An interview with Robert Buswell, renowned scholar of Korean Buddhism
Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies Robert Buswell. (Photo provided by Professor Buswell.)

An interview with Robert Buswell, renowned scholar of Korean Buddhism

Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies Robert Buswell reflected on his life and work ahead of a two-day conference in honor of his retirement from UCLA.

UCLA International Institute, June 24, 2022 — After 36 years at UCLA, Robert E. Buswell Jr. will retire at the end of June 2022 from the department of Asian languages and culture. The distinguished professor of Buddhist Studies and Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Professor in Humanities has been an active member of the UCLA International Institute throughout his scholarly career. Not only did he found two separate centers at the Institute —the Center for Korean Studies and the Center for Buddhist Studies, which he currently directs — he also served as interim vice provost of the Institute in 2001. In 2009–11, he served as founding director of the Academy of Buddhist Studies (Pulgyo Haksurwon) at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea.

A renowned scholar of Korean Buddhism, Buswell was instrumental in building UCLA’s programs in Korean studies and Buddhist studies. Today, the former is one of the largest in the country and the latter is recognized for the breadth of its faculty expertise. Scholars of Buddhism at UCLA include experts in its South Asian, East Asian and Central Asian traditions who have trained roughly three generations of Buddhist scholars now teaching at universities across the country and the world. Buswell will be second senior scholar of his cohort to retire, following the retirement of South Asian Buddhism expert Gregory Schopen in 2019.

After living as a monk in Asia for seven years as a young man, Buswell became a scholar principally of the East Asian Buddhist tradition, particularly Korean Zen Buddhism. In addition to countless journal articles and book chapters, he is the author of numerous monographs, including The Korean Approach to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul (Honolulu, 1983); The Formation of Ch’an Ideology in China and Korea (Princeton, 1989); Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen (Honolulu, 1991); The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea (Princeton, 1992); Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions (Honolulu, 2005); Religions of Korea in Practice (Princeton, 2007); and Cultivating Original Enlightenment: Wonhyo’s Exposition of the Vajrasamadhi-Sutra (Honolulu, 2007).

Buswell has also compiled two comprehensive scholarly reference works on Buddhism: The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, 2013; co-edited with Daniel S. Lopez, Jr.) and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan Reference, 2004), for which he was editor-in-chief. In addition, he has made monumental contributions to Western scholarship on Buddhism and Korea by overseeing two significant projects that, for the first time, translated into English and published the canon of Korean Buddhism, together with other major Korean works on Buddhism, religion and history.

In May, Buswell his wife Christina announced impressively generous gift commitments of $3.7 million to UCLA to create both an endowed chair in Korean Buddhist Studies and a graduate fellowship in Buddhist studies. In June, the scholar served as the commencement speaker at the UCLA Division of Humanities’ commencement ceremony. A few weeks prior to the two-day conference that will be held in honor of his retirement, “Currents and Countercurrents in Sinitic Buddhism” (June 24–25), Buswell sat down for an interview about his life and work.

Why were you interested in Buddhism so early in life? What was it that appealed to you as a philosophy?

Even in intermediate school, I was already beginning to think about how to live, about my own personal philosophy of life. When I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a paper on Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, and then wrote another version of it for a summer course. When I first was exposed to Buddhism when I was 16, I was just flabbergasted to see that so much of what I was coming up with in my own mind seemed to have a parallel with Buddhism.

But what was really different about Buddhism — rather than Western philosophy — was the fact that there was this practical dimension to the religion. It wasn't just a set of beliefs, or ideology, or theology, but there were actually a set of steps you could take to put these ideas into practice. That's what really interested me in Buddhism from day one: that practical or meditative dimension. By meditation, I don’t just mean sitting in meditation posture. It's really about the whole way of life of Buddhism.

So, I began to read everything I could on Buddhism and decided to study the religion when I went off to college. I started Sanskrit and Chinese when I was a freshman and took every course there was on Buddhism. Not long after, I decided I would just go off and do it. I had a contact in Thailand — my main interest at that time was Theravada Buddhism — so I went there and spent a year. The Thai people were wonderful, but physically I just couldn’t handle the heat and humidity.

In Thailand, I heard from a couple of Korean monks there on pilgrimage about Korea for the first time. But first of all, I went to Hong Kong and stayed on a small island there with a Chinese monk at his hermitage. He was very kind to me. Every morning after chanting and breakfast, he would sit me down and we would read Chinese Buddhist texts together for several hours until lunch. That's where I really learned to read Buddhist texts in Chinese.

After a year, I felt I needed to have more of a sangha, a community, again. So I wrote my contacts in Korea and asked whether I could come to Korea, and they very kindly accepted me. They picked me up at the airport, took me to the monastery and just a few weeks later, I entered the meditation hall for the winter retreat. I didn't know a word of Korean. So I did what they call “brush conversation”: I would write down my question in literary Chinese and they would answer back in Chinese. It was quite exotic for them to converse in written Chinese with a Westerner!

Isn't it also the Zen way not to really teach meditation techniques?

Actually, what's distinctive about the Korean tradition is that it has a curriculum for teaching the foundations of Zen meditation. This is one thing that most monks will have had before they go into the meditation hall: they spend a couple of years working through this curriculum. So they have a sense of what to expect, what they will need to work on and develop, and how to approach the meditative questions that are used in Zen meditation practice — the so-called koan or hwadu topics. When I first arrived, I didn't know anything about Zen, but when I got into meditation hall, the whole way of life was well suited to me somehow. It was a very rigorous lifestyle, very regimented, but it was just what I needed as a very young monk — I was 21 by that point.

Being surrounded by very serious meditators, some of whom had decades of experience, also gave me a lot of encouragement. So after I finished my first meditation retreat — I didn't really know what I was doing, I was trying to wing it as best I could —I thought, “If I'm going to take best advantage of this opportunity here, I really need to learn Korean and learn more about this meditation technique that they're using here: the koan or hwadu technique.”

That's what started my scholarly career: trying to understand this type of meditation, which was so different than the way Theravada Buddhism approaches meditation. As I worked more in the Zen tradition and practice, I came to believe there are very compelling continuities between these traditions that are a bit obscured just because the terminology is so different between the traditions.

So after seven years, you came back to the U.S. and were living at the Zen Center in Berkeley and found yourself pulled again toward being a scholar of Buddhism, which I assume is different from studying texts as a monk?

It's certainly different, but I started off taking courses on Buddhism and I was always interested in the scholarly side of Buddhism. But before I went to Asia, I never had any exposure to the Zen tradition or really had an interest in it at all. When I was in Korea and read all these materials that the Koreans use as the basis of their tradition, that gave me a start in my scholarship on Zen. So when I returned to the U.S., I was able to continue doing that work and began to read some of the scholarship that was being produced on the Zen tradition, much of which I just didn't think was accurate at all.

The Zen tradition will say that Zen does not rely on the words and letters, it's a separate transmission outside the teachings that has nothing to do with the written documents of Buddhism. And yet, there's no Buddhist tradition in East Asia that has produced more written documents than Zen. So if you were trying to try to describe what Zen practice is based on its normative writings that were known in the West at that time, you got a very skewed picture.

What I did in my early work was to try to focus scholarship on what actually happens in Zen practice — not on what they say they're doing, but what they are actually doing. And this is when I found a lot of parallels between the Theravada and Zen traditions. As I said, the terminology is radically different, but the states of mind that are being generated through these practices have some compelling similarities.

You have created two important centers at the International Institute, the Center for Korean Studies and the Center for Buddhist Studies, and have helped secure funding to translate many works in the two disciplines into English. Can you speak a little bit about the centers and their publishing efforts?

When I came to UCLA, I was actually hired in Chinese, as there was no Korean program at the time. There was so much interchange throughout history between Korean and Chinese Buddhism — and Korean Buddhists also traditionally used literary Chinese for all their written materials — so to work on Korean Buddhism you had to be fully versed in Chinese Buddhism and literary Chinese as well. But I was fortunate because the department [of Asian languages and cultures] at that time was beginning to think about how or whether it should start Korean studies. I think they saw in me someone who could articulate a vision of what that program could become.

I had a lot of encouragement from the time I arrived at UCLA, from both the department and the then-dean of humanities, Herb Morris, to think about what UCLA could do in Korean studies. And the size of the Korean student body was just beginning to explode; there was a real demand among students for both language and content courses on the Korean tradition.

I was able to outline to the dean and the department that it wouldn't take a lot of resources to build what could be the premier program at the time in Korean studies. And rather than competing for resources with Chinese and Japanese, a focus on pre-modern Korea would actually enhance those two programs as well.

We moved quickly to become one of the largest and most comprehensive programs in Korean studies in the country. The second year I was here, we recruited Peter Lee to come in as a very senior scholar in Korean literature, who brought instant cachet to our program. Then we added a Korean language lecturer, Sung-ock Sohn, who was eventually upgraded to the professorial track. We also added John Duncan, who was widely learned in all things Korea, to cover Korean history and Confucianism. [Duncan would later become the second director of the Center for Korean Studies].

I suggested to the department that, even with this small core of faculty, we could develop a “top-down” program: in other words, start with a graduate program that would be primarily focused on pre-modern Korea, which would give us connections with the study of China and Japan as well, so the Koreanists wouldn't be isolated. So we started off as a pre-modern Korean graduate program and, as the program matured, we added an undergraduate major in Korean language and culture.

In 1993, John Hawkins, the director of the International Studies and Overseas Programs (ISOP), asked me whether there might be fundraising opportunities for Korean studies and he encouraged me to draft a proposal to establish a Center for Korean Studies. We were given what we facetiously call a hunting license, that is, you put up your shingle and start hunting for funding. We were very lucky to get substantial commitments from Korea.

The Korea Foundation was just starting up at the time and South Korea was really interested in building up its soft power. So I went to the Korea Foundation with a proposal for two new faculty positions — one in humanities, one in social sciences — which they gave us and we filled. They were so happy with the way the program was developing that they came to us later and said, we'd like to fund a position in Korean art history at UCLA, too. So we added an art historian. The library at that time didn't have a permanent librarian for Korean materials, so we drafted a proposal together with UCLA Library to fund a Korean librarian position. At that point, we were the largest program in Korean studies in the country.

Once we had this this impressive group of faculty, we were able to move down and start our undergraduate major, which has also done very well. After I felt Korean studies were in in shape, I wanted to see if we could build out our Buddhist studies program. I had come to UCLA in 1986 in Chinese, and William Bodiford was hired a few years later in Japanese Buddhism. So we had two faculty, but we didn't really have a large program: we covered East Asia well, but not the rest of the Buddhist tradition.

But I felt a Buddhist program really needed somebody who does South Asia and India, and we were fortunate to be able to recruit Gregory Schopen. And we've always had several faculty around the campus with scholarly interests in Buddhism who work with our programs, such as Robert Brown in South and Southeast Asian art, and Don McCallum in Japanese Buddhist art.

Back when I was still director of the Center for Korean Studies, I was recruited by UC Berkeley in 2000. The acting vice provost at the International Institute, Phillip Trimble, asked me to put together a proposal for a Center for Buddhist Studies, which would be one of the very first such centers in the country.

So I got another hunting license and was eventually able to get substantial funding from the Numata Foundation (Bukkyo Dento Kyokai) to provide an important core endowment for the center, which is what funds many of our programs now. By then, my interests were focused primarily on Buddhism, but I still had my feet in both of these camps: Korean studies and Buddhist studies.

I was working with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism at the time, which had received money from the Korean government to fund a translation of the core works in the Korean Buddhist tradition. I worked with them to prepare together a thirteen-volume series called the Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, which we published in English.

Unfortunately, the Jogye Order printed the books and distributed them to monasteries all around Korea, but not in the West. We have a full set of the books here, but the only way you can get a copy now is to download the pdf files, but at least their online location is widely known. We also have the pdfs of the full set up on our Center for Buddhist Studies website as a mirror site to make sure people can find the translations. 

In 2007, the Academy of Korean Studies, a quasi-governmental organization in Korea, made a proposal for funding from the South Korean government to undertake translations of 100 classic works of the Korean tradition. To jumpstart that project, the Academy asked me to propose a subseries, which would focus on works in religion and philosophy. I thought this would be a good way of getting many important works of Korean Buddhism published in the West. They were impressed with the proposal and gave me the go-ahead.

Soon afterward, they asked me to put together another subseries on Korean historical materials, so I brought in my two colleagues in Korean history, John Duncan and Namhee Lee [current director of the Center for Korean Studies], and the three of us put together a proposal for a second subseries on Korean historical documents. We call our two series the Korean Classics Library and have published sixteen volumes in both series so far through the University of Hawaii Press, and have several other translations that are currently in progress.


Download the complete interview.