Buddhist Asia: Traditions, Transmissions and Transformations

  An NEH Summer Institute ~ May 25 to June 26, 2015 ~ Honolulu, Hawai'i ~ Hosted by the Asian Studies Development Program

One of the most striking features of Buddhist Asia is its diversity. The teachings, practices, institutions, art and architecture associated with Buddhism in Japan, Thailand and Tibet, for example, are as different as these countries’ terrains, climates and cuisines. Indeed, they differ as greatly as do Mexican Catholicism, German Lutheranism and American Mormonism. The Institute program is designed to explore this diversity in ways that will be useful both in framing research projects and developing materials for use in undergraduate humanities and social science courses.


The Institute’s presenters have been selected to afford participants with a rich array of intellectual and pedagogical resources for understanding and teaching about the evolution of Buddhist traditions across Asia, and have been drawn primarily from the disciplines of religion, philosophy, history, literature and art history. 


To help bring continuity and focused clarity to a necessarily diverse program, each of the first four weeks will feature a lead academic who will offer multiple lectures and interact with participants both formally and informally over several days: Rupert Gethin (Religious Studies), Tansen Sen (History), John Kieschnick (Religious and Cultural History), Thomas Kasulis (Philosophy and Comparative Humanities) and Anne Blackburn (Asian Studies). As the Institute Director, Peter Hershock will be present throughout the program and will meet both individually and in small groups with participants to discuss their research and/or curriculum development efforts.


Prior to the Institute, participants will be asked to make use of the Institute Bibliography to guide their reading in preparing for the program, and will be expected to read two background texts:


  1. The Foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  2. Buddhism in the Modern World, edited by David L. McMahan (Routledge, 2012)


Among broad introductions to Buddhism, The Foundations of Buddhism strikes an admirable balance between breadth and depth that makes it suitable for use in undergraduate courses. Although focused more heavily on the first millennium of Buddhist history, it skillfully teases out common conceptual and practical threads that connect the diverse traditions of Buddhist thought and practice across Asia in both monastic and lay communities.


McMahon’s Buddhism in the Modern World is an excellent and accessible collection of contributions by leading scholars, each of which includes a summary, discussion topics and further reading. The first part of the book provides a geographically organized overview of Buddhist Asia’s encounters with modernity, beginning in roughly the 16th century, and includes chapters on early perceptions of Buddhism in Europe and North America. The second half of the book focuses on the diverse responses of Buddhists to the challenges of modernity, including chapters on gender, science, globalization and popular culture.

Participants will also be asked to make use of the Institute website which will contain links to readings selected by program presenting faculty; useful web links; a list of relevant feature and documentary films; and a forum for sharing information and making inquiries prior to, during, and after the Institute program. Over the course of the institute, presenter lecture notes and power-point files will be added to the website along with other pedagogically-relevant materials and resources.


Participants will also be asked to make use of the Institute website which will contain links to readings selected by program presenting faculty; useful web links; a list of relevant feature and documentary films; and a forum for sharing information and making inquiries prior to, during, and after the Institute program. Over the course of the institute, presenter lecture notes and power-point files will be added to the website along with other pedagogically-relevant materials and resources.