Standing 180cm tall, a large man in sandals, with curly white hair and a big smile, greets us in fluent Korean. ROBERT BUSWELL, 55, is a distinguished scholar in Buddhist studies at UCLA. But he is more famous these days in Korea for another major role: Dean of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University. The following is our interview with him.
Question: Curiously enough, you were born and raised in America where Christian beliefs seem to be dominant. Many people still consider it odd that an American shows a concern to Buddhism. What made you embrace Buddhism?
Answer: Actually, I began to study Buddhism when I was in high school. I was very interested in Western Philosophy and began to study it as a way of trying to answer the question: how does one live without exploiting other people? Just by chance, I happened to come across a book on Buddhism and was shocked to find that the philosophy of life I had been seeking was represented there almost word for word. So I became very interested in Buddhism, and began to read everything I could find on the subject. Eventually, I decided the best thing to do was to go to Asia and become a Buddhist monk.
Q: You wrote a book about your life as a monk in Song-Kwang temple, Korea. Would it be true to say that you found the experience as a foreign monk fairly easy?
A: I wouldn't say easy, but to me, it was quite a comfortable experience. This was partly due to the fact that when I arrived I was already a monk of two years standing; furthermore, I had also been a monk in Thailand which, as you know, has very strict monastic regulations about eating, about interacting with lay people and about how you spend your day. Therefore, I was already used to a restrictive life style. It was certainly a rigorous life here, but it wasn't any more difficult than, say, living in Thailand had been for me.
Q: You were awarded a prize for spreading Korean Buddhism in 2007. Also, the institute of Korea in UCLA was originally established by you. Needless to say, this is why you are called a Korean preacher with blue eyes. Do you think you were Korean in your previous existence?
A: ("I do!" - his wife exclaimed, abruptly breaking into the conversation.)
Normally, I’m shy to comment on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if I were. When I was at Song-Kwang temple, there were many foreign monks - many of whom were born in 1953 which was, of course, the last year of the Korean War. Coincidentally, there were two monks who were born on the exact same day in 1953 as me. That's rather surprising! So we often wondered whether we had, perhaps, been killed during the Korean War and then reborn. “Other than that,” he said, with a huge smile, “I really don't know”.
Q: How did you feel when you were offered for the position of Dean of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk?
A: I was both very surprised and honored: surprised because it's very unusual for a foreigner to be invited as a faculty member of a Korean University and to also hold the important administrative post of dean. To begin with, I was not quite sure how it would work out ? i.e. having a foreign scholar in charge of a Korean administrative unit. But I was also much honored because of my long connection with Dongguk. It is very flattering and a great honor to serve Dongguk as a faculty member and as dean.
Q: Traditionally, Dongguk has always been the number one Buddhist university in Korea. But it is not uncommon these days to hear of Dongguk trailing behind other universities like Protestestant, Catholic, secular or otherwise. Should we blame Buddhism for Dongguk’s decline?
A: I wouldn’t say that it is due to Buddhism. The problem is that there isn’t enough support coming from other Buddhist institutions outside the university. What I mean by this is that Buddhism, particularly in Korea, has a very strong scholarly tradition; we can see this in the amount of Dongguk Buddhist scholars with doctoral degrees. It’s my opinion, therefore, that the extraneous intellectual instititutions of Korean Buddhism should show greater support for the activities of a university such as Dongguk. So, in short, Buddhism is not the problem. We cannot be held as reason for Dongguk’s struggle to become more competitive. Having said this, I think both the Buddhist institutions and Buddhist alumni in Korea should seek to do more in raising the profile and standing of Dongguk University.
Q: Is the internationalization of Korean Buddhism synonymous with internationalization of Dongguk?
A: Yes, I think it is, since Dongguk is also a major Buddhist university and has a mission to expand knowledge and awareness of Buddhism in Korea and abroad. I think internationalizing Buddhism means internationalizing Dongguk, and vice versa. I can give my wife as an example. She was studying in the United States and happened upon some books that I wrote about Korean Buddhism. As a consequence, she eventually decided to come to Dongguk for further study. I think there are students out there who may also have read some of these books and will in turn be inspired to come to Korea, specifically Dongguk, to study further.
Q: Can you give us some details on your future plans regarding internationalization?
A: Well, I have drawn up a teaching plan for the free academy that discusses some of the specifics on how Dongguk might internationalize and how we might use the free academy to further this process. This includes, for example, developing sets of reference tools in English that will help foreign Buddhist students learn about Korean Buddhism. We are also looking at establishing an English language translation institute for translating Korean works into English. On top of this, we plan a series of international research projects that will bring together scholars from Dongguk, from Korea, and from around the world to research different areas of Korean Buddhism.
Q: The length of you tenure is one year. Have you considered extending your term after its completion?
A: (With a wry smile on his face) I thought about this and, to answer in the short, YES. I think it would be useful; however, it is not up to me to decide.
Q: Last but not least, I have a somewhat awkward Buddhist question to ask our new dean. Who are you?
A: Who am I? (He repeated the question to himself) That's a fundamental question we all have to ask but it is not a question we need to answer. We need to simply think about the question.
-You have no answer, then?
The answer is not relevant. What is relevant is the process by which we explore the answer. By exploring it, we will know it is not something we need to answer.
Editor-in-chief & International Desk Editor Yun Sang-young
Yun Sang-young email@example.com
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