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Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Global Contexts (Advanced Buddhist Studies Lecture Series), CC 9/11

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John Nelson, PhD
The Advanced Buddhist Studies Lecture Series
with John Nelson, PhD, Professor of East Asian Religions, USF
in the City Center dining room

Thursday, September 11, 2014
7:30 - 9 pm

Zen is one of several traditions claiming a direct affiliation with the origins of Buddhism. With nearly 2,500 years of history, teachings, institutional development, politics and culture, how does a 21st-century practitioner navigate such a rich system of ideas and practices without getting spiritual vertigo? How should Buddhism in general—and its institutional leaders in particular—appeal to contemporary audiences so as to ensure both continuity of the dharma and its social relevance?

This illustrated talk will address these questions by exploring the concept of “experimental Buddhism.” As an interpretive and analytical tool, the features of experimental Buddhism can help to contextualize and hone one’s practice, positioning it within (rather than opposed to) social, technological and even global dynamics.

Based on two decades of teaching Zen (and other types of Buddhism) to university audiences—as well as seven years of ethnographic and archival research for a recent book—some of the examples for this talk come from Japan, Brazil, Myanmar and North America. We will see how shifting demographics, social networks, new technologies and unprecedented access to Buddhist teachings and teachers have enhanced individual agency and thus created opportunities, challenges and even crises for Buddhist institutions and leaders in many locations.

Employing interdisciplinary perspectives (anthropology, sociology, history, politics and cultural studies), experimental Buddhism is nonetheless grounded in the nitty-gritty of everyday religious/spiritual practices and institutional policies. At the same time, it serves as a pragmatic theory that helps to explain rapid social change within Buddhism (and other religions as well).

From activism that advances the increased role of women or anti-nuclear sustainability, to innovation that includes fashion shows within temples, suicide intervention, and zazen instruction for soldiers, experimental Buddhism provides both intellectual analysis and spiritual insight for our convoluted times.

The primary reading for this seminar-lecture is John Nelson's article titled “Experimental Buddhism” in Tricycle magazine, published in the winter 2010 issue.

Other lectures in this series

Fees: $15; $13.50 current SFZC members; $12 limited income. (About Registration, Scholarships, and Cancellations.)

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About Registration, Scholarships, and Cancellations

Related Bio(s):

John Nelson, PhD
John Nelson is professor of East Asian religions in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley, and has researched Japanese religions, religion and society, and globalization throughout his career. He also serves as academic director for the master’s program in Asia-Pacific studies, and was the founder of the Asian studies undergraduate program at USF. His areas of specialization are East Asian religions, contemporary Buddhism, cultural anthropology, globalization, secularism, and Asian studies. He has just published Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2013).