Far West Passage: Completing the Circle

 

Sitting on a deck with warm morning sun on my back in Northern California is as good a place as any to bring this travel report to a conclusion (of sorts).

In the last episode, our traveler was still in Heidelberg, Germany, counting down the days before the flight that would take him directly to San Francisco. While marvelous in its efficiency in covering 5,600 miles in 12 hours or so, this flight would also plunge this traveler back into domestic and social contexts that would require full attention and energy to navigate successfully.

But that’s another story.

The second talk I gave (my seventh of the trip) was for a research group titled “Europe and Asia in Global Contexts.”   I’ve already discussed this group, the fine poster my host prepared, and so now need only mention briefly the bare facts of this event that took place some 14 hours before my departure.

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Holding a talk on a Monday afternoon during the period between winter and spring academic terms is not an optimal time. Even though I offered to forego the lecture because the timing seemed wrong, my host determined to go ahead and see what would happen. As a result, my transportation costs from the Frankfurt airport were covered, and I got a free meal after the lecture. To my host’s surprise, on April 7th, the room was full and the audience diverse. Students, faculty, post-docs and even a couple folks from the general public were in attendance.

This time, I could focus only on my book and some of its more provocative themes. I met with an IT person an hour beforehand to work through the setup and video links, so everything went smoothly and the talk concluded right on time. Afterwards, there was a discussant –a young assistant professor of Japanese modern history, Dr. Prof. Martin Krauss–who raised a few points and critiques that I then responded to. Standard format…but also amazing because we were operating in English and everyone seemed totally tuned in.

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I will mention only one of the discussant’s critiques, and that is the concept of “experimental Buddhism.” He said that over 100 years ago, Japanese Buddhists were “experimenting” with new forms of their religion and trying to make it relevant for a rapidly changing society. Why do you think, Prof. Nelson, that your book is about something “new” and significant?

I’ve entertained this question in several different forms, and have a half-page in my book that addresses it directly. There are two important characteristics that make “experimental Buddhism” in contemporary Japan something new and innovative. First, information technology allows greater access to information, teachings, services, and institutions (to name a few) and so individuals are empowered as never before to be discerning consumers of religious resources. Second, the Japanese state is not involved in contemporary religion the way it was back in the 1880s and 90s. This is hugely significant because it gives both individuals and temples/priests the autonomy to experiment with Buddhist traditions in unprecedented ways.

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I talked to a number of people afterwards who wanted to ask questions privately, then went out to dinner at the “Art Hotel” not far from my loaned apartment. After that, a normal conclusion to the day would have been thank yous and see you laters. But the day did not end that way and took a turn that I will never forget. Enough said.

 

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