John McRae: "Critiquing The Critique of Buddhist 'Enlightenment Experience' "

Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 7:30PM
Event Sponsor
Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford
Building 260
Piggy Hall, Room 113
Stanford University
John McRae


What can scholars say about the experience of enlightenment by other Buddhists, either during recent times or in centuries gone by? It's 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 premodern Buddhists did not relate their own spiritual autobiographies. Recently, though, Robert Sharf of the University of California has 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. Although his analysis is in many ways perspicacious, can we bring other evidence to bear on the subject, or are there other ways of considering the issue? In this presentation I will suggest that the burgeoning Chan (Zen) movement of seventh- and eighth-century China represents another historical period in which Buddhists focused strongly on the personal experience of enlightenment, and during which they recognized the elusive quality of meditative attainment, both in ways that resemble the modern period.


John McRae, Professor Emeritus, Indiana University
Shinnyo-en Visiting Professor, Religious Studies

John McRae, Shinnyo-en Visiting Professor in Buddhist Studies, is chair of the Publications Committee of the BDK Translation Project and member of the Soto Zen Text Project. He is a graduate of Yale and has taught at Cornell and Indiana, as well as Mahachulalongkorn University, Bangkok, and Komazawa University, Tokyo. A specialist in Chinese Chan Buddhism, Professor McRae is the author of The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism (1986); Seeing Through Zen (2003); and other works on East Asian Buddhism. His most recent work, entitled East Asian Buddhism: A Survey, is scheduled for publication in 2010.