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Asian Religions and Culture

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Since its Western rediscovery in the nineteenth century, Buddhism has been the focus of the study of Asian religions. Apart from philosophical reasons, this is due to the realization that the Buddhist teaching has profoundly influenced all Asian cultures. Furthermore, the field of Buddhist studies has changed considerably and has acquired a theoretical sophistication that puts it at the forefront of the study of Asian religions. We no longer conceive of Buddhism as simply a peerless philosophical, ethical, and/or meditative system. Western scholarship has been able to break away from the normative vision entertained by Asian scholars, while it continues to draw on their philological work. This explains in part why the study of Buddhism is likely to remain for some time at the center of any collective enterprise dealing with Asian religions. Yet the object called 'Buddhism' can no longer be taken for granted. The cultural approach we are taking leads us to question radically the traditional, doctrine-oriented view. By culture, we mean two things: the anthropological notion of culture and its theoretical impact on the study on religion; and the specific cultures of Asia and their influence on Asian religions. A better understanding of religious phenomena requires a shift in focus away from traditional categories (Buddhism and other 'isms') to subjects such as ritual and iconography, which cut across sectarian lines. When we bracket the normative views of sectarian scholarship and open research to the methodological and theoretical insights of other academic disciplines, we find a complex of rituals, beliefs, practices, and images in which the line between Buddhism and other religions is no longer quite as clear as one might think. While Buddhism may retain part of its privilege as a pan-Asian cultural phenomenon, it is time to abandon the notion of a pristine tradition, whose problematic essence it would be the scholar's duty to retrieve. Even though the notion of Buddhism retains some heuristic value as a narrative actor, it should not prevent us from paying due attention to the multifaceted relationships that it entertains with any given culture. The same is true, needless to say, of other Asian religious traditions. In other words, Buddhist history needs to become more anthropological, just as Buddhist anthropology needs to become more historical. One of the goals of our series will be to promote a type of a research that will try to integrate these carious perspectives. Another related goal is to break the splendid isolation of Asian religious studies by taking Asian religions out of the ghettos of 'Eastern Spirituality', 'Orientalism', or even disciplinary compartments such as 'Asian Studies' and 'Religious Studies', into the broader discursive field of the Humanities. In order to achieve this, we will emphasize the merits of a truly interdisciplinary approach, cutting across cultures (Western and Asian) and fields (anthropology, literary criticism, art history, philosophy, cultural studies). Through this theoretical pluralism, we aim to redefine, or even reinvent, Buddhism and Asian religions as 'plural' or 'differential' traditions. In this way, we hope to bring them into contemporary debates in the academy.

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