The Divinity School is pleased to offer a series of lectures on topics in Theravada Buddhism. Lectures will be delivered via Zoom; more details to be announced.

This series is supported through a generous gift by Mr. Jun Zhou. Need an accommodation to attend a Divinity School event? Please contact Suzanne Riggle in advance at 773-702-8219.

Upcoming Lectures:

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 – Erik Braun, University of Virginia

More information coming soon!

Monday, November 9, 2020 - Kate Crosby, King’s College, London

Title: Esoteric Theravada Meditation: Corruption or Abhidhamma?

Abstract: This talk will examine the esoteric meditation that dominated much of the Theravada world before the modern period. It will examine features that have seemed heterodox, and gained it a reputation as a corrupt form of Theravada and then counter this by considering how it enacts the path of transformation expounded in commentarial Abhidhamma.

Bio: Kate Crosby is Professor of Buddhist Studies in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London. She works on Sanskrit, Pali and Pali-vernacular literature, and on Theravada practice in the pre-modern and modern periods. She is interested in meditation, the history of the relationship between Buddhism and other technologies, and how varying responses to modernity influenced the shape, rhetoric and practice of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Her publications include The Bodhicaryavatara; The Dead of Night & the Women; Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, Identity and Traditional Theravada Meditation and its Modern Era Suppression.

Monday, March 8, 2021 – Anne Blackburn, Cornell

More information coming soon!

TBD - Pyi Phyo Kyaw, Research Associate in Abhidhamma Meditation, King’s College, London

Title: The Infinite Method: Mathematics of the Paṭṭhāna

Abstract: The Paṭṭhāna, the seventh text of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, deals with the functioning of causality and interdependence in Theravāda thought. It uses the mathematics of enumeration and combinatorics to plumb the depths of causality. The emphasis on the Paṭṭhāna in Burmese Buddhism has been influenced by sociopolitical conceptions, developments and institutions. This paper focuses on a more technical aspect of the Paṭṭhāna – the Saṅkhyā-vāra, ‘Enumeration sections’. I examine the Paṭṭhāna through analysis of its mathematics, demonstrating not only the types of mathematics being used to further understand the nature and depths of causality, but also close parallels between the mathematics of the Paṭṭhāna and the mathematics of ‘combinatorics’.

Bio: Dr Pyi Phyo Kyaw (pronounced “Pyé Jaw”) is Dean of Graduate Studies and Lecturer in Theravada Studies at Shan State Buddhist University, Taunggyi, Myanmar. She is also a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London, United Kingdom. She studied BA in Economics and Management at Oxford University, before completing MA in Buddhist Studies at SOAS in 2010, and PhD in Buddhist Philosophy at King’s College, London in 2014. She has undertaken meditation practice within different meditation traditions in Myanmar for the past 14 years. She has also undertaken monastic training in Myanmar as a precept-nun in a meditation centre based at Pyay (formerly Prome) in 2007 and 2015.

She specialises in Burmese Buddhism, Abhidhamma (Theravada analytical philosophy), Theravada meditation, Buddhist business practices, and Buddhist ethics. She also teaches Vipassana meditation in Budapest, Hungary.

TBD - Aleix Ruiz-Falqués, Pali Lecturer, Shan State Buddhist University, Myanmar

Title: Alchemists of Sound: Buddhism and Grammar in Medieval Burma

Abstract: The Burmese monastic education system is primarily based on the learning of Pali texts that are not necessarily the words of the Buddha. These manuals have been composed by scholar-monks of different periods and places, and are meant to elucidate the meaning of the Pali Tipiṭaka containing the words of the Buddha himself. The origins of the present-day Buddhist scholastic tradition of Burma stems from the Pagan period (1044–1287 ce). The earliest Pali compositions in Pagan were not directly touching on doctrinal issues. They were grammatical treatises. This talk is about such treatises and their connection to Buddhist learning (pariyatti), practice (paṭipatti) and insight (paṭivedha). Specifically, this talk discusses the primary object of study of Pali grammatical texts, namely speech-sounds, and how the residual orality of Pali medieval litterature is connected to certain aspects of the Theravāda doctrine.

Bio: Aleix Ruiz-Falqués (Barcelona, 1982). BA Classics (University of Barcelona), MA Sanskrit (University of Pune), PhD Pali (University of Cambridge). My research focuses on the Pali scholastic tradition in general and specifically on the tradition of Burmese Pali grammarians. I also do translation work from Pali and Sanskrit to Spanish and English. Currently I work as a Pali Lecturer at the Shan State Buddhist University, Taunggyi (Burma).

Prior Lectures:

Monday, October 14 - Justin McDaniel, Professor of Religious Studies, The University of Pennsylvania

Title: A Siamese Manuscript found in a Greek Orthodox Monastery in Pittsburgh and other Strange Adventures in the study of Thai Buddhist Literature

Bio: McDaniel’s research foci include Lao, Thai, Pali and Sanskrit literature, art and architecture, and manuscript studies. His first book, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words, won the Harry Benda Prize. His second book, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magic Monk, won the Kahin Prize. He has received grants from the NEH, Mellon, Rockefeller, Fulbright, PACRIM, Luce, the SSRC, among others. His forthcoming work includes edited books on Thai Manuscripts, Buddhist Biographies, and Buddhist ritual. He also has a new book on modern Buddhist architecture.

Monday, November 4 - Alicia Turner, Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, York University

Title: Burmese Buddhist Identity, Gender and Colonial Secularism

Abstract: This talk charts a genealogy of Buddhist identity and religious difference in Burma and the ways it has created the preconditions of violence in the present. It seeks to bring together a practical and a theoretical problem. First, how do we understand the anti-Muslim discourse and genocide in Burma in relation to Buddhism? Second, if has Saba Mahmood has demonstrated, secularism entwines the construction of gender with the production of religious difference what happens when religion is taken not as the mechanism of women’s restriction, but as the source of their liberation? Rejecting the idea of Burmese Buddhist nationalism as irrational or excessive religiosity I interrogate the secular colonial origins of Burmese religious divisions in discourses of tolerance and freedom for women. Far from colonial secularism initiating a universal liberal framework for pluralism, such discourses instantiated religious difference as the conceptual ground for identity. My work tracks the secular construction of Buddhism as a World Religion imagined as an Asian reflection of European liberal values. Secularist colonial policies constructed Indian Muslims as the foil to the valorized liberalism of Burmese Buddhists. Burmese Buddhist and nationalist thought in the twentieth century then interwove the Indian religious other and the self-identification of Buddhism with religious tolerance and the freedom of Burmese women. It is this discourse has animated the contemporary Buddhist nationalist rhetoric arguing that because Buddhism is so tolerant it is at particular risk of being overrun by intolerant religious others. This history offers us a way of understanding the contemporary situation in Burma and suggests the equal need to consider how the same discourses shape North American popular ideas of Buddhism and scholarly research agendas.

Bio: Alicia Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at York University in Toronto. An expert in Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar, she is interested in the intersections of colonialism, nationalism and secularism. Her first book Saving Buddhism: Moral Community and the Impermanence of Colonial religion explores concepts of sāsana, identity and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations. She has co-authored The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Oxford 2020), which tells the story of an extraordinary Irish sailor who became a Buddhist monk and anti-colonial activist in early twentieth-century Asia in order to explore multi-ethnic plebian Asian networks at the heart Buddhist reform.  She is currently working on a book, entitled Buddhism’s Plural Pasts: Religious Difference and Indifference in Colonial Burma, that explores the workings of colonial secularism through a genealogy of religious division.

Tuesday, January 14 - Thomas Borchert, Professor and Interim Chair, Director of Asian Studies Program, The University of Vermont

Title: Bloody Amulets and False Monks: Legal Pluralism and Problems in the Governance of Theravada Monks in Thailand and Southwest China

Abstract: It is well-known that the actions of Buddhist monastics are governed by the vinaya.  The 227 rules of the Pali vinaya require that Theravada monks dress, walk, speak and act in certain ways, fostering a particular vision for what a “proper” monastic looks like.  However, the vinaya only covers a fraction of the processes and mechanisms through which monastics are disciplined and governed. Throughout the Theravada world, monastics are also subject to secular legal systems, ecclesiastical law, as well as the force of lay-monastic interactions.  While discussion about these legal systems often refers to the ultimate authority of the “dhamma-vinaya” in matters of behavior, in the actual experiences of monastics, there can be real tensions between these formal and informal legal regimes. These tensions sometimes cause problems for monks as they work through these contradictions, as well as for sangha governing structures.  This paper will examine the conditions of legal pluralism in both Thailand and Southwest China, focusing around two recent problems faced by their respective sanghas: how to respond to the political activism of the now-disrobed monk, Buddha Issara, and how to keep the sangha free of imposters.  Both of these point to the limits of sangha self-governance in Thailand and Southwest China as a result of the conditions of legal pluralism.

Bio: Thomas Borchert is Professor of Religion and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His research focuses on the experiences of monks in contemporary Thailand and Southwest China, particularly at the intersection of secular and religious governing structures. He is the author of Educating Monks: Minority Buddhism on China’s Southwest Border (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017) and the editor of Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts (Routledge 2018). His current research is focused on questions of citizenship and Islamophobia within the Thai Sangha. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2006.

Monday, February 17 - John Holt, Visiting Professor of Theravada Buddhism at the Divinity School

Title: Narratives of Siege: Understanding Buddhist/Muslim Conflicts in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand

Abstract: Why have Buddhist and Muslim communities in these three countries, after sharing centuries of largely amicable relations, found themselves recently enmeshed in conditions of inter-communal tension, tensions that have sporadically erupted into armed conflict, in some cases including large-scale state-supported violence against minority Muslim communities? There many socio-economic, political and religious factors that have exacerbated inter-communal relations in the recent past. Notwithstanding a consideration of these various compelling factors, how each of the six respective communities in these three countries understands their contemporary predicaments through narratives of siege is the focus of this lecture.

Bio: John Clifford Holt is currently Visiting Professor of Theravada Buddhism at the Divinity School. He is the author of many books, including Discipline: the Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka (Motilal Banarsidass, 1981), Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka (Oxford University Press, 1991), for which he was awarded an American Academy Book Award for Excellence, The Religious World of Kirti Sri: Buddhist Art and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka (Oxford University Press, 1996), The Buddhist Visnu (Columbia University Press, 2004), Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture (University of Hawaii Press, 2009), Theravada Traditions: Buddhist Ritual Cultures in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka (University of Hawaii Press, 2017), and Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis: Rohingya, Arakanese, and Burmese Narratives of Siege and Fear (University of Hawaii Press, 2019). Included among the seven books he has also edited are The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Politics and Culture (Duke University Press, 2011) and Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka (Oxford University Press, 2016). He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya in 2002, and selected as University of Chicago Divinity School Alumnus of the Year in 2007. He has also served on the faculties of Bowdoin College, the University of Peradeniya (Sri Lanka), The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the University of Calgary (Canada), and the University of California at Berkeley.