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 Four: The Coevolution of State and Society in Buddhist Southeast Asia. The arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia occurred in several waves, beginning as early as the 4th century from India and later China. Anne Blackburn (Cornell) begins the week with a thematic overview of the history of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, the arrival of so-called Northern Buddhist Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, and the eventual dominance of Theravāda, so-called Southern Buddhist traditions by the 12th century. In a second, Tuesday morning session, she will look more closely at how monastic institutions, relic-worship and merit-making have distinctively shaped Southeast Asian social, political and economic dynamics, especially since the 16th century.

On Wednesday morning, Paul Lavy (University of Hawai´i) will discuss how Southeast Asian societies, at different historical periods, accepted and then localized imported traditions of Buddhist art and architecture, both in the process of state-formation and the crafting of new cultural identities. Special attention will be given to the monumental complex at Borobudur, a 9th century on Java, Indonesia that mapped the Buddhist cosmos, and to the Hindu-Buddhist syncretism that characterizes the Angkor complex in Cambodia that flourished from the 9th to 14th centuries with an infrastructure covering nearly 400 square miles, making it the largest preindustrial city in the world.

On Thursday morning, Anne Blackburn and Peter Hershock will undertake a primary text reading and discussion of perhaps the most widely used teaching narrative in Southeast Asian Buddhism: the Vessantara Jataka. In addition to the texts collected together in the early Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka (Three Baskets), by the early centuries CE there were in circulation some 550 jatakas or tales of the historical Buddha’s prior lives, each expressing some key lesson learned en route to becoming a fully awakened being. The Vessantara Jataka is the culmination of the series—the life of a prince who perfects the key Buddhist virtue of offering or generosity. In addition to these content sessions on Buddhist Southeast Asia, two sets of meetings times will be on Monday and Wednesday afternoon for program participants to meet in small, discipline-focused groups with the project Director to discuss their curricular projects.


The week will end with a geographic turn north and west to the Himalayan region where esoteric Buddhist traditions first developed in the 7th and 8th centuries and where by the 12th century they were the dominant forms of Buddhism practiced in the region. In the first of two talks, David Germano (University of Virginia) will discuss the origins of Vajrayāna Buddhism in north India and its flourishing in Tibet where its distinctive doctrinal and ritual development culminated in the practical merging of political and religious authority.

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