Building a Case for Buddhist Studies at UCLA

Building a Case for Buddhist Studies at UCLA

Robert Buswell, Director of the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies

Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies and former Buddhist monk, is the catalyst for building a renowned program at UCLA for the study of Buddhism.

By Meg Sullivan

Buddhism may champion the concept of detachment, but UCLA Buddhist scholar Robert Buswell admits his ego got bruised when he returned this summer to the Buddhist monastery where he practiced for five years in his early 20s.

A friend who had remained at the monastery looked just like he did nearly 30 years earlier, insists Buswell, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. "He hadn't changed at all–no gray hair, no lines, nothing."

Meanwhile Buswell, who is also director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, had matured considerably, the friend pointed out. "The first thing this friend said to me is, 'Gosh, you've become a grandfather,'" recalled the 50-year-old who has no children much less grandchildren. "And I said, 'Gee, thanks.'"

Such are the lumps for Buddhists who trade in the contemplative life for the stresses and strains of manuscript deadlines, budget battles, teaching demands and departmental governance.

But if Buswell is concerned about the wear and tear of bringing Buddhism and Korean culture to a wider audience, the gifted administrator, who is one of only two fully ordained Buddhist monks currently active in academia, doesn't let on.

Indeed, this walking contrast to Buddhism's laid-back image has brought one distinction after another to the College, which he joined in 1986.

Both centers that he has established now rank as the largest of their kind in the country: the Center for Korean Studies, founded in 1993, and the Center for Buddhist Studies, founded in 2000.

Meanwhile, the program in Korean Christianity, also founded in 2000, is the first–and only–academic program to look at the cultural impact of Christianity in contemporary Korea.

So vast, in fact, has been Buswell's impact that his department will be renamed early in 2004 to reflect the strength he helped to add in South and Southeast Asian studies. While maintaining its traditional strengths in Korean, Japanese and Chinese studies, UCLA's newly christened Department of Asian Languages and Cultures will boast one of the nation's largest faculties in Southeast Asian and Indic studies and be the nation's leader in Indian religion. "Robert is capable of pulling rabbits out of the most unlikely hats," marveled Gregory Schopen, a professor in Asian languages and cultures.

Another recent feat is the creation of the 1,000- page Encyclopedia of Buddhism, which was published in October by Macmillan. As editor-in-chief, Buswell spent three years mobilizing a team of 250 contributors, including several UCLA faculty members– Buddhist scholars William M. Bodiford, Schopen and Jonathan A. Silk, and art historian Robert Brown–as well as three UCLA Ph.D. candidates in Buddhist studies–William Chu, David E. Riggs and Patrick Uhlmann.

Not only is the 450-entry behemoth the first truly comprehensive encyclopedia of Buddhism to be published in a Western language, but it follows two infamously protracted attempts by others to produce a similar reference resource–the first begun in 1929 and the second in 1961. "We have the distinction of starting last and finishing first," Buswell said.

From "Abhidharma" (Buddhist philosophy) to "Zongmi" (a ninth-century Chinese Buddhist monk), Encyclopedia of Buddhism describes the art, literature, rituals, doctrines, folk practices, sacred sites and scriptures of Buddhism as practiced in Central Asia, China, Europe, the United States, Japan, India, the Himalayas, Nepal, Korea, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Mongolia. Entries discuss Buddhist interactions with other religions, including Daoism, Islam and Christianity. No less than nine entries address different interpretations of Buddhist enlightenment. The encyclopedia is so complete that it even details Buddhist hell–in all its eight levels.

The scholars also tackled politically charged issues. Ever wonder about the Buddhist take on sex, abortion, or nationalism? The 500,000-word reference book is the place to get the answer. "We thought, 'What would a student starting off in Buddhist studies need to know?'" Buswell said.

Macmillan hopes that the encyclopedia will stand as the definitive English language reference for at least a generation. But for Buswell, it may mark a beginning. Since completing the book, he has been approached by publishers to edit no less than three reference books, an honor that surprises none of his colleagues. "Robert shows exceptional creativity not only in his own scholarship but also in the administrative leadership critical to the teaching and research of a great university," said Eric Sundquist, UCLA's acting dean of humanities." He has proved, too, that the contemplation one might associate with the study of Buddhism is not at odds with exciting intellectual entrepreneurship."

Despite a track record that would be the envy of any hard-charging administrator, Buswell is undeniably to the monastery born. At the Topanga Canyon home he shares with wife Christina, a translator of Korean Buddhist texts, Buswell tends a Zen garden and an array of Buddhist art and artifacts, including a seventh-century bronze Buddha. In his Royce Hall office, a meditation cushion sits discreetly in one corner. Most afternoons he closes his door for 10 to 15 minutes to meditate. Students who visit him are more likely to be offered a floor mat than an actual chair. At academic conferences, he folds himself into a cross-legged position. "He is the only person I know over the age of four who can easily and clearly quite comfortably assume the lotus while perched on an office chair," said Tim Tangherlini, an associate professor of Asian languages and cultures, and vice chair of the College's Scandinavian Section.

Buswell even brings Buddhist principles of modesty, wisdom and compassion to his work, Tangherlini said: "He is a rare combination of excellent scholar, inspired teacher, personable and supportive colleague, and innovative, fair and diplomatic administrator."

Colleagues also praise Buswell's generosity in mentoring younger scholars and his open-mindedness, specially in dealings with scholars from other disciplines or perspectives on Buddhism. "He doesn't look for yes men or people who are easily led," said fellow Buddhism scholar Schopen. "He goes for good people even if they might be a pain.That takes guts."

The approach came in handy while building Buddhism studies in the College from a one-person operation 17 years ago to an unrivaled nexus of four core and six affiliated faculty, all of them leaders in their respective fields. "UCLA is seen as the most exciting place for studying Buddhism today," said art historian Brown, an affiliated scholar with the center. "It's the happening place, which is amazing because the program is so new."

Buswell says he is motivated by his enduring fascination with the faith that he discovered as a precocious teen growing up in a non-practicing Methodist household in Palos Verdes, California.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, it's all right here,'" he recently recalled of his first encounter with a Buddhist text at 16. "I really had a strong sense of a conversion experience. I was absolutely convinced this was my life calling–there was no question about it."

Much to his parents' bewilderment, Buswell mobilized contacts made during his first year as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara and set out for a Buddhist monastery in Thailand in 1972." My mother's reaction was: 'What about my grandchildren?'" Buswell recalled with a chuckle.

He served as a Buddhist monk for a year each in Thailand and in Hong Kong before settling at Songgwang-sa (Piney Expanse Monastery), one of Korea's four largest monasteries and a major center for Son–or the Korean version of Zen Buddhism. At the time Buswell spoke no Korean, so he communicated with his peers by writing in the only language they had in common: classical Chinese. Dubbed Hyemyong (Brightness of Wisdom) by his master, Buswell was immediately struck by the powers of koan–enlightenment-inducing paradoxes, such as "the sound of one hand clapping."

Today, Buswell is one of the nation's leading scholars on koans. He is credited with making Korean Buddhism–long perceived as a poor relative of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism–a subject of serious scholarship. Buswell's background in the linguistic and historical roots of Buddhism has established him as a popular speaker at the Zen centers across the nation. All of which makes him a very busy Buddhist, indeed.

"Like everybody in the College, the biggest challenge I face is balancing all the responsibilities of family, research, teaching, administrative work, fundraising and dealing with budget cuts," he said. "It's much harder than looking for spiritual enlightenment."

This article first appeared in UCLA College Report volume 1, Fall 2003–Winter 2004

Published: Thursday, November 20, 2003