Extra Credit

Extra Credit

As venues for scholarly lectures go, there are not many more exotic settings than the one where Assoc. Prof. John Makransky (Theology) spoke recently.

Makransky gave a talk titled "Historical Consciousness as an Offering to the Buddha" to monks, translators and students at the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery in Bodhanath, Nepal, near Kathmandu. The monastery, Makransky says, is a traditional temple complex with graceful curving roofs and white buildings containing many beautiful paintings and frescoes of ancient Buddhist images, and overlooks one of the great Buddhist pilgrimage sites of South Asia.

Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling is unique for having established an ongoing study institute not only for Tibetan monks, but also for Westerners to learn Buddhism, adds Makransky, a practicing Buddhist and the first Western academic to present a public talk at the monastery.

The author of the forthcoming article "Buddhist Perspectives on Other Religions: Past and Present" in Theological Studies Journal, Makransky researches how Indian and Tibetan Buddhist doctrines of enlightenment have been informed by Buddhist practices of meditation, philosophy and ritual, and how these relate to Christian understandings and practices. He also teaches Tibetan Buddhist methods at meditation retreats throughout the United States.

"Although I have received much from my Tibetan Buddhist teachers, I feel the continuing need to 'check in' with them, to receive input, critical feedback, and further teaching from them, and also to offer myself in service to their work in various ways," said Makransky, whose former teacher is abbot of the monastery.

"In my talk, I explored how historical methods to analyze the development of Buddhist scriptures and doctrines may be used to support reverence for the transformative power of Buddhist traditions, rather than being viewed merely as modern, secular threats to traditional understandings and authority."

Makransky says he received an enthusiastic response from the audience of approximately 60, and from his former teacher. "I was extremely happy that he had recognized my presentation as it had been intended, as a modern offering to an ancient tradition."

Americans may view non-Western religious traditions with a mixture of curiosity, suspicion or unease, but Makransky says in that respect Buddhism has a significantly different history than Islam.

"For decades in the Americas and Europe there has been a growing desire to know about Buddhism, fueled by intense interest in its meditation practices," he explained. "Following World War II, Americans were introduced to Zen practices by Japanese teachers and American teachers trained by them, such as Shunryu Suzuki and Philip Kapleau. Later, more Zen teachings came to us from Vietnam through Thich Nhat Hanh and Taiwan through Master Sheng-yen."

During the 1970s, the Southeast Asian practice of insight meditation was introduced by Western Buddhist teachers who had trained in Burma and Thailand, Makransky said, and in the following decades Tibetan teachers and Westerners trained by them began to teach Tibetan meditation methods, which have captured the interest of even more Americans.

"Each of these traditions imparts rather precise methods to look into the workings of the mind, to uncover its hidden potential for impartial compassion and wisdom, and to apply those powers to current problems."

[A profile of Makransky appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of Boston College Magazine].

-Sean Smith


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