Venerable Bhikkhuni Dr. Yifa Speach for Symposium on Buddhist Universities, 27 May 2007

Speeches delivered to the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, Symposium on Buddhist Universities, 27 May 2007

Venerable Bhikkhuni Dr. Yifa
Chair, Department of Religious Studies,
University of the West, L.A, USA

I have been a nun for most of my life, almost thirty years. My monastic life are almost centered in academics, either I was learning and receiving education or now teaching and working at colleges. I have joined an order called Fo Guang Shan (which means ‘Buddha’s Light Mountain’) Monastery. This order has established more than ten Buddhist seminaries and three universities. Among three universities, one is in the United States, formally called Hsi Lai University, and now renamed as the University of the West; and the other two are in Taiwan respectively called Fo Guang University and Nan Hua University. These three universities are not limited to Buddhist Studies, they are more like secular universities, but just founded by a Buddhist order.

Today, I would like to share some very short ideas with you, why a Buddhist temple or organization would need to establish a university; and what is the difference between a university founded by the Buddhist order and a secular university.

My teacher, Venerable Master Hsing Yun, pertaining to money and the economy, has always said: money and resources comes from the ten-directions – from the public; then they need to be back to the ten-directions and used for the public. So through establishing three universities, we think that within fifteen years we can return the resources back to the public. A Buddhist organization can act as an agent of distribution of resources in our society.

Secondly, we understand that most secular universities are focused on training people to have a technique, training students how to get a job. However, for a university founded by a Buddhist organization, we do not only provide for training students in a skill, but also provide them a holistic education for being a person – our universities encourage a whole-person education. Our education that we provide is for life, not just for a job.

Nowadays, we are facing and living in a society or age of materialism and individualism; and in an age of information and high-technology, as well. I have four points which I am going to share with you – and this is my personal, very humble, opinion – about how Buddhism has to face the modern challenges to provide students a holistic education.

First, for Buddhism to face the modern society we have to adopt high technology. Most people feel it is hard to reconcile as we see on TV commercials depicting monk or nuns with PDA or with a cellular phone or sitting in front of a computer. For the public cannot match monks with high technology. People seem to forget that Buddhism is in fact a religion of science. If you look at Buddhist doctrine, for example, when Buddhism talks about time, it always talks about kalpa, which is incalculable. He also talks about space in the concept of trichiliocosm - three layers of a thousand worlds, which is unlimited. Scientists try to study life outside of this planet, but Buddhism 2500 years ago already mentioned that there are sentient beings beyond this earth. According to Mahayanist texts all the Buddhas, except Gotama, Amitabha Buddha, Medicine Buddha and the like – they are all considered as E.T., extraterrestrials or beings beyond this earth. There are lots of ideas or concepts already about the scientific nature of Buddhism; therefore it just depends on how we are going to understand the message behind the language in texts.

In addition, all Buddhist traditions are now working on the digitalization of the Buddhist canon. For example, the CBETA for Buddhist canon in Chinese– many scholars already show their appreciation to the CBETA system, and the temple I come from, Fo Guang Shan, also tried to digitalize the Fo Guang version of the canons, as well. At the University of the West, we have also developed a Sanskrit project – we are trying to put the Sanskrit Scripture into the computer and online, and make it available as well. Of course, right now, with the website, internet, we can make it much more accessible for Buddhist information.

The second point I would like to make is Buddhism should develop the engaged approach toward social issues, such as environmental issues, bioethics issue, or even conflict resolution. After 11 September, people started to wonder “Why do we need religions? If religions bring a lot of conflict, do we still need religions at all?” I wonder whether you are also aware of this phenomenon. Now, the young generation prefers to use the term “spirituality” rather than “religion.” Also, because I spend more time in the United States, if we look at the academic approach toward Buddhism, you can say that most [universities] hold a historical or textual approach. If we look those Ivy League universities, most scholars are focused on historical and textual studies and they are considered mainstream. But nowadays a group of Buddhist scholars and practitioners start to bring Buddhist values to social engagement in those issues I just mentioned: environmental issues, bioethics, or conflict resolution issues. These are the new trends, the new tendencies for studying Buddhism.

Thirdly, Buddhist education should pursue truth, ethics and beauty through studying science and technology, religions and philosophy, art and literature. Traditional Buddhist education tends to discourage or even condemn the study of secular subjects. But I don’t see there is a conflict between religious education and secular one. We need to use secular science or social science as expedience or skillful means, as Mahayanists say, to approach Buddhism as well.

The fourth and final point: I think we need to make Buddhist education accessible and affordable. If we turn on the computer, it is so amazing that we can get a free e-mail address through Google or Yahoo – all free. There is so much information on-line – most of them are free, maybe because of commercial, money behind them. I was wondering if we could adopt the same concept and make education more affordable, even free. Finally, in order to achieve these goals, we need to have great collaborations from all Buddhist universities or even organizations from all of the traditions – and this goal won’t be too far, won’t be to far away. Thank you so much.