Imagine walking into a classroom, sitting down, meeting your professor for the first time and finding out he was an ordained Buddhist monk– that happened to a few students at McGill this fall.
Professor Martin Seeger is the 2018-2019 McGill Numata Visiting Professor in Buddhist Studies – and he was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk. Having spent three years as a monk in a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand, his passion for Buddhist studies echoes through his publications, lectures and research. Associate Professor of Thai Studies at the University of Leeds, he earned his MA and doctorate in Thai Studies at the University of Hamburg.
Seeger has published numerous scholarly articles and was involved in the production of a number of films that are related to this research findings. His most recent book Gender and the Path to Awakening: Hidden Histories of Nuns in Modern Thai Buddhism, explores female renunciation and sainthood in modern Thai Buddhism. His graduate course on “Women in Theravada Buddhism” discusses selected Pali canonical texts that depict the Buddha’s attitude towards women and the ordination of women.
We sat down with Professor Seeger to discuss his unusual journey – from Buddhist monk to university professor.
Welcome to McGill! You are the 2018/2019 Numata visiting professor – can you explain in more detail what this role entails?
I am teaching a post-graduate course on women in Theravada Buddhism. After several months of seminars, lectures and discussions, students will write an essay that I will supervise. During my time at McGill I also plan to pursue research, develop projects that I’m working on and explore the possibility of collaborations with fellow professors at McGill.
What inspired you to become a professor?
It just happened. I like asking questions and to be challenged with new questions. I have this curiosity and passion for studying Buddhism and sharing my ideas or unknown facts of the religion, specifically within the western world. As a teenager, I never imaged that in 20 years I would become a professor. It simply developed from my time as a monk and this triggered my interest in a deeper, more academic, study of Buddhism. There’s a strong overlap of personal interest and academic studies, and I thought that combining them would allow me to gain more depth on both sides – that is my personal and academic understanding. A university is the perfect place to do this. As scholars we are able to devote time to develop new questions in the study of Buddhism and interrogate various interesting and important aspects of Buddhism.
Why Thailand? And what inspired you to specialize in Buddhist studies?
From a young age, I’ve been interested in the study of religion. In my case, it started off as an interest in Christianity and growing up in a Catholic environment, and I then developed a curiosity for spirituality, the study of scriptures and history of religions – especially monasticism. When I was 16 year old, my interests shifted towards East Asian religions, in particular Taoism and Buddhism. A friend of mine took me to Thailand and I walked into a monastery and was simply overwhelmed by everything; by the people, the way it was organized, its architecture and, most importantly, its spirituality. I went a second and third time (always to the same place in Chiang Mai) and realized it was a place I was happy and wanted to understand more.
After a while, you get to know monks and have the opportunity to speak with them on a more profound level. I had already been doing some research on Theravada Buddhism, and I can clearly remember the moment when I had a conversation with a Thai Buddhist monk. I had nothing better to do then to boast with all my knowledge that I gained from reading books on Buddhism and he looked me deeply in my eyes and said,"you know nothing unless you practice”. When I returned to my hotel, I realized he had a point. I went back to Germany and told my parents that I wanted to become a monk because I wanted to live and experience the tradition not as an object of academic studies but rather from within. With my parents I agreed that I would do this for about six months or so – however, I then enjoyed it so much that I ‘forgot’ to disrobe for nearly three years. My curiosity continued to grow, but I eventually decided to disrobe (for many reasons) and returned to Germany in order to complete my MA. Life developed, and I continued my academic research during which I found it very interesting to combine the knowledge I gained from my time living and practicing within the tradition as a monk, with more critical approaches to the study of religion and texts.
Can you explain the process of becoming a Monk?
There are over 40, 000 monasteries in Thailand, so it depends on the abbot of the monastery. Some abbots may require you to stay and study for a number of months before you are deemed ready, whereas in other monasteries you can more or less walk in and become ordained. Of course, you need to memorize certain texts and that may take a while. But it could be a fairly quick process. You need a set of robes, but sometimes they provide you with one. In my case, they provided me with one because a group of Thai laypeople were very happy when a westerner was dedicated to learning about their tradition by becoming a monk.
You recently published the book: Gender and the Path to Awakening: Hidden Histories of Nuns in Modern Thai Buddhism– can you provide a brief summary?
It’s based on longtime research that commenced some ten years ago. I’m not from Gender Studies, and had no particular interest in the study of women in Buddhism – initially. The interest developed over the course of time and was triggered by things I read about women in Buddhism and then compared to my own experience gained during the time I was a monk myself. I had the opportunity to observe women in the lived tradition of Thai Buddhism and what I read in the existing literature on Buddhism didn’t quite match or cover what I was aware of. In my research I came across some very rare texts – by chance – written by a woman, Khunying Damrongthammasan, in the 1930’s. These texts fascinate me a lot because of their style but predominately because of the impressive knowledge they are based on. After her death, these texts were put in the mouth of a monk who, in fact, never claimed to have been the author. This monk, Luang Pu Mun, is one of the most famous monks in Thailand; he passed away in 1949, and by many he has been regarded and revered as a national saint. I possessed a number of his texts and was quite familiar with his teaching. I did some more research and it became clear that with one particular text attributed to him something was strange – that something didn’t feel right about him being the author of the text. With the help of the British Academy, my Thai co-researcher, a very good friend and I, eventually found conclusive evidence that proved the text was authored by Khunying Damrongthammasan. I became very excited about this discovery and we went on to find many more texts authored by fascinating women.
My book, in which I also talk about these discoveries and their implications, is based on my study of texts by or about Thai female practitioners. It is also based on ethnographic work I pursued in Thai monasteries, nunneries and places of veneration of Thai female practitioners. Here I also look at how female sainthood is expressed in material culture, such as relics and stupas. In Thailand, Thai Buddhists usually cremate the dead body and after this is done, bone remains may turn into clear crystals. This may then be believed to be evidence or “scientific proof” for sainthood. Buddha, as far as we know, never spoke of these things but this belief must have developed in later Buddhist tradition and then also in Thailand. My research allowed me to explore deeper gender-specific aspects of monastic life; here I also looked at the inequalities that exist between male and female monastics. What I find especially inspiring when reading these women’s texts or their biographies and hagiographies, is that the lack of opportunities and gender equality is not something that they would complain about but rather very often take as a source of motivation for their study and, more importantly spiritual practice, and pursue the religion even deeper. For the women in my study, it was clear that we are not born only once – you are born many times. What’s astonishing is that they viewed the experience of rebirth as a human being as the most precious thing, because of its rarity, and as it gives the opportunity to study the Buddha’s teaching. It was never their concern to be equal or to demand the same rights that men or male monastics have - they aspired to reach Nirvana as soon as possible and gain the opportunity to do so.
Do the discoveries about the real authorship of the texts that you studied and mentioned earlier create controversies amongst Buddhist communities?
There are some people who refuse to accept our discoveries– even though we have conclusive evidence to support our theories. Interestingly in the final days of filming my first film I found this additional text by chance. I went inside a monastery looking for an urn with the ashes of Khunying Damrongthammasan. We hoped to find it there, but the nun who had the keys for the building we believed may contain the urn happened to be away. A monk whom we had met before suggested we wait in the monastic library. It was full with old books, and very dusty. We began browsing and then we found a treasure – one early edition of one of the texts which Khunying Damrongthammasan authored,that had a foreword written by one of the highest ranking monks of his time. This foreword confirmed the authorship of Khunying Damrongthammasan. No one can argue with that.
Are there other areas of interests you would like to explore?
I’m currently editing my third book with Thai Buddhist texts, which contains texts, so we believe, that may have also been written by female authors. Also another important goal in my research is to develop innovative ways to share this knowledge with society and not just with other scholars. I’m finalizing my second film project at the moment; this new film is based on a text that was written presumably by a woman, even possibly by Khunying Damrongthammasan, and is about women who discuss the Buddhist teaching in a dialogical way and on a rather profound level.The text is more than 100 years old. I believe that films can be a powerful tool to make research findings accessible more effectively to a much larger audience.
The study of the biographies of and texts by female Thai Buddhist practitioners will keep me busy. As I said before, it’s quite rare to find these texts but nonetheless, there are more of these texts than many may think. It takes me a while to work through them, compile and analyze my findings and find evidence to back up our theories. I regard my recent book as a beginning rather than a completion of this topic. There is still so much to discover.