What is a scholar-practitioner, from your perspective?
Scholar-practitioners who study religious traditions are typically individuals who simultaneously function with two systems of thinking, valuing, understanding, and interpreting the world around them. One system is grounded in a decidedly secular academic worldview, while the other tends to be grounded in a religious set of values and commitments. At the same time, participants in both systems use subjective preconceptions, paradigms, and approaches to the work they undertake. Those whose methods are exclusively academic are assumed to objectively pursue their work, whether it involves evaluating beliefs, concepts, stories, and doctrines or it investigates external forms, events, and practices. Although objectivity is, ideally, their goal, their work is primarily undertaken from an outsider’s perspective and approach to that which is being studied, and this clearly puts limits on what they can obtain and understand. Practitioners of the tradition or group being studied may look at all the same types of things as well, but they also have personal access to the beliefs and experiences of those within the tradition. Thus, they have the ability to study both external and internal elements in ways that those who are strictly academics do not.
Most scholar-practitioners start out in one system, either as scholars or as practitioners. At some point, they become interested in the other system, which leads to an affiliation and a personal investment in the second system or approach as well. In other words, they were either scholars who gradually became attracted to a particular religious tradition or practice to the point that they integrated it into their lives as practitioners, or they were practitioners of a tradition who for any of a variety of reasons decided to commit to a study of it from a scholarly perspective. In both cases, individuals have had to step outside the parameters of their initial identity and belief system in order to include a second identity and a second approach to understanding and interpreting their field of study and the reality in which they live. Irrespective of their starting point, scholar-practitioners have the potential to appreciate the beliefs, practices, and worldviews of their own religious traditions from an insider’s perspective, while simultaneously being able to evaluate these from an academic perspective.
What inspired you to study contemplative practices at an academic level?
I spent most of the first decade of my life in a poor neighborhood of Los Angeles. Poor people traditionally tend to be more religious, and that was the case where I lived. I was raised by my Italian Catholic mother and her immigrant father. Both were fairly illiterate, so I was pushed to learn to read and write from a very early age. My mother worked as a janitor at a nearby Catholic elementary school and was able to enroll me when I was five years old. In those days many Catholic families were expected to encourage at least one of their children to become either a priest or a nun. Having no father in the house at the time, I looked up to my grandfather but also to the priest at our school, wanting to follow in latter’s footsteps. I immersed myself in Church functions, became an altar boy, and envisioned my career path as a priest. Eventually, my father moved in with us, we left Los Angeles, and I could no longer attend Catholic school.
For a variety of reasons, I left home at the age of fifteen, and any connection I felt with the Church and Christianity (I was taught they were one and the same) ended at that point as well. Nevertheless, I continued to feel a need for God in my life and began to search for a non-Christian way of relating to the divine with which I could feel comfortable. Soon, both surfing and the Marine Corps exposed me to Hawai’i where I decided to plant roots. Along the way, I came across a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. As it did to many other young Americans in those days, the book had a tremendous affect on me. I then started reading Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Paul Reps, and others whose lives were devoted to various religious practices. I began to attempt a few different forms of concentration, which is now called “meditation” in the West. My reading led me to experimenting with fasting, silence, and a vegetarian diet. After several years, I left Hawai’i for Europe with the goal of hitchhiking to India.
On the way, I spent time in my family’s village in southern Italy and was exposed to a rural Italian style devotion that seduced me with its simple beauty. I found myself being drawn back to Francesco de Assisi, who had been the object of much of my devotion when I was in Catholic school. From Italy, I continued my journey, hitchhiking through Greece, then Turkey, then east until I arrived in India. I ended up in the Himalayas where I soon met a Hindu ascetic, to whom I was immediately attracted and from whom I took initiation as a sādhu (renunciant). It seemed to me like a natural next step and commitment to make and it began my monastic life. For the next 5 years or so, I lived mostly alone in various Himalaya cottages or in retreats in ashrams (similar to monasteries) in the forests and jungles of central and southern India. I became enthralled with solitude, for it opened up an amazing inner world for me to explore. During those years, I immersed myself in ascetic disciplines, the ashtanga yoga system, and the study of Sanskrit and various ritual practices. All along, I simply assumed that I would spend the remainder of my life in this way. When not in solitude, I would attend local village festivals to learn about the culture of the region I was in, focusing most of my attention on the people and the way they would put their beliefs and practices into ritual form. I wanted to understand something of what they were experiencing to see if it had any relationship with my own inner experiences resulting from the various forms of sādhanā (religious practice) I was doing. In those moments were born my interest in studying how the religious practices of sādhus and commoners connected. After that, my guru told me to wander with him to get a broader experience and understanding of India. For three years, we traveled from village to village in various regions of central and northern India, and my learning about the traditions and practices continued to grow.
At one point, several of my guru’s disciples who had moved to Canada asked him if he would visit them and the Hindu community where they lived. He arranged for me to accompany him as his interpreter. Hindu monastic life traditionally involves a cessation of contact with one’s birth family members, and for the most part I adhered to that practice. However, since we would be traveling to Canada, he told me he wanted to meet my parents as well. During the trip, we spent two weeks with them. Once my guru realized they were elderly, and neither physically nor financially in good condition, he said it would eventually be my duty to help them out.
Over the next year or so, a variety of events occurred, both in India and also in regards to my parents, that made my return to the U.S. inevitable. Before my departure, my guru instructed me to get an academic education and teach about the religious and cultural traditions of India. Consequently, I eventually entered higher education with the goal of learning the academic approach to the study of the ascetic and related practices in Indian and other religious traditions.
How does contemplative practice inform your scholarship?
My daily practice is an essential aspect of life, no less important than eating, exercising, and sleeping. What the latter three do for the body, contemplative and other related practices do for the mind. They nourish, strengthen, and also provide rest. They help to bring the mind to a place of both stillness and strength, through which awareness is heightened, and thinking can be done with focus and clarity.
Teaching and working with students takes a great deal of energy. I know I would not be able to give my students the energy, compassion, and understanding they deserve if I did not have access to all that within. For me, contemplative practice plays an essential role in manifesting those forms of energy. The practice consistently aids me in being centered, focused, and grounded, while also helping to awaken insight and creative thinking. Daily practice is fundamental and essential.
During my 2016 sabbatical, I spent the entire time in India with members of my monastic order, the Ramananda Sampraday. I did this because I am writing a book on the order but also to re-immerse myself into that lifestyle, at least for a time. To further my research, I interviewed dozens of leaders and teachers in the order, many of whom I have known since I was a sādhu in India. I would explain to them ahead of time my goal of writing about the order and that a good academic understanding of our tradition by a scholar-practitioner would be helpful for outsiders wanting to study it as well as for members of the order. Consequently, most of those I interviewed were open and honest in answering all my questions about both the problems within the order as well as positive developments. I think they did so because they knew my dual role, having both an understanding and experience of what it is like to be on the inside of tradition, but also the understanding necessary to undertake accurate academic research. In this way, my practice informs my scholarship and my scholarship then turns around and informs my practice as well.
How does your scholarly work influence or affect your contemplative practice?
Because the focus of so much of what I research, write about, and teach deals with religious practice and practitioners in both my own and other traditions, the process helps to validate and inspire me to continually strive for depth in my own practices. The practice, the study, and the teaching enforce each other. One of the courses I have been teaching for more than three decades is an introduction to world religions. Most of the students are either freshman and sophomore who have next to no understanding of religion, often not even one with which their family may be affiliated. They typically take the course because it fulfills a requirement, and often they begin with little or no connection to the material. However, there are also students who come from very conservative religious backgrounds and feel uneasy in learning about elements of other traditions that may cause them to question their own. I see it as my role to inspire the students, irrespective of their background and upbringing, to help them to see the value in learning about the religious traditions and practices that have existed and continue to exist today. In seeking to help them, I am compelled to try to see the world from their perspective and offer them an understanding that does not threaten them but instead opens them up to a broader understanding of religious meaning and the roles it plays in people’s lives. In order to do that, again it is my daily practices that help deepen my understanding for that purpose.
In my upper division and graduate courses, most of the students are there because they want to learn about the course material, and several do so because it resonates with their future plan of study and/or their personal lives. In these classes, which may focus on Indian traditions, ethics, religious practice, asceticism and yoga, etc., I integrate the concept of understanding and learning through doing. Depending upon the specific course, I may teach them simple breathing exercises to do. Since some form of silence and/or fasting are undertaken by individuals in most religious traditions, in my course that focuses on asceticism and yoga, I typically have the students attempt to fast and/or keep silence for a 24 hour period, unless they have religious restrictions or health issues to prevent them from doing so. This is done so that they can get some sense of what practitioners do and what kind of experiences they might have. I make it clear to them that all such practices can be done completely separate from any sectarian belief system, or any belief whatsoever. The sole purpose of the undertaking is to gain a practical experience of what people in various religious traditions may do in order to connect with their inner selves. After doing these practices, many students tell me that the undertakings have helped them in dealing with issues in their lives outside of academia as well.
Of course, all these practices have to be a regular part of my life as well so that I can keep awareness through my own practice of the various types of difficulties, obstacles, and experiences that my students may encounter, so I can suggests things they might do to help them succeed. In this way, my teaching compels me to further my own practice. In addition, as I study other traditions and read about various practices, especially the more austere ones, I am inevitably inspired by them and the commitment that other practitioners display. In this way, I am strengthened both academically and personally.
As a scholar-practitioner, what has been your biggest obstacle in navigating this intersection?
The biggest obstacle that I see and have experienced consists of two assumptions that seem to be commonplace in academia. One is that practitioners, by nature, function from a narrow and subjective perspective, while scholars are broad minded and objective. The second is that converts tend to be more narrow than those born into a tradition and are usually fundamentalists who want to convert whomever they can. Both these reveal an ignorance based prejudice that, unfortunately, many academics accept and promote without question.
When I first began my university education, I believed it was important for me to be objective in whatever I studied, and I assumed that all academics adhere to this approach. Over time, I came to realize that it is actually a relative rarity. We are all subjective beings, influenced by our knowledge, feelings, experiences, likes and dislikes, inclinations, preferences, biases, etc. This is not only the case with those in the humanities and social sciences who deal with people but I have witnessed it in many academic disciplines. Subjectivity not only influences what we choose to study and what types of data we collect and from whom, but it also colors how we analyze it and how we interpret it to others through our teaching, writings, etc. Yet, so many of us somehow think that as academics we are objective thinkers and actors. We pretend – to ourselves and others – that the subjective lens through which we view the world and reality never distorts what we see or understand. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises his son,
…to thine own self be true, And it must
follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
It is advice more of us need to reflect on and internalize. Contemplative practice helps provide the awareness and clarity to pursue that approach.
Do you have a story from your career that exemplifies this obstacle?
Not long after I began to pursue higher education, I was warned by well-meaning teachers and others of the academic prejudices mentioned above regarding converts and “believers.” Consequently, I became quite hesitant to discuss my “inner life” with anyone connected with academia. I soon saw the prejudices in action, even from individuals I respected and looked up to. I felt the path I was on was forcing me to be two different people, and I even dropped out of academia in the middle of my M.A. program for several years. With the encouragement of some close friends, I eventually returned to complete M.A. and then entered a PhD program. Once again, I was given the same warnings. My PhD advisor even suggested that I should change my name so people would not know I was a “convert.” I knew he was trying to be helpful, but I also knew that I could not follow his advice in that regards. For the most part, however, I did make a point of remaining silent about my personal religious commitments when other than close friends in the program would ask me about my years in India.
That approach continued through the first several years of my teaching career before I decided that I was essentially being false by hiding who I was and the values by which I had committed to live. After that, I gradually opened up and started to be more forthright when asked about my daily practices. I would acknowledge their importance in my life and how they help me remain grounded both as an academic as well as an individual. I did so, however, knowing I would likely be judged more critically and suspiciously by some, at least. Although on occasion I experienced such judgment, I understood the probable reasons for it and adjusted my expectations accordingly. However, I have known other converts and practitioners who were far less fortunate than me in being able to navigate their way into and through academia.
What forms of reasoning are necessary for the scholar-practitioner that are not for the “regular” scholar?
Generally speaking, the type of “reasoning” anyone uses is inevitably influenced by both one’s value system as well as one’s goals. Since most value systems traditionally include a set of moral and/or ethical guidelines, these will no doubt limit what one may be willing to undertake. In the case of scholar-practitioners whose value systems have restrictions originating in both of their “systems,” their methods of reasoning are going to constrain their thought process as well as their actions. Non-practitioner scholars, on the other hand, may be less confined in that way. For those whose methods of reasoning include the concept of “the ends justify the means,” they are more likely to be able to justify a wider range of activities in accomplishing their goals. I have read a variety of writings over the years about India, for example, in which there were obvious fabrications or omissions that appeared to have purposely been done in order to support the agendas of the authors. I am clearly not suggesting that scholar-practitioners are beyond such actions. None of us are perfect in that regards. However, I would imagine that, because they tend to live more in line with values tied to their contemplative practices, scholar-practitioners are more likely to constrain themselves than if those values were not a part of the way of life they had chosen to pursue.
The path of the scholar-practitioner can be difficult, but it can also be extremely fulfilling. To be successful, we are forced to gain a more comprehensive perspective of the subject of our research and study, and this can inspire in us new insights, both on the academic as well as personal level. If we view life as a learning process, then everything we experience can open us to know more about our subject matter, especially when the subject is ourselves.