Recently, grad assistant Shelby House interviewed Joseph Marino, who will be joining the Department of Asian Languages and Literature in Fall 2020 as Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies. Professor Marino received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from UW in 2017, and he previously served as a Sanskrit lecturer in AL&L. Read on to learn more about Professor Marino’s research interests, what to expect from his upcoming courses, and how he’s weathering the pandemic with cooking, cat videos, and ancient Sanskrit texts.
“I think Sanskrit attracts students who want to learn something unexpected. Something that opens new doors. And if you learn Sanskrit, you open the door to 3,000+ years of knowledge about the world.”
Could you tell me a little about what drew you to the study of Sanskrit and Buddhism?
My interest in religions and classical languages started young. I went to Catholic schools, so I grew up taking religion classes. My dad taught high school Greek mythology and was always telling fantastic stories around the house—scenes from the Iliad or Jason and the Argonauts. So, I guess I was doing “comparative religion” from a young age.
My first college “eastern religions” course at Youngstown State felt like a portal from Ohio to the rest of the world. It was my first chance to really engage with diverse world views, and it gave me a sense of urgency about learning to communicate with people who are different from me. I went on to finish my BA and MA in Comparative Studies at Ohio State, where I studied broadly in cultural theory and religion, wandered around Buddhist temples in China and Tibet, and discovered that I loved to teach.
So what brought you to the University of Washington?
I taught in religious studies at my hometown university, but my training in religion felt incomplete without serious language study. My brilliant boss, Mustansir Mir, would suddenly get the urge to recite Persian or Urdu poetry in our two-man office. He showed me how much joy there could be in reading classical literature in original languages, so I decided to start another MA in Sanskrit and early Buddhism. UW was the place to be for both. AL&L has a groundbreaking research project on the earliest-known Buddhist manuscripts, which are in Gāndhārī, a language related to Sanskrit. I joined the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School, whose interdisciplinary approach allowed me to take classes across the university. After a transformative study abroad (literal) pilgrimage through some of Japan’s mountain temples, I arranged my program to follow concurrent tracks in Sanskrit language/early Buddhism and Japanese language/medieval esoteric Buddhism.
A crazy stroke of luck presented me the rarely funded opportunity to do a PhD on Gāndhārī manuscripts here at UW. I was able to spend the next five years working with the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project. It was the chance of a lifetime and a complete pleasure. I found a new satisfaction in linguistic analysis, translation, and language study in general. I was thrilled to return from a 2-year post-doc at Cornell to teach Sanskrit at UW last year, and I am even more thrilled to begin teaching about Buddhism in my new position.
How was your experience teaching Sanskrit?
Teaching Sanskrit at UW has been my favorite teaching experience by far. We have wonderful students from a variety of backgrounds who are all really supportive of each other, and the small, tight-knit classes give each student a chance to be heard. The camaraderie of these classes is one of the things that helped me through the uncertainty of last Spring. Students come to Sanskrit with a wide variety of interests—religion and culture, linguistics, history, meditation and yoga, or their own family traditions. I think Sanskrit attracts students who want to learn something unexpected. Something that opens new doors. And if you learn Sanskrit, you open the door to 3,000+ years of knowledge about the world.
Last year I also offered a new class called Essential Sanskrit for Yoga and Meditation (ASIAN 498). This is for people who have interest in the roots of yoga and meditation, but aren’t yet sure they want to take the full Sanskrit series. We cover the script, pronunciation, and some basic grammar, and explore Sanskrit texts like the Bhagavad Gītā and Buddhist meditation manuals in translation. It will be offered for 3 credits again this Spring.
What can students look forward to in your upcoming courses on Buddhism?
Part of what drew me to Sanskrit was my interest in Buddhism, which helped transport Sanskrit all around the world. In fact, it is the journey of Buddhists from South Asia to Central and East Asia, and even today to the West, that I am most interested in. In my fall Buddhist Literature course (ASIAN 223), we survey important texts from each of these regions and ask questions like: What happens when Buddhists encounter new places with new cultures? How does Buddhism change as a result? Does translating Buddhist texts into new languages change the meanings? There will also be a “field observation” component, where students visit local temples via Zoom to observe the varieties of Buddhism in Seattle.
I’ll also be teaching a graduate seminar in the spring on Buddhism in Ancient Gandhāra (ASIAN 585), a region that today makes up eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. It was from this multicultural region that Buddhism was ultimately transmitted to China. We explore this history and the texts composed here, many of which have only been recently discovered. This class focuses on the themes of migration, identity, and religious hybridity.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your day-to-day work? How are you taking care of yourself in these difficult, uncertain times?
Well, the biggest change has been working from the kitchen table, which I drag into our small apartment bedroom every morning. But I found myself instantly transported when I’d log-in to teach Sanskrit – we were all in the same boat, and it felt like we were even more absorbed in our texts. I also felt lucky to be teaching texts like the Upaniṣads and Yoga Sūtras, which are by nature meditative, and through which we could all reflect on the current situation.
I think like most people I’m figuring it out as I go, and every week is a bit different. Exercise has been a big help. I am lucky to be able to run, bike, walk, and otherwise just wander around outside reminding myself how beautiful Seattle can be. I also play and listen to lots of music, and I have been reading books that have seen other pandemics come and go—the Iliad, for instance. And comedy, and cat videos, and as much good food as I can learn to cook!