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Buddhist Studies - Our Students

PhD projects

Alexander Graf (PhD candidate Transcultural Studies):

Tibetan indigenous grammar: An examination of its grammatical and philosophical foundation in Indian vyākaraṇa and Buddhism based on Si tu Paṇchen’s Great Commentary

Abstract:

The appropriation of Indian Buddhism in Tibet, which evoked a period of most intensive cultural transfer to the Land of Snow lasting for several centuries (approx. 7th to 13th centuries, including intermissions), entailed a vast amount of knowledge not directly associated with the Buddhist doctrine, e.g. literature, art, astrology, etc. One section in this transmission was a considerable corpus of Sanskrit grammatical literature (vyākaraṇa, lung du ston pa), which has not only been translated and incorporated into the Bstan ’gyur of the Tibetan canon, but also formed the basis for the development of an “indigenous” tradition dealing with Tibetan grammar. The translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit naturally necessitated the involvement of Sanskrit grammar, but the adoption of this very system for a description of their own language was by no means mandatory, particularly as the two languages are of very different structures.

But Indian vyākaraṇa has not been the only source for the Tibetan grammarians; additionally, a recognizable integration of Buddhist linguistic concepts occurred. Out of these Indian sources a rich and heterogeneous tradition of Tibetan “indigenous” grammar emerged, which, according to native history, has its very beginning in Thon mi Sambhoṭa (7th century), the alleged author of the two most fundamental grammatical treatises, the Sum cu pa (SCP) and the Rtags kyi ’jug pa (TKJ; authorship and historicity of Thon mi Sambhoṭa are highly questionable). The texts are written in Sūtra-style, which terse and cryptic form often impedes their comprehension and thus evoked a vast corpus of commentarial literature. This genre of Tibetan literature certainly reaches its climax in Si tu Paṇchen Chos kyi byung gnas (1699/1700 – 1774) and his so-called “Great Commentary”. Si tu Paṇchen, being one of the greatest scholars and Sanskrit experts in Tibet, who himself travelled to Nepal to search for Sanskrit manuscripts, still remains the main authority regarding the interpretation of SCP and TKJ. Therefore, the tradition itself speaks of a pre- and post-Si tu era in Tibetan grammar. It is for these reasons that the Great Commentary forms the basis of this dissertation for the examination of the transcultural dynamics between India and Tibet that shaped Tibetan grammar.

The main objective of the study is to trace precisely how Tibetan grammarians up to Si tu combined and, in the process, reshaped bodies of linguistic and language-related knowledge (Sanskrit grammarians, Buddhist views on language), as well as to scrutinize the taxonomies and principles of categorization they used.

The centerpiece is a translation of major parts of Si tu’s “Great Commentary” and an accompanying study, which places this text in the center of an inquiry structured along these lines.

Tibetan grammar is a complex system of different interdependent topics such as morphology, phonetics, orthography, semantics etc. The scope of the study will be restricted to the syntax, while the other parts are more of a subsidiary interest. The syntax includes all the syntactical particles, case grammar, as well as the Tibetan “indigenous” verb classification (tha dad min).

Anna Sawerthal (PhD candidate Transcultural Studies)

Bringing the World to Tibet: Babu Tharchin and his Tibetan Newspaper Melong

Abstract:

From 1925 to 1963, the first long-running Tibetan language newspaper, the Yul phyogs so so’i gsar 'gyur me long (in short: Melong) was published in Kalimpong, Northern India. This highly acclaimed monthly newspaper has been characterized in manifold ways: as a Christian newspaper, a pro-British newspaper, a Tibetan nationalist newspaper, or a drive of modernization for the Tibetan world, to name a few.

Kalimpong, situated just off the border of Tibet and at the fringes of British India (and later independent India), was located at the periphery of empires. Yet, with the most important trade route between India and Tibet running through it, it emerged as a center of trade and a highly diverse place of cross-cultural encounters. Brought about by over-arching economic and political developments, British colonial officers met Tibetan scholars, Western Christian missionaries, Bhutanese royalty, Tibetan traders and so forth. In short, it was a place where traditional explanatory categories of cultural encounter fall short. The editor of the Tibetan language newspaper, Babu Tharchin, was an ethnical Tibetan from the borderlands. He was brought up by Christian missionaries, had strong contacts with the British government, but also firm interest in his Tibetan roots. Tharchin recognized the journalistic opportunity of the trade route going from Kolkata to Lhasa and started to publish the Melong, which was henceforth monthly distributed into Tibet. Under diverse influences the Melong was published with a British role model in mind, influenced by the striving Bengali press of its time, adapting it to the Tibetan context. It was a newspaper for a “Tibet”, as Tharchin and his co-workers imagined it.

This project wants to trace the diverse influences on creating a newspaper for Tibet. What kind of journalism was conducted in the Melong? How was journalism conceptualized for a “Tibetan” audience? How was this audience imagined? How has the Melong’s understanding of journalism changed over the course of its 38-year-long history? How do these changes of the understanding of journalism reflect on one hand the radical political upheavals and historical processes of that time, and, on the other hand, life in the contact zone Kalimpong? Influences are being traced a) in the making of the newspaper and b) in its content, by going beyond studying the manifest contents of the paper, but contextualizing it into the production process of newspaper-making, based on historical material of the Tharchin Collection (http://library.columbia.edu/locations/eastasian/special_collections/tibetan-rare-books---special-collections/tharchin.html) and the newspaper material itself.

Master projects

Pei-Lin Chiou (MA Classical Indology)

On the Analytical Aspect of Buddhist Meditation Practice – A Survey based on Kamalaśīla’s three Bhāvanākramas

Abstract:

As a Mahāyānistic master who followed the Madhyamaka school taking the teaching of emptiness (śūnyatā) as the ultimate truth, Kamalaśīla has shown in his three Bhāvanākramas his ambition to develop a theory of meditation practice which aims at the realization of emptiness. There he laid out his theory embedded in the traditional structure of Buddhist meditation practice consisting of calm abiding (śamatha) and analytical insight (vipaśyanā), but gave an account of the latter which is distinct from those appearing in e.g. Buddhagosha’s Visuddhimagga and Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa because of its description of the analytic process. In his account, he points out that emptiness can only be realized through a sequence of meditative analytical examination, proceeding from the examination of an outer material substance to the examination of the inner mind. And it is through this kind of examination, according to Kamalaśīla, that the mind can withdraw from its object, cease to form conceptualization, and thus reach the non-conceptual and non-dual state, viz. the cognition of emptiness. In this regard, Kamalaśīla’s account of the practice of analytical insight is not a simple manual of the practice, but rather contains much of his view on the question of how one can realize emptiness, a state characterized by being free of conception, through conceptual analysis employed in the meditation practice of analytical insight. Moreover, his account contains his understanding of the transformation of the mind occurring in this practice. Despite their importance, these two points have not yet been studied in detail by scholars.

My thesis will thus treat this gap by focusing on Kamalaśīla’s account of the practice of analytical insight in his Bhāvanākramas. The aim of the work is to produce a critical edition as well as a German translation of the sections from the three Bhāvanākramas where the practice of analytical insight and its results are accounted for, and to provide a study to these sections.

Magdalena Schüßler (MA Tanscultural Studies)

Morale or politics? Buddhist monks' political activism in Cambodia on the background of global human rights discourses

Abstract

From the very beginning, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the object of intense debate, evolving around the question whether human rights were to be seen as universal. One key argument on both sides of the debate were the alleged origins of the ideas behind human rights. Those arguing against the universality of human rights continue to point to the “Western“ roots of the concept. On the other hand, defending the universal character of human rights, scholars have tried to “prove“ that these rights can indeed be found – if in embryonic form – in non-Western contexts, more particularly in the major philosophical and religious traditions. Thus, a lot of scholars have also tried to establish links between human rights on the one hand and Buddhist teachings on the other.
However, this rather abstract approach is to my mind not fully equipped to further an understanding of the complex mechanisms between the Buddhist sangha and human rights in theory and practice for example in Cambodia.
For this reason, my thesis will localize the discourse about human rights and Buddhism and focus on individual actors, mostly situated in the country's capital Phnom Penh. Thereby, I hope to show that Buddhist monks who engage in political causes, join anti-government demonstrations or work together with local activist-organisations, mostly link themselves directly and implicitly to global human rights discourses. They do this not only to gain international attendance and support but also to protect their Buddhist authority from too close a connection with the profane political business.
That is why I will examine the performative aspects of these monk's political activism, their ways of staging and framing their claims and convictions. For my analysis I will take into account exemplary speeches, interviews, videos and photographs. Additionally, I will fuse these performance-analyses with models of cultural brokerage to further conceptualize the “role” of the engaged monks in Cambodia.

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