Introduction to the Programme: Focus, Structure, and Requirements

Our PhD programme focuses on South and South-East Asian Buddhism, the rich traditions developed from the Pali and from the Sanskrit. Students acquire and apply academic research skills in a friendly and lively environment, providing ample stimulus to interact with a variety of scholars. The very location of Mahidol University is at the heart of Thai Buddhism, next to Phuttamonthon (Buddhamaṇḍala) Park and not far from the tallest Stūpa in the world, Phra Pathom Chedi – one of the oldest and holiest Buddhist sites in the region. Buddhist monastics, from any tradition, are here treated respectfully and held in high regard.

Reading Buddhist texts in their original languages, especially Sanskrit and Pali, is the backbone of our Programme. We foster well-informed research on Buddhism, utilising primary sources as the fundamental starting point. We are confident that our students will be able to offer reliable editions, translations and interpretive studies of the vast Buddhist textual corpus

Students may also study those traditions that developed as further cultural translations of Pali and Sanskrit beginnings: the vernacular Buddhism of South-East Asia, or the Buddhism of Tibet and East-Asia. The interpretive work may further include interdisciplinary perspectives: comparative philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, etc.

We will help prospective candidates in identifying a specific area of research and adjust their study-program accordingly. By the end of their training, they will be qualified to teach and conduct research in Buddhist Studies, at a level consistent with international standards.

Basic Structure of the PhD Programme

Taught Track

The taught track is especially intended for students who wish to improve their research languages, their writing ability, and their overall understanding of the Buddhist traditions. Both BA and MA holders are allowed to join the taught track, with a difference in the number of credits that they will have to cover through their course-work.

Non-Taught Track

The non-taught track is meant for research candidates who already have good familiarity with at least one primary-source language and who have sufficient academic experience so as not to require extended instruction in the classroom. Nonetheless, students who take up this track are encouraged to audit classes when possible and should participate in some of the academic activities of the programme (conferences, public lectures, and so forth). Students who wish to enrol in the non-taught track must hold an MA degree.

Areas of Specialization

The two main areas of specialization offered by the PhD programme are Pali Buddhism and Sanskrit Buddhism. Pali Buddhism covers the religious and philosophical traditions of South-East Asia that expressed their thought in that language, but also the vernacular transmissions of the Dhamma throughout the region. For students who wish to focus on Pali texts proper, we encourage a study of the commentarial literature (largely untranslated) and of the lesser known textual corpus produced in South-East Asia, sometimes much later than the Tipiṭaka (as much of this literature has yet to be edited). Students of Pali are also required to learn some Sanskrit in order to heighten their understanding of grammar and etymology. Sanskrit Buddhism covers a wide range of philosophical traditions (Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, Madhyamaka), narrative texts, poetry, epigraphy and technical literature of various kinds. The Sanskrit tradition often overlaps with other languages (Tibetan, East Asian, and also other Indic languages); we encourage students to learn at least one more primary source language. Candidates are also welcome to focus on non-Sanskrit sources directly or indirectly derived from the Sanskrit Buddhist traditions. Although the programme has a good degree of flexibility, students will note that most of the taught courses will focus on either Pali or Sanskrit texts (with occasional forays in Tibetan equivalents, etc.). Especially those who choose the taught track should be committed to learn at least one of these two languages thoroughly.

General Requirements

Course-Work

Students who attend the taught degree track (1) are expected to begin their studies with several semesters of course-work (See Section 4 for possible time frames). The common required courses make up for a total of 20 credits. Beyond that, students who enter the programme holding an MA degree are required to obtain an additional 28 credits (Total = 48 credits), while students holding a BA degree are required to obtain an additional 16 credits (Total = 36 credits). The additional credits will be obtained by attending elective courses. Students should choose an area of specialization and discuss their study plan accordingly with their prospective main thesis advisor. 2-credit courses consist of 30 hours of classes, while 3-credit courses consist of 45 hours of classes. The courses are usually distributed into 15 lessons.

Qualifying Examination

For the qualifying examination, students are required to present and defend two Chapters of their thesis (an Introduction, plus another Chapter). The PhD Committee will form a panel of examiners, which will not only discuss the written material but will also assess the overall research skills of the candidate. Candidates can attempt the qualifying examination twice; if they fail for a second time, they will have to abandon the PhD programme.

Thesis Proposal

Candidates that pass the qualifying examination will then (within the space of a few months at most) present their Thesis Proposal and defend it in front of a panel of examiners selected by the PhD Committee. Once the Thesis Proposal is accepted, the candidate will select an official main advisor.

Publication

In order to obtain a PhD, candidates are required to have at least one article published or accepted for publication by an international (peer-reviewed) research journal in the relevant field. The article may be published before or after the PhD has been defended.

PhD Viva

Once all other requirements are met, the PhD Committee will organize a panel of external and internal examiners who will decide whether the research work produced constitutes a suitable PhD Thesis. This will include an oral examination of the candidate, who will have to defend their thesis against possible objections.

Year-by-Year Requirements

For PhD Candidates in Track 1 (Taught Degree) – MA Degree Holders

Year 1 – Coursework (18 credits)
Year 2 – Coursework (18 credits)
Year 3 – Writing a Proposal (1st Term); Qualifying Examination, Thesis Proposal Assessment (2nd Term)
Year 4- Thesis Writing
Year 5- Thesis Writing, PhD Viva, One Article Accepted for Publication in an International Journal
For PhD Candidates in Track 2 (Non-Taught Degree)
Year 1 – Writing a Proposal (1st Term); Qualifying Examination, Thesis Proposal Assessment (2nd Term)
Year 2 – Thesis Writing
Year 3 – Thesis Writing, PhD Viva, One Article Accepted for Publication in an International Journal
Importance of texts

Our Programme focuses on the study of Buddhist texts, by which we mean, primarily but not exclusively, the study of Pali and Sanskrit sources. The pursuit of further reflection on the primary sources is a legitimate and important task, and we encourage students to discuss Buddhist texts from whichever theoretical perspective they may deem reasonable and interesting. However, we believe that post-graduate research in Buddhist Studies cannot rely solely on translations – especially if we are referring to modern translations in European languages.

The first reason for this is that Buddhist texts in English (or other European languages) hardly form a coherent literary corpus representing a long history of Buddhist intellectual and cultural history. Rather, the basic terminology, as well as the reliability and accuracy of modern translations, varies, and it is very difficult to argue that one could obtain a sophisticated understanding of any pre-modern Buddhist tradition without some access to Pali, Sanskrit, and/or other primary source languages.

At an even more basic level, translations are based on editions; and a large quantity of Buddhist texts are yet to be edited (let alone translated). Moreover, knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc. allows researchers to decide for themselves the extent to which existing editions could or should be improved. This may seem like a rather technical concern, yet when we wish to understand a complex philosophical argument we should remember that a change in a single letter can reverse the sense of an entire page.

The matter is arguably simple: the more accurately we are able to read and understand the content and context of the primary Buddhist sources, the more reliable our scholarship will become. Any further theoretical reflection on those sources, however eloquent or intelligent, loses some value as an account of the Buddhist traditions if the interpretation relies on a shaky foundation (or on some misunderstanding of even the basic syntax of the texts).

Devoting some time to becoming acquainted with the Buddhist languages is important, if a researcher is striving towards a plausible and well informed account of the Buddhist cultural traditions. Even accepting that any account is interpretive, it is difficult to argue that all interpretations are equally plausible, and plausibility is likely to derive from a basic foundation in the primary sources rather than from anywhere else.

Textual studies can also function (and have functioned) as a natural interface with the living Buddhist tradition. Most Buddhist cultures value the Buddhavacana and its learned commentaries, and much of the effort of Buddhist intellectual communities through the ages has been in mastering and preserving this vast literary corpus through memorization, copying of manuscripts, traditional learning, debate, and the composition of new texts related to the existing heritage. Reading primary sources is therefore a fruitful meeting point between traditional scholarship and the contemporary academic framework, and this interaction is of course to be encouraged, since it allows for a better appreciation of the context wherein the texts have been transmitted – as well as of their purpose and value for the living Buddhist communities.