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Meet Professor Sarah Babcock!
Tell us a little about yourself:
I’m an Assistant Professor at DRBU. I joined the faculty in Fall 2019.
What inspires you to work at DRBU?
What I appreciate about the DRBU model is the balance between study and practice, between acquisition and reflection. Knowledge is not pursued simply for economic prospects nor for the sake of knowledge, but in order to promote self-understanding and become a responsible participant in the “dharma realm.” I am inspired by the diverse classical texts from both East and West that make up the curriculum at DRBU, by the wisdom of my colleagues and students, and by the culture here of turning inward to better understand ourselves and how we might be of service to others.
What motivates you as an individual?
For me personally, much of my life journey has been guided by a deep interest in learning Chinese language, both modern Mandarin and the classical language. The “why” behind this drive of mine is complex, but certainly it has something to do with a sense that there is a well of wisdom in the texts and people that are only truly accessible by knowing the language.
I was exposed to both Buddhism and Chinese language for the first time by my parents, early disciples of the Venerable Master Hua. Some of my earliest memories include my mother teaching me how to recite Guanyin’s name and my father unpacking the meanings of pictographic Chinese characters. Later, I attended the elementary and secondary schools at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. There, Chinese characters continued to intrigue me, but I was also curious about conversational Mandarin, especially when spoken by the Venerable Master Hua or the nuns who taught me. A marvelous world of ancient wisdom, literature, art, and humor seemed to beckon me from beyond those strokes of characters and sounds I did not understand. I once attended a lecture by Master Hua, and as he was speaking, the audience laughed, but listening to the translation, I didn’t notice anything funny about what was said. For all I know, wanting to understand Shifu when he told jokes was a major impetus for me to study Chinese in college!
At UC Berkeley, in addition to gradually gaining proficiency in Mandarin, I was exposed to Classical Chinese for the first time. It was a struggle to make sense of the texts set before me—a bit of Mencius, Han Feizi, the Heart Sutra, many Tang Dynasty poems. It was like trying to piece together a puzzle without a picture on the box for reference. But every piece that found its place gave me a thrill, and finally seeing the whole, I was delighted: “I know what is written here!” Or, with regards to spoken Chinese, “I know what Master Hua is saying!” Reading these texts and listening to people speak without the filter of English helped the principles and ideas connect directly to my heart. Somehow, less personal and cultural baggage were involved when I engaged in Chinese.
After receiving my BA in Chinese language at UC Berkeley, I returned to the CTTB to teach Mandarin in what is now referred to as DRBU’s “legacy program.” Unsurprisingly, teaching only made me realize there was much more I needed to learn, especially if I wanted to access Chinese Buddhist texts. I might “know what is written” or “know what is being said,” but I did not have a grasp of the deeper significance to what I was reading or hearing, or how to apply it in my life. If there had been a Masters in Buddhist Classics with rigorous language classes offered at DRBU at that time, I have no doubt that this is where I would have stayed. But nothing like that existed yet. So I did the next best thing. I set off on the exciting but daunting adventure into the world of graduate school.
At UC Santa Barbara, after completing seminars in bibliography and research method, canon formation, translation, and literature of the Song Dynasty (10th-13th Centuries CE), I decided to combine my passion for Chinese poetry with my connection with Buddhist Chinese by writing a Master’s thesis on the literary exchanges between Song Dynasty poet Su Shi and Chan monk Foyin. A few years later, I returned to UC Santa Barbara to further my studies. My beloved Ph.D. advisor encouraged me to focus my dissertation on an understudied Chinese literary form known as the “notes of the writing brush” or “miscellany,” (biji). These informal collections resemble writer’s logs or collections of “what is seen and heard,” by the author. They cover a wide variety of subjects, and they give an alternative, less-scripted depiction of life than did traditional histories or biographies of the time. I chose to feature a text composed by an early 12th century Chan monk. The text, like its monk-author himself, is unique. It combines the miscellany form with an early type of poetry criticism called “remarks on poetry” (shihua) and represents the interplay between the author’s Chan perspective, creativity, and observations on poetry and society. During my time in graduate school, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of being a visiting scholar at Sichuan University in China and studying with one of the foremost Chinese scholars on the interaction between literature and Buddhism during the Tang and Song Dynasties. My research culminated in a dissertation entitled,“The Aesthetics of Non-Discrimination: Chinese Poetics and Social Critique in Huihong's Night Chats from Chilly Hut (c. 1121).”
Back at DRBU, I feel a sort of settledness and calm that I haven’t experienced before. The interest in Chinese is still as strong as ever, but now I find myself focused on discovering the thing that drives me that is beyond language. The process of discovering this seems to be less about acquiring knowledge and more about subtracting what is unnecessary and revealing my true priorities, or vows, if you will.
Do you have a spiritual practice? If so, can you share a little about it?
Guanyin and Great Compassion Mantra recitation have always been my go-to practice since I was very young. In some sense, I feel like I have “grown up” with Guanyin close by. But recently I am slowly but surely developing a sitting (meditation) practice. It is very much in the early stages, but I can see there is something important going on there, even if it seems cloaked in the mist and clouds of my discursive thinking at the moment. I’m also exploring how I might design some contemplative practices around the teachings of Chinese philosopher Mencius’ (Mengzi), whom I’ve become increasingly drawn to over the past two years. He talks about our potential for virtue as innate “sprouts” that only need to be nurtured and developed through reflection and “extending” them to different areas of our lives. I find this both practical and inspiring.
What is your wish and hope for your students?
My hope for the students here is that they will develop the peace of mind to identify what sparks true joy for them—a deep inner sustaining generous delighted joy—and then create the conditions in their lives so they can pursue whatever that is, wholeheartedly.