Sharing Scholarship - Transcript

Opener (00.00:02)


This is the Nordic Asia Podcast. 


Satoko Naito (00.00:09)                                                                                                    


Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Satoko Naito, I'm a docent at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku. Today I am excited to welcome Dr Albion Butters a scholar of the history of religion specializing in Tibetan Buddhism. He is the editor of Studia Orientalia Electronica as well as an editor for the Khyentse Vision Project, translating and archiving the works of 19th century Tibetan scholar Khyentse Wangpo. He is currently working on yet another project as an academy of Finland research fellow at the University of Turku. Dr. Butters has kindly joined us today to discuss his journal, Studia Orientalia Electronica, as well as his deep and varied academic, theological and professional expertise so thanks very much Albion for being with us today.


Albion Butters (00.01:02)


Thank you for having me.


Satoko Naito (00.01:04)


Can you first introduce listeners who may be unfamiliar with Studia Orientalia and Studia Orientalia Electronica?


Albion Butters (00.01:11)


Sure. The story begins more than a hundred years ago in 1917, so the year that Finland got its independence, the journal Studia Orientalia was initiated by the Finnish Oriental Society or the "Suomen Itämainen seura", at that time Oriental was an accepted term, and it had different remits, one being to popularize and raise awareness of things Eastern amongst the population of Finland more generally, but also academically publishing scientific articles, monographs, festschrifts for decades and decades. And it's really an amazing history. If anyone wants to read about it in Finnish. Professor Klaus Karttunen has written a book called "Vuosisata Aasiaa ja Afrikkaa" about the history of Studia Orientalia.


But to bring us up to the modern day and the electronic version of the journal. It was in 2013 that the editor of Studia Orientalia, Dr. Lotta Aunio, at the University of Helsinki, she's a university lecturer of Bantu languages, decided to create an online version of articles and leave the Studia Orientalia hard copy in print for monographs and longer volumes. So that decision was made and slowly it grew, until 2017 when she invited me to become the editor of Studia Orientalia Electronica while she maintained the position of editor of Studia Orientalia.


I can speak a little bit about the difference between the two more then that, in the sense that they are both open access in the sense that archives of Studia Orientalia are posted online, and available, so that's nice. But they go to libraries around the world, and you know, it fills a more traditional model of publication, whereas the electronic version is growing more in the digital space. Two years ago we got into the Directory of Open Access Journals, DOAJ, that was a nice accomplishment because it opened our international readership up even more.


Satoko Naito (00.03:43)


Yeah, speaking about international readership, and of course Open Access is always great for Scholars everywhere, well, can you clarify, so Studia Orientalia Electronica, of course based in Finland and you are the editor, but the articles are all or predominantly in English, is that right?


Albion Butters (00.04:01)


That's correct. Nowadays they really are. Studio Orientalia, decades ago, saw a lot of articles in German as well as Finnish, but nowadays yeah, Electronica really mostly publishes in English and it has a very wide scope of interest, ranging from the Far East to the subaltern: India, Tibet, then to the Middle East and then because of Lotta's personal interest, also including African studies.


Satoko Naito (00.04:32)


Okay, yeah that's a really broad scope. What do you see as the advantages of having such a wide scope?


Albion Butters (00.04:38)


Well I think really more than anything else is the ability of the journal to support scholars in their areas of interest and the readership has proven to be engaged in those different areas and our editorial board has experts from different universities, Finnish universities, with expertise in those different disciplines. So I think we are really able to get the peer reviewers necessary for the rigorous scientific publication across that range, so yeah.


Satoko Naito (00.05:12)


Okay, so you partly answered what I was going to ask next which was, well, coming from a place of amazement that you could handle being an editor of such a wide-ranging journal because I imagine that it's very difficult. I was looking through some of your past publications and there's... is it the most recent was about verbal morphologies, there was something about the Tatars, the ethnic religious minority in the Baltic region, but then there was also, this was not part of a special issue but, an article on modern Tibetan literature and that, I can just imagine how difficult it is to oversee editing a journal that incorporate such a wide range in disciplines and fields and methodologies.


Albion Butters (00.05:56)


It can be a challenge. It can be a challenge to find peer reviewers that are qualified but also able to do it. Especially during the COVID pandemic. Reviewers have become busier than ever, and at the same time our submissions have doubled as scholars are at home, but I would also add that it's really a team effort. We have different people able to advise on who the peer reviewers could be, and I'm joined in editing by Lotta and by Sari Nieminen who's focusing on layout and really the detail-oriented aspect, so it's in that way that it really has come to grow and achieve more and more success.


Satoko Naito (00.06:36)


Can you repeat that? did you say that the submissions have doubled since the pandemic?


Albion Butters (00.06:41)

At least. It's been a flood. Truthfully it's a bit overwhelming, and so it's a curse you don't mind having, because it shows that you are doing something right I guess, but it's also made us more rigorous in our review process.


Satoko Naito (00.06:56)


Right of course. As we mentioned, the articles are written in English. Are the submissions, just out of curiosity, are they from mostly Finnish based scholars and students?


Albion Butters (00.07:07)




Satoko Naito (00.07:08)




Albion Butters (00.07:09)


No, no. They were in the past more, but I think with the DOAJ it's becoming more and more international and another thing that is amazing to me, always surprising to me, is that we have submissions from experts in the field, from professors emeritus, and then also PhD students, the entire range.


Satoko Naito (00.07:29)


Yeah that's great. Have you noticed any other developments or changes just in the time that... Well, so you have been editing, I believe, is it five or six years, the journal, have you noticed...


Albion Butters (00.07:41)


Going on five years now, going on six.


Satoko Naito (00.07:43)


Okay, have you noticed any, well of course aside from this flood of submissions in the last couple of years, I'm again so fascinated by how large the scope is, I'm just wondering if you've noticed any trends or any differences in what kinds of papers you are being submitted or that are being submitted to you?


Albion Butters (00.08:04)


That's an interesting question. We do get a lot of different kinds and they fall in different categories. Some are very linguistically oriented, some are area studies, some are methodological in focus, so I would say that perhaps there's more of a push of submissions from Indian and Sanskrit studies in the last year or so, which is rewarding to me, personally because it relates to my own personal background and my own study of Sanskrit.


And at the same time it goes back to the core of, I think, what Studia Orientalia has been able to provide internationally in terms of the strength of the Finnish academic Community being very very learned in Sanskrit, being able to share that globally, so to continue that tradition feels like a very wonderful thing. And I can speak briefly to that, something that were working on right now, is finishing up the last of a series of conference proceedings from the 12th annual World Sanskrit Conference that was held in Helsinki all the way back in 2003 so...


Satoko Naito (00.09:13)


Ancient history!


Albion Butters (00.09:15)


Ancient history, but it was a very large conference, a very prestigious conference, and through the previous work of Professor Asko Parpola who is now emeritus, and Petteri Koskikallio, editors of the series, they were publishing different aspects of the conference, papers through the Indian publisher Motilal Banarsidass, And that, you know, was continuing along until suddenly it looked like it was no longer going to be possible and that was at which point I invited the series to be finished with Studia Orientalia. So last year we published the penultimate volume on the Puranas and Agamas and Tantras presented at the conference, and then the last one should be published late this year or early next year on poetry, so better late than never.


Satoko Naito (00.10:06)


So this is over twelve volumes in total, for the..


Albion Butters (00.10:11)


That's right. Over a dozen volumes, yeah.


Satoko Naito (00.10:13)


Right. I was of course joking about 2003 being ancient history, it feels just like yesterday to me. But speaking of history, I did want to go back a little bit, because I would love to learn more about the century plus history of Studia Orientalia and you already mentioned that there is a book, unfortunately for me written in Finnish, if I remember, it's something like "Hundred years of Asia and Africa", is that right? In Finnish.


Albion Butters (00.10:38)


B: That's right, yeah.


Satoko Naito (00.10:40)


And again for me it is unfortunate that I can't read it, but on the site for Studia Orientalia, I saw it was the day after the Declaration of Finnish Independence from Russia on December 6th 1917, so the day after, some scholars met to discuss establishing this Oriental research club. I was so fascinated at of course how quickly this happened and it makes me wonder if it's a counterpart to a similar Russian Society or is it an initiative that's somehow in defiance against the previous Russian rule, but I know that's of course, this is not your area of expertise, so hopefully one day I'll learn enough Finnish and read about that.


Albion Butters (00.11:18)


B: Me too, but I should add that there are photos in the book and it shows historical, you know, aspects of it, copies of it, stuff like that just from that side is interesting as well.


Satoko Naito (00.11:29)


S: Yeah sure. I'm glad you mentioned the photos. I can look at the photos! So, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to be editor of Studia Orientalia Electronica?


Albion Butters (00.11:40)


Sure. It was before 2017, few years before, and I co-edited a festschrift to Klaus Karttunen with Bertil Tikkanen. It was one of the volumes published in Studia Orientalia, so I think it was through doing language revision and working on that that Lotta had me in mind for taking on the electronic version. But maybe it goes back also to the fact that I was at the 2003 conference in Helsinki and I've presented and I've met some of the scholars of Sanskrit then, so it felt a natural thing to join that community, even if these days it's not so much physically based in an actual department, but more around a journal. But going back before that I guess I should say that I did have an academic background in Sanskrit and Tibetan


I originally was inspired to study Tibetan Buddhism when I met different Tibetan Lamas in California in the late 80s and that gave me a taste, so to speak, of the Dharma and I applied to Harvard Divinity School and got in there and really was able to begin studying Buddhism on an academic level; both languages classical Tibetan language and Sanskrit, but also Buddhism itself with amazing professors like Michael Aris and Masatoshi Nagatomi, and that led to, after graduating with my Master's, a trip to India to really see Buddhism on the ground and what was it outside of the books, and then that led to a few years living in Dharma community in California, studying with one of the Lamas that I had met years before, and then that led to me being accepted at Columbia to do my dissertation under Robert Thurman, who is an amazing scholar and I couldn't recommend more highly in terms of anybody interested in Buddhism because of his revolutionary way of making it accessible to the Western readers.


And so it was really there at Columbia that I saw a, how would you say, a nexus point between my own personal love and interest and appreciation of Buddhism as a path, but also the scholarly tradition that it's part of not just in the West but dating all the way back to India, and through Tibet. So yeah, it was actually perhaps because I had been studying Buddhism directly that I was accepted because what Robert Thurman himself was the first Westerner to become an ordained monk in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama, studying with him in the 60s. So that combination I think was something that he appreciated and it's, I think an important one to understand and to bring certain aspects of Buddhism to students to teach it in a way as an insider, and even though there may be critiques in academia about being too much of an insider, certainly people have levied those criticisms against different Tibetan Scholars, it's important to note perhaps that in Buddhism itself, in Tibet particularly, Buddhists don't describe themselves as Buddhist, they describe themselves as Insiders. They describe themselves as nang pa, as within, within Buddhism, so I feel like that's an important tradition to uphold as well.


Satoko Naito (00.15:28)


Right. You studied with Robert Thurman, who of course has written widely not just for academic audiences but in a way that's accessible to the public at large, which has been tremendous, and you mentioned before that he established or founded the Tibet House US, is that right?


Albion Butters (00.15:46)


That's right.


Satoko Naito (00.15:47)


Right, so he's done a lot of work not just to deepen understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, but to also allow for more people to access its teachings. So I wanted to go back a little bit, you did mention maybe a sort of tension between academics and I'm not sure if I'm using the term correctly, but religious practitioners or people who are studying Buddhism spiritually versus those who may be approaching it from an academic or more academic perspective and of course many, like yourself, do both. Do you find in yourself any sort of need to reconcile those two aspects or do you find them to work fairly seamlessly?


Albion Butters (00.16:34)


Great question. Well, I think Buddhism is a bit of a special case. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the study of Religion as a discipline over the last decades there has been an increasing move I would say towards more scientific thought and critical thought asking what is religion deconstructing it trying to understand if there even is such a thing as religion or what makes it up. So for then someone to come along and say that it's important to be religious in order to teach it properly goes a bit against the grain, you know right, so they're different strands of the study of religion. Myself, I took my degree in history of religion, which I have as a nice escape out of that debate, because history is history, but in terms of my own feeling that it is important to have an understanding from the inside is based on a couple things.


One is that Buddhism deals with the Truth, right, and so. Because illusion is fundamentally tricky and Truth is pretty hard to actually get at there are a lot of nuances that need to be understood along the way, so receiving teachings from somebody within their tradition is really important, and also trying to inculcate an understanding of what the different states of mind might be, you know, talked about in a text et cetera. I can't say that I've achieved those, but it doesn't hurt to try to understand them, right, at a deeper level, than just reading in a book.


So the second thing is that Buddhism can be very full of ritual and folk religion type elements, and at the same time it can be very very scientific. And one sees this for example in the emphasis of the current Dalai Lama, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. He really tries to have a critical approach toward the teachings, the tradition that he upholds and really loves, saying that if there's something that doesn't fit then, well, that has to go. So he has entered into dialogue with Western scientists for example, number of different conferences and they've had both theoretical discussions but also very practical discussions about, for example meditation and cognitive science, brainwave studies, one could focus for example on the work done by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison...


This is for decades now, and then not just the Dalai Lama, but different practitioners have gone and you know been hooked up to electrodes and scientifically measured and, so you know, there's a very very, how would you say, analytical aspect of Buddhism that lends itself to personal examination without going as far as just buying into something theologically speaking.


Satoko Naito (00.19:49)


I see. So at least an attempt at personal but objective observation, or I'm not sure if objective is such a good word to use here but...


Albion Butters (00.19:57)


Well it is. It is, because what's the crux between objective and subjective? At certain point the I falls away. That's the whole point of Buddhism. It's getting beyond the ego and the perception of yourself as separate from the, well, rest of everything out there.


Satoko Naito (00.20:13)


We spoke before this recording so I'm sorry if you mentioned this then or now but you had said something about suspicions of academics being ego-driven, that some relations practitioners have this suspicion, and I'm not sure if you have personally been told this to your face but what do you make of such accusations?


Albion Butters (00.20:33)


I think that there is a basis for academics being egotistical and opinionated and stubborn and not always nice in their argumentation, right? I think that's not a matter of debate. So for Buddhist teachers to look at somebody who's studying the tradition and writing a book and how many, you know, what's the JUFO rating and you know how many copies are going to get disseminated and how many, you know quotes or citations... you know, they have a point, right? That's not what Buddhism is about.


On the other hand, I think that there is a responsibility to work within the academic frame and not just give it up and go sit in a cave right after you get your PhD and I mean, I have to confess that I did that for a bit because I finished my translation of the 14th century Tibetan work the Grub mtha' mdzod, and I offered it to the teacher and he looked at it, and you know, he appreciated it, and at the same time he said "Hey, you could have just, you know, brought me a nice bottle of wine as an offering." Right? So like, "Don't get hung up. You think that you did something really really big here, so you know, hey, let's deconstruct that a little bit." So I took that not in a bad way, actually but it deconstructed it pretty strongly for me and I thought okay, well why do I need to play this academic game and you know, my advisor, he said "Boy, you think being a graduate student is though, try working in a religion department." And he was right. It's not easy. So I cooled my heels for a while on academia and took a break. But now I'm back.


Satoko Naito (00.22:20)


Now you are back. And I was just thinking that you know of course there is a lot of ego, and I don't mean just that people are narcissistic who are academics, but there is something about studying objects as a scholar that puts a lot of emphasis on the mind of the self that's working to somehow excavate and extricate ideas and truths, but at the same time I was just thinking that one of the great things that can happen is that you as an academic can teach younger scholars such as you have yourself at the University of Turku and elsewhere right?


Albion Butters (00.22:57)


That's right.


Satoko Naito (00.22:58)


You have, not now, but you have in the past taught here.


Albion Butters (00.23:01)

That's right, and that's really really exciting. I mean to feel the sense of aliveness and the relevance. I mean why did I choose this field? To me it doesn't matter that it's from the 14th Century the work that I translated. The technology is as relevant as ever.


Satoko Naito (00.23:30)


Can you say a little bit about your experiences teaching? I'm just curious because I also I'm at the University of Turku.


Albion Butters (00.23:37)


Well, I find the students to be fun and cool, you know, in a way that it's like they're happy to slide into a conversation without it being necessarily a formal thing, and that organic type of dialogue leads to, I think, less hierarchical and more profitable type of relationship pedagogically, so it's been satisfying and I really look forward to teaching at the university there more.


Satoko Naito (00.23:59)


I'm so pleased to hear your opinion of the students, and I'm sure the university would too. What were these courses that you taught?


Albion Butters (00.24:06)


Well, I taught traditional history of Buddhism focusing for example, one on India and Tibet historically, then I focused on a more general Asian context looking also at Japan and China, Mongolia. I have a special appreciation for Mongolian history in that aspect so that was really fun to share. And then, this was when Professor Veikko Anttonen was chair of the department there, that he asked that why don't you teach something that bridges the gap from the historical to the contemporary and see what the lived Buddhism is today?


So I did a course on that, and that for example included a field trip to a Vietnamese monastery outside of Turku, and they had an exhibition of the Buddhist relics, and not just the Buddhist relics but we are talking bones and hair like relics from masters, Indian and Tibetan, mostly Tibetan probably, spanning centuries and that was, you know, really an incredible thing to do, because then you are bringing the students in the direct contact with something that's very real for the practitioners but it's also in this day and age but it's also historically linked.


Satoko Naito (00.25:24)


Yeah, that must have been a really terrific experience for the students. This makes me wonder. I'm sure that compared to some place like California and elsewhere that there will be fewer Dharma centers and elsewhere where you could study Buddhism here, Tibetan Buddhism especially. What kind of access do people here have?


Albion Butters (00.25:45)


There are Dharma centers and teachers in Finland. There have been some amazing teachers visiting. The Dalai Lama visited some years back and filled up, you know, an entire auditorium, as one might expect and then in a much smaller venue you had the head of the Sakya tradition, Sakya Trizin visit, and give a very intimate type of teaching and empowerment. So those are examples of teachers that have come of the highest caliber. But then within Finland itself there are different organizations. You have the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana for example, you have the FPMT, And then I have received teachings, for example, with Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche, he is a Nyingma Tibetan Lama living here in Finland, so there are teachers that students or those who are just interested in Buddhism could find.


Satoko Naito (00.26:41)


Yeah, thank you so much. This has been a really fun conversation to have. I mentioned at the very beginning briefly that you are an editor for the Khyentse Vision Project which translates and archives the massive corpus of works of nineteenth-century Tibetan scholar, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and I've asked you to promise to come back when you're ready to talk about your work with that project, so I'm really looking forward to welcoming you back to yet another episode in the coming months.


Albion Butters (00.27:13)


I look forward to it.


Satoko Naito (00.27:14)


Thank you so much that was again religious historian, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Dr Albion Butters. And to our listeners thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration and study in Asia. Thank you. 


Closer (00.27:31)


You have been listening to the Nordic Asia Podcast.