Dialogue and “othering” – reflections on Claire Maes’ dissertation

by Naomi

This blog has gone a little quiet as we reach the end of the project and put together our monographs! A couple of weeks ago I finally found time to take a look at a dissertation that is of great interest to the broader frame of my research into inter-religious narrative interactions: “Dialogues With(in) the Pāli Vinaya” by Claire Maes (University of Ghent, 2015).

The dissertation uses the Pāli Vinaya to explore how one branch of the early Buddhist community formed a sense of identity in relation to other ascetic groups, particularly the Jains. The boundaries of the Buddhist ascetic community, Maes argues, were constructed in a dynamic process of encounter with ascetic “others”. Evidence in the Vinaya – as well as in related Jain texts – suggests that Buddhist and Jain ascetics interacted a great deal in daily life, sharing similar almsrounds, resthouses and other spaces. In such contexts the relative identities of the two groups became very important, so for example visible signs such as robes and bowls served to differentiate one type of ascetic from another.

A particularly neat feature of Maes’ dissertation is the way in which she uses Jonathan Z. Smith’s notion of the “proximate other” to explore how Buddhists found Jains – their close cousins – the most challenging in terms of identity-formation. In other words the nearness and relative sameness of these closely-related neighbours required a particularly strong process of “othering” in order to establish a clear identity separate from them.

Maes’ work is helpful for my own research in that it provides another practical example of the encounter between two different religious groups in early India, and explores that encounter as a productive dialogue that impacted upon both groups in important ways. In addition, it helps to highlight that even though Jains and Buddhists shared a lot (including spaces and practices and lay support) and indeed precisely because they shared so much, they also made efforts to differentiate themselves from one another. As such, while it can be helpful to talk about Jains and Buddhists together, it is also crucial to acknowledge their separate priorities and histories.

Although not the focus of Maes’ work, narrative is another way in which these two traditions – and indeed their other other, Brahmanical Hinduism – explored and expressed their sense of identity, in dialogue with the broader religious and narrative context of the time.

 

 

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