What does a mention of Buddhism bring to mind?
For many, the name alone evokes images of windswept Tibetan highlands and a mystical path of ancient wisdom—a way of life far-removed from our hectic, modern world.
But for Jessica Main, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chair in Buddhism and Contemporary Society (BCS) at UBC, this ancient religion has a lot to say about contemporary life.
In 2005, UBC established the Buddhism and Contemporary Society program, North America’s first academic Buddhism program, through the generosity of Robert H. N. Ho, who did so guided by a belief that the insights of Buddhism have a vital role to play in approaching the challenges facing contemporary society.
The chair and program are building awareness and appreciation for Buddhist thought and practice, prompting students and the community to think differently about themselves and society in a way encourages positive solutions for change. “These unique programs are fostering a deeper understanding of how Buddhism interacts with modern education, social justice, and public policy,” says Dr. Main.
New name, same mission
This October, UBC’s chair was renamed The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chair in Buddhism and Contemporary Society to allow it to work more seamlessly within a powerful global network of Buddhist learning. This change anchors the BCS chair and program as part of an exceptionally strong global network philanthropist Robert H. N. Ho and his family have been building since 2005. This network includes universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Toronto.
“Contemporary Buddhist scholarship is increasingly engaging other disciplines which seek to consider a Buddhist perspective in meeting 21st-century challenges,” says Mr. Ho. “Renaming this program helps our Foundation better fulfill our mandate to expand the understanding, interpretation and application of Buddhist philosophy in contemporary scholarship and society.”
Ancient wisdom for the modern world
Through classes, conferences and speakers’ series, the Buddhism and Contemporary Society program is exploring Buddhist perspectives on complex questions about end-of-life care, ethnic tensions, and even economic growth.
Students are often introduced to the program through courses like Introduction to Asian Religions or Introduction to Buddhism. From there, students can craft their degrees to focus on Buddhism and its many intricacies.
Lyndsay Bocchinfuso took Introduction to Buddhism with Professor Main in 2012. Bocchinfuso, a fourth-year student at UBC, had previously studied criminology; Professor Main’s teaching about Buddhism and prison dharma in India encouraged her to rethink her views on inmate rehabilitation.
“The course made an impact on my thinking both about inmates and about myself. Professor Main inspired me to think about things on a deeper level. She inspired me and our class to look into things further, and to ask probing questions,” says Bocchinfuso. “Buddhism isn’t an outdated religion—it’s still being discussed and applied today.”
Professor Main and others are doing research that obliterates the notion that Buddhism is irrelevant in today’s world.
“My future projects will centre on the engagement of Buddhist groups and NGOs in specific sectors of society, such as youth, rehabilitation and corrections, and contributions to mental and physical health,” says Dr. Main. Other recent research has looked at Buddhists notions of social ethics and Buddhist boy scouts.
In addition, the program brings together scholars from around the world to discuss historical and modern Buddhist thought, investigating the religion’s iterations in various Asian countries and in the west, as well as its interplay between the two cultures. Last year, the BCS held its largest conference to date; more than 50 academics from across North America, including a number of graduate students, presented papers exploring the spectrum of Pure Land Buddhism, a central branch of the religion.
“My family foundation believes that the 2,500-year-old philosophy has a lot to teach us today,” says Mr. Ho. Through the BCS program, Dr. Main, UBC students, and academics around the globe are proving how true that is.
To commemorate UBC’s newly named Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chair in Buddhism and Contemporary Society, UBC and Dr. Main will host Mr. Robert Ho, Mr. Kevin Ho and other community members for a renaming ceremony.
At the ceremony, UBC will honour Mr. Ho by presenting him with a commemorative scroll with the Foundation’s motto, “Before you can receive, you must learn how to give,” rendered in calligraphy. The calligraphy was done by Yim Tse, a professor emeritus and former Chinese librarian at UBC’s Asian Library. Tse’s work has been collected by the Canadian Museum of Civilization and UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. In a wonderful coincidence, Tse and Mr. Ho attended the same elementary school in Hong Kong, and as a child Tse frequented the Tung Lin Kok Yuen temple, which was established by Robert Ho’s grandmother, Lady Clara Lin-Kok.
In addition, the program will host a lecture on Oct. 20 discussing Buddhism’s role in contemporary society. It will be held at UBC Robson Square, in close proximity to the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is currently hosting The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors. This rare exhibition—hailed by the Globe and Mail as one of the most significant in the gallery’s history—has come to Canada due in large part to Mr. Ho and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.