In early 2020, scholar and professor Natalie Gummer planned a roundtable called “Manifestos for Buddhist Studies” for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. A couple months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the roundtable was postponed until the following year. In that time, Gummer began to reflect on her proposed structure and the voices she was leaving out. “I noticed that the criteria I had used to determine who would be on the panel were the same criteria that often gets used in Buddhist studies,” she shared. “I wanted to find ways to broaden the range of perspectives represented.”
Gummer collaborated with fellow scholars Natalie Avalos, Frances Garrett, Ann Gleig, and Sarah Jacoby to brainstorm more inclusive—and exciting—forms of engagement. Out of their conversations, the Collective Buddhist Studies Manifesto was born. The website aims to showcase a multiplicity of visions for the future of the field, and they are currently seeking contributions in a variety of creative formats. Tricycle spoke with Gummer to discuss the origins of the project, the genre of manifesto, and the role of pleasure in academic studies.
What motivated you to create the Collective Buddhist Studies Manifesto website? In planning the original roundtable, my colleagues and I hoped to open up paths outside of the narrow tracks that many feel they’re shunted into when they study Buddhism. We aimed to collectively imagine alternative futures for the field, and in order to do so, we realized we needed to expand the range of voices we were hearing from. In particular, we wanted to elevate the voices of marginalized scholars, contingent faculty, and graduate students, whose perspectives are often devalued. We decided to set up a website and put out a call for submissions so that anyone could submit their manifesto and share their vision for the future of the field.
Can you share a bit about the name? Why “collective,” and why “manifesto”? I selected that name based on a collection of essays I read, Manifestos for History, where several historians articulate their visions for the future of history as a field. I felt like we needed a parallel project in Buddhist studies. There’s a great article in The Atlantic on manifestos that lays out the ten traits of effective public declarations: manifestos exist to challenge and provoke; they are theatrical; they come in many forms; they “mark the beginning of a path to realization.” This article informed our thinking about the genre and the ways it challenges dominant power hierarchies. We see manifestos as provocations for the future. What should we be thinking about? What are the issues that should matter? Manifestos are by nature dramatic, so we encouraged people to put forth their vision and to make it a little extreme.
When we say “collective Buddhist studies,” we’re gesturing to the fact that Buddhist studies should include everybody who considers themselves to be studying Buddhism. There’s no policing about who gets in and who gets out; if you think you’re doing Buddhist studies, you’re doing Buddhist studies. We formulated this as a collective project so that anyone could contribute their perspective. We’re especially interested in ensuring that underrepresented and marginalized scholars have a voice. There are so many people studying Buddhism who exist outside the standard academic track, and it’s so easy for their voices not to be heard.
You aim to amplify not only marginalized voices but also marginalized media: in the call for submissions, you state that you’re looking for academic prose but also poetry, dance, and spoken word, expanding what we think of as what counts as Buddhist studies. Can you speak about this range of forms? In designing the call for submissions, we were thinking about the creative projects and formats we use in our classrooms. These formats can be so liberating for our students—and for ourselves. But often, such creative formats are off limits for scholarly expression. We hope that opening up the call to different forms of media will encourage different voices to be part of the conversation.
On a broader scale, we’re also hoping that the website will encourage other projects to take form. Any single initiative of this kind is not sufficient. So many people are doing such important work to expand the form that Buddhist studies can take. Frances Garrett has been developing experiential, embodied approaches to religious studies with the Teaching for Student Flourishing project. Natasha Heller is researching how gender intersects with publishing practices within Buddhist studies (in addition to mapping women scholars within Buddhist studies). Ann Gleig and others have formed the Buddhist Studies Complaint Collective.
I believe that there need to be multiple projects of this kind in order to make this work more and more visible so that it can’t be ignored by the already ossified systems within academia. I hope that the Collective Buddhist Studies Manifesto will be one contribution to this larger conversation that makes visible the narrowness and exclusion that are so much part of academic Buddhist studies.
What are some of the forces of narrowness and exclusion within Buddhist studies right now? There’s a certain philological approach to the study of ancient texts that often gets privileged as “real” Buddhist studies, which, like the field as a whole, is rooted in Orientalist approaches to the tradition. Those who have tended to rise to the top within that particular area (mainly white men) consequently exercise control over what counts as legitimate. Critiques of Orientalism are decades old by now, but they still haven’t been internalized in ways that have truly transformed our methods of study.
There are also ways in which normative identities are reinforced again and again, both in terms of scholarly identities and embodiments, and in terms of assumptions about the identities and embodiments of Buddhists, contemporary and historical. There are a lot of normative assumptions that go uncontested, and when they’re contested, there can be a lot of pushback. Buddhist studies happen in lots of different embodiments and in lots of different kinds of institutions, and we need for those to be recognized as part of the discipline, not as marginal. This is the central question of our project: How do we center the margins? I don’t have the answers to that question, but I’m going to keep asking. That’s one major emphasis of this project: to keep asking this question and to transform the discipline accordingly.
How are you looking to transform the discipline? In gathering these manifestos, we’re really looking for constructive visions for the future. There’s a lot to get angry about in the field, but we want people to channel that frustration toward positive visions of what Buddhist studies should be. We can recognize all of the things that are wrong, but we can also imagine how we can make it better. In my view, the most hard-hitting manifestos hit a balance between those two poles: identifying what needs to change and charting out where we go from here, proposing possible futures that it would be exciting to move toward.
On that theme of excitement, one of the questions you pose in the call for submissions is, “What would you like to do in Buddhist Studies that you feel you cannot or should not do now?” Can you speak to the role of excitement and pleasure in study? That question came from Natalie Avalos, and it’s such a fabulous question: What would you like to do? That is really the heart of the genre of manifesto—a vision for what we ought to be able to do. If you don’t find pleasure in your work, what are you doing? For me, pleasure in the work that I do is what leads me to insight. It’s not that the philological tools don’t help—they do. But without the pleasure of human connection, what’s the point? Thinking together with students and colleagues and friends allows me to explore how whatever I’m studying opens up to broader human questions.
One of the things that my mentor, Charlie Hallisey, taught me was always to be asking the “So what?” question: Why does this matter? I think pleasure is one of the ways that that question gets answered. It’s not the only way—academic research can matter for the sake of justice, for the sake of critiquing the past and the present, or for many other reasons. There are so many resources within Buddhist studies for addressing current questions and problems. Pleasure can serve as a guide, though certainly anger also helps.
Any hopes for the future of this project? From its inception, this project has been collaborative in nature, and we plan for it to remain that way. It’s open to whoever wants to contribute, and there’s a lot of interest and excitement—about 130 people attended the roundtable at the American Academy of Religion last week, and I had never been to an AAR panel with so many attendees. It does feel like a shift is happening. It’s exciting. I hope that this project will help give that shift capacity, and I hope that people will continue to share their manifestos, knowing that there’s an audience for them.