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Seeing the Teaching: Scholarship of the Buddha

Kevin Trainor

Kevin Trainor, an academic authority for the PBS documentary, 'The Buddha', airing April 7 at 8 p.m., will present the film live and take questions in 427 Waterman. (Photo: Sally McCay)

"Whoever sees me," the Buddha was reputed to say, "sees the teaching, and whoever sees the teaching sees me." Kevin Trainor, professor and chair of religion, has his own way of seeing and understanding Buddhism, through the lens of a scholar, examining the tradition through time and place, relics and ritual. His expertise led well known documentary filmmaker David Grubin to seek Trainor as an academic advisor and commentator for his new work, The Buddha, airing on PBS April 7 at 8 p.m.

"When I teach Buddhism I teach about it as a scholar of religion," says Trainor, "and so my perspective is not that of a practitioner. I'm trying to, as accurately as I can, understand its different historical and cultural forms. I take the history very seriously, and I think it sets limits on what we can say with confidence about the historical Buddha."

Trainor and the film's narration both speak of Buddhism as a story, one that rose out of oral tradition. Pared to the core, Siddhartha Gautama, son of a king, is believed to have renounced society at age 29, gone into the forest seeking truth, practicing intensive meditation and extreme asceticism, both of which he left behind before he finally understood the true nature of the problem of existence. In that, he achieved enlightenment, only then becoming Buddha, "awakened one."

The thorny problem, as Trainor explains it, is the endless cycle of birth and death, the repetition of human suffering in all of its forms. After living countless lives, the Buddha is said to have ended his own cycle by putting an end to attachment, to desire, those things he viewed to be the fundamental human failing.

"If your sense of wellbeing and happiness," says Trainor, explaining the Buddha's message, "is dependent upon attaining something and grasping on to it in the expectation that it won't change, you ultimately will be miserable. Everything changes. There is absolutely no escape for that. So the alternative is to be focused on the present, pay attention to it, value it in its own right, in this time and this place."

Meditation on religion

Trainor's academic study leads him to findings that might discomfit 21st century American converts (distinguished from devout immigrant communities), many of whom he sees as practicing a "pop" version of Buddhism. As a scholar, not a theologian, he steers away from moral judgments, but he brings an informed perspective to ideas about the movement as a spiritual way of being, even a rejection of religion, with a focus on the philosophical and meditational side of Buddhism.

"One of the most historically problematic views," says Trainor, "is that Buddhism is self-realization. It's realizing your true potential. It's living well. I'm not saying that's wrong, but I am saying that's an interesting development that's not particularly characteristic of the way it functioned in ancient India."

In The Buddha, in fact, Trainor discusses Siddhartha's experience with meditation along his journey to enlightenment, which proved a distraction from his goal.

"He ascends to these very rarified states of consciousness," Trainor says in the film, "but it's not permanent, and it does not bring penetrating truth into the nature of reality. So these become a temporary escape from the problem of existence, but they don't solve the problem."

Trainor acknowledges Buddhist meditation as a useful alternative to a consumer culture organized around creating desires that can only be met through purchasing things. But traditional Buddhism is closely associated with renunciation and a monastic life that is generally inconsistent with modern Western interests.

As a renowned expert in relic veneration and as a student of the archeology of ancient India and the cultural milieu that allowed for the Buddha's rise, Trainor wants to send the message that Buddhism, both historically and as it is practiced in Asia today, is anything but hostile to religious ritual and materiality. The documentary, in fact, received a joint grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with the Asia Society in New York City, whose museum is running a complementary exhibition, "Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art," now through June 20.

Veneration, pilgrimages and relics

"In terms of my own commitments to teaching about religion," says Trainor, "I think it is important to understand how Buddhism is inculturated, how it is in the ground, how it's about relics and veneration and has very much to do with practices, not just meditation but veneration."

The pilgrimage, traveling to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion, is deeply embedded in Buddhism -- the Buddha himself discussed how his remains should be transported and enshrined after he died, reportedly saying that people would go and, "their hearts will be serenely enlightened."

"It's very much about stupas, relics, places with religious significance marked out across Asia," says Trainor, "places that are magnets that draw people."

The film, which Trainor calls artfully created, is largely biographical with narration by Richard Gere, footage shot in India, illustrations depicting the more mythological scenes, and commentary from scholars and others. Are Trainor's points about object veneration part of the film?

"They're in the documentary," he says. "I think they can also be ignored, and I think many people will. I think they'll find much more compelling the statements by psychologists and poets saying, 'You are the Buddha.'"

Trainor, though, who tends to focus on Theravada, among the many, many schools of thought within Buddhism, can be poetic as well.

"In a sense," Trainor says, "the Buddha is not the ultimate Buddha. The ultimate Buddha is Buddha-ness. It's everywhere. It's always there."