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Prof. McRae’s Lecture on Enlightenment

The lecture, “Critiquing the Critique of Buddhist ‘Enlightenment Experience,’” was attended by over 50 participants, including Shinnyo-en Foundation staff. The talk was riveting as all in attendance were curious to learn what scholars had to say about the experience of enlightenment by Buddhists, either during recent times or in centuries gone by. Needless to say, it is hard enough to tell what emotions other people are feeling, so moments of religious inspiration should be even less accessible to third-person description and analysis. In addition, there are specific cultural and religious reasons why Buddhists did not relate their own spiritual experiences. Recently, though, Robert Sharf of the University of California pointed out that the very concept of “enlightenment experience” is both philosophically incoherent and a modern fixation which has warped our understanding of premodern Buddhism.

Professor McRae brought evidence to bear on the subject and to think about and urged the audience to think about whether there were other ways to consider this issue. In his presentation he suggested that the Chan (Zen) movement of seventh- and eighth-century in China in some ways resembles the modern period, in that it represented another historical period in which Buddhists focused strongly on the personal experience of enlightenment. He pointed out that the encounter dialogues, while not necessarily transcriptions of real conversations, do reveal a concern for personal experience. This concern, he suggested, reflected Chan interest in acquiring insight into the inherently enlightened nature of the human mind – a doctrine introduced into Chinese Buddhism by the Nirvana Sutra.

Before the lecture, a private dinner was hosted by the Co-Chairs of the Center for Buddhist Studies, Professor Bielefeldt and Professor Harrison, to welcome as the guest of honor, Bishop Takuji Sano from Shinnyo-en and to introduce Shinnyo-en Visiting Professor John McRae. Also present at the dinner were Reverend Yabuuchi from Yuon Sanctuary in Osaka, Reverend Pinto from Shinnyo-en USA, as well as Board Members of the Shinnyo-en Foundation Nichelle Blanco and Kazuko Verghese.