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Buddhism Unit

Call for Proposals

The Buddhism Unit welcomes proposals for papers sessions, individual papers, and roundtables in all areas of the study of Buddhism. To encourage greater exchange among the various subfields within Buddhist Studies, we are particularly interested in sessions that confront enduring problems in the study of Buddhism, raise important theoretical or methodological issues, and/or bring fresh materials or perspectives to bear on themes of broad interest, especially those that address multiple regions and/or time periods. All proposals should demonstrate their coherence and significance in language accessible to the steering committee, which includes individuals working on diverse aspects of Buddhism. We are also committed to diversity in terms of gender, rank, institutions, etc. WISAR ( is an excellent resource for ensuring gender balance.

This year, we again ask you to keep in mind the possible session allotments, which are as follows (we will choose either Option A or Option B after we evaluate the proposals that come in):
(Option A) Two 2.5-hour sessions, one 2-hour session, and three 90-minute sessions
(Option B) One 2.5-hour session, one 2-hour session, and five 90-minute sessions
(with either option) One additional 90-minute session through co-sponsorship with another Unit

We invite proposals for 2.5-hour sessions, 2-hour sessions, and 90-minute sessions. Both options, however, reflect a trend within AAR toward a larger number of shorter sessions. Please keep this in mind in formulating your proposals. As always, we encourage new and innovative formats. Please do not submit a paper as both an Individual Paper Proposal and as part of a Papers Session Proposal. We will consider papers submitted as part of a Papers Session Proposal for potential inclusion in an omnibus session of individual papers.

We especially welcome proposals on this year’s Presidential Theme: “The AAR as a Scholarly Guild,” which was proposed by the AAR President and member of the Unit, Prof. Jose Cabezón.
Below are some of the themes that our members have proposed for the 2020 meeting, but please also feel free to submit a proposal on topics not represented on this list. If you are interested in contributing to a proposal on one of these topics, please contact the organizer directly.

-Buddhist Apologetics—Contact: Kendall Marchman (University of Georgia):
This panel engages Buddhist apologetic literature throughout the Buddhist world, past and present. Apologetics inform us about the common critiques of Buddhist beliefs and practices, the surrounding milieu in which these texts were produced, and the responses Buddhists used to defend themselves.

-Buddhists Count—Contact: Alex Hsu (University of Notre Dame):
Buddhist literatures of every genre are rife with numbers. Buddhists count elements, arguments, sects, steps in a ritual, breaths, precepts, scriptures, beads, worlds, beings, distance, and the passage of time in the tens and thousands, or sometimes items are "beyond measure." Why do they do this? What units do they use? What happens when the numbers don't add up, or multiple witnesses offer differing accounts? Are there quintessentially Buddhist ways of enumerating, measuring, or scaling things? What mathematical skills do Buddhist texts cultivate in their readers? What facilities with numbers do Buddhist institutions presume of their members? And what, if anything, should scholars of Buddhism be counting next? Historical, philological, literary, philosophical, ethnographic, social-theoretical approaches all welcome. Depending on panelists we could co-sponsor with the Buddhist Philosophy unit.

-Book panel on Buddhist Tourism in Asia, ed. Courtney Bruntz and Brooke Schedneck (University of Hawaii Press, 2020), possibly co-sponsored with Space, Place, and Religion Unit—Contact: Brooke Schedneck (Rhodes College):

-Emic Perspectives on the Category “Buddhism”—Contact: Nicole Willock (Old Dominion University): or Eric Haynie (University of Michigan):
How do Buddhists define their tradition? This panel would be a critical reflection on the usages of “Buddhism” as a category. It might include papers that examine how Buddhist writers and scholars identify, define, or characterize “Buddhism.” These could be analyses of material from different historical periods and within different geographic or sectarian traditions. Collectively, this panel would engage with accounts of emic Buddhist knowledge production as a way of complicating “Buddhism” in the scholarly guild. We are looking for other people to participate in the discussion. Depending on who would like to contribute, this might be a great option for a roundtable discussion.

-Whose Sages? Chinese Arguments about the Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius—Contact: Elizabeth Morrison (Middlebury):
This panel will take up the long history of Chinese arguments about who is a sage, how various sages are to be ranked, regarded as identical or complementary in their teachings.

-One Size Doesn't Fit All: Tailoring Buddhist Teachings to Laypeople—Contact: Alan Wagner (CRCAO, CNRS/College de France):
This panel brings together perspectives which see beyond the simple division of Buddhist communities into monastic and lay spheres. In late medieval China, in particular, we find several examples of prominent Buddhist teachers who not only wrote for a lay audience, but tailored their teachings to different classes of laypeople. Rather than treating the laity as a homogenous group, such writers see that differences of age, gender, profession, and social class have important impacts on people's religious needs and on the kinds of practice and teaching that are most appropriate for each group. Nuanced views of the lay population illuminate distinctions in Buddhists' understandings of karma, "cultivation", paths to liberation, precepts and "skillful means" as these apply to the realities of daily worldly life. This panel welcomes comparative perspectives, both modern and premodern, from across the Buddhist world which show similar attention to the diversity of the lay community and their needs.

-The Pre-History of Socially Engaged Buddhism—Contact: Jessica Zu (Princeton University):
This panel examines transnational trends of integrating Buddhism and activism as well as the concomitant doctrinal innovations to reorient Buddhist theory and practice of liberation for collective transformation. In so doing, this panel seeks to go beyond the received wisdom of socially engaged Buddhism as a moral judgement to praise Buddhist communities that promote liberal democratic values and to denounce Buddhist communities that incite ethnic cleansing or justify collective violence. By taking seriously socially engaged Buddhism as an analytic category, the studies in this panel seek to map out diverse thought and movements that had contributed to the birth of socially engaged Buddhism in the 1967 moment when Thich Nhat Hanh met Dr. Martin Luther King.

-Innovation, Adaptation, and Inclusion in Modern Buddhist Monastic Education—Contact: Manuel Lopez (New College of Florida):
The main goal of this panel is to explore the various ways in which monastic education and, in particular, monastic curricula are changing in order to adapt to the current historical, social, and political environment throughout the Buddhist world. In order to offer a comprehensive and inclusive view of those changes, the panel will ideally include scholars who have recently done fieldwork in various Buddhist countries, while collectively covering the three largest Buddhist traditions (Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna). The panel will also ask questions and try to offer answers to some of the most important challenges faced by contemporary Buddhism as reflected in the current changes to monastic curricula throughout the Buddhist world; among them, how has the universalization of secular education in Buddhist countries affected the contents and the pedagogical approaches in monasteries? How are relatively new alternative institutions, like the Seminary in China, challenging the centrality of the monastery in the Buddhist world? How are various Buddhist countries negotiating a more inclusive educational environment for nuns? And finally, what are the dangers and opportunities faced by monastic institutions when negotiating those changes?

-Privilege in Buddhist History—Contact: Alison Melnick Dyer (Bates College):
We are interested in developing our conversation about how privilege has influenced Buddhist institutions prior to the contemporary moment.

-Buddhist Kingship in Practice—Contact: Ian MacCormack (UC Berkeley):
This session will compare specific cases of enthronement, funerary rites, royal processions, etc. from across the Buddhist world. What role do these practices play in constituting the royal person, the relationship between ruler and subjects, core-periphery relations, ideals of perfection, and so on? Papers that connect particular evidence with general observations about kingship and the study of Buddhism are especially welcome.

-Goddess Reverence in Buddhist Traditions—Contact: Hillary Langberg (Bard College):
From divine female Bodhisattvas in Indic Sanskrit texts to goddess veneration in Japanese Buddhist temples today, this panel investigates the developments, roles, and functions of goddesses in Buddhism. Papers may span any time period, region, and form of evidence (ethnographic, textual, visual, and/or spatial).

  • New guiding questions and methods in Buddhist Studies—Contact: Liz Wilson (Miami University of Ohio):
    How is scholarship in the field changing in response to new guiding questions? This session will bring together scholars who give pride of place to categories such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Participants will reflect on how privilege grounded in these categories has influenced the institutions we study. The panel will also engage in self-reflexive analysis, asking how privilege configures the institutions that we work for and our work as scholars. Are there raced and gendered networks that contribute to the academic reward system in our fields and locations? If our institutions are shaped by power inequities, are there ways that we can reconfigure our institutions to bring greater fairness?

-Buddhism and xenophobia—For possible co-sponsorship with the Buddhism in the West Unit, an exploration of how Buddhism is being used in xenophobic discourses globally.

-The Business of Asceticism during the Long 1st Millennium CE— Please contact Matthew Milligan (Trinity Univeristy), or Nicholas Witkowski ( Nanyang Technological University, Singapore),
The study of Buddhism in Asia has long been overdetermined by a debate set into motion long ago by Protestant and Catholic theologians over the proper role of the ascetic in religion and society. Weber, for example, argued that the deeply ascetic focus on the body, characteristic of Catholicism, was inherently antithetical to the economic focus of Protestant inner-asceticism on capital accumulation. The classic version of this assertion in academia is the claim that Buddhism is a religion of the “middle way,” a view that claims another-worldly bodily asceticism was antithetical to the this-worldly Buddhist mainstream focus on the economics of institution-building. Scholars such as Gregory Schopen have argued that Buddhism is not about bodily asceticism, but is really a business. Rather than viewing bodily asceticism and the pragmatics of the monastic economy as mutually exclusive modes of inquiry, this panel will be devoted to bringing these two discursive strands together, looking to examine whether we can discover a business of asceticism in the monastery. This panel is looking for papers that bring the themes of monastic economy and ascetic practice into dialogue.

Statement of Purpose

This Unit is the largest, most stable, and most diverse forum for Buddhist studies in North America. We embrace the full historical range of the Buddhist tradition from its inception some two-and-a-half millennia ago to the present and span its entire geographical sweep — the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and the West. In addition to being historically and geographically inclusive, we have made efforts to encourage methodological plurality. Papers presented in recent years reflect, in addition to the philological and textual approaches of classic Buddhology, the methods of intellectual history, institutional history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, gender and cultural studies, art history, literary theory, and postcolonial studies. We will continue to encourage cross-disciplinary exchange. This Unit is the forum of choice for many established scholars. For some years now, we have also striven to provide a forum for younger scholars to aid them in establishing their careers. Under normal circumstances, at least one session at the Annual Meeting is devoted to four or five individual papers; often many or all of these are from graduate students or younger scholars making their first academic presentation at a national conference. In recent years, a growing number of foreign scholars have come to recognize this Unit as a valuable forum to submit proposals, including scholars whose primary language is not English. We wish to continue to promote communication with scholars abroad and to provide opportunities for younger scholars.


Steering Committee Members



Review Process

Proposals are anonymous to chairs and steering committee members during review, but visible to chairs prior to final acceptance or rejection

Review Process Comments

For the past few years, Steering Committee members have been able to see each others' rankings and comments. At this year's Steering Committee meeting, we discussed the possibility that seeing other members' rankings might be subtly influencing one's own ranking. Thus, beginning next year, we will make it so that Steering Committee members can see each others' comments but not rankings.