Spreading the butterfly’s wings

Nov. 10, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Center for Buddhist Studies works to expand presence on campus

Spreading the butterfly's wings
(ALEX BAYER/The Stanford Daily)

Buddhism is one of the most practiced religions in the world. It is not merely a series of meditative exercises but a complex philosophy entrenched in the cultural traditions of East Asian peoples. The University, through the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford (HCBSS), is dedicating time and resources to an area of study, which in the past, has not been emphasized academically on campus.

“Buddhism is often not well understood in the United States,” said religious studies professor Paul Harrison. “Just under half of Americans, according to a recent survey done last year, do not know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, which is a surprising finding.”

As a student, Harrison grew interested in Buddhist Studies and Buddhist literature in particular after majoring in Chinese and Japanese. He is now the co-director of the HCBSS, which contributes to the Buddhist Studies Program and is dedicated to raising public interest and awareness of different aspects of Buddhism. A unit of the Division of International, Comparative and Area Studies, it is closely affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies, the Tibetan Studies Initiative and the Buddhist Community at Stanford.

According to HCBSS associate director Irene Lin, part of the purpose of its founding in 1997 was that the field of Buddhist Studies and humanities in general did not have many resources. Formerly called the Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies until 2008, the Center was renamed when it received an endowment, as well a graduate fellowship and a visiting professorship, from the HCBSS.

The HCBSS is dedicated to promoting the academic study and public understanding of the Buddhist tradition. It conducts a number of research projects and seminars and brings research fellows to the campus. According to Lin, applicants from around the world are accepted depending on how closely their research projects correlate with existing studies. The rigor of the application process ensures applicants will be able to contribute to and learn from the Center.

Carl Bielefeldt, co-director of HCBSS and chair of the Religious Studies Department, is involved in the Soto Zen Text Project, which works at translating the materials used for the practice of Soto Zen, a sect of Zen in Japanese Buddhism. Harrison, too, is working on research on the study of Buddhist literature.

“At present, that study is undergoing a kind of boom period because of the discovery of large numbers of new Buddhist manuscripts in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Harrison said. “There is also material coming out of the People’s Republic of China, which was previously held in Tibet.”

Harrison added that the Buddhist manuscript project will contribute to a better understanding of the Buddhist tradition from both the perspectives of the Buddhist scholar and practitioner, which are becoming more integrated, he said. According to Harrison, many scholars are also practitioners who have an insider’s perspective on the tradition. At the same time, he said, practitioners who read research benefit from new analyses and translations of the texts.

“It’s not as if the two worlds are entirely separate,” he said.

Harrison added that the Center holds events that expose students to the practitioner’s perspective.

“I think [students] should have some appreciation of what Buddhism is like as a living tradition,” he said. “It’s not just something that’s dead and pinned to the wall like a butterfly.”

According to Bielefeldt in an email to The Daily, despite current research efforts, the Center lacks multi-disciplinary perspectives including history, literature, art and anthropology because of the fact that the faculty works within the Religious Studies department. Furthermore, the coverage of Buddhism in the Religious Studies department does not extend much beyond India, China and Japan.

“[Coverage is] as broad as we can make it given that we only have two faculty members at present,” Harrison said. “But we try and compensate for that by inviting people who can give our students and interested members of the public a different perspective.”

According to Bielefeldt, these weaknesses are also compensated through library facilities and research funding. HCBSS holds research seminars, workshops, conferences and lectures for scholars. Each quarter, the Center brings a speaker to talk about different practices.

Around one-third of all the events are directed specifically towards the public, all or most of which are free, with no registration required, Lin said, and the theme of the event varies according to demand. For instance, there have been a series of events related to Buddhist art and Tibetan Buddhism. According to Lin, the events have attracted a considerable amount of campus interest, with about 100 to 300 attendees at each event.

What makes Buddhist Studies so relevant today? Lin emphasized “Engaged Buddhism,” which examines the different ways Buddhism can be applied in society, from social work to healing to working at corporations. Harrison stressed the importance of studying and keeping religions alive in an age she said is becoming increasingly secular.

“It’s important to know the religious traditions that have affected people’s lives,” Harrison said. “That is no less important these days than it has ever been, if not more important.”

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