“The ABCs of Emptiness” – A Presentation by Dr. Ryan Overbey, Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellow in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley
The Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellowships were established in the Center for Japanese Studies and the Center for Buddhist Studies with endowments from the Shinnyo-en Order to UC Berkeley in 2008. The Postdoctoral Fellowships offer distinguished recent graduates from around the world the opportunity to spend up to two years immersing themselves in the intellectually stimulating and collegial learning environment at UC Berkeley. Dr. Ryan Overbey is the 2013-2015 Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellow in Buddhist Studies, and Dr. Dominick Scarangello is the 2013-2014 Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellow in Japanese Buddhism.
On February 6th, Dr. Overbey gave a lecture on “The ABCs of Emptiness: the Buddhist Abecedary in The Great Lamp of the Dharma Dhāraņī Scripture” to a full room at the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. Speaking as an historian of Buddhism, Dr. Overbey drew a parallel between The New England Primer, the most successful textbook published in 18th century America, and early Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures. Just as the New England Primer connects the letters of the alphabet to religious values (“A is for Adam” and “B is for Bible”), many early Mahāyāna scriptures link “A (阿)” and other Indian letters with Buddhist religious values such as emptiness, bodhisattva practices, and so on. Dr. Overbey then discussed The Great Lamp of the Dharma Dhāraņī Scripture, an obscure Mahāyāna text surviving only in a single sixth-century Chinese translation. According to Dr. Overbey, the Great Lamp used this early Buddhist tradition of the sacred alphabet in new ways. Letters are empty and have no meaning, and yet they can combine to form words which communicate meaning and change the world. The Great Lamp argued that this power of empty letters to combine and create meaning is the very essence of Buddhist dependent origination, and it used these empty letters to train monks to become preachers of the Dharma.
Dr. Overbey studies the intellectual and ritual history of Buddhism, with a particular focus on early medieval Buddhist spells and ritual manuals. For an abstract of Dr. Overbey’s lecture on Feb. 6th and more information about his background, please see the event announcements at UC Berkeley’s Buddhist Studies. Dr. Dominick Scarangello’s lecture is scheduled on Wednesday, April 16th, at 4 PM at The Institute of East Asian Studies Conference Room, on the 6th Floor of 2223 Fulton Street, Berkeley. For more information, please visit the Institute of East Asian Studies’ event announcement here.