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Not Self

Donald Swearer on Buddhism, religion, and compassion.

Interview conducted and edited by Jeffrey Lott.


Donald Swearer at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand, February 2011, where he was studying Buddhist economics and Thailand’s sufficiency economy on a senior Fulbright research grant.

BEFORE HE RETIRED FROM THE SWARTHMORE FACULTY, Don Swearer would stop by my Parrish Hall office to tell me about his travels. His research in Thai Buddhism took him—and his wife and longtime editor Nancy Swearer—to Thailand as frequently as they could manage, particularly to the northern city of Chiang Mai. So when I visited Southeast Asia with my son earlier this year, we flew to Chiang Mai instead of Bangkok because Don and Nancy were there. Before we left, I crammed a bit, reading two of his books; touring Buddhist temples with Don Swearer is like a little seminar in Theravada Buddhism, and you have to be prepared.

Swearer, 76, the Charles and Harriet Cox McDowell Professor Emeritus of Religion, retired a second time last June as director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School. Always a popular teacher at Swarthmore, Swearer is widely known for his scholarship—especially his books and translations that illuminate Buddhism’s impact in Southeast Asia.

He first went to Thailand in 1957, after a rocky first year at the Yale Divinity School, where he had gone to study for the Presbyterian ministry after graduating from Princeton. His first encounter with Buddhism came that summer, while teaching English at Bangkok Christian College. He returned to Yale and completed a B.D. and a master’s in sacred theology but decided on a career in teaching rather than parish ministry. Swearer was already teaching at Oberlin College when he completed a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1967. Today, after 34 years at Swarthmore (1970–2004) and many sabbaticals and summer visits, he is fluent in Thai language, religion, and culture.

I interviewed Don amid the trees and birds of Wat Umong, a “forest” monastery at the edge of Chiang Mai associated with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the influential 20th-century monk whose modern interpretations of Buddhism have been a steady Swearer interest. In the 1930s, Buddhadasa (d. 1993) established Suan Mokkh, a forest monastery in southern Thailand, which became a center for socially engaged Buddhism—a “pristine” form of Buddhism that he said was meant to “drag humanity out from under the power of materialism.” When I spoke again with Swearer after his return to the United States this spring, he was preparing to move to Claremont, Calif., where he anticipates more opportunities for him and Nancy to enjoy their family and community. Yet the pull of scholarship and the classroom hasn’t abated. He’s considering graduate teaching opportunities and, with characteristic zeal, wants to finish an ongoing study of Christian identity in Buddhist Thailand and a translation of a chronicle of a major northern Thai monastic lineage.

I began by asking him a favorite question. He replied, of course, by reframing my question and giving a surprisingly frank answer.

72b_monkTrees.jpgTell me about a long-held theory or belief that you no longer hold.
I might ask, “Which fundamental ideas that you once held has your study of Buddhism radically  transformed?” To go right to the heart of it, our conventional understanding of the Christian God as a Ground of Being  who created the world—something fundamental to Biblical faith—has been fundamentally challenged and altered. Buddhism offers a very different way of understanding the nature of the world, of notions regarding ultimate reality and transcendence which, in my case, served to transform my understanding of Christian theology.

What elements of Buddhism have you adopted in your personal or spiritual life?
I studied meditation with teachers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Japan, then brought two of them to Oberlin to work with my students during a January term practicum. That led to a book, Secrets of a Lotus: Studies in Buddhist Meditation. My work on Buddhadasa has led to an empathetic worldview—a word I use instead of philosophy—that embraces the Buddhist critique of selfishness and self-centeredness, emphasizing compassion and generosity. These virtues are highlighted in Buddhism, but they are universal. This teaching—often translated as “not self”—is difficult for westerners to grasp because it’s seen as being negative and world denying. A better way of thinking of it is “to uncenter the self.” That’s very much linked with the interconnectedness of all things—a fundamental principle of Buddhist thought.

You’ve been working on a project called Buddhist Economics and Thailand’s Sufficiency Economy? What does “sufficiency” mean in this context?
It’s usually parsed in Thai as “having enough to live and to eat.” Sufficiency has been promoted throughout the long history of Thailand’s current king [who has reigned since 1946]. “Sufficiency” acknowledges the importance of strong, diverse local economies, especially in agriculture as a counter to mono-agricultural crops that are subject to the vagaries of the global market.

How does Buddhism relate to sufficiency?
Sufficiency is the inverse of excess—especially excess driven by accumulation or greed—and that’s linked to Buddhist concepts of non-attachment and interdependence. The monastic orders themselves provide an example by living simply in community—and King Rama IV was a monk for 27 years before he became king. This is not to say that sufficiency economics has not been critiqued as a way for urban elites to keep the rural poor in their place. But the examples in my research—a community, a farmer, a business, a school—have embraced the philosophy of sufficiency, and I think Buddhism has something to do with that.

What are some common elements of all religious traditions?
Religions envisage human existence in a broad framework. Despite how they vary across the horizontal dimension in ways that they frame this or define that, there’s a vertical dimension that engages notions that can’t be empirically verified. That’s where god language comes in, for example, but it’s more universal in engaging notions like infinity or transcendence. Those ideas are particularly distinctive to the religious worldview.


Trees draped with saffron robes—“ordained” by the Wat Umong monks to give them sacred status.

Does such a worldview require belief in something that defies empirical understanding?
Buddhism doesn’t have a god concept the way Christianity does. Many Buddhists will tell you that unlike Christianity, which depends on faith, theirs is a rational religion.

What’s the future of Buddhism?

Max Weber, who looked at world religions through the lens of Protestant materialism, saw Buddhism as other-worldly mysticism—all about being a monk in a monastery. But modern, socially engaged Buddhism as envisioned by Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama addresses worldly problems. These Buddhists care about the environment; they work to end human trafficking; they seek economic justice. This is not uncommon among all religious traditions today, but more people of all faiths are taking on global problems from their religions’ perspectives. If Buddhism—or Christianity for that matter—is to remain relevant in the modern world, it has to engage the world with values of selflessness and compassion.

“Not self,” right?
Not self. Exactly

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