Exploring cultural differences through Buddhism

The big question for Michael Radich is what do we have in common that makes us human?

Dr Michael Radich

One thing keeps Associate Professor Michael Radich awake at night. “My principal cause of sleepless nights is waking up at 2am with too many ideas.”

Associate Professor Radich, who is in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, works on the history of Buddhist ideas and their reception in China. It’s hard to imagine how many lifetimes he would have to live through to follow up all his interests, but he certainly can’t be accused of slacking off in this one.

Associate Professor Radich’s areas of research have included the transmission of Buddhism from India to China, the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese, the works of the Indian missionary-monk Paramārtha, the early rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine of ‘Buddha nature’.

Many Buddhist texts have not been translated into English: studying Buddhism, says Associate Professor Radich, has given him an excuse to learn new languages. Among living languages, he speaks or reads Mandarin, Japanese, German and French and is now learning Italian and te reo Māori; among dead languages, he uses classical Chinese, classical Tibetan, Pali and Sanskrit.

If that’s not sufficient linguistic variety, Associate Professor Radich also taught himself rudiments of the programming language Python as part of an ambitious ongoing project to use computer-assisted techniques to help solve questions of authorship in canonical Chinese Buddhist texts.

Nor is it all about Buddhism. In addition to his PhD from Harvard University, Associate Professor Radich has a degree in musical composition and a diploma in clarinet performance, and worked as a translator and interpreter at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. He is interested in psychoanalysis, anthropology, central Asian history and the cultures and languages of the Pacific; in his free time, such as it is, he writes poetry and solves cryptic crosswords.

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … Over the past two and half millennia, Buddhist modes of thought, behaviour and social organisation have profoundly impacted half of humanity. Understanding such distant, different worlds is key to a full understanding of ourselves as human beings.

One of the inspirations for my research has been … The chance to learn a wide range of natural (human) languages, dead and living. Even apparently simple thoughts like “I have 10 fingers” or “He fell in love with her” are expressed in very different ways in languages such as Japanese, Sanskrit, classical Chinese or Tibetan.

The best thing about my job is … The rush when I figure out something new about a remote historical world—something nobody else has seen, possibly since it actually happened, say, 1,500 years ago. As a friend once said, this thrill of discovery is like crack cocaine: it makes research highly addictive.

My career highlight so far has been ... I had an idea about a new way to use computers to analyse a very large corpus of digitised canonical Chinese Buddhist texts. But I didn’t know how to code and couldn’t find the time or confidence to learn. For six years, I couldn’t find anyone to help and carried the idea around with a gloomy sense nothing would ever come of it. Then I was introduced to a programmer who made a set of tools that do exactly what I wanted and more, all because he was interested in the problem for its own merits and the process of discovery. And it works, beyond my wildest dreams.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Something my PhD adviser told me and is the best advice I’ve ever heard, so I’ll pass it on: “Follow your muse.” If something grabs you and feels like an obsession, go with it.