AAR2021 Panel: The Eastern Buddhist Society: Past and Future

Note: More information on this event is forthcoming, pending developments at the AAR, San Antonio, Japan, and the ongoing covid-19 situation.

IASBS at the AAR Panel in Commemoration of the Hundredth Anniversary of the Founding of the Eastern Buddhist Society

Panel Title: The Eastern Buddhist Society: Past and Future

Panel Abstract:

The Eastern Buddhist Society was founded in 1921 by Suzuki Daisetsu, Beatrice Lane Suzuki, Akanuma Chizen, Yamabe Shugaku, and Sasaki Gesshō, its primary purpose being the publication of the journal The Eastern Buddhist in order “to make the whole world better acquainted with [the] teachings of [Mahāyāna Buddhism] and see if there are not things in them which may beneficially be utilized for the amelioration of life.”[1] Reading the editorials included in the first issues of the journal now, a hundred years after the founding of the society, we cannot help be struck at the extent to which the academy itself and the needs and expectations of the scholars working within it have changed. Assertions such as “In this respect Buddhism and Christianity and all other religious beliefs are not more than variations of one single original Faith, deeply inbedded in the human soul,”[2] fall well outside the realm of acceptable scholarly discourse in the present age. Passages like “One of the chief reasons why so readily the Japanese could assimilate the highest flights of Western intellect was no doubt due to the Buddhist training through which the Japanese have gone for many long centuries. When these facts are considered, we realise how much Buddhism has done for the Japanese and for the East generally,”[3] seem fundamentally flawed and perhaps even smack of racism. Further, the statement “If our humble attempt succeeds even to a modest extent in dispelling some of the misunderstanding entertained by foreign critics concerning the true spirit of Mahāyāna Buddhism, we shall be content with the results,”[4] may lead one to think that the Eastern Buddhist Society has indeed fulfilled its mission over the course of the past hundred years, since surely no scholar today would call Mahāyāna Buddhism a degenerate tradition that pales in comparison to the original Buddhism of the Pāli scriptures.

On this hundredth anniversary of the founding of the society, however, we have decided that the society’s mission has not been totally completed, so we are going to start anew by beginning a third series that will not only inherit the original founders’ spirit but that will aim to realize that spirit in accord with the contemporary situation in the academy and the world as a whole. The current panel is conceived as a first step in that direction. In order to move forward, we must first evaluate the past and admit to the great differences between 1921 and 2021. Therefore, the first two presenters will consider both the motivations of the five founders presented above, as well as the broader intellectual environment in which they were acting, showing how drastically different their assumptions and ideas were. The third presenter will reflect on the society at the time that the New Series was begun and how the original founders’ hopes were pursued under the guidance of Nishitani Keiji during his term as editor. The last presenter will look to the future of the society and describe which parts of the founder’s hopes we intend to take forward into the second century of the society’s activities.

We agree with the first founders when they say, “Besides its being a living faith, Mahāyāna Buddhism is, when historically considered, a great monument of the human soul. Its struggles, its yearnings, and its triumphant and joyful cries are all recorded in it. The Mahāyāna, therefore, is not the sole heritage of the East, and must be made accessible to the West,”[5] and with the founders of the New Series who say, “We have come to envision a world culture—not in the sense of a monotonous uniformity, but shining in glorious multiplicities of variegatedly colored and scented spring flowers. It is our wish, then, as Buddhists of today, to serve humanity generally by striving to make the Buddhist teaching better understood and appreciated by the entire world. Understanding among men—is this not the greatest dignity and privilege we are all given to enjoy?”[6] (The word “men” here calls to mind our distance from 1965, of course.) This panel is intended to share these hopes and intentions with possible contributors to the journal, while also asking for advice regarding how exactly such goals might be realized given the confines of acceptable scholarly discourse in the academy today.

Since the second issue of the journal, the contents page has declared that The Eastern Buddhist is “An unsectarian journal devoted to an open and critical study of Buddhism in all its aspects” (the word Mahāyāna as a qualifier of Buddhism was removed from the 2007 issue). In the third series, as well, we will continue in this spirit, but our primary hope in convening this panel is to enlist scholars into this project who are interested in publishing scholarship that genuinely serves humanity and ameliorates human life by facilitating an understanding of Buddhism among a broad range of people.

Presentation abstracts

Title: The Suzukis’ Visions of an “Unsectarian Journal”

Presenter: Naoko Frances Hioki (Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture / Tenri University)


Since the second issue published in July 1921, The Eastern Buddhist has identified itself as an “unsectarian magazine/journal.” What did the original editors of the journal have in mind when they appealed to English speaking readers of 1921 (Taisho 10) with the phrase “A (bi-monthly) unsectarian magazine devoted to the study of Mahayana Buddhism”? What did they mean by the term “unsectarian”? To consider these questions, the presenter will focus on the editors, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and his wife Beatrice Lane Suzuki, and illustrate their discrete understanding of Buddhist unsectarianism. For Daisetz, being unsectarian meant overcoming partisan divisions within Mahayana Buddhism, and when he wrote about Mahayana Buddhism, most of the time “Mahayana” was exchangeable with “Japanese” Buddhism. As for Beatrice, who in 1924 founded the Kyoto branch of the Theosophical Society (the Mahayana Lodge), she embraced Theosophical idea of religious monism that considered world religions to be variations of one single faith. As it appears, however, this difference in understanding was not an obstacle for the Suzukis in co-editing the journal. The editorial statement presented in the second issue is an example of how their ideas complemented each other and worked together for the original series’ purpose of promoting the value of Mahayana/Japanese Buddhism overseas.


Title: Power Dynamics and Legitimation in the Founding of the Eastern Buddhist Society

Presenter: Michael Conway (Otani University)


One of the purposes expressed by the founders of the Eastern Buddhist Society for its creation was to lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of Mahayana Buddhism in the English-speaking world. Needless to say, this choice was a response to the evaluation of Mahayana Buddhism as a degenerate form of superstition that was an aberration only tangentially related to the pure teachings of Śākyamuni preserved in the Pāli scriptures—an understanding advocated by many of the leading scholars of Buddhism in the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The problematic nature of this position, with its Orientalist orientation and historical naivety, has long been recognized in the study of Buddhism in the West. In that sense, one might say that the founders of the society have been successful in fulfilling that particular goal for the society.

This presentation, however, focuses on the motivations of the founders in creating the society as an academic society whose members would publish the results of their research into Mahayana Buddhism in an academic journal. This choice appears to be heavily motivated by an attempt to gain legitimacy for their message in the eyes of their Western audience, in a sense attempting to reclaim the authority to speak about the Mahayana tradition by adopting the discursive practices—the voice of academic authority—of its Western critics. By considering these power dynamics at the time of its inception, this presentation aims to lay the groundwork for a discussion of the possibilities for the future mission of the society and ask if Anglophone Buddhist studies has really been able to successfully move past the power dynamics that the founders were attempting to coopt and overcome.


Title: The Future Past: The Eastern Buddhist through a Diachronic Lens

Presenter: Mark Unno (University of Oregon)


In the inaugural issue of the New Series of the Eastern Buddhist journal in 1965, the editorial board issued a statement that highlighted a number of key points. These included the aspiration to bring the vision of Mahayana Buddhism beyond Asia, where it was hoped the “beacon . . . of Buddhism will be placed in a higher stand . . . in the West.” Points of emphasis included the aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical, significance of the Mahayana, in particular Zen and Pure Land, in a world where “a narrow regionalistic standpoint can longer prevail as we are all one network of humanity. One nation’s welfare is the concern of all other nations.” The essays included were all by leading Zen and Shin Buddhist thinkers and practitioners including the central figure of D. T. Suzuki. The editorial board of the New Series, beyond such figures, included Gadjin Nagao, scholar of Sanskrit Buddhist literature. The early vision had a broad Mahayana base, focused on Zen and Pure Land, and came to include essays on Buddhist-related art, comparative mysticism, and religious inspired comparative literature including poetry and music. It represented an attempt at a normative, modernist, cosmopolitan vision of Buddhist thought, experience, and culture. It became the periodical hub of figures that influenced poets like the Beats, musicians like John Cage, potters like Bernard Leach, and poets like Gary Snyder. Since then, it has evolved to be much more diverse thematically and become more oriented as an objective scholarly periodical in the field of Buddhist studies. One the one hand, this represents a post-Orientalist, post-colonial, and more rigorously scholastic journal. On the other, it is much more analytical and less synthetic or constructive in its orientation. This paper examines what has happened in terms of the traces of those earlier constructive aims and whether the originators would still have something to contribute today were they here to comment upon its present incarnation.


Title: Thinking With Modern Philosophy: Possible Buddhist Approaches

Presenter: John LoBreglio (The Eastern Buddhist Society, Oxford Brookes University)


The original series of The Eastern Buddhist was founded in 1921 in the immediate wake of the First World War. While acknowledging that the “disastrous works” of this war were “still in evidence everywhere,” the editors nevertheless adamantly affirmed that “a new dawn is beginning to clear up the darkened horizon.” In the editorial of volume one, number one of the second series, published in 1965, the new editors reaffirmed the broad sentiment of the journal’s founding mission, “but with one amendment.” In contrast to the international divisions of the 1920s, the editors pointed out that the world was rapidly becoming “an organic whole” in which regionalism was being discarded, concern for international human welfare was palpable, and one could envision a coming world culture “shining in the glorious multiplicities of variegatedly colored and scented spring flowers.” Is it possible in 2021 for an editorial in The Eastern Buddhist to likewise partake of such optimism? The very survival of our planet, upon which all life depends, is being tested by global heating, soil degradation, and the loss of freshwater. International integration is receding in the face of resurgent nationalisms. The global sale of arms and military services rises steadily, totaling over three hundred and sixty billion US dollars in 2019; and these arms continue to be used. The gap between the global extreme rich and everyone else reveals an economic inequality inconceivable five decades ago. And, given the events of the past two years, no further reminder is needed of the continued threat that pestilence poses to human beings. Many Buddhists over the centuries would have viewed circumstances such as these as indications of the age mappō in which the Buddhist teachings are in a state of terminal decline. The Eastern Buddhist, however, in initiating its third series, would rather hope that there may yet be intellectual and spiritual resources in the various global Buddhist traditions to aid human beings as we confront these profound challenges.

The Eastern Buddhist will continue to encourage the submission of academic essays on aspects of Buddhist history and thought, and translations of Buddhist texts—materials that have been part of the journal’s history for the past century. However, from its inception the journal has sought to be relevant to its time, and given the dire nature of the crises described above, we would also like to encourage another type of submission, one that engages more directly with the severe challenges we face. While in earlier decades, the journal regularly published essays that engaged in philosophical explorations drawing on both Western and Buddhist thought, we have seen a steady decline in such submissions in recent years. Given the complexity of modern philosophy and modern societies, and the vast increases in scientific, technological, and historical knowledge, it is perhaps not surprising for thinkers to shy away from such daunting intellectual explorations. Nevertheless, we would like to challenge scholars of Buddhism from all of its subfields to step out of their “comfort zones” and engage in precisely these sorts of daring reflections. To stimulate such thinking, this presentation will suggest a number of problems dealt with in contemporary philosophy, both Anglophone (analytical) and continental, and some ideas of specific contemporary philosophers, that seem to present opportunities for fertile engagement from Buddhist perspectives. The overriding principle in selecting these topics and thinkers is their relevance to the crises adumbrated above. Since this is a call to engage in philosophical thinking and writing, it is our hope that this presentation will lead directly into an informal symposium, in its ancient Greek sense, in which all those present will share their expertise and candid views concerning the possibilities for, and obstacles facing, the type of intellectual cross-fertilization that this presentation proposes.


[1] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, old series, 1 (1): 80.

[2] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, old series, 1 (2): 156.

[3] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, old series, 1 (1): 84.

[4] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, old series, 1 (1): 83.

[5] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, old series, 1 (1): 85.

[6] “Editorial,” The Eastern Buddhist, new series, 1 (1): 4.