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Lessons in Buddhism from an iconoclastic scholar

By Ajay Singh, UCLA Today, Feb 27, 2009

Berkeley, CA (USA) -- As one of the world’s leading authorities on Buddhism, Gregory Schopen has shattered many myths, notably the notion that Buddhist monks in ancient India renounced money and property.

<< Gregory Schopen: In his Faculty Research Lecture on March 10, Gregory Schopen hopes to illuminate a little-known aspect of Buddhism: the fact that it was one of the earliest social organizations in India to develop what might be called a corporation.
Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

While his painstaking research certainly helped Schopen demystify monasticism in the land of Buddhism’s birth, he owes his remarkable academic success not so much to scholarship but to his grandfather, a cowboy in South Dakota.

“He told me something that I’ve never forgotten and which, though it seems very simple, has governed my entire scholarly life,” said Schopen, a specialist in Indian Buddhist Studies who chairs the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. “He said, ‘Don’t pay too much attention to what people say, but watch what they do,’ and that, in some ways, is all I’ve done.”

Take the still-popular stereotype about destitute monks. Ignoring scholarship that stressed their unworldly ways, Schopen studied ancient Indian inscriptions, which record gifts made to Buddhist monasteries, and established that more than 50 percent of the donors were monks. “Now, if they had given up their money, how could they do this?” said Schopen.

He’s one of those rare Buddhism scholars who has the linguistic training to decipher not just ancient texts but inscriptional and archaeological evidence as well. Well-versed in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali and Tibetan, Schopen probably knows more about classical Buddhism than the entire line of reincarnated Dalai Lamas, and it’s no wonder that his work has significantly altered the way other religions are studied.

On March 10, Schopen will deliver the 106th Faculty Research Lecture on a topic that ought to resonate with anyone concerned about the global economic slump: “The Buddha as a Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian Religion.” A prestigious forum for celebrating the diverse academic talents of UCLA’s faculty, the lecture will be held at the Freud Playhouse.

In his talk, Schopen hopes to illuminate a little-known aspect of Buddhism: the fact that it was one of the earliest social organizations in India to develop what might be called a corporation.

“In terms of Indian history, the Buddhists were the first to do this,” said Schopen. “And they had to work out all sorts of problems that have a lot in common with modern corporate law.” Ancient Indian Buddhists, for example, dealt with such issues as how they could own property and whether an order of monks was a legal entity, added Schopen, pointing out that Wall Street has much to learn from the Buddha, who instructed his monks 2,500 years ago not to make unsecured loans.

Schopen first became interested in Buddhism while growing up in South Dakota. His tiny hometown, Deadwood, had its own Chinatown, and he spent a lot of time in the local museum looking at Chinese and Buddhist artifacts.

“I was very young when I saw this stuff and wondered what it was,” Schopen recalled, adding with a laugh: “I’m still trying to find out exactly what it’s all about.”

He’s in no hurry. A field that’s as rich as it is narrow, Indian Buddhism offers much to stoke Schopen’s curiosity – and he has the good fortune of being able to pursue his intellectual interests without actually experiencing any of the stresses and strains of traveling to India.

In fact, he’s never been to India. “It’s an oddity,” he admitted, explaining why: “The Buddhist tradition, which has always been my focus, largely disappeared from India starting around the 11th century.” Instead, Schopen has spent quite a bit of time in Japan “because I want to see how Buddhism works in a culture – among real people,” he said.

Schopen finds the widespread Western fascination with Buddhism “highly artificial and a little bit silly because it takes place completely in the abstract.” The average Westerner is not interested in the “totality of what Buddhism is – a way of interacting and being human – but with a certain set of free-floating ideas that have been connected with Buddhism,” he explained, adding: “I have a problem with that.”

One of his favorite images of Buddhism as it’s practiced in America is from a photograph of devotees in a Thai Buddhist temple in Los Angeles: “All the local Thai people are doing worship to the Buddha image in the front; in the back is a whole row of white guys meditating,” said Schopen. “These are completely different approaches to the same phenomenon – the picture is worth a thousand words.”

By any measure, Schopen is an iconoclast. A Taiwanese newspaper once described him as an “exceptionally rare species – an academic who writes not only lucidly but also eloquently, charmingly, and very often wittily.” And the fact that he hasn’t written any books – just articles and papers compiled into texts – makes Schopen all the more exceptional.

So how has he survived academia’s ruthless “publish or perish” environment? “I have a very healthy respect for my own ignorance,” he said with characteristically Buddhist humility, adding that “we know so little about most of this stuff that it seems irresponsible to make large, sweeping statements in large, sweeping books.” Besides, he quipped, “I’m also deeply suspicious of intellectuals, which is a little bit ironic since I am one.”

The fact that Schopen won the esteemed MacArthur Award in 1985 has surely cemented his reputation as an outstanding scholar any university would be proud of. “It changed the way people approached me and probably made my academic career somewhat smoother,” he admitted. “But I’ve always done pretty much what I’ve wanted to do,” he added, “and that, too, I got from my grandfather.”

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