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Conference to explore the rise of Buddhism in America

| 26 January 2005


"Won't You Pimai Neighbor," a King of the Hill episode, sends up Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film, Kundun. It will screen as part of the International Buddhist Film Festival in a program at Wheeler Hall on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m.
Over the past century many Westerners have embraced Buddhism, once a religion practiced primarily in Asia, with great enthusiasm.

To examine how the 2,400-year-old religion has been packaged for a Western audience, the Center for Buddhist Studies and Institute of East Asian Studies have organized a two-day conference called “Speaking for the Buddha?: Buddhism and the Media.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 8 and 9, Buddhist scholars from around the country — as well as journalists, filmmakers, writers, and other professionals from the television, movie, and publishing industries — will look at how the religion is represented in various popular media.

The conference organizer, Robert Sharf, professor of Buddhist studies in the Department of East Asian Language and Cultures, chairs Berkeley’s new Center for Buddhist Studies. The purpose of “Speaking for the Buddha?,” says Sharf, is to talk about “what’s driving this kind of new-age Buddhism, where housewives in Nebraska will tell you that they’re Buddhist” without ever having traveled to Asia, consulted a Buddhist text, or even met a Buddhist teacher. According to Sharf, many Western enthusiasts have read a few books on Buddhism, but these books may or may not have been written by people who would be considered bona fide Buddhist teachers in Asia.

During the ancient religion’s first 2,300 years, it was primarily ordained monks who possessed the institutional authority that allowed them to speak for Buddhism. This respect accorded them derived from their having adopted a lifestyle of renunciation intended to facilitate a “severing of ties to the world,” says Sharf.

Today, those who represent Buddhism in the West are typically not ordained, and may know little about Buddhist history or doctrine; their authority rests on their authorship of a few books on the subject based upon their own spiritual journey. Western seekers can find solace in such tomes as Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children, Buddhism for Dummies, and Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex. The notion that Buddhist meditation — which is typically presented by Western authors as a prerequisite to Buddhist study — can make you a better lover or parent, or a more successful businessperson, is antithetical to the religion’s Asian origins, asserts Sharf.

“These books are not Buddhist texts,” he says, but are based on what the authors have picked up from their teachers. “At no point is there any kind of vetting of that teaching against what is written in the canon.” While Sharf is careful to say that he’s not advocating for that kind of treatment (“That’s not my job”), he says Buddhism is at an interesting crossroads historically, where potentially it could make “a clean break from anything that has gone on for a couple of thousand years in Asia.”

“Speaking for the Buddha?,” says Sharf, is an attempt to find a way “to take the contemporary phenomenon of Buddhism in the West seriously” by starting a dialogue between scholars and people who are familiar with what goes on inside the media. In conjunction with the conference, the Center for Buddhist Studies is co-sponsoring the International Buddhist Film Festival, which will screen nearly 30 films in Wheeler Hall from Thursday, Feb. 3, through Sunday, Feb. 13, including several world, U.S., and Bay Area premieres. The films, which come from more than 12 countries, both directly and indirectly touch on the notion of Buddhism.

For information about “Who Speaks for the Buddha?,” visit ieas.berkeley.edu/events/speakingforthebuddha. For information on the International Buddhist Film Festival, visit www.ibff.org. Robert Sharf’s course, “Seeing Through the Screen,” an examination of Buddhism through film and, conversely, film through Buddhism, takes place on Mondays at
3 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive, located at 2575 Bancroft Way, and is open to the public as space permits. Advance purchase of tickets is recommended.