Buddhist Studies And Meditation In American Universities

Article by Arjanyai

A special mention should be made of developments in the United States during the last few decades. The Americans seem to have been speeding up to take the lead in the activities of spreading the knowledge of Buddhism in the West, both public and academic. The publication of books on Buddhism has continued to rise. Research scholars, serious students and ordinary practical people do not fall short of new titles to contribute to their knowledge and understanding of Buddhism. In many American universities there are departments of religion where Buddhism is one of the subjects of study. At the University of Wisconsin a programme of Ph.D. Degree in Buddhist Studies has been established with the aim “to train teachers and scholars to understand Buddhism not only as a datum of social or philosophical history but also as a profound expression of human religious experience, with remifications in art, music, literature and the lives of its followers.”3 At Columbia University study in the special interdepartmental programme in Buddhist studies is carried out in conjunction with work for the Ph.D. Degree. At Harvard University, besides the Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, students can pursue a programme for the Ph.D. in the Study of Religion in’the Special Field of Buddhism. From time to time, workshops on one or another aspect of Buddhism have been held at institutions of higher learning. Speaking of the workshops in Buddhist meditation conducted under his initiative at Oberlin College in January of 2512/1969 and 2513/1970, Dr. Donald K. Swearer says: “The project was a success in more ways than I had anticipated. It fulfilled my expectations on the levels of both personal relevance and insight gained into the nature of Buddhism.”1 “The central message of Buddhism, rather than losing meaning, was enhanced. Its highest goals and ideals were appreciated and understood in some instances, perhaps, even more genuinely than among those who call themselves Buddhist.”2 In big American cities today, and also in London, Paris and some other parts of Europe, no other aspect of Buddhism has a stronger appeal than Buddhist meditation. Meditation is becoming a fashion among younger people and those men and women who have plenty of time to spare. In the United States there are several meditation centres, two of which are particularly well known: one in Rochester, New York, headed by Philip Kapleau, and the other, a Zen centre, under the charge of Suzuki Roshi. So far, among the methods of meditation the most popular one has been that of the Japan’s Zen school of sudden enlightenment. Modern psychoanalysts represented by Erich Fromm have engaged themselves in a study to analyze Zen meditation from a psychoanalytic perspective and showed that meditation taught by a Zen master is the Buddhist equivalent of psychoanalysis in the West. A trend has, however, developed for an increasing interest in Theravada meditation. A Western Buddhist and psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas M. Burns, through his years of experience of Theravada meditation practice in Theravada countries, has examined the medical and psychological aspects of Buddhist meditation and related it to scientific studies. The current political importance of Southeast Asia stimulates the interest in Buddhism even more, though in different aspects and from different perspectives. Centres for Southeast Asian Studies and Southeast Asian Programmes or Departments have been set up in many American universities. Buddhism has been taken up for study not only as religion, but as a foundation of Asian thought and as a great social and cultural tradition. Many American scholars and graduate students have been actively involved in doing research in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Burma. They live and travel among the villagers and tribal people in far provinces, studying among other things Buddhism as part of the common life of the people and as a cultural background of the society.

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