By Shyamal Sinha
Buddhist studies, also known as Buddhology (although the latter term is sometimes reserved for the study of Buddhas rather than that of Buddhism as a whole), is the academic study of Buddhism. The term applies especially to the modern academic field, which is a subset of religious studies, and is distinct from Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist theology.Scholars of Buddhist studies represent a variety of disciplines including history, anthropology, and philosophy.
The College of Humanities at the University of Arizona this week announced a new Center for Buddhist Studies, with the aim of creating “a research hub to explore the religious, intellectual, social, cultural, and textual traditions of the world’s fourth-largest faith.” (UANews)
“Residing in the College of Humanities, the Center for Buddhist Studies will be a home for faculty research, sponsor a lecture series, support student scholarships, host academic conferences and visiting scholars, and continue to preserve Buddhist heritage in its textual and artistic forms,” said director Jiang Wu. “The center formalizes the curriculum, research, and outreach activities already underway at the UA, while recognizing opportunities created by the rise of global Asian cultures and markets as well as the rise of Buddhism-inspired social movements in the West.” (UANews)
Wu, who has a doctorate from Harvard and teaches Chinese thought and religion, has been at UA since 2002. The center will also host Albert Welter, who also focuses on Chinese history. “With two specialists in this field, we are very, very strong,” Wu added. “In North America, there is nowhere else with two specialists in Chinese Zen Buddhism.” (UANews)
The center will also draw from specialists on India, Japan, and Tibet, as well as scholars of mindfulness and contemplative studies, and across a variety of disciplines including archaeology, history, medical humanities, and textual studies.
The University of Arizona offers BA, MA, and PhD degrees East Asian studies and added a minor in Buddhist studies in 2015. They also offer two study-abroad programs focusing on Buddhism: one in Kyoto and one in Bhutan. Wu has said that a strength of the University of Arizona’s center will be its move beyond traditional textual studies, a cornerstone of the 200-year-old discipline of Buddhist studies.
“The kind of Center for Buddhist Studies we want to create is to make our voice heard in the field, to transform the field with a multidisciplinary approach, a more open-ended and open-minded approach,” Wu explained. “The kind of Buddhist studies we envision will be an interdisciplinary bridge with all the different programs and experiments.” (UANews)
Part of that work will include developing a digital map of Buddhist monasteries around the world, filled with information accessible to scholars everywhere. This project, the Buddhist Geographical Information System (BGIS), uses ready-made layers from an ongoing project at Harvard. Another project will draw on deep learning and artificial intelligence technologies to study digitized Buddhist texts. Both of these will rely on expertise from the university’s newly established Center for Digital Humanities.
The university’s geographical location, not far from the Mexican border, may seem unlikely for a center focused on a predominantly Asian religion. However, Tucson has a long history of Buddhist practice, including a 2005 visit by the Dalai Lama.
“Why here? Regionally speaking, there is no center for Buddhist studies in the Southwest,” said Wu. “Tucson is a very special place for religions. We have this vast landscape and the immediate feel here is very relaxed. I see here as a very promising place. It’s very wise for our leadership to approve this center because it’s a future-looking approach.” (UANews)
A two-day, international conference is planned for late March 2018, when the program will be officially presented to the world.