PUBlic Professor Series | Dr. John Harding

Buddha’s World Tour: Global Buddhism in the Modern Era

Dr. John Harding, Department of Religious Studies

Although Buddhism began in India approximately 2,500 years ago, it was only by the late 1800s that the wider population in the West began to encounter this tradition. In more recent decades, the spread of Buddhism has included innumerable new books, diverse groups of practitioners across Europe and North America along with temples from all traditions, and growing prominence in popular culture from celebrity practitioners and Hollywood films to giant statues of Buddha in trendy bars. So how did we get here? How did modern, global representations—and often quite positive appraisals—of Buddhism come about?

Buddhist Modernism is a term that captures some of the changes in the last 150 years as this tradition often emphasized rationality, science, and greater engagement with the secular world. Global Buddhism is a term that suggests not only its worldwide spread but also the presence of global networks and influences that shape the tradition. Both terms involve mutually transformative encounters with Western cultures, but it is a common mistake to understand these developments simply as the Westernization of Buddhism. In this presentation, John Harding will explore how formative representations of the Buddha and Buddhism from the late 1800s continue to shape the popularity and understanding of the tradition today, from mindfulness practice to statues of the Buddha in Lethbridge stores.

From its 2,500-year-old roots in eastern India, Buddhism has evolved into the fastest-growing philosophical religion in the West, one that has sparked diverse groups of practitioners — including many celebrities — spawned countless books, and is often glamourized in Hollywood films. Dr. John Harding's interest in Buddhism goes back to his time as an undergraduate student.

More specifically, the University of Lethbridge Religious Studies associate professor would like to better understand the forces that have shaped Buddhism since it crossed continents from Asia into Europe and North America 150 years ago. He hopes to debunk the common misconception of modern Buddhism, particularly as it is practised in Canada, as primarily influenced by the West, and demonstrate that Asian reform movements prominently contributed to Buddhism’s global transformation.

It’s an area Harding has been investigating since 2013 with colleagues at McGill and St. Mary’s universities as part of a five-year research project funded by a $258,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He presented on the topic during last night's PUBlic Professor Series lecture called Buddha’s World Tour: Global Buddhism in the Modern Era. As he explains, today’s version of Buddhism is viewed as being a reflection of Western social values: egalitarian, female friendly, based in meditation and socially engaged. At the same time, there is a perception of traditional Asian Buddhism as hierarchical, sexist, ritualistic and withdrawn from society. Read the full story here.

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