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The seminar discusses issues and ongoing research in Buddhist Studies, as well as the interface between Buddhist Studies and other humanistic and scientific disciplines. Buddhism has been a powerful cultural and intellectual, as well as religious, current in all of the Asian civilizations. Its manifestations engage the scholarly concern of members of a wide range of disciplines: religious studies (itself an interdisciplinary enterprise), philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, anthropology, comparative literature, art history, and political science, among others. The seminar is focused not on a narrow range of issues concerning the Buddhist religions, but on a broad range of philosophical, cultural, social, and scientific subjects arising from the long and rich historical experience of the numerous Buddhist civilizations.

Professor Seong Uk Kim

Professor Zhaohua Yang

Iris Zhang

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

10/04/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Problems of the Buddha Image in Medieval China: From Soteriology to Metaphysics
Kwi Jeong Lee, Columbia University


The fashioning of Buddha images, as Buddhist sutras prescribe, is meant to generate and accumulate merit. In medieval China, this canonical account drew moral criticism from detractors of Buddhism, and such anti-Buddhist criticism, in turn, brought to the fore the metaphysical issue of the relationship between the Buddha and his material representation. Analyzing the rhetoric and reasoning deployed by Buddhist proponents and their critics, I explore how the external attack prompted Buddhist apologists to articulate the soteriological utility of Buddha images more fully than that which was readily found in scriptures. Once formulated, this elite discourse became mobilized in the practice of crafting ritual images on the ground. By examining statue inscriptions and liturgies for image dedication, I argue that Buddhist devotees, acutely aware of the metaphysical problem inherent in the Buddha image, shunned direct equation of the Buddha with his images on the basis of the newly reinforced soteriology of merit.

10/25/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Thieves, Monks, and “Artwork”: The Changing Fate of Icons at Local Monastery in Modernizing Korea
Youn-mi Kim, Ewha Womans University (South Korea)


Together with the modernization movement, the western notion of misul 美術 (fine art) and the museum system were transmitted from the West to Korea from the early 20th century. Recently, the modern period has been recognized as a new field of study for Korea art history. As part of that new work, scholars have begun to examine the ways in which the imperial family founded and operated major museums during the Korean Empire (1897-1910), not to mention the activities of the Japanese colonial government after annexation. A large number of Buddhist icons were transformed into “artwork” and entered the collection of the new modern museums, such as the Yi Royal-Family Museum and the Government-General Museum of Korea. What has evaded the scholarly attention, however, is the different pathways taken by local Buddhist monasteries. In those monasteries, as this paper will show, notions of monastic “treasures” and the practice of public “exhibition” did exist before the 19th century. At the same time, those traditional notions shared by monks were radically different. The bathing shoes of the eminent monk Chinul 知訥(1158-1210), for example, were regarded as precious treasures and publicly displayed at a local monastery until the early 20th century, and most of the monks did not treat Buddhist paintings and statues as “artworks” until recent times. Focusing on the local monastery Songgwangsa in Sunch’ŏn (South Kyŏngsang Province), this paper explores the slow and century-long process in which modern museum systems were introduced into local monasteries, replacing traditional monastery “treasures” with Buddhist statues and paintings that have now become priceless artworks. Focusing on a prolonged process that spanned the colonial period and postwar era, I highlight the frequent theft, loss, and redemption of Buddhist images.

11/12/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:00 PM
A Window into Sino-Tibetan Pure Land Practices at Dunhuang
Jonathan Silk, Leiden University (Netherlands)


During and after the period of Tibetan political control over Dunhuang, there developed a community the first language of which was Tibetan, but which culturally, at least in terms of its religious practice, evidently turned toward China. This community has left us, among the Dunhuang manuscripts, precious hints as to their devotional practices associated with a Pure Land orientation, in Tibetan language but sourced rather in Chinese texts. This lecture discusses some of these materials, and proposes a picture of what sorts of activities were taking place in 9th-10th century Dunhuang among Tibetan speakers who nevertheless were "Chinese Buddhists.”