An interview with Constance Kassor

Constance Kassor is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lawrence University and also affiliate faculty with the Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s Online Learning Program based in Boudhanath, Nepal, and with the Vasudhaiva Institute based in Oslo, Norway. Her work focuses on knowledge in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. She has written extensively on Madhyamaka thought and has two book projects in the works, focusing on the Sakya school of Buddhism’s influential Gorampa Sonam Senge.

1. What are you working on right now, and what do you hope to achieve by it?

I am currently working on two separate, but related projects:

The first is a book manuscript that focuses on the Madhyamaka thought of the fifteenth-century Tibetan scholar, Gorampa Sonam Senge. Specifically, I am investigating Gorampa’s presentation of the relationship between rational philosophical analysis and nonconceptual meditative states in his text, General Meaning of Madhyamaka (dbu ma’i spyi don).

I am also translating Gorampa’s General Meaning of Madhyamaka in collaboration with Dr. Khenpo Ngawang Jorden, principal of the International Buddhist Academy in Kathmandu. This text is encyclopedic in its scope; in addition to presenting his own view regarding the philosophy and practice of Madhyamaka, Gorampa also presents the positions of his Indian and Tibetan predecessors, and analyzes their views in light of his own.

My hope is that both the translation and the analysis of this text will help to broaden the scope of Madhyamaka studies, and to introduce an incredibly significant text to English-speaking scholars.

2. How did you come to study Indian philosophy, and how is it related to your current position?

I first encountered Candrakīrti and Madhyamaka philosophy in a college philosophy course on skepticism. After studying the Greek Skeptics and their successors in Western philosophical traditions, we briefly studied Candrakīrti and the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka tradition that emerged from his writings. I became fascinated by Prasanga reasoning, and started to study Tibetan commentaries on Indian Madhyamaka. My initial studies led me to India and Nepal, where I studied with Tibetan Madhyamaka scholars, and to a graduate program in Religious Studies at Emory University. I am currently an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Lawrence University, where I am fortunate to have the freedom to teach courses on both Indian and Tibetan thought.

3. What advice would you give to students wishing to pursue the study of Indian philosophy?

Devote the time and effort to learning languages as soon as possible, and spend as much time as you can with scholars in India. Even if you’re a textualist, you will benefit immensely from your time “in the field.”

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that there aren’t a lot of jobs out there. If you’re in the United States, don’t go into a Ph.D. program unless your tuition and living expenses are covered by the program, and be prepared for a long slog through the job market once you finish.

4. What have your major intellectual influences been, philosophical or otherwise?

I have been studying Gorampa’s works for over a decade, so it is inevitable that his philosophical views have influenced me in many ways. Beyond that, Jay Garfield has been a major influence, especially in terms of his work involved in bridging the gap between Western and non-Western philosophical traditions in the academy.

5. What do you think you’ll do next?

I’ll get tenure, hopefully! Joking aside, I hope to continue my work on Gorampa; he was a prolific author, and his philosophy has the potential to change the ways in which English-speaking scholars of Buddhism view Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. I have also started a side-project on religion and comics, and I am hoping to teach some courses on that topic in the near future to develop my research further.

6. Where do you think the field should go next, in terms of priorities and projects?

We are starting to see more dialogue and discussion among scholars of Asian and Western philosophical traditions, and I hope to see that continue. Departmental divisions seem to be a necessary evil in the academy, with many institutions creating divisions between, for example, Philosophy Departments and Religion Departments. I am fortunate to be working at a university where interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged, and I hope to see more of that trend in other institutions in the future.

7. Finally, a question (originally asked on the 3AM Interview Series): What books do you recommend to help our readers be taken further into your philosophical world?

There aren’t many book-length works on Gorampa that have been published in English, but José Cabezón’s Freedom From Extremes provides an excellent introduction into the philosophical world of Gorampa and his interlocutors.

Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy addresses some of the issues surrounding the potential for dialogue between scholars of Western philosophy and Buddhist philosophy.

I’m also reading a lot of comic books (strictly for research purposes, of course): Ms. Marvel, Lucifer, and Manga inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo group are things that I’ve been looking at lately, all of which deal with religious ideologies in different ways.

Previous interviews in this occasional series:
Matt Dasti
Shalini Sinha

Suggestions for contributors welcome, along with self-nominations. Email me at malcolm {dot} keating {at} yale-nus.edu.sg, or leave a comment.

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

4 thoughts on “An interview with Constance Kassor

  1. I’m looking forward to Connie’s translation as well as her interpretation. The relationship between nonconceptual meditative states and philosophical analysis is a very tricky subject, but an important one, not just from a Buddhist (especially Madhyamaka) philosophical perspective, but for my own personal growth and understanding as both a multiple decades meditation practitioner and analytic philosopher.

  2. Pingback: An interview with Anand VaidyaThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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