Glenn Wallis has recently produced a fascinating new piece of “Buddhist theology” called the Buddhist Manifesto. The document first strikes me for what it tells us about the process of writing about Buddhism today. Wallis, like me, was once a Buddhist-studies academic in a fairly standard mold: PhD from Harvard, assistant professor at the University of Georgia. (I was offered his old job at Georgia, and turned it down because the offer given would have required me to teach twice as many courses as he did, for less total pay and no chance of tenure.) I had read the major work he produced in that capacity: Mediating the Power of Buddhas, a study of a seventh-century Buddhist Sanskrit ritual text called the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Mediating the Power of Buddhas offers a close and careful reading of this particular text. But one is left wondering at the end: why was this written? It avoids historical context, attempting instead to “enter into the world” within the text, which makes it difficult to learn much from the study about the text’s historical period and its contemporaries (say, Śāntideva). But it also avoids constructive philosophical engagement with the text – asking how it might challenge our current ideas about the world and how to live in it. If one can get neither history nor constructive application from this study, what can one get from it?
My critique of Wallis’s older work is hardly limited to Wallis; one could make it about a great number of works produced in contemporary religious studies. Anne Monius encouraged her students to ask of the texts and rituals they study: “Why bother?” and “So what?” Why do people bother doing this, and what is its significance for their culture? What she never asked students was to turn those same questions on ourselves: ask of our own work, “Why bother?” and “So what?” But it seems to me like these are the most pressing questions to ask of a work like Mediating the Power of Buddhas.
No such problem exists in the Buddhist Manifesto! Continue reading