Symposium 2017 – Paper Abstracts

Keynote Speaker

Science and Buddhism: Why Bother?

The dialog 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 dialog’s potential impact on Buddhist communities.

 Philosophy Panel –

“Buddhism and Beyond: The Question of Pluralism”

This paper discusses Buddhist responses to religious diversity. I use the logical form of the tetralemma made famous by Nāgārjuna to clarify the ways that Buddhists can be seen to relate to other religions. With four alternatives, I discuss 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 I draw out 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, I also spell out differences between claims and attitudes in an example from Tibetan traditions, with reference to the so-called “nonsectarian” (ris med) movement in particular. I argue that there is an important distinction to be made between a claim and an attitude; 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. I wish to argue 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.

– Philosophy Panel –

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

In this talk I 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. As we will see 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 me to explore 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.

– Philosophy Panel –

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.

The 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.

– Philosophy Panel –

Madhyamaka in the Light of Quantum Physics: A Modern Interpretative Comparison of Dependent Origination with Quantum Interconnectedness

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.

– Philosophy Panel –

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.

– Philosophy Panel –

Women and Buddhist Philosophy

Why and how do women engage with Buddhism? This is the primary question I aim to address in this presentation. To this end, I 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. Women and Buddhist philosophy: what do they 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.

– Philosophy Panel –

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.

– Philosophy Panel –

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 should talk more with their monks.’

– Anthropology and History Panel –

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

In this presentation, I will investigate 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. I am particularly interested in examining how these encounters play out in the laboratories connected with Mind & Life. In these modern spaces, 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 communicating traditional Buddhist ideas and practices are also surfacing. It is my goal to discuss some of these issues in light of future consequences they could have for both Buddhism and science at large.

– Anthropology and History Panel –

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 intial phase began as early as the 2nd century, when Buddhism was first brought to the Malay Penisula. 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 organise activities in welfare, culture, art, and the environment and to pay particular attention to current affairs, which connect these Buddhist organisations 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.

– Anthropology and History Panel –

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.

– Anthropology and History Panel –

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.

– Anthropology and History Panel –

Reform trends in Buddhism among Tamangs in Nepal

Tamangs are one of the major indigenous groups in Nepal who follow the Buddhist religion.  Roughly about 50% of the Buddhist population of the country belongs to the Tamang community. Tamangs largely follow the Ngyingma and Kagyupa sects of Himalayan/Tibetan Buddhism, in combination with ancient shamanistic practices and Tamang folk traditions.  Tamangs appear to have come into contact with the Buddhist faith early on when Buddhism entered into the Kathmandu valley, but was adopted widely during the period it spread to Tibet and the Himalayas. With no or limited support from nor contact with the state or monastic institutions during half a millennium or so, Buddhism among Tamangs survived and was preserved primarily at the community level. With the growing number of Tamang scholars and priests who have acquired Buddhist teaching outside the Tamang community in higher institutions and monasteries in India and Nepal, a shift is taking place. Not only those who have acquired Buddhist teaching outside but also the younger generation of priests within the community are seeking reform and some changes in the existing Buddhist practices. Such reform activities have yielded generative action, while in other cases met with resistance. In this presentation, I aim to discuss recent trends in reform in Buddhist practices among Tamangs in Nepal. I suggest that this phenomenon offers a productive case for learning more about transnational Buddhism.


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