2010 Seminars

2010 Seminar Series








Film screening of “Shugendo Now” by Mark McGuire

This documentary is an experiential journey into the mystical practices of Japanese mountain asceticism. In Shugendô (The Way of Acquiring Power), practitioners perform ritual actions from shamanism, “Shintô,” Daoism, and Tantric Buddhism. They seek experiential truth of the teachings during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Through the peace and beauty of the natural world, practitioners purify the six roots of perception, revitalize their energy and reconnect with their truest nature – all while grasping the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.



Conversation session

The themes for the session will be:

1) New research – brief precis by members of current research projects
2) Survey of current post graduate research proposals
3) Discussion of what is being done in Buddhist studies around Australia with reference to ANU, University of Sydney and UTAS
4) Strategic publishing in the era of the ERA – HERDC rankings for journals relevant to Buddhist studies
5) The above’s rankings relevance to academics, younger scholars and postgraduates



Glenys Eddy, USYD

The Role of Pain in Vipassana Meditators’ Experiences of Self-transformation, Comprehension of Buddhist Doctrine, and Commitment to the Buddhist Path

The effectiveness of Vipassana (Insight) meditation as a method for dealing with emotional and physical pain, has aided its integration into the contemporary Western spiritual supermarket. Many Westerners currently try a Vipassana retreat out of curiosity about the benefits of meditation, or as part of their spiritual journey. A significant experiential aspect of these retreats is the bodily pain that results from sitting for long periods with the aim of training the mind to closely observe one’s immediate subjective experience. Pain is an aspect of Dukkha (Pali), a doctrinal cornerstone of the Buddhist tradition. Dukkha is usually translated as suffering, but carries the broader meaning of the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of life. In Vipassana meditation, carrying out the instruction to ‘sit with, observe, and label the pain and one’s response to it’, is the beginning of both ‘mindfulness’ training and of an experiential understanding of the Buddhist worldview. For the purpose of understanding the role pain experience plays in a set of interrelated processes that most often result in a meditator’s commitment to Buddhism, this paper utilizes fieldwork data gathered between 2003 and 2008 at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in Medlow Bath, New South Wales. Interviews with practitioners revealed the experience of pain to play an integral role in acquiring an understanding of Buddhist doctrine, and in a variety of self-transformative experiences that, for the practitioner, validated its truth. These transformations included the acquisition of increased mental and emotional awareness and self-discipline, and the development of inner serenity, patience and compassion for others as an outcome of reflection upon the nature of their own and others’ pain. After a period of learning the practice and its supporting doctrine, testing its validity against personal experience and conviction, and observing its capacity to transform the quality of both subjective experience and one’s sense of self, most of the practitioners interviewed made a commitment to the Theravadin Buddhist path.



Iain Sinclair, Monash

Insight and Pragmatism: An Introduction to Newar Buddhism

South Asia’s last surviving form of Mahayana Buddhism, practiced by the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, is both of great importance for understanding the Indian tradition and of considerable interest in its own right. Newar Buddhism is unique in its retention of a living Sanskritic culture, in its reduction of monastic practice to an absolute minimum, and in the skillful maintenance of its identity under pressure from non-Buddhist religions. This presentation offers an introduction to the lives and practices of Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley, which are still little understood in the rest of the world.



Paul Fuller, USYD

The dog duty ascetic and the ox duty ascetic

‘There was a dog duty ascetic
Who reminded me of Anglulimala
It was something to do with his kamma
So I consulted the Abhidhamma’

In the Kukkuravatika-sutta we find two ascetics, the dog duty ascetic (kukkura-vatika) and the ox duty ascetic (go-vatika) – they both strive for liberation by adopting the behavior of a dog or an ox. This paper examines the kammic consequences of such practices in the light of the Buddha’s advice to both ascetics. It will also examine the conduct of the famous Angulimala, who killed many times, but, arguably, got away with murder. The notion of kamma in these discourses suggests a much more complex teaching than is often supposed.



Patrick Olivelle, UT Austin

Epics and Dharmaśāstras: A New Dating Scheme for Some Ancient Indian Texts

Almost all the dates proposed for the two Sanskrit epics and for the early texts on Dharma (as also for other kinds of ancient Indian texts) have been guesses, at best educated guesses. Although it is somewhat easier to establish a relative chronology of these texts, arriving at an absolute chronology within a century or so has been beset with difficulties. This paper is a modest attempt to come up with some objective criteria anchored in vocabulary for dating two genres of texts: epics and Dharmaśāstras. Using Aśoka and the grammarian Patañjali as chronological markers, this study focuses on the definition of Dharma and the use of dvija, “twice-born” to arrive at a terminus post quem, and possibly even dates, for these texts.




Film screening of “The Buddha” by David Grubin, followed by discussion



Anne Blackburn, Cornell

Buddhist Networks in Colonial Lanka and Southeast Asia: Ritual and Resistance

As British and French colonial control deepened in Lanka and Southeast Asia during the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhist monks and devotees relied increasingly on regional Buddhist networks in order to address the direct and indirect effects of colonial presence on royal courts and Buddhist communities. Drawing on epistolary and newspaper records in Pali, Sinhala and English from Lanka, this paper explores Buddhist collaborations within the Indian Ocean world, especially those related to ritual, pilgrimage, and monastic institution-building.



John Jorgensen, ANU

The Sources of Chan

Many theories have been proposed or hinted at for the sources of Chan, including: Zhuangzi, Samkhya/Yoga, Sthavira (in particular, Sarvāstivāda) Buddhism, the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, and prajñāpāramitā. Despite a number of objections, the prime source seems to be in the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, which itself is of problematic origins, being an amalgam of tathāgatagarbha thought and vijñānavāda.

The only method of testing this is to look for core doctrines in Chan that persist from the earliest texts into the mature Chan of the eleventh to twelfth centuries and then see if these core doctrines have parallels in Indian and Central Asian Buddhism. This paper will begin such an examination, isolating the core doctrines that underpin Chan and comparing these with various Indian and Central Asian teachings, noting in passing those teachings of other Buddhist groups that early Chan practitioners took a keen interest in.



Geoffrey Samuel, Cardiff

”Zomia”: New Constructions of the Southeast Asian Highlands and their Tibetan Implications

In a paper published in 1994, I argued for the Southeast Asian Highlands as an important context for understanding Tibetan societies. I referred both to specific features of Tibetan societies (social structure, lack of political centralization, aspects of their religious life) and to ways in which the anthropological literature on the Southeast Asian highlands problematised issues such as ethnic identity that had been largely taken for granted within Tibetan studies.

Recently, Willem van Schendel and James C. Scott have provided new perspectives on the Southeast Asian highland region, which they refer to as “Zomia” (after zomi, a term for “highlander’ in several regional languages) to emphasise its distinctive character. Van Schendel’s 2002 article “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance”’ uses Zomia as a case study for the artificiality of the “areas” (South, Southeast, East, etc) into which Asian studies have been divided, arguing our need to develop alternative geographies and more fluid and variable concepts of regional space. In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale UP, 2009), James C. Scott sees pre-modern Zomia as a region that effectively resisted the intrusions of surrounding states. This theme resonates with my own suggestions (in Civilized Shamans and elsewhere) that pre-modern Tibetan societies too had a strong “stateless” element, and were never more than partially integrated into state structures.

In this paper I explore the relevance of van Schendel and Scott’s work for the study of Tibetan and Himalayan societies. How far are their analyses of “Zomia” valid, and how far is it useful to see Tibet as part of “Zomia”?



Sunisa Charoenpakdee, USYD


A Brief Assessment of Thai Buddhist Women’s Ordination and Their Path to Enlightenment

This presentation addresses some fundamental aspects of the social barriers to Buddhist women’s ordination in Thailand today. Examples include a lack of the foundation of bhikkhunī ordination in the history of Thailand and the Thai sangha’s objection. I will provide a brief overview of the central phenomenon of Thai society’s non-acceptance of female ordination, particularly in the last decade. The main objective of this presentation is to reveal the bhikkhunī’s position in the Thai social context, to evaluate whether or not it is possible for women to become fully ordained in Thailand. I will argue tentatively that, although there are major obstructions, Thai Buddhist women could pursue the legality of bhikkhunī ordination lineage in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition, if they wanted. Finally, I will offer a provisional assessment on the challenge of this alternative, as to how it could be employed to befit the Thai Theravāda society.



Toby Mendelson, University of Melbourne

What should we do? Three responses to the question of Buddhist social-political engagement

In this paper I will frame a response to the normative question: “What is the best or most efficacious philosophical framework for politically and socially engaged Buddhism?” Although there are a myriad of existing and possible frameworks, in the interests of being concise I will restrict the analysis to three different philosophical modes underpinning engagement: quietism, immanent radicalism and idealist non-dualism. I will try to show that although the ethical trajectory for each of these positions is primarily soteriological, there are a range of important social-political implications which are often left implicit. It is my contention that making these implications more explicit will be productive in two ways. Firstly, within the discourse of contemporary Buddhism, to assist in providing more robust methods for navigating the complexity of global conditions. Secondly, to highlight that Buddhist thought has much to constructively contribute in other discursive fields which tend to be genealogically rooted in European thought (for example moral philosophy, economics, political philosophy).



Ruth Fitzpatrick, UWS

Western Buddhism, modern Buddhism and social engagement: Unravelling the intersections

In academic literature western Buddhism is frequently described as socially engaged. The relationship between western Buddhists and social engagement however has yet to be carefully examined in terms of the variety of approaches and attitudes to engagement taken by western Buddhists. In this paper I argue that the category socially engaged requires a more nuanced framework to better describe the various ways that contemporary Buddhists apply Buddhism in social contexts.

In order to provide a basis for such a framework, in this paper I present some of the results of fieldwork I have conducted with Australian Tibetan Buddhists during 2009-2010. I examine these findings with a particular attention to how distinct characteristics of modernity impact upon contemporary styles of Buddhist social engagement. I argue that these variations are in part a product of the tensions of navigating between scientific rationalism and neo-Romanticism– something David McMahan, in the Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008), identifies as modern Buddhism’s defining tension.