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Smith Prominence in Buddhist Studies Continues to Rise

by Eric Goldscheider

A conference on Buddhism in Mongolia held on campus this spring was more than an opportunity for academics to share learning and insights. It was a first: never before have scholars formally gathered outside of Asia to discuss this topic.

That it happened at Smith is not surprising, given the reputation the college has gained for being a vital center for Buddhist studies.

How did Smith gain this leading reputation? According to Jamie Hubbard, professor of religion and the Yehan Numata Lecturer in Buddhist Studies, the answer lies, in large part, in a series of faculty appointments—not only in the religion department but also in philosophy, art history and anthropology—that converged into a special strength in Buddhism. In the 30–some years since the appointment of Taitestu Unno, Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of Religion and East Asian Studies, this strength has reinforced itself to the point where Smith attracts students and visiting scholars based on the resources it offers and its reputation in the field.

Jamie Hubbard, professor of religion, says the reputation Smith has gained in Buddhist studies "reflects the growing importance of Asia generally in the curriculum." Photo by Jim Gipe.

When you factor in faculty from the Five College consortium in the Pioneer Valley who study Buddhism, you find one of the largest concentrations of scholars of Buddhist studies in the U.S. and a collection of talent unrivaled by any large university in the country. What's more, the consortium offers a certificate in Buddhist studies, which Hubbard hopes will soon be elevated to the status of a major. Each semester students pursuing study in this field can choose from more than a dozen approved interdisciplinary courses that count toward the certificate.

Last year Stanford University launched an annual series titled Buddhist Studies @, which each spring brings in the faculty from an "important center of Buddhist Studies" to give lectures spread out over the semester. The first featured institution was Tokyo University. The second was Smith, with lectures this year by Hubbard; his colleagues in the Department of Religion, Peter Gregory, Jill Ker Conway Professor of Religion and East Asian Studies, and Andy Rotman, associate professor of religion; as well as Jay Garfield, Doris Silbert Professor of Philosophy.

Stanford professor Paul Harrison, who helped organize the series, said in an interview that "Smith has an unusually high concentration of well–known faculty, so for that reason it is on the map.... It was a natural choice when we looked around North America at the programs we might feature."

According to Hubbard, the reputation Smith has gained in Buddhist studies "reflects the growing importance of Asia generally in our curriculum."

Aside from being home to a number of highly distinguished faculty, Smith has one of the largest library collections for scholarship in this field. "We have Buddhist scriptures in every single language," said Hubbard. "We have tens of thousands of Buddhist slides and images as well as a significant film collection... the resources we have here are quite amazing." Also, the Pioneer Valley is home to almost 50 Buddhist organizations, and Smith regularly arranges events to draw them into campus life.

Smith has hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, twice, in 1988 and most recently in 2007. His visits have included public events as well as opportunities for students and faculty to meet with him in small group settings.

Mikaela Mroczynski '09, who completed a double major in anthropology and theatre, shows off a mask, a memento of a two–month mask–making apprenticeship she had in Mongolia. She spent six months of her junior year in the country conducting ethnographic research. Photo by Judith Roberge.

The recent Buddhism in Mongolia conference attracted scholars to talk about history, art and contemporary issues in a country that has seen a rebirth of religion since the end of Soviet domination. Two monks, Arjia Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan lama of Mongolian decent who is now based in the United States, and Lama Kabchupa Kuntu Zangpo, the head of an important monastery in Mongolia, came for the conference as well as Gonchig Ganbold, the consul general from the Mongolian embassy in Washington, D.C.

In introducing Ganbold, Smith Associate Provost and Dean for Academic Development John Davis, said, "We hope this conference will open up international dialogue about the process of Buddhist revival in Mongolia in particular and the process of cultural revival in general."

Mikaela Mroczynski, a Smith senior who studied in Mongolia last year, gave a presentation on Tsam—a sacred Buddhist ritual dance introduced from Tibet in the 19th century—as a vehicle for building Mongolian Buddhism and Mongolian national identity in the post–Soviet era.

While she was in Mongolia, Mroczynski discovered the prominence Smith enjoys in this field. "When I did interviews or when I did work for the Mongolian Arts Council, people would say, 'oh yes we know of the Tibetan studies program at Smith College,'" recalled Mroczynski. "People in Mongolia already had Smith on the radar as an important place for Buddhist studies."

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