2016 Seminars

2016 Seminar Series







John Powers, ANU

Tibetan Buddhism with A Lot of Chinese Characteristics: China’s Program of Reinterpreting Buddhist Doctrines

In 2011 China’s United Front Work Department issued a pamphlet entitled “Outline for the Work of Interpreting Tibetan Buddhist Doctrines.” It asserts that like all religions in the country, Buddhism must adapt itself to socialist society and embrace the Communist Party’s views on religion. A central tenet holds that religion is a regrettable remnant of the “feudal” past that will inevitably wither and die as “scientific” and “rational” thinking replace archaic superstitions. At the same time, there are elements of religion that should be retained until it finally disappears, particularly social morality and love of country. This seminar will discuss two paradigmatic attempts to reinterpret Tibetan Buddhist doctrines, an article by a United Front cadre, and a collection of articles that present a Chinese version of Tibetan Buddhism with an emphasis on patriotism and loyalty to the Communist Party, but little Buddhist content.



Bronwyn Finnigan, ANU

Madhyamaka Ethics

There are two main loci of contemporary debate about the nature of Madhyamaka Ethics. The first investigates the general issue of whether the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness (śūnyavāda) is consistent with a commitment to systematic ethical distinctions. The second queries whether the metaphysical analysis of no-self presented by Śāntideva in his Bodhicaryāvatāra entails the impartial benevolence of a bodhisattva. In this talk I will critically examine the second issue and shall demonstrate how debates in this area are shaped by competing understandings of Madhyamaka conventional truth or reality (paramārthasatya) and the forms of reasoning admissible for differentiating conventional truth from falsity and good from bad.



Bob Hudson, USYD

The Buddhist City-State of Arakan During the 15th to 18th Centuries: Art, Architecture, Religion and Daily Life in a Forgotten Kingdom

The surviving temples and archaeological ruins of Mrauk-U, the old capital of Arakan, once called “The Venice of the East”, have left intriguing clues about the practice of Buddhism by kings and commoners. In temple decorations, the kings may be portrayed as gods reborn, while their followers wrestle, play music or go shopping, but also devotedly worship. Huge sandstone Buddha images are still being discovered on jungle hilltops surrounding the city, witness to a drive to make merit through monument construction. The acquisition of merit through donation remains a strong aspect of Arakanese (and Burmese) culture today, and may perhaps be a somewhat alien notion to westerners who might tend to focus more on the personal and intellectual aspects of Buddhism. But those Arakanese donors several hundred years ago did leave behind such inspiring and beautiful Buddhist artworks and architecture!



Alex McKay, ANU

How Kailas became a sacred Buddhist mountain

The transformation of an earthly mountain from a secular to a sacred space in Buddhist understanding is a historical process. Mount Kailas (Tib: Ti-se), situated in the southwestern corner of the Tibetan plateau, is renowned as a sacred site in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. While there are references to a heavenly Mount Kelasa in the early (mid-first millennium CE) texts of Pali Buddhism, the earthly Kailas was transformed into sacred space by hierarchs of the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism in the 12th/13th centuries and this paper will discuss the process by which it became “Buddhacised” in the Tibetan cultural world.



Richard Salomon, University of Washington

Twenty Years and Counting: Reflections on the Study of the Oldest Buddhist Manuscripts

Professor Salomon will present an overview of his experiences in studying the oldest manuscripts of Buddhism. These manuscripts, written on birch bark scrolls in the Gāndhārī language which was once spoken in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, date back as far as the first century BC. Salomon has been leading their study since they first came to light in 1995 and is now preparing an anthology of translations from them intended for a broad audience. In this lecture, he will explain how the discovery and interpretation of these unique documents have transformed the study of ancient Buddhism.

Co-presented with the Buddhist Studies Program in the School of Languages and Cultures, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. To listen to a recording of this seminar, click here.



Anne McLeod

The Spirited Life of Marie Byles

Marie Byles (1900–1979) was an important figure in the introduction of Buddhism to Australia. During the 1940s, she regularly taught meditation on Sunday nights in Sydney. In the 1950s, this meditation group formed the original Buddhist Society of NSW, the first Buddhist society in Australia. They hosted monks from Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand to give well-attended public talks and lead retreats. Marie Byles visited many countries throughout her life, including India, Burma, China, Japan and Vietnam, and authored several books on Buddhism. Additionally, she was the first female solicitor of NSW, a mountaineer and lifelong environmentalist. This seminar and slide presentation will describe Marie’s extraordinary life.



Mark Allon, USYD; Chris Clark, USYD; Tamara Ditrich, Nan Tien Institute; Ian McCrabb, USYD; Wendy Reade, USYD The “World’s Biggest Book”: The Conservation, Photographing, and Study of the Kuthodaw Pagoda Marble-stelae Recension of the Pali Buddhist Canon in Mandalay, Myanmar

The Kuthodaw Pagoda at Mandalay in upper Myanmar/Burma is commonly referred to as the “World’s Biggest Book”. Consisting of 729 marble stelae spread over a 5.2 hectare site, the Pagoda is a large inscriptional complex that preserves an authorised mid-nineteenth century Myanmar recension of the Pali canon. The site was created at the command of King Mindon, the second last king of Burma, between 1860 and 1868 in order to fulfil one of the religious duties of Myanmar kings to preserve the Buddha’s teachings, in all likelihood also prompted by the annexation of lower Myanmar by the British in 1852.

Despite its importance (UNESCO “Memory of the World” status 2013), neither the inscribed text nor the site as a whole has been studied in any detail. In 2013 a group of scholars and students at the University of Sydney and Nan Tien Institute established the Kuthodaw Pagoda Project with the aim of conserving, digitally photographing and studying the Kuthodaw Pagoda site and its inscriptions. This paper will be jointly presented by several project members and will describe the challenges encountered thus far, work completed to date and future plans. Some preliminary findings will also be discussed.