2024 Lecture Series “Asian Buddhism: Text, Art, and Practice”

GCBS’s own professors and several invited guests will deliver talks in the framework of the  lecture series “Asian Buddhism: Text, Art, and Practice” (June 22-23, 2024) aimed at the GENERAL PUBLIC. Participation can be both in-person and ONLINE. For details, see below.

Vandenhove Pavilion, Ghent
JUNE 22 – 23, 2024

On the occasion of the Doctoral School “Chinese Buddhist Iconography and Manuscript Culture: Fieldwork Data and their Use in Pedagogical Contexts, with an Emphasis on Digital Resources”, Ghent University, a series of LECTURES FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC is organized at the exhibition center Vandenhove Pavilion by the Department of Languages and Cultures (Ghent University), with the generous support of the FROGBEAR project “From the Ground Up: Buddhism and East Asian Religions”.

The lectures can be both attended in person, or by online participation upon registration (please register before June 20).

SCHEDULE (might be subject to changes)

SATURDAY (June 22nd, 2024)
10:00 – 11:00
A sacred mountain of one’s own: Four inscribed landscapes by Zheng Daozhao (455-516) and their audience
Prof. Lia Wei (Inalco)

This presentation travels accross four inscribed landscapes by Zheng Daozhao (455-516), analysing the means adopted and motivations invoked by 6th century local official Zheng Daozhao to mark these mountains. The peculiar form of poetic activity practiced by Zheng – engraving bare cliffs in the mountains neighbouring the urban centers where he was on duty – builds upon funerary and religious practice of the medieval period, from the carving of an epitaph to commemorate his father, to the placing and symbolic construction of Taoist altars. The posterity of the four inscribed landscapes by Zheng Daozhao seems to be limited to a few interventions by his son Zheng Shuzu (485-565), and the sites were not visited or commented upon in the following centuries, which leads one to wonder whether this highly individualized endeavour could be understood as a historical failure. Even when Zheng’s inscriptions were integrated in the history of calligraphy by the 19th century Stele School, along with other northern epigraphic monuments, his oeuvre circulated mostly in the shape of rubbings. The inscribed landscapes have not been historically valued in their own right, as spatial installations to be experienced in situ, a gap that has impacted the modern heritagization of the sites. During the voyage proposed here in Zheng’s fours mountains, we will keep these questions in mind: How and why did Zheng mark the mountain?  Who was his audience – in medieval, late imperial and modern times – ?

Lia Wei is associate professor in Chinese art history at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (Inalco). She has been conducting research in China since 2009, with a focus on medieval Buddhist epigraphy and cave temples in Northeast China (Shandong, Hebei, Henan provinces) as well as funerary landscapes in Southwest China (Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei and Hunan provinces). She received her PhD with a thesis entitled ‘Highland Routes and Frontier Communities at the Fall of the Han Empire (2nd to 3rd century CE): A Comparative Study of Cave Burials South of the Yangzi River’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In 2018-2021, she was based at the Department of Archaeology and Museum Studies in Renmin University of China. In parallel to her activity as an art historian/archaeologist, she practices seal carving and ink painting, and designs projects that combine academic and artistic research (Ink Art Week in Venice 2018, Lithic Impressions Venice 2018, Ink Brussels 2019, Les cinq couleurs de l’encre 2022, Pratique de l’estampage 2023).

11:00 – 12:00

Premodern conservation practice and political legitimacy: The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang during the Guiyijun Period (848–1036)
Michelle C. Wang (Georgetown University)

My paper explores renovations to the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang carried out during the Guiyijun Period (848–1036), in particular, the construction of wooden structures attached to certain cave façades. In doing so, my aims are twofold: first, I will argue for evidence of premodern conservation practice that coincided with the aspirations of the Cao clan, who ruled Dunhuang in 914–1036, for the longevity of their rule. Second, I develop ways of thinking about the Mogao Caves from a transhistorical perspective that considers the lives and afterlives of Buddhist sites.

Michelle C. Wang (Department of Art and Art History, Georgetown University) is a specialist in the Buddhist and silk road art of northwestern China, primarily of the 6th-10th centuries. Her first book Maṇḍalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang (Brill, 2018) examines Buddhist mandalas of the 8th-10th centuries at the Mogao and Yulin Buddhist cave shrines in northwestern China. She has also written about art and ritual, miracle tales of animated statues, Buddhist materiality, the transcultural reception of Buddhist motifs, and text and image. Her current research examines the reception of medieval silk road sites during the Victorian era.



14:00 – 15:00
Japonism and Buddhism in Belgium at the beginning of 20th century
Dr. Lyce Jankowski (Curator of extra-European art – Royal Museum of Mariemont)

At the end of the 19th century, Emile Guimet opened a museum of history of religions – trying to fit Asian religious statuary into a global comparative approach of world religions. Three decades later, the Royal Museum of Mariemont opened its door to the public. Its founder, Raoul Warocqué (1870-1917) who bequeathed its entire estate and collection to the Belgian State in 1917, was an art collector with a taste for archaeology and Asian art among others. Buddhist art was pre-eminently displayed inside the museum but also outside. A 6 feet tall statue of an Amida Buddha as well as a thousand-armed Guanyin were placed in the park for visitors to enjoy – whereas in the museum, an Edo period Amida Buddha would sit opposite a gigantic statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and flanked by Indian divinities. The large collection of Buddhist artefacts acquired by Raoul Warocqué in Asia and in Europe at the turn of the century questions the meaning of these objects taken from their religious context and displayed in a private house, soon to be a museum. One need to approach them within the wider context of Japonism and question the “religious” meaning of them: some of these artefacts have been cast for export and are nothing more than collectables. The cultural appropriation of Buddhist art in Europe should also be put in perspective with positivism, which in the Belgium kingdom was linked to free-masonry. We will question the meaning of Buddhist statuary within the masonic room of the Royal Museum of Mariemont.

Lyce Jankowski holds a PhD (2012) in Art History from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She is curator of extra-European art at the Royal Museum of Mariemont in Belgium and was previously in charge of the East Asian coin collection at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Her last publication, co-edited with Alice Bianchi, is The Social Lives of Chinese Objects (Brill 2022). Her research interest is on the history of collections and the commodification of East Asian art in Belgium in 19th and 20th century. She is currently researching the provenance of the Buddhist art collection of the Royal Museum of Mariemont.




15:00 – 16:00
Appreciating nature through Buddhist art
Dr. Sau Ling Wendy Yu (Hong Kong University)

Buddhism holds all living things in equal regard, and thus, animals play a vital role in Buddhist scriptures. In the jātaka stories, for instance, the Buddha was reborn as different animals in his past lives, practising bodhisattva practices and accumulating merit. These stories, with their lively portrayal and profound morals, are widely loved by people. Plants are also prominently featured in Buddhist scriptures, with different sacred trees marking several essential stages in the life of the Buddha. Additionally, some animals and plants have symbolic significance in preaching the teachings of Buddhism. These narratives are typically vividly expressed through art. This lecture will lead the audience to explore the animals and plants in the Buddhist scriptures and appreciate the beauty of nature through the stories of the Buddha’s life and jātaka presented in Buddhist art. It also shares how to appreciate, respect and protect nature from a Buddhist perspective.

Sau Ling Wendy Yu holds a PhD in Buddhist Art from the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on exploring the aesthetic aspects of Buddhism as expressed through its art. Wendy believes that the combination of truth and beauty makes Buddhism even more compelling, and she is passionate about promoting this beauty through her research. Wendy is also an avid birdwatcher, bird artist and serves as an EXCO member of the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society. Her passion for birds extends into her research, where she specifically focuses on the bird imagery found in Buddhist art. One notable highlight of her academic journey is her thesis, which was an innovative, cross-disciplinary investigation of Pure Land birds integrating archaeological materials, textual evidence and ornithological knowledge. Birds preach the Dharma in Amitabha’s Pure Land, and Wendy acts as a bridge to share their fascinating stories with the world. Currently, Wendy works as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong, where she is responsible for conducting research activities related to Buddhist art. Additionally, she volunteers as a docent at Tsz Shan Monastery Buddhist Art Museum and Hong Kong Palace Museum.

SUNDAY (June 23rd, 2024)
10:00 – 11:00
Caretakers and community: A sample of Chinese Buddhist temples in the Bangkok area in May 2023
Kira Johansen (Florida State University / Yale University)

The 2023 Cluster 3.4 Fieldwork Trip: Typologies of Text: Text-Image Relations in Bangkok, Thailand sought to explore the intersections of Buddhist cultures through the documentation of Chinese Buddhist temples throughout the Bangkok area. A topic not often touched upon in scholarship due to spatiotemporal boundaries and limitations, the Cluster 3.4 Fieldwork Trip brought to light the many nuanced levels of modern temple culture, specifically how temple caretakers play an active role in the community and the culture of the temple, and the identity of the temple itself. Many members throughout the fieldwork often defaulted to interviews with temple caretakers in an effort to glean more information about the history and communities of the temples for database input. In doing so, fieldwork participants came to discover that temple caretakers, within the scope of the fieldwork, often had an intimate relationship with the temples, sleeping in them, cleaning them, and in certain particular instances had their own special practices, like providing shows for the temple god to watch, as an example. Furthermore, temple caretakers managed intricate donor systems, and maintained donor information. In many of the temples, these donors were highlighted in inscriptions, and on seasonal materials (e.g. Chinese New Year laterns).  This proposal seeks to expound upon the roles of temple caretakers as uncovered during the 2023 Cluster 3.4 Fieldwork Trip in Bangkok, Thailand and specifically aims to identify ways in which temple caretakers encountered on the fieldwork are bastions of their respective temple histories and practices, and explores their specific and intimate relationship with the temples themselves.

Kira Johansen is a recent graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in International Affairs and a concentration in Religion and French. Following her graduation from Florida State University in August of 2023, Johansen has been accepted and matriculated at Yale University as a Master’s candidate in East Asian Studies starting in the Fall of 2024. Johansen’s primary research focuses on translation and interpretation of the Biographies of Nuns, although she more broadly focused on medieval Chinese Buddhism, and Buddhist nuns. Recently, Johansen has been heavily involved in the University of British Columbia’s From the Ground Up: Buddhist and East Asian Studies (FROGBEAR) Cluster 3.4 Project: “Typologies of Text-Image Relations” as a fieldwork participant and metadata creator for Chinese temples in Bangkok, Thailand. She hopes to incorporate the fruits of this research into a larger research project in the future connecting Chinese diasporas and religiosity to the Thai religious landscape. Along with Christoph Anderl, Johansen is aiding in the compilation of an exhibition on Buddha’s life at the Mariemont Museum (September 2024 – April 2025).

11:00 – 12:00
Ants in vinaya texts: between India and China
Prof. Ann Heirman (Ghent University)

Buddhist texts generally prohibit the killing or harming of sentient beings. This is certainly the case in vinaya (disciplinary) texts, which contain strict guidelines on the preservation of all animal life. When these texts were translated into Chinese, they formed the core of Buddhist behavioural codes, and medieval Chinese vinaya masters, such as Daoxuan  (596–667), wrote extensive commentaries on them, introducing Indian concepts into the Chinese environment. But do these authors have anything to say about tiny creatures that are highly visible yet often neglected: ants?

Humans tend to consider ants as unwelcome pests, and as such frequently try to eliminate them. Yet, they are undoubtedly sentient beings that – according to Buddhist principles – should not be harmed or killed. In that sense, their actions affect human activities, pushing people to react.

This lecture explores what this complex relationship between ants and humanity implies for Buddhist monastics. First, it examines the Indian vinayas’ guidance on the subject of these crawling insects. In which contexts do they appear, and how do monastics perceive them? Second, it investigates how Chinese masters interpreted the guidelines contained within the Indian texts. How do they suggest devout Buddhists should deal with ants? How do they translate the Indian concepts, both linguistically and culturally, for their Chinese audiences? And which of Buddhism’s basic principles do they hold in the highest esteem?

Ann Heirman, Ph.D. (1998) in Oriental Languages and Cultures, is full professor of Chinese Language and Culture and head of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at Ghent University in Belgium. She has published extensively on Chinese Buddhist monasticism and the development of disciplinary rules, including Rules for Nuns according to the Dharmaguptakavinaya (Motilal Banarsidass, 2002), The Spread of Buddhism (Brill, edited volume with Stephan Peter Bumbacher, 2007), A Pure Mind in a Clean Body (with Mathieu Torck, Academia Press, 2012), and Buddhist Encounters and Identities Across East Asia (Brill, edited volume with Carmen Meinert and Christoph Anderl, 2018).



14:00 – 16:00
Visualizing the Buddhist scriptures: An investigation into Transformation Tableaux in Mogao Cave 61 of Dunhuang
Prof. Christoph Anderl (Ghent University) and MA students of the Department of Languages and Cultures

In this lecture, MA students of the course “Buddhism: Text and Material Culture” at the Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University will present results of this term’s research topic, a selection of Transformation Tableaux in the 10th century Mogao Cave 61 of the oasis town of Dunhuang. Transformation Tableaux refer to large-scale visualizations of important Buddhist Mahāyāna sūtras, projected on the walls of Buddhist cave temples in Medieval China. This presentation is the result of group work, based on the collaborative effort of Belgian and Chinese MA students. It is the outcome of our research-oriented approach which aims to produce results which become visible “beyond the classroom”, either in the form of journal papers, entries in scholarly databases, or presentations for the general public.



Christoph Anderl (Ghent University)

Christoph Anderl specializes on medieval Chinese manuscript culture, Buddhist Chinese, and various topics related to the development and adaptation of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang and Five Dynasties periods. During the last years, his focus has been on the study of modes of representation of Buddhist narratives in textual and visual media, including methodological and theoretical issues concerning the interrelation of text and image. In this context, he has also acted as leader of the Research Cluster “Typologies of Text-Image Relations” in the large UBC-based interdisciplinary project “From the Ground Up: Buddhism and East Asian Religions”, with ca. 30 participating universities. In order to study text-image relations and modes of representations in specific contexts, he has organized several conferences/seminars, as well as conducted fieldwork in China and Bangkok, leading groups of participants from international universities. Anderl is also the editor-in-chief of a database of non-canonical Dunhuang texts and character variants found in Dunhuang texts and other materials of the medieval period, a long-term project conducted in collaboration with Asian and European universities. For current projects, see Professor Anderl’s profile at the research portal of the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies.

2023 PTBS Lecture Series

Abstract: Our Spring 2023 Lecture Series highlights a diverse spectrum of topics related to Buddhism. The lectures take place on Tuesday evenings from 7–9PM CET, and will be hybrid (delivered in person while streamed simultaneously).

The physical location is at Ghent University in Room 0.4 (Blandijnberg 2, 9000 Ghent) unless otherwise stated. The series is open to anyone interested in Buddhist Studies.

March 14: Anna Sokolova (UGent)

Stone Inscriptions as Source Material in the Doctrinal and Social History of Medieval Chinese Buddhism”

Whenever a renowned Buddhist monk passed away in medieval China, his disciples, lay followers, and state officials collaborated to establish a stele with a carved epitaph relating to the life of the deceased master. Other common reasons for the establishment of a commemorative, inscribed stele were the foundation of a significant institution, such as a monastery or ritual sanctuary, and the erection of a statue. Although very few of these medieval Buddhist stelae inscriptions are still in situ, a large corpus of texts has been transmitted in literary collections, and several important memorials have been excavated over the last century. This talk will focus on medieval Buddhist epigraphy from the seventh to the tenth century with a view to explaining its value as source material on early Chinese Buddhist communities and their interactions with secular society from a variety of perspectives. Specifically, these sources will be referenced to address such key questions as: How did Buddhist identities and lineages evolve in medieval China? What was the role of the imperial court and state bureaucrats in the formation and growth of regional Buddhist communities? And how did certain ritual practices emerge and develop? The talk will also touch upon the methodology of working with Buddhist epigraphy, such as the application of Social Network Analysis (SNA) in studies of Chinese medieval Buddhism.

March 21: Henry Albery (UGent)

“Pleasure and Fear: On the Paradox of Art and its Responses, from Ghent to Gandhāra”
In person/online

March 28: Edel Maex (psychiatrist and Zen teacher) (in Dutch)

“Waar anders dan in de dagelijkse praktijk?”

Je kunt het boeddhisme vanuit verschillende invalshoeken benaderen. Voor een filosoof is het een filosofie en voor een godsdienstwetenschapper een geloof. En ook wie op zoek is naar sjamanisme en magie kan er zijn gading in vinden.  Voor vele Aziaten maakt het deel uit van de vanzelfsprekende culturele achtergrond. Een Westerling daarentegen kan zich juist door de exotiek ervan aangesproken voelen. Maar misschien is het boeddhisme in de eerste plaats een praktijk. En ook al heeft de  praktijk van meditatie, vooral het in het Westen, daarin een belangrijke rol, uiteindelijk komt het neer op de praktijk van het dagelijkse leven.

“Buddhism in practice: where else?”

 One can approach Buddhism from different angles. For a philosopher it is a philosophy and for a scholar of religion a faith. And those looking for shamanism and magic can also find their likings in it. For many Asians, it is part of the natural cultural background. A Westerner, on the other hand, may feel drawn to it because of its exoticism. But perhaps Buddhism is first and foremost a practice. And even though the practice of meditation, especially in the West, has an important role in it, ultimately it comes down to the practice of daily life.

April 18: Lucas Vanden Boer (UGent)

“The Great Monastery of Nālandā: The World’s First University?”

Nālandā mahāvihāra was a large Buddhist monastery in the East of India which flourished from the 5th until the early 13th century CE. In its heyday, it attracted thousands of students from all over Asia who did not only study the Buddhist scriptures but also learned sciences, such as grammar, philosophy, and medicine. For this reason, the monastery of Nālandā is often portrayed as a university. However, the labelling of Nālandā as a university in some early scholarly publications has led to many ahistorical claims and fantasies in later academic and popular literature. In my talk, I will discuss what we actually know about Nālandā as a centre of knowledge and learning. I will also explore the merits and demerits of using the European label ‘university’ for a Buddhist institute of knowledge that predates the foundation of the first European universities for more than half a millennium.

April 25: Martin Seeger (University of Leeds)

“The veneration of Buddhist relics in Thailand”

Relics, stūpas (sacred monuments containing Buddhist relics), and amulets are key elements of Thai Buddhist culture. Discussing a number of relevant case studies, I will demonstrate the importance of studying material culture when trying to better understand religion. I will address the following questions: How can we explain the fascination with (Thai Buddhist) relics? How does our understanding of (Thai) religion change when we also consider material culture? What can we learn from a study that focuses on the veneration of Buddhist relics? Thus, I will show that material objects, such as relics and stūpas, often have a much wider and profound impact on religious practices, beliefs and emotions than canonical and other important Buddhist texts.

May 2:  Max Deeg (Cardiff University)

“Holy topography: The role and function of space in the development of Buddhism in India”

This talk will focus on the conceptual and physical construction of space in the history of Indian Buddhism. It will argue that the evolvement of a sacred topography in the Buddhist heartland in the Gangetic plain – but also beyond it – played a crucial role in the success of the religion as it gave both the monastic community (saṅgha) and the Buddhist laypeople a concrete framework for religious practice (relic and stūpa veneration, contemplation, commemoration of the “glorious past” of the Buddha’s lifetime). The examples or case studies will be taken from the speaker’s recent exploration of respective sites in Bihar, particularly the region between Bodhgayā, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and Rājgir (Rājagṛha), the ancient capital of Magadha.

May 9: Aruna Keerthi Gamage (Philipps Universität Marburg) 

“Metonymy and Meditation: A Study of (rūḷhi) in Theravāda Buddhism”

Metonymy is a figure of speech and it is represented by the Pāli term rūḷhi (Skt. rūḍhi). It refers to the substitution of the original meaning of a phenomenon to a secondary one. For instance, the original meaning of the term maṇḍapa is ‘scum-drinker.’ But it is secondarily substituted to a ‘pavilion.’ As the primary sources of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition show, many of the rūḷhis have two diametrically opposed metonymic functions—1 Either the expansion or 2 the contraction of the original meaning—when they appear in the Tipiṭaka, which is the canon of Theravāda Buddhist tradition. Theravāda Buddhist masters record a considerable number of canonical words that are examples of rūḷhi. Important interpretations of these are to be found in the commentaries of Buddhaghosa (5th c. CE), especially in his magnum opus entitled Visuddhimagga. The ninth chapter of this commentary teaches how the knowledge in metonymy helps meditator to successfully develop loving kindness (mettā). This lecture focuses on this particular exegesis appearing in the Visuddhimagga.

May 16: Daniela Campo (Université de Strasbourg)

“Individual and Collective Practices at a Chan Female Monastery in Contemporary China”

The Great Chan Monastery of the Golden Mountain (Dajinshan Chansi 大金山禪寺) is a large monastic complex for nuns located in Jiangxi province in southeast China and belonging to the Chan (meditation) school. The monastic community counts a steady average of two hundred nuns, including about a hundred student-nuns of the Buddhist Academy. This case study will consider the monastery as an institutional environment where religious practice is conducted: who practices what, and why? Are practices taught and learned, and if yes, how and by whom? What changes did religious practice undergo in the post-Mao era? How do these changes reflect shifts in individual, social and institutional goals? This presentation will try to answer these questions by providing an overview of the individual and collective practices performed at the monastery, including ritual, devotional and renunciatory practices, as well as of the different actors teaching and performing them.


2022 PTBS Lecture Series

Our Spring 2022 Lecture Series highlighted a diverse spectrum of topics related to Buddhism.

March 10: Nan Ouyang (UGent) “Constructing the Divine Abode of Dizang Bodhisattva: Mt. Jiuhua in Late Imperial China”


This talk focuses on the historical transformation of Mt. Jiuhua from a local mountain to a national pilgrimage destination and the ways in which Mt. Jiuhua became the divine abode of Dizang Bodhisattva (Skt. Kṣitigarbha), a savior of the underworld beings in Chinese Buddhism, in the late imperial period (14th–20th centuries). This study explains the making of the sacred mountain by analyzing four salient features of local Jiuhua Buddhism. First, it deals with the cult of mummified bodies by looking into local mortuary practices. Jiuhua Buddhists, choosing not to follow the monastic rules concerning cremation, opted to create a successful tradition of mummy-making for the deceased Buddhists. The continuing emergence of new mummies shaped the perceived sacred atmosphere of Mt. Jiuhua. Second, by analyzing relevant precious scrolls (baojuan), it reveals how vernacular literature functioned as a medium for the localization of Dizang. The performance based on such literature that was carried out at Buddhist events was the key to the further dissemination of the image of Mt. Jiuhua as a sacred mountain. Third, it explores the devotionalpractices of the eminent Buddhist master Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655) on Mt. Jiuhua during his sojourn, and how the highly charged religious atmosphere of Mt. Jiuhua facilitates Zhixu’s devotion to Dizang. Fourth, it argues that the sacredness of the mountain was constructed and negotiated through pilgrimage practices, evidenced by many material objects used in pilgrimage. In summary, in explicating the uniqueness of Jiuhua Buddhism, this study adopts an interdisciplinary approach that bridges religion and geography and contributes to the study of sacred space in Chinese religion. By challenging the artificial dichotomy between “institutional” and “popular” religion and using understudied local materials, this study provides a different evaluation of the vitality of Ming-Qing Buddhism by focusing on religious practices.

March 17: William Bodiford (UCLA) “Our Dogen: His Birth, Lives, and Afterlives”

Dōgen (1200–1253), a Japanese Buddhist monk, walks amongst us, not just as a citizen of the world or as a Buddhist, but now celebrated as a timeless thinker, philosopher, and literary poet. Thanks to the gift of translation, his words provide people around the world with insights into their own selves, into Asian thought, and into Japanese culture. This remarkably versatile Dōgen first appeared about ninety years ago. My presentation will revisit the circumstances of his birth, trace his transformations and development across multiple fields of thought and literary genres, and conclude with a few reflections on what his multiple lives can tell us about ourselves.

March 24: Lindsey DeWitt Prat (UGent) “The Dharma of Japanese Sumo: Religion, Tradition, and the Female Taboo”

Few icons of Japanese culture are more widely recognized than the sumo wrestler. He sports a loin cloth and a slicked back topknot. His hulking body is aimed to engage. And the sumo wrestler is always a man, in the popular imagination at least. The Japan Sumo Association, a quasi-governmental corporation, champions itself as the custodian of a divine affair cultivated by male deities and mortal men, and exclusive of women. Juxtaposing modern and contemporary sumo literature with historical documents and present-day practices, Dr. DeWitt Prat will peer behind the icon to show how the fantasies surrounding sumo obscure the richness and diversity of its cultural history, a history that includes women.

March 31: Berthe Jansen (Leipzig & Leiden) “What is Buddhist About Law? A View from Early Modern Tibet”

While, within Buddhist Studies, there has been considerable disagreement on the relationship between Buddhism and law, it has been a vastly understudied subject that has fortunately received more academic attention in the past decade. Scholars in the past have equated Buddhist ethics or philosophy with Buddhism tout court. TW Rhys Davids, for example, once remarked that “in the strict sense of the word there is no Buddhist law; there is only an influence exercised by Buddhist ethics on changes that have taken place in customs” (1914: 827). On the other extreme, Rebecca French has positioned for the case of Tibet that “[m]ind training and inner morality are also at the center of the legal system for Tibetan Buddhists” (French 1998: 519) and that “[a]ll laws were understood as religious” (1995: 345). Contemporary scholars of Buddhism and law such as Lammerts and Schonthal attempt to find middle ground, in which Buddhist practice (ie, what Buddhists do), as evidenced either by texts or human conduct, takes center stage. In this talk, I will present a view from early modern Tibet on the complex question of how Buddhism and law intertwine. Using examples from prescriptive legal texts and descriptive legal cases, I will demonstrate in this talk how this entwinement was thought of by Tibetan Buddhists and how this played out in society.

April 21: Charles DiSimone (UGent) “Putting Together a Puzzle Without All the Pieces: Reading Damaged Buddhist Manuscripts”

In the modern world we live in one is presented with a seemingly incalculable number of books to choose from, each and every one a perfect product of precise publication parameters printed on pristine pages. For scholars it is as simple as plucking a well-edited tome off a library shelf or, even easier, pressing one’s finger over a ‘download’ virtual button to have primary source material in its original language or even a well-thought (and sometimes not so well thought) translation. These beautiful editions and translations and the studies that result from them are the products of the gritty work of scholars puzzling over various manuscript materials. This talk is designed as a sort of ‘how it’s made’ instruction and will outline the process of the philological and textual study of Buddhist manuscripts from broken artefacts in the ground to critical editions. Recent manuscript discoveries in Greater Gandhāra will serve as focus point around which the talk will revolve.

April 28: Amy Langenberg (Eckerd College) & Ann Gleig (University of Central Florida) “Did the Buddha Teach Consent?: Buddhist Ethics After Sexual Abuse in Contemporary North American Communities”

Since the 1980s, North American Buddhist communities have been the site of recurring sexual misconduct and abuse allegations. While efforts to bring about justice have been hampered by denial and deflection from teachers, community leaders, and board members, a number of grassroot initiatives have responded more effectively to abuse. Drawing on ethnographic research in multiple North American and transnational Buddhist communities, we identify an emerging Buddhist sexual ethics in these grassroots justice efforts. We will focus, in particular, on three significant responses to abuse: transparency and accountability, sexual consent, and a survivor-centered orientation. We will map each onto classical Buddhist sexual ethics, illuminating areas of disjunction and overlap. Taking our cue from survivor-center advocacy, we argue that, although a Buddhist sexual ethics is locatable in textual traditions or lineage-based teachings, only critical constructive approaches make classical Buddhist sexual ethics useful for just responses to abuse.

May 5: Naomi Appleton (Edinburgh) & Chris Jones (Cambridge) “Three Paths, Two Buddhas and One Vehicle: Disentangling Indian Buddhist Literature”

In the famous Lotus Sūtra parable of the burning house, the father promises his three sons three types of vehicle with which they can play, in order to get them to leave the building. When they get outside, their gifts are identical. As any student of Buddhism knows, the three vehicles represent the three ways to reach liberation in early Buddhism: the bodhisattva path leading to full and perfect buddhahood; the path of the śrāvaka or “hearer”, leading to arhatship; and the vehicle that leads to becoming a pratyekabuddha, an independent or solitary buddha. The one vehicle is, of course, the Mahāyāna or “Great Vehicle”. This parable paints a simple picture of the three vehicles of mainstream Buddhism being supplanted by the all-encompassing Mahāyāna, and this has been much repeated in scholarly literature. This paper, which emerges from a collaborative project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, offers a more complicated assessment of early Buddhist accounts of paths, vehicles and buddhas, with a focus on Indian narrative literature on both sides of the Mahāyāna divide. Was the idea of three paths or vehicles really taken for granted in non-Mahāyāna contexts? And how do Mahāyāna sources make sense of these categories of liberation as they seek to offer new perspectives? By exploring a range of narrative literature that engages these debates, we shed new light on ideas about buddhahood, and on the role of these ideas in the distinction between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna thought.

May 12: Eric Greene (Yale University) “Did Early Chinese Buddhists Understand their Scriptures? – What the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Commentaries Show Us”

In the grand narratives of the transmission of Buddhism to China, only beginning in the early fifth century did Indian Buddhist literature come to be translated into Chinese in a manner both accurate and comprehensible. Though “accurate” is arguably a normative assessment that we might question, there can be no doubt that many pre-fifth-century Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts are very difficult to understand and that later Chinese Buddhists on the whole rarely read, studied, or commented on them. As scholars have in recent years analyzed in more detail the texts attributed to key early translators such as Dharmarakṣa 竺法護, Zhi Qian 支謙, and An Shigao 安世高, we have learned much more about the how these early translations worked. Yet while it is now often possible for us, armed with our knowledge of parallel Indic texts, to see how these early translations were intended to work, it is much harder to know how or whether Chinese readers would have made sense of them. In this paper, I will examine whether early Chinese Buddhists were able to understand their scriptures by looking at the very few cases where we have access to (1) a difficult-understand early Chinese translation, (2) a parallel Indic text that allows us to be nearly certain how the translation was intended to work, and (3) an early Chinese commentary that allows us to see how the passages were understood. Such commentaries once existed for a fair number of pre-Kumārajīva Chinese Buddhist scriptures, though only a few survive within the Chinese Buddhist canon. In recent years, a number of new (albeit fragmentary) commentaries to pre-fifth-century translations have come to light from the Dunhuang and Turfan manuscripts. Drawing from these examples, in this talk I will discuss some cases where early Chinese commentaries evidently preserved accurate knowledge of the original Indian texts that had not been included in the translations proper or which had in the translations been rendered in an impossible to understand form. Here, in short, we have evidence for a living interpretive community, presumably one originating in the original translation event itself, that at least sometimes provided a scaffolding that would have made even impossible-to-understand Chinese translations comprehensible.


These lecture series were generously sponsored by the Tianzhu Foundation.

2021 PTBS Lecture Series

March 9: Anna Andreeva (Uni Heidelberg & Ghent University) “Buddhism and Women’s Health in Medieval Japan”

March 16: Matthew Orsborn (Oxford University) “Monastic Training and Education in Contemporary Taiwanese Buddhism”

Since the middle of the 20th century, Buddhism in the Republic of China has been led by the reformist ‘Humanistic Buddhism’ (Renjian fojiao 人間佛教) movement. One key area of Taixü’s 太虛 program of modernization was that of monastic education and training, centered on Buddhist colleges (Fo xüe yüan 佛學院). However, this proposed ideal system was unable to be actualized during his lifetime in mainland China. His successors in Taiwan, such as Yin Shun 印順, Hsing Yun 星雲 and Sheng Yen 聖嚴, encountered the challenge of a new social, cultural and political climate. Numerous Buddhist colleges were established by various monastic leaders and monasteries, promoting a flourishing of modern Buddhist education. Such institutions were able to maintain a full range of traditional Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist models of education, drawing from numerous lineages (zōng 宗). Political forces, however, restricted the Ministry of Education from accrediting these colleges and recognizing the degrees and qualifications offered by such institutions. Meanwhile, ‘Buddhist studies’ (Fo xüe 佛學) as an academic discipline began to emerge in recognized Taiwanese universities, influenced first by Japanese and later Western models of scholarship. Many Humanistic Buddhism monastic orders then set up departments and institutes within their own privately-run universities. But they still face a critical dilemma in educating and training their future generations of monastics: Continuation of training monastics in non-recognized Buddhist colleges under their own control, or adoption of degree-granting university Buddhist studies education which must conform to Ministry of Education secular requirements. This paper seeks to examine the responses of the leading educators of Humanistic Buddhism to this quandary at the start of the 21st century.

Key terms: Humanistic Buddhism, Taiwanese Buddhism, Buddhist college, Buddhist studies, Buddhist education

Matthew Orsborn is a Buddhist studies scholar originally from New Zealand. After starting seminary training with the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order in 2000, he was an ordained monastic for 17 years. During this time he studied for a master’s degree and PhD at the University of Hong Kong, graduating in 2012. His dissertation on inverted parallel structures in the Perfection of Wisdom literature was later published as The Structure and Interpretation of Early Prajñāpāramitā: An Analysis via Chiasmic Theory, and he has several other journal articles on such structures in other Buddhist texts. Working with Pāli, Sanskrit and Chinese literature, Matthew’s other main work is Old School Emptiness: Hermeneutics, Criticism and Tradition in the Narrative of Śūnyatā, which challenges the standard narrative of emptiness in Indian Buddhism. Along with such writings on Indian Buddhist texts and doctrines, Matthew’s many years of experience in contemporary Chinese/Taiwanese Buddhist traditions has inspired him to recently turn his research attention in this direction. This includes a planned forthcoming series of articles on Chinese Buddhist monastic ordination, education, and the lived experience of monastic life. He has taught Buddhist studies in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Australia and Thailand, and is presently at the Institute for Oriental Studies at Oxford University in the UK.

March 23: Lewis Doney (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) “Incantations and Empire: A study of some Tibetan dhāraṇī texts from Dunhuang”

From the late eighth century to the middle of the ninth century, the Tibetan empire (circa 600–850) held and administered Dunhuang in what is now Northwest China. From the 820s to the 840s, several copies of texts within the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) genre and thousands of copies of an incantation (dhāraṇī ) text called the Aparimitāyur-nāma mahāyāna-sūtra were commissioned as a gift for the Tibetan emperor. Copies of the latter were made in scriptoria in eastern Tibet and Dunhuang and eventually stored in Mogao Cave 17, becoming one of the most represented works within that treasure-trove of manuscripts. As embodiments of a number of buddhas and their teachings, copying and thus spreading the incantation and surrounding sūtra generated merit for the emperor and his realm, his saṃgha and his subjects. The copying project as a whole was supported by taxation and by levies of paper, and so participated in both an employment and ritual economy in which the principles of royal giving and karmic merit dynamically interacted with legal codes, corporal punishment and a posssible “black market” in scripture copies. This talk will contextualise this imperial sūtra copying project and the effect of the Tibetan empire on the Dunhuang Buddhist community that it reveals. Also, by briefly touching on Uṣniṣavjijaya-dhāraṇī texts and some other manuscripts from the same Mogao corpus, it will question to what extent the Aparimitāyur-nāma mahāyāna-sūtra contained the most popular incantation practised around Dunhuang at this time.

Lewis Doney specialises in Tibetan and religious studies and is currently on the BuddhistRoad project at Ruhr-University Bochum. He received his PhD from SOAS, University of London (2011) and has since researched early Tibetan kingship and religion, their connections with South Asia and their impact on Sino-Tibetan communities around Dunhuang and later southern Tibetan Buddhist historiography and ritual. His publications include a monograph, The Zangs gling ma: The First Padmasambhava Biography (International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2014) and an edited volume, Bringing Buddhism to Tibet: History and Narrative in the Dba’ bzhed Manuscript (De Gruyter, 2021).

March 30: Matthew Milligan (Trinity University) “Economic Class in Early South Asian Buddhism: Perspectives from Epigraphy and the Divyāvadāna”

To date, most studies of classical South Asian Buddhist demographics have focused on varṇa and conversion, mercantile professions, and, more recently, finally, on gender. Unfortunately, even when scholars have turned their gaze onto demographics they have primarily relied upon anachronistic and generalized readings of literature and/or century old tabulations of inscriptions. As far as I can tell, there have been no attempts to critically examine economic class through close readings of texts and historical documents together. In this paper, I will evaluate the definition of “economic class,” decouple it from classical Sanskrit concepts of idealized varṇa, and introduce some new data from texts and inscriptions to examine the lived realities of “class” from approximately 300 BCE until at least the 5th c. CE when the Divyāvadāna was composed.

Matthew D. Milligan is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. He is also a Harwood Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He works on the intersections of Buddhism, Economics, and Philology and has published numerous articles on the economic history of Buddhism in South Asia. In addition to forthcoming articles in the Journal of Contemporary Religion and South Asian Studies, he is completing a book manuscript titled Of Rags and Riches: The Disruptive Business of Early Buddhism. His latest project involves decolonizing the field of engaged Buddhist Economics in the United States.

April 20: Lina Verchery (University of Otago) cancelled  “The Personal and the Planetary: Cosmological Thought and the Moral Imagination in Everyday Chinese Buddhist Monastic Life”

Drawing on years of ethnographic research with the Chinese Buddhist monastic organization Fajie Fojiao Zonghui 法界佛教總會, known in English as the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, this talk explores how Buddhist cosmological thought trains the moral imagination in everyday Buddhist monastic life. Situating contemporary Chinese Buddhism as a decidedly global phenomenon, this talk challenges the simplistic categories of “modernism” versus “traditionalism” to instead highlight how very ancient Buddhist ideas about cosmology present resources for reflecting on contemporary questions of immediate concern, including the intensifying climate crisis and our uncertain planetary future.

Lina Verchery is Lecturer in Religion at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where she teaches courses on Buddhism and Asian Religions. Her doctoral dissertation in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, Impersonal Intimacy: Relational Ethics and Self-Cultivation in a Transnational Chinese Buddhist Monastic Network, is an ethnographic study of sociality, interspecies ethics, and moral cultivation in the Fajie Fojiao Zonghui, a transnational Chinese Buddhist monastic organization. Lina is also an award-winning filmmaker and has produced several documentary and multimedia works as part of her ethnographic research. Prior to joining the University of Otago, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Religions at Union College.

April 30: Pei-ying Lin (Fu Jen Catholic University) “On the Materiality and Cultural Identity of the Tang Dynasty: East Asian Buddhist Networks behind a Royal Portrait” (this lecture is kindly sponsored by the National Taiwan Library)

May 4: Serena Saccone (Istituto Universitario Orientale, Napoli & IKGA, ÖAW) “One Flew Over the Nest: an Externalist Among Pramāṇavādins”

May 11: Ingo Strauch (University of Lausanne) “Newly discovered Śāradā documents from a private collection in the UK”

These lecture series were generously sponsored by the Tianzhu Foundation.

2019 PTBS Lecture Series

06.03 Albert Welter (University of Arizona, US) “A New Look at Old Traditions: Reimagining East Asian Buddhism through Hangzhou”

The history of Buddhism incorporates East Asia in meaningful ways, but still tends toward Indo-centrism in its overall conception. This makes sense when one considers India as the birthplace and homeland of Buddhism and the development of key teachings and traditions. Yet, the history of Buddhism covers 2500 years, and for the last 1000 years or more, India has ceased to be a significant source of Buddhist inspiration, and figures primarily in passive memory rather than as active agent. This is especially true in the case of China, which actively reimagined Buddhism in unique and indigenous ways to form an intrinsically authentic form of East Asian Buddhism.

Hangzhou, a former capital of China during the Song dynasty (960-1278), was the focal point for these developments. From the Hangzhou region, new forms of Buddhism spread throughout East Asia, especially to Japan and Korea. As a result, when we speak about East Asian Buddhism today, we are largely speaking about forms of Buddhism that were initiated in Hangzhou, and adopted and adapted in other regions and time periods. The most prominent among these is Chan Buddhism, known in Japan as Zen and Korea as Sŏn, the practice of which from the 10th century on is indebted to Buddhist developments in Hangzhou.

The presentation reviews how the history of Buddhist Studies has neglected and marginalized East Asian Buddhism and the role of the greater Hangzhou region. It suggests how the Hangzhou region became a Buddhist center, a new Buddhist homeland, and a hub for interactions with Korea and Japan that were instrumental in the development of unique forms of East Asian Buddhism.

13.03 Shaku Jinsen (KULeuven – Chingokuji, Japan) “Pilgrimage into Freedom: a Buddhist Phenomenology of Mind”

After graduating from the Japanese Studies department at the KU Leuven University, Belgium, Shaku Jinsen received his Master’s degree in Buddhist Philosophy at the University of Koyasan, Japan. He became a Buddhist monk of the Shingon-school of Japanese Buddhism. He currently resides both in Belgium and Japan, leading the Buddhist centre Yo e an in Belgium and assisting the activities of the Shingon-temple Chingokuji in Kagoshima, Japan.

An introduction to the philosophy of Kūkai (774-835) and the Shingon-school of Japanese Buddhism.
In 9thcentury Japan the Buddhist monk and philosopher Kūkai devised a grand scheme incorporating all forms of knowledge known to him. Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and non-religious; every lifestance that had been transmitted to Japan at that point, was put together in an ascending order of spiritual depth and philosophical scope. On the basis of two of the major works of Kūkai; the’ Precious Key to the Secret Treasury’ and the ‘Ten Layers of Mind’, we will introduce the key points of this grand summary of human experience and Buddhist philosophy. We will also touch on the significance of Kūkai’s philosophy as a model for cultural/spiritual integration in Japanese culture in general, and try to ponder the possibilities and limits of this model for our (post-) modern times.​

20.03 Beatrix Mecsi (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary) “How Did a Religious Founder Become a Doll? Bodhidharma Representations in East Asia”

Beatrix Mecsi is an art historian with a specialization of East Asian Art. She has studied European Art History, Japanese and Korean Studies in Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. After finishing her MA degrees (Art History 1998 and Japanese Studies 1999), she went to England and obtained her PhD degree in University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the Department of Art and Archaeology. Her research interest includes religious iconography in East Asia, text-image relationships, art theory and contemporary art. She won the Pro Scientia golden medal bestowed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for outstanding research in 1999, and other prizes with her essays in art history. She taught at University of London (SOAS) and also taught MA classes at the Sotheby’s Institute in London, and taught the course “Comparative East Asian Art” at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea between 2006 and 2008. She has completed her habilitation in 2009 in the field of East Asian art history. Currently she is the head of the Korean Studies Department, teaches at the Institute of East Asian Studies, at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.

According to tradition the founder of Chan or meditational Buddhism, Bodhidharma, originated from India, yet his legend and first representations are more typically associated with China and his legendary figure is frequently seen in the visual art and popular culture of the East Asian countries. In my lecture I focus on the visual representations of Bodhidharma as they became popular in Korea and Japan, attempting to show the basic differences in the popularization of the visual images of Bodhidharma in these countries, focusing mainly on the visual appearance and iconography. The power of the image is seen in the commercialization of representations of Bodhidharma, particularly in Japan, where his image became to be formed in a shape of the popular Daruma doll.

27.03 Hans Martin Krämer (Heidelberg University, Germany) “Even Three-Year-Old Children Know that the Source of Enlightenment is not Religion but Science”: Modern Japanese Buddhism between ‘Religion’ and ‘Science,’ 1860s–1910s”

Hans Martin Krämer is professor Japanese Studies at Heidelberg University. His main expertise is in the modern history of Japan, with a specific focus on education, religion, and human–nature relations. His most recent publications include the article “Pan-Asianism’s Religious Undercurrents: The Reception of Islam and Translation of the Qur’ān in Twentieth-Century Japan” in the Journal of Asian Studies (2014), the monograph Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), and the co-edited volume Religious Dynamics under the Impact of Imperialism and Colonialism: A Sourcebook (Brill, 2016).

The acceptance of the truth claims of modern science as being fundamentally of a different order than those of ‘religion’ was a central feature of a globally shared concept of religion emerging in the nineteenth century. Conversely, refusing to make the distinction and continuing to claim religious authority over matters of science became the hallmark of ‘esoteric’ movements or ideas. In Japan, religions were quick to identify the challenges posed by the materialistic natural sciences; in response, Japanese Buddhists emphasized the compatibility of Buddhist doctrine with the causal rationality seen in the natural sciences. Concretely, this could mean either viewing certain Buddhist teachings as identical with science, or judging that Buddhism and science belonged to different realms but were in no conflict with each other. In this paper, I will examine the Japanese Buddhist debate before ca. 1900, identifying the strategies Japanese Buddhists employed to position themselves vis-à-vis science. I will argue that the processes examined here contributed crucially to creating the division between proper religions and esoteric movements present in Japan until today.

03.04 Marjan Beijering (Geschiedenislab, The Netherlands) “Fame Gets to your Head: Janwillem Van de Wetering in Amsterdam, 1966-1975”

Marjan Beijering studied social history in Rotterdam and is an independent historian (www.geschiedenislab.nl). She is working on the biography of Janwillem van de Wetering.

Among Buddhists Janwillem van de Wetering is probably still famous for his book The Empty Mirror, his account of his year and a half stay in a Zen monastery in Japan. The book was published in 1973 in the United States and became an immediate success. Although the book was published in 1971 in the Netherlands, he only became well known here after his success overseas. With the detective novels featuring the duo Grijpstra en de Gier Van de Wetering became a celebrated and bestselling author whose novels were read not only in The Netherlands, but also widely abroad. On a recent list of best-selling Dutch writers abroad, he is still number 7 in the top ten. In this lecture I would like to share with you the dualism in his life.
Janwillem van de Wetering moved to Maine in 1975. There he died on July 4, 2008, at the age of 77. The message of his death appeared in Dutch newspapers as well as in The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. He was known as bestselling author, adventurer and philosopher – more than as a Buddhist.

24.04 Huayan Wang (Inalco, Paris, France) “Frontier, Ethnicity and Religion: the Azhali Buddhist Tradition of the Bai People in South-Western China”

Huayan (Cécile) WANG is Postdoctoral research fellow in history of Buddhism at the Centre d’Etudes Interdisciplinaires sur le Bouddhisme (CEIB) of the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris. She got her Ph.D. in history from the École des hautes études en sciences socials (Paris) in 2015. Her main study area is history and anthropology of Chinese religions, especially their social and political role in local societies. Her recent publications include “To know how to predict, to translate, and to write: the division of religious work in the rebulding of a temple in Changzhi (Shanxi) today” (with Guillaume Dutournier, Routledge, London, 2019, forthcoming); “The Revival of the Cult of Cui Fujun in Shanxi and Hebei”, in Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore, 195 (2017.3): 79–140; “Cui Fujun : un protecteur des empereurs du Xème au XIIème siècle ?”. Études chinoises, Vol. XXXI-1 (2012), p. 49-65.

This paper focuses on a local Buddhist tradition, the Azhali Buddhism of the Bai people, a minority ethnic population in northwest Yunnan (PRC) who belong to the Tibeto-Burmese group. Azhali means “preceptor or instructor in religious matters” and is the transcription of Sanskrit “Acarya”. They were supported by several successive regimes in this region since the 7th century. Azhali Buddhism became the dominant religion, although some other religious traditions co-existed there as well. According to historical records, ritual manuscripts, and fieldwork observations, I will discuss (1) the origin, evolution, and characteristics of the Azhali Buddhist tradition; (2) the relationship between this tradition and the construction of the Bai’s ethnic identity; and (3) its present practice, particularly its transmission and adaptation strategies in response to new situations, such as the government’s religious politics aiming to control religions within a secular society.

08.05 Ben Van Overmeire (Ghent University) “Zen Buddhist Convert Literature in America during the 20th Century: A Selective Overview”

Dr. Ben Van Overmeire is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) at the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Ghent University. Currently, he is working on a book on how modern autobiographical narratives of Zen life incorporate koan, Zen riddles revolving around seemingly unsolvable questions such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” His work has appeared in Religions, Japan Studies Review, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Buddhist-Christian Studies, among other journals. Van Overmeire has presented his work at the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Modern Languages Association (MLA), the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA). He blogs on benvanovermeire.com and tweets @Zenmirrors.

During the 20th century, Zen Buddhism became an important cultural force in the United States. In this talk, I will discuss how five different authors have responded to the influence of Zen ideas and literature, arguing that despite the significant transformations Zen underwent (such as becoming a Japanese aesthetic separable from ritual and monastic practice), the idea, core to Zen, that Zen masters are enlightened beings, continues to play an important role.
I start my discussion by sketching what premodern Zen Buddhism and Zen Buddhist literature looked like. Then, I discuss how this East-Asian tradition was “translated” for western audiences by examining the influence of the “two Suzukis” (Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and Shunryu Suzuki). In 1950s America, some of the ideas of the first Suzuki featured in the literature of the so-called “Beat Generation” of writers, of whom I will discuss Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. Starting in the 1970s, Janwillem van de Wetering would start to publish his own idiocentric take on the tradition in a series of memoirs. Somewhat later, Natalie Goldberg would apply her Zen training to very act of memoir writing itself. Finally, around the turn of the century Ruth Ozeki took Zen literature and memoir writing in postmodern directions.

15.05 Andrew K. Whitehead (Kennesaw State University, US) “Wordless Practices: Zen Critiques of Language”

Prof. dr. Andrew K. Whitehead is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Kennesaw State University in the United States. He specializes in East-West comparative philosophy, particularly concerning Japanese Buddhist philosophy, the Kyoto School, Chinese Daoism, and the German and French traditions of phenomenology and existentialism. His recent publications include “Ikkyū Sōjun” in The Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy (Springer, 2019), as well as the co-edited volumes (Bloomsbury): Imagination: Cross-Cultural Philosophical Analyses (2018), Wisdom and Philosophy: Contemporary and Comparative Approaches (2016), and Landscape and Travelling East and West: A Philosophical Journey (2014).He is presently the President of the Académie du Midi Philosophical Association, and Associate Editor of the journal Comparative and Continental Philosophy (Taylor & Francis).

Beginning with the initial transmission of the dharma to Mahakasyapa, leading up to and including the recognition of the sixth Chinese patriarch of Zen, Huineng, the lecture offers a genealogy of select Zen Buddhist philosophical ideas and practices concerning language and its critique. Taking a selection of short texts that showcase the Zen attitude towards language, the lecture explores the complicated relationship between language and Zen as a philosophical practice in its own right. The lecture will also offer commentary on and explanation of a wide array of Zen practices in which language plays only an indirect role (or no role at all), as a means of better appreciating the unique hermeneutical methodologies used to show suchness and no-thing. In order to provide a means by which to understand the paradoxical use of language in Zen practice, the lecture will discuss select koān and recorded encounters of Zen masters, with an emphasis on the role of the body, and of gestural language.

2017 PTBS Lecture Series


  • 07.03   Mick Deneckere (Ghent, Belgium): “Japanese True Pure Land Buddhism, the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the First Japanese Buddhist Mission to Europe”
  • 14.03   Tim Kragh (Poznan, Poland): “A Buddhist Theory of Relations”
  • 21.03   Christophe Vielle (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium): “The Pairi Daiza Collection of Sanskrit Steles: Buddhism in the Medieval Kingdom of Dali (Yunnan, China)”
  • 28.03   Philip Garrett (Newcastle, UK): “Kinship, Kami, and Sacred Space at the Shingon Buddhist Monastic Complex Kōyasan in Medieval Japan”
  • 18.04   Ang Zou (Ghent, Belgium): “From Revelation to a Living Tradition: Daoxuan and His Design of the Platform and the Procedure for Higher Ordination”
  • 25.04   Nataša Vampelj Suhadolnik (Ljubljana, Slovenia): “Is Lotus on the Ceiling of the Han and Wei Jin Tombs a Buddhist Motif? A Reinterpretation of the Lotus on the Tomb’s Ceiling”
  • 02.05   Zhe Ji (Paris, France): “The Monastic Economy of Buddhism in Contemporary China”
  • 09.05   Martin Lehnert (Munich, Germany): “Exemplifying Secrecy: Incommunicability and Undecidability in Gong’an Diegesis”

2016 PTBS Lecture Series

2016 Programme

  • 01.03.2016: Jonathan Silk (Universiteit Leiden, the Netherlands)
    “Buddhism, Social Justice and the Status of the Caṇḍāla
  • 08.03.2016: Petra Kieffer-Pülz (University of Mainz, Germany)
    Observations on the relation between Sri Lanka and South India during the centuries”
  • 15.03.2016: Pieter Verhagen (Universeit Leiden, the Netherlands)
    Indian Traditions in Tibet: a Procrustean Bed?”
  • 22.03.2016: Noor van Brussel (UGent, Belgium)
    Godinnen en demonen in een wereld van allusie: over het ontstaan en de vermenging van verhaaltradities in Zuid-India”
  • 12.04.2016: Tillo Detige (UGent, Belgium)
    “Fanatics vs. Pacifists? Rethinking the fortunes of Digambara Jainism under Muslim rule”
  • 19.04.2016: Tine Vekemans (UGent, Belgium)
    Tradition & Technology – Resisting and Embracing Media Innovation in South Asian Religious Contexts”
  • 26.04.2016: Agnieszka Rostalska (UGent, Belgium)
    The recognition of Vedic authority in Nyaya tradition
  • 03.05.2016: Monika Horstmann (University of Heidelberg, Germany)
    “Interior Religion: A Religious Paradigm in Early Modern North India”



2015 PTBS Lecture Series

2015 Programme

  • 10.03.2015: Christoph Anderl (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Belgium)
    “Aspects of the Maitreya Cult in China: Past and Present
  • 17.03.2015: Erika Forte (Ruhr Universität Bochum, Germany)
    “Buddhism along the Silk Road and the Oasis of Khotan — An Archaeological Perspective
  • 24.03.2015: Petra Maurer (Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)
    Tibetan Medicine for Horses and Humans. Reflections on Fieldwork in Mustang /Nepal” 
  • 31.03.2015: Berthe Jansen (Universiteit Leiden, the Netherlands)
    “Crime and Punishment in Buddhist Monasteries in Pre-modern Tibet
  • 21.04.2015: Gudrun Pinte (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Belgium)
    “Rechtsgeldig procederen in de Pali Vinaya”
  • 28.04.2015: Esther-Maria Guggenmos (Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany)
    Buddhist Mantic Practices in Contemporary China and Taiwan. A Field Report
  • 05.05.2015: Petra Kieffer-Pülz (Die Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz, Germany)
    Monastic Law in Theory and Practice
  • 12.05.2015: Oliver Freiberger (the University of Texas, Austin, USA)
    Boundaries as Moving Targets: On Distinguishing Religions in Ancient India




2014 PTBS Lecture Series

2014 Programme

  • 11.03.2014: Ann Heirman (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Belgium)
    “Boeddhistische lichaamsverzorging in een multireligieuze context
  • 18.03.2014: Thomas Jülch (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Belgium)
    “Chinese Buddhist Apologetic Thought”
  • 25.03.2014: Stefano Zacchetti (Oxford University, UK)
    Dating the Dharma: Some Remarks on Early Chinese Buddhist Historiography” 
  • 01.04.2014: Martin Lehnert (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)
    Between Man-Made Order and Non-Human Facticity: Buddhist Accounts of Authority
  • 22.04.2014: Christoph Anderl (Ruhr Universität Bochum, Germany)
    “Flying Buddha Statues and the Transmission of Buddhism to China: Tang Dynasty Buddhist Historiographical Narratives in Text and Image”
  • 29.04.2014: Jessie Pons (Ruhr Universität Bochum, Germany)
    Reading Religions outside Texts: Gandharan Buddhism and Buddhist Sculptures from Gandhara
  • 06.05.2014: Agnes Birtalan (Eötvös Lorand University, Budapest)
    Mongolian Buddhist Folk Religion
  • 13.05.2014: Claire Maes (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies, Belgium)
    Waarom weten we wat we weten over het Boeddhisme? Een kritische blik op ons erfgoed van de negentiende-eeuwse Europese studie van het Boeddhisme



2013 PTBS Lecture Series

2013 Programme

  • 19.02.2013: Gudrun Pinte (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies)
    Majesteiten en monniken: een kritische blik op de boeddhistische tijdrekening in de Dīpavaṃsa
  • 26.02.2013: Marie-Hélène Gorisse (UGent, Indology)
    Jain Theories of Inference in the Light of Modern Logics
  • 06.03.2013: Freddy Mortier (UGent, Wijsbegeerte en moraalwetenschap)
    Richard Wagner: een vroege westerse boeddhist 
  • 12.03.2013: Claire Maes (UGent, Centre for Buddhist Studies)
    De dialectiek van de andere: identiteitsvorming binnen het vroeg Indisch boeddhisme
  • 19.03.2013: Christoph Anderl (Ruhr University Bochum and Ghent University, Centre for Buddhist Studies)
    The Development of Buddhist Narratives in Medieval China: An Overview
  • 26.03.2013: Lama Jigmé Namgyal (Centre Culturel Tibétain, Luxembourg) & Dylan Esler (Institut Orientaliste, Université Catholique de Louvain) Perceptions of Hwa-shang Mahāyāna in the rNying-ma school of Tibetan Buddhism (Click here to view the abstract)
  • 16.04.2013: Kate Crosby & Pyi Phyo Kyaw (King’s College, London)
    The Buddha and his Brothers: Expressions of Power, Place and Community in Relation to the Network of Mahāmuni Image
  • 23.04.2013: Jens Borgland (Oslo University)
    Conflict Management the Mūlasarvāstivāda Way