USC School of Religion assistant professor Rongdao Lai hosted the Conference on Buddhist Ethics from June 8 to 10. The conference featured 34 scholars who discussed the application of Buddhist principles to important social issues.
The event was sponsored by Tong Fa Temple and Malton Group, and was co-sponsored by the USC School of Religion, Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religion and Culture, USC East Asian Religion Studies Center and the Center for International Studies at USC.
“In conceiving this conference, we were thinking that we really wanted to invite people working in different disciplines, covering different geographic areas and working on different time periods,” Lai said. “We have scholars from as far as Japan, U.K. and quite a few from Canada. I’m excited to welcome everyone to USC.”
According to Lai, the conference comes after the first Conference on Buddhist Ethics at Dickinson College in 2016. Attendees were invited by the event organizers and were chosen based on their area of study.
“We really wanted to invite people who worked in different disciplines,” Lai said. “We have an even number of male and female scholars. We have a balanced number of people in different stages of their career, so we have senior scholars in the field, [and] we also have young scholars early in their career.”
Lai focused this year’s conference on discussing race, class and resistance in the context of Buddhism, to help nurture a healthy community and to promote Buddhist ethics.
“In the planning process, we decided that we would be focusing on the issues of class, race and resistance,” Lai said. “We wanted to make sure to look at this from the doctrinal, historical, anthropological kind of perspective, in different parts of the world as well.”
Multiple sessions took place over the course of the weekend. For the first 15 minutes of each session, the topic of the seminar was introduced. This was followed by a 40-minute session where participants were assigned to small discussion groups. Toward the end, the small groups convened for a general 30-minute session to discuss their thoughts.
“In terms of conference format, I think this is very innovative because we decided that no one is going to be presenting papers,” Lai said. “We organized the conference more in the format of a workshop, so we appointed discussion leaders to set context and select certain sources that could be helpful in developing discussion arguments.
On June 8, the conference consisted of two sessions. The first session, which discussed Buddhism and class, was facilitated by University of Central Florida professor Ann Gleig and University of British Columbia professor Jessica Main. USC professor Duncan Williams and Youngstown State University professor Michael Jerryson facilitated the second session.
During her session, Gleig proposed a three-part definition for a class and its relation to religious students. She provided metaphorical models which implemented a loose framework for examining Buddhist class structures. According to Gleig, there are multiple models that can be used by scholars to shape an argument about class and religious studies.
“You got the pyramid in which you got the smaller leader and much larger lower class and limited opportunities for movement and a lot of regulation on all areas of life,” Gleig said. “The binary model is something we are more familiar with, you know Marxist models where there is tension between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.”
On June 9, Harvard University professor Chris Queen and Bucknell University professor James Shields facilitated a session on right speech and social change. Following the seminar, the scholars visited the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
By the end of the weekend-long event, the scholars gained knowledge of various aspects of Buddhism from other professors, as well as different perspectives that western and eastern countries had on the religion.
“We tried to create this platform and community where people can be willing to trust scholars who make studying Buddhism their living to talk about important issues,” Lai said. “Engagement and being involved is a very important part of the conference for me, so the very success of the conference depends on participation from all and not the findings of one of two individuals.”