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Stanford dedicates new Center for Buddhist Studies

At a time when the movie-going public is learning about Buddhism from such popular films as Little Buddha or Seven Years in Tibet, a new research center at Stanford hopes to contribute to a deeper understanding of the faith practiced by one-third of mankind.

"Precisely because the American public has more interest in and more knowledge of Buddhism today, we think people are ready for a little more accurate image of what is really happening in Buddhist cultures," says Bernard Faure, professor of religious studies and co-director of the new Center for Buddhist Studies.

"It would be nice to correct certain misperceptions and get away from the romantic, idealized, Orientalist version of mystical religions of the East," he adds. "We're trying to get a little bit real."

Faure and Carl Bielefeldt, professor of religious studies, are co-directors of the new center, housed in Building 70, which was formally dedicated on Oct. 23 as visitors dined on an all-vegetarian buffet that included stuffed grape leaves, sushi, edamame and taro spring rolls. The new Buddhist center is part of Stanford's Center for East Asian Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

With a five-year start-up grant from a Buddhist foundation based in Hong Kong, Faure and Bielefeldt hope to build a permanent endowment during the next five years for a number of teaching, research, communication and outreach projects. The first international conference hosted by the center is scheduled for spring quarter.

Although Buddhism has been studied at European universities for decades, Buddhist studies are a relatively recent addition on American campuses. Most colleges and universities only began offering graduate programs in the 1970s, with Stanford launching its program in the department of religious studies in the second half of the '80s. Seven graduates have completed their doctorates, with dissertation topics ranging from the history of early Mahayana, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism to a study of the role of women in modern Japanese Buddhism. Another dozen doctoral candidates currently are in the pipeline. The department's courses on Buddhism now attract several hundred students annually.

Unlike Buddhist centers that are located at religious or sectarian schools, or based in Asian language or cultural studies departments on other campuses, the Stanford program aims to promote a non-sectarian, scholarly understanding of Buddhism.

With one foot in religious studies and one foot in Asian studies, there are a number of vistas, approaches and methodologies Faure says, "Having these two groups to talk with is very stimulating."

The center's library includes floor-to-ceiling shelves of Buddhist and Daoist canons, reference books, catalogs and dictionaries. Or, as Bielefeldt jokes, "There's really just one book and the rest are dictionaries to help us read it."

Bielefeldt notes that the history of Buddhist studies at American universities has fluctuated, at best.

"Buddhist studies have tended to rise and fall at universities depending on the faculty who happen to be there at any given time," he says. "If we can become endowed, that will provide a permanent base of a sort that's unusual on other campuses, and I'm excited about the possibility of establishing a permanent presence in our field and then raising funds to expand our activities beyond that base."

The first international conference hosted by the center will be held in late May and will address political aspects of Japanese Buddhism.

"In Buddhist scholarship, Japan is far and away the most active Buddhist country," Bielefeldt says. "It is the one major Asian civilization that wasn't colonized and there is a continuing tradition of scholarship and a well-developed university system."

Faure adds that French and Italian scholars of Indian and Chinese Buddhism also will be invited to the conference, and that the proceedings may be published by Stanford University Press, as part of a new series on Asian religions and cultures.

"We'll be looking at the role played by Japanese Buddhism in the emergence of the imperial ideology in the medieval period," Faure says. "That is a rapidly developing theme in Japan these days."


By Diane Manuel

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