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  • Dynamic Encounters between Buddhism and the West Report
  • Laura Langone and Alexandra S. Ilieva

The following is a summary of the 2021 Postgraduate Conference titled "Dynamic Encounters between Buddhism and the West," which took place online on June 28 and 29. The conference was conceptualized, organized, and run by three AHRC funded PhD students at the University of Cambridge: Laura Langone (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages); Alexandra S. Ilieva (Faculty of Divinity); and Harry Harland (Faculty of Law). The conference took place over two days and featured eighteen presenters across six panels, and two keynote speakers. There were speakers from four continents (Europe, North America, Asia, and Oceania). A wide range of topics in multiple fields was discussed: religious studies, neuroscience, art history, politics, philosophy, literature, philology, mathematics, art, and music. Each day consisted of three panels, each with three presentations, one keynote presentation, and a networking session.

The keynote speakers were Prof. Albrecht Classen (The University of Arizona) and Prof. Graham Parkes (University of Vienna).

Prof. Classen opened the conference with his presentation. He taught us that we have been globalized and transcultural since at least the Middle Ages. To support this claim, he provided us with ample evidence of Buddhist-Western exchanges in Art and Literature dotted throughout the literature and architecture of Europe. Prof. Parkes observed that following Zen Master Dōgen's thought as well as Nietzsche's philosophy we can develop a saner approach to the environment, which provides us with resources to help us to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis.

Our first panel was titled "Hellenistic-Buddhist Encounters," which followed on nicely from Prof. Classen's thesis that encounters between Buddhism and the West have been ubiquitous and have dated as far back as the Hellenistic period. Our second panel, "Encounters with the Contemporary World," were impressive examples of intercultural philosophy. Each participant demonstrated a unique ability to bring Buddhist ideas into dialogue with contemporary Western philosophy, specifically ethics, philosophy of mathematics, and epistemology. The third panel, titled "Therapeutic Encounters," taught us of the therapeutic value of Buddhist meditation and philosophical inquiry. As our presenters emphasized, this therapeutic value is not just an ancient artifact to be studied anthropologically, but a relevant and applicable approach to the modern idea of well-being that therefore deserves continued scholarship.

On the second day, we started with our fourth panel called "Encounters through Western Conceptual Lenses," which among others gave us insight into the reception [End Page 393] of Japanese Buddhism by the German liberal protestants of the nineteenth century. Our fifth panel—"Encounters with German Philosophy"—was an excellent example of contemporary comparative work between Buddhist philosophy, ethics, and logic, and the German thinkers Hegel and Nietzsche.

We learned that Nietzsche labeled Buddhism as nihilism––a position that can be challenged through Ambedkar's reading of Buddhism. On the other hand, despite Nietzsche's criticism of Buddhism, striking similarities between his approach to life and that of Mahāyāna Buddhism can be found, both elaborating a life-affirming philosophy. We also became familiar with similarities and differences between the logic of Nishida and Hegel. Finally, our last panel, "Literary and Artistic Encounters" made for a fitting conclusion, reminding us that Buddhist-Western encounters are ongoing, not just politically and intellectually but also in art, music, and literature. These encounters are dynamic in nature and fundamentally lacking in an essential core. Instead, they are entities that echo through the ages allowing for reinterpretation and reintegration across geographic and temporal scopes.

Both during and after the conference we received extremely positive feedback from the participants. The level of participation and enthusiasm was highly promising, showing that the future of intercultural studies of this sort is bright. Graduate conferences like these are key for early career scholars to set up networks and find likeminded peers to engage in ongoing dynamic encounters.

In conclusion, this conference served to highlight the sophisticated emerging scholarship taking place that seeks to investigate Buddhist-Western interactions and dialogue. But, perhaps more importantly, the conference itself makes a metapoint: not only has the world been transcultural for many centuries, but the conference itself and in particular the global spatial locations of...