Explore the Tenth International Symposium

Transnational Buddhism: Philosophical, Historical, and Anthropological Perspectives

March 25 and 26, 2017

Hyatt Regency Hotel, Kathmandu, Nepal

Buddhism could arguably be considered the first-world religion. As is well attested, only a few centuries after the death of its founding figure, Buddha Śākyamuni, this tradition crossed linguistic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, expanding well beyond the general area from which it emerged. Since early times Buddhism has thus shown signs of what might be termed a “transcultural propensity.” [read more]

This symposium explores the nature of transnational Buddhism in its historical and transcultural origins and its contemporary global dimensions, examining the import of this dynamic interchange for the future of Buddhist communities and scholarship. Particular attention will be paid to the role played by the Kathmandu Valley, and Nepal more broadly, as a center of intense intercultural contact for Buddhist practitioners and scholars from a variety of Buddhist traditions. [read more]

By critical and constructive examination of the phenomenon known as “Transnational Buddhism”, Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies at Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s Symposium 2017 intends to shed light on the methods, assumptions, stances, implications, and challenges associated with the study and practice of Buddhism in our global, complex, and modern world.

Thank you to all distinguished speakers, special guests, interpreters, panel moderators, and attendees! You made the tenth academic symposium a great success. More than 450 people attended the event and almost 11,000 accessed the live-stream online through Facebook.

The media presented here are intended to further the conversations initiated by this event. Each presentation and panel discussion is linked below, and where appropriate, the speaker’s paper or PowerPoint presentation is also included.

Special thanks to the volunteers at the event and the DharmaSun media team for capturing, editing, and rendering the final content.

Day 1: Philosophy

Introduction—Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

Welcome and Introductions

Monks from Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery; RYI founder, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche; KU Vice Chancellor, Prof. Dr. Ram Kantha Makaju Shrestha; former KU Registrar and Dean, Prof. Dr. Bhadra Man Tuladhar, Master of Ceremonies; and CBS Principal, Greg Whiteside.

John Dunne—”Science and Buddhism: Why Bother?

“Science and Buddhism: Why Bother?”

The dialogue between Buddhism and science remains vibrant, yet a host of critical voices have emerged in recent years. Many criticisms point to valid concerns, but others are naïve in their assumptions about “science” and “Buddhism”. Focusing on concrete outcomes, this talk begins by proposing some best practices for using terms such as “science” and “Buddhism”, and it explores the contentious question of “Buddhist science” itself. With these key issues addressed, the talk’s central focus will be the question of what good—or what harm—might come of the ongoing engagement between “Buddhism” and “science”, with an emphasis on the dialogue’s potential impact on Buddhist communities.


Ana Cristina O. Lopes—”Buddhism in the Lab: Mind & Life Dialogues as Cultural Translation

“Buddhism in the Lab: Mind & Life Dialogues as Cultural Translation”

This lecture investigates some of the activities of the Mind & Life Institute in terms of the cultural forms of translation they have mobilized in the modern world. Mind & Life is a pioneering organization that is known for fostering dialogues in a variety of settings between scientists and representatives of Buddhist traditions. In the modern spaces of laboratories connected with Mind & Life, the extensive experience of Tibetan Buddhist meditators is “captured” and “translated” through state-of-the-art brain imaging devices into images that can be interpreted by scientists; on another level of translation, scholarly papers about these findings are published in scientific journals; and on yet another level, these scientific results and language are translated into more accessible forms of communication, resulting in publications in domains such as popular science and Buddhism. These processes of translation create new understandings of Buddhism and meditation that allow for greater communication in the contemporary scene. But if translation is about communication, about “making equivalent”, it is also about shifting, changing. Indeed, emerging from this dynamic is a globalized “contemplative” culture integrating contemplative techniques into domains as diverse as health care, pedagogy, business and the arts. At the same time, totally new forms of communication about traditional Buddhist ideas and practices are also surfacing. This talk discusses some of these issues in light of future consequences they could have for both Buddhism and science at large.

Khenpo Urgyen Tenpel—”Compassion Unleashed: The Buddha, His Dharma, and How It Came to Tibet

“Compassion Unleashed: The Buddha, His Dharma, and How It Came to Tibet”

Khenpo Urgyen Tenpel was born in 1982 in Northwestern Nepal in Mugum Bazaar. In 1995, when he was thirteen, he was ordained at Ka Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudanath, Nepal—a monastery under the care of Kyabje Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Chokling Rinpoche. He undertook basic studies in the monastery’s elementary school, memorizing many texts and receiving the visual transmission of the monastery’s tradition of chanting. Eventually, he received novice and later full monastic vows from Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche. In 1998 he began his studies in the monastic college at the Sangye Yeshe Higher Shedra. During his ten years of study there he trained via learning and reflection, focusing on texts related to sutra- and mantra-level Buddhism as well as general fields of study. He was a teacher in the monastery’s middle school as well as a teaching assistant in the monastic Shedra. After completing his Shedra studies in 2007 he became a Lopon, and during the next five years had the opportunity to serve the Sangye Yeshe Shedra through teaching and management positions as well as teaching in the Rangjung Yeshe Institute. In 2013 he was awarded the title of Khenpo. Currently he teaches people who are interested in the Buddhist teachings, both ordained and lay, from both East and West.

Bill Waldron—“What Scientists Might Learn from Their Buddhist Subjects”

“What Scientists Might Learn from Their Buddhist Subjects”

The scientific study of Buddhist meditation is growing rapidly across the globe, but all too often Buddhist views about what mind is, how it works, and how best to study it are not seriously brought into the discussion. Buddhists, though, have developed sophisticated philosophical approaches to all these questions, approaches that could greatly enhance the study of mind in scientific settings. These begin with early Buddhist perspectives, which are then developed in Abhidharma, criticized by Madhyamikans, and reframed by Yogācārins. Hence, scientists may benefit from interacting more with their subjects.


Karin Meyers—”Cross-Cultural Philosophy, Modern Science, and Traditional Buddhist Worldviews

“Cross-Cultural Philosophy, Modern Science, and Traditional Buddhist Worldviews”

Philosophical treatments of Buddhism typically avoid or dismiss aspects of traditional Buddhist worldviews that are incommensurable with modern sensibilities (e.g., rebirth, karma, siddhis, non-human beings and realms, and even some aspects of awakening). These topics are not inherently immune to rational scrutiny or without philosophical relevance, but are at odds with modern assumptions about the natural world and our epistemic capacities. As Buddhist ideas and practices spread around the globe and Buddhism is being remade in light of these assumptions, central pieces of traditional Buddhist worldviews are being jettisoned. To some extent, this is nothing new—Buddhism has always been transformed by the encounter with new cultural contexts—but modern materialism represents a unique challenge to Buddhism. This paper argues that this challenge should be a central site for cross-cultural philosophical dialogue, that there are good reasons to suspect that materialism offers a rather incomplete picture of the world—that the world is much more mysterious than materialist science admits—and that Buddhism may provide valuable insights and technologies for its navigation.

Klaus Dieter Mathes—”Madhyamaka in the Light of Quantum Physics

“Madhyamaka in the Light of Quantum Physics”

Just as dependent origination requires all involved components to be empty of an own nature (substance nihilism), so quantum inter-relatedness works only in the absence of locally determined entities. In both cases “emptiness” leaves us with a “physical reality” of open, dynamic systems that still allows for causality. In the case of physics, this requires following David Bohm in rejecting genuine randomness and subscribing to what is nowadays known as emergent quantum mechanics. In the case of Buddhist studies, one has to go against the metaphysical nihilism of modern academic Madhyamaka interpretations. It will be argued that the accordance of a “realist Madhyamaka” with emergent quantum mechanics leads to a mutual strengthening of the respective positions in Buddhism and physics, i.e., substance nihilism and emergent quantum mechanics.

Panel Discussion—Philosophy

Philosophy Panel Discussion

Day 2: Anthropology and History

Gregory Sharkey, S.J.—”Buddhism in a New Key: The Roots & Growth of Engaged Buddhism

“Buddhism in a New Key: The Roots & Growth of Engaged Buddhism”

Although Thích Nhất Hạnh is credited with coining the term Engaged Buddhism, its guiding principles have a recognizable genealogy. We can trace the underlying ideas to Master Taixu, the great Buddhist reformer in the first half of the 20th century, who believed that the Pure Land can be experienced in this world and spoke of “Buddhism for Human Life”. With Master Yin Shun these ideas developed into what we now call “Humanistic Buddhism”. These seeds, planted by Dharma Masters Taixu and Yun Shin, have flowered in the Engaged Buddhism of figures such as Hsing Yun and Cheng Yen. In Nepal we have direct links with both of these renowned teachers . The Fo Guang Shan Order, founded by Master Hsing, is responsible for reviving Theravada bhikkhuni ordination, which many Theravada women in Nepal have received. Master Cheng Yen’s Tzu Chi Foundation, founded a half century ago, established a chapter in Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes.


Alexander von Rospatt—”The Vows and Daily Practices of Lay Bodhisattvas in Late Indic Buddhism and their Perpetuation in the Nepalese Tradition

“The Ādikarma Literature: The Vows and Daily Practices of Lay Bodhisattvas in Late Indic Buddhism and their Perpetuation in the Nepalese Tradition”

While the original inspiration of Mahāyāna Buddhism was arguably the heroic pursuit (as reflected in the spelling bodhisatva and the Tibetan rendering byang chub sems dpa’ ) of buddhahood by a select set of hardcore monastic practitioners, this vision inevitably changed, and in East Asian traditions bodhisattvas are typically lay. Less well known, lay bodhisattvas also feature in the Indic tradition, and there a few closely related texts from the 12th century that treat the vows taken by such bodhisattvas and their daily practices. These practices are identified as ādikarmika, that is, introductory or foundational (ādi). Befitting the developmental stage of late Indian Buddhism, they presume a tantric framework, albeit without engaging with the initiatory practices of the higher tantras. While these texts apparently originated in the milieu of Vikramaśīla, they map remarkably well onto the practices preserved in Nepalese Buddhism. This suggests that they describe and codify forms of lay Mahāyāna practices that were wide-spread in the last phase of Indian Buddhism. In addition to giving an overview of the little studied ādikarmika literature and the vows and rituals it prescribes, this talk will consider the continuity between this literature and the Nepalese (that is, Newar) tradition.

Ong See Yew—”The Rise of Humanistic and Engaged Buddhism in Malaysia—A Response to Social Needs in a Multicultural Society

“The Rise of Humanistic and Engaged Buddhism in Malaysia—A Response to Social Needs in a Multicultural Society”

The development of Buddhism in Malaysia can be divided into two phases: the initial phase began as early as the 2nd century, when Buddhism was first brought to the Malay Peninsula. The second phase began in the 17th century following the migration of Buddhists from other countries into the region. British colonial activities in Malaya in the 18th century brought a large number of Chinese, Ceylonese, Thai, and Burmese immigrants to Malaya to help with economic activities of the region. Such mass migration enabled the revival of Buddhism, which has grown into the second largest religion in the country today.

Malaysian Buddhism today can be characterized as both Humanistic and Engaged Buddhism. The propagation of Buddhism in Malaysia today is based not only on Dharma or prayer-related services, but also manifests through socially engaged activities that benefit society. Many Buddhist organizations have taken the initiative to organize activities in welfare, culture, art, and the environment and to pay particular attention to current affairs, which connect these Buddhist organizations more closely to the larger society, reflecting the nature of Humanistic and Engaged Buddhism.

This paper explores the ideals of both Humanistic and Engaged Buddhism as propagated by contemporary Buddhist scholars such as Master Yin Shun and Thich Nhat Hanh. Key characteristics which are observed in the case of Buddhism’s development in Malaysia today, such as increased participation of Buddhist laity, the strengthened role of Buddhist organizations (as compared to individuals), more active engagement of youth, diversification of socially-engaged activities (welfare, culture, and art), and the harmonization of different Buddhist traditions (Mahāyāna, Theravāda, Vajrayāna) will be discussed along with political and socio-economic factors present in this multicultural society.

Panel Discussion—Anthropology

Anthropology Panel Discussion

Khenpo Tsondru Sangpo—”Mipham’s Synthesis of Philosophical Foes

“Mipham’s Synthesis of Philosophical Foes”

Throughout the entirety of its temporal and geographic vastness, the Buddhist analytic tradition has consistently been marked by a diversity of views that are often in conflict and the subject of intense debate.

In Tibet, beginning in approximately the 15th century, these divisions and debates took on a markedly sectarian character in which the various strands of Tibetan Buddhist thought were often characterized as mutually incompatible. However, this attitude began to change in the 19th century with authors such as Mipham Rinpoche. Throughout his work on sutra and tantra, he made a unique attempt to synthesize the diverse views of Geluk, Jonang, Sakya, and Nyingma philosophy in a way that maintained their differences yet incorporated them into a systematic whole. This paper will discuss the basic positions that Mipham engages, the methods that he employs in his attempt to achieve synthesis, and the effect such thinking has had on modern approaches to Buddhist philosophical learning.

Douglas Duckworth—”Buddhism and Beyond: The Question of Pluralism

“Buddhism and Beyond: The Question of Pluralism”

This paper discusses Buddhist responses to religious diversity. Using the logical form of the tetralemma made famous by Nāgārjuna,  the ways that Buddhists can be seen to relate to other religions are clarified. With four alternatives, this talk discusses Buddhist claims to truth in terms of their being singularly absolute, one among many, both, and neither. As is evident in the presence of the third and fourth alternatives of the tetralemma, rigid dichotomies (like one and many, exclusivism and pluralism) are often false, for both (and neither) are live options. Yet typologies like these can be useful to clarify distinctions, particularly when situating Buddhist claims in light of those of other religions. A key difference drawn out in this talk rests on the interpretation of ultimate truth, and in particular, whether the ultimate truth of emptiness is interpreted as a claim to the indeterminate nature of reality or its undetermined nature. In parallel with this distinction, differences between claims and attitudes in an example from Tibetan traditions are spelled out, with reference to the so-called “nonsectarian” (ris med) movement in particular. The important distinction between a claim and an attitude is argued; whereas a claim is necessarily exclusive (for in affirming one thing, the counter claim is denied), for an attitude, this need not be the case. Finally, the talk argues that the difference between claims and attitudes can help clarify what it means to be “nonsectarian,” and thereby bridge the difference between maintaining an exclusively Buddhist claim and having an attitude that reaches beyond Buddhism.

Anne MacDonald—”Transplanting Madhyamaka: Donors, Recipients, and Some Vexing Complications

Transplanting Madhyamaka: Donors, Recipients, and Some Vexing Complications”

The past few decades have seen a surge in the scholarly investigation of Indian Madhyamaka works and ideas. New Sanskrit and Tibetan editions of the surviving compositions of Nāgārjuna (late 2nd-3rd c.) and his commentators Buddhapālita (6th c.), Bhāviveka (6th c.), and Candrakīrti (7th c.) have been published or are in the process of being prepared. Numerous translations into modern languages made on the basis of the early and more recent editions are now available, and many attempts have been undertaken to decipher the assertions of the texts. These attempts, informed by a variety of approaches to and assumptions about the material, have nonetheless not yet been able to bring about consensus amongst contemporary Madhyamaka scholars regarding what our authors really mean when they say, for example, that the things of the world are empty (śūnya) of an “own-being” (svabhāva). Nor have scholars been able to agree on the psychological and spiritual consequences that a penetrative, experiential understanding of emptiness (śūnyatā) might bring for the individual who has reached the culmination of the path.

This talk will focus on the transfer of works composed by Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti and the ideas they contain to the modern cultural sphere, the reception of specific concepts, and the problems inherent to some of the most popular interpretations of these concepts.

Jin Y. Park—”Women and Buddhist Philosophy”

“Women and Buddhist Philosophy”

Why and how do women engage with Buddhism? In order to answer this question, this talk will explore the life and philosophy of a twentieth-century Korean Zen Master, Kim Iryŏp (1896-1971). A daughter of Christian parents, Iryŏp was a first-generation Korean feminist and writer who became a Zen Buddhist nun. Iryŏp’s life and her Buddhist philosophy demonstrate a multi-layered encounter between women and Buddhist philosophy and shed light on the meaning of autobiography, narrative identity, writing as testimony, and meaning construction in our daily existence. Philosophy has been one of the most male-dominated disciplines in humanities. Encounters between women and Buddhist philosophy raise issues that might not be shared with gender issues in Western philosophy. What do women and Buddhist philosophy share in common? By answering this question, this presentation aims to identify the nature of women’s Buddhist philosophy, which will also function as marking the limits of male-dominated philosophizing.

Jonardon Ganeri—”Illusions of Immortality: A transnational conversation between Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa and Fernando Pessoa

“Illusions of Immortality: A transnational conversation between Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa and Fernando Pessoa”

This talk will first define and then look at responses to the illusion of immortality in two thinkers widely separated in time and space: the 5th century Sri Lankan Theravāda Buddhist Buddhaghosa, and the 20th century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. There are some profound and surprising affinities between these two thinkers, and each can be read in a way that helps to illuminate the thought of the other. Putting these two thinkers into conversation with one another will enable the exploration of some of the most fundamental questions about panhuman existence: about the metaphysics of life and death, the phenomenology and moral significance of dying, and the epistemology of absence.

Panel Discussion: History and Anthropology

History and Anthropology Panel Discussion


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