Robert Sharf’s interest in Buddhism began in the early 1970s, when, as a seeker in sandals barely out of his teens, he hopped from one meditation retreat to the next, first in India and Burma, then back in North America. It was shortly after a three-month Vipassana meditation retreat in Bucksport, Maine, in 1975 that Sharf began to wonder whether the single-minded emphasis on meditation characteristic of much of Western Buddhism was in some way misguided. Over time, doubt and confusion gave way to a desire to better understand Buddhism’s historical background, which in turn led him to pursue a career in Buddhist scholarship. Today Sharf is the D. H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His area of expertise is East Asian Buddhism, most especially the Buddhism of medieval China. He is also an ordained priest in the Hosso school of Japanese Buddhism.
Sharf is also known for his cogent critique of what scholars call Buddhist modernism, a relatively recent movement that selectively places those elements that are consistent with modern sensibilities at the core of the tradition and dismisses all else. Sharf’s critique of Buddhist modernism stems from a belief that we cannot reduce Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices without in some way distorting our sense of its wholeness and complexity. For Sharf, understanding a religious tradition demands not only familiarity with contemporary practice but also a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign. To participate in such a dialogue we need knowledge of the context in which the tradition is embedded and an ability to see past the presuppositions of our own time and place. Clearing the ground, as it were, for this dialogue with tradition is the job of critical scholarly practice in religious life.
Throughout the following interview, there is an irony at play. Without the bridges of understanding and the foundations of practice that Buddhist modernists like D. T. Suzuki, Anagarika Dharmapala, and others established, Buddhism would be for Westerners opaque and unapproachably foreign. Even as we regard them with a critical eye, we stand on their broad shoulders.
Maybe this is just how Buddhism works. Maybe this is just why it works. Certainly, in these pluralistic times of competing worldviews and claims to religious truth, we have much to learn from Buddhism’s long tradition of integrating self-critique with a rich and vital religious tradition. Perhaps we might say that today to approach religion critically is simply to practice in good faith.
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