The University of Tokyo’s “New Perspectives on Buddhist Studies” Program

Since its founding, the University of Tokyo has been a mainstay of academic research in Japan, through the transfer and development of scholarship originating in the West on a foundation of East Asian scholarly tradition. While the essence of the university’s advancement has been the accumulation of knowledge on the one hand, on the other it has been the university’s history of answering questions from an academic perspective in response to the societal, national and human requirements that exist around a university. In other words, the University of Tokyo as a whole can be regarded as an academic asset accumulated and applied in Japan and all of East Asia. In considering the University of Tokyo as an academic asset, it becomes essential to look closely at the university’s history, in order to build on the historical trajectories of the university and scholarship within society and set our sights on the future.

In considering the history of the University of Tokyo as an academic asset, Buddhist studies are offered as a suitable example. The university’s Buddhist studies field was born of the combination of religious teachings developed by Buddhist organizations in Japan’s early modern period, and Indian studies originating in the West. Its research program, called “Modern Buddhist Studies”, has become a model of Buddhist research methods at universities in Japan, connecting knowledge handed down in East Asia with the digital archive era through the Taisho Tripitaka and the database system. In achieving these results, the University of Tokyo’s Buddhist scholarship has in one sense been an academic undertaking; but on the other hand, because it was led by eminent scholars who were also Buddhist priests or lay practitioners, it has been destined occasionally to serve an “apologetic” role in the process of modernization of Japan. In other words, the University of Tokyo’s Buddhist studies have been an academic asset originating from the encounter between Eastern and Western scholarship, and applied and accumulated in the framework of a relationship with the community outside the university.

In this workshop we will consider the functions that have been carried out in modern Japan by the University of Tokyo’s store of knowledge as an academic asset, through an examination of the history of Buddhist studies. But this will require a new vantage point from which to view the university’s Buddhist scholarship. Why is this the case? It’s true that the history of Buddhist studies in modern Japan has previously been discussed in the context of evaluating prior research within the Buddhist studies community, or as an aspect of Japanese religious history. However, the former perspective leads to a disregard of the relationship between Buddhist studies and the community outside the university, and the latter leads to a disregard of the scholarly development of Buddhist studies. Consequently, these are not yet adequate as means for grasping approaches to Buddhist studies as an accumulated and applied academic asset. This workshop will attempt to gain a three-dimensional understanding, from both inside and outside the university context, of the University of Tokyo’s Buddhist studies as an academic asset through a cooperative research structure transcending the framework of academic fields, in which historians comment on presentations by Buddhist scholars.

First, Buddhist studies specialist Dr. Daigo Isshiki (Humanities Center, University of Tokyo) will shed light on the messages to society implied in research on the history of Buddhist doctrine (systematic Buddhology). According to The University of Tokyo, 100 Years of History, a “historical and systematic grasp of doctrine” is a goal of the university’s Buddhology and a research tradition that has continued up to the present. However, systematic Buddhist studies, particularly in the early period of the Buddhist studies field, were not limited to results directed towards academic circles; they also encompassed assertions aiming for the modernization of Buddhism. Dr. Isshiki’s presentation will undoubtedly elucidate the way in which the University of Tokyo’s Buddhist scholarship looks towards the world outside the university.

Next, Professor Masahiro Shimoda (Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo), also from the field of Buddhist studies, will speak in depth on the significance of Buddhist studies from a perspective on “knowledge base, through a comparison with the study of religious doctrine. In contrast to the development of the Buddhist studies discipline at modern universities, the various sects of Japanese Buddhism have seen a continuation of the scholarly tradition of “religious doctrine studies” since the pre-modern era. Buddhist studies and the study of religious doctrine not only differ in areas of interest; they have their roots in the bearers of tradition—universities and sects—and are moreover defined through the knowledge base of information and communication technology. With the study of religious doctrine as a reference, Prof. Shimoda will question the very framework of the academic discipline called Buddhist studies and reposition its value as an academic asset, while providing an overview of the significance of Buddhist studies in the digital archive era.

Commentary on the above speakers’ presentations will be provided by Professor Tadashi Karube (Graduate School for Law and Politics, University of Tokyo), whose area of specialization is the history of political thought in modern Japan, and Professor Teruomi Yamaguchi (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo), who specializes in modern Japanese history. In this way, modern Buddhist studies will be reexamined in the context of modern Japan.