The two-day annual conference of the United Kingdom Association of Buddhist Studies was hosted by the University of Edinburgh on Zoom and Gather and drew into attendance over 100 European and American scholars of Buddhist Studies, Art History, and other cognate fields.
Professor of Buddhist Studies Pamela Winfield delivered a keynote address for the 25th annual conference of the United Kingdom Association of Buddhist Studies (UKABS) on Friday, July 2, 2021.
The two-day virtual event was hosted by the University of Edinburgh on Zoom and Gather and drew into attendance over 100 European and American scholars of Buddhist Studies, Art History, and other cognate fields. The theme of this year’s conference was “Word, Image, Object, Performance.”
Winfield’s keynote speech focused on the role of language as it relates to real-world forms in Buddhism. It was entitled “What’s In A Nāma? A Rūpa Would Smell As Sweet: Reflections on Sensational Buddhism.” Her title alluded to the classical Sanskrit terms for “name and form” (nāma rūpa) and put a Buddhist spin on Shakespeare’s famous line about the arbitrariness of language and the primacy of the visual/material/physical object itself that can be grasped by sensory perception. Her phrase, ”Sensational Buddhism,” alluded to Sally Promey’s important edited volume on Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures and Material Practice (Yale University Press, 2014).
The first section of Winfield’s talk reviewed Buddhist theories of sensory perception. It acknowledged that early classical Indian Buddhism and “Mind Only” Buddhism privileged the realms of formless meditation, but then argued that the very metaphors used to envision such states (e.g. atop mountaintops, or below the flowering mind) were themselves in-formed by forms.
The second section of her talk focused on later Mahāyāna Buddhist theories of the imagination and representation that located enlightenment squarely in the material realm. This section concluded that the feedback loop of religion is a process of “making it up” and “making it real,” as forms continually create and reinforce abstract notions and texts about ultimate reality.
The third section of Winfield’s talk took up the abstract concept of emptiness, the definition of enlightenment itself. In Sanskrit, the term śunya-tā (lit. “zero”-ness) drew upon the image of a newly engineered number line, and in Chinese and Japanese, the character kū (lit. open, sky) included ideographic elements for both “hole” as well as “construction.” As a result, even the most abstract and enigmatic ideas about awakening are rooted in the forms of the real world, for as the Heart Sūtra says “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
Winfield’s closing remarks encouraged her fellow conference participants to therefore “teach sensationally,” that is, to engage all the senses of the students when teaching even highly abstract ideas about invisible religious ideals. Sensory stimulation draws in and demands an emotional response, from curiosity or even bewilderment before the unfamiliar, to the excitement and eagerness to study further. Sparking this powerful affective dimension is the hallmark of the sensational professor.