Aleix Ruiz-Falqués (his blog is here) studies (in Cambridge) Pāli Grammatical Literature written in Burma. He is an engaged scholar and one who is not shy to get involved in controversies about ideas. You can read the first part of this interview here. This time I will be asking him more general (and more provocative) questions.
EF: In some of your posts (see here and here), you seem to be quite sceptical about Anthropology as applied to Buddhism (i.e., you seem to share the textual-based approach you described in the first part of your interview). You also exhibited some scepticism concerning comparative philosophy and comparatism in general. How do you see interactions with people outside your field? Are they still possible, these premisses notwithstanding?
ARF: I’m —more or less— a philologist. Thus, I don’t believe interdisciplinarity is something additional. It is part of the discipline, since you can’t do philology without history, etc. The problem I have with other disciplines, sometimes, is that they try to answer philological questions without philology and I think that’s not possible. One needs to read the texts.
For instance, I read some time ago about the idea of canon in Pāli. Some anthropologists have been disputing the fixed idea of canon meaning the Tipiṭaka as we know it. They claim that in some libraries in villages in Thailand you don’t find the whole orthodox canon but just parts of it, and then other texts that are not usually called canonical (some call them apocryphal). Now, all this information is really interesting, but it has nothing to do with the idea of canon in Pāli scholarship in Pāli, and I don’t know why some scholars are against accepting the fact that some ideas are fabricated by an élite and still that’s how they are. What the villagers do is not important at all.
EF: In my opinion, we are just talking about different things. Whenever I give a talk I tend to say at the beginning that I am not talking about the Veda as it is, but only with its intellectual reflection within the works of an intellectual élite.
ARF: Moreover, against those who consider Philosophy dead I maintain the opposite: Philosophy is the only thing alive.
EF: I cannot but agree. Saying that philosophy is dead is just part of a philosophical discussion. But then: if you cannot avoid asking philosophical questions, whence your hostility to using philosophy in the case of Buddhist studies?
ARF: Because I don’t think that there is “philosophy” but “philosophies” and they are mutually incompatible. Thus, I like “applying” the philosophy I consider correct and I dislike applying the philosophy I consider incorrect. I more or less follow the ideas of a Spanish philosopher called Gustavo Bueno, who says that Philosophy is a knowledge of second degree. Philosophy would be the critical analysis of previously received knowledge, preferably knowledge already systematized, but not necessarily so. There are many disciplines and sciences and the main job of philosophy is the critical analysis of what we know.
EF: Can’t this critical analysis (insofar as it is critical) be a shared enterprise? Why does it need to have only, say, Burma as its precinct of application?
ARF: It could be a shared enterprise, and in fact I believe it can only be such. If you want to say that I seemed to imply that I don’t need comparisons to study Burma, well, I know that’s not true.
We all need to compare. My problem with comparative studies is different, it has to do with the logic behind it, the aims of this research and its results, which seem to me very dubious most of the time. For instance, I talk to a friend about Buddhist monasticism and the friend says “Oh, yes, that happened in Europe as well…” and he gives me the Rule of Saint Benedict. Now, I think that’s a perfectly good topic of research, but the sheer comparison, trying simply to point out similarities as if they meant something in themselves, this I think is pointless.
EF: Well, I would say that sheer comparison (A is found also in context B) is non interesting because it is plainly descriptive. In other words: everything descriptive is uninteresting. I am also terribly bored by articles about history of art if they say things like “this sculpture represents a naked woman holding an arch”.
ARF: I totally agree! My favourite target is “Buddhism and Science” (“What Kant said was already realized by Lord Buddha”…).
EF: I know this questions scares many. Do you have an overall idea of what you want to achieve within your research area? Are there priorities in your work or do you let yourself be driven by your interests of the moment?
ARF: I think I know (but then I might change my mind), but yes, right now I have a crystal clear idea of what I would do. I would like to study Pāli literature written in Burma and Theravāda Buddhism in Burma, from a historical perspective. There is far too much for one person, thus drop me a line if you are interested.
As far as I am concerned, I’ll be happy if I could do these two things before I die:
- critical edition of Kaccāyanasuttaniddesa
- A study of Ariyavaṃsa and his Abhidhamma commentary Maṇisāramañjūsā
EF: Did you obtain a scholarship to study in the UK? Has it been difficult? What did you do ”right” (I am asking so that someone else might copy you)?
ARF: I knew from a friend that there were some scholarships offered by one of the most powerful financial institutions in Spain, which has a sort of Fund for social work, scholarships, etc. They give yearly 20 scholarships for Masters and PhDs. Thus, I applied for a scholarship to study abroad and I got it, probably because they wanted to be sure that the person they give the scholarship to is passionate about his/her topic. It is probably the most effective way to know that s/he will not give up. Thus, I was lucky.
EF: You have been studying in Spain, India, UK and have been researching in Burma. What would you recommend to younger colleagues?
ARF: It depends on the case. In my case, to tell you the truth, I went to India because I didn’t know how to manage in Europe. But then, the approach in Pune University was very much plunging into the texts, and in case of doubt, reading a Sanskrit commentary, forget about English secondary literature. And I really liked that! Therefore, I would recommend to know the methods of every place beforehand and choose the method which is more suitable to one’s own temper and interests. I prefer reading the sources.
What would you recommend?