2023 Visitorship Circular
Visitorship For Traditional Scholars
Our Visitorship scheme brings traditional Buddhist scholars to work with students at the University of Oxford. It has been running since 2011. A Visitor normally comes each year and stays for a single 8-week term, starting in January.
We write to explain the scheme and invite expressions of interest. Please let us know what you think.
BUDDHIST STUDIES AT OXFORD
Oxford people have studied Buddhist texts and social forms since the nineteenth century. In recent times, this work has mainly been undertaken in the Faculty of Middle Eastern and Asian Studies.
Here, Buddhist traditions are approached by way of language and textual studies. Buddhist literature offers a way to engage with Buddhist thought and practice, as well as with the historical development of the tradition and its contemporary role in Asian societies.
Students of pre-modern Buddhist traditions learn one or more of the classical languages (Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, etc) and read in the corresponding literatures. At the same time, they are trained in the methods of philosophy, historical research, social history, and/or anthropology, depending on their chosen area of study.
As we entered the 21st century, it seemed possible that Buddhist Studies might die out at Oxford. This prospect evoked a strong response.
As has been common in this decentralised, ancient University, a voluntary, charitable effort was crucial. The Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS) attracted support from the Numata Foundation and so raised funds for an endowed chair in Buddhist Studies.
The holder of the Numata Chair, Professor Stefano Zacchetti, has sadly just succumbed to the Corona virus. He specialised in early Chinese Buddhism, so the field of Chinese Buddhist Studies has developing strongly. Among the students currently engaged in Buddhist Studies, however, a significant number focus on Tibetan traditions.
The late Professor Michael Aris took the initiative in this area. His efforts led to the institution of a post in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, currently held by Professor Ulrike Roesler. Other academics also do research in Tibetan Buddhism, including Dr Robert Mayer and Dr Cathy Cantwell.
Work in Middle Eastern and Asian Studies has recently been concentrated on Central and East Asian Buddhism (in Tibetan and in Chinese). Oxford has, however, a distinguished tradition of Sanskrit and Pali scholarship, which the OCBS maintains.
Buddhism is studied in other areas of the University, too. These include:
- the Faculty of Theology and Religion,
- the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (where Professor David Gellner in is an authority on Japanese and particularly Nepali Buddhism) and
- the Faculty of Philosophy (where Professor Jan Westerhoff specialises in Madhyamaka).
Other scholars, often of world renown, regularly pass through. Not too long ago, Professor Harry Falk gave the Radhakrishnan lecture series at All Souls College, for instance.
Buddhist Studies activity is almost all in post-graduate teaching and research. Most of the students are doing doctoral degrees (DPhil) or two-year Master’s (MPhil) degrees.
The Tibetan Studies group varies in size between and 5 and 20 people. In Chinese Buddhism the equivalent figure is perhaps a dozen or so.
Private charities support the development of Buddhist Studies at Oxford.
- The OCBS promotes, supports and complements the work of the various Departments and Faculties where Buddhism is studied.
Housed in Wolfson College, it publishes a Journal, and offers lectures, library facilities and general assistance to all who are interested in Buddhism. It focuses on Oxford’s academic community but is also active more widely, undertaking University extension activities which are well-regarded across the world, particularly the online Pali courses under the aegis of Academic Director (and Board Chair) Professor Richard Gombrich.
- The OCBS has had a complicated history. It was originally a project of the Society for the Wider Understanding of the Buddhist Tradition (So-Wide) — as was the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC), incidentally.
- So-Wide is still active. It funds and organises this Visitorship.
Among those involved here are two long-time OCBS Trustees
- The Chair is Geoffrey Bamford, for many years Executive Director of both the OCBS and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC).
- The Venerable Khammai Dhammasami, incumbent of the Oxford Buddha Vihara (OBV) is a Trustee. Visitors stay at the OBV
- John Eskenazi, a major figure in the world of Buddhist art, has generously supported the Visitorship scheme.
VISITORSHIP FOR TRADITIONAL SCHOLARS
The So-Wide Visitorship for Traditional Scholars at the OCBS has operated since 2011. People trained in an institution of traditional Buddhist learning are invited to stay in Oxford, ideally for the 8 weeks of a University term, in order to interact with students, give talks, and hold reading groups. They also have opportunities both to pursue research of their own and/or to develop contacts outside the core academic environment.
Travel and subsistence are paid. Visitors join the community at the OBV.
The OBV is:
- an expression of Shan Theravada tradition;
- a Sangha that has always been open to visiting monastics from all Buddhist traditions;
- a presence in the University and the town of Oxford; and
- an international institution, which has for instance played an important role in the establishment and development of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU).
In the past, some Visitors have been senior teachers, with a distinguished record in traditional learning institutions and experience of interacting with the wider world. Others have been younger products of monastic education distinguished by their scholarship and cultural openness.
It is essential that Visitors be able and happy both to communicate in English and also to give classes to advanced students as well as talks to a more general public. It is desirable that Visitors be interested in exploring how Buddhist Studies scholarship works in the global academy, and in building bridges between traditional and academic learning environments.
How the Scheme operates
When a potential Visitor is identified:
- he or she:
- receives by email some reading material with an application form, and
- if the prospects look good, the next stage is a phone-call; and then
- if both sides are happy the potential Visitor’s name is added to the Waiting List.
When the potential Visitor’s name has come to the top of the Waiting List, an enquiry is sent out (6 months or so in advance) to check availability. All going well, an invitation is issued.
The support process then resumes, by email/telephone. It continues actively throughout the Visitor’s stay in the UK.
PLEASE LET US KNOW IF YOU ARE INTERESTED
Experience of the scheme has been overwhelmingly positive. Students have benefitted, and so have Visitors.
We should like to build up a list of possible candidates who might be interested in coming to Oxford sometime over the next few years. Hence this letter.
The aim is to enhance the collaboration between ourselves in Oxford and people like you in institutions from which Visitors may come. Would this be attractive for your institution?
If so, we would ask you to think of people who might come to Oxford as Visitors under this scheme over the next few years. We look forward to hearing from you.
As well as building up a pipeline of prospective Visitors, the intention is:
- to offer the institutions, from which our Visitors come, a more clearly defined role in the operation of the scheme;
- to extend the scheme to support students travelling to Asia as well as traditional scholars coming to the UK; and
- to invite wider participation at the UK end.
We look forward to discussing this with you further. If this may be of interest, please get in touch.
With regards and good wishes,
GM Bamford, Trustee
on behalf of So-Wide and the OCBS