Close ReadPosted by admin on 7/12/12 • Categorized as Summer 2012
How biographies of the Buddha have powerful lessons to teach that are, in some ways, not about the Buddha at all.
By Susan Kasten
Who was “the Buddha,” and why does it matter?
People across continents over thousands of years have answered the first part of this question in radically different ways.
Without a central authority or canon of sanctioned literature, people throughout time have freely imagined and reimagined the Buddha from countless perspectives and in many languages, resulting in a body of conflicting life stories.
These wildly varied accounts of the Buddha’s life can be found in ancient texts, modern stories, and sculptures and paintings—some believed to embody the Buddha’s power. They also form the central challenge for students in a course Natalie Gummer teaches at Beloit called the Biographies of the Buddha (and his Substitute Bodies).
The associate professor of religious studies explains how these narratives, emerging as they do from many cultural, historical, and linguistic contexts, “help us to understand how the stories people tell about the figures they revere are on some level stories about themselves and their own time and place.”
A literary and cultural historian of Buddhism, Gummer first created and taught a similar course as a tutorial at Harvard. She offered a refined version at Beloit most recently last fall.
“The central dynamic is about how we use stories and people and events of the past to interpret where we are,” Gummer says. “In a sense, it is about the historical transformation of a given narrative or person, using the Buddha as an example. How does the Buddha change? How do representations of his life change? How do ideas of even what a Buddha is change over time?”
Biographies of the Buddha is a special course designed to awaken students’ intellectual curiosity, especially during the first two years of college, as part of Beloit’s Initiatives Program. These optional courses are either based on a “transformational work” or an “enduring question” that has occupied communities over time, like the ambiguous figure of the Buddha.
Sitting beside her office bookshelf, dotted with Buddha statues in different visages and poses (most are gifts from students), Gummer talks about moving her class through a wide range of literature and selected works of art over the course of a semester. She starts with translations of early texts from South Asia around the 1st century BCE, and continues through sutras, chronicles, hagiographies, miracle tales, modern fiction, traditional biographies, contemporary stories, and figures and paintings, some of which are in the Wright Museum of Art’s collection.
Gummer says the process of analyzing and interpreting this range of material “gives people a way of looking at everything, not just Buddhist stories, but all texts in a certain analytic mode of trying to understand how they reflect the context of their production and how they create the context of their production, too, in some ways.”