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Language, Poiesis, and Buddhist Experiments with the Possible Seminar

Call for Proposals for November Meeting

Our seminar investigates, over the course of five years, the poiesis of language—its capacity to create, bring into existence, and shape worlds, selves, and our shared sense of reality. To better grasp this potential of language, we approach Buddhist textual engagement foremost in terms of experiments with the possibilities of language (rather than under given textual categories, genre distinction, tropes, etc.) and examine how these have contributed to making the form and content of Buddhism itself, along with adjacent traditions. In doing so we emphasize that both content and modes of expression should be examined as inextricably involved in the process by which Buddhism has taken on its distinctive character as well as its sense of what is possible. We approach literary forms as an environment that enables Buddhists to find their voice, subject matter, style, and self-representation.


For the 2024 AAR Annual Meeting we invite proposals on the theme: Buddhist Poetry and Poetics. This year, we will investigate the role and meaning of language and its forms of expression—poetic foremost—as a foundational aspect of Buddhist thought in early and medieval South Asia and beyond.


Our focus will be on poetic language from its earliest manifestations up to and including kāvya, the courtly Sanskrit poetic tradition that flourished in South Asia for more than a millennium and was adapted and translated throughout much of the Buddhist world across Asia, in a variety of languages.


We invite proposals for papers on this broad topic with preference for the following questions:

  • The historical emergence of Buddhist poetical forms of expression, and how were these related to their broad – not necessarily Buddhist – poetical and literary, social, practical, and doctrinal contexts. In particular, how do these forms of expression stand in relation to Buddhist world views, to monastic and ritualistic contexts, and to linguistic and literary practices during this formative period?
  • The role and function of poetic language in respect to Buddhist doctrines and world views. Here one may refer, among other issues, to the question of the possible tension between the latter and poetical expression and/or to poetical techniques as a means of artful persuasion or suggestion, as a transformative mode of experiencing reality, or as a performative utterance that can generate potent material and salutary effects, etc.
  • Theorizing poetic language: how did Buddhists attempt to theorize and normatively understand poetic language, its effects, and its related practices? Here one may refer to formal poetics; to a Buddhist understanding of the process of poetic composition, of its performance, of hearing or reciting poetic language, or of style, taste, and genre; or to forms of literary and linguistic craftsmanship, techniques, and training.


Papers may be single or co-authored; they will be pre-circulated among this year's roundtable participants and orally presented at one of our sessions. We aim to have short papers (up to 20 minutes) with a plan to have one or more respondents as well as an extended discussion facilitated by a steering committee member and including the audience.


Our seminar is committed to fostering diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, rank, institutions, geography, etc. and these issues will be given special consideration.

Statement of Purpose

The overwhelming capacity of language to shape our shared sense of reality for better or for worse has long been recognized by Buddhists, who have considered it both an obstacle and an opportunity for transformation and liberation. Such Buddhist approaches harbor the potential to help us rethink the potency of language in the interest of collective flourishing. Our seminar investigates how Buddhists have engaged with the poiesis of language—its ability to create anew and shape worlds and selves—and how this engagement, as a constitutive aspect of Buddhist thought and practice, has contributed to making the form and content of Buddhism itself. We explore a broad range of Buddhist language use, taking poetics as the exemplary but not exclusive ground where language is made poietic, while accommodating overlapping and contiguous forms of language, for instance, ritual utterance, gesture, linguistic patterns, etc.

Our mode of inquiry approaches Buddhist language use in terms of experiments with the possibilities of language. We emphasize that Buddhist content and modes of expression alike should be examined as inextricably involved in the process by which Buddhism took on its distinctive character and formed its sense of the possible; and we approach Buddhist literary forms as an environment that enables Buddhists to find their voice, subject matter, style, and self-representation. Attuned to how Buddhists have formulated their views on these issues, the seminar aims therefore to develop a conceptual toolkit for the rigorous, ethical interpretation of Buddhist language as a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary endeavor.


Steering Committee Members


Review Process

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members