UBC Tianzhu-Hurvitz Lecture Series: A Place for Doubt: The Theory and Practice of “Questioning Meditation” (Kanhwa Sŏn 看話禪 ) in Korean Zen Buddhism

Thursday September 12, 2019, 5-8 pm
Location: TBA

Sŏn 禪, the Korean analogue of Zen, had always presumed itself to be the repository of contemplative expertise in Korean Buddhism. From virtually its inception, Sŏn sought to create forms of meditation that it could claim exclusively as its own. This process involved both critiquing the practices common to other Sino-Indian schools as being ‘gradual,’ while claiming exclusively for itself putatively ‘subitist’ forms of religious training. Sŏn also experimented with forms of rhetoric it considered proleptic and transformative, in order to demonstrate the autonomy of Sŏn from the rest of the Buddhist tradition. This parallel evolution in both practice and rhetoric led to the creation of kanhwa Sŏn 看話禪 (lit. the “Sŏn of investigating topics of inquiry”). From the twelfth century onward, the kanhwa technique became the emblematic practice of Korean Sŏn from that point onward and it continues to hold pride of place in meditation halls still today.

The “topics of inquiry” (hwadu 話頭) investigated in kanhwa Sŏn were used to foster an introspective focus that would catalyze the process of “tracing back the radiance” (hoegwang panjo 迴光返照) and lead students back to the enlightened source of their own minds. Through this counter-illumination, students would come to know the enlightened intent of the Sŏn master who first articulated this topic, and would in turn consummate in themselves this same state of enlightenment.  Through this technique, then, the student patterns his mind after that of the eminent Sŏn masters of old until they think—and ultimately act—as one. One of the most peculiar dimensions of kanhwa Sŏn practice is the overriding emphasis on the need for ‘doubt’ (ŭijong 疑情), which is viewed as the motive force that propels this meditation along. The notion of doubt appears in Indian meditative literature, but almost exclusively as one of the five principal hindrances (nīvaraṇa;kae 蓋) to concentration or mental absorption (dhyāna;chŏng 定).  Doubt thus plays no constructive role in Indian Buddhist spiritual culture, but was instead an obstacle to be overcome. By the time doubt has been fully appraised by Sŏn Buddhist adepts, however, this debilitating mental concomitant has been transformed into the principal force driving one toward enlightenment.  This lecture seeks to tell the story of this transformation.

About the Speaker:

Robert E. Buswell Jr.

Robert E. Buswell Jr., Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, is the Irving and Jean Stone Chair in Humanities at UCLA, and the founding director of the university’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Center for Korean Studies. From 2009-2011, he served concurrently as founding director of the Dongguk Institute for Buddhist Studies Research (Pulgyo Haksurwŏn) at Dongguk University in Seoul, Korea. He is widely considered to be the premier Western scholar on Korean Buddhism and one of the top specialists on the East Asian Zen tradition. He has published sixteen books and some forty articles on various aspects of the Korean, Chinese, and Indian traditions of Buddhism, as well as on Korean religions more broadly. Buswell served as editor-in-chief of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan Reference, 2004) and coauthor (with Donald S. Lopez, Jr.) of the 1.2-million word Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, 2014).

Buswell completed his B.A. in Chinese (1979), his M.A. in Sanskrit (1981), and his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies (1983), all from the University of California, Berkeley. Before returning to academe, he spent seven years as an ordained Buddhist monk in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea. Buswell was elected president of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in 2008, the first specialist in either Korean or Buddhist studies to hold that position. In 2009, he was awarded the prestigious Manhae Grand Prize in Korea in recognition of his pioneering contributions to establishing Korean Buddhist Studies in the West. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

This lecture is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is preferred. We invite attendees to network during the reception. Refreshments will be served.

To register, visit https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/ubc-tianzhu-hurvitz-lecture-series-dr-robert-e-buswell-jr-tickets-60493146630.

This lecture is sponsored by Tianzhu Global Network for the Study of Buddhist Cultures with administrative support from FROGBEAR.