On March 15 and 16, 2007, Khyentse Foundation sponsored a Buddhist Studies Lecture Program at Beijing University at the invitation of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Professor Robert Sharf, Chair of Buddhist Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche spoke at the conference. More than six hundred students, faculty, and guests attended the talks. This was more than twice the crowd the university had expected, but fortunately everyone was accommodated. Beijing University offers both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in religious studies. The aim of the program is to train people for an in-depth understanding of religious theory and history and also to train administrators of religious affairs.
Professor Sharf is the D.H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies, Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies, and Director of the Group in Buddhist Studies at U. C. Berkeley. He worked closely with Cangioli Che, Executive Director of Khyentse Foundation, in establishing the Khyentse Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Tibetan Buddhism at U.C. Berkeley in 2006.
Professor Sharf’s talk, entitled, “What the Transmission of Buddhism to the West Can Tell Us about the Transmission of Buddhism to China and Vice Versa,” addressed key questions:
. What happens when Buddhism moves from one culture to another?
. What is moved? Is there Buddhism to be transmitted?
. Is it possible to represent Dharma incorrectly? What does it mean to get it right?
. What do we use to adjudicate different presentations of Buddhism?
Professor Sharf said that when Buddhism takes root in a new place, it is profoundly influenced by existing philosophies, religious beliefs, culture, and language; and then at a later time, unique versions of thought and practice are created. He explained that one might think that there is a pure Buddhism in India, China, or Tibet, a somewhat diluted Buddhism in Japan, and a degenerate brand of Buddhism in America. But, he said, all Buddhism has been influenced by culture and history; to imagine that there is a real Buddhism is to think that emptiness is a thing you can get hold of.
Professor Sharf challenged the notion that Buddhism should jibe with science, stating his opinion that we are better served if Buddhism challenges our fascination with science. He believes that Buddhism is perhaps most powerful when it looks strange, because when it is telling us something we already believe, it has no capacity to challenge. “Many people cling to Buddhism for a sense of certainty. I think the power of Buddhism is to teach us how to live with uncertainty.”
Who decides what is authentically Buddhist? Professor Sharf noted that the question itself reflects an assumption that a “real Buddhism” exists that we can test our understanding against. But in Buddhist scriptures, the notion of absolute authenticity or truth is refuted because there is no objective place to stand. “For me, Buddhism is a conversation about these matters that has been going on for 2500 years. That is what Buddhism is in the world, and we have to make peace with it. To enter the conversation, you have to know something about the language, the philosophies, and the history.”
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche applauded Professor Sharf’s lecture, saying “It is a great honor to speak at one of the greatest universities in China. We seek learning, especially the truth. For me, Buddhism is another angle, a tool, to find the truth. Buddhism does a lot, not as a religion but as a means to actualize the truth.”
Rinpoche also gave a teaching on the Four Seals, which are also known as the four “truths” realized and taught by the Buddha. This subject is the theme of his latest book, What Makes You Not a Buddhist. The audience was eager, engaged, and asked many questions. They expressed appreciation for the speakers’ honest approach and for the unique and useful context of the teaching. “Why Buddhism?” Rinpoche asked. “Well, why anything? Fundamentally, it’s because we want to be happy. We want fun that lasts, fun that is portable, and fun that is cheap, if possible.”
Rinpoche said that one of the reasons he came to Beijing University was to talk about truth and about not confusing tools for finding the truth with the truth itself. He noted that tools such as practices, rituals, and so forth are often taken as the truth. Using a glass of clear water to make his point, he explained that because teachers want you to be able to see what’s in the glass, they color the water. This color is fake, not the truth. But as a tool, the color is useful because without it you cannot see the water. “You should also know that each teacher colors the water with their own cultural leanings. Therefore it is important that academic students learn what has happened in history, know where the rules are coming from, and study a variety of philosophic approaches.” Khyentse Foundation is exploring a number of proposals for further collaboration with Beijing University. We will keep you informed of our progress.