Tenth Anniversary Celebration: Training Program

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As it is commonly known, the great Tang Empire was one of Chinese heydays when the society, politics, economy and culture reached the apex. It was also the land on which a myriad of European and Asian civilizations converged and interacted. Especially in the early and mid-Tang period, the royal families of multi-ethnical heritages had embraced, with an unprecedented open mind, not only local religions and faiths, but also those from other parts of the world, which had traversed swaths of oceans to reach China. This epoch also witnessed the business-minded civilization sharing its glory with the ancient agriculture-based civilization. Midst such a pluralistic and cosmopolitan atmosphere, there were abundant opportunities for exchanges and interactions between ordinary people and aristocrats and scholars, between laymen and devout monastics, and among distinct metiers of government officials, farmers, artisans and businessmen. In the hubbub of urban life, one could distinguish a miscellany of languages from East Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia and Southeastern Asia. Residents of Chang’an, and their taste buds had long grown accustomed to an array of exotic flavours from five continents. Propelled by its spiritual engine — a receptive mindset, a tolerant social ambience, and a culture and religions that honoured universal values — Tang empire, anchored by its two capitals, was a searing melting pot in which all sorts of physical entities or spiritual elements collided and clashed, resulting in a fabulous cultural landscape, and a utopia that human beings always long for.

Since half a century ago, the most significant geo-political event has been the galloping development in East Asia and the wave of globalization sweeping across every corner of the world. In particular, unique procedures by which people in East Asia fabricate materials have attracted the attention of the world. But at the same time, in-depth studies of East Asia’s spiritual legacies have just commenced. The entire Chinese-speaking academic studies of Buddhism is somehow estranged from the academic researches performed in European languages and East Asian languages (e.g. Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese). This estrangement is not only the result of material obstacles, exemplified by the national borders, but it is also the result of enormous differences in terms of the way of thinking and the style and the preference for conducting the research. There is also a vast schism between academic elites and the general public, as well as among the religious, political, and commercial circles. In light of this status quo, it is extremely vital to build an infrastructure that allows for open dialogues across borders, continents, languages, religions, levels of education, as well as strata and groups of the society; and to build a collective platform, or “field” for Buddhism studies, in which academic resources could be integrated and new frontiers of research could be explored. And this is exactly the original mission that the International and Intensive Program on Buddhism and East Asian Cultures has been undertaking since its conception.

Ten years came and passed. In looking back to July 2008, the most significant global event was NASA’s discovery of water on Mars. This discovery obviated a major obstacle for humans’ future exploration in space. It was in that very month that our first program was hosted in the eastern capital of the one-time Tang Empire. Since the program’s beginning, we have invited the most celebrated scholars on Buddhist Studies, in our effort to open up a channel of communication for Chinese academia with the world, but also to allow Western scholars and students to leave the confine of books, to tread on the ground on which their subject of studies had once taken place, and to regain a physical touch with the bygone one-thousand-and-five-hundred years of history whose cultural heritage is still very much warm and present.

Just like the world history which is far from a smooth ride, our own journey with developing this program has also encountered a number of obstacles. Despite our efforts and best intents, the hurdles, disappointment, and even despair are inevitable. But those interruptions have never debilitated our will to stay alert and to start fresh. When the program started in 2008, it only consisted of intensive seminars given by six to seven scholars. But after 2013, the seminars were supplemented with international conferences that had specialized themes, as well as Young Scholars Forums, on-site investigations, and the lectures delivered by world-renowned scholars in and outside China, as well as the immersive experience of the monastic life. Those adjunct programs were proofs of our evolution, in the image of a tree that grows its annual rings under the utmost care.

The part of intensive seminars has been the centre of our endeavour. For every program, we invite the most qualified scholars to give bilingual lessons, including Antonello Palumbo, Max Deeg, Tansen Sen, Jinhua Chen 陈金华, Funayama Toru船山彻, John McRea, Seishe Karashima辛岛静志, Barend ter Haar, John Kieschnick, Steven Bokenkamp, Stefano Zacchetti, Imre Galambos, Imre Hamar, James Robson, Lothar Ledderose, Stephan Teiser, Takata Tokio 高田时雄, Leonard van Der Kuijp, Vincent Goossaert. Behind each of these dazzling names is an interminable résumé that records their accomplishments. Even though each seminar is limited in time, what is offered to students is the essence of their years’ painstaking research. In accordance with the program’s tradition, these scholars are keen on transmitting methodology rather than merely knowledge. They emphasize the expansion of perspectives rather than the hair-splitting of details. This explains why — within a short span of time — the students could receive a drastic upgrade in their methodology, ability to collect information and mindset to consider inter-disciplines, trans-languages and multi-approaches in their research.

Since 2013, each international conference designates a special theme, ranging from the sacred space, to the worship of sacred sites, to the material culture of Buddhism, to the interconnection between the Buddhist commerce and social networks, and to the topic of specific religious sects. The fruits of the conferences have been, and will continue being preserved in academic journals of high quality, and in both languages, which will be published in both Europe and East Asia and serve as the firm foundation for future researches in the related fields. These bilingual academic publications are not only the encapsulation of the past researches, but also the springboard for generating future cutting-edge researches.

At each program, we also invite reputed scholars for lecture series, such as Zhaoguang Ge 葛兆光, Guangchang Fang  方广锠, Chunwen He 郝春文, to pass down their experiences to the young scholars. And their presence, of itself, is a form of approval towards the value of the program. At the same time, we understand the important role of young scholars and the necessity of cultivating their talents so as to ensure a kind of academic sustainability; for this reason, we created the Young Scholar Forum. In this forum, young scholars have the chance to refine their own research by heeding the feedback of seasoned scholars, and applying what they have just learned in the intensive seminars. The program is a place where students’ eager curiosity meets the critical feedbacks from the experienced scholars, making it a fertile ground for inspiring thoughts and academic maturity. At the end of the program, participants would visit sacred Buddhist sites and relics where they could conduct on-site investigations, obtaining a “sensual” first-hand knowledge for their research. After leaving the program,  participants often shared their experiences among their colleagues and friends, which have enormously increased the program’s reputation.

Since 2014, the number of applicants skyrocketed. In order to accommodate this demand, the program added a winter program. So far, we have hosted eight summer programs and three winter programs with a record of 800 participants, and more than one hundred of them hold a professional position in universities or research institutes in and outside China. This promising outcome not only contributed to the sustainability of Buddhism Studies, but in a sense, it has reconfigured the role of East Asian religions, particularly Chinese Buddhism, in relation to the world-wide academia.

Since last year (2017), we created an additional program in the Wutai International Research Institute for Buddhism and East Asian Culture as well as other locations: the Intensive and International Program, which aims to provide a more advanced platform for teaching exceptional scholars. From this summer on (2018), our program has traversed mountains and oceans to reach Europe and North America for hosting the Intensive and International Program, respectively at the Cambridge University in U.K. and the University of British Columbia in Canada.

It takes ten year to nourish a tree. Likewise, the International and Intensive Program on Buddhism and East Asian Cultures, over the period of ten years, has finally taken its root and is still being nourished by religious and academic spheres, on its way to becoming a towering tree. On this journey, Ven. Zhanru 湛如, Ven. Miaojiang妙江, Ven. Shangkai  圣凯 and Prof. Yinggang Sun 孙英刚have generously invested their efforts and resources. Neither would our program have been possible without the support of a number of institutions including Tzu Chi Foundation, Wutai International Research Institute for Buddhism and East Asian Cultures, University of British Columbia, Renming University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, Dharma Drum College of Liberal Arts, Great Sage Bamboo Grove Monastery, Hangzhou Institute for Buddhist Studies. But the key components that guarantee this success are those whom we are unable to name here — the wisdom of our friends in the academic and religious fields, and the diligent participation of all our students.

The future of East Asian Buddhism Studies serves as the guideline for developing our program. And for us, this future consists of an un-obstructed exchange of human and academic resources among nations, disciplines and academic communities, and of a brand-new understanding of ancient Buddhist texts and images in light of the latest development in the modern technology and media. By adopting a fresh perspective and a macroscopic lens which transcend linguistic and geographic boundaries, we can re-consider the process by which Buddhist texts were promoted to classic or legitimate ranks, as well as its synchronistic and diachronic influences in the ancient, modern and contemporary period. This will also be an opportunity to study the interactive relationship between the image, the text and the religious practice, examining them on a new platform, in a further attempt to understand the interaction — during the Imperial China — between Buddhism and the political power, and among various trans-territorial commercial networks. And this knowledge could in turn be used in our own days to foster Buddhism as a world religion that has, at its disposal, a system of universal values.

Twenty-first century is one of globalization. We also find ourselves in a period for East Asia in its booming ascension. In this new era, the studies of East Asian Buddhism could no longer be fitted with its fancy yet arcane outfit. We shall embrace the knowledge and methodology from outside our comfort zone, and leave our ivory tower to study historical texts in conjunction with field investigations. While we safeguard the core academic standards, we shall also let non-academic circles to be acquainted with the changes taking place within the academic spheres. We need sophisticated thinking and theoretical researches, but we also need a grounded mindset to apply and promote them. The most outstanding form of academic achievement is one that does not shield itself from the world with an air of arrogance; it transcends the world but also of the world. And for the sake of supporting this kind of research, the International and Intensive Program on Buddhism and East Asian Cultures was thus created.