Graduate Seminars (Session One) (HT 14)

Speaker: Tristan Elby and Lucian Wong
Date: January 31, 2014
Time: 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Mortality and Immortality in the Kaṭhopaniṣad

Thabiso Bustraan, Wolfson College, Oxford

My paper on the Katha Upanishad is a representation of philosophical discourse in which what can be called the four main/dominant ways of conceiving and reaching immortality are compared and contrasted to each other. Being one of the Upanishads it is hardly surprising that moksa ultimately triumphs over the rest yet still the seeming fairness in which they are compared and the reasons for leaving the others by the wayside are interesting regardless.

What is especially interesting is that while the first three of ‘putras’, ‘ayus’ and ‘svarga’ do follow each other in a logical progression and are interwoven the fourth option of moksa is a total break with all of these and turns them all on their head (which is actually a literal quote in the upanishad).

Apart from this I have also given some thought to the narrative style in which the text is written, something which could provide some speculative insights into the use and purpose of the text in ancient, daily life interactions involving flesh-and-blood human beings.

The Buddhist self as it appears in the Mahāyāna Mahābherī Sūtra

Chris Jones, Wolfson College, Oxford

My doctoral research concerns the Indian Buddhist tathāgatagarbha (‘Buddha embryo’) literature, from around the C3rd-5th, which presents sentient beings in saṃsāra as possessing an essential nature which is identical to that of a Buddha (the so-called buddha-dhātu). In the course of affirming this nature, several texts praising the tathāgatagarbha doctrine choose to designate it as ātman, i.e. a self, in apparent opposition to the well-attested doctrine of anātman that informs the vast majority of Buddhist sources.

One such tathāgatagarbha text is the Mahābherī (‘great drum’) Sūtra, which appears to have had little influence on later Buddhist literature, and has received very little scholarly attention. The text is very clear in affirming the existence of something that could be called a self, and presents a unique account of why such an entity is required in order not only for beings to attain awakening, but also, it seems, to make sense of transmigration in saṃsāra.

No Sanskrit text survives, and as such I am working on Chinese and Tibetan translations of the sūtra, and am concerned mostly with what we can learn of the Indian recensions of the text from these. In my presentation I shall discuss key passages of the text concerned with its account of the self (with reference to its place in the wider tathāgatagarbha corpus), and how this text holds its doctrine is to be reconciled with other expressions of the dharma.