Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Ronald Davidson is Awarded Two Grants to Write a Book on Tantric Buddhism in India

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on June 2, 2010
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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Ronald Davidson Professor of Religious Studies On the road to Kedarnath

Dr. Ronald M. Davidson, Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University since 1990, has recently become the recipient of highly prestigious research grants from both the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The grants will enable him to complete a book manuscript on the earliest phase of tantric Buddhism in India, a form of Buddhism that spread throughout Eurasia during the period from its inception in the first half of the sixth century CE to the present.

With the Tibetan and Japanese diasporas, tantric Buddhism is now found worldwide. The earliest form of tantric Buddhism encodes a political metaphor – the Emperor embodied in a single syllable that arises from the coronal dome on the Buddha’s head. The Emperor literature, more than a dozen texts preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations and in fragmentary Sanskrit documents, first appears in a translation into Chinese in 654. Davidson’s book will treat this earliest body of documents.

Dr. Davidson studied and lived with Tibetans for 18 years, from 1970 to 1987, and worked for 11 years with Ngor Thartse Khenpo (Hiroshi Sonami), one of the great scholars of his generation. Concurrently, he completed degrees in Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies at U.C. Berkeley, working with Dr. Padmanabh Jaini, Dr. Lewis Lancaster and others – all specialists in Indian and Chinese forms of religion.

Davidson’s primary area of expertise is the history of tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet, especially in the relationship of religious history to social history during the medieval period, from 500-1200 CE. Author of Tibetan Renaissance (Columbia University Press), his work leads him often to the Himlayas, India, and Nepal, or to the North Indian plains. There he consults with friends and colleagues, works in archives and libraries, and visits archaeological sites associated with medieval Buddhism. His dual passions for mountains and Ducati motorcycles take him to high places and the deep woods of the world.

We recently asked Dr. Davidson to share his experiences and perspectives on the research and scholarship that have defined his life’s work.

Q. You have been awarded 2 very prestigious grants this year – are they both for the same work?

A. Both the ACLS and the NEH are for the same project. I was writing my book Secrecy and Revelation in Indian Tantric Buddhism when I came upon this trove of the earliest tantric documents, which had been hiding in plain sight. For the last 1300 years they have been part of the Chinese Buddhist canon, but no one in that time has understood their significance because others either did not have simultaneous training in Buddhist Chinese and Sanskrit or were not curious as to the significance of these documents. I am the first to realize the source codes and origin documents for the form of Buddhism that spread to Tibet, Nepal, China, Mongolia, Japan, Russia, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and various places in India and Sri Lanka. Now it is worldwide, even having come to Fairfield with the Tibetan mandalas.

Q. When did you first start taking an interest in India, Nepal, and Tibet, and why?

A. I first became interested in yoga at around 12 years of age. I have no idea why, and it is strange that some young kid in a small town in Northern California should gain that fixation. However, my interest was fueled by my grandmother, who had spent 5 years in Japan, and my earliest interest was paradoxically towards both Japan and yoga. I found out quickly that yoga has nothing to do with Japan, and continued my interest in yoga.

Q. When did you first go to India?

A. I first went to India in 1983-1984 as a junior Fulbright fellow, having advanced to candidacy in Indian Buddhist Studies at U.C. Berkeley. That visit was a defining moment in my understanding. Until then, I was the quintessential textual scholar – just the books, sir, just the books. On September 1, 1983, I awoke in a hotel in New Delhi, looked out the window, and realized that all my study of Sanskrit texts meant nothing in my understanding of the culture. Since then, I have lived and worked in India many times and still learn much more each time I go. The culture is so complex – with so many groups, languages, and identities – that one can never fully understand India.

Q. What are the languages of your discipline?

A. Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit, medieval Buddhist Chinese, classical Tibetan, Apabhramsha, and a very limited amount of Gandhari. Modern scholarship is overwhelmingly conducted in English, but I also read French, German, modern Tibetan and some modern Chinese. My 2002 book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism, cited 600 sources in 11 languages. This separates the sciences and the humanities. Science is about the exploration of the new. My discipline is about the undiscovered country in the history of the species.

Q. How would you define “research”?

A. Research isn’t about looking up a source in the library. That is simply repeating what others have already done and validating their results. Necessary perhaps for a college paper, but not the real deal. Real research is standing at the edge of a precipice with a bunch of tools. Behind you, it is easy to see the well-trod paths others have already taken. Before you, it is not just dark, but foggy. The tools you have used thus far might have gotten you to where you are, but they may not be of any further use now. You might need to manufacture new tools on the fly. Real research stands at the edge of chaos, sticking your head into a different dimension. The slightest slip and you fall. Below you, you can dimly see the intellectual corpses of those who have fallen – your colleagues or predecessors who have contributed some but have taken a wrong turn somewhere. We all build on the errors of others. Every researcher knows that were it not for an error another has made – which the researcher would have made himself had he worked just a few years earlier on the problem – the wrong turn would have been his own, not an object lesson about a slip to be avoided.

Q. How would you understand a “researcher”?

A. Research constructs reality out of chaos, knowing that the reality must be verified by the work of others before they will follow. Those who follow may not come for another hundred years, but they may also come tomorrow. They cannot see what reality is being constructed until it is done. At that moment, they might think how simple the task certainly must have been, and may denigrate the researcher whose vision of reality brought the discipline forward, building a bridge into the night of chaos. If it is done really well, others will believe it was quite simple, since all the really accomplished scholars are like athletes – they make the impossible seem facile.

Ready for research?

Ready for research?

Everything employed in the modern world – all the ideas of our culture, all the tools and techniques of the intellectual life, medicine, law, literature, linguistics, everything – owe their existence to the activity of those few willing to risk all: reputation, livelihood, marriages, health, public scorn, and more. So why do we do it? Because there is no greater thrill than authentic discovery. We are adrenaline junkies at heart. Much the same excitement I get from riding my Ducati motorcycle through the mountains is also present when I burrow into texts no one has looked at for a thousand years or more. It’s edgy, dangerous, fascinating, and sometimes terrifying.

Q. Please describe the most momentous discovery of your research efforts.

A. Probably the greatest contribution was the discovery that tantric Buddhism was patterned after political models. While the word “tantric” in modern English appears synonymous with sex, this is a consequence of charlatans marketing an unknown behavior to prurient, sex-obsessed Americans. When I realized that the mandala is a representation of a political relationship observable within medieval domains rather than some “psycho-cosmogram,” as had been described since the time of C.G. Jung, it was a memorable moment. This realization came after reading almost 20,000 inscriptions and thousands of pages of medieval Indian texts. The political metaphor embodied in tantric Buddhism extended to its rituals, its models of reality, and to almost all other attributes of the tantric Buddhist system.

Q. What inspires you to continue your research?

A. If there were ever to come a day when I decided never to conduct research again, I fervently hope that it will be the day of my demise, since I will have already ceased living. My world cannot exist without exploration, most of which is in the encounter with the texts and other elements inherited from our predecessors. As the nineteenth century Tibetan mystic Dudjom Lingpa said in his autobiography, without our heritage, we are but naked monkeys in the forest.

Q. What does it mean to you to be working at Fairfield, a Jesuit institution?

A. The Jesuits have pioneered the institutionalization of the curriculum of studia humanitatis, the study of the humanities. This is the legacy of the Florentine Renaissance and the fount of our core curriculum. Our institution puts into place the source codes of the development of the humanistic disciplines. I cannot tell you how seriously I take that reality. One of my greatest heroes is Francesco Petrarcha, the founder of Humanism, and in 2006, while recovering from cancer, I made pilgrimage to Petrarch’s tomb in Arqua Petrarcha, for there is no greater site of holiness or more important acknowledgment than paying homage to the man whose vision in 1337 CE began the legacy that we all embody today. He is not a saint of the church, but in my estimation he stands above them. My Italian motorcycle, my Ducati, is named Petrarch, because wherever I go, Petrarch comes with me.

Q. As a teacher, what do you wish most for your students?

A. Their success, happiness, and awakening. Every generation has its liabilities, and this generation is overall afflicted with a debilitating narcissism born of our consumer culture. But I have seen so many of our students shed this affliction that I cannot believe it is indelible, and Fairfield does an excellent job in helping students see the world differently. I also hope that they can realize that their core curriculum is their greatest asset. Recently I was at the Multicultural Scholarship Fund Awards Banquet in New York City, and I was treated to extraordinary affirmation of the core by all our graduates there. They all had the same message: students don’t understand the core until they graduate, and then they see its many benefits, all of which lead to success. That core of learning was the vision of Petrarch, as well as Leonardo Bruni, Coluccio Salutati, Giovanni Boccaccio, Gemistos Plethon, and the other profound gentlemen of the Renaissance – all of whom have shed their intellectual blood for our understanding. In their honor, I wish Fairfield students the gifts of awareness, hope, and gratitude.

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