This year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion started off for me on Friday when, after picking up my standard-issue tote bag, I saw Cornel West enter the convention center. Cornel West is, of course, a towering figure, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if that sort of toweringness translates to standoffishness in person, his public persona notwithstanding. But, then again, it’s Cornel West. And I figure if you have a chance to introduce yourself to Cornel West, take it. So I did. I extended my hand, and in return he pulled me into a hug.
I’ve been thinking about this rather auspicious start to the AAR not because it was particularly life-altering; it was a ten-second moment that I doubt Dr. West will even remember. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of my first trip the AAR as a new grad student and how awkward and uncomfortable I was then, barely able to introduce myself to people I actually knew, let alone famous public intellectuals.
And what happened next was of almost equal importance. I met Rev. Danny Fisher for the first time. We’ve “known” each other via the web for years now, but this was the frist time I’d met him in the flesh. And dispite knowing Danny about as well as I know Dr. West, he pulled me into a hug as well. That guy’s got such joy in him, such a love of what he does. It’s palpable.
The bulk of the AAR, of course, are paper panels and presentations. I didn’t get to as many of those as I’d hoped, but that hardly matters. I spent most of my time talking with some great people. I don’t think what I’m about to say will surprise or offend anyone — academics tend to be on the socially awkward side. Let’s face it. Most us were pretty geeky growing up when we should have learned how to make small talk; and as adult we spend most of our lives in isolation in libraries or behind computer screens. So encounters with other scholars can be hit or miss. Sometimes they’re awkward and weird; other times they’re downright inspirational. This year was all about the latter.
There are times that I am overwhelmed by what I do for a living. There are times that my work deeply frustrates me, times when I find myself slipping into lethargy or cynicism. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite how much I love my work, it’s still work. And I’m sure there are times when each of us, no matter what we do for a paycheck, would rather be home watching bad TV or on a beach in Hawai’i reading some pulp fiction rather than the latest four-hundred-page academic tome.
And this is why, more and more with each passing year, the deeper I get into Buddhist studies, I love going to the AAR. The AAR is more than a series of panels or an exhibition hall full of book publishers. It’s a chance to get out of the library, out from behind the computer screen. It’s a chance to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. A chance to be reminded why you got in to this business in the first place. A reminder of what you love about Buddhist studies. I’m deeply thankful for that.
The weekend ended, for me, last night with a reception honoring the late Leslie Kawamura, a man who fully embraced both his role as a Buddhist scholar and a Buddhist practitioner (not to mention a husband, father, grandfather). The reception began with a ten-person panel, ten folks who are all giants in the field, folks who represented a wide swath of Buddhist studies, and Prof. Kawamura’s students who remembered him lovingly. Each reiterated that he was a bodhisattva. It was moving and inspiring. If I could aspire to be half the teacher, half the scholar he was in my own life, I would consider myself deeply fortunate.
Much thanks and many bows.