Fellow scholars deliver affectionate tribute to Gregory Schopen

Buddhist scholar Gregory Schopen. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Fellow scholars deliver affectionate tribute to Gregory Schopen

Gregory Schopen, a groundbreaking scholar of early Indian Buddhism, retired from UCLA at the end of June after 20 years at the university.

UCLA International Institute, July 10, 2019Gregory Schopen, distinguished professor of Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies in the department of Asian languages and cultures, retired from UCLA at the end of June 2019 after 20 years at the university. Prior to his departure, fellow Buddhist scholars — including peers and many former students — gathered to celebrate his many contributions to Buddhist Studies.

“Schopen Matters: Reflections on and Appreciations of the Scholarship of Gregory Schopen” took place May 17, 2019. Cosponsored by UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies (CBS) and the department of Asian languages and cultures, the event was organized and hosted by Robert Buswell, distinguished scholar of Buddhist Studies and CBS director, and Shayne Clarke (UCLA Ph.D. 2006), associate professor of religious studies at McMaster University in Canada.

The scholarship of Gregory Schopen focuses chiefly on ancient Indian Buddhist monastic life and early Mahāyāna movements. His collected articles have been assembled in a four-volume series sponsored by the University of Michigan and published by the University of Hawai'i Press: “Buddhist Nuns, Monks and Other Worldly Matters” (2014); “Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India” (2005); “Buddhist Monks and Business Matters” (2004); and “Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks” (1999).

Over the course of his career, Schopen was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of Washington and UCLA; won a MacArthur Fellowship (1985); and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2015).

Schopen (far right) with peers and a former student.

A career of assumption-destroying research

Speakers at the May 17 event celebrated how Schopen’s painstaking scholarship integrates close contextual study of original texts, particularly the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya, with detailed analysis of Indian Buddhist inscriptions, Buddhist art and archeological findings.

“By bringing the Buddha down back to earth, Gregory has made things very messy for us,” remarked Dan Boucher, associate professor of religious studies at Cornell University. “But it is precisely in this messiness that we find the texture of lived religious traditions. And for this, students of Buddhism for generations to come have much to thank Gregory Schopen for.

“[He] taught us that normative texts can be used to actually think about Buddhist practice, but only if we know what we're looking for,” added Boucher, “We must sensitize ourselves to the material conditions of their production: to the social, political and economic forces that impinged upon them.

In particular, noted Boucher, Schopen revealed that the Mahayana was a monastic movement, “not a lay organization asserting itself against monastic elitism,” a movement that “saw current practices as a dereliction of monastic duty.”

“Professor Schopen’s numerous studies of the rich and still relatively unexplored terrain of Buddhist monastic law codes have made us entirely re-envision the religious and non-religious lives of Indian Buddhist monks and nuns,” remarked Shayne Clarke, “and by extension, our understanding of the religious life…in India in the first few centuries of the common era and beyond.

“On countless occasions, both in print and at public lectures,” continued Clarke, “Professor Schopen has taken previous generations’ romanticized notions of what it meant to be a Buddhist monk or nun in India and convincingly demonstrated that these ideas were certainly not shared by the authors or redactors of Buddhist legal codes, the authors of Buddhism as we know it, if you like — the monks who quite literally wrote the rules.”

“One way that Gregory has shifted our understanding of South Asian Buddhism was by his use of visual culture as evidence for what Buddhists — monks, laymen and women — practiced,” said Robert Brown, professor of Indian and Southeast Asian art at UCLA.

The argument for Schopen’s use of archaeological evidence such as inscriptions, reports of site excavations and architectural descriptions, said Brown, “is that archaeological remains record moments of a lived process that can better indicate an individual’s goals and desires than would a word text, [which] can express an individual's idealized, and often edited and imagined, constructions of reality.”

“Gregory Schopen has not just revolutionized the field of Buddhist studies, especially the history of ancient Indian Buddhism, but also influenced more broadly the practice of historical scholarship pertaining to the religions and cultures of ancient India,” commented Patrick Olivelle, professor of Sanskrit and Indian religions at University of Texas, Austin.

“One thing Greogry has taught us, even in his earliest writings, is that the on-the-ground reality of Buddhism, especially the life and activities of Buddhist monks and nuns, was far different from what is portrayed in Buddhist normative texts,” added Olivelle. For example, he noted, monks and nuns did not give up all material possessions, but commanded vast resources of land, money and even slaves, and made impressive donations.

By promoting the study of the relation between Indian inscriptions and canonical Buddhist texts, Schopen begun what has since become a major field of study, said Richard Salomon, William P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington. “I think Gregory came along and kicked Indian epigraphy in the butt, woke it up and showed it how to do greater things,” he commented.

Even Schopen’s earliest work, said Salomon, “opened the door to looking at Indian Buddhism through epigraphic archaeological and philological approaches, which Gregory combines in a way that nobody else does, past, present or probably future.”

Daniel S. Lopez, Jr., Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, concluded, “Gregory Schopen has transformed our understanding of Buddhism more than any other scholar over the past half-century, not just in North America, but in the world.

“He's done that on his own terms, working mostly on a single text [Mulasarvastivada Vinaya] — admittedly, a large one — offering insights with great precision, written in his beautiful handwriting and elegant prose. I hate to say it, but it's true,” he continued. “And contrary to how it is often characterized, Gregory's project is not to debunk, it is to humanize, perhaps to all too humanize.”

“His work is built on the foundation that this elusive category that we call Buddhism can be deeply appreciated without abandoning one's historical consciousness — that that historical consciousness is indeed central to its appreciation and to whatever insights we might derive from it,” remarked Lopez.

All photos by Peggy McInerny.

Watch Professor Schopen’s UCLA Faculty Research lecture, “The Buddha as a Businessman” (March 10, 2009).

Click here for a more extensive summary of the event.

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Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2019

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