My office in Cohen Hall is an exercise in chaotic reverence in many ways. It is packed with an eclectic mix of treasured memories, sacred objects, and wayward distractions. It is slightly different from many offices in that I used an extra few bookcases to house books in French, German, Javanese, Lao, Latin, Pali, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Shan, Tai Leu, and Thai to divide the space into two – I write and translate in the back area (which is often a mess with the occasional half-eaten hoagie) and teach small language classes or discussion sessions in the front. I read, try not to doze-off, and look at squirrels from the old chair (which my father gave me) in the extra-wide windowsill. When I am not working there, some of my students request to use the space to study or scream their frustrations with exams, papers, and existential conundrums.
1) BUDDHIST MONK'S ROBES AND ALMS BOWL
When I was young, I was an ordained Buddhist monk in Laos and Thailand and my abbot gave these to me so that I could share with students the monastic lifestyle and teachings. Every monk in this tradition must give up their personal property and the only possessions they can have at the monastery are a set of simple robes and a bowl with which to request food alms in the morning. Monks of my tradition only can eat once a day at seven a.m.
This is a photograph of a scholar monk, Shih Fa Zhao, that I worked with in Singapore at the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth Relic. He was kind, informative, and helped me extensively on one of my books.
3) FUGAZI MUG
Although I study pre-modern cultures, I am a former “punk rocker” and this is a mug in honor of the famous hardcore punk band from DC – Fugazi. It reminds me not to take the quiet life of a scholar too seriously.
These are centuries-old palm-leaf Buddhist manuscripts composed in the Pali and Thai languages in Khmer and Lanna scripts. I translate and analyze them in my research and often use them when teaching advanced students. I help catalog and translate Buddhist manuscripts from Southeast Asia at Penn's excellent libraries.
5) RACING NUNS
Like every professor, we often get wonderful gifts from former students after they graduate. These were a cute gift from a student many years ago. These “racing nun” dolls can be wound-up and raced against each other. I am Catholic and was taught by many kind (and strict!) nuns growing up. They were my first teachers and these remind me to try to be the best teacher I can (and hopefully a little light-hearted) for my students.
6) PALI WINE BOTTLE
I was a bartender for several years before becoming a professor and still love to mix drinks and have some wine. I keep this bottle, because the name of the winery is the same name of one of the languages I study. A nice glass of wine or stiff whiskey is occasionally earned after a long week of writing and teaching.
These are ritual vessels used by “mo wiset” or Buddhist wizards in Southeast Asia. As a former practitioner myself, I mixed “pong” (protective potions) in these and was taught by some wonderful teachers. I am “retired” now and so the potions are no longer available.