The Divinity School is pleased to offer a series of lectures on topics in Theravada Buddhism. This series is supported through a generous gift by Mr. Jun Zhou.

October 13, 2022 - Anne Blackburn, Cornell University

Anne Blackburn“Buddhist-inflected Sovereignties Across the Indian Ocean: A Pali Arena, 1200-1550”
4:30-6pm, Swift Hall Common Room

Anne M. Blackburn
Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities
Chair, Department of Asian Studies
Cornell University

Abstract: Based on Blackburn’s new book, this talk presents case studies from locations in what are now Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, and draws larger historical and methodological proposals from these cases. The lecture highlights varied and historically specific sovereign arguments, made in multiple media, by participants in the premodern Pali arena (13th-16th centuries).

February 22, 2022 - Alastair Gornall, Singapore University of Technology and Design

“Towards a History of Theravada Eco-Cosmological Literature”
February 22, 5pm

Alastair Gornall, Assistant Professor in History and Religion at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, Research Associate in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia at SOAS, University of London

Abstract: In introductory works on Theravada Buddhism it is often noted with regret that so far there has been no systematic study or history of Theravada cosmology. Accounts of Theravada cosmology are often based on only a narrow reading of the tradition’s canon and earliest commentaries. This is particularly remarkable since monastic intellectuals in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia have produced a considerable body of traditional cosmological and ecological thought over the last two thousand years. We can speak of cosmology and ecology together as a single field since in Theravada thought the two overlap considerably within its analysis of the loka or ‘world’. In this talk, I will offer some suggestions and observations about how we might begin to historicize this literature about the loka. In the first part, I assess previous approaches to traditional cosmology and explore why it has been so neglected. In part two, I present a hypothetical periodization of Theravada writings about the loka from the time of the composition of the Pali canon up until today. Finally, I explore the development of an influential but neglected eco-cosmological model in the Theravada tradition to underscore how incomplete our current understanding is of traditional monastic views of the world.  

Bio: Alastair Gornall gained his Ph.D. in Asian Studies from the University of Cambridge in 2013. He is currently Assistant Professor in History and Religion at the Singapore University of Technology and Design and a Research Associate in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia at SOAS. His research focuses on the intellectual and cultural history of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. 

March 8, 2022 - Brooke Schedneck, Rhodes College

“‘Worship the Robes, Not the Wearer’: Lay Buddhist Scrutiny in Contemporary Thailand” 
March 8 @ 5pm

Brooke Schedneck, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Millard Professor of Religion, Rhodes College

Dr. Schedneck has taught at Rhodes since 2017. She teaches courses on Buddhism, Asian religions, and in the Life program. She also leads the Maymester in Thailand. Before coming to Rhodes, she taught study abroad students as a lecturer in Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for four years. She has been invited to give research presentations in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. In 2020, Dr. Schedneck published a co-edited volume titled Buddhist Tourism in Asia and her second monograph, an ethnography of Buddhism in Chiang Mai, was published by the University of Washington Press in 2021.

Her work broadly concerns contemporary Buddhism in Thailand, where she has lived and conducted research for over eight years. Further interests include global Buddhism, religions of Southeast Asia, gender in Asian religions, and religious tourism. Previous research has explored the modern vipassana meditation movement in Thailand’s international meditation centers and tourist encounters with Buddhism in Northern Thailand. Her current research focuses on monastic scandals and the monastic body within Thai Buddhism. She is also writing a book on contemporary, lived Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Abstract: In contemporary Thailand, a significant topic of discussion is monastic behavior. Details matter for Thai Buddhist laity, who evaluate monks based on their appearance and physical comportment within the monastic robes. The monastic body, in essence, is judged by its difference from the non-monastic, ordinary, or secular body. Transgressions of appropriate monastic behavior are omnipresent in Thai media. Major monastic scandals involving sex, drugs and money, as well as minor, everyday scandals of misbehaving monks appear regularly in Thai media outlets. One significant form of inappropriate behavior for male monks is femininity. Effeminate or kathoei monks have generated considerable public discourse concerning Thai Buddhist monasticism. Feminine gestures and appearances are captured in Thai social media, revealing the extent of surveillance surrounding male monastic bodily performance. I label this regulation by Thai Buddhist laity onto male monastics as the Thai Buddhist lay gaze. The prominence of social media and smart devices has allowed for not only journalists, but also regular Thai citizens to catch Buddhist monks at inopportune moments. With this level of suspicion and regulation of the monastic institution, this presentation investigates the tension between the well-known phrase, ‘worship the robes, not the wearer,’ and preferring some monks over others. Utilizing analysis of Thai media from 2010-2021 along with a survey conducted during May-July 2021 of 60 Thai lay Buddhist participants, I argue that Thai Buddhists perceive the current moment to be a precarious time for their religion, where the trust between monks and laity is breaking down. Yet, my findings also reveal that there remains confidence in the Buddhist teachings, the necessity of support for the religion, and especially good monks.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2021 – Benjamin Schonthal, University of Otago

Time: 5pm (CT) Title: The Buddha as Bentham: Buddhist Law in Colonial Laṅkā 

Abstract: Historians of law and religion often underscore the defining influence of colonial officials in shaping, even inventing, regimes of ‘Hindu law’ and ‘Muslim law’ in Asia. Can the same be said about Buddhist law? In this talk, I draw on a collection of Sinhala and Pāli monastic legal texts from nineteenth-century Ceylon/Sri Lanka to offer another perspective. I hope to explain why developments in Buddhist legal practice were not so much products of European adulteration as the outcomes of deliberate and proactive innovation by Buddhist monastic lawmakers as well as the outgrowths of a more general atmosphere of ‘inter-legality.’

Biography: Benjamin Schonthal is Professor of Buddhism and Asian Religions and co-Director of the Otago Centre for Law & Society at the University of Otago, in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Ben’s research examines the intersections of Buddhism, law and politics in South and Southeast Asia. He is the author of Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law (Cambridge University Press 2016) and co-editor (with Tom Ginsburg) of Buddhism and Comparative Constitutional Law (forthcoming). He is currently completing a new monograph, Law’s Karma, which examines the development, operation and politics of “Buddhist law” in late- and post-colonial Sri Lanka. Ben received his Ph.D. in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago in the days when zoom referred to something you did with a camera.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021 - Pyi Phyo Kyaw, Research Associate in Abhidhamma Meditation, King’s College, London

Time: 11:20AM–12:40PM

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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021 - Aleix Ruiz-Falqués, Shan State Buddhist University

Time: 11:20am-12:40pm

Title: A Loud Silence, Pali Grammar and Theravada Scholarship in Myanmar (1154–1446)

Abstract: The earliest Pali treatises composed by Buddhist monks and laymen in Myanmar (Burma) were mostly grammatical works. Several reasons have been given to explain why grammar and philology took such an important role in the formation period of Theravada communities in Myanmar (11th century ce onward). It is mostly agreed upon by scholars that Pali grammar was a necessary tool that facilitated the understanding of the canonical and commentarial literature of Theravada Buddhists. Whereas this explanation is in many ways satisfactory, it fails to account for the singularity of grammar. Why grammar only? Why don’t we have other Pali treatises on philosophy or ethics? Why don’t we have a corpus, even if small, of devotional poems and chronicles? Surely there must be some important message in such loud silence. The present talk is a preliminary attempt at understanding this silence, or rather an attempt to show that there is no silence at all. In order to do so, I will survey major grammatical treatises written in Myanmar by eminent scholars of the past, and I will comment upon the inventoire of topics covered by the Pali grammarians, from morphological derivation of words to logic and epistemology, the relationship between language and reality, theories of sound and communication, ultimately, a thery of what the “Word of the Buddha” (buddhavacana) actually is. By so doing it will be shown that Pali grammars carry a powerful set of ideas that define early, and to some extent modern Theravada in Myanmar.

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).

Tuesday, November 10, 2020 - Kate Crosby, King’s College, London

Time: 11:20am-12:40pm

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.

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

Time: 11:20am-12:40pm

Title: “since feeling is first:” Hedonic Tone (_Vedanā_) in the Meditation Practice of S. N. Goenka Bio: Erik Braun is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He co-edited with David McMahan the volume _Buddhism, Meditation, and Science_ (Oxford University Press, 2017) and is the author of _The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw_ (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which was a co-winner of the Toshihide Numata Book Prize in Buddhism in 2014. Currently, he is working on a book project about contemporary transformations of meditative practice on the global stage. His research focuses on Burmese Buddhism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pāli literature, and the roots of modern forms of meditative practice. He received his Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University.

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.