Every November, nearly 10,000 religious studies scholars pour into a different city for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The meeting in 2016 was held in Texas, and Trump had just been elected President of the United States. I admit I hesitated before boarding my flight out of Canada.

Making my rounds through the exhibit hall is one of the most exciting parts of the conference, scanning the numerous publisher booths, laden with the latest books in Buddhist studies. Publishers spread their bright, shiny covers out to entice us with their offerings. Each year, I resolve that I won’t spend too much money, but I inevitably fill my tote bag with purchases and wonder how my suitcase will fare on the way home.

I was doing just that in 2016, enjoying the exhibit hall display and catching up with old friends along the way, but the atmosphere was different this time. Collective anxiety was rumbling beneath the surface. Words like “apocalypse” kept reaching my ears (and not just in the biblical studies section).

I had a scheduled meeting with an editor and made my way to his booth.

“This is all your fault,” he said without even a hello.
“What’s my fault?” I asked, disoriented.
“This,” he waved his arm at the room. “Trump. It’s your fault.”
What was he talking about?
“I’m Canadian,” I muttered stupidly. “How is this my fault?”

He dropped his arm but kept his face on the crowd.

“It is your fault,” he repeated. “Just look at this place. Look at all these professors. Look at the academic jargon on every table. You isolate yourselves in the ivory tower, talking to each other in ways most people can’t understand. Do you think all this knowledge will trickle down to the general public? It won’t, no matter what you tell yourselves. It stays right where you are, and then someone like Trump gets elected. That’s why it’s your fault.”

I stared at him, my jaw hanging open. I took a step back and looked at the exhibit hall spread out before me. I knew these people. I knew the books. This was my world. How could he dismiss all of us in one fell swoop? Blame us for all the ills of the world? It was so simplistic, so one-dimensional.

But he had a point. Trickle-down education was not working. We were talking to ourselves.


he academy means different things to different people. For some, we are exactly as that editor described: pompous and unintelligible, high and mighty, and insular. But in its best manifestation, the academic life represents a profound love of learning. We dedicate our lives to study because we love to learn.

The more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don’t know.

The academic process can be very demanding as we check and recheck our sources, footnote, and work to make our case. This is as it should be, but the problem many of us face is that we risk becoming suffocated by it. We aim for precision and can spend decades scouring libraries, burrowing through research rabbit holes. We can become so impossibly scrutinous in the process that we never allow ourselves to conclude anything. Opinions may be easy to come by in most arenas, but among scholars, opinions are surprisingly hard to find. What if we pronounce ourselves on an issue only to discover that we are wrong? Or that we have missed a piece of the interminably complicated puzzle? The more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don’t know.

This is how our greatest virtue can become our heaviest burden. And why the editor in the exhibit hall was, to some extent at least, quite right.

As scholars, we have absorbed a wealth of education. But because of the rigor we are required to expect of ourselves, it is easy to believe that we still don’t know anything. One of my graduate advisors once told me that to get a PhD is to “get a degree in profound ignorance.” I have never forgotten those words. Despite years of study (and because of them), we still know so much less than we wish we could learn, making us reticent to share what we already have. We share our knowledge in our classrooms, conferences, and academic publications, but we hesitate to go beyond that. Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that sharing our research in these academic settings is enough.

When I first started in the field, it was enough. Honestly, it was all I could manage at the time (the first few years in the field are exhausting). But I don’t feel that way anymore, and not just because I have gotten older and am employed.

The world is on fire, burning before our eyes every day. The wheel of samsara is spinning right under our feet. The academy provides an important platform to share our material, but is that all we have to offer? Can’t we do more?

vanessa sasson historical fiction upaya 1
Illustration by Matt Chase


hese questions were part of the backdrop that had me try my hand at something new. After almost twenty years of writing in an academic voice, I wanted to write differently, in the hopes of reaching beyond the confines of the academy.

The great Indian poet Ashvaghosha became my muse. He produced the Buddhacarita about 2,000 years ago—one of the most beautiful iterations of the Buddha’s life story. I imagined him sitting at a small, rickety table somewhere in northern India, scratching his head as he wondered how he would tell his tale. Sometimes, I had Ashvaghosha struggling with the blank page (or a blank scroll, more like it), perhaps getting up and pacing around his room each time he got stuck. I wondered where his inspiration came from. And how he had found the courage to write his story as he had. Could I follow in his footsteps, I wondered. Could I do it too?

Buddhism is not structured the way Abrahamic traditions are. It does not have a primary scripture around which the tradition pivots—no Bible or Quran to claim the center. Instead, Buddhism has thousands of scriptures in its name. It is a library more than a book, with each generation writing out the tradition in its own words. It is one of the reasons that Buddhism can be so difficult to decipher (Which texts should we study? Where do all these texts belong and how do they work? How does this one relate to the other?). This tremendous literature is the source of Buddhist abundance and diversity; it is Buddhist creativity, confusion, and play.

It is also why someone like Ashvaghosha might have been sitting in his room some 2,000 years ago, pondering how he might craft the Buddha’s life story for himself. He was welcome to tackle this question because it is how the tradition works. It is what Buddhists do. They tell their beloved stories over and over again, each time slightly differently, and yet each time also a bit the same.

As a scholar, my inclination would have been to study Ashvaghosha’s genius from afar. I would have read his work, read what others said of his work, contextualized and analyzed him, and clinically assessed what I saw in what he did. I would have placed a microscope over his head and stared at him without letting him stare back at me. And then, I would have produced an academic article in an academic voice that few outside the academy would ever read.

I wanted to do something different this time. I did not want a microscope, and I did not want the distance. I did not want the clinical setting of my academic head. I wanted to toss all my usual tools aside and climb into a world I could share with him. I wanted to feel the Buddha’s life story inside me and allow it to become personal. I wanted to become the storyteller as Ashvaghosha had allowed himself to be all those years ago. He made it personal to himself. I wanted it to become personal to me.

And so I began writing the book Yasodhara and the Buddha, telling the Buddha’s story from his wife Yasodhara’s perspective, and to my great surprise, I loved every minute of it. For the first time, I was swimming in the narrative, participating in it, creating it, folding it into myself, and then unfolding it onto the page. I no longer stood far from my material, analyzing it as though it could not reach me. I had begun with the premise that it was reaching me, that I was right there in it, sharing it with the storytellers of the past.

When asked about this project, I often said that my goal was to write the Buddha’s story in an accessible voice to reach a wider audience. But what I came to realize was that, in the process, the Buddha’s story also became accessible to me. I learned the story in an entirely new way.


he 21st century has been a raging disaster so far. Climate change, COVID, world wars in all directions, the viral spread of disinformation, with fascism quickly following. In Ashvaghosha’s words, “the world is on fire”—perhaps more than ever. I don’t see how we can afford to hole ourselves up in the ivory tower anymore. We probably never could.

A story about the Buddha’s wife will not solve the world’s problems. To assume otherwise would be delusional. But my point is that we can and should try to do more—whatever our part might look like, regardless of our field of study.

This suggestion is not new, and it is not nearly as radical as some might imagine: there have always been a handful of scholars doing just this. Public-facing scholarship is its own countercultural tradition.

Academic education is not an irrelevant technical endeavor, as some would have it. Neither is it a farce. Academic education has substance, and it matters. It is not something to hide from or to apologize for. It is, rather, an extraordinary privilege. I have spent much of my life reading, writing, and thinking about ideas. It is what scholars do. This is something to celebrate, disseminate, and use.

No one’s knowledge can be exhaustive, and it certainly will never be perfect, but this should not stop us from sharing it all the same, using whatever tools we have at our disposal in whatever way suits us best. This is the Buddhist concept of upaya—the skillful means we must harness to reach beyond the walls that otherwise enclose us.

To be fair, it is not easy to climb over the ivory tower walls. Academic institutions do not often support public scholarship. In some contexts, they outright prevent it. I recently met a museum curator who speaks publicly about various political issues with fierce candor. I asked her how she managed: “I was fired,” she answered bluntly. “That’s how I manage. I don’t have an institution on my back.”

Scholars know they take risks each time they speak out—particularly in the humanities, even more so in religious studies. Speaking about our research is like walking a tightrope: you never know who you will upset—the institution, the extremists, the fundamentalists claiming to guard the gates. Add to this the rising tide of anti-intellectualism, and it can be hard to get out of bed on some days.

But we have to keep trying—especially those of us who have some institutional protection. We have to find ways to participate in the mess that is our home. We have to use the knowledge we have been privileged to gather, as imperfect and unfinished as it is sure to be, to participate in the broader conversation.

And we may be surprised by the result. We may get trolled or face backlash. We may get criticized by the supposed gatekeepers (academic or religious) for not doing our scholarship “right.” But in most cases, we can survive the storm. And in some cases, we might even enjoy the ride.

I fell in love with Yasodhara by fictionalizing my research. So much so that the moment I sent it off to press, I began the next book. I sank into the world of the first Buddhist women, eventually producing The Gathering—a book that tries to bring those first courageous nuns to life.

I learned my material in an entirely new way by writing these books. Yasodhara’s suffering had never been clearer to me than when I took on her voice. The first Buddhist nuns were never as nuanced. An ancient world came to life in my mind as I wrote. When we step back from our traditional methods and try something new, we may be surprised by how much more there is to learn. Public scholarship is scholarship too.

The academic community holds tremendous educational wealth. We should share that wealth in every way we can. It is what my editor was begging of us that day in the exhibit hall.

We might be surprised by what we find.

Visit tricycle.org/podcast/vanessa-sasson for more.

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