Scholars talk Buddhism’s value in modern society

By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun July 5, 2015

Symposium hints at Vancouver’s rise as global cultural centre
Vancouver, Canada
-- An elite group of Buddhism academics have gathered in Vancouver to advance the study of the religion’s philosophies and applications in the modern world, a gathering that organizers say shows the city’s potential as a conduit for global cultures in North America.

The Buddhist Studies Today symposium, which kicked off Sunday and runs through Tuesday at the University of B.C.’s main campus, is not open to the public. But the small gathering of 14 recent PhD-level fellowship recipients, along with a number of high-profile Buddhist scholars, is expected to discuss new ideas of applying Buddhism in contemporary issues, organizers say.

The symposium follows the launch last year of a Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Buddhist philosophy grant for scholars, including those working on their PhD dissertations. The founder of the Hong Kong-based foundation — famed philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho — lives in the Vancouver area.

Ted Lipman, CEO of the foundation and a former high-ranking Canadian diplomat, said the choice of UBC for the group’s first meeting is significant.

In addition to UBC’s Buddhist studies program (also supported by — and named after — the foundation) and pleasant natural surroundings that make it easier to attract scholars to attend, Lipman said the city’s demographics make it a logical choice.

“I would think that the percentage of Buddhists here, versus what’s there in other North American cities, would probably be quite high,” he said, noting Buddhist philosophies heavily influenced many Asian cultures including Chinese, Japanese, Korean Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan.

“I think the people here would be interested in something that’s very important to the development of the study of Buddhism, and that Vancouver has a part to play in that process.”

The Robert Ho Foundation fellowship’s recipient-selection process is handled by New York-based non-profit American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a private federation of several scholarly organizations mostly based in the United States.

The group, which focuses on scholarships for studies in the humanities and social sciences, said 68 scholars applied for the Buddhist fellowship during the inaugural round last year, and 15 were selected.

All but one of those scholars were expected in Vancouver to discuss progress on their thesis — a process that will be crucial in advancing their field of study, said Dr. Pauline Yu, president of the ACLS.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial,” Yu said of the UBC symposium, which will include a workshop focused on sharing the ideas explored in the various dissertations presented. “These are people who are just finishing an entire year immersed in their studies, and this gives them a chance to get out of the library and talk about their work, where others can provide comments and suggestions. It helps them sharpen their focus (on their research topics), and that is extremely valuable.”

Yu said the fellowship recipients for next week’s UBC symposium are all PhD candidates, and research topics include the religion’s role in social and political settings, the philosophy’s impact on languages, and the role of women in its spread and growth.

Lipman added that, with further study, Buddhist philosophy can offer valuable insights on how society should cope with modern issues such as the environment and regional conflict resolution.

Vancouver could be a valuable exchange point of cultural knowledge and viewpoints, he added.

“We hear a lot about being a gateway to the Pacific,” Lipman said. “You can’t just become a gateway for goods and services. You have to be a gateway for ideas, as well. I don’t think we’ve put enough attention into this, and that’s where the Foundation’s education programs come in. What we are trying to do is to add that layer of cultural exchange.”

One of the top scholars attending to interact with grant recipients is Guang Xing, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies. A visiting professor at UBC in 2007, he said interest in Buddhist studies is very high in Hong Kong, with the school taking in 90 master’s students annually.

He sees similar potential in Vancouver’s schools if more funding were to be injected into local study programs, Guang Xing said. “I remember the students’ enthusiasm for the classes at UBC was great,” Guang Xing said.

“One student said he waited for many years for an introductory class to Buddhism. I think Vancouver is a very good place for Asian studies, with programs at UBC and SFU … and Mr. Ho’s donations have already started the process. But to be a centre of study, you need more professors and more funding. I think that would be very good for the community.”

Organizers are unsure when the next symposium will take place after the UBC event, although the goal is to create a network of scholars for Buddhist studies worldwide similar to the Fulbright Program in the United States, but on a more modest scale, Lipman said.