The University of Calgary Gauntlet
November 12, 2009
Prof. James Apple says he got his love of literature from his grandfather, who left him 15,000 books. It’s unclear upon entering SS 1306 if you have just walked into a small library, storage room or a professor’s office. Then you spot professor James Apple in the corner, most likely reading classical Tibetan literature at his small desk. It’s not that he enjoys his office’s textual clutter, but the assistant professor of eastern religions owns so many books that storage options are few. “I know in my brain I still have enough memory to know what I have,” Apple said as he searches for an old duotang among the annals of history and ideas. “The problem is, I don’t always know where it is.”
The Indiana native is well travelled, but his zeal for literature, regardless of language (usually), kept him grounded. “My love of books comes from my grandfather,” said Apple of his fellow family author. After stops in Bodh Gaya, India, universities in Alabama, Portland and Edmonton, Apple now finds himself at the U of C for his second year of teaching. Beginning his academic career in Bloomington, Indiana, not far from where he grew up, Apple procured a religious studies B.A. in 1993. He refined his focus and by 2001 had a Buddhist studies PhD from Wisconsin-Madison. Apple then embarked on a long, arduous study under Geshe Sopa, one of only two tenured monks in the United States at the time. The topic of Apple’s 2008 book, Stairway to Nirvana, examines the types of individuals on their way to nirvana or full awakening as Buddhas. Typically, Tibetans study this topic for one year, but nobody at Wisconsin-Madison had an interest. For about 25 years the project sat on the shelf until Sopa convinced Apple to examine it. “I remember telling him, ‘This is the most boring topic I can think of,’ ” said Apple. Despite his apprehension, he studied the topic for a year and now realizes how important the time was. “It provides an account of all the cosmological structures for awakening.” Studying and understanding indigenous structures before applying analysis to them is a paramount operation in Apple’s mind. “A lot of the book is an emic [insider], indigenous perspective of what this system is. It’s quite complex.”
With such a advanced understanding of Buddhist traditions, Apple was able to fully appreciate his surroundings when he travelled to Bodh Gaya while teaching with Antioch University’s study abroad program in 2001. Bodh Gaya is the city where Gautama Buddha’s awakening took place. Apple visited other traditional sites of the spiritual teacher during his seven months overseas. India was an eye-opening event for the young professor. “In India, it’s a different world, almost like a different planet,” he said. “It’s a flux, a kaleidoscope of sound and colour.”
The journey to explore foreign countries and their history doesn’t always have to take place overseas, as Apple can attest to. His newest research undertaking is examining past texts from Drepung the Monastery in Lhasa. In his book Apple produced a list of texts, including ones from 11th to 14th century Tibet that were thought to be historical write-offs. Multiple volumes have recently been discovered from Karma Tenkyong Wangpo’s library. Now with about 30 long, skinny, hand-written Tibetan documents, Apple said he has more than a lifetime of work to begin pouring over. “If there was student interest there would be several PhDs, perhaps,” said Apple. “We’re very fortunate to have access to this type of stuff.”
Generally Tibetans don’t wish to share much historical information and Apple counts himself lucky to have read the documents. The ancient text is written in Tibetan, something Apple has been reading for over a decade, as well as Sanskrit. “It was gradual,” said Apple, who first began his journey into secondary languages with French before moving into eastern tongues. “Teachers in Wisconsin said you have to have Sanskrit.” Apple studied six to seven hours a day memorizing inflections and paradigms. “If you really crack your head open with one it gets easier,” said Apple of learning multiple languages. Studying Latin in high school helped the young collegiate connect words and phrases together. Friends told him one language would suffice, but Sopa explained to Apple that Tibetan and Sanskrit are like the sun and the moon — inseparable.
Apple also attributes his love of language to his grandfather, Floyd, who as a theologian studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew. When Apple’s grandfather died in 2002 he left his grandson over 15,000 books, many of which line the shelves in SS 1306 — a cozy, chaotic room where the quest for knowledge seldom rests. Apple said it is always nice to discover books he forgot he had in his vast library. “Order is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, smiling behind his desk.