2014-2015 Lecture Series

September 29 - Jay Garfield

Dignāga’s Ālambana-parīkṣā: A Tale of Four Commentaries
Jay L. Garfield, Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Smith College; Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities, Yale-NUS College


Monday, September 29, 4:30 pm
Barker Center, Room 133 (Plimpton Room), 12 Quincy St.


I will talk about the results of a study by a team of scholars of Dignāga’s Ālambana-parīkṣā (dMigs pa brtags pa), its autocommentary and the commentaries of Vinītadeva, Gungthang and Ngawang Dendar.  We will talk about the epistemological questions raised by the text and the distinct ways in which these commentaries address those issues

November 3 - Mark Rowe

From Bikers to Bodhisattvas: Female Priests in Contemporary Japan

Mark Rowe, Associate Professor, McMaster University

Monday, November 3, 4:30 pm
Boylston Hall Room 335


In practically every one of the 75,000 plus Buddhist temples across Japan, the burden of daily temple operations is shared by daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of the abbot. Increasingly, these female temple family members are themselves becoming ordained, practicing priests and succeeding to the abbacy. Of the 313,000 licensed Buddhists priests in Japan, almost half (147,000) are women. Even those who do not take over temples are often expected to obtain formal ordination and achieve some degree of ritual and doctrinal proficiency. Unlike the sons who are born into temples and raised to run them, these women are entering a world filled with authority figures who do not want them, often resent their presence, and may not fully recognize them legally. A focus on female priests charts the contours of sectarian institutions and brings the family realities of temple Buddhism into sharp relief. Not only do female priests both confront and participate in the “fictitious celibacy” (Kawahashi 1995) of Japanese Buddhism, they also show the ways in which this fiction is embodied in everything from training programs, to temple succession, to institutional bylaws. Their stories force us to reconsider our assumptions of how contemporary Japanese Buddhism is lived, taught, propagated, and institutionalized.

December 8 - Natasha Heller

When is a Bodhisattva a Superhero? When is a Child a Bodhisattva?
Natasha Heller, Assistant Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures, UCLA

Monday, December 8, 4:30 pm
Warren House, Kates Room (room 201) 


The major Buddhist organizations in Taiwan all produce children’s books, as part of educational outreach programs that seek to address the whole family and to make Buddhism relevant for contemporary life. These Buddhist children’s books often tell stories intended to teach Buddhist values, but they also introduce Buddhist figures and history to children. This talk will examine how bodhisattvas are presented in a series of four picture books published by Dharma Drum Mountain (Fagu shan 法鼓山). In their plots, character depictions, and language the books show connections to a broader culture of childhood and youth; we can see elements shared across superhero literature, fairy tales, fantasy, and other works for children. The bodhisattvas created by these books are all-powerful beings who intervene in this world, even as they remain accessible to—and indeed imitable by—young children.

March 2 - Brandon Dotson

Living Sūtras and Dead Sūtras in Dunhuang
Brandon Dotson, Brandon Dotson, Privatdozent at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Director, “Kingship and Religion in Tibet” Research Group

Monday, March 2, 4:30pm
Sever Hall 202


From the 820s to the 840s, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic teams of scribes and editors produced an enormous amount of sūtras as a gift commissioned for the Tibetan emperor. This consisted of the longest of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras in both Chinese and Tibetan versions, and the Aparimitāyurnāma mahāyānasūtra, also in both Chinese and Tibetan. Leaves and panels from the former and rolls of the latter constitute the single largest group of documents within the Dunhuang collections of Paris, London, St. Petersberg, and Gansu. The choice of these two texts for such a royal gift creates an interesting set of binaries: pothī-format versus roll format, long versus short, “philosophical” versus “devotional,” sūtra versus “dhāraṇī sūtra,” Chinese versus Tibetan. Playing with such binaries, and with the term “sūtra remains” (mdo ro), which editors used when they rejected a leaf that contained scribal errors, the perhaps even more fundamental opposition of living versus dead emerges as an intriguing way to understand the place of these sūtras within both the scribal and the ritual economies that produced them.

March 9 - Robert Decaroli

Crafting the Buddha: The Development of the Buddha Image in Early South Asia
Robert Decaroli, Associate Professor, George Mason University

Monday, March 9, 4:30 pm 
Sever Hall 202


For approximately 500 years Buddhists in South Asia studiously avoided any representations of their Blessed One. This simple fact has puzzled scholars, who have sought to discover evidence of a widespread Buddhist ban on images. Yet, these efforts have produced very few concrete results. To adequately answer this question, we must look beyond Buddhism and first understand the way figural art was used prior to the first century CE. A study of the textual and archaeological sources reveals that likenesses and effigies held special importance in South Asia prior to the 1st century and were seen as having far more agency and power than we might expect. These associations were understood to forge a powerful, sympathetic connection between the images and that which they represent. Given the implications and risks associated with figural imagery, it is understandable that the anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists, and helps to explain why images Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites are also absent from the material record prior to the first century BCE. This lecture will explore these issues in the early history of Buddhist art and look at the historical factors that eventually led to the acceptance and use of the Buddha’s image.

April 6 - Manuel A. Lopez-Zafra

A Light in the Darkness: Meditation and the Construction of Tibetan Buddhism in 10th Century Tibet

Manuel A. Lopez-Zafra, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Monday, April 6, 4:30 PM 
Sever Hall 202


While meditation has played a very important role in the development of the Buddhist tradition since its beginnings, what Buddhists mean and understand by “meditation” has not always been clear. This talk will argue that meditation, as a concept, as well as a practice, functions as a fertile and contested ground that has allowed the Buddhist tradition to assert an important degree of continuity and unity (at least rhetorically) with the teachings of the Buddha and with the foundational contemplative experience of its founder. At the same time, this contested nature opened the door to significant discontinuities and diversity with new interpretations of the concept of meditation and its practices, allowing for the emergence of new Buddhist traditions and schools of thought. I want to explore my main argument in the context of the process of the introduction and assimilation of Buddhism in Tibet, and I will do so by focusing on the work of the 10th century Tibetan scholar, Nupchen Sangyé Yeshé, and in particular in his The Lamp for the Eye in Contemplation, in which we can see how the contested nature of meditation practice allows Nupchen to put forward what many scholars consider to be the first Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the so-called Great Perfection.

April 13 - Pierce Salguero

Toward a Global History of Buddhism & Medicine
Pierce Salguero, Assistant Professor, Penn State / Abington College

Monday, April 13, 4:30 PM
Barker Center 114


The close relationship between Buddhism and healing that has become so visible thanks to the contemporary “mindfulness revolution” is not necessarily a novel feature of the twenty-first century. Despite the fact that Buddhism rarely merits much discussion in general accounts of the history of medicine, mindfulness is in many ways the latest chapter in a centuries-long historical narrative with a global scope. This paper focuses on the role of Buddhist translation activities, proselytizing, and institutions in the crosscultural circulation of medical ideas and practices across a huge swathe of Asia in the premodern period. It represents the first steps toward eventually writing a book that explores the global history of Buddhism and medicine over the course of some two and a half millennia.

April 20 - Davey Tomlinson

An Introduction to Ratnākaraśānti’s Theory of Consciousness and its Tantric Context
Davey Tomlinson, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago

Monday, April 20, 4:30 pm
Barker Center 114


My presentation will introduce the late Indian Buddhist Yogācāra debate about the nature of consciousness and its relation to its content, or the Sākāra-/Nirākāra-vāda debate. Is there some content of enlightened consciousness? If so, what makes it different from ordinary content? If not, what does that tell us about consciousness in general? I will introduce two of the main players in this debate, Jñānaśrīmitra and Ratnākaraśānti, with attention to how they position themselves vis-à-vis Buddhist intellectual history. We will then focus on Ratnākaraśānti’s Nirākāravāda, unpacking how he argues that consciousness is not by definition contentful and why he might be committed to making such arguments. By referring to his commentaries on the Guhyasamāja and Hevajra Tantras, I will suggest that Ratnākaraśānti's position is inseparable from commitments developed in his tantric work.