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

Week One: Buddhist Origins and Early Diversification. The first week of the program will explore Buddhism’s emergence in the 5th century BCE, its core teachings and their initial diversification, and the trade-mediated conditions of its flourishing and spread throughout South Asia and into Central Asia by the 7th century. On the opening day, Institute Director, Peter Hershock, will provide a synoptic introduction to Buddhist Asia in broad historical and geographical terms, followed by a discussion of the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma (or teachings) and Sangha (community, both monastic and lay)—Buddhist cosmology, and such key concepts as interdependence, karma, meditation and enlightenment.


Rupert Gethin (Bristol University) will then conduct two sessions that explore the first millennium of Buddhist diversification in South and Central Asia. The first session, on Tuesday morning, will focus on early doctrinal and institutional developments through roughly the beginning of the common era as Buddhists entered into philosophical debate with other religious traditions. The second session, on Wednesday, will address the broad bifurcation of Theravāda (literally, the “Path of the Elders”) and Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) traditions, with an emphasis on the development of new textual styles and the bodhisattva (“enlightening being”) as a personal ideal for both monastic and lay practitioners.

 

On Thursday morning, Paul Lavy (University of Hawaii) will examine the emergence of distinctive Buddhist traditions of art and architecture, including a discussion of spatial practices associated with relic veneration and pilgrimages. This session will also explore initial encounters of Buddhists with European and Middle Eastern cultures in what is now northwest India and Afghanistan. On Thursday afternoon, Peter Hershock will undertake a close reading with participants of two texts. One, the Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutta, is drawn from the early strata of Buddhist literature and addresses issues of just governance and the restoration of social harmony. The second, the Prajñāpāramitā-Hdaya or Heart Sutra, is an extraordinarily concise summary of key Mahāyāna teachings that continues to be used daily in Buddhist liturgies throughout East Asia.


The week will close with the first of two lectures by Tansen Sen (CUNY). A renowned expert on the spread of Buddhism, Sen will discuss how trade and diplomacy played crucial roles in Buddhism’s spread in South, Central and East Asia. While this spread included a “gradual” process of diffusion along major trade routes through the Hindu-Kush Mountains and around the great Taklamakan Desert, it also included “sudden” long distance transmission of Buddhism to the Chinese capital in the early centuries of the common era.