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The tree, the diamond pose, the sun salutation – all of these are well-known yoga positions. But to what extent are such meditative exercises linked to the teaching of Buddhism? These and other questions are the focus of the research conducted by Dr Erin Laish. In October 2015 he began a two-year period working at Leipzig University’s Institute for Indology and Central Asian Studies on an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellowship. In our interview the Israeli researcher explains what fascinates him about this subject and why he is conducting research in Germany.
Dr Laish, you conduct research into Buddhism at Leipzig University. What exactly is the focus of your research?
My research is focused on the interconnections between Buddhist theories about the basic qualities of human life and Buddhist meditative practices. The main questions that guide this research are how theoretical views are formed from different groups of experiential states, both daily experiences and those that are reached during meditative practice, and how these views effect, in their turn, the shaping of contemplative methods. The principal materials on which the research is based are Buddhist texts that span several distinct cultural and chronological contexts, most notably the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. in India and the fourteenth century C.E. in Tibet. By examining these texts, which are mainly from the traditions of the ‘Yoga Practice’ (Yogācāra) and ‘The Great Perfection’ (Dzogchen), I intend to describe a wide range of experiential insights that are available to all humans with respect to their own lives and the world in which they live. Additionally, I wish to clarify the practical means by which these insights can be gained and sustained.
What fascinates you about this subject and why is it so important for your work?
Buddhist meditative practices are becoming increasingly widespread in our contemporary culture, be it in the context of scientific research, psychological therapy or public interest. In this sense, there is a considerable need to examine the connections between these practices and the existential theories that accompany them in their original cultures. This kind of examination can relate the text-based research that comprises much of Buddhist studies these days to numerous practical questions concerning the efficacy of meditative practices and their place in the wider context of Buddhist philosophy, psychology and ethics. Furthermore, it can greatly contribute to shaping practical and theoretical methods of attaining a meaningful life in our present-day culture with its growing discontents.
You are from Israel. Why did you decide to continue your research in Germany?
From an early age I had an interest in German culture, perhaps due to my grandparents, two of whom arrived from Germany in the 1930s. Consequently, when I’ve considered possible locations for a post-doctoral research period, Germany appeared to be a preferable option. Additionally, my academic host at Leipzig University, Professor Eli Franco, greatly encouraged my research application; his support was another important factor in choosing Germany. Finally, the emphasis on philological and historical factors when reading texts, which is the hallmark of German research in the field of Buddhist studies, seemed to me like a suitable complement to my own research interest, which is inclined towards phenomenological and existential questions.
What do you like about researching and living in Germany? Could you imagine staying here beyond 2017?
As my research mainly deals with written texts and experiential insights, it makes no difference where I am in the world. However, the relaxed atmosphere in Leipzig, the wide range of people living here and its green surroundings suit my personal tastes very well. After completing my post-doctoral research period, I wish to more closely combine in-depth textual research with practical applications of meditative practice. I consider Germany in general and Leipzig in particular to be possible places to live given that so many people here are interested in topics related to spiritual practice and ethical living.
Dr Laish, thank you very much for the interview and good luck with your research.
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