Fellow scholars deliver affectionate tribute to Gregory Schopen

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

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, and was cosponsored by UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies (CBS) and the department of Asian languages and cultures. The event featured a “Who’s Who” of prominent scholars of Buddhism and religious studies who took turns commending his meticulous research, reminiscing and gently teasing him about his love of basketball, colorful ties and calligraphic handwriting.

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 and former Ph.D. student of Schopen, organized and hosted the tribute.

Noted Clarke, “Much like the Buddha himself, Professor Schopen has had an itinerant teaching career and our speakers are all graduates of, or colleagues from, a number of the institutions where Professor Schopen has taught over the last four decades.”


The scholarship of Gregory Schopen focuses chiefly on Indian Buddhist monastic life and early Mahāyāna movements in the first few centuries of the common era. As Dan Boucher of Cornell University remarked, “By bringing the Buddha down back to earth, Gregory has made things very messy for us. 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."

The now emeritus UCLA professor earned a B.A. from Black Hills State College (South Dakota), M.A. from McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) and Ph.D. from the Australian National University (Canberra). His teaching career began at the University Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he was hired by the noted Buddhist scholar Luis Gómez. Schopen went on to teach at the University of Washington and Indiana University before joining the UCLA faculty. He has also been a guest professor at numerous universities, including most recently, Brown.

Over the course of his career, Schopen trained many graduate students, chaired the department of Asian languages and cultures, won a MacArthur Fellowship (1985, only six years after he completed his Ph.D.) and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2015). He has authored a great number of scholarly journal articles, no small number of which have sparked ongoing debates since they were published and remain essential reading for students and scholars alike.

Schopen's 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).

A new view of monastic life

“In studying Indian Buddhism,” said Shayne Clarke, “Professor Schopen insists that one cannot rely on published scholarly and, as is often the case, not-so-scholarly editions of Sanskrit texts. But rather, one must always refer to the extant manuscripts directly.

“[His] numerous studies of the rich and still relatively unexplored terrain of Buddhist monastic law codes have,” continued Clarke, “made us entirely re-envision the religious and non-religious lives of Indian Buddhist monks and nuns and by extension, our understanding of the religious life — what it meant to be Buddhist, what it meant to be non-Buddhist, and even human, in India in the first few centuries of the common era and beyond.

“Many of his groundbreaking articles have been based on a combination of a close reading of not one, but two or more diverse bodies of evidence: Indian inscriptions, archeological reports and the art historical record — all of which he places into meaningful conversation with texts, using one to shed light on the other,” observed Clarke.

“On countless occasions, both in print and at public lectures, 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,” Clarke remarked.

“Professor Schopen,” he added, “has taught us not only to consider the received form in which canonical texts have come down to us, but the history of their redactions. What was included and, perhaps more importantly, what was excluded and why.”

Reframing the origins of Mahayana thought

Dan Boucher, associate professor of religious studies at Cornell University — who did his M.A. under Schopen at Indiana University — remarked that Schopen’s early article on the Mahayana school* “immediately reframed our discussions about the social organization of the early Bodhisattva fraternities and their relationship to their mainstream brethren.

“Schopen revealed that not only was the Mahayana a monastic movement, but many of the loose strands of the Bodhisattva confederation were more reactionary than first thought,” added Boucher. “It was not a lay organization asserting itself against monastic elitism.”

Schopen’s lesson, said Boucher, is that “we will never understand the sharp critiques of monastic behavior in Mahayana texts if we don't understand the monastic milieu their authors were living in and reacting to. The Mahayanists saw current practices as a dereliction of monastic duty.

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

On a personal level, he had learned the value of broad comparative reading from Schopen. “He knew far better than most in Buddhist studies that other fields often have more methodologically mature and self-reflective understandings of what they're up to,” he remarked. “Thus his library has long been full of books on the cult of the saints in late antique Christianity, on medieval European economies of merit, on Chinese prefectorial rights and on Hindu scriptures ritually venerated in private homes.”

The use of visual culture

“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. “Gregory often examines what objects reveal in contrast to what the evidence suggests from texts.”

Using archaeological evidence such as inscriptions, reports of site excavations and architectural descriptions, Brown said that Schopen rethought the conclusions of previous scholars who had relied on doctrinal texts alone. The argument for Schopen’s approach, explained 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.”

Using this approach, Schopen reach a number of new conclusions, remarked Brown, such as the transference of merit appeared early in Buddhism and was not a Mahayana development; the call to worship the Buddha image was largely a monastic, not lay, concern; the stupa cult was developed by monastic practitioners, not the laity; and monks were involved in the funeral ritual for fellow monastics.

“Part of the strength of Gregory's argument is in the thoroughness of the evidence presented, but the arguments are given further validity by Gregory’s refusal to overstate his case,” he added. For the art historian, Schopen’s work has shed crucial light on the strategies that Indian Buddhism created to enable the presence of the Buddha to be made manifest.

“It is the Buddha’s bodily presence that is of importance and that the worshipper addresses,” he said. “The central conundrum of the Buddha's humanity and ultimate disappearance has to be faced over and over, or to put it another way, the worshipper must address the Buddha as physically present even while knowing of his death.”

Changing historical scholarship on Indian religions

"Over his distinguished career, 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,” said Patrick Olivelle, professor of Sanskrit and Indian religions at the 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,” continued Olivelle. For example, he said, monks and nuns did not give up all material possessions, but commanded vast resources of land, money and even slaves, and made impressive donations.

Olivelle pointed out that “Buddhist commentarial traditions did not attempt, through theological and hermeneutical arguments, to reconcile the precepts and the practice. Within Hinduism, however, especially within the mainstream of Brahmanical tradition, such endeavors, anchored in a sophisticated legal hermeneutic, are central to the traditions of Mīmāṃsā and Dharmaśāstra.”

The scholar then presented a detailed analysis of how Brahamanical tradition reconciled the precept of ahimsa (not killing or injuring living beings) with the sacrificial killing required for rituals, killing in war and even the king’s hunt.

Rooting epigraphy — and texts — in context

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. Salomon reminisced about his scholarly collaborations with Schopen over the course of his career, teasingly asking audience members if they remembered previous forms of documentation such as carbon copies and pen-and-paper letters.

Prior to Schopen’s work, said Salomon, Indian epigraphy had been “narrow epigraphy — looking at the inscription and not looking back, both literally and figuratively, at its context. I think Gregory came along and kicked Indian epigraphy in the butt, woke it up and showed it how to do greater things.”

Schopen’s talent for putting inscriptions in context was first apparent in an early groundbreaking article** that “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,” said Salomon.

“It set the agenda for the philological and archaeological study of Indian Buddhism for an entire generation,” he added, noting that there was already a second generation of scholars pursuing such inquiry, with a third soon to come.

Humanizing Buddhism and the Buddha

Daniel S. Lopez, Jr., Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recounted that Schopen had changed the trajectory of his own career as a scholar. Prior to his exposure to Schopen’s research, Lopez said he had chiefly been “translating medieval Tibetan Buddhist philosophical texts into incomprehensible English.”

“[His] work caused me to understand that there was more to Buddhism than the Shastras, their commentaries, their sub-commentaries and their sub-sub-commentaries that were dissected in the best monasteries in Tibet where, truth be told, for the vast majority of monks, scholars and meditators were likely the butt of jokes and objects of ridicule,” remarked the scholar.

“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,” concluded Lopez.

“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.

Ideas for future research

Two speakers had ideas for projects that Schopen might pursue in retirement. Shayne Clarke recommended that, building on the work he has already done, Schopen write a new history of Indian Buddhism that might replace the classic of Étienne Lamotte, “History of Indian Buddhism” (1958). Patrick Orville, on the other hand, invited Schopen to examine whether and why the sibling traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism differ in their attempt to reconcile principles with practice.

Schopen, for his part, said that he would be avidly studying the book gifted to him by Orville — “Old Age, A Beginners’ Guide” — and writing annotations in the margins.

It was, perhaps, Richard Salomon who hit the truest note about Schopen’s retirement, citing a Sanskrit word that means “a man who has done what he was supposed to do.” Salomon then added, “But I hope you will continue to do a whole lot more.”

*“Revisiting the Phrase ‘sa pr̥thivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet’ and the Mahāyāna Cult of the Book,” Indo-Iranian Journal 50:2 (1975).
**“Mahayana and Indian Inscriptions,” Indo-Iranian Journal 21 (1979).

All photos by Peggy McInerny.

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

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Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2019