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Growth, Adaptation, and Redirection in the Academic Study of East Asian Buddhism


In the afternoon of April 6th, in Room 106 of Think Tank Building at Fudan University, the lecture titled “Growth, Adaptation, and Redirection in the Academic Study of East Asian Buddhism” was held by International Center for Studies of Chinese Civilization (ICSCC). The lecture was given by Mario Poceski, professor of Buddhist studies and Chinese religions at the Religion Department in University of Florida, who is visiting scholar of ICSCC from March. The moderator of the lecture was Tiangang Li, professor of Philosophy, who is also deputy director of ICSCC. 


Since the lecture was for scholars, students from all disciplines and the public, Mario Poceski aimed to give a panoramic talk on this topic including historical contexts and relevant developments, scope, diversity, and (imagined) boundaries, definitional concerns, issues and problems, American contexts and global perspectives in this field. Primarily he introduced traditional study of Buddhism, which focused on Fazang's 法藏 (643712) comprehensive study of canonical texts and philosophical traditions ,systematization of Huayan 華嚴 Buddhism and prolific literary output. Then he recalled the origin and development of human being and religion, combing the context of colonialism which leads to the Pervasive sense that European (Christian) civilization is superior, the birth of religious studies as an academic discipline or a subject of study and the formation of other academic disciplines like Humanities and Social sciences. Mario Poceski indicated that it was in the 19th century when the Asian countries like China, Japan and Philippine became Christian under the influence of the colonialism, and the birth of academic study of religion was almost at the same time. If we problematize the idea of “religion” in Chinese, we’ll notice it is a loan word from Japanese, which was created during the first contacts with the western world for describing some western concepts like “political and religious unity”. Consequently this word may cause ambiguity in Chinese context, according to some researchers. Nowadays, in the academic study of religion, western or Eurocentric models primarily based on Christian notions and archetypes are continually used. The study of Chinese (or East Asian) religious traditions is essential for enriching our understanding of the varied modalities of religion and its multifaceted roles as a central component of the human experience. For example, the westerners may have an identity of being Christian or believer, while the Chinese or Japanese believe they are part of their family temple. 


As for the early European contacts with Buddhism, Mario Poceski pointed out that the improved knowledge of Asian religions, including Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, was occasioned by European colonial encroachments into Asia, especially the early transmission of information about Buddhism by Christian missionaries. There was an increased interest in learning about non-Western religions among European intellectuals, leading the beginnings of the scientificandcomparative study of religion during the late 19th century. Among them there was Max Müller (1823–1900), who founded of the academic field of comparative religion. We can see some Buddhist influences on western philosophy, like the appearance of English translations of Buddhist texts and general books on Buddhism during the 19th century and the influence of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy on the work Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). At that time , Buddhism was mainly regarded as the philosophy of a nihilistic and life-detesting philosophy , a philosophy of nothingness. There is also some Buddhist traces in western literature, like the presence of Buddhist themes and motifs in the writing of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). In the Study of Buddhism, the early trends are philological orientation and focus on canonical texts, search for “original” Buddhism, interested in philosophy/doctrine and disinterest in Buddhism as a living tradition, which caused the denigration of the superstitions practices of common people. In Japan, Buddhist studies increased during the 20th century but now problems turn out like the amalgamations of modern critical approaches with habitual models of sectarian scholarship. As for the American academic contexts, religions studies and area studies bring dual or multiple academic identities and allegiances. Buddhism is divided in terms of cultural and geographical areas, like East Asian Buddhism (Chinese Buddhism,

Japanese Buddhism, Korean Buddhism), Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism (or Indo-Tibetan Buddhism) and Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lankan and SE Asian Buddhism).


Approaching to the end of the lecture, Mario Poceski proposed some shifting orientations and new research interests in this domain, including material culture ,rituals and everyday practices of contemporary Buddhists, social organization of Buddhist communities, questions related to women, sexuality, and gender, intersections of Buddhism and politics and so on. Comparing to the past ,today we need more diversified approaches and perspectives and application of theoretical models and methodological approaches grounded in a variety of academic disciplines(Philology,Philosophy,History ,Literature ,Political science ,Cultural studies ,Anthropology ,Sociology ,Art history etc.). As for issues and problems, general academic concerns and incongruities continue to exist, so as narrowness or overspecialization, and a concomitant inability to see the larger picture. Meanwhile the (Mis) application of western theory is also a serious problem to solve. Under these circumstances, Mario Poceski wished a Future full of diversity and variety for study of east Asian Buddhism. 

After the lecture, there was a depth interaction between Mario Poceski and the audience, including students, faculty and visiting scholars. In his responses to their questions, the professors encouraged again the young generation to transgress or ignore disciplinary boundaries, study East Asian Buddhism with interdisciplinary approaches and resources.