"As a comparative humanist who specializes in Asian thought, the goal of both my research and my teaching is to create bridges of understanding across seemingly diverse eras, cultures, religions and ways of being."
Can the global issues our society is grappling with be informed by historical trends in modern Japanese Buddhist thought? Professor James Shields, comparative humanities and Asian thought, explores Buddhist ethics and politics and how they are expressed in the context of core Buddhist teachings.
"My research examines the genealogy of modernist, progressive and radical Buddhism as it developed in Japan from the late 19th century through the Second World War," he says, explaining that there are notable examples of activists who developed socially active and politically engaged Buddhist practice –something not commonly associated with the Buddhism of the time.
One of the central themes that runs throughout the work of the individuals and movements he studies is the attempt to craft workable forms of religious humanism – the merging of humanist philosophy and religious practice – that can help to address pressing social problems such as poverty and environmental crisis. Although much of his recent work deals with texts written over a century ago in a "foreign" culture, he believes these texts can and do speak to all people living in the wake of 20th-century modernities.
He says, "as a comparative humanist who specializes in Asian thought, the goal of both my research and my teaching is to create bridges of understanding across seemingly diverse eras, cultures, religions and ways of being." The comparative humanities program provides structure for students to practice this type of learning through different lenses in the humanities. Students in the program study particular themes by using disciplinary methods and reading texts from religious and cultural studies, philosophy, history, literature and the arts.
The breadth of the program has recently grown to include texts and traditions from central, south and east Asia. Shields notes that learning about this region is crucial in our time. He says, "given the global significance of China, India, and Japan, all of us in the program see this as a positive step towards providing our students with knowledge and skills relevant for the 21st century. I am always excited to introduce Asian philosophies and religious ideas to students, who often, to their own surprise, discover ways of thinking about humanity, the gods and nature that resonate with them on a personal level."
Posted October 3, 2013
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