Review of Methods in Buddhist Studies: Essays in Honor of Richard K. Payne

This review appeared in Reading Religion, published by the American Academy of religion <here>

Editors: Scott A. Mitchell, Natalie Fisk Quli

  • London:  Bloomsbury Academic , June  2019.  256 pages.  $102.60.  Hardcover. ISBN 9781350046863.  For other formats: Link to Publisher’s Website.


Upon reading the main title of this volume, Methods in Buddhist Studies, one may expect to encounter a comprehensive selection of critical reviews on method. But this book is less a consistent and explicit appraisal and more a showcasing of several “methods” employed in certain areas of the field. The primary reason for this is to be sought in the subtitle, Essays in Honor of Richard K. Payne, highlighting that the volume is foremost a Festschrift, a recognition of Payne’s intellectual contributions and the contributors’ indebtedness to him. Somewhat determined by Payne’s legacy, the introduction and eleven chapters pertain primarily to issues in East Asian and American Buddhism. These contributions are arranged into four parts: Historical Studies of Japanese Buddhism, Textual Studies of ritual practices in Chinese translations and Japanese texts, Ethnographic Studies of contemporary China and the US, and Theoretical Concerns with the language and ethics entailed in scholarly praxis.  

Scott Mitchell sets the scene with his “Introduction: On Maps, Elephants, and Buddhists” (1–13). The “crux of the issue,” he writes, is that “questions determine method, not the other way around” (2). By this he means that the purpose in defining Buddhism “ought” to proceed first from the lines of inquiry and second from its modes. He observes that we shall never produce a “totalising and essentializing” view of Buddhism but rather fragmentary pieces of a “map” (3). Methods redraw the “boundaries” of our definitions of Buddhism and thereby reveal that this supposedly objective “elephant” is in fact a contingent subject (4–7). The book therefore stresses the interdisciplinarity of Buddhist studies and asks, “what different methods reveal about Buddhism?”, without giving “primacy” to a single method or being “merely self-reflexive” (3, 12–13).  

Do all the chapters achieve these goals? They certainly exemplify the multidisciplinarity of the field. But the degree to which they explicitly treat method or self-reflexivity varies, and it is often left to the reader to discern the precise issue at stake. Most are simply good examples of method; for instance, the historical study of Lisa Grumbach stands out for uncovering the discrete economic and political factors that shaped the legalities of Buddhist offerings of meat and fish at three kami shrines of the Kamakura period (17–38). Regarding self-reflexivity, however, not all evidently achieve this purpose. From those that do, two key methodological themes emerge: definition and technology. 

Several chapters concern themselves with taxonomies tinged by emic sectarian biases. For instance, Aaron Proffitt challenges the utility of the distinction between Pure Land and Esoteric schools and proposes an “Esoteric Pure Land” as a nonessentialist (albeit essentially hybrid) category, which he traces from the pre-Kamakura period to the present (54–64). Charles Willemen would appear to follow a similar course in his study of Yijing’s Chinese translation of the Anityasūtra, which, he argues, exhibits several sectarian influences, including certain stanzas he shows to derive from Aśvaghoṣa, “a Sarvāstivādin influenced by (Bahuśrutīya?) Mahāsāṃghika views,” as well as other Mūlasarvāstivāda and Esoteric traits (67–76). Yet his presentation obfuscates uncertainties in determining such views and hence one cannot deem it an illustration of “the transgressive nature of texts and practices” or how “they transcend our contemporary scholarly and sectarian categories” (8), for this would be a cart-before-the-horse-act of de-essentialising definitions for which the essentials have yet to be fully defined.  

Other chapters consider etic categories that emerged out of Orientalism. Charles Jones problematises the Protestant notion of a “canon” and shifts the focus to the subjective and material processes of canonization, proposing we examine how texts are “privileged” by discourse and praxis, both within the tradition and without by scholars (129–143). Franz Metcalf engages in the project of defining Buddhism itself, which, notwithstanding the danger of positivism, is nonetheless inexorable. He argues for a “polythetic” definition, which neither phenetically posits a set of essentials nor phyletically traces Buddhism’s historical permutations, but which embraces both under an ethically sensitive idiom that recognizes the mutuality of the scholar and the Buddhist in this process (144–153). Such ethical concerns are more forcefully stated by Natalie Quli, who demonstrates that the practice of defining is inextricably tied to authenticity and authority. She exposes how Orientalist assumptions of “natural white authority,” individualism, and scientific objectivity have reemerged in the American Buddhist Insight Movement and resulted in the denigration of Asian adherents and ritual practices as inauthentic. Definition thus shapes the tradition and its study alike and necessitates of the definer a reflection on institutional and individual biases (154–172). These are exampled in Victoria Montrose’s study, which examines the history of the little studied Gohōjō, the “proto-university” of the Ōtani denomination during the Meiji period, and delineates how its navigating a discord between sectarian conservatism and Western educational principles continue to influence Buddhist studies in Japan today (39–53). In her ethnographic study, Chenxing Han reflects upon the role of the individual in constructing her subject (the “elephant”), the “un-sited” category of “young adult Asian American Buddhist,” which, though a product of her “thinking into being,” is shown to be a salient Buddhist identity (109–125). 

The second key theme is the effect of digital technologies on Buddhism and method. Jones speculates on the potential effects of digitization on the canon and the types of practices that could eventually be directed towards it (141). One actual effect is shown by Courtney Bruntz, who considers the Chan Lonquan Temple’s adaptation to digital technologies to propagate Buddhism among Chinese millennials (95–108). Digital technology has thus altered the spaces in which Buddhists operate, and it is this shift that led Han also to engage in “virtual ethnography,” garnering participants and conducting interviews online and thus outside of the congregational setting that typifies ethnographic work (123). 

These latter hint at what to my mind is in general lacking from the volume— namely, a rumination on method in the past, present, and future of Buddhist studies. Apart from the notable absence of studies on Buddhism outside the geographical areas considered or on the archaeological, art-historical, and epigraphic methods, there is no pause taken in the introduction to consider other volumes, such as the then initial exploration “On Method” in the 1995 issue of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and consider how methods have transformed in the interim. Is it not through digital technologies that the sort of interdisciplinarity and “intra-field boundary work” (5) this book claims to example can be realized? Certainly, these advancements stand as the enabling force behind all the methods therein. Moreover, openly accessible digital space now affords, to a hitherto unforeseen extent, the type of mutual participation of scholars and Buddhists that many chapters advocate. That said, the methodological net cast by this volume is no doubt wide, and these limitations should not be viewed as shortcomings, for the authors’ insightful engagements, illustrated by way of practicable case studies, do serve to capture many issues in a way that is highly relevant to all scholars in the field. 

About the Reviewer: 

Henry Albery is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Ghent.  Date of Review: June 13, 2021

About the Editors: 

Scott A. Mitchell is the dean of students and faculty affairs and holds the Yoshitaka Tamai Professorial Chair at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, California, USA.

Natalie E. F. Quli is research fellow at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, California, USA, and senior editor of the Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies.