more and more students are interested in Indigenous religions. Lecturing on a national and international level has helped the field grow in unexpected ways, which I believe led to my being honored as one of the American Academy of Religion Centennial Scholars.
How has the AAR assisted you with your career?
In my initial efforts to include Native American Religious Studies at the AAR I was fortunate to receive strong support, which has continued to the present. Presenting my work at the Annual Meeting and receiving responses from other members of the academy has been instrumental in my own teaching and writing. As a member of the AAR I always encourage my students to present papers as early as possible and this has produced great benefits for them and their careers.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am working on a manuscript that reflects the indifference and violence of the colonial legacy: aggressively removing people from their land, forbidding the speaking of their own language, and the missionary agenda of enforcing Christianity throughout the world and specifically over Native belief systems in the Americas. This has led to a tragedy that has impacted the lives of Native Americans since the time of contact with Europeans. This work addresses how Native Americans lost their power and the consequences of the loss of Native American land, languages, and theologies. This work investigates the mindset of the English and Spanish colonists before they came to the New World for they already had formulated an agenda for extinguishing any religious beliefs other than Catholicism. This is recognized in the discrimination of Paganism and other religions as well. An investigation of this mindset reveals how it was brought over to the New World and formed missionary beliefs for converting and educating “savage” indigenous peoples into Christianity. The loss of language is interconnected with the loss of people’s cultural identity and morality, rendering them powerless, forced into Christianity, and losing their sovereignty.
Native beliefs are based on intimate relationships with nature. There is a perception of nature and its power which is given different names in different nations. Language is essential for understanding these beliefs systems which are long-lived and passed down through oral narratives. Consistent efforts to enforce English language competence continue to endanger native languages today. Native peoples lived for centuries with these belief systems and the teachings of the Elders, which stressed raising consciousness for living in balance with the natural world.
Government and missionary policies continue to create and maintain an environment of control, assimilation, and linguistic extinction that now seriously threaten current Native American theologies and the wisdom of the Elders. Indigenous responses to these policies are manifest in the struggle to stop the destruction and exploitation of land, languages, and theologies, and to correct ongoing discriminatory attitudes. The colonial right to conquest, manifested in both early European land claims and in later U.S. territorial expansion, is based on a legal justification with religious roots, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which launched the framework for centuries of oppression, subjugation, and violence by Christendom and Christian colonizers towards Indigenous peoples throughout the world. The authority it gave colonizers quickly became a principle of international law. Indigenous reverence for sacred places on this land continues to live in the minds and oral traditions of the people in spite of the Doctrine of Discovery.
What books or articles are on your current reading list?
Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press, 1996)
Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, David E. Wilkins, eds., Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance (University Press of Kansas, 2003)
K. David Harrison, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Richard K. Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest (University of Chicago Press, 1983)
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Zed Books, 2nd Edition, 2012)
CHARLES S. PREBISH
AAR is pleased to interview Charles S. Prebish, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University (1971-2006) and Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies Emeritus at Utah State University (2007-2010), as the first in a series of interviews with AAR members who have shaped the field of religious studies. Prebish is an important figure within Buddhist Studies, especially in the establishment of the disciplines of American and Western Buddhist Studies.
What do you think your biggest accomplishment is in your profession?
I really can’t select one issue here. With regard to my research, I think that, early in my career, I helped to renew interest in the history of early Indian Buddhism with special focus on the rules of monastic discipline called the Vinaya and the beginnings of Indian Buddhist sectarianism. In that work, I moved away from the prevailing view that all early Indian Buddhist sects had almost identical monastic codes, and showed that there were significant differences in the Vinayas of the individual sects, thus explaining why the sects were so different from one another in their actual practices. In addition, along with Jan Nattier, I showed that the presumption that early Buddhist sects separated as a result monastic laxity on the part of one particular sect as well as doctrinal differences—also the prevailing view at the time—was incorrect and that the matter of attempted Vinaya expansion (i.e., altering a portion of the Buddhist canon) was the significant issue in the rise of early Indian Buddhist sectarianism. Along with my interest in Indian Buddhism, I also was the leading pioneer in establishing the study of Western forms of Buddhism as an important sub-discipline in Buddhist Studies. When I began my studies of American Buddhism, my first sabbatical in the later 1970s (which focused on American Buddhism in the San Francisco-Bay Area) was initially turned down by a department head who said, “There is no such thing as American Buddhism.” Eventually the proposal was accepted, and now, with as many as six million Buddhists in North America, and dozens of academic courses on Western forms of Buddhism, this work has been validated. These two issues are what I would call the “bookends” to my career.
However, I don’t want to overlook that I was a founding Co-Editor (with Damien Keown) of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, the first online, peer-reviewed journal in the field of Religious Studies, and that this was followed by the online Journal of Global Buddhism. I’m glad to have been at the forefront of the technological revolution on Religious Studies. Keown and I also created and edited Routledge’s Critical Studies in Buddhism Series, which published about 60 books between 1996 and 2006 when we took emeritus status. This series gave many young scholars the venue for publishing important new research in Buddhist Studies and also helped them achieve tenure at their universities.
On the teaching front, I am delighted to have taught (in the early 1970s) the first course on American Buddhism in a North American university, and I also think my course on the relationship between religion and sport (in the early 1980s) was, similarly, the first course of its kind taught on our continent. Additionally, again with Damien Keown, I launched the Journal of Buddhist Ethics online ebook project (www.jbeonlinebooks.org) that commissioned eTextbooks from noted scholars on the various religious traditions and then offered these eTexts to students at greatly reduced prices, thus utilizing technology to help Religious Studies students financially during challenging economic times.
What are you working on now?
Now that I am retired, and have an enormous amount of free time, I am hoping to complete two final books. The first will return to the work I focused on early in my career, and a project I imagined doing in the late 1970s. It would be a study of the life of the Buddhist monk Upāli, who was regarded as the first specialist in the Vinaya or “Vinayadhara.” I would also include in this work the history of the first lineage masters in that tradition who followed Upāli. This topic has merited some excellent scholarship in the past, but nothing that fully explores the importance of the tradition of Vinaya masters. The second volume will be my final volume on American Buddhism, and will look into what I anticipate from its development in our current, new century. With these two volumes I can complete the so-called “bookends” to my career in Buddhist Studies mentioned earlier.
How did the AAR assist you with your career?
The AAR didn’t just assist me with my career, but assisted Buddhist Studies as a discipline enormously. When George Bond and I were given the opportunity to start the Buddhism Group in 1981, it provided an opportunity for Buddhist Studies scholars throughout North American to convene together yearly at the annual meeting, plan additional conferences, publications, and cooperative organizations. Once the Buddhism Group was afforded status as a “Section,” with five panels per year at the annual meeting, it became the premier occasion for Buddhologists to gather. As one of the first Co-Chairs, and then serving on the Steering Committee for another term, AAR allowed me to help create the current vision for Buddhist Studies in North America.
AAR’s grant program also helped assist me with my fieldwork studies in American Buddhism, and was a significant factor in the completion of my book Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America.
I was also the only AAR member to become Editor-in-Chief of Critical Review of Books in Religion. The previous editors had all been SBL members. During my tenure I was able to move the journal away from publishing short book reviews exclusively to focusing on major review articles on major research areas. I have also served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and on the AAR Publications Committee. I was also twice nominated for the Martin Marty Award.
On a personal level, AAR enabled me to make professional connections that helped me find publication outlets for my various articles, chapters, and books. Without that networking, my publication record would have been much smaller.
Does AAR play a role for Buddhist Studies that other societies and conferences
When I joined AAR in 1970, most Buddhist Studies scholars—and the number was quite small—participated more in the American Oriental Society and/or the Association of Asian Studies than AAR. Beginning in the 1970s, AAR became extremely welcoming to Buddhist Studies scholars, and provided a comprehensive venue for us that other societies did not. This does not mean to say that AOS and AAS were not outstanding professional societies, but rather that AAR offered scholars who were interested in all aspects of Buddhism a home for their work. Once the Buddhism Group (and then Section) began, it seemed as if there was a mass migration to AAR. As the discipline of Buddhology has grown in North America over the past forty years, so has the degree to which AAR has accommodated that interest. Now, in addition to the Buddhism Section, there are AAR units devoted to “Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection,” “Buddhist Philosophy,” “Yogācāra Studies,” “Buddhist in the West,” and perhaps a half-dozen other units with direct application to aspects of the Buddhist religion. No other professional society in North America provides this wealth of diversity for Buddhist Studies scholars. In surveys I conducted of Buddhist Studies scholars in North America in 1993, 1995, and 2006, more individuals held memberships in AAR than in any other related professional society . . . including the International Association of Buddhist Studies. In the 1995 and 2006 surveys, scholars published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion just as frequently as they did in journals more generally associated with Buddhist Studies. All of the above suggests that AAR simply provides more opportunities for professional networking and growth than other societies.
Is there anything out there that makes sense of the complex Buddhist traditions that are finding new homes in the West?
I think there is! When Kenneth Tanaka and I published The Faces of Buddhism in America in 1998, we settled on five major thematic issues: ethnicity, practice, democratization, engagement, and adaptation. When I expanded a consideration of these topics into a thirty-five page chapter in Luminous Passage:The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America (in 1999) I framed the discussion between the two "bookends" of "Who is a Buddhist?" and "Ecumenicism." To my knowledge, no other scholar has suggested anything as comprehensive, thorough and still applicable as we move into the first years of the twenty-first century. Why do I think this typology continues to offer the most promising paradigm for understanding the Western Buddhist tradition? No matter where one goes, the discussion always focuses on these issues. Virtually every one of the twenty-four papers presented at the "Buddhism Without Borders" conference at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley in March 2010 dealt with these issues. It's the same at panels on Western Buddhism at the American Academy of Religion annual meetings or any of the other popular convocations devoted to Western forms of Buddhism.
Which books do you think most need to be written in the field of Buddhist Studies?
First, I would like to see a book written that considers the implications of the new dating of the historical Buddha for the history of early Indian Buddhism. As a result of the Göttingen conference in 1988, convened by Heinz Bechert, the general consensus was that the dating of the historical Buddha has been flawed, and a more accurate dating would locate his lifetime approximately one generation later (i.e., with his death close to 400 B.C.E.). If accurate, this adjustment would change the dates of the first two councils, the beginning of Indian Buddhist sectarianism, and other factors. It would also possibly cause people to reconsider the role of the Indian king Aśoka in the role of early Buddhism.
Second, I would like to see a scholarly book on the role of family life in Buddhism. There are very interesting popular books on this topic, such as two excellent edited volumes by Sumi Loundon. A scholarly volume would add greatly to our understanding of community life in the Buddhist religion.
Third, I would like to see a volume, or series of volumes, called The Generation(s) of Buddhist Studies. To date, we know very little about the brilliant Buddhist scholars of yesteryear (e.g., Lamotte, Frauwallner, Oldenberg, and so forth). Now, in view of the recent deaths of wonderful scholars such as William LaFleur, Frank Cook, Roger Corless, Leslie Kawamura, and others, it is apparent that the current generation of elder scholars (myself included) will soon be gone. It would be so very useful to the younger generation(s) of Buddhist Studies scholars to have the reminiscences of current great scholars such as Luis Gómez, Robert Thurman, Donald Swearer, Stanley Weinstein, Jeffrey Hopkins, Lewis Lancaster, John Strong, Jan Willis, and others. An edited volume, with a chapter by each of these individuals, including their reflections, goals, hopes, and evaluations of the discipline, would be a great boon to Buddhist Studies. Then it could be followed with additional volumes which continually update the discipline. This record would provide great historical insight into the developing North American School of Buddhist Studies.
What advice do you have for a young scholar just entering the field?
In my own discipline of Buddhist Studies, we have been graced with a long lineage of brilliant scholars worldwide such as Thomas W. Rhys Davids, Louis de La Vallée Poussin, André Bareau, Richard Robinson, Gadjin Nagao, Jan W. deJong, and others. But now, in North America, we have had a generation of wonderful scholars—most of whom regularly attended AAR’s Annual Meetings—who were not only brilliant, but also remarkably kind and compassionate: Masatoshi Nagatomi, Robert Thurman, Donald Swearer, Jeffrey Hopkins, and the recently deceased Leslie Kawamura, to name a few. I would urge new scholars to study the work, and the lives, of these scholars (and others like them) to make sure that in their own careers they pursued not only academic and pedagogic brilliance, but also human kindness and compassion. I would remind them that our professional and personal lives are interdependent, and that collectively we can make Buddhist Studies and Religious Studies even more remarkable avenues of inquiry than they already are. I would also remind them to participate in sharing their knowledge and understanding with the general public as well as their academic colleagues and students, cognizant that religion is a critical component of cultural globalization.
What do you see as the future for Buddhist Studies at the AAR?
Given the huge breadth of Buddhist-related activities already functioning under AAR’s professional umbrella, it’s hard to imagine further growth of new units, but I have little doubt that as Buddhism expands and redefines its activities in the future, AAR will support those efforts. José Cabezón, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner and former Tibetan monk, concluded in a 1995 article that we are now experiencing “what we might call the diversification of the buddhologist: a movement away from classical Buddhist Studies based on the philological study of written texts, and toward the more general comparative and often theoretical issues that have implications (and audiences) outside of Buddhist Studies." What Cabezón was suggesting is that modern Buddhology has largely abandoned the classical philological approach in favor of a greater emphasis on social issues, Buddhist practices, and the social institutions that support them. Four years after the publication of Cabezón's 1995 article, University of Chicago scholar Frank Reynolds similarly asserted that American Buddhist scholarship had turned away from matters of origin and essence, and that it increasingly emphasized other matters such as beliefs, practices, modes of communal life, and current Buddhist histories. Such an approach is far more consistent with the professional and personal interests of Buddhological scholars who are also practitioners. Reynolds boldly identified four areas that, to his mind, currently characterize the North American School of Buddhist Studies. First is the use of new computer technologies in Buddhist Studies. Second is the production of what he calls "communally generated research," consisting of multi-author work on issues in Buddhist Studies. Third is scholarship on contemporary issues in Buddhism, including that related to or produced by scholar-practitioners. Finally, there is a renewed concern for the importance of theory and method in the study of Buddhism. I think we will see much of the above in Buddhism’s future activities in the AAR.